Sunday, January 13, 2008

2008, And You Still Can't Get An Ought From An Is

Since yesterday I'd been planning a post about girls, and boys, and The Power Rangers TV show, which I saw for the first time at the gym yesterday. I'd had no idea the show was for kids; I'd had no idea it was cute and a little hokey; and I'd had no idea two of the Rangers are girls. Wow!

The main thing I was going to write about was how funny it was that the girl Rangers have little skirts in addition to the standard, unisex, form-fitting outfits. I mean, the whole boy-pants, girl-skirt thing makes sense when there's a peeing issue, and the boys can just, you know, unzip, and the girls have to squat. Then maybe a girl wants a skirt.

But once you're both wearing tight-ass legging sort of things, what's the point? In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb, and say that, modesty-wise, once you're both wearing tight-ass legging sort of things, it's boys who need little skirts. I remember going to a ballet performance as a young child, and thinking, no, wait, that bulge is the outline of the man's penis that I can see under his tights? Shocking! Funny! Possibly obsene!

The boy Power-Rangers don't have any, uh, parts showing, of course. I checked it out. (But how do they manage that, exactly?) And I know, I realize, that the reason the girls have skirts is that it's cuter that way. Hey, if I were a Power Ranger, there is a 100 percent chance I'd have a little skirt, too. So I'm down with all that.

But instead of pursuing my theme further, with reflections on the movie Juno, which I just saw, and the irritating piece in today's Times that says that since birth and abortion are both major emotional traumas, sex for girls is basically doomed, I have to write instead about morality.

That's because Stephen Pinker had a thing in the Times, too, laying out the state of empirical findings about the psychology of morality, and drawing some conclusions.

The empirical findings were interesting, and fit with some things I already believed.

There are, he explained, several distinct moral themes that are roughly universal. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt's list includes: not harming others, being fair, being loyal to a community or group, respecting authority, and purity.

Then disagreement and cultural variation happen because some people care more about some of these things than about others, and some don't care much about some of them at all, and different people moralize different parts of life.

OK, interesting, and plausible. But you know, this is all just a description. Of some putative facts. What are we supposed to do with this information? Does it tell us anything about morality itself, or how to live?

The great 18th-century philosopher and historian David Hume is famous for his idea that "you can't get an ought from an is." That is, nothing about what to do follows from simple facts about what the world is like. You have to make some assumptions about what to value, what to care about, what to want, before facts tell you what to do. (Hume also said "Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the desctruction of the entire world to a scratch on my little finger," which I think is just a really stylish, cool, true thing to say).

The first time Pinker seems to maybe wander into the "ought" realm is when he compares conservatives to liberals in the US. Liberals, he says, put a "lopsided" moral weight on harm and fairness, and care less about the others. Conservatives place a moderate weight on all five things.

On this point I may be being oversensitive, but the idea of "lopsidedness" to me suggests that somehow those who value harm-prevention and fairness are missing something real. But, of course, the moral outlook he is describing is one on which people have come to believe that loyalty, respect for authority, and purity aren't so much simple goods in themselves as they are ways of living in a prosperous, fair society full of happy people.

They may be wrong about the means to happiness and fairness, but that doesn't make their view "lopsided"; it just makes it different.

But maybe "lopsided" wasn't meant to be a normative judgment. OK, fine. Things are more interesting when Pinker claims that the implications of these findings for moral theory are "profound."

Pinker is very impressed by two elements of morality that he thinks really are grounded in "reality." First, sometimes when agents cooperate, each does better. Life is a non-zero-sum game. Second, I can't treat myself as special in moral thinking, because whatever I ask you to do for me, you get to ask me to do for you, because otherwise you'll just shrug and walk away. (Unless I am Galactic Overlord, of course.)

One implication Pinker draws concerns moral "illusions," where you see what isn't there. Leon Kass, he says, was blinded in this way by his own sanctimony when he said that cloning was obviously wrong because it gives us a moral shudder. Pinker suggests thinking this way is confusing "morality" with "purity," and notes that lots of shudders were induced for bad reasons (as when people shuddered at seeing blacks drink from the "white" fountain).

I'm no fan of Leon Kass. But, as philosophers well know, if you take tit-for-tat as morally fundamental, and take unexplained moral feelings to be bunk, you end up with a very particular kind of moral culture: one on which you respect the strong because they can hurt you. In its most famous version, "contractarianism," such a moral theory leaves unexplained why one ought morally to care about the weak, the sick, the old, and the small.

A second implication Pinker draws has to do with global warming. No matter how much we moralize consumption, he says, we'll never get anywhere, because no matter how much we reduce our consumption, "two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness." So we're going to need things like nuclear power and maybe deliberate control of oceans and so on.

Hmm. This is the kind of case where I'd be apt to say we maybe should be getting our moral panties all in a twist. Not because the earth is, itself, valuable, but because other people are going to want to live on it, in the future, and don't we owe them something?

Well, not under the tit-for-tat thinking, anyway, since they can't do anything for us. They're not here yet.

Look, I'm with Pinker that extending the moral domain into new territories is sometimes a fruitless or dangerous enterprise. Sure. And he is onto something with his "practical" recommendations, that to reason with others, you should see your moral opponent as a certain kind of moral believer rather than a psychopath (unless, of course, you actually are dealing with a psychopath)

But no amount of empirical findings is going to help you figure out when moralizing is fruitless, when it's dangerous, and when it's laudable. Because no amount of empirical findings is going to determine for you what counts as valuable, and what is worth caring about. Only people who care about stuff can do that, and they can only do it by caring about things.

In both discussions, Pinker warns of the dangers of confusing "morality" with "purity." But I thought purity was on the moral list? It seems to me Pinker has his own ideas about which of the categories to care about most. It's OK, we all do. And I'm not big into "purity" either, believe me. But let's be honest: this is a belief with moral content, not one that just follows from the facts.

You still can't get an ought from an is.


Captain Colossal said...

So I held off on reading your post until I read the essay, so as not to go in with any preconceptions, and I got all pissy at the point where he was listing the things that we moralize about versus the things we don't, and they were all kind of limousine liberal stereotypes. Like we think it's morally bad to drive a gas guzzling Humvee, but not to drive a gas guzzling old Volvo. Where I don't know anyone who draws a moral difference between the two.

And then I totally agree with you -- knowing certain facts about brain chemistry and drawing certain evolutionary explanations out of them doesn't help us figure out what we want our morality to consist of.

Finally, I didn't think we needed that much science to learn to assume that our opponents have their own, separate, moral explanations for the world.

Noko Marie said...

Right, yeah, I know. I always think, you know, suppose it's revealed that brain chemistry leads us to form in-groups and out-groups and to kill or menace those not in our group. Obviously that wouldn't make it less immoral to do so.

As to the last point - I didn't either; isn't that what novels and stuff are for? But maybe it has become a new thing to think of anyone not like you as a psychopath? I don't know what is up with that.

Anonymous said...

I liked the riff on purity, because it explained why people have become so sanctimonious about other people's personal behavior (you are fat? ugh, you eat too much!! you are gross, and that entitles me to disapprove of you). What would be really neat, if it could be done, would be a giant book on purity alone, what it has meant in, say, western culture from the beginning. It is the confusing one, that I can't really see our cousins, the apes, cluttering their minds with.

Noko Marie said...

Hey Anonymous,
I totally agree that purity is the most interesting, contentious item on the list.

I was struck by the way it's treated in the article: silently moved from "moral norm" category to "source of illusions" category. I agree that it should be the latter and not the former, but if we believe the first part of the article, we can't just say, hey, obviously purity is an illusion. We need to show purity-lovers how a good life can be lived that involves no such norm.

So many actual cases of contemporary moral disagreement involve this norm, and invovle its application to sex; it was surprising to see neither of these receive much explicit focus in Pinker's piece.

Anonymous said...

yes. I have a Moslem friend, young man and fairly recently married, whom I congratulated. I then (foolishly) speculated that his wife might be delighted being in a country where she did not have to wear a hot, heavy black garment the whole time. He did me the favor of being honest with me, although tentative about it -- it turns out HE is happy enough, but his wife is dismayed and repulsed by all this flaunting of female flesh and feels that it degrades a woman's sexuality and makes the whole female body thing coarse and objectified and non-romantic: no longer a matter of part of intimate communication, but meat hanging up in a meat market. So, again, your point is well taken, and it would have been interesting to see the weirder aspects of this part of 'ought' parsed in more detail.