Saturday, April 06, 2013

Frightening Ideas

Discussing with my daughter the flap over Steve Landsburg's recent post, I commented that the people who were angry about it, mostly online, struck me as either stupid or evil. Either they were too stupid to see that he was actually raising an interesting puzzle or they saw that he was doing so but pretended not to, in order to have an excuse to attack someone they disliked or disagreed with.

Her response was that I was wrong, that my mistake was not realizing the degree to which many other people were different from me. To me, ideas are real, important, and sufficiently interesting that my reaction to an argument that appears to prove some frightening or ugly conclusion is to be neither frightened or angry but intrigued. Lots of people don't react that way—and if you see the conclusion of an argument as frightening or ugly, it isn't surprising if you skip over the fact that it raises an interesting puzzle or are too willing to assume that whoever offered the argument must agree with its conclusion.

I am not sure if she is correct or not, but it did start me thinking about other arguments which I find intriguing despite the fact that their implications are disturbing. None of them has the same emotional loading as an argument about rape, but all of them have implications that strike me as more serious, in various directions, than the implications of the argument Landsburg made. Here are three examples:

1. Moral nihilism: 

I have sketched elsewhere my view of the nature of moral philosophy, what Michael Huemer (and, I assume, other professional philosophers) refers to as intuitionism. I read Huemer's book on the subject in part in the hope that he could offer an adequate rebuttal to the best argument against that position that I knew of, since I didn't have one. I still don't, although he thinks he does.

The argument (which I believe was once offered by someone commenting here) is simple. I have moral intuitions—I perceive some acts or outcomes to be good or bad. My preferred explanation is that they really are perceptions of a (non-physical) truth. An alternative explanation is that they are beliefs that got hardwired into my brain by evolution because having those beliefs resulted in increased reproductive success in the environment in which my distant ancestors evolved. That explains the same data, my intuitions, without requiring any additional assumptions, since I already believe in evolution and recognize that some characteristics of how the brain processes information are best explained in that way.

If that argument is correct, not only is there nothing wrong with raping an unconscious victim, there is nothing wrong with doing anything to anyone—right and wrong are merely illusions. I find it impossible to believe that conclusion, but I have no adequate argument against it.

Unless you count this one.

2. We are all brains in vats:

Assume that the growth in wealth and technology that has occurred over the past century continues into the far future. In the world of a thousand years from now, an obvious form of entertainment, the equivalent of movies, books and video games, is simulation—Sim City on steroids—and in that world they will have the wealth and technology to simulate people, and worlds full of people, down to the neuron. A period of history of particular interest, and so particularly likely to be simulated, is the period when mankind made the great technological leaps that made possible the world of a thousand years hence. There will be thousands, millions, perhaps billions of simulations of that period, fully populated with simulated people who believe they are real.

What are the odds that you and I are in the one real version of the present instead of one of the millions of simulated ones?

3. There is no reason to expect the future to resemble the past. At all.

Consider the inductive hypothesis, the claim that the future resembles the past. It is essential to all of science, indeed to virtually all of our attempt to make sense of reality. Without that assumption, the fact that stones fell down when we dropped one yesterday gives us no reason to expect that, if we drop another stone today, it will fall down instead of up. 

Do we have any reason to believe the hypothesis? It is true that it has held, so far as we can tell, through the entire history of the universe. Unfortunately, that argument is circular. In the past, the future resembled the past—each day, stones fell in the same direction. But unless we already know that the future is going to resemble the past, the fact that the inductive hypothesis held in the past is no evidence that it will hold tomorrow.

52 Comments:

At 6:07 PM, April 06, 2013, Blogger Daniel said...

Maybe we are reading different people that were bothered by Landsburg, but I'm not sure this is right David. The people that I know that didn't like it value ideas every bit as much as you do, and enjoy puzzles every bit as much as you do. The problem was that the argument was so uncompelling to many of us that it raised concerns that the purpose had more to do with being an academic shock jock than trying to probe an idea.

Shock jocks are fine. I enjoy them. But there's a point where those of us who know people who have gone through rape (and in many cases I'm sure some people upset at Steve had been raped), shock jock posing as probing an idea isn't something we're all that interested in entertaining.

If it's merely the conscious psychic trauma that ought to guide thinking on this, one wonders what's wrong with killing someone in their sleep. Like the unaware unconscious rape victim, they'll never know. Maybe their family will so we can tailor it to loners.

A lot of us don't think it's a good idea worth pondering. A lot of us think there's nothing in even the foundational assumptions of the idea that's worth working further with.

If you think that people are either stupid, evil, or don't care about ideas I think it's worth thinking about the reactions a little harder. I'm surprised this didn't come up as an option for you writing this post. Is it really that hard to believe that a lot of people just didn't think it was all that interesting of a puzzle?

 
At 6:17 PM, April 06, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel:

I suggest that what you are missing is the flip side of what my daughter argued that I was missing--you assume that Steve made the post in order to shock people instead of because he, like me, sees such puzzles as interesting.

Killing someone in his sleep eliminates all of the utility that person will get through the rest of his life, so isn't analogous to the problem Steve was raising. I suspect that that would have been obvious to you if you had treated Steve's post as a puzzle worth thinking about rather than something to be angry about.

"Is it really that hard to believe that a lot of people just didn't think it was all that interesting of a puzzle?"

I don't know if you read the recent post where I gave what I believe is the correct answer to the puzzle. I think that post is evidence that the puzzle is an interesting one--you may disagree. "Stupid" may be too strong a term, but I think not seeing that there is a real puzzle being raised is evidence of either blindness due to emotion or intellectual limitations.

 
At 6:20 PM, April 06, 2013, Anonymous Joel said...

1. I don't think your argument implies right and wrong are "illusions", it implies they're social conventions based on evolutionary intuitions. This doesn't strike me as particularly disturbing.

2. If you put a small enough probability on "Assume that the growth in wealth and technology that has occurred over the past century continues into the far future", it's pretty easy to discount the "brains in vats" hypothesis.

3. "The inductive hypothesis is false" has absolutely zero predictive power. That's not necessarily a good reason to believe the inductive hypothesis, but it's a good reason not to disbelieve it.

 
At 7:09 PM, April 06, 2013, Anonymous Chris Hibbert said...

My reaction to your point #3 is to refer to W. W. Bartley's Pan-Critical Rationalism. Bartley argued that it's worth questioning your fundamental assumptions, but not repeatedly. If you thought really hard about whether there was any value in induction last Tuesday, and really doubted it for a couple of days, but then decided the world was more normal than that, then it's not very useful to investigate the question again this week.

 
At 7:23 PM, April 06, 2013, Blogger Hyman Rosen said...

Working backwards from an unpalatable conclusion isn't a bad way to reason. It's like demonstrations of psychic powers - when you know they must have been falsified it becomes easier to figure out how it was done.

To the original questions, the answer is that laws are social constructs which reflect the moral opinions of the people who make the laws. For pornography we have mostly decided that individual preferences have more weight. For the environment we split the difference, recognizing value in both having pristine regions and utilizing resources. For the third example (a less fraught version is to have someone use your house while you're away and cleaning up so that you don't know it happened), we have decided that rights to integrity of body and property are paramount and there's no reason to encode exceptions for theoretical low-harm situations.

 
At 7:42 PM, April 06, 2013, Blogger Rick Caird said...

I suspect a number of Landsburg's critics are people who want to be perpetually offended. To do so in this case, they have to claim the problem is uninteresting (or that there really is no problem) and that what is really interesting is political correctness.

 
At 8:02 PM, April 06, 2013, Blogger Aretae said...

David,

Under evolutionary theory, I don't understand how half of #1 can NOT be correct. On the other hand, evolved responses are most likely much more "right" (i.e. successful) responses to situations that cogitated ones. So I don't think much bad falls out of accepting the (IMO necessary) evolutionary explanation if one maintains a decent humility about cognition in general.

2. Brains in vats...P(us being brains in vats) is much lower than the SI folks believe.

P(BiV)~= P(BiV possible) * P(Civilization reaches BiV) * P(This period of time is interesting to simulate)

I consider factors 1, 2, and 3 all wildly overestimated by the pro-BiV people.

I also consider the Simulationist argument equivalent to the Deist position.

3. This one is more interesting. Simple claim: Deduction is supported by induction, not the other way around. We have no reason to believe logic (A=A, 2+2=4) without induction. The notion that deduction, future=past is divorceable from the functioning of our minds is an enormous assumption.

 
At 8:05 PM, April 06, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

Your comments and your daughter's response are not in conflict with one another. The way that other people are different from you is that they are stupider and more evil. The former characteristic is more important to understanding the flap over Landsburg's post, as willful disingenuousness is pretty rare and indeed entirely absent from the responses to his post that I've read.

1. As a moral nihilist, I'm curious to know why you find it impossible to believe that right and wrong are merely illusions, since you seem to have a pretty good understanding of the argument for why they almost certainly are.

The response to your revised version of Pascal's Wager is as simple and devastating as the response to the original - You have no just grounds for claiming to know the mind of God, and thus no basis to believe that God will not reward or punish you for precisely the opposite things that you expect Him to. Hence Pascal's Wager is not a good reason to believe in or worship God.

In the same vein - even if right and wrong are real, you have no just grounds for claiming that your perceptions of them are correct, and thus no basis to believe that acting as if morality is not real will result in your doing bad things or that acting as if morality is real will result in your doing good things. Hence your revised version of Pascal's Wager is not a good reason to act as if morality were real.

I suspect that resistance to nihilism is hard-wired into us in the same way that most moral impulses are, but I'm not sure how one would go about testing that claim.

2. Solipsism is irrefutable and therefore uninteresting imo. Calculating the odds that it's true requires inputs that we are necessarily barred from accessing.

3. The problem of induction has been done to death, probably never better than by Popper though.

Based on your musings here, I would strongly suggest that you read David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity.

 
At 10:43 PM, April 06, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

I believe that Robert Heinlein fell into the trap you describe. His novel Farnham's Freehold is commonly read as a repulsively racist piece of fiction, on the basis of its portrayal of a future society where black people rule, hold white people as slaves, and from time to time butcher and eat them. But there are several points in the novel that suggest that Heinlein may not have had anything so simple in mind:

* Heinlein has Hugh Farnham reflect that the racial categories of "black" and "white" in the future society are socially constructed and have little to do with actual ancestry; that the same was true of racial categories in the United States (Farnham thinks about a famous white segregationist whose ancestry was predominantly black); and that people in general don't want to know the truth about race.

* Near the end of the story, when Hugh and Barbara Farnham are returning to their own time, Hugh condemns their former owner, and Barbara asks him how many white men, with that much power, would have used it that decently—and Hugh admits the point and says that he specifically has handled it less well. That is, Heinlein draws a pointed moral equivalence between blacks having power over whites and whites having power over blacks, and condemns both.

* There is a scene where Hugh says to his former servant, a young black man, that "you were not a slave"—and the young man refers to travelling by bus through a southern state and concludes, "Shut up. You don't know what you're talking about." That is, Heinlein presents American black anger as an understandable response to abusive treatment.

My personal hypothesis is that Heinlein was doing the mathematician's trick of "without loss of generality"—presenting scenes of white people dominated by black people, and then saying, in effect, "but it makes no difference ethically which one is the master and which the slave." But the emotionally charged racial content got in the way of a lot of readers taking that point away, or even seeing it.

 
At 12:27 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Hyman:

"We have decided that" or "laws reflect the moral opinions of ..." isn't an answer. Why did we decide that? Why are those our moral opinions? If the law decided that everyone over six feet tall ought to be enslaved, would that be equally just--provided that "we decided" to do it that way?

 
At 12:30 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Max:

What I think you are missing in my version of Pascal's wager is that I have an alternate theory--intuitionism. It's a defensible theory--an explanation of how we know moral reality not that much weaker than the explanation of how we know physical reality. So it makes sense to put substantial probability weight on it, as well as on the nihilistic alternative, but not all sets of moral propositions I can imagine, including all the ones that don't fit my moral intuition.

 
At 12:33 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

David,
You say:
"I have no adequate argument against it."
But you do. Look at your previous sentence.
1a. "If that argument is correct, not only is there nothing wrong with raping an unconscious victim, there is nothing wrong with doing anything to anyone"
2a. It is wrong torture children for pleasure.
Therefore the argument is not correct. Someone could say that my argument is as good as this one:
1b. If it is wrong torture children for pleasure then anti-intutionist view is not correct.
2b. Anti-intutionist view is correct.
Therefore it is not wrong to torture children for pleasure.
But it's not. Premise 2a is more plausible than 2b.
Any argument based on implication is necessarily based on decision whether the peremises or the conclusion are more plausible.

You say that evolutionist theory explains your intuitions without requiring additional assumptions about moral facts. That is not an advantage because intuitionism explains your intuitions without additional assumptions about evolution.

You say you already believe in evolution. But you also already believe doing some things is wrong.

 
At 12:47 AM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your daughter is largely correct as a general matter, though the claim she is correct in the context of people who routinely read Landsburg's, or your, blog may require a stronger argument.

If I interpret you correctly, you say you follow moral intuitionism, and you read Huemer's book on moral intuitionism--a book that argues FOR moral intuitionism--but you weren't convinced. Do you recall what you saw as the failing in his case?

 
At 2:24 AM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Patrick said...

I've given point 3 a little thought, and here's what I've come up with: The question is basically, why should we believe the laws of physics will keep working just because they have in the past? First of all, only a theory can beat a theory. So we have to compare "Physics will keep working tomorrow" to "Physics will stop working tomorrow." What we have observed is that we've asked this question many times in the past, and every time physics has passed the test.

Each time physics is tested and works, the odds of the theory "Physics will always work" increases. Alas, the odds of "Physics will work until Monday, then never again" also increases. And so does "Physics will work every day except this coming Monday" and countless other theories. But what's so special about Monday? If physics works on Monday, it could be because physics always works, or it could be that it doesn't stop working till Tuesday. There are an infinite number of possible theories, and they sit equally on both sides of the question. One might identify a possible theory by listing the days on which physics won't work: "Physics will work every day except {X,Y,Z...}". Identifying most of these theories requires a lot of information, so their prior probability will be low. But "Physics will work every day" requires little information to identify, so its prior probability should be high. So it seems there is a reason to believe physics will keep working.

Unfortunately, my previous statements about information weren't really correct. The only reason why "Physics always works" required little information to identify is because I happened to choose a basis in which it's an easily-identified theory. Perhaps the correct basis to work in treats "Physics always works" as complicated and "Starting Monday, physics works on prime-numbered days only" as simple, and this would be obvious to someone with unbounded rationality.

In fact, I think my bounded rationality gives me a good reason to believe that physics will always work. I have objectives, and a limited brain with which to achieve them. If physics works tomorrow, I know what to do, if physics fails, I'm doomed no matter what. It makes practical sense to work in a basis optimized to make use of my brain, so I *should* treat "Physics always works" as simple, and thus more probable. This may be an error from the point of view of pure reason, but it is the correct strategy if I want to maximize my utility function.

 
At 3:58 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David:

Your daughter's argument seems to me to be very persuasive. And appliable elsewhere too. I had a discussion recently at mises.cz with some people about why it is bad for an anarchist to hate the state (as opposed to seeing it as a mere mistake). This is a strong argument agaist the hate - if something is emotionally overloaded, the reason even of a very intelligent person may simply shut down and stop listening to the arguments. It doesn't have to, since I do not suspect you don't have an emotional problem with rape, but as your daughter points out, some people are simply more sensitive to things like this. And if these people are libertarians who hate the state and someone comes to them with good arguments supporting the state, they stop listening and start accusing the person of being evil.

A same pattern can be seen the other way around. For someone whose idea of free market is that it leads to monopolistic corporations and an almost Orwellian society, libertarian ideas (and especially anarchist ideas) can seem so horrible, that they simply don't even start to consider them. I think the lesson is to present provocative ideas "in small doses", since that way they are better digested...if you start shouting them at soemone whose initial position is strongly opposite (and emotionally loaded) then (s)he will likely not hear you at all.

It is not the best illustration, because it suggests the person with uncommon ideas is in a way above the listener, which I am not trying to say, but consider the situation of a child and a stranger-adult who comes to the child and tells him about death for the first time...and says something like "You die, but before that your parents die...and when you're dead you're just wormfood, you cease to exist. And soon there will likely be noone who even remmembers you at all". While technically true, a child who hears that is much more likely to get frightened, run away and try to forget it all than to accept it as a real possibility (since I guess there still is a slight chance there might be something after death, as we cannot really disprove it).

 
At 7:15 AM, April 07, 2013, OpenID backtobaseball said...

With respect to #3 I recommend David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity.

 
At 10:44 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger JP said...

David Friedman said:
"My preferred explanation is that [moral inuitions] really are perceptions of a (non-physical) truth. An alternative explanation is that they are beliefs that got hardwired into my brain by evolution because having those beliefs resulted in increased reproductive success in the environment in which my distant ancestors evolved."

How is that 'alternative' really an alternative, though? I don't see any contradiction between the two.

Humans also have a hardwired fear of snakes, a belief that snakes are dangerous. If you were convinced that this is also a product of evolution by natural selection, would you conclude that there are no dangerous snakes? Why should the same argument convince you that there are no moral truths?

 
At 10:54 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"You say that evolutionist theory explains your intuitions without requiring additional assumptions about moral facts. That is not an advantage because intuitionism explains your intuitions without additional assumptions about evolution."

Intuitionism explains my intuitions, but it requires additional assumptions to do so. Evolution explains them without additional assumptions, since I already believe in it for reasons having nothing to do with moral philosophy.

"You say you already believe in evolution. But you also already believe doing some things is wrong."

I already believe that doing certain things is wrong--the question is why. That I believe something isn't, by itself, an argument that it's true. Intuitionism is an attempt to get from the fact that I believe things to a reason to think I should.

 
At 10:54 AM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

David,

I promise I'm not missing that at all. I'm the one who recommended that you read Michael Huemer, remember? Intuitionism is a defensible theory in precisely the same way that intelligent design is a defensible theory. Appealing to a God of the Gaps allows one to endlessly move the goalposts as scientific advances march onwards; the underlying explanation for existence as a whole and all of its component parts ("God did it") can never be logically refuted unless we obtain omniscience. Appealing to intuitionism allows one to endlessly move the goalposts as moral disagreements rage on across time and space; the underlying explanation for those disagreements ("we are each seeking knowledge of an objective truth that TOTALLY EXISTS but simply haven't found it yet") can never be logically refuted unless we obtain omniscience.

I maintain that my analogy is an appropriate one:

Iff it is true that you have some justified basis for believing that your ethical intuitions accurately reflect moral reality, then of course it makes sense to act as if they did. This is tautologous.

Iff it is true that you have some justified basis for believing that God wants you to act a certain way and will punish or reward you eternally for your (mis)behavior, then of course it makes sense to act as you believe God wants you to. This is also tautologous.

My claim is that there is no justified basis for believing either proposition. This is not the same thing as claiming that there is no possible basis - Christians can point to the Bible and other historical texts as evidence of God's will. In the same way, intuitionists can point to shared intuitions as evidence for the existence of moral reality.

However, even if we accept that intuitionism is "an explanation of how we know moral reality not that much weaker than the explanation of how we know physical reality," the irrefutability (some might say non-falsifiability) of solipsism - which you seem to recognize in Frightening Idea #2 - shows that our "explanation" of how we "know" physical reality is itself completely unjustified and indeed unjustifiable! Hence ethical intuitionism is left without a leg to stand on.

It's possible, of course, that I'm still overlooking something, but if I am, I'm pretty confident it's not what you thought. Please let me know if you disagree with any of this, and if so why.

 
At 10:55 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Re Huemer:

"Do you recall what you saw as the failing in his case?"

I didn't find an adequate rebuttal to the evolutionary argument for moral nihilism. We corresponded about it for a while, and clearly he thinks he has an adequate rebuttal, but I don't.

 
At 10:59 AM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

Unknown,

It is not wrong to torture children for pleasure. Your intuition to the contrary is mistaken.

Hope this helps,
Max

 
At 11:06 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Max:

Suppose we had some reason to think that, if religion was true, it was one particular religion. Then Pascal's wager works, provided the religion bases your reward on what you did rather than why you did it.

Similarly, my version works if the moral intuition is "one ought not to do X," and if moral intuitions provide some, if imperfect, information about moral truth. I don't have an intuition that it is good to torture innocent people to death, so if intuitionism is correct a moral theory that says it is is mistaken.

And both intuitionism and belief in physical reality are testable, although not provable, since both imply that there ought to be a considerable similarity between the perceptions of different people. The more I find that other people have moral intuitions that are incomprehensibly different, the weaker the case for intuitionism.

Just as, if other people keep seeing objects I don't see and failing to see ones I do see, I eventually start to suspect that I am insane, and my perception of physical reality is badly off.

 
At 11:07 AM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

Patrick,

Have you read David Deutsch? It sounds to me like you have.

backtobaseball,

Did you make that recommendation before or after reading mine?

David,

At least two people think you should read The Beginning of Infinity.

 
At 11:20 AM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

David,

I agree with the first two paragraphs of your most recent comment and apologize if that was not clear.

Moral nihilism and solipsism are also testable, although not provable, since both imply that there ought to be a considerable similarity between the perceptions of different people. However, finding that other people have moral intuitions that are very similar does not weaken the case for moral nihilism.

"Just as, if other people keep seeing objects I don't see and failing to see ones I do see, I eventually start to suspect that I am insane, and my perception of physical reality is badly off."

Here you are assuming that solipsism is false without any evidence for that proposition.

 
At 11:33 AM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

David,

Sorry, just realized that I made a mistake and agreed with something I shouldn't have. Even if we accept that religion being true implies that one particular religion is true, Pascal's wager only works if the true religion involves eternal/infinite punishment/damnation.

 
At 11:40 AM, April 07, 2013, Blogger David said...

JP beat me to the punch, but I can't resist elaborating on it.

There's a step missing between "moral intuitions are evolved" and "moral intuitions are illusions". You might say the same thing about love, or ambition, or even hunger. Hunger is an illusion in the sense that there is no reified Platonic "hunger" that touches us when we haven't eaten in a while. But it's absurd to act as though it isn't real -- even though we can sometimes act differently than the "hunger intuition" pushes us.

Moral intuition is different in that part of the intuition is the feeling that it represents something outside ourselves, but that's plausibly an accident of how it evolved, or (more likely) part of the reason for its success as a mechanism: it's trying to fine-tune behavior in a much more subtle way than hunger is.

You and I agree that there is something wrong with raping an unconscious victim. Most people would agree. A very few people wouldn't agree; their brains are not normal, and we can only hope that their experience of being outnumbered will keep them from getting to a bad place.

On other questions there is less of a consensus. A thorough-going intuitionist might say that these are edge cases where our moral sense has evolved to oversensitivity, like seeing faces in clouds, so we see moral implications where there are none. Or perhaps in the normative universe, there really is a moral implication, but like all evolved capabilities our moral sense is a sort of quick-and-dirty, best-fit sort of mechanism that isn't a perfect match for the facts of the normative universe. But either one strikes me as violating Occam's razor.

I can be unapologetic about my feeling that stoning rape victims is wrong, and steadfast in my hope that everyone in the world will come to feel the same way, and unremitting in my willingness to punish those who act differently, without having to add the further claim that my feeling is a reflection of anything that is somehow even metaphorically substantial like gravity or dark matter or superstrings.

Have you read Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind"? He's not considering exactly this issue, but it's a fascinating look at the nuts and bolts of the evolved moral sense.

 
At 12:00 PM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Miko said...

David:

You are, I assume, a wletaraba-nihilist. As such, you would agree that there is nothing un-wletaraba with raping an unconscious victim and there is nothing un-wletaraba with doing anything to anyone. Do you find this as frightening as the identical argument with the word "wletaraba" replaced with the word "moral"?

Moral-nihilism doesn't give us any guideline for behavior; it merely tells us that attempts to justify that behavior by appeal to morality are doomed to be unconvincing, since they falsely posit some external notion of moral truth. I can respond to the rape of an unconscious victim in almost all of the same ways that a person who is not a moral-nihilist and wletaraba-nihilist could; the only limitation is that I can't describe the morality of wletaraba-ity of the action.

"X is true because of wletaraba-ity" is a poor argument; replacing the made-up word with "morality" doesn't make the argument any stronger. Yet there are people who will use this null argument as a justification for kidnapping and imprisoning, murdering, etc. As someone who sees the value of ideas and rational argument, shouldn't the fact that some people think that morality does exist (whether or not it does) frighten you far more than the possibility that it might not?

 
At 12:06 PM, April 07, 2013, Blogger David said...

I'm a cryonicist, and the simulation question is especially troubling for me. My eventual revival depends strongly on the success of nanotechnology and really good AI, but it seems to me that these things imply a fairly high probability that eventually somebody will routinely simulate everything, including my world and others quite different, which in turn leads to the likelihood that I'm in a simulation now. Worse, it might be a what-if simulation, and not even a simulation of a world that ever existed in fact.

As troubling as I find that, though, I can't figure out how to act upon it. Robin Hanson says (with tongue in cheek. I think) that we should make sure what we are doing is interesting so that whoever is running the simulation will keep it going, and that trying to hang around famous people would ensure that our simulations get plenty of cycles and detail rather than just being low-priority approximations necessary to fill in the background for the relevant parts. But it starts partaking of Pascal's Wager, with me trying to intuit the mind of a superhuman entity for which I have absolutely no data.

So I tend to shrug and say, "Well, if it is a simulation, it's a darned good one." And then I marvel at how kick-ass an intelligent technical civilization is, like when I reflect on how very far away Voyager is and still sending us data.

 
At 12:26 PM, April 07, 2013, Blogger David said...

Miko:

I'm missing some steps between what I said and what you say I must therefore believe, perhaps because I'm not quite sure what you're saying. I already said that I do think it's immoral to rape an unconscious victim. I wouldn't do it; I'd vote for laws that made it illegal; on a jury I'd vote to convict someone I was convinced had done it.

As I said, believing that something evolved isn't the same as believing it doesn't exist.

I tried translating your second paragraph to talk about hunger, but I got bogged down at the end:

"Hunger-nihilism doesn't give us any guideline for eating; it merely tells us that attempts to justify that eating by appeal to hunger are doomed to be unconvincing, since they falsely posit some external notion of hunger. I can respond to a plate full of food in almost all of the same ways that a person who is not a hunger-nihilist could; the only limitation is that I can't describe the ..."

What's the punch line? The fact that I can't finish it must mean that you're getting at some difference between the two that I'm not grasping.

 
At 2:03 PM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

David (not Friedman),

You appear not to fully grasp what is meant by "illusions" in the context of this conversation. This is a perfectly reasonable oversight, as the word has an everyday meanings which you are employing in a perfectly sensible way. However, you are actually making the case for moral nihilism without realizing it. You agree that moral intuition evolved, and "the feeling that it represents something outside ourselves . . . [is] plausibly an accident of how it evolved, or (more likely) part of the reason for its success as a mechanism: it's trying to fine-tune behavior in a much more subtle way than hunger is."

This is precisely the position that moral nihilism takes. Moral realism, by way of contrast, asserts that "the feeling that [moral intuition] represents something outside ourselves" is ACCURATE.

"You and I agree that there is something wrong with raping an unconscious victim. Most people would agree. A very few people wouldn't agree; their brains are not normal, and we can only hope that their experience of being outnumbered will keep them from getting to a bad place."

Does this endorsement of normality and majority rule extend across all possible places and times? It can't possibly, of course, because different majorities in different places and times reach different conclusions about what is right/wrong/good/bad. In fact, I suspect that you personally hold views which are not shared by most people in almost any setting. Using the logic you've laid out in the above paragraph, you ought to agree that you are in "a bad place" and seek to change your beliefs to mirror those of the people around you. Yet you don't. Why not?

"I can be unapologetic about my feeling that stoning rape victims is wrong, and steadfast in my hope that everyone in the world will come to feel the same way, and unremitting in my willingness to punish those who act differently, without having to add the further claim that my feeling is a reflection of anything that is somehow even metaphorically substantial like gravity or dark matter or superstrings."

+1

I also agree that "The Righteous Mind" is a fascinating book. I bought five copies and gave them to members of my family at Christmas.

 
At 2:20 PM, April 07, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

David (not Friedman),

The point I believe Miko to be making is that hunger and morality AREN'T different. Of course it's true that hunger drives our behavior, just as moral intuition drives our behavior. But just as it would be absurd to say that there is a reified Platonic "hunger" that touches us when we haven't eaten in a while, it is absurd to say there is an objective property of "moral goodness" that exists outside and independently of our minds which our "moral sense/intuition" allows us to perceive.

Therefore, when you say, "I wouldn't do it; I'd vote for laws that made it illegal; on a jury I'd vote to convict someone I was convinced had done it," you do not add anything meaningful when you also say, "I do think it's immoral." To you and I, the former statement encapsulates everything one needs to know about our position. To the moral realist, "immorality" represents a property independent of whether you would do a thing, vote for laws that made it illegal, or vote to convict someone you were convinced had done it. Indeed, what you THINK is immoral would be ultimately irrelevant to the question of whether something is in fact immoral.

 
At 2:40 AM, April 08, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

If I am not mistaken, your version of intuitionism is ontology independent (or could be made so)and, as such, is similar to Vyavaharika Ethics in Hindu Judicial hermeneutics (Mimamsa). Historically, this approach seemed a good solution to the Schelling type Co-ordination problem facing the Hindus- their Religion was decentralized and local law always had precedence over Scripture- but, there was a high price to be paid for ignoring ontology- viz. the fact that the caste system became normative, women's rights were whittled away to nothing, the Economy stagnated under the weight of Involution, India outsourced its ruling class to the Turks and later the Europeans- who, however, were equally powerless to reform the country.
Even in the 20th Century, high-minded reformers- some Leftists- found it impossible to break with a particulaly noxious, pi-jaw heavy, Intuitionist Idealism such that their Social Policy recommendation was 'let everybody become the sort of Brahmin Pundit whose puritanical ignorance has kept the entire country in darkness'
Kenneth Boulding, a Quaker and admirer of Gandhi, visited India and made some cautious remarks on 'negative Psychic Capital' but he was ignored. More recently, Timur Kuran's work shows how Ontology independent Intuitionism has tended to cash out as Preference Falsification on a massive scale such that Society stagnates and only negative Psychic capital burgeons.
Why should this be so? My guess is that Ontology independence exposes Intuitionism to a Djikstra Concurrency problem- either deadlock or 'live-lock'- because Co-ordination problems have a fatal tendency to get resolved only in that way. The truth is Chichilnisky 'limited arbitrage' is something humans are good at- and all that is needed for Social Choice Theory to work- whereas finding global solutions- except very bad ones- isn't what our evolutionary history has fitted us for.

 
At 3:04 PM, April 08, 2013, Anonymous David (not Friedman) said...

Max,

Thanks for the clarification. In that sense I guess I am a moral nihilist, and don't find anything scary about that except the connotation of "nihilist". (Since I've come to terms with "anarchist", I suppose this is just one more step.)

I suspect I've been adequately socialized that I don't have any moral intuitions that are wildly different from 99% of Americans agree on. If there are, I don't feel the need to adjust my intuition, but prudence would suggest that I not act on it.

I know there are some small fraction who do differ on some strong consensus issue. Most of these are still sufficiently deterred by peer pressure or fear of punishment or what-have-you. Since these tendencies are themselves also the result of evolution and socialization, there is an even smaller fraction who aren't deterred, and go on ahead and do things like raping unconscious victims, or worse. We call them sociopaths, and yes, they are scary, but their scariness isn't ameliorated or enhanced by moral realism.

I'm still missing Dr. Friedman's step between "they are beliefs that got hardwired into my brain" and "there nothing wrong with raping an unconscious victim". I have the utmost faith that he can articulate that step, and if he does perhaps my picture of things will snap into a different shape like the rabbit and the duck. Or perhaps he was using that second phrase in some technical way that seems inconsistent with the mostly conversational tone of its context.

David (not Friedman)

 
At 3:47 PM, April 08, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

I think you can have a moral realism- i.e. non physical truths- which intuition has access to by some 'black box' mechanism only specifiable at 'Beenakker's boundary' (i.e. the point where our scientific theories are so rich that the time taken to compute the model is equal to the life-time of the Universe)but there is no reason why moral intuition should return scalar rather than vector answers to single valued yes/no questions about morality.
In this instance, my moral intuition is that the State has Guardianship of a person lacking competence. Since ours is a democratic country, I feel the State includes me therefore my own objection to rape has moral weight. However, if I lived in a very different sort of State my notions of Guardianship might be quite different. The same underlying moral intuition vector would return a different answer.
The problem here is that an intuitionist moral realism which is neither constructivist nor committed to an ontology turns into an 'anything goes' theory indistinguishable from moral nihilism.

 
At 7:08 PM, April 08, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

for David (not Friedman)

If the only reason not to do terrible things is that I have been programmed by evolution to feel they are terrible, then there is no good reason not to do them if I have some way of getting around the programming and can get something I want by so doing.

If that isn't clear, suppose you felt revulsion at the idea of eating bacon, despite knowing that you would like the taste. You somehow discover that the reason for the revulsion is that a hypnotist, when you were young, somehow created that feeling in your mind. Another hypnotist offers to reverse the effect. Isn't it obvious that you would feel free to have him to do, and thereafter to eat bacon?

 
At 9:46 PM, April 08, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

I don't think Evolution's 'programming' is like a hypnotist's implanted suggestion. Broadly speaking, the former is a metaphorical way of saying- 'I am a complex organism whose survival, whose ethos, perhaps whose sanity and continued acceptance as a member of the Human species, is tied up with something, even absent any 'strong reason', which militates for having a detestation of x.' Here to 'break the programming' is to put oneself in peril of so great an evil that no 'good reason' could justify it. Indeed all 'good reasons' would be trivial and have no bearing on the case once it became clear to me that, once again to use metaphorical language 'evolution has programmed me thus'.
I suppose I can damage my brain in a way such that I no see things the way humans have evolved to see them- but this is the plot for a H.P Lovecraft story.
The hypnotist argument is equivalent to something like childhood conditioning- not Evolutionary 'programming'.
Perhaps this is an argument for ruling out of court the 'evolution made me thus' riposte since, as a matter of empirical fact, phenotypal plasticity is the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy, when it comes to morality, for our species.
Still, a moral realism whose raison d'etre is the need for a 'strong reason' in addition to some determinist, functionalist or occassionalist riposte is going to face a Third Man type problem.
My solution is to embrace ontological dysphoria.

 
At 12:42 AM, April 09, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Evolution designed me for reproductive success as a hunter/gatherer. Reproductive success is not my objective and I'm not a hunter/gatherer, so there is no strong reason to assume that characteristics produced by evolution serve my current self-interest.

 
At 1:16 AM, April 09, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

'Evolution designed me for reproductive success as a hunter/gatherer'- if this were true surely we would be better at killing off territorial rivals so as to maintain a sustainable population density for a hunter gatherer life-style?
In any case, something like Dawkins' extended phenotype argument obtains such that whatever survival it is that that the fitness landscape selects for it certainly isn't something compatible with your or my notion of self-ownership. I suppose a word like Evolution is just not informationally compressible in the way that 'conditioning' or 'hypnotizing' is and there may be an argument to dispense with informationally incompressible notions in Ethics.
However, in so far as certain fauculties have evolved- e.g. sight- or been suppressed and turned into something else- e.g. smell- and in so far as moral intuitionis might be considered to be faculties evolved to detect important facts about the world- to that extent, the trope 'Evolutionary programming' isn't analogous to 'childhood conditioning' or something caused by a hypnotist.
I wonder whether there can be a 'strong reason' which is wholly ontology innocent. If so, would there not have to be a 'stronger reason' to abide by the strong reason and so on?

 
At 9:37 AM, April 09, 2013, Blogger JP said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 10:24 AM, April 09, 2013, Anonymous David (not Friedman) said...

'Another hypnotist offers to reverse the effect. Isn't it obvious that you would feel free to have him to do, and thereafter to eat bacon?'

Yup.

But is there any heinous anti-social act you wish your conscience would let you perform, to the extent that you would willingly change your moral intuitions enough to not feel bad if you did it? My guess is no; I can't think of any such thing myself. I'm intellectually quite certain that's because part of the structure of moral intuition is the feeling that it's more than an intuition -- but despite my objective belief that this is just an artifact of successful evolution, the feeling is real and doesn't go away. My moral sense is part of what makes me me (even though it's surely my moral sense that tells me so); if bacon revulsion came with the same baggage, I might agree that I would be free to change it, but I never would.

Alternatively, consider the commonplace of a person who commits a convenient murder (or some lesser offense) but justifies it to himself by rationalizing that the victim had it coming. He doesn't have to be a moral nihilist to do this, and probably isn't, but the victim is still dead.

To some extent what I'm saying here is that I can't figure out an operational difference between moral intuitionism and moral nihilism, unless the theory that there is a "real" normative universe includes some sense of karma, so that somebody who violates the precepts will somehow get it in the end. I doubt that's part of your theory. But if not, what's frightening? Even if intuitionism is right, lots of people still do things we regard as evil.

But all this is just out of my head; I haven't read Huemer or probably even a tenth of whatever you've read on the subject. Forgive me if I'm just being naive. But I'm reminded of Dennett's analogy between consciousness and a magic trick: the philosopher explains the magic trick by saying "The magician doesn't really saw the lady in half -- he just makes you think he saws the lady in half." Sometimes it's just a cigar.

 
At 3:56 PM, April 09, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

@David not Friedman
'is there any heinous anti-social act you wish your conscience would let you perform, to the extent that you would willingly change your moral intuitions enough to not feel bad if you did it? My guess is no; I can't think of any such thing myself. I'm intellectually quite certain that's because part of the structure of moral intuition is the feeling that it's more than an intuition.'
This neatly combines Newcombe's problem with Moore's paradox.
But is it not the case that we all have an intuition that our present moral intuitions aren't quite perfect? If we add in the notion that ethical acts alter our ethos and thus our moral intuitions might it not be the case that there is some currently repugnant act which, if we commit, permits us to gain that higher stand-point and more perfect moral intuition?
Indeed, is not great literature- including material in the great Scriptures- precisely of this sort? For Aeschylus it is through the suffering brought about by transgression that Wisdom is attained. Some Soteriological theories of Sacrifice are of this antinomian type.
You go on to say ' I can't figure out an operational difference between moral intuitionism and moral nihilism, unless the theory that there is a "real" normative universe includes some sense of karma...'
As a matter of fact, a theory of metempsychosis is one way of reading the Bible- e.g. in the case of Pinchas who kills Kosbi and Zimri. The Rabbis speak of the precept here as 'halachah vein morin kein'- i.e. a Law which, if known, forbids the action it otherwise enjoins- and gives the following gloss- Pinchas's soul departs from him in fright at the murder he had committed, then the souls of the two sons of Aaron previously fulminated by the Highest enter into Pinchas and it they who are raised to the status of Kohain.
Indian karma, originally, was just as sophisticated as that of the Greeks, Hebrews, Celts etc- though in the form it is now known it is more simplistic because 'ontology independent'.
I think it is that last term which vitiates the operationalization of a distinction between moral nihilism and intuitionism at least w.r.t. the general thrust of your argument.

 
At 7:51 PM, April 09, 2013, Anonymous David (not Friedman) said...

Windwheel,

I'm afraid most of your reply is over my head: I had to look up "metempsychosis". I didn't mean to use "karma" in any technical sense, just shorthand for "what goes around comes around", which we have a vague intuition is true even though the evidence is all against it.

'...might it not be the case that there is some currently repugnant act which, if we commit, permits us to gain that higher stand-point and more perfect moral intuition?'

Could be. I'd have to hear what it was before it would give me much pause.

Although in the course of this conversation I have come to accept that I am a moral nihilist, it does occur to me to be frightened that everybody might become one. If that happened, I can certainly see that more people might be able to rationalize doing wicked things that they would not consider if they stayed intuitionists. But I see this as an imperfection of our evolved moral sense, which would be problematic whether moral nihilism is true or false. And I don't think this is what our host finds frightening.

 
At 8:27 PM, April 09, 2013, Anonymous David (not Friedman) said...

David (Friedman),

In thinking about this a little more, I came up with a concrete example. Say I have a brother who would live much more comfortably if I give him a bunch of money. My conscience tells me I should; there's nobody else who would help him to the extent I could, and it would inconvenience me but not seriously threaten my solvency. I don't particularly like this brother, but he is my brother.

I don't want to give him the money, so I come up with reasons not to. He will just squander it. He's never done anything for me. I don't like the way he treated our dad.

I add to these rationalizations the idea that my feeling of guilt at not giving him money is just the effect of evolution. The genes we share are more likely to survive if he prospers, so my genes are telling me to rescue him.

That last observation is enough to push me over the edge, and I don't give him the money.

So what are the cases?

1. Moral intuitionism is true, and it's actually wrong not to help him. My evolved moral intuitions are imperfectly modelling the "real" normative universe. No surprise here; evolution is far from perfect. Being a moral nihilist has led me astray, but the "real" normative universe was no help in avoiding that error.

2. Moral intuitionism is true, and it's not wrong to ignore him. My feelings of guilt are imperfectly modelling the "real" normative universe. What luck that my various rationalizations came up with a normatively acceptable answer!

3. Moral intuitionism is false, and (unless there's something else we haven't discussed) moral nihilism is true. My feelings of guilt are still there, but my brother still doesn't get the money.

This is what I mean when I say I can't see the operational difference. There's constant feedback about whether our five senses are giving us an accurate picture of the physical universe, but precious little feedback about whether our moral sense is giving us an accurate picture of this putative normative universe. Unless you're assuming that the normative universe can have a tangible effect on the physical universe, like by delivering retribution to wrongdoers or solace to victims, or by being the literal source of my feelings of guilt (rather than the guilt coming from my evolution and socialization), then that normative universe is a hypothesis that cannot be tested.

Doesn't mean you can't believe in it, of course.

 
At 9:44 PM, April 09, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

@ David not Friedman.
Thought provoking example. My feeling is that the senses, including a possible 'sixth sense' giving rise to moral intuition, arise into consciousness and become a subject of controversy when there is a super-imposition of possible states- sort of like the Dali painting where elephants turn into swans and vice versa. In this case we can say that moral inutitionism is real but yields two answers- it violates the excluded middle. But, why should that worry us? We are used to dealing with vector as opposed to scalar solutions in maths and recognizing that spooky entanglement effects might be baked into the deep structure of the Universe. In other words, so long as we abandon the desire to keep our theory ontology independent (i.e. our thinking should hold in any conceivable world)then an impredicativity (i.e. a logic loop) leading to an aporia (i.e. a gap) in our decision calculus does not force us- as in your example- to say that everybody must abandon a belief or convention which they currently hold and from which we ourselves derive a benefit.
To take an example, the great Chinese Utilitarian thinker Moh Tzu came to the conclusion that it was best that the peasants continued to believe in the ghosts who watched their doings while out in the fields because that kept them honest. It wasn't necessary for the benevolent man, because his ethic of universal love had the same effect.
However Moh Tzuism is now no longer ontology independent- it says that there is a hierarchy of beings/truths such that there is a preferred ontology for his arguments of a particular 'directed topology' type.

Returning to your example, what makes it especially rich is that small changes in your information-set could have you flip flopping. Since people don't like flip flopping they puzzle over why that should be the case. The result you spend more time thinking about your brother rather than about the money you might or mightn't give him. I suppose someone like Levinas would say that an aporia in your intuitionistic calculus led you to the 'first philosophy' of a truly 'face-to-face' encounter with your brother's 'otherness' or alterity. Put another way, I can imagine a family movie where the 'responsible bro' realizes that what his neer do well sibling really needs isn't money buy attention of a certain type.
Would it be the case, if any of the above makes sense,that there is now an operationalizable difference between intuitionism and nihilism? One way to decide would be if there some sort of 'tell' for an intuitionist pondering a problem and a nihilist doing the same thing. Suppose we could a Philosophical De Niro to do two versions of the film where he thinks about helping his brother. We explain his different 'motivation' for the two films, his different life experiences which caused him to be an inutitionist in the one and a nihilist in another.
Suppose, a large percentage of audiences were able to spot divergent 'tells' in the two movies and correctly predict which was which from the philosophical point of view.
Would you feel this had any bearing on the argument?
Personally, I've almost argued myself into saying yes though my belief is that for most people intuitions arise not from this world but some other impossible world- not perhaps a frightening idea, but a sad one.

 
At 9:55 AM, April 10, 2013, Anonymous David (not Friedman) said...

Windwheel,

"Suppose, a large percentage of audiences were able to spot divergent 'tells' in the two movies and correctly predict which was which from the philosophical point of view.
Would you feel this had any bearing on the argument?"

Not on mine, I think -- if I'm understanding you fully. I'm sure there are "tells" that would distinguish an intuitionist from a nihilist, but all I learn from this is which model each of the two believes, not which model best reflects reality.

I started to agree that the world would probably be a better place if everybody was an intuitionist, as with Moh Tzu and his ghosts. But suddenly I'm not so sure: there is such a wide range in what different cultures think of as moral, and the belief in intuitionism gives them more license to be intolerant and uncompromising and jingoistic. (That's probably dwarfed, however, by the feeling that their intuitions are a direct line not just to a "normative universe" but to a supreme being.)

But I feel somehow that we are straying from our host's original question.

 
At 10:50 AM, April 10, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

If it is an empirical evidence that there are 'tells' of the sort mentioned, then there is a way of distinguishing between people on the basis not of their decisions but the process by which they arrive at them. On an analogy with p Zombie arguments against physicalism, what happens here is that intutionism is protected from the frightening idea that it is just nihilism in disguise- i.e. when you run an intuitionist argument through your mind you are doing the same thing, physiologically,as running a nihilist argument- i.e. the intuitionist and the nihilistic programs can't be distinguished on the basis of what they supervene on.

 
At 9:25 AM, April 13, 2013, Blogger Gene Callahan said...

@Joel: "3. "The inductive hypothesis is false" has absolutely zero predictive power. That's not necessarily a good reason to believe the inductive hypothesis, but it's a good reason not to disbelieve it."

A good reason to believe the inductive hypothesis is because if it is not true we can't do induction?!

 
At 10:04 AM, April 17, 2013, Blogger Arthur B. said...

Going from "these beliefs are hardwired in my brain" to "there is nothing wrong" is a non sequitur.

There is nothing objective_moral_truth_wrong with it, because we've just assumed that there is no such thing, but there is still evolution_makes_me_and_most_human_label_it_as_wrong.

So yes, there is something wrong with rape, and "wrong" is a subjective label applied to deed by humans according to widely shared principles.

 
At 11:38 AM, April 19, 2013, Blogger Patri Friedman said...

Your daughter is smart.

I suspect a number of Landsburg's critics are people who want to be perpetually offended.

In which case, Landsburg does them an enormous service that they should be happy about!

I had a discussion recently at mises.cz with some people about why it is bad for an anarchist to hate the state (as opposed to seeing it as a mere mistake). This is a strong argument agaist the hate - if something is emotionally overloaded, the reason even of a very intelligent person may simply shut down and stop listening to the arguments.

Tibor - I think this is really important, and that there are also a variety of other arguments against hate. One of the things I think is powerful about competitive government is that it leads to a psychological stance of "I'm a frustrated consumer, because no current governance providers offers anything like the type & quality of governance I want", rather than "I am an oppressed victim of the violent and coercive state". The second is far more emotionally traumatic, it is victim rather than solution-oriented, negatively motivating rather than positively, it marks the people who support the current political system as evil rather than simply having different consumer preferences for governance, it marks the people who work for the current political system as evil oppressors rather than people who work for a shitty governance service provider, etc.

I think it would be an enormous pyschological benefit for libertarians to do less hating.

You and I agree that there is something wrong with raping an unconscious victim. Most people would agree. A very few people wouldn't agree; their brains are not normal

I find this an interesting argument, which explains some of the reaction to Lansburg, while ignoring his philosophical question. I'd say it as something like: "Human brains are drawn from a limited set of morality bundles, in which many different beliefs are highly correlated. Most humans who believe that unconscious and/or unknown rape is OK also believe many harmful things, like that any rape is OK (are sociopaths). Therefore it is bad to say that unconscious and/or unknown rape is ok, because it signals that you are likely a sociopath, as is anyone who supports your argument. Furthermore if you were to convince people, you decrease the usefulness of this indirect signal as to an individual's sociopathy."

 
At 10:50 AM, April 21, 2013, Anonymous David (not Friedman) said...

Patri-

I don't mean to ignore Landsburg's philosophical question, but rather to argue (humbly) that it is not well-formed.

Dennett is often mischaracterized as believing that consciousness is an illusion, which he does not claim -- merely that consciousness is not what you think it is. See his TED talk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjbWr3ODbAo for some elementary demos.

Dr. Friedman seems to say that either our moral sense is perceiving a "right and wrong" that is objectively real or else "right and wrong" is an illusion, and I say that there is a middle ground -- it's not an illusion, but it's not what we think it is. Jonathan Haidt's research (see http://www.moralfoundations.org/ or his book The Righteous Mind) uses similar kinds of elementary demos to tease out the different "taste buds" of our moral sense. People get their moral senses from different combinations of these taste buds.

Consider questions like "Is it ambitious or unambitious to work extra hours on a project that is likely to be cancelled?" or "Is it ambitious or unambitious to quit your job and live with your parents in order to study for an advanced degree?" These are off the top of my head, but I can imagine people with a very firm opinion in either direction.
There are other questions -- "Is it ambitious or unambitious to watch TV all day?" -- where there is a near unanimity in the answer. Nevertheless I don't think we are tapping into some objectively real "ambition continuum" to come up with our answer.

I do agree that part of the tempest concerns a conflation of "It's wrong to do X" and "It's wrong to question whether it's wrong to do X". I'm not sure whether there would be anybody who thoughtfully agreed with the latter but not the former. But there are certainly lots of people for whom it is a very short step from the former to the latter, perhaps without even noticing that they are taking that step -- and maybe your hypothetical argument shows why that tendency would be so common.

If evolution has given us a moral sense that taps into an objectively real truth, we have to ask why there is so much disagreement world-wide and history-wide about moral issues. If the explanation is that evolution isn't perfect, so that we get lots of false positives and negatives, then what is it that makes us think we are tapping into an objective truth at all? The moral sense comes with a special clarity and certainty, so that even when we are forced into a surprising moral answer (as in many of Haidt's what-ifs) we're still likely to say, "Well, I don't care, it's still wrong". In other words, our moral sense is telling us that our moral sense is right. Cui bono?

 
At 11:44 AM, April 21, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Patri writes:

"Your daughter is smart."

Rather like your sister.

"in which many different beliefs are highly correlated"

I don't know if you have ever interacted online with James Donald. His basic view, as best I understand it, is that morality involves disapproving of act A because people who will commit A are likely to also be willing to commit B, and people who commit B are dangerous to us. So a version of your point.

David (not Friedman) writes:

"we have to ask why there is so much disagreement world-wide and history-wide about moral issues"

There's a lot of disagreement about positive issues too--consider global warming, or whether more government involvement in the economy makes us better or worse off.

If we ask not about high level questions like those, or like statements of moral principles, but about something closer to a direct observation, the normative equivalent of "there is a book on the table," you get a lot less disagreement. I think for most fully described situations, you would get widespread agreement on whether doing something was good or bad.

You might want to look at C.S. Lewis' book _The Abolition of Man_, which makes an argument along those lines. He calls the set of moral attitudes common to all human societies the Tao.

 
At 5:34 PM, April 21, 2013, Anonymous David (not Friedman) said...

Thanks, David. I'll give _The Abolition of Man_ a look. I've read a little Lewis, but never had much patience; he always seemed to be assuming his conclusion.

I'd be interested in an example of the normative equivalent of "there is a book on the table". I think of slavery and rape as pretty basic questions. Perhaps my stumbling block is that if something is so basic that we really do all agree on it then maybe I wouldn't have considered it a normative proposition at all.

On the other hand, slavery and rape were more commonly accepted as righteous when the victim was from another tribe. If we evolved normative instincts they would most likely apply to those we see every day, and maybe treating those people fairly is the kind of proposition you mean.

Then the question is how to interpret the tendency over time to extend that fair-dealing to wider and wider circles. Perhaps we're literally learning more about the normative universe. Perhaps as the world becomes more interconnected it's a survival trait (passed either memetically or genetically) to so extend it. Perhaps our evolved moral sense is just misfiring in situations it wasn't evolved for -- it's still an open question to me whether extending that fair-dealing as widely as we do is a survival trait or not.

 

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