Book Club: The Edge of Reason 8, scientific morality

Here we come to the eighth installment of my running discussion about Julian Baggini’s excellent book on the nature of rationality, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. In this chapter Julian takes on those people — like Sam Harris — who want to reduce moral philosophy to neuroscience or some similarly misguided enterprise. I must admit, there is such a convergence of thinking between Julian and myself on this that reading the chapter was like indulging in philosophical porn…

Right off the bat, Baggini summarizes what is wrong with the scientistic approach (did I mention I have a book on this topic coming out soon?): “Champions of the rational are often their own worst enemies, especially when they happen also to be scientists. … [they push] an excessively narrow understanding of what reason involves, which is essentially evidence-based empiricism, no more and no less. … [this is an] iniquitous intellectual land grab, in which all meaningful discourse is claimed for science and anything else is razed to the ground as useless.” I could stop here, really. But let’s continue. As I said, it was an Epicurean dip for me.

Julian quickly moves on to his favorite example of such malfeasance: Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which I have reviewed, very unfavorably, for Skeptic magazine, even though Michael Shermer censored the final bit of my review, in which I suggested that if someone wanted to learn something about moral philosophy better read Michael Sandel than Sam Harris).

Baggini explains that he is picking on Harris because “the chief value of The Moral Landscape is that it is one of the clearest articulations of the scientistic approach to ethics, which is often less brazenly expressed.” (For another brazen expression, see this discussion I had with the above mentioned Shermer.) Baggini actually interviewed Harris at his home in California, and based his commentary on such interview.

Harris told Julian that “We know that morality has something to do with human well-being and we know that human well-being must be arising from the physiology of the brain and therefore is constrained by whatever psychophysical laws are in in fact true of the brain, and therefore we know it falls potentially within the framework of science.”

As Julian immediately points out, a lot hinges on exactly what one means by “something to do,” and “constrained.” Yes, of course morality has to do with human well-being (actually, more broadly, with the well-being of sentient creatures), and it is constrained by human biology and culture — no philosopher would argue otherwise. But that’s far short of what’s needed to establish a science of morality. Sure enough, Baggini immediately acknowledges that empirical evidence, and therefore science, is informative on a number of ethical issues. For instance, the question “how should I raise my children?” does require input from child developmental psychology, among others. But there are a number of ways to raise one children given the same understanding of developmental psychology. That is, the science — as always — underdetermines the philosophical options. That’s why values are not straightforwardly reducible to empirical facts, which in turn means that one cannot collapse moral philosophy into science.

Julian again: “It simply does not follow from the fact that some things are objectively bad [for human beings] from a scientific point of view that science can determine all that is right or wrong. Take, for example, the old dispute between Mill and Bentham as to whether the pleasure of playing a simple game like pushpin has as much value as the pleasure derived from playing Chopin. Science cannot resolve this dispute.” And before you suggest it, no, it would be ridiculous to try to settle the matter by measuring the intensity of the activity of the pleasure centers of the brain: if you go that way (which actually Harris does, in his book!) you will have to conclude that the most moral thing to do is to hook everyone up to a drug delivering machine for their entire lives. I hope I don’t have to explain to you why this isn’t the moral thing to do.

Baggini notes that Harris concedes that nobody has yet proposed a way to read morality straight off, say, neuroscans. But Harris then engages in a significant amount of hand waiving to argue that not having an answer yet doesn’t mean there is no answer in principle (while at the same time not even giving a hint of what this “in principle” route would look like). Julian’s retort is that “well-being” is not a biologically meaningful category (as a biologist, I wholeheartedly agree), and that there are plenty of instances in which people choose pain and suffering because they think it is the moral thing to do: “The idea that brain scans could reveal to us what form of life is morally better is absurd because brain scans are value-neutral.”

Harris, in the course of the interview, says: “What does it mean to say it’s really true that something is wrong? If you push there, you either have to come down to some truth that falls within the purview of science — that there’s something about our world, human nature or the prospects of human happiness that admits of truth claims — or you’re just left with preferences: wrong just because we don’t like it or a majority of people don’t like it.”

But Julian immediately objects that this is a false dichotomy, that moreover misunderstands the nature of both reason and ethics: “Outlooks, values and beliefs can be more or less reasonable, more or less objective.” (See this old post of mine suggesting as much.)

Moreover, Harris did not invent anything knew. Just consider this bit from John Stuart Mill, back in 1872: “The backward state of the Moral Sciences can only be remedied by applying to them the methods of Physical Science, duly extended and generalized.” Mill’s project, however, immediately failed because of his introduction of the distinction between “high” and “low” pleasures, a qualitative dichotomy that simply cannot be backed up by any “physical science,” and yet is the only thing that saves post-Bentham utilitarianism from descending into a search for the minimum common denominator that makes everyone “happy” (which would be the above mentioned drug hook-up).

After taking care of Harris, Julian then moves on to the opposite mistake, in a sense, made this time by scientistic philosophers like Alex Rosenberg, author of the Atheist Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. (I reviewed that one too, again, not positively.)

The connection between Harris and Rosenberg is explained very clearly by Baggini: “Harris is not necessarily representative of mainstream scientific thinking about morality. It is telling, however, that the more common alternative view is equally simplistic and extreme. This is the view that science debunks ethics. Science does not determine human values, it reveals them to be a kind of fiction.”

Here is an example of Rosenberg’s approach: “(i) What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. (ii) Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. (iii) Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.”

Julian finds it hard to believe that people like Rosenberg are serious about this, rather than just playing a (sick, I might add) intellectual game. Here is why: “it is interesting that [Rosenberg] does not add to his list child sexual abuse, rape, torture of the innocents and so on. To say ‘anything goes’ after a list like that would be extremely hard to take seriously.” Indeed.

The problem, concludes Baggini in this section of the chapter, is this: “The mistake is to believe that the methods of science have a monopoly on the practice of reason. From this it follows that morality must either be taken under the wing of science or cast out as irrational.” This mistake, of course, runs contrary to Baggini’s own careful analysis of what reason is, which we have explored in detail in the past several posts.

None of the above, however, means that science is irrelevant to moral questions. One of the most obvious examples is that of abortion — interestingly, one of those I also bring forth in the context of these discussions, and pretty much along the lines sketched by Julian in this chapter.

Let’s say we arrive at a position that says that abortion is permissible up until the moment in which the fetus begins to feel pain, and after that only if the life of the mother is in danger. (This is for the sake of discussion, not necessarily my or Baggini’s position, so don’t get worked up about it.) Well, then it is up to science — and in particular neuroscience and developmental biology — to give us the best estimate of when that is actually the case. But arriving at that specific criterion, rather than other possible ones, is a matter of philosophical dialogue, not (just) empirical evidence.

Julian also says, again, very similarly to what I’ve been writing for a while now, that another scientific input into the question of morality comes in the area of understanding the origin of the human moral sense. Here it is comparative anthropology, evolutionary biology, and primatology that play the crucial role.

Then there is the contribution of neuroscience to our understanding of how the brain arrives at moral decisions. Interesting, scientifically, but again not at all the same thing as a science of morality. Why? Because “people all over the world have the same basic brain circuitry and yet moral norms differ enormously.”

As an example, Julian compares how the Inuits and the Polynesians treat deception on the part of a group member: it is a capital offense in the first case, but only gets you a slap on the wrist in the second case. Why? Because the living conditions of Inuits are such that deception can cost the lives of several group members, or even the survival of the entire group. Not so under the more benign environmental conditions enjoyed by the Polynesians. The brains are the same, and so is their deep evolutionary history. But the cultural conditions are dramatically divergent, because of their very different environments.

Evolutionary psychology too doesn’t really help settle moral questions. For one because the fact that something is natural (rape, for instance, according to evopsychs Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer) obviously doesn’t make it right (that would be an appeal to nature, an informal fallacy); and second because “to conclude that evolutionary psychology debunks ethics by showing that it is ‘nothing more than’ reciprocal altruism or enlightened self-interest” is an example of “the genetic fallacy: confusing an account of something’s origins with its justification.”

By the end of the chapter Julian arrives at the very same conclusion I have been defending for years, as astonishing as it is that it actually needs defense: “A scientifically informed ethics is to be welcomed, but a purely scientific ethics is an impossibility.”

159 thoughts on “Book Club: The Edge of Reason 8, scientific morality

  1. Daniel Kaufman

    saphsin wrote:

    There clearly is a rational basis for why some are better than others, and referring to Wittgenstein just seems to be an avoidance tactic, like how some Christians try to write off rational inquiry by assigning God’s properties as transcendent or the nature of knowledge being built on faith.

    = = =

    Seems to me that using ‘clearly’ as if it’s some sort of argument is far more of an avoidance tactic.

    I don’t think we are going to get much that is productive out of arguing about this. We are simply too far apart in our starting assumptions. Live and let live!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. saphsin

    Daniel Kaufman

    Really? I’m quite sure if we were talking about some other ethical stance, you’d perfectly be able to advocate the reasons why you think what you advocate is rational and preferable to others, and you’d accuse me of an avoiding the issue if I were to go on a rant about Wittgenstein & Hume to justify my own perspective.

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  3. saphsin

    synred

    “…and for that matter the anarchism of Emma Goldman and Michael Bukunin is cosmopolitan, though regrettably not practical.”

    The connection between cosmopolitanism and anarchism is that anarchists are anti-statist and therefore anti-nationalist. Whether anarchism is “necessary” for cosmopolitanism is another issue. My position on that is that you can believe in cosmopolitanism without believing in anarchism, but I don’t think you can really realize cosmopolitanism as a workable ideal if you separate the world as divided by hierarchical state institutions as we see in the modern world.

    I happen to be a pragmatic utopian, which means that in my day to day action, my politics is to act upon workable solutions based on the circumstances & resources of the real world, but I’m a utopian in the sense that I have an ultimate long-term ideal that serves as picture to know where I’m at moving closer towards.

    “I don’t think I said that! I was trying to express is that most people are proud of things they had nothing to do with (like were they were born).”

    Yes but is that a natural tendency or something that is taught and ingrained in human beings through culture? There’s a whole literature out there that suggests that nationalism boomed as a result of industrialization & the printing press, leading people to imagine themselves in a certain type of national community. I think it’s possible for something that has been learned at a certain point in our historical trajectory to be unlearned.

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  4. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    all I can say is to repeat that I don’t think national and gay pride are similar at all,

    I’m going to concede some ground here. But to say they are not similar at all is perhaps an overstatement, don’t you think?

    As I said, the latter is better described as a will not to be shamed, which has little to do with nationalism.

    When you put it like that I can see you have a point. There is that difference between them all right.

    Let me take another tack.

    I think we’re possibly making a mistake when everyone here (including me, perhaps up to just now) seems to assume that it makes no sense to take pride in something that one had nothing to do with. You can only conclude this if you adopt the premise “pride is an appropriate response only to one’s personal successes”. Where does this premise come from? Clearly, in the real world, people do take pride both in their own successes and in those they identify with. Since this is what pride empirically is, then why on earth would you single out only personal successes as appropriate? Pride is an emotional response. Emotional responses don’t need rational justification. They just are.

    I feel ‘proud’ of how clever my granddaughter is for which I deserve next to no credit! She taught herself to read at age 4. Brag..brag..but I had next to nothing to do with it.

    Arthur provides a case in point. Bragging about the achievements of one’s granddaughter is no more or less rational than bragging about one’s own achievements. In both cases, there is a desire for others to recognise these accomplishments, and the bragging achieves this end. The desire just is. You could come up with some evopsych explanation for it if you were into that sort of thing, but the desire it self needs no rational justification.

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  5. Mark Sloan

    Massimo, you ask for “an ethical problem that has been solved by this science of morality.” An excellent suggestion! (My reply ran a bit long, but perhaps it will still be helpful in advancing the conversation.)

    People differ in what they think of as “ethical problems”. For some people, moral rules against eating pigs, homosexuality, killing, women being equals to men, and when it might be immoral to follow the Golden Rule are all ethical problems. By explaining the origins and function of all these norms and thus demystifying them, the science of morality can in part solve these problems by revealing these norm’s inconsistencies and clarifying how people might form a more coherent, internally consistent morality.

    I expect your and my day-to-day moral judgements are similarly liberal and we see none of the above as “ethical problems”.

    So what ethical problems can the science of morality address that you might find interesting? The science of morality solves the problems of 1) the reality of moral objectivity (yes there is a human independent ultimate source of morality which reveals what is universally moral), 2) is there any ultimate source of moral bindingness? (imperative moral bindingness is an illusion created by biological evolution that makes us better cooperators), 3) any ultimate human independent source for the concepts of human rights and justice as fairness? (these are both elements of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma), 4) what punishments for violations of moral norms are moral? (those that increase the benefits of cooperation) and 5) why are the same motivating emotions triggered by moral judgements in the same categories of circumstances in all societies (because the behaviors motivated and when they are triggered are all elements of cooperation strategies).

    What ethical problems can the science of morality not address? Since the science of morality is silent on what our ultimate goals ought to be, ethical problems dependent on ultimate goals would be beyond the science of morality’s domain (perhaps including some questions about abortions and responsibilities to future generations?)

    References?
    For the ultimate source of moral bindingness, see Ruse, Michael (2009). “The Biological Sciences Can Act as a Ground for Ethics” in Ayala, Francisco and Arp, Robert, Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
    For what the science of morality can tell us about punishment, see
    Boyd, R., Richerson, P. (1992). Punishment Allows the Evolution of Cooperation (or Anything Else) in Sizable Groups, Ethology and Sociobiology, 13:171-195. DOI: 10.1016/0162-3095(92)90032-Y
    and Boyd, R., Gintis, H., and Bowles, S. (2010). Coordinated punishment of defectors sustains cooperation and can proliferate when rare, Science, 328, 617-620,
    For explaining the origins and function of marker strategies and in-group favoritism, see
    Fu, F., et al. (2012). Evolution of in-group favoritism. Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 460. doi:10.1038/srep00460
    McElreath, R., Boyd, R., Richerson, P. (2003). Shared Norms and the Evolution of Ethnic Markers. Current Anthropology, Vol. 44, No. 1. pp. 122-130
    Tooby, J., and Cosmides, L. (2010). Groups in Mind: The Coalitional Roots of War and Morality, from Human Morality & Sociality: Evolutionary & Comparative Perspectives, Henrik Høgh-Olesen (Ed.), Palgrave MacMillan, New York, pp. 91-234.
    Regarding the same motivating emotions being triggered by moral judgements in the same categories of circumstances in all societies, see
    Grahama, Jesse, Haidt, J., et al. (2012). Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism. Available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2184440
    Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (pp. 852-870).
    For a general overview of mainstream science of morality work, I suggest:
    Bowles, S., Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
    Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality. Springer.
    Tomasello, M., & Vaish, A. (2013). Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 231-255. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143812

    Regarding Harris and Rosenberg as representative of the science of morality:

    Unfortunately, Sam Harris is viewed, at least in my perception, in the science of morality mainstream more as an embarrassment than anything else. While much better respected, Alex Rosenberg (along with Michael Ruse, Richard Joyce, and Sharron Street – the morality is an illusion consortium) are also not in the science of morality mainstream.

    As Baggini tells us, “Harris is not necessarily representative of mainstream scientific thinking about morality. It is telling, however, that the more common alternative view is equally simplistic and extreme. This is the view that science debunks ethics. Science does not determine human values, it reveals them to be a kind of fiction.”

    While it is true that Rosenberg’s is a more common alternative view than Harris’s, Baggina is wrong in any implication that Rosenberg represents the mainstream view in the science of morality.

    So if you want to address the science of morality, it would be more productive to address the mainstream of that work, rather than the fringe elements Baggini did that make such easy targets. That said, I sympathize with finding a good synthesis of the implications of that work – I cannot provide what I see as an adequate peer reviewed synthesis. I would have to say that it is still a work in progress, and admit I am doing my small part to try to work out how to advance that project.

    Just an aside, moral norms (norms whose violators are commonly thought to deserve punishment) in all (not just advanced) societies are fully explained by the simple cooperation/exploitation dilemma. On the other hand, the topic “Ethics” is a human construct which, in addition to morality as the product of evolutionary processes, includes answers to questions such as “How ought I live?” which are obviously beyond the scope of morality as solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. So what? That purely human constructs go way beyond science’s domain is no surprise.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    Synred,

    “Cars are constructed. True they are made of ‘stuff’, but it’s the ideas that are important.”

    But I doubt Saphsin would deny that. When something is artificial or constructed it doesn’t mean it does not have effects. Money, for instance. But it does mean that we could construct it otherwise, or not at all, if we so wished.

    Also, as Saphsin explained, cosmopolitanism does not entail anarchism, though some forms of anarchism are cosmopolitan in nature (but not all).

    Dan,

    And yet Hume went on taking breaks from his games of backgammon to produce some of the best philosophy we’ve got to date.

    I must say, I agree with Saphsin here, you are often eager to engage people’s reasons for their positions, and rightly so. But when it comes to some of your commitments, you wave Wittgenstein, Hume, MacIntyre, or whoever, as a shield and refuse to engage.

    That, of course, is your prerogative, but don’t tell me that traditions cannot be exposed to the light of reason and found wanting. If you grew up within Nazi society you could make exactly the same sort of argument you’ve made so far, but I would find fault in it on the grounds that a commitment to Nazi society is morally repugnant.

    DM,

    You are right that, empirically, people take pride in things they have not done. But the question is should they? That’s what it means to philosophize — to go prescriptive, if you will — rather than simply doing descriptive anthropology.

    In the case of Synred’s granddaughter, I would suggest that the proper emotion isn’t pride, but joy. Unless synred’s actually contributed to the upbringing of his grandfather, in which case pride is justified.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. wtc48

    Saphsin: “In the real world, the cultural meaning of patriotic refers to a dutiful commitment to a set of values, ones I almost always reject.”

    I took issue with this a long way back in the discussion, but it epitomizes what has bothered me about the whole thread on patriotism: taking one sense of a word pertaining to a vague and abstract concept, and rejecting all other possible contexts in which the word can be used. Generally, this attitude has a personal basis of some sort, which provides a context in which the attitude makes sense. Words like “patriotism”, “honor”, and “pride” refer to concepts that may be inspiring for some, and altogether toxic for others, and in the absence of a universal consensus about their meaning, there’s not much profit in arguing about them.

    Being mostly in agreement with Dr. Johnson’s definition of patriotism, I’ve never considered myself as one, and I also endorse C. S. Lewis’s view, that if he had to choose between betraying his friend and betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to choose the latter. On the other hand, after seven generations on the paternal side of my family with no military service, I now have a grandson with 17 years tenure in the Marines, and another who is an Army officer teaching at West Point, and I’m quite happy for both of them, because I’m well acquainted with their personal paths in life (even though they might not agree with my approval of Edward Snowden and/or Daniel Ellsberg).

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  8. synred

    Yes but is that a natural tendency or something that is taught and ingrained in human beings through culture? There’s a whole literature out there that suggests that nationalism boomed as a result of industrialization & the printing press, leading people to imagine themselves in a certain type of national community. I think it’s possible for something that has been learned at a certain point in our historical trajectory to be unlearned.

    Sure we might unlearn patriotism. I suspect miss placed pride will not go though. It likely existed/exist among hunter gather groups. I could make an ‘evo psych’ story to explain it, but won’t.

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  9. synred

    Also, as Saphsin explained, cosmopolitanism does not entail anarchism, though some forms of anarchism are cosmopolitan in nature (but not all)

    So I did not claim all anachronisms implies cosmopolitanism, but only that they are not ‘unrelated’ and even giving examples. The individualist variety is virtually the opposite (e.g. Stephen Miller’s recent presser).

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  10. saphsin

    wtc48

    Well if you look at my previous comment, I mentioned that you can’t really refer to patriotism without assuming that background of values without the definition of patriotism being superfluous.

    “I also endorse C. S. Lewis’s view, that if he had to choose between betraying his friend and betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to choose the latter.”

    Well you see, this can either be of two things. “The country” which is to be betrayed would include the state government, the military, or some other symbol, and I’m afraid this is precisely the type of thing that Thomas would have tried to separate from patriotism as jingoism, because I believe there are countless incidents in which I think it is moral to betray those things.

    If the country just means something vague as “welfare & dignity of the people” than it’s just utterly meaningless and superfluous. I care about the welfare, liberty, and community of people, and that’s it. The very way you’re trying to tack something called “the country” on top of all that as necessary means patriotism is about more than this, and in real life, that translates to the interests of power.

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  11. synred

    In the case of Synred’s granddaughter, I would suggest that the proper emotion isn’t pride, but joy. Unless Synred’s actually contributed to the upbringing of his grandfather, in which case pride is justified.

    There is ‘joy’ too, but also feel like ‘pride’ and as it is emotion I don’t have that much control over it.

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  12. synred

    >But I doubt Saphsin would deny that. When something is artificial or constructed it doesn’t mean it does not have effects

    Nor does constructed mean something is not real (unless maybe one goes full scientism). Car, laws, nations, money, need not exist, but they do.

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  13. saphsin

    Massimo

    I agree with your latest response to DM’s comment (August 3, 2017 • 3:37 pm) but I must say I am a little sympathetic to DM’s argument that although the motives (and effects) between Gay Pride & Nationalism are very different, there is some common features to their nature, a nature we have been attacking to suggest that Nationalism is incoherent.

    I suppose it depends on the way you are going about Gay Pride, I don’t know all too much about it. But I think the Asian American Pride movement has gone the awry route, which is why though it was formed on the basis of anti-discrimination, it has waded into nationalism territory. Take for instance, the cultural appropriation complaints. There is this idea of owning a culture that became popularized in these anti-racist movement that I think is a result of the irrational nature of these common features mentioned above.

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  14. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    You are right that, empirically, people take pride in things they have not done. But the question is should they?

    Why shouldn’t they? Because they haven’t done them, right? But why is it a problem to take pride in something you haven’t personally done? What’s the philosophical argument to back that up?

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  15. Massimo Post author

    Mark,

    I’m familiar with several of the refs you mention, but none of them, nor your examples, actually address the question I asked: can you give an example of an actual ethical problem that has been / can be solved by science?

    What you gave are references to accounts pertinent to where ethics come from, evolutionarily, something that I have no problem with (well, except the hard evopsych stuff a la Toby & Cosmides, which I think barely qualifies as science). But that’s not a science of ethics, it’s a science of where ethics comes from. Similarly, a neuroscience of ethics can tell us how the brain functions when it is engaged in ethical reasoning. But it’s not going to tell us what a brain should think in those circumstances.

    For instance, consider ethical discussions about vegetarianism. How is a science of cooperation/exploitation going to solve that one?

    Synred,

    “There is ‘joy’ too, but also feel like ‘pride’ and as it is emotion I don’t have that much control over it.”

    I don’t doubt it. All I’m saying is that the first is justified, the second is not.

    DM,

    “Why shouldn’t they? Because they haven’t done them, right?”

    Exactly. You ask me for a philosophical argument, and I could probably put my mind to it and write a paper about it, but I’m simply going to ask what does it mean to be proud of X? If I say that I’m proud of the Colosseum, what entitles me to be so? (As opposed to be glad that it’s there, in awe of it, and so forth.)

    Here is the first definition my dictionary gives of pride: “feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something regarded as highly honorable or creditable to oneself.” That pretty much says it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. synred

    It’s not so much a matter of philosophy as it is of definition:

    pride
    prīd/
    noun
    noun: pride; plural noun: prides
    1.
    a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
    “the team was bursting with pride after recording a sensational victory”
    synonyms:
    pleasure, joy, delight, gratification, fulfillment, satisfaction, a sense of achievement
    “take pride in a good job well done”

    However, it is a feeling, so you may not be able to avoid having it inappropriately, esp. if this is encouraged by those around you.

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  17. Massimo Post author

    Or perhaps ask yourself, DM, if someone were to say “I’m proud of the fact that the Earth is round.” What sense could you possibly make of that sentence? Why couldn’t you make sense of it? Not because the person doesn’t have a connection to the Earth, since he is one of the inhabitants. But because the shape of the planet has nothing whatever to do with his efforts.

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  18. Massimo Post author

    Synred,

    There is plenty of empirical evidence showing that feelings can be altered by one’s thought processes. So that idea that one can’t do anything about one’s feelings is simply inconsistent with scientific findings. Of course the ancient Stoics could have told you that way before the onset of modern cognitive science.

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  19. synred

    There is plenty of empirical evidence showing that feelings can be altered by one’s thought processes

    Doubtless some feelings can be unlearned or at least suppressed. Others perhaps not. Try keeping a 18 year old boy from thinking ‘impure’ thoughts. The Catholic church sure as hell tries w/o notable success.

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  20. Daniel Kaufman

    Saphsin: You have a funny conception of what constitutes a rant. Not a single thing I’ve said in this discussion even remotely qualifies.

    Massimo: I think your characterization of what I’ve said is pretty uncharitable and unfair. I’ve been pretty consistent in how I treat the foundations of morals across the many things I’ve written on the subject, whether it be Cora Diamond’s notion of morally thick concepts or W.D. Ross’s notion of prima facie duties. I’ve also been quite consistent in my political philosophy, expressing skepticism about rationalistic treatments of our notions of political prerogative and right.

    You are more than welcome to disagree with it, but it seems quite unfair to suggest that I’m playing some sort of game or hand waving or avoiding something.

    Good talking with you both. I’ll take my leave of the discussion at this point.

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  21. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    but I’m simply going to ask what does it mean to be proud of X?

    You’re asking for a definition then. Arthur provided one, which encompasses pride from the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated. This definition comes from ordinary human usage, which is why the empirical fact that people claim to be proud of things they haven’t personally accomplished is pertinent.

    If I say that I’m proud of the Colosseum, what entitles me to be so?

    According to Arthur’s definition, the fact that you are closely associated with the Italian nation, and the fact that the Colosseum belongs to the Italian nation.

    But more broadly, I would say one does not need to be entitled to an emotion. I don’t need a justification for what I feel and neither do you.

    Here is the first definition my dictionary gives of pride: “feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something regarded as highly honorable or creditable to oneself.” That pretty much says it all.

    Well, no, not really, because simply being Italian can be deemed honorable. That’s what being proud to be Italian more or less means. Your problem is that you’re trying to justify this honour, but this honour simply exists, in that there are plenty of people who feel proud to be Italian, and plenty of admirers of the Italian people who are not themselves Italian. That being the case, it is simply a fact that being Italian is regarded as (mildly) honorable or creditable to oneself. Similarly, there are plenty of people who would regard Arthur’s granddaughter’s achievements as an honour to him whether or not he had anything to do with it. In order to show that all this honour is unjustified, you would need to establish some basis on which to deem it so, and I think you can only do that by fiat.

    Or perhaps ask yourself, DM, if someone were to say “I’m proud of the fact that the Earth is round.” What sense could you possibly make of that sentence? Why couldn’t you make sense of it? Not because the person doesn’t have a connection to the Earth, since he is one of the inhabitants. But because the shape of the planet has nothing whatever to do with his efforts.

    No, that’s not at all the problem with that sentence. The problem with that sentence is chielfy that it’s hard to see how the fact of the Earth’s roundness has anything to do with honour or credit. Roundness is not generally regarded as intrinsically laudable.

    Consider an alternative sentence: “I’m proud of the fact that the Earth is beautiful”. Now, I expect that you will still regard this as weird (and it is), but to me at least it is less weird. But again, the problem is not that the beauty has nothing whatever to do with his efforts. The weirdness is that anybody at all could say this — the speaker has no particularly close association with the source of pride. It’s much much less weird to say “I’m proud of the fact that Italy is beautiful”. By now, I think we’re well into common usage, althoughI know you think there’s still something wrong with this sentiment.

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  22. Massimo Post author

    Synred,

    “Try keeping a 18 year old boy from thinking ‘impure’ thoughts.”

    True enough. Though you can keep him from acting on them. But pride is far more socially constructed than the sexual urges of a teenager. And nationalism, our original topic, even more so.

    Dan,

    I honestly don’t think there was anything at all unfair in my comment. I do think you occasionally present arguments that you wouldn’t accept from others, or mention Wittgenstein as if he were the last word on anything, a conversation closer. Maybe it is for you, but certainly not for me, as a fellow philosopher.

    At any rate, did you actually have a substantial reply to my example to the effect that of course one’s own culture may, and sometimes should, be the subject of critical analysis?

    DM,

    As I said, pride in people who are closely associated with you seems logically justified if you contributed to such achievements, even indirectly. Otherwise, it is logically not justified, regardless of people’s usage. And my dictionary, as I said, does not mention anything other than what one has actually done, under the first / most common definition.

    “”According to Arthur’s definition, the fact that you are closely associated with the Italian nation, and the fact that the Colosseum belongs to the Italian nation.”

    Yes, and that brings us back to nationalism. That sort of pride is what got Italians Mussolini, Germans Hitler, and Americans Trump. Not good.

    “I would say one does not need to be entitled to an emotion. I don’t need a justification for what I feel and neither do you.”

    We are talking about whether the emotion is justified, logically, or not. Not whether people need to ask permission to feel it. They obviously don’t.

    “simply being Italian can be deemed honorable.”

    Uhm, it can, but it shouldn’t.

    “Your problem is that you’re trying to justify this honour, but this honour simply exists”

    This isn’t my problem, it’s a problem with (some) people’s logic. Which I am trying to point out. And not just as a philosophical game, but because it has a number of nefarious consequences.

    “it is simply a fact that being Italian is regarded as (mildly) honorable or creditable to oneself”

    But, again, shouldn’t. Because no native Italian has done an anything to deserve such an honor.

    “Consider an alternative sentence: “I’m proud of the fact that the Earth is beautiful”. Now, I expect that you will still regard this as weird (and it is), but to me at least it is less weird”

    Then you are wrong, logically speaking. Since you have nothing to do with Earth’s natural beauty.

    “I’m proud of the fact that Italy is beautiful”

    Weird isn’t the point. That depends on frequency of usage. But logically, it still makes no sense. At all.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. saphsin

    synred

    “Doubtless some feelings can be unlearned or at least suppressed. Others perhaps not. Try keeping a 18 year old boy from thinking ‘impure’ thoughts. The Catholic church sure as hell tries w/o notable success.”

    Yeah we’re not asking you to be a monk. Massimo is saying that there are some emotions that can be controlled, manipulated, or change the nature of. Some emotions are easier to do than others, and some are close to impossible or at least not worth doing (such as the sexual desires of a teenage boy) If someone feels pleasure in bullying another kid in school, teachings of empathy & moral righteousness can potentially change the emotional responses of some of these bullies.

    Daniel Kaufman

    If someone is having an ethical discussion about the content of religious teachings, political policies, free speech, the nature of politeness & generosity, family cooperation, or altruism towards the poor & suffering, suddenly switching to talking about meta-ethics & moral epistemology is indeed being intentionally evasive about what we’re talking about, because you wouldn’t in any other context when we’re talking about a moral issue that you personally don’t disagree with. You would be engaging in everyday moral arguments (or a little bit more sophisticated philosophical moral arguments), not Wittgenstein & Hume, or Cora Diamond & Ross or whoever.

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  24. saphsin

    DM

    One problem is that it forces you to take the position that there is no connection between pride & moral uprightness, which I think it does. I think it is abhorrent to feel pride for the morally bad things we do for instance. The way to change that is to change the content of our beliefs so that we no longer connect pride to such things. That must mean there is a rational element in the content of our pride that does need to be justified.

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  25. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo wrote:

    At any rate, did you actually have a substantial reply to my example to the effect that of course one’s own culture may, and sometimes should, be the subject of critical analysis?

    = = =

    Put that generally and abstractly? Of course it can and should.

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  26. brodix

    Justice Potter’s comment about porn comes to mind, in this discussion of pride, patriotism, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, etc. “I know it when I see it.”

    It seems to me the one of the primal functions of the mind is to make distinctions and judgements. I have found it a very difficult task to overcome this impulse. I only started practicing suppressing it as a teenager and young adult because so many of the conclusions I would jump to were manifestly wrong. My impression is that life, as in our personal awareness, is like a bubble and we tend to order and structure the surface of this bubble, because that is what we are supposed to do, be it family, society, country, whatever. Yet I see myself as trying to polish the surface of this bubble, as though it were glass and simply absorb what flows through it and me. Necessarily I also push back and express myself to whatever level is necessary and proportional to the forces pushing my being around. No more and no less. It’s a bit like navigation. You don’t want to understeer, or oversteer, or you go off the road.

    As such, these ideas are powerful, without being specifically ordered. In that dichotomy of energy and form, you can’t really control emotions and impulses by defining and rationalizing them. It’s a bit like putting post-it notes on the wind.

    What interests me is not so much the ought, but the is. What is this place in the evolution of biology and humanity. Passing judgements on my fellow beings only obscures my understanding of them. They refuse to fit in my pigeon holes and I accept that.

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  27. Mark Sloan

    Hi Massimo,

    It is not clear to me why you would think “when would obeying the Golden Rule be immoral?” or “Is there a human independent ultimate source that defines what is universally moral?” and my other examples are not ethical problems solved by the science of morality, but that appears to be your opinion.

    Thanks for suggesting the ethics of vegetarianism problem. Any other suggested problems to be solved would be greatly appreciated. I would particularly appreciate any ethical problems you personally are interested in. While it is not certain the science of morality approach can answer such questions (it does not explain all of human ethics!), the answers it could give might speak to you in a more meaningful way.

    The science of morality is about solving the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. From that perspective, vegetarianism could be a marker of membership in an in-group who can be expected to be more reliable cooperators. So vegetarianism is a marker strategy that solves the cooperation/exploitation dilemma and exploits no one, and, as such, does not contradict what is universally moral. On the other hand, not enforcing vegetarianism also does not contradict what is universally moral. A society, or individual, could choose vegetarianism or non-vegetarianism, whichever they expected to best meet their needs and preferences, and still be consistent with what is universally moral.

    I expect that answer is unsatisfying for you. The science of morality cannot answer everything; it is silent about what our ultimate goals ought to be. “Ultimate goals” may need to be assumed as premises in order to resolve the morality of not being a vegetarian. (Perhaps there is a science of morality argument for being a vegetarian based on ‘cooperation’ with ecosystems or other animals, but I do not see how to get there.)

    Returning to the initial part of your comment:

    In the larger perspective, the science of morality is about a lot more than morality’s origins. This science of morality tells us what morality ‘is’, both descriptively and universally. (Descriptively moral behaviors being those motivated by our moral sense and advocated by moral codes.) Of course, this science also tells us that our emotional experience of imperative bindingness for cultural moralities is only an illusion foisted on us by our genes that makes us better cooperators. So, in the end, it is only an instrumental choice if an individual or society wishes to advocate and enforce a moral code built on what science tells us is universally moral.

    In case I don’t later get the opportunity, I want to thank you for the opportunity to discuss the science of morality and say how much I appreciate your patience.

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  28. brodix

    PS,

    “In that dichotomy of energy and form, you can’t really control emotions and impulses by defining and rationalizing them.”

    You can control them by balancing them against other impulses and emotions.

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  29. SocraticGadfly

    I will say I appreciate a couple of Massimo’s comments to others. I agree with him that Dan sometimes waves things as conversation enders. And, sorry, Mark, but no, those are not specific ethical issues solved, or solvable, to get to the heart of the matter, by science.

    Ethics, except in some core issues, like murder, is like aesthetics this way, to some degree. De gustibus non disputandum. We went over this in MUCH detail re dietary issues in general and veganism in specific just a couple of weeks ago on this site.

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