Skeptic Michael Shermer recently published a column in Scientific American entitled “Does the philosophy of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ have any merit?” I found it a confused piece on moral philosophy, and since I agree with my friend Spider-Man, that with great power comes great responsibility, I was troubled by Michel’s failure toward the broad public of that august magazine. So I wrote a rather snarky response. Shermer has in turn keyboarded a reply to me, entitled “Moral philosophy and its discontents,” which he published on his own Skeptic online. This is my counter-response, and will be the last thing I will say on the topic for a while, as my experience is that going beyond two rounds in these cases quickly leads to diminishing returns. Of course, Michael is free to write a third piece, if he wishes.
To begin with, I’m going to tone down the rhetoric and focus on the substance, first because it is the right thing to do, and second because otherwise we get into an escalation of hyperboles that doesn’t really help thoughtful discourse (in his second article, for instance, Shermer says that I have become “nearly apoplectic” at his suggestion that witch hunting and the Holocaust were the result of utilitarianism. I assure you, it was a slight exaggeration.). I’ve been guilty of this even in the recent past (mea culpa), so let’s see if I can manage to do better.
I am not the only professional philosopher that has strongly criticized Michael for his original SciAm article. Another good example is Justin Weinberg, of the University of South Carolina (and editor of the Daily Nous), who, among other things, tweeted: “Disappointing that @sciam is contributing to our era’s ever-frequent disrespect of expertise by publishing this ill-informed & confused @michaelshermer column on moral philosophy.” It is not a simplistic argument from authority to point out that when professionals in a field unequivocally say you got things wrong it is wise to seriously consider that you might, indeed, have done so.
On his part, Shermer chides me for not having read a paper by G. Kahane et al. entitled “Beyond sacrificial harm: A two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology,” published recently in Psychological Review. Well, guilty of being honest and telling when I have or have not read something. Still, my post was not a critique of Kahane et al.’s paper, but of Michael’s commentary (which, despite his protestations to the contrary, touches only marginally on the paper in question). I have now read Kahane et al., and I still think Shermer is wrong. More on this, of course, in a moment.
In my critique, I said that Michael has taken a very simplistic view of utilitarianism (a philosophy, incidentally, that I do not endorse). He rebutted that one of the examples I labelled as simplistic comes straight out of the Kahane et al. paper. The example in question is meant to measure one’s utilitarian tendencies, and it is formulated as a question: “Would you politically oppress a people for a limited time if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry?” It does indeed come from the paper, but that’s a negative reflection on the paper, not on my point. No serious utilitarian after J.S. Mill would answer yes to that sort of question, so it is hard to say in what sense this would be helpful to measure one’s utilitarian tendencies.
In response to an admittedly sarcastic comment I made, Shermer states that he knows the difference between act and rule utilitarianism, and moreover that he is not naive about moral philosophy, since he has taken two undergraduate courses on the subject (one in general philosophy, the other one in ethics). He has also read a lot of books by Dan Dennett (not a moral philosopher), and gone through several Teaching Company’s Great Courses in philosophy. After all of which, he felt competent enough to write two books on the subject (The Science of Good and Evil and The Moral Arc), and to teach an undergraduate course at Chapman University. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Michael’s background is sufficient to invalidate my original observation, but I will note that bringing in the difference between act and rule utilitarianism would have cleared a lot of muddled points in the SciAm article. He didn’t do it.
In my response, I stated unequivocally that Shermer is wrong when he says that trolley problems are an example of utilitarian thinking. And I stand by that statement, see my previous post for relevant links. Here too, Michael’s defense is “Kahane et al. did it,” which of course at best just means that Kahane et al. might have gotten something wrong, and that Shermer failed to correct it. But in fact they did not get it wrong. They say the following, for instance: “researchers have tried to uncover the psychological and even neural underpinnings of the dispute between utilitarians and their opponents — such as defenders of deontological, rights-based views of the kind associated with Immanuel Kant.” Exactly, so trolley dilemmas are used in cognitive science to explore both utilitarian and deontological thinking, and are therefore not an example of the former. Moreover, trolley dilemmas were introduced by moral philosopher Philippa Foot to highlight the limitations of both utilitarian and deontological thinking (in favor of the third way, virtue ethics), and they are still usually discussed in that context in intro philosophy courses. So, yes, Michael is still wrong here.
It gets worse. Shermer writes: “one might argue that trolley dilemmas represent only one form of utilitarianism (sacrificial) … but it is inaccurate to simply assert that trolley problems have nothing to do with utilitarianism.” To begin with, I never claimed that trolley dilemmas have “nothing to do” with utilitarianism. Never. Second, there is no such thing as sacrificial utilitarianism. Look it up, it’s just not a term in moral philosophy. What Michael means is utilitarian thinking applied to sacrificial problems. Not the same thing.
We now get to the part that nearly caused me an apoplectic attack, allegedly, when Shermer stated (in the first article) that witch hunts and genocides like the Holocaust or the one in Rwanda were caused by utilitarian thinking. In his response, Michael quotes himself from The Moral Arc: “It is evident that most of what we think of as our medieval ancestors’ barbaric practices were based on mistaken beliefs about how the laws of nature actually operate. If you — and everyone around you including ecclesiastical and political authorities — truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is a moral duty. … Medieval witch-burners torched women primarily out of a utilitarian calculus — better to kill the few to save the many. Other motives were present as well, of course, including scapegoating, the settling of personal scores, revenge against enemies, property confiscation, the elimination of marginalized and powerless people, and misogyny and gender politics. But these were secondary incentives grafted on to a system already in place that was based on a faulty understanding of causality.”
Two points here. First off, Shermer is in full speculatory mode here. We simply have no idea how to interpret and weigh the various motives of medieval witch-burners. All factors listed by Michael (and probably more) may have played a role, but anyone who assuredly claims that “this” was the major cause while the others were secondary is pulling one out of thin air. There simply is little empirical evidence to bear on this sort of claims. Second, what I begin to suspect is going on here is a fallacy of equivocation (which will reappear below, when we get to the issue of natural rights). Shermer knows very well that medieval witch-burners could not possibly have deployed Bentham’s or Mill’s philosophy, which had yet to be invented, so he uses the word “utilitarian” in a vaguer, broader sense, which then allows him to implicate the philosophy. Nice try, but this is sophistry, not good reasoning. (I said I wasn’t going to get snarky, not that I wouldn’t be critical.)
Indeed, Michael seems aware of this: “here let me clarify to anyone who thinks I can’t even get my centuries straight that I’m not arguing Torquemada sat down with Pope Sixtus IV to compute the greater good sacrifice of 10,000 Jews in order to save 50,000 Catholics; instead I am aiming to understand the underlying psychological forces behind witch hunts and genocides.” Except you cannot possibly have empirically substantive evidence of the psychological forces underlying the thinking and acting of Torquemada and sixtus IV, so why engage in this sort of psycho-historical speculation? It is just as likely, possibly even more, that Sixtus IV would have killed ten times more Jews in order to save ten times fewer Christians, since Jews and Christians, for him, were simply not comparable in moral value. Good skepticism is about empirical evidence, so why don’t we stick to that?
Shermer continues with another lengthy citation from The Moral Arc: “As in the limbic system with it’s neural networks for emotions, approach-avoidance moral conflicts have neural circuitry called the behavioral activation system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) that drive an organism forward or back, as in the case of the rat vacillating between approaching and avoiding the goal region. … These activation and inhibition systems can be measured in experimental settings in which subjects are presented with different scenarios in which they then offer their moral judgment (giving money to a homeless person as prescriptive vs. wearing a sexually suggestive dress to a funeral as proscriptive).”
This is very nice, interesting, even, but utterly irrelevant. Of course animal and human thoughts and actions have specific neural underpinnings. How else would we think or act? But, quite obviously, different people balance the outputs of their BAS and BIS differently, and they end up thinking and acting differently. Some of these differences (though certainly not all of them) may be the result of philosophical reflection on why one should act one way rather than another. And this discussion is about moral philosophy, not neuroscience. As I pointed out in my original review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which appeared, partly censored, in e-Skeptic), we may as well discuss the validity of a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by doing an fMRI scan of the brain of a mathematician. Interesting, no doubt. But also entirely unhelpful to the question at hand.
Michael briefly touches on my criticism of his treatment of Kant, where I brought up a technical paper by Helga Varden on the famous problem of lying to the Nazi. He says: “There is much more to her analysis of Kant, but it seems to me that in this example lying to Nazis is both a utilitarian/consequentialist decision because it would result in the death of an innocent, and a rule/rights decision that qualifies why we should care about the innocent in the first place: because, say, Kant’s rule about never treating people as an ends to a mean but as an ends in and of themselves, or that all people have a right to their own life.” This is very muddled. First off, lying to the Nazi would save the life of an innocent, not result in his death. Second, one can make that decision within a utilitarian framework, but also within a deontological one (Kant’s deontological system is not the only one on the market, so to speak). Third, Kant did not say that we should not treat other people as a means to an end (not the other way around!), he said we should never treat other people solely as means to an end. Without that qualification, we couldn’t go to a restaurant and be served by a waiter, because that would be using a human being as a means (waiter) to an end (getting my meal). The additional “solely” says that we can do that, but always while keeping in mind that we are interacting with a human being, not a machine. Fourth, nobody believes that all people have an unqualified right to their life. If instead of the Jew my basement hid a mass murderer (not because I’m protecting him, but under threat to my life) then I would certainly give him away to the authorities, even if that should result in his death. That’s the thing about good moral philosophy: it’s complicated, and requires precise nuanced thinking. And that is why we have professionals devoted to it.
Finally we come to the topic that most railed Shermer’s supporters on Twitter: natural rights. He ended his SciAm column with an endorsement of the concept, and I responded that on that topic I was with Jeremy Bentham (the founder of utilitarianism): the notion of natural rights is “nonsense on stilts.”
This is a complex topic, with a long history in philosophy, and despite Bentham’s flippant response, there have been serious defenders of it throughout the centuries. The notion of natural rights is related to, but is not the same as, the notion of natural law. Scholars trace the idea back to Plato and Aristotle, but it is far from clear that either one of them meant anything like the modern version deployed by thinkers from John Locke and Thomas Paine to Robert Nozick. I have a separate essay on natural law on my Stoic blog, since it is pertinent to that philosophy, but here let me simply reiterate my basic point: I don’t think there is any defensible notion of natural rights (as distinct from rights as human constructs) that is not hopelessly entangled with what I think are antiquated or indefensible notions of Platonism (as in Plato), teleology (as in Aristotle), or theology (as in Thomas Aquinas). You may disagree, of course, but then you owe us a defense of Platonism, teleology, or theology.
One counter to my criticism I have run across a lot on Twitter during my debate with Michael in the past few days is that human beings are part of nature, so obviously there are natural rights. QED. Well, no. This, again, threads on an equivocation. Yes, as a biologist I certainly agree that humanity is just as natural as anything else in the universe. But in the context of this sort of discussion the distinction has always (since Aristotle!) being very clear: natural rights refers to something that is mind-independent but can be discovered by human beings capable of reason; so-called positive rights, by contrast, are the result of human agreements. True, in a sense, positive rights are also “natural,” but it just doesn’t help to talk that way, it muddles a perfectly clear distinction.
This, incidentally, is an area where there is more agreement between Shermer and myself that may at first glance appear. More, but nowhere near total. Before I get to his rebuttal, let me state briefly what my position is. “Rights” are a human construct, the result of agreeing among ourselves, on the basis of moral and political considerations, that certain things qualify as rights and others don’t. The best sort of evidence that rights are of this kind is the complete disagreement among supporters of natural rights on the number and content of these alleged rights. We go from just one right (Richard Cumberland: benevolence toward all rational creatures), to three rights (Locke: life, liberty, and property — this is the one Michael wants, qua libertarian), to a whopping 19 natural laws from which one can derive corresponding rights (Hobbes, in chapters 14 and 15 of Leviathan).
That said, I do agree that rights are not entirely arbitrary, as they are linked to human nature, just like all moral philosophy is (Skye Cleary and I have recently argued this in Aeon). This puts me somewhere in the middle between moral anti-realists, who think that there is no such thing as a moral truth, and moral realists, who think that there is. I am a moral quasi-realist, meaning that for me morality is an evolving set of ideas that strives to regulate social interactions in order to allow people to flourish qua members of a social group. The reason I don’t think — contra both Shermer and Harris — that science can give us answers to moral questions is because I think facts about human nature under-determine moral systems. That is, given human nature as it is, there are several different, possibly incompatible, ways to develop moral codes. The choice among moral philosophies, then, is informed by facts about human nature, but not determined by it. To ask whether, say, utilitarianism or deontology or virtue ethics are “true” is to commit a category mistake. These are frameworks to think about social life. They may be more or less useful and more or less coherent, but not true or false (and hence not falsifiable or verifiable scientifically).
Okay, now back to the last chunk of Michael’s response. He thinks I contradict myself when I say that we all prefer to be alive rather than dead. I don’t see how that follows. Mine is just a statement of a natural desire. One has to do philosophical work to go from there to a right, especially a right that is somehow inalienable. (I also desire gelato, but that does not imply that I have a right to it.) I do think the is/ought gap can be filled, but not by simply stating that what is natural is ipso facto good. That, as Shermer knows, is yet another informal fallacy, the appeal to nature. And it is easily countered by endless examples (aggression and war are natural for human beings, it doesn’t follow that aggression and war are good).
Shermer takes a lot of liberties with evolutionary biology (another field in which I honestly question his qualifications): “Any organism subject to natural selection — which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well — will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish.” No, there is no natural selective imperative to flourish, especially if flourishing entails things like owning private property. Indeed, strictly speaking there is no natural imperative to survive either: survival is useful, from the standpoint of natural selection, only if it leads to reproduction. Sure enough, often selection favors short life spans, or rather nasty (i.e., non flourishing) lives, so long as the reproductive imperative is satisfied. And, again, just because natural selection favors individuals who reproduce, it certainly doesn’t make non reproducing immoral, does it? One of the few times I agreed with Steven Pinker (often quoted by Shermer) is when he wrote, I believe in The Language Instinct, that he made a decision early on in his life not to have children, but to devote his life to research, teaching, friends, and other good things. He commented (I quote from memory, since I no longer have a copy of that book): “and if my genes don’t like it, they can go and jump into the lake.” Indeed.
So when Michael says “I argue, the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is my moral starting point, and it is grounded in principles that are themselves based on nature’s laws and on human nature — principles that can be tested in both the laboratory and in the real world,” he is confusing different things, or at the very least drawing a direct connection between (certain aspects of) human nature and morality. This can’t be done, one needs empirically informed philosophical work to bridge the is/ought gap, not just brute facts.
He says other things that are clearly incorrect from a biological standpoint, like “The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics — a fundamental unit of nature.” No, as plenty of biological organisms are colonial (corals, some jellyfish), or their individuality is temporary (when it’s time to reproduce, as in slime molds), or don’t have clear boundaries at all (several species of trees and mushrooms), or are a complex ensemble of multiple organisms that only appear to be one (human beings, see the concept of holobionts).
Shermer approvingly quotes Pinker: “Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.” Yes, as the Stoics had already figured out 23 centuries ago, we are born with a rudimentary sense of pro-social behavior, which we share with other primates. And yes, morality is the result of building on that innate sense by way of reasoning and language (a notion that the Stoics elaborated into their theory of moral development). But we are no forced to one specific set of conclusions, again because there is a relationship of under-determination between facts about human nature and moral frameworks.
Michael counts himself and Pinker as moral realists, and thinks he slam dunks the case with the following rhetorical question: “Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong?” Well, first all, history is full of slave holders. People before very recent times thought that slavery was natural and just. Indeed, they derived this conclusion from their understanding of human nature, or the divine ordering of things, or whatever. More importantly, Shermer makes a fundamental mistake here: confusing objectivity with absolute truth.
Consider a simple example. Given the (entirely arbitrary) rules of the game of chess, a number of things about the game are objectively true. Heck, one can even demonstrate mathematical theorems about chess. But these truths are not “universal,” they are contingent on the specific set of rules that constitute the game. They don’t exist “out there,” in any kind of mind independent fashion. And they are, therefore, not inalienable. One can deny them by simply refusing to play the game, or by inventing a different game with even slightly different rules.
Yes, I do believe that slavery is wrong, given my understanding of human nature, which prioritizes individual flourishing and the application of reason to the improvement of pro-sociality. But there are other understandings from which my conclusions do not follow. So I have to argue the point from within whatever moral framework I have chosen (in my case, virtue ethics), I cannot simply and straightforwardly derive it from empirical observations about human behavior. If only it were that simple.