Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Some objections to a proposed definition of morality

In my previous post I questioned whether atheists have any grounds to be talking about morality as if it were some objective reality that allowed actions to be classified as 'right' or 'wrong'. I will now try to address a response given in my friend Andrew's blog post (posted here), in which he aimed to provide an atheistic description of what 'right' and 'wrong' actually are. I will quote parts of his post as necessary.

(EDIT: I have made some changes to my original version of this post, having received some clarificatory remarks from Andrew in private correspondence.)

The piece starts:
Morality is a concept that emerges whenever self-aware, emotional beings interact. We say something is "wrong" if it causes, or could cause, undue suffering to an individual, and we develop, either biologically or intellectually, heuristics to judge actions on this basis.
So, here we have an attempt to define the word 'wrong' in terms that make sense within an naturalistic worldview. I'll quickly flag that I was not entirely sure what an 'individual' is in the definition but Andrew has clarified that he is referring to humans and animals.

There is a word that has been smuggled in here which I think needs to be removed for this to be a non-circular response to my objection and that is the word "undue". I originally assumed that it carries the same weight as "undeserved", or "unjust", but these concepts seem to also require a proper notion of morality (and possibly justice) as an objective reality. Andrew has clarified in personal correspondence that he actually means "except in an effort to reduce some other suffering by some other means."

So, I will re-write his definition to remove this potentially misleading word:
We say something is "wrong" if it causes, or could cause, suffering to a human or animal (except if it is done in an effort to reduce some other suffering by some other means.)
I'm happy with this as being a coherent concept within a naturalistic framework (for convenience let's assume that there are no issues with 'causing' that might be introduced if you thought the universe's physical laws meant that it was impossible to actually change the course of events) because the concept of suffering can plausibly be boiled down to some physiological or chemical reaction within the brain.

One serious issue with Andrew's blog post is that, as far as I can tell, it doesn't address the main issue, namely, upon what basis a naturalist could actually say that something is right or wrong. Does he believe he is simply providing a definition for the word 'wrong', or does he believe he is trying to describe some moral reality that categorises actions as right or wrong? Would he be happy with my saying "We will call an action 'wrong' if it causes a response of laughter, or the adopting of an Irish accent." Is the reason this definition is incorrect/inferior just that this is not what most people mean by the word 'wrong'? I wish to press the point that Andrew's definition is inadequate because I want him to refine his definition (or description) of morality and then I want to ask him: what makes him sure that that is a better definition, except that it agrees more closely with his moral intuitions now?

To that end, I have listed a few objections, hoping to elicit a more thorough description of morality. (Andrew did say in an email that his post was "by no means comprehensive", so this should not be taken as a complete rejection of his position but as a request for more detail.)

Objection 1. Killing is okay?

Killing under this definition is not wrong, provided that (a) there is no afterlife, and (b) nobody else will be caused to suffer as a result of killing. Let's say that upon arriving in Australia in the 1770, James Cook and his friends decided to obliterate all the Aboriginal people. If they do so by inviting individual tribes onto the boat and then killing them swiftly and painlessly with a gunshot to the back of the head (or anachronistically, perhaps he just dropped a series of nuclear bombs over the entire country), then what suffering is caused?

The people who die aren't suffering (assuming, with the atheists, that there is no afterlife, and they just cease to exist). The people waiting to die aren't suffering, for they don't know that they are about to die; in fact, perhaps they're looking forward to this tea party on the boat that they have been invited to. And there is no issue of the grieving loved ones, provided the killing is done efficiently enough that people are killed before they find out that their loved ones died.

So, does Andrew think it is wrong to wipe out an entire nation, even if nobody suffers in their dying? If not, why does he use genocide in the Old Testament as an example of biblically endorsed immorality?

Objection 2. Bad attitudes and thoughts are okay?

Another category in which I think this definition does not agree with our moral intuitions is in the area of what we are thinking. Is it wrong of me to be happy when I look at another person's joy? Presumably not. Is it wrong of me to be happy at seeing the misery of others? Most people would say so. If I heard that a tsunami had caused thousands of deaths and then started smiling and chuckling inwardly thinking "That's great, because there have been many dead ones and probably thousands more will die from starvation and secondary diseases." If I just keep these thoughts to myself (so as not to cause distress to other individuals), have I done something wrong? Well, I have not caused any suffering to anyone by being happy about it, so I guess not under the proposed definition.

What about if I not only feel good when other people are suffering but actively call to mind past suffering experiences to remind myself of how happy I am at others' misery? Is this action wrong, provided I am able to do it and still act in a suffering-avoiding way towards others?

Objection 3. How do we decide between competing individuals' suffering?

A realistic view of morality should include some guidelines to allow us to decide some situations in which both option A and option not-A bring about suffering. For instance, if my neighbours decide that they would really like to have a loud party from 3am every night and I decide that I'd actually like to be able to sleep, is it wrong of me to ask the police to stop their parties? I am causing them suffering (in the sense that they would derive greater happiness from having the party and I'm reducing that), but they were also causing me suffering. We need some way to adjudicate.

What about if I decide that, on reflection, the fact that my neighbours are even able to listen to music is mildly irritating and so my wife decides to send around thugs to tear their ears off violently and then surgically remove their ear drums? Has my wife acted immorally? She has caused suffering, but she has also reduced my suffering.

Or, allowing the scope of "individual" to include animals, is it wrong of me if I decide that I find this mosquito mildly irritating to squash it, even if I've read in an entomology journal that mosquitoes die slow and painful deaths after they've been squashed (just pretend, or substitute an animal that is like this, like a chicken that apparently can run around with its head off)? Is it wrong for a person in a third world country to kill a goat in order to feed their entire family for a week? Assume that they don't have the means to kill a goat in a swift and decisive manner, so the killing will cause great suffering to the goat.

Andrew has made some steps to discuss the issue where two parties are involved in his post, so I will use his example, in which he addresses the question of whether slavery was wrong even though the majority of people believed it was okay.
The slaves didn't believe in slavery, and blacks didn't believe in white supremacy, and these were the people doing the suffering, suffering that would have been prevented if people followed a morality that included a heuristic to avoid these behaviours.
But couldn't a similar argument be put forth to show that abolishing slavery was also wrong? It would go something like this: "The slave owners did believe in slavery, and white people did believe in white supremacy and now they are suffering by having all their slaves taken away from them (or being forced to pay them a wage, causing the owners to be deprived of other things they could have used that money for)." So, what is it that means that the slave owners' suffering is less important than the slaves' suffering? Or was it also wrong to abolish slavery?

Maybe I am being a little harsh to press this point here, because Andrew could change his definition to say that a 'morally right' action is one that minimises total suffering, where that is measured in some way. This still has issues, such as in a hypothetical town where the majority of people have (what I might describe as) perverse preferences, so that they feel massive agony whenever they see a particular 10 year old boy quietly walking around the town, minding his own business. In this country would it be right to say to this boy, "No you are not free to walk around the town; indeed, it is morally wrong for you to do so because you're causing all this suffering"? Would it even be right to just cut this boys' legs off? His painful suffering would be nothing compared to the agony that his running around is causing the town.

So we are in a bit of a quandary. The typical response to the above reasoning is to say that this boy has certain human rights, including the right to be able to walk around town without fearing for his safety. But what is a naturalistic basis for these rights; where are they coming from? Without an objective moral basis it's hard to say they're anything more than what the majority of people feel uncomfortable with the removal of. So, if I ask a naturalist what gives a child the right to walk around safely (even though the child is despised by the whole town, so his walking is causing great suffering), there seems to be no real answer. But I welcome Andrew's response on this point.

Objection 4. How does justice fit in?

Is there a role for punishment that isn't only preventative of future suffering? For instance, if a dictator kills half of a nation (in such a way that much suffering is caused, for the sake of fitting within Andrew's definition), what is a morally right response to this? Well, if all we are interested in is minimising future suffering, we could isolate this dictator and try to rehabilitate him to become less murderous. Perhaps we could make sure the rest of the world believed that the form of isolation was particularly unpleasant so it could serve as a disincentive to future dictators.

But would it be wrong for us to isolate him on a beautiful and exotic resort island with an unlimited supply of food and drink and anything else (apart from human company) he might desire? Part of the deal could be occasionally having him placed into a movie studio simulating Guantanamo Bay so it could give the impression of squalour and misery, so people feel better about the situation, and other dictators are discouraged? According to the definition proposed above, this would be fine.

Alternatively, pretend the dictator commits a pain-free suicide as soon as he is about to be punished. If it turns out that there is a God who decides whether to send people to heaven or hell based on their actions, would it be morally praiseworthy (or at least acceptable) for God to say "You will now enjoy all the bounties of heaven, because there would be no point in punishing you for your atrocities on earth"? I'd like to hope that most of my atheist friends would think the act of simply ignoring the dictator's atrocities would make God morally deplorable. (For what it's worth, I do not believe God is like this; I believe he is just in his judgements. This is included as an autobiographical note, and this post provides no attempt to justify this belief of mine.)

Objection 5. Can you say with any confidence that something is wrong?

This is more a pragmatic objection that I have to Andrew's definition, but I'm not sure how one could say with any confidence that a particular action is wrong (or right). Sure, it might look as though it causes suffering for the short or intermediate term, but perhaps it actually turns out to reduce suffering in the long run. I have so far ignored the possible variations of whether the right thing is (a) to try to minimise suffering, or (b) to actually minimise suffering.

If option (a) is the proposal, then this means that Andrew cannot think it is wrong for the Pope to work against condoms being introduced even though they would reduce AIDS incidence. Why? Because the Pope is trying to minimise the suffering of the African people, under his set of beliefs that a sexually promiscuous lifestyle will ultimately cause them more suffering (factoring in afterlife implications). I do not wish to defend a Catholic view on contraception, but just to point out that the Pope seems under option (a) to be doing the right thing, by trying to minimise suffering.

If option (b) is the proposal, then the Pope's actions still cannot be classified simply as wrong, unless Andrew knows the exact consequences that will follow from them. Perhaps (an atheist might reason), the banning of condoms and the subsequent AIDS explosion will lead people in the west to become aware of the plight of the rest of African people and pledge far more aid than they otherwise would have. Indeed, even if the Pope were performing his actions out of spite (perhaps because he simply wants the African people to get AIDS) then Andrew might end up having to classify his actions as right, since they ultimately resulted in less suffering.

In any case, it seems as though the pragmatic objection cannot just be brushed aside, because quite clearly atheists and theists alike want to be able to classify some actions clearly as right or wrong. If an atheist sets the test as something that is computationally intractable then that removes any warrant they have for being able to do the classification. Incidentally, I choose the Pope example not because I have any insights into it, just because I have seen Andrew's comments elsewhere to the effect that he does believe the Pope acted immorally.


There are so many more things I could write about this topic but I'll leave it with those five objections and save some other thoughts for other posts. I have barely addressed here a far more foundational question that might crop up elsewhere in the blog, namely, is this just a word game here? Does the word 'wrong' just mean "minimising suffering" (possibly with parts modified to respond to my objections), and if so does it provide any guidance as to what we are to do with our lives? Is there a correct, objectively accessible, notion of wrongness that brings with it some sort of obligation to behave in that way?

Having read some of this article on Moral Naturalism I am starting to suspect that the waters I'm currently sailing towards are too deep for my intellect and (lack of) philosophical background. But perhaps my objections above will at least help people who are inclined towards moral naturalism to think about what they are actually saying if they describe something as right or wrong.