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.

179 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. brodix

    “Feelings are not rational in the sense that they are not derived from reason.”

    Lol.

    Maybe rationality is over determined and feelings are under determined.

    For some unknown reason our consciousness keeps moving onto the future, but the thoughts it inhabits keep receding into the past.

    Just saying.

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  2. dbholmes

    Hi Coel,

    “3) I have found out that (2) is an evolutionary relic…”

    Except that Greene didn’t find that at all (in this particular case he didn’t even claim to have found such a thing). And even if he did (which he didn’t) the same would be true for his general desire to help people, meaning that the evidence of being an evolved trait holds absolutely zero value for how to treat his feelings in these situations.

    Again, Mitchell’s criticism takes hold… you can’t get there from here.

    “But in anti-realist subjectivist ethics we don’t! It’s about how we *feel*. Feelings are not rational in the sense that they are not derived from reason.“

    Feelings are not rational, but if you are arguing for a position based on a connection between your feelings and facts then yes some degree of rational connection is expected, even from an anti-realist.

    That is to say if one is actually trying to influence people.

    Otherwise (according to your idea) he could have just as well have said, “The sun was shining this morning and so I understand that I should help people I don’t really know.” There was no need for studies at all, or to report how they affect him.

    It is clear that he is trying to make a rational connection between his feelings about his feelings and the evidence that was uncovered, in order to persuade others this move makes sense. Otherwise he is saying nothing of importance beyond personal trivia which will affect us in no particular way.

    “But yes, there is no reason why you need take note of his particular moral views. They are certainly not offered as moral-realist prescriptions. But then, in the absence of moral realism and of attaching truth values to moral claims, the same could be said about every other moral philosopher and every other person.”

    As long as one is engaged in making normative moral statements one is offering prescriptions for consideration. Anti-realists simply do not tie it to some external moral truths. That does not make such statements arbitrary, haphazard, and with the idea there is “no reason” moral views should be taken note of.

    Persuasion generally involves you feeling there is a reason (of some kind) others should take note, and getting others to agree there is a reason they should change their mind/behavior.

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  3. synred

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

    What if you’re a masochist?

    Do unto to others as they’d like you to do

    What if they’re a masochist?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Coel

    Hi dbholmes,

    … the same would be true for his general desire to help people, meaning that the evidence of being an evolved trait holds absolutely zero value for how to treat his feelings in these situations.

    You are presuming that there must be a rational link between the new information and the change in his moral intuition. That would be the case under moral realism, but is not the case under anti-realism!

    All of the arguments against me here (and against Greene) are effectively presuming moral realism (and the idea that moral claims are truth apt) even from those who don’t regard themselves as moral realists. Now, as I said previously, I understand that, because for years after I nominally adopted anti-realism, I still found myself thinking in exactly such ways that assumed realism, so deep is the moral-realism in our intuitions. I had to train myself to stop doing it.

    Again, Mitchell’s criticism takes hold… you can’t get there from here.

    Mitchell’s criticism that you cannot get moral-realist truth-apt values from there is entirely valid. My complaint against Mitchell is that his article just presumes moral realism, and hence presumes that that is what Greene is trying to achieve.

    Feelings are not rational, but if you are arguing for a position based on a connection between your feelings and facts then yes some degree of rational connection is expected, even from an anti-realist.

    The fact that *you* expect such a rational connection shows that your expectations are moral realist!

    That is to say if one is actually trying to influence people.

    The fact that people are more persuaded by moral-realist arguments shows the depth to which evolution has programmed us with moral-realist intuitions. And (I suggest) evolution has done that precisely because arguments presented in a moral-realist way are more persuasive.

    Otherwise (according to your idea) he could have just as well have said, “The sun was shining this morning and so I understand that I should help people I don’t really know.”

    No!! The bald phrase “I *should* help” (an ought that is not instrumental, and that is not code for “I *desire* to help) is moral-realist language. Again, the fact that you use such language shows your moral-realist expectations about what Greene is saying.

    Now, if you meant: he could just as well have said “The sun was shining this morning and as a result I want to help people I don’t really know”, then there is no inconsistency, no flaw in any logic, because he is simply descriptively reporting his desire (a desire that was *not* arrived at rationally, and which he is making no claim was arrived at rationally).

    Again, all of these criticisms of Greene come from attempts to mash Greene onto moral realism. As I keep saying, nearly all discussion of ethics is bedeviled by the presumption of moral realism, and this thread is a good example.

    There was no need for studies at all, or to report how they affect him.

    There is indeed no need for the studies if we’re after a **rational** argument for the moral conclusion (because the studies do not give one), but if the sunshine or the study did *cause* him to *feel* like that, then there was indeed a need for the study/sunshine in order for him to feel like that.

    It is clear that he is trying to make a rational connection between his feelings about his feelings and the evidence that was uncovered, in order to persuade others this move makes sense.

    No he is not! Again, you’re imposing your *presumption* of moral realism onto him, suggesting that he *must* be thinking that way. This is exactly why philosophers misread and react badly to Greene.

    Otherwise he is saying nothing of importance beyond personal trivia which will affect us in no particular way.

    It’s of no importance except as the feelings of one person. Just as the advocacy of every other moral philosopher in the world is (in the absence of moral realism) just their subjective opinion and feelings. And yet, given that that’s all there is, they are important.

    Persuasion generally involves you feeling there is a reason (of some kind) others should take note, and getting others to agree there is a reason they should change their mind/behavior.

    There again is the presumption that moral values “should” be arrived at by reason. Philosophers have been searching for millennia for ways of arriving at moral values by reason; it’s a misguided quest.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. synred

    Traditional theories of moral psychology emphasize reasoning and “higher cognition,” while more recent work emphasizes the role of emotion. The present fMRI data support a theory of moral judgment according to which both “cognitive” and emotional processes play crucial and sometimes mutually competitive roles. The present results indicate that brain regions associated with abstract reasoning and cognitive control (including dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) are recruited to resolve difficult personal moral dilemmas in which utilitarian values require “personal” moral violations, violations that have previously been associated with increased activity in emotion-related brain regions. Several regions of frontal and parietal cortex predict inter trial differences in moral judgment behavior, exhibiting greater activity for utilitarian judgments. We speculate that the controversy surrounding utilitarian moral philosophy reflects an underlying tension between competing subsystems in the brain.

    That’s abstract from Greene. It does not show a ‘separate’ moral region. Maybe the resolution is too poor to isolate morality module. There are other similar studies out there, some perhaps showing less hype. It’s interesting, but I don’t see how it helps resolve moral issues like ‘imposing’ Western liberal values on cultures that think it ‘moral’ to mutilate women. Or even whether we ‘ought’ to do that. Neuroscience will not provide a ‘theory of everything’ any more that particle physics will.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. brodix

    Possibly there are other reasons why deontological(means), versus consequentialist(ends) are at odds.

    “The fact that people are more persuaded by moral-realist arguments shows the depth to which evolution has programmed us with moral-realist intuitions. And (I suggest) evolution has done that precisely because arguments presented in a moral-realist way are more persuasive.”

    We are also trained to think of events as temporally causal and the narrative as foundational. It isn’t. For instance, yesterday doesn’t cause today, even if our experience and thus our memory, is of a flow from one to the next. The sun shining on a spinning planet creates this effect, at particular locations on the planet, called days. Yet if we kick a can, the event of our foot hitting it causes it to fly away.

    The real connection between the sequence of days and kicking the can is energy transference. The energy of the sun shining, the planet spinning, the foot hitting the can.

    Now when we try to connect our immediate feelings of the moment and our reconstructed impressions/rationalizations of these events, there is a real need to impose some overall linearity onto them, because that is our memory of them. Even though the energy output of one event might be only minimally connected to the energy input of what we sense as the next event.

    That is why, in real life trolley events, 99.9% of people, not trained to react in a certain way, will stand transfixed, because of that clash between means/what we can do and ends/what we desire to happen. One event very marginally leading to the next, with all the feedback, blowback and other input.

    Which is why we like our ordered ruts in life. We can roll the ball down the grove and the rules are set and predictable.

    Then we get to times like the up-coming presidential election, which is a real life trolley problem. Do we want more of the same societal collapse with Hillary, as a bunch of self absorbed technocrats keep doing the same things, or do we want the rich nut job throwing tantrums? Whether we push the fat man, or not, a big mess is going to happen.

    Does morality have anything to say about that? No. The ideal isn’t real, just a hope.

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  7. Daniel Kaufman

    Just for peoples’ edification, moral realism has nothing to do with the question of reason vs. sentiment in ethics. Hume is a sentimentalist and might very well be a moral realist.

    Reading some of this is a little bit like listening to a kid who just learned a new word and tries to use it in every single sentence, whether it belongs there or not.

    Oh, and this ….

    “The fact that people are more persuaded by moral-realist arguments shows the depth to which evolution has programmed us with moral-realist intuitions. ”

    is going to become my new exemplar for just why Ev Psych/Ev Ethics is such utter rubbish.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. dbholmes

    Hi Coel, well you got me wrong all over the place so it’s sort of hard to respond. No I am not presupposing or trying to project any sort of moral realism on anyone.

    Perhaps reading that into what other people are saying makes it easier to avoid the actual argument they are making?

    “You are presuming there must be a rational link between the new information and the change in his moral intuition. That would be the case under moral realism, but is not the case under anti-realism!”

    What I am expecting is if someone is reporting a change in their intuition based on specific information, and discusses this as if it might be interesting to others in assessing their feelings then there would usually be some logical connection (if nothing else a potential commonality) between the information and the change beyond mere dice rolling.

    The idea that believing logical connections might exist between a person’s feelings and information they are dealing with somehow invokes moral realism shows a misunderstanding of both moral realism and anti-realism.

    That you outlined the logic behind Greene’s switch shows you understand what I am discussing, but for whatever reason have cast my use of the same concept as if a declaration there are external moral truths.

    “There again is the presumption that moral values “should” be arrived at by reason.”

    Not only did I not say that values should be arrived at by reason, I wasn’t even arguing about how one arrives at values at all. I was discussing how one goes about persuading others.

    I’m not sure why you ignored that I said “feeling”… and the “reason” could be that you believe X will help others in some way that they might appreciate (if they understood the option)… in other words accessing their feelings with the word “should” being properly read as an expectation “are likely to be motivated to…”.

    For example, it is not to invoke moral realism in any way to alert Joe that a bunch of baby seals were clubbed to death to make a fur coat, with an expectation (given prior knowledge he hates cruelty to animals) that he will appreciate the information and not buy the coat.

    Effective moral persuasion (including for moral anti-realists) is more than just emoting at each other, or spewing out random facts with the hope elicited die rolls come up in your favor.

    Anyway, as a heads up this is the last comment I can make for a while.

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  9. synred

    “Reading some of this is a little bit like listening to a kid who just learned a new word and tries to use it in every single sentence, whether it belongs there or not.”

    I always say that PF builds my vocabulary!

    My granddaughter learns by misusing the big words she’s loved since 3 years old. She learns pretty fast.

    I guess us ‘old goats’ are just slower.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Coel

    Hi dbholmes,

    That you outlined the logic behind Greene’s switch shows you understand what I am discussing, but for whatever reason have cast my use of the same concept as if a declaration there are external moral truths.

    Greene’s switch is not a matter of logic, not a matter of rational argument! My outline statements above (1,2,3 & 4) were entirely descriptive. The conclusion (4) does not follow logically or rationally. It it not an attempt to present a rational argument, nor a normative one. It is a descriptive statement about Greene’s psychology.

    That you are trying to interpret it as a rational argument (and thus complaining that it does not follow logically, about which you are entirely right) is what I’m called your presumption of moral realism.

    But if you are merely saying that it is less persuasive (does a poor job of persuading others to adopt Greene’s values) because it is not a rational argument, then yes, you are entirely right about that, it is not at all persuasive. But did Greene ever claim he had a persuasive argument that we should care more about distant suffering?

    All he’s doing is reporting his own individual feelings. And if you’re going to reply, again, that that he’s given no reason for us to take an interest in his personal feelings, over and above those of any other of the 6 billion people on Earth, then you are, once again, entirely right; he indeed has not.

    I was discussing how one goes about persuading others.

    I agree with you that rational arguments tend to be more persuasive to others. But note that Greene is not really attempting to give a normative argument, nor is he primarily trying to persuade others to adopt his own moral values. He is descriptively reporting his moral values, and how they have changed, as an example of how information about moral intuitions can change moral intuitions. His work is descriptive, and aimed at understanding (not prescribing) human morality.

    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.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. dbholmes

    Hi Synred, I just want to make clear that I was not suggesting that anyone had found a “moral cortex”. Given regional division of activity during moral reasoning it seems pretty clear there can’t be such a thing. The lack of such a structure… and the diversity of activity observed between individuals… can at least be viewed as consistent with the meta-ethical position of moral anti-realism. That is it is the kind of thing one might expect if moral anti-realism were the case.

    But Dan was right it would never be conclusive even on meta-ethics, and you are both right it would likely never say anything relevant for use in ethics.

    Neuroscience is interesting for people that want to know how brains function to produce capacities and experiences we enjoy (or not). That’s about it. And that’s enough really, isn’t it? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. garthdaisy

    DB,

    Why not just give an example of an ought that is not derived from is? I haven’t changed the definition of anything. I have given you no definition restrictions at all. This should make the challenge easier not harder. Any ought at all that is not derived from what is, and I’ll let you define both “ought” and “is.” How much easier can I make it for you?

    You can either provide an example or admit that there are none or that you can’t think of any. Statements like “you need to read more Hume” are not arguments. They are gap fillers where actual arguments are woefully absent.

    And it’s not my confusion that Hume claims oughts can not be derived from is and then he proceeds to derive ought from is. It’s his. I’m just the one pointing out his contradiction.

    All oughts in existence are derived by people based on the way they believe the world is. Science has something to say about the way the world is. Therefore science has something to say that is relevant to moral reasoning. People are more than free to completely ignore what science has to say about “is” and how it applies to their oughts. Science will never be able to tell you what you ought to do but it can educate you as to why you feel like you ought to do certain things. The rest is up to you. You can use this information to help you manipulate eudaimonic pleasures for yourself or you can discard it as useless if you like. Science has no intentions of making your decisions for you. Some of us find the information about what our feelings *is* helpful in deciding what we choose to do with them. I can’t imagine why anyone would characterize this information as “irrelevant.”

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  13. synred

    Why not give us an example of anything that isn’t derived from an ‘is’? I.e, kind of thing your looking for…

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  14. brodix

    Dan,

    Some of us actually don’t have the time to peruse 2500 years of philosophic writings, but that doesn’t mean everyone who doesn’t is an idiot.

    We all have to develop some models and ideas for dealing with the larger world and other people. Which is the basic premise of philosophy. Unless you would want us all to adopt simple religious belief systems. So getting all twitchy about our presumptuousness in using terms in way the academics look down on really does not edify or impress.

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  15. dbholmes

    Hi Coel, missed again.

    I did not claim it was a rational argument. The description in your outline involves a logical structure, an understandable progression, that is all I was referring to.

    If it did not have that it would not be an outline describing anything, but a list of seemingly unrelated entities.

    I will leave you to argue with Greene whether he has absolutely no interest in persuading others the evidence and changes he cites are relevant or useful in any way beyond noting some random die roll effects.

    That to me, as I said, is more damning than the (possibly overstated) criticism Mitchell made.

    Looks like I got in one more before bedtime 🙂

    Nighty night… and enjoy your Brexit!

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  16. Daniel Kaufman

    Lol. Today has been great for collecting examples of terrible philosophical thinking.

    I already found a new exemplar for bad Ev Psych/Ev Ethics. Now, I’ve got a new exemplar for the worst sort of scientism:

    “All oughts in existence are derived by people based on the way they believe the world is. Science has something to say about the way the world is. Therefore science has something to say that is relevant to moral reasoning.”

    What a gold mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix: People are talking about Hume’s views. And about whether sentimentalism entails non-cognitivism or anti-realism. If you want people to listen and give a crap about what you’re saying, you have to know something about this stuff, which means you have to have done some real reading.

    Do you typically go around talking authoritatively about novelists whose novels you’ve never read? Or read once, twenty years ago? Or read Cliff’s Notes on? I don’t.

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

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  18. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix: Anyway, I don’t know what the problem is. This is an open discussion. People say what they want, and I do the same. Don’t find my comments “edifying”? Ignore them. But I won’t let nonsense talk about a subject I happen to know something about go unchallenged. Just as a physicist or biologist wouldn’t let commentators spew a bunch of nonsense about *their* subjects on public forums, without challenge. Go over to Coel’s blog and start spewing ignorant rubbish about astronomy and see how long he lets you go without challenge.

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  19. brodix

    Dan,

    You are very right. The world appears headed for a cliff and philosophy wandered off in the woods a long time ago. Trying to engage in issues which could clarify why is a futile effort.

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  20. synred

    I’m reminded of an episode of “Leave to Beaver” in which the Beav writes a book report on ‘The Three Musketeers” based on a comic movie version staring some one like the Three Stooges.

    As you can imagine his report does not go over well. He ‘ought not’ to have done that!

    It’s likely on YouTube but the ‘bot’ will refrain from posting it (at least in this ‘world’).

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  21. dbholmes

    Garth,

    “And it’s not my confusion that Hume claims oughts can not be derived from is and then he proceeds to derive ought from is. It’s his. I’m just the one pointing out his contradiction.”

    Mmmmm, yes and perhaps you can provide those quotes showing where he goes wrong exactly. It seems to me he was quite clear in observing how people are mistaken in that they move from “is” statements (facts about the world) to ought statements, without recognizing a shift which requires something more than a fact about the external world.

    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 argument made (simplified) is you can’t construct ought statements from facts about the world without reference to your feelings/intuitions or those of others. Not that you cannot make ought statements, period.

    To make the argument you have against him is to ignore the context of how he was using “is” and how he set that against the facts about personal intuitions people often ignore in their arguments.

    As I said to Coel, today is the last day I can respond for a while… and now I am going to bed.

    Nighty Night

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Daniel Kaufman

    dbholmes: I also posted an excellent, accessible Philosophy Now piece that very patiently works through exactly what Hume does and does not mean by the is/ought problem.

    Ah well.

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  23. synred

    Oh, but maybe he “didn’t have time” to read it. I love that one. And how everyone assumes they’re so much busier than everyone else.

    If you don’t have time to read just watch the movie!

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  24. Coel

    Hi dbholmes,

    I will leave you to argue with Greene whether he has absolutely no interest in persuading others the evidence and changes he cites are relevant or useful in any way beyond noting some random die roll effects.

    Again, as he sees it, the main relevance and usefulness of his work is in undercutting any and all attempts at coherent normative moral frameworks. He is trying to persuade others of that (and that’s why he talks of implications for normativity).

    That is a different matter than trying to persuade others to react (in terms of how they regard distant suffering) in the same way that he does.

    Night, night 🙂

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  25. brodix

    I have engaged Coel by email and he tells me what a crackpot I am there as well.

    Presumably the James Webb telescope is going up in two years and I would bet there will be even more that doesn’t fit the age limits of the current model, so time will tell.

    I would point out I do take his more scientistic approach to ethics and morality, but I also think a better understanding of time would help clarify why our essentially narrative based views create confusion. As I see it as an effect, like temperature, rather than a mathematical dimension, this would seriously undercut the spacetime paradigm and he is grasping tightly to that.

    Then again, western civilization is largely based on narrative(history), so I’ve long accepted being a crackpot, by raising questions about it being physically foundational.

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