Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

According to Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, it is ideas, not capital or institutions, that enriched the world. This article is about her new book, and it does present an interesting point of view, which however needs to be filtered by the fact that it appeared in Reason magazine, a notoriously libertarian-leaning magazine. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Or is there?

Long and thoughtful article by Philip Ball at Nautilus on the disciplinary boundaries (or lack thereof) between biology and physics. He argues for no boundaries, and takes as his adversary the late Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist who drew them very sharply. I’m somewhere in the middle. Too bad we couldn’t connect at HowTheLightGetsIn festival recently.

Patrick West, over at Spiked, argues that mythical scifi writer Ray Bradbury was an optimist about technology in real life, and yet wrote very dark stories about the techno-future of humanity. “We may see his tales as cautionary, not clairvoyant. Bradbury was optimistic by instinct but not by conviction.”

Does science have anything to say about moral intuitions? This article by Michael Mitchell in Aeon strongly argues for the no position. I think he goes a bit too far, but his reasoning is interesting. For my own take on the same subject, see here.

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179 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. Garth,

    “Why not just give an example of an ought that is not derived from is”

    Wittgenstein allegedly once asked the same question to Popper, while brandishing a fireplace poker to his face after a talk Popper gave in Cambdrige (invited by Bertrand Russell):

    “Thou shall not threaten guest speakers with a poker.”

    It’s an ought. It isn’t derived from any is I can think of.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Massimo,

    Treating guests with respect is one of the oldest premises of civilization. The prior condition being that strangers were regarded as a threat.

    We are deeply in the land of ought and have lost sight of that prior is.

    The problems arise when there are more strangers than friends and people start to feel threatened again. At which point the ends and the means come in conflict.

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  3. Massimo,

    “Thou shall not threaten guest speakers with a poker.”

    “It’s an ought. It isn’t derived from any is I can think of”

    Then what is it derived from? Or are you saying it is not derived at all? Does this ought just exist? It must be derived from something? No?

    DB

    “In essence the “is” he discusses are facts people refer to about the world, while missing essential references to motivating factors (personal intuitions/feelings) that allow us to reach normative statements about those facts.”

    The “you” in “You can not derive ought from is” is presumed to be an agent with feelings. No one has ever claimed to be able to go from is to ought without an agent with feelings performing the task. That’s what the “derive” part refers to. An agent with feelings doing the deriving. No one was ever leaving the feelings of the agent out of the process.

    Also, feelings are an is. They are observable phenomenon. They are a thing. And the fact that they evolved by a random non-thinking- non-purposeful process is a relevant fact about them when using them to derive your oughts. But Hume did not know this fact. Not his fault.

    And you’re right, it was so presumptuous of me to assume that Hume would have loved to have this information revealed by natural selection at his disposal when doing his theorizing about human nature. He probably would have read Darwin and said, “Meh. This has no bearing on my work.”

    Dan says

    “But I won’t let nonsense talk about a subject I happen to know something about go unchallenged.”

    Oh but you have done just that. The following statements by you are not really challenges, as they are void of any actual content. They just sound like challenges in the way that blanks sound like bullets.

    “What a gold mine”

    “And the problem is they’re getting it wrong. And a lot of the time, worse than wrong”

    “you have to know something about this stuff, which means you have to have done some real reading”

    Blanks. Loud blanks. But blanks none the less.

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  4. garth: Wrong again. I commented substantially and at length on Hume’s ethics, moral subjectivism and anti-realism, and more, as well as posted links to several excellent articles on the subject, including one of the top Hume scholars since the Second World War.

    All you’ve done is make a bunch of assertions, many if not most of which are so wrong, a first-year philosophy student wouldn’t make them. And unlike you, the first year philosophy students are actually willing to learn something, as opposed to thinking they know it all already.

    I’m happy to let readers look at our respective contributions and decide who they think is “shooting blanks.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I ignore distant suffering because I like to have comfort and good things in my life and I want that to last for the rest of my life. Also because, like most people, I care much less about suffering when it happens far away from me.

    Basically I don’t care enough about the terrible suffering happening to people just like me in other countries, for me to forgo those comforts and good things.

    I am not entirely complacent about this because I have this intuition that I ought to care more about those people and less about my comforts so that I can forgo some of them at least in order to help alleviate the suffering.

    But clearly I am complacent enough not to be changing.

    The only thing I can think of that would make me less complacent is if I were to have some reason to suppose that there really was something in that intuition, that I really ought to be helping those people suffering in different countries. I don’t rule out that there is, because I am an agnostic about the subject.

    But suppose I were to abandon my agnosticism, embrace moral anti-realism and realise that there really was nothing at all in that intuition, that there was no way I ought to be, only the way I am and that it is incoherent even to say that my moral choices are wrong.

    Having removed all challenges to my complacency it would be reasonable to suppose that I remained just as complacent, even became more complacent.

    What is there in that realisation that would make me less complacent about ignoring distant suffering?

    Why would the realisation that there is no reason whatsoever why I should care about people suffering be the trigger to make me care more about them than I did when I suspected there might be such a reason?

    The whole thing is back to front. It really is an intuition about moral realism. I don’t get what people don’t get about that.

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  6. Also, this thing seems to give the trolley problem way more oxygen than it deserves. It seems to be a very slight issue. Not even a problem as such. If there are any philosophers puzzled by it, as Greene suggests, I have not heard of them.

    I don’t imagine that there are many people who think that there will be some moral rule to cover every single eventuality, not even moral realists.

    And I think that it is another one of those artifacts of bad questionnaire design. When people are asked about the problem they are given set choices and have to decide which one best fits what they really think, but the responses are analysed as though the option chosen expressed just exactly what the respondent would wish to say.

    I suspect that if they had a “It would be better if only one person died rather than ten but I could not bring myself to push another human being to his death” option, most people would have chosen that.

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  7. Garth: What do you mean by derived from “is” … other than an opinion poll? Or is that it? Do you mean ‘caused’ by what is? Well what isn’t caused by what is?

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  8. Hi Coel,

    Every argument against Greene on this thread, from Mitchell onwards, has supposed that he is trying to do something that he is simply not trying to do.

    My only assumption was that he was trying to show that his brand of science might have some sort of usefulness in thinking about ethics and morality.

    If I am even wrong about that please say so because I would indeed have been wasting my time.

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  9. Hi Coel,

    1) I have a general desire to help people who are suffering.
    2) But my intuition also allows me to ignore such suffering when it is distant.
    3) I have found out that (2) is an evolutionary relic, rather than being, for example, a feature of a coherent moral-realist scheme that, being moral realist, I ought to go along with.
    4) Reflecting on the tensioned intuitions (1) and (2), in the light of information (3), makes me less comfortable about (2) and leads to me wanting to assert my intuition (1) over my intuition (2).

    3) suggests that Greene had previously subscribed to a moral-realist scheme wherein it would be immoral, for example, for him to send money to victims of Ebola rather than spend it on a fancy new car for himself.

    That seems implausible to me, to say the least.

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  10. Per Dan, Hume, and his idea on this, are easy to understand, and he’s a ver readable philosopher in general, as on the passions, sense impressions, etc.

    Garth: Are you actually going to be here for the next 48 hours after Massimo just crushed you?

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  11. Massimo:

    Coel,

    “How about: all of our intuitions are features of a brain which is very much the product of our evolutionary past”

    Sure. Which becomes as trivially true as any other insight from evopsych into human evolution…

    Similarly trivial-level/tautological truths, plus lckc of philosophy understanding, are why the likes of Coyne think we “have to be” determinists

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  12. Garth,

    “Then what is it derived from? Or are you saying it is not derived at all? Does this ought just exist? It must be derived from something? No?”

    Are you seriously implying that unless somethings has a direct evolutionary root then it is magic, or an illusion?

    Obviously, this sort of ought, like most of them, derive from human cultural evolution (which is only distantly teetered to its biological counterpart, as even ultra-reductionist E.O. Wilson readily admitted), and for which we still don’t have a good scientific theory (no, memetics ain’t one).

    These oughts derive from cultural conventions, reflections on what matters to people, discussions and negotiations among people, and so forth. All of which is made possible by the fact that we have evolved brains, but that’s it, in terms of input from evolutionary biology.

    Incidentally, the Wittgenstein-Popper incident is beautifully described in this book: https://www.amazon.com/Wittgensteins-Poker-Argument-Between-Philosophers-ebook/dp/B00PISEAPK/

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi Robin,

    My only assumption was that he was trying to show that his brand of science might have some sort of usefulness in thinking about ethics and morality.

    Sure. And that usefulness is primarily in undercutting any and all attempts coherent normative moral frameworks.

    It is not usefulness in the sense of being a prescriptive oracle; it is saying that there will be no prescriptive oracle.

    Hi Massimo,

    “Thou shall not threaten guest speakers with a poker.”

    Which amounts to the speaker declaring: I disapprove of people threatening guest speakers with a poker, and want a rule such that they don’t do it. (Which is a descriptive statement.)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Dan,

    “I commented substantially and at length on Hume’s ethics, moral subjectivism and anti-realism”

    Yes, but I agree with you on all that. I never said Hume was anti-normative or an anti-realist. You may have been responding to someone else there.

    “And unlike you, the first year philosophy students are actually willing to learn something, as opposed to thinking they know it all already.”

    Not true, I do want to learn. This is why it bothers me that you haven’t actually said what I’m wrong about. You just keep saying that I am wrong and that I haven’t read enough. That’s no help. I actually do want to know what I am wrong about on Hume and I actually do grant you authority as an expert on what Hume meant. But I don’t think we differ on what Hume meant. Just on whether or not he was right about certain things. And that part is opinion. There is no authority there.

    But on what Hume meant, I defer 100% to you. If I think Hume meant X and you tell me he actually meant Y. I’m changing my belief to he meant Y because you are far more likely to be right about what Hume meant than I. I’d put money on your answer.

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  15. Coel,

    “Which amounts to the speaker declaring: I disapprove of people threatening guest speakers with a poker, and want a rule such that they don’t do it. (Which is a descriptive statement.)”

    Seriously, I do value your contribution to this blog as the self-appointed gadfly to the anti-scientist in crowd, but sometimes I wonder.

    No, it isn’t a descriptive statement, it is as prescriptive as they come. Yes, *of course* it is a reflection *also* of disapproval, how could it not?

    But in leaving it at that you entirely miss the fact that it emerges from, and is embedded in, a complex series of cultural practices with a general pro-social aim. It is *that* set of practices that we call morality. And it is highly prescriptive.

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  16. Robin I agree with you that the trolley problem itself is wrought with problems long before we even get to Greene’s study of it. And I also agree with you that neuroscience has almost nothing to say about moral intuitions. I personally give neuroscience no weight (at this point) in my moral reasoning.

    But the title of Mitchell’s piece was “science has almost nothing to say about moral intuitions.” How does Mitchell make the giant leap from this particular neuroscience study not telling us anything new about the trolley problem to “science has almost nothing to say about moral intuitions.”

    Biology, psychology, anthropology, archeology, sociology all have very much to say about moral intuitions. And neuroscience may well join that group one day soon. The good news though is that you don’t have to listen to either science or your intuitions, you can decide for yourself what your morals are. Some of us find the information from science helpful. Others not so much.

    I can’t help you understand what Greene is saying because neuroscience doesn’t affect my moral reasoning yet. But I can tell you the many ways in which data from all of those other sciences factors critically into my moral reasoning. It’s pretty significant. Far from irrelevant.

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  17. Hi Massimo,

    Yes, seriously!

    No, it isn’t a descriptive statement, it is as prescriptive as they come. Yes, *of course* it is a reflection *also* of disapproval, how could it not?

    Note that I labelled *my* version of the statement as descriptive. Your version was indeed a prescriptive statement — he is asking others to comply — deriving from his feelings on the matter.

    I’m trying to illustrate how moral prescriptions — the only sort of moral prescriptions that do actually exist — arise from people’s feelings. Translating the prescriptive form of the statement back and forth into the descriptive form illustrates how prescription arises. E.g.:

    “Thou shalt do X” (command, prescriptive)
    “Please do X” (request, prescriptive)
    “I would prefer it if you did X” (statement, descriptive).
    “We have collectively agreed on a rule about X” (descriptive).

    There is no mystery here.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Massimo,

    “Are you seriously implying that unless somethings has a direct evolutionary root then it is magic, or an illusion?”

    No. I didn’t mention anything about evolution. I asked what that ought was derived from. And you me answer below.

    “These oughts derive from cultural conventions, reflections on what matters to people, discussions and negotiations among people, and so forth.”

    Agreed. And those are all information about the way the world is.

    Like

  19. Coel, Garth,

    Last comment, because as usual we hit a brick wall and then start going around in circles.

    “I’m trying to illustrate how moral prescriptions — the only sort of moral prescriptions that do actually exist — arise from people’s feelings”

    They don’t magically arise from people’s feelings. They actually give rise to and feed back from people’s feelings, embedded in a social network of interactions. These feelings aren’t just arbitrary whims, either, because they reflect the priorities and ways of life of culturally diverse, highly intelligent social primates. You can keep repeating your “it’s only feelings” mantra until the cows come home, but your view of morality is hopelessly narrow.

    “I didn’t mention anything about evolution”

    Splendid, so we finally have lots of examples of something that isn’t the direct result of evolution and cannot be explained by evopsych. I’m going to count this as progress and leave the room before you can change your mind.

    “And those are all information about the way the world is.”

    Again, what on earth are you guys looking for? Magic? Obviously moral judgments are informed by, and reflect our thinking about, facts in the world. Specifically, facts about human culture, desires, obsessions, cravings, aspirations, and so forth.

    So what?

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Personally, I think that we should seek an evolutionary explanation of what Greene et all are doing.

    For our ancestors there would have been a great survival advantage associated with the ability to form links with the more powerful social groups.

    So my hypothesis is that Greene et al are actually seeking and asserting tribal allegiances, denouncing rival tribes and so on.. It is not hard to identify the currently powerful tribe with which they are aligning themselves.

    And, as Greene persuasively argues, a brain highly adapted to this kind of social jockeying would be managing the task seamlessly and he would not even be aware that this is what he is doing. To him it would seem like he is doing science.

    Anyone know where I can borrow an fMRI machine?

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  21. Hi Massimo,

    You can keep repeating your “it’s only feelings” mantra until the cows come home, but your view of morality is hopelessly narrow.

    I entirely agree that people’s feelings are hugely complex arrays, being products of a hugely complex interplay between genes, environment and culture, influenced by interactions with others, subject to all sorts of iterative feedbacks.

    Yet, despite all that, the source of normativity, the source of moral prescription, is people’s desire and feelings. There is no other source. I see nothing wrong in stating that clearly and baldly.

    Nothing about that implies that human feelings are simple and straightforward. Nothing about that implies that human feelings are arbitrary whims; of course they are not, they are a deep part of human nature, as encoded in our genes, together with the complex interplay of genes, environment and culture. There is nothing in the slightest bit “narrow” about this view of human morality.

    Again, what on earth are you guys looking for? Magic?

    I am looking for people to state clearly that, yes, there is no normativity about morals other than human desires and feelings (and if anyone wants to accompany that with a “state the bleeding obvious!” then so much the better).

    From there, given that we can straightforwardly see how normativity arises from human desires, we can translate the normative form to the descriptive form as I did in my previous comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. “Last comment, because as usual we hit a brick wall and then start going around in circles.”

    It is interesting that of the various topics offered up, the conversation finds various polarities to swirl around, with no neat solution. Maybe there is a lesson in that.

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  23. Coel,

    What? No God? You mean we are just left here, balanced on this edge of criticality between tenuous order and consuming chaos? What fun is that?

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  24. They don’t magically arise from people’s feelings. They actually give rise to and feed back from people’s feelings, embedded in a social network of interactions. These feelings aren’t just arbitrary whims, either, because they reflect the priorities and ways of life of culturally diverse, highly intelligent social primates. You can keep repeating your “it’s only feelings” mantra until the cows come home, but your view of morality is hopelessly narrow.

    Like

  25. Labwork went quick so I got some extra time I didn’t expect… Bonus Round!

    Hi Garth,

    “No one has ever claimed to be able to go from is to ought without an agent with feelings performing the task.“

    Which means you don’t even know the context of the argument Hume was making, much less the argument itself. Yes people have claimed this… or, more accurately that you don’t need to have an agent with feelings to perform the task of derivation. It’s a position in philosophy called moral or ethical rationalism. This is what Hume was rejecting.

    You could find this on Wikipedia in like 2 minutes if you were actually interested in the subject… (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_rationalism). From the page…

    “… is a view in meta-ethics… according to which moral truths… are knowable a priori, by reason alone… [discussing one form] If moral reasoning is based on theoretical reason… a purely emotionless being could arrive at the truths of reason… Beings who are motivated to act morally can also arrive at moral truths, but needn’t rely upon their emotions to do so.”

    It also mentions Hume twice in connection with his rejection of it…

    “Perhaps the most prominent figure in the history of philosophy who has rejected moral rationalism is David Hume… Moral sense theorists (or sentimentalists), such as David Hume, are the key opponents of moral rationalism. In Book 3 of A Treatise of Human Nature and in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (EPM), Hume argues… that reason and emotions… are quite distinct faculties and that the foundations of morality lie in sentiment, not reason.”

    The phrase “you can’t get an ought from an is” is not Hume’s argument. It is a quick catch phrase or mnemonic regarding a conclusion which can be totally misinterpreted if the context is not known and/or treated as the whole of the argument.

    This appears to be what you have done. No worries, even popular authors have done this, hoodwinking masses into believing they have beat Hume’s NOFI, when in reality they didn’t even understand it (likely didn’t even read the texts). It’s almost a cottage industry.

    “Also, feelings are an is.”

    Yes, you can certainly claim that and use that definition. No problem. But if you try to impose that on NOFI, then you entirely misunderstand the context of how “is” was being used by Hume and what it means in the abbreviation/slogan in question.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. The phrase “you can’t get an ought from an is” is not Hume’s argument. It is a quick catch phrase or mnemonic regarding a conclusion which can be totally misinterpreted if the context is not known and/or treated as the whole of the argument

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  27. DB,

    Sigh. Once again I am not misunderstanding what Hume meant. Just noting that both he and the rationalists got it wrong. Feelings are indeed an integral part of morality, the rationalists got that wrong, and feelings are also an “is” Hume was wrong in characterizing sentiment as separate from “is.” Akin to Gould’s mistake with NOMA. Feelings and “is” are not separate majisteria. But neither Hume nor the rationalists that he was criticizing had any idea that science would soon discover pieces of critically important information about our “sentimental responses” that would illuminate their errors.

    Hume’s correctness in criticizing the rationalists does not alleviate his mistake in excluding feelings from the realm of “is.” They are not a separate and distinct thing from “is” anymore than humans are a separate and distinct thing from mammals. But again, not his fault. There are scientific facts about feelings that Hume was unaware of.

    Hume would have used Haidt’s work to show those damn rationalists that they were using their feelings whether they knew it or not.

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  28. I might recommend Lazari-Radek and Singer (2012) “The Objectivity of Ethics and the Unity of Practical Reason”, which goes over all these arguments. You may or may not be impressed by their defence of the self-evidentiary nature of universal benevolence, but they accept some of the debunking attacks of their position as valid.

    “Guy Kahane makes a similar point against the claim that one of us (Peter Singer) has previously made that an evolutionary debunking argument strengthens the case for utilitarianism [We could insert similar neuroscience-based debunking – he does cite Greene]. Kahane says that if evolution has selected for a disposition to altruism toward one’s kin and those with whom one is in reciprocal relationships, then we should suspect not only principles that support altruism toward kin and cooperating partners but also the ‘reasoned extension of such partial forms of altruism to universal altruism…We accept that if a starting point can be debunked, it cannot lend support to a more general or less arbitrary version of itself’….

    “Kahane claims that most plausible theories of well-being, including hedonism, are obvious candidates for evolutionary debunking. Our primary aim in this article is to show that partial reasons can be debunked and that, whatever the ultimate good may be, we have overriding reasons to aim at it impartially, so in response to Kahane’s contention we will limit ourselves to pointing out that if no theory of well-being or intrinsic value were immune to a debunking explanation, this would show only that no theory could be preferred over others on the ground that it alone cannot be debunked. It could not show that no theory of well-being is true.”

    One therefore needs

    “1. careful reflection leading to a conviction of self-evidence;
    2. independent agreement of other careful thinkers; and
    3. the absence of a plausible explanation of the intuition as the outcome of an evolutionary or other non-truth-tracking process.”

    “We have argued that Sidgwick’s axiom of universal benevolence
    passes this test, but we are not claiming that it is the only principle to do
    so.”

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