Saturday, December 13, 2008

What makes altruism good?

Alonzo Fyfe asks What Makes Altruism Good?, and concludes that the atheist is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, Alonzo is correct, "[T]he arguments for the existence of intrinsic values are substantially identical to arguments for the existence of God."

On the other hand, the only alternative is an "absurd" subjectivist account:
One option is that the atheist will defend some sort of strict subjectivism – the type that says, "I don't like rape; therefore, rape is wrong." At which point the theist will simply respond that, "This means you can make rape perfectly legitimate simply by acquiring a fondness for raping others. Slavery, genocide, the torturing of a young child are all legitimate if the agent doesn’t feel bad about enslaving others, slaughtering people, or torturing young children."

Alonzo correctly notes that attributing ethical beliefs to evolution just pushes the problem around.
Either altruism is good because it has an inherent, intrinsic quality of goodness built into it (or it produces something that has intrinsic goodness like evolutionary fitness), or it is good because we have evolved a disposition to be altruistic.
On the one hand, where does this mysterious intrinsic quality of goodness come from? On the other, had we evolved a disposition to rape, then rape would be good.

The theist is, however, on the horns of the exact same dilemma, as Socrates argued in Euthyphro. The theist just moves the problem around without solving it by attributing ethics to God just as the evolutionary biologist moves the (philosophical) problem around. The dilemma is fundamental; it does not differentiate between theism and atheism.

But the dilemma is not really a dilemma: The subjectivist horn is typically presented incorrectly. Alonzo makes the key fallacy explicit: "I don't like rape; therefore, rape is wrong." This is a non sequitur fallacy: the conclusion cannot follow from the premise. We cannot deductively conclude an objective property from a subjective property; we are adding something in the conclusion (objectivity) that is not present in the premise (subjectivity).

We could use the scientific method: We can hypothesize that rape really is wrong and therefore we don't like rape. But this simplistic scientific hypothesis is quickly falsified by the fact that some people (i.e. rapists) actually do like rape. We must come up with some hypothesis that explains the fact that most people don't like rape but some people do, and how to tell the difference between such people.

One obvious feature of objective physical truth is that the truth is true and knowable regardless of how people feel about it. Nobody likes childhood leukemia, but it is manifestly real. Everyone — at least everyone who has tripped and taken a bad fall — would prefer that gravity be variable and subject to our will, but it keeps pulling us towards the Earth regardless of our convenience. And yet we see nothing like that in our ethical beliefs: There seem to be no ethical beliefs — at least no secular ethical beliefs — that are strongly held contrary to the desires at some level of the majority of people.

Oddly enough, it is the bizarre, seemingly arbitrary religious ethical beliefs that give the strongest support for objective religious ethics. We must, for example, execute our disobedient children by stoning regardless of how disgusting and barbaric we believe such an action to be. But Socrates' argument still stands: this view doesn't make ethics objective, it just makes ethics a subjective property of God. The theist hasn't eliminated subjectivity, he's just concentrated the subjectivity in a single agent.

The way out of the dilemma is to say, "I don't like rape." Full stop. There's no "therefore". The theist's objection falls flat: "If I liked rape, I would like rape, duh. But it's a fact that I don't like rape." If we all liked eating pie, we would eat pie; most people do in fact like eating pie, and most people do in fact actually eat pie. No problem.

We can also observe that major changes in our legal and ethical beliefs are preceded by a change in subjective attitudes. We did not eliminate slavery until after people started to subjectively find slavery to be abhorrent. (And after the economic benefits of slavery became irrelevant.) We are now in a struggle to extend basic civil rights to gay people, and this struggle is driven by the fact that people's subjective attitudes towards gay people have changed: Those people fighting for gay civil rights are just those who no longer find homosexuality abhorrent.

Eliminating the "therefore" means that our socially constructed ethics, morality and law do not fundamentally reflect an understanding of how society "should" be; they are, rather, an expression of what people actually want (and an understanding of how we can best satisfy our desires constrained by physical reality and imperfect knowledge).

Furthermore, there's a feedback system: Our prior social constructions influence (in complex ways) what we presently want, and what we presently want influences (in complex ways) our future social constructions. these social constructions are therefore dialectical: Everything is "bouncing around", not just unfolding in a linear, easily predictable way. Rather we see conflicts (contradictions in Marxian terminology) between social constructions, actual desires and changes in our understanding of objective physical reality. These conflicts, and their resolution, drive changes in the social constructions of ethics, morality and law.

We no longer need ask that evolutionary psychology* give us a philosophical justification for our ethics, we need only ask this science to give us a causal explanation of why we actually have some of the desires we do in fact have. Likewise, we're equally freed from drawing philosophical conclusions from our causal history: If we evolved to have certain desires, those desires will have in the past influenced our present social constructions. But if our desires have changed, if they are in conflict with our present social constructions or our understanding of physical reality, the causal history is irrelevant to the dialectic. In just the same sense because we evolved to die relatively young does not now mean that our present desire for long life is somehow immoral.

The atheist's desire for an objective morality is nothing more than a holdover from our theistic days, the desire to disclaim personal responsibility for our actions.

The "horns" of the dilemma resolve into simple truth and falsity, between an scientific understanding of psychology and sociology on the one hand and mysticism and bullshit — theistic or atheistic — on the other. We humans are beings with desires. Rationality is shared; nothing else but our idiosyncratic desires define us as individuals. And we are all stuck in a room with each other: We have no choice but to engage in negotiation and propaganda to try to live together as best we can.


  1. This is wonderfully put. I liked this part especially:

    "We no longer need ask that evolutionary psychology* give us a philosophical justification for our ethics, we need only ask this science to give us a causal explanation of why we actually have some of the desires we do in fact have."

    (What happened to the footnote?) I really dislike how people tend to think evolution is a sufficient answer to "Why be moral?" My usual response has to do with evolved diets conflicting with junk food, but I like your response better, because it gets to the heart of the problem. We first need to argue that a philosophical justification is unnecessary and a causal explanation of ethics is sufficient. Which you did well.

  2. What happened to the footnote?

    I forgot to include it. It should read:

    *Although a lot of evolutionary psychology is pseudo-scientific bullshit, I think good science can be done in the field.

  3. Hmm. So relating this back to your earlier post on the co-extensivity of "wrong" and "illegal", it sounds like you are basically reaching the point where there is no such thing as "ethics" at all. There are just desires concerning human behavior, some of which we hold strongly enough to choose as a society to enforce through law.

    Am I understanding you correctly?

  4. [Y]ou are basically reaching the point where there is no such thing as "ethics" at all.

    Yes, at least to the extent that we construe "ethics" as some sort of objective (non-mind-related) property, as a matter of truth that it is meaningful to say that someone, or everyone -- can be correct or mistaken about.

    To the extent that we construe "ethics" as fundamentally subjective (mind-related) property, a matter of individual and social psychology, of course individual minds actually exist, and their states actually exist, so ethics exist in this sense.

    And I'm not really "reaching" this point here. It's a fundamental component of meta-ethical subjective relativism, a position I've been advocating for a couple of years.

  5. Let me be more precise: There is "no such thing" as ethics, to the extent that we construe "ethics" as some sort of objective property.

  6. So are you arguing against an objective reality in general or just that the study of ethics doesn't necessarily depend on objective truths?

  7. Villain: Certainly not the former. I would phrase the latter more precisely, but you have the right idea.

  8. This is precisely right. When someone -- theist, non-theist, Marxist, Borneo Monkey Devil Worshiper, whatever -- creates an "objective" ethic, it must, buy its very nature, be filled with caveats. We must not kill -- except when god, the state, or Dear Leader tells us too. We must not steal -- except as the spoils of conquest when God tells us to. We must not rape -- except when God tells us to. We must not harm children -- except when God tells us to.

    It's all hogwash. We can come up with all kinds of high-falutin' logical reasons for our ethics and morals, but they exist as after-the-fact justifications.

  9. We have to be careful, James, to differentiate between the complexity of our ethical systems and their ontological foundation.

    Modern physics, for example, is very complex, and we have made gazillions of "after-the-fact" modifications, if you count obsolete theories falsified by more sophisticated experiments.

    Complexity per se does not differentiate a fundamentally objective from a fundamentally subjective ontological account of ethics. The difference is rather in the structure of how we account for the phenomenology of our ethical intuitions.

  10. Great post. It seems so self-evident that I find it exasperating when any religious debate goes off into that sort of territory, as they tend to do regularly.

    The idea of that there is an objective morality that we have access to seems so divorced from how we actually behave, and have behaved through history, that it boggles my mind it's such a wildly held belief.

  11. ... it boggles my mind it's such a wildly held belief.

    It boggles my mind that objective morality is a widely held belief among atheist professional philosophers.

  12. May have to reread a couple times to get the full extent of what you're saying, but I love the point that theists don't have any advantage by adding a magic middle man.


Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.