Monday, August 10, 2009

Moral Convictions, "Absolutes," and the Real World

I'm back from the RoME Congress in Boulder, and got some helpful feedback on my paper "Moral Conviction and Character."

Julia Driver (my commentator at RoME) presented a case meant to question whether I am right to say that we stand up for our convictions in a way that we don't stand up for "lesser" beliefs: Samantha has always strongly believed that it's wrong to cause pain just for fun, but lately she's been reading some work that challenges this claim (using fantastic scenarios where the utility of the causing of pain outweighs the pain caused), and as a result is no longer utterly convinced that it's (always) wrong to cause pain just for fun. Nevertheless, Samantha still thinks it's more likely that it is always wrong. So, she no longer believes with full conviction, but would still, given the odds (as she sees them), still stand up against causings of pain just for fun.

This example got me thinking about the relationship between our practical convictions and moral theory (or theories), particularly the use of fantastic (and "desert-island") cases to motivate particular sorts of theories.

Samantha's uncertainty here doesn't plausibly seem to be uncertainty about whether it's wrong to cause pain just for fun, roughly, in the real world. Rather, she's unsure of some more theoretical principle, like, "it's wrong to cause pain just for fun in all possible worlds (or in all logically possible scenarios)." But one could hold both (1) that it's wrong to cause pain just for fun in the real world and (2) that it's not always wrong to cause pain just for fun in all possible worlds, etc. That's exactly what some utilitarians say. (Hare, for example, said similar things about slavery.) Now there are people--call them absolutists--who find this combination of beliefs odd. (I myself have often found it odd.) However, utilitarians often use these fantastic cases not so much to figure out what we ought to do in the real world, but to deflect certain kinds of criticisms--e.g. to show how strange the world would have to be for certain seemingly unsavory actions to be morally obligatory (or ok). It's a theoretical point that in some possible world, some causings of pain just for fun would have the highest utility. But at the practical level of life in this world, that point is of diminishing interest.

So my suggestion at RoME was that Samantha could--for practical purposes--put these theoretical questions aside and thereby stand by her conviction with full force: in the real world, it's (always) wrong to cause pain just for fun. Now, if she is a utilitarian, then she needs some kind of empirical support for that claim--that is, she needs to show why it's contingently true that the actual world is such that causing pain just for fun could never have a higher utility. That, if anything, would have to be the source of any reasonable doubt on Samantha's part. (An aside: I'm a bit concerned here, however, whether we can tidily disentangle the empirical and the conceptual here...)

So, I think the take-home point is that if our moral convictions are primarily practical--that is, concerned with value and action in the actual world--then Samantha shouldn't become doubtful about her prior conviction in the face of a fantastic scenario. As Williams might say, if she does doubt it, then she has had "one thought too many."

This relates to another point that came out in the discussion of the paper: that with respect to some convictions (perhaps including the one above), "maintaining a reflective stance" on the conviction is not a reasonable requirement (which is something I've got to tidy up in the paper). Some moral claims are basic to moral thinking, and to reflect on them--that is, to reflect on whether they really are correct--would be a perversion of moral reflection.


  1. Why, in the face of the challenge to her conviction of the categorical wrongness of causing pain just for fun, couldn't her conviction simply be displaced onto the belief that the odds are, in general, too great for her (or one) to ever deliberately do so?

    Also, I wonder what sort of connection really exists between the circumstances in which convictions are stood up for and the relevant behavioral contexts in which such convictions are alleged to be operative. I'm skeptical that convictions have any direct bearing on the behavioral contexts in which we like to think they have an important explanatory role.

    Another way of putting it is that I'm skeptical that moral convictions are primarily practical. There seems to be a lot of empirical research that can account for a good deal of moral behavior without recourse to the direct influence of moral convictions. And in light of that evidence, I wonder if it isn't pretty harmless to have "one thought too many" -- until, at least, a plausible connection can be made between the addition of that thought and the relevant behavioral contexts.

  2. By the way, did you happen to attend Paul Katsafanas' presentation ("Passivity and Activity in Reflective Agency")? (He's doing some really good work on Nietzsche, and his paper at RoME tallies well with it.)

  3. Rob: The first thing is similar to the way Driver envisioned Samantha getting on with things. But what are the odds about here? That it's always wrong to do x? There might not be an issue here; those odds would have something to do with the odds that our world is such-and-such (which is what would make it a world where it's always wrong to do x). So maybe there's not a big issue here (but just an issue of taxonomy).

    Point taken about the connection btw conviction and action. It probably is harmless in Samantha's case to reflect, but I want moral reflection to have some practical import. The important distinction here is not so much between practical and theoretical as it is between helpful and unhelpful (or morally serious and morally perverse).

    (Sorry, I sort of doubt that's very clear.)

    No, I didn't catch the Katsafanas talk. There were a lot of talks!

  4. I think I was thinking about this more prosaically, in analogy with how torture has been discussed of late: it can work on occasion, but the likelihood it will be abused, wrongly applied, applied to innocent people, etc., and, all things considered, counterproductive, are so great that a prohibitive attitude towards it tantamount to a categorical conviction might be right.

    Another, more disturbing -- i.e. Nietzschean -- point about moral reflection I would add is that it might well be that it does less to actually suspend (for revision, endorsement, rejection, disavowal, condoning, etc.) the factors and motives it seems to be scrutinizing than to serve as a vehicle for their rationalization, which might then make them all the more immune from reform and unfettered as better explainers for what we do than what we consciously fancy, emboldened by "the autocratic posturings" (as Nietzsche puts it) of our conscious reflection. (Katsafanas' paper describes several ways in which reflection can be subverted by the material from which it supposes itself to be capable of distancing itself.)

  5. On torture: yep, good example. And that's the sort of consequentialist line to a prohibition of it. There's a really fascinating interview on Philosophy Bites with Raimond Gaita on torture where he critiques that way of thinking about it. You might be interested. Here it is.

    That's right about reflection; there is a danger that reflection can just become a game of, roughly, confirmation bias. In my paper, I mention Nietzsche's line that we have to see the "five hundred convictions" standing beneath one. We should be careful to assume we've reached bedrock too quickly. On the other hand, I've actually been thinking about "numbers" of convictions--in discussion at RoME, Driver mentioned Mother Theresa as having "lots" of convictions (which makes it hard to balance them all, as opposed to a person who simplifies his life by having one easy-to-satisfy conviction...). But at the time, I wondered whether this was right, specifically, about her moral convictions (so putting her theological views aside). I suggested that someone might think that she had one particularly demanding conviction which she lived up to exceptionally well, which is to love other people. (Maybe not very impressive to a Nietzschean, but still!) A telling bit of evidence here is the shape her life took (her service to others) despite the struggles she had with her faith (which came out when her diaries were released several years back now).

    I wish I'd gone to the Katsafanas paper now, given what you describe. I'll have to look it up. My impression of the hopes of a lot of the research in moral psychology (and in happiness/well-being) is that we can use this information to make better decisions (e.g. "fight back" against what we know are biases or "evolved responses" that might not be necessary or appropriate now).

    Take something like Haidt's "moral dumbfounding" case involving consensual incest. Haidt makes the case so that subjects' objections are rendered (it seems) inapplicable. Here, there might be two sides to your point about "rationalization." For Haidt hasn't necessarily proven that incest is ok in this case, but if we're going to hold to that as a moral position, then we need a different kind of "rationalization." What he's shown is that the typical rationalizations people give play "slave" to a strong emotional response. But the fact that undergraduates couldn't make a case for their "conviction" (or intuition) here surely isn't the end of the story. (Nor is this comment!)

  6. Funny, Gaita is the first thing that caught my attention when I visited your website (via Mike Austin's blog), as I had enjoyed his acute Philosophy Bites appearance not too long ago. (Philosopher's Zone is also a nice resource, recent editions of which touch on Haidt-related issues and my skepticism about the efficacy of moral reflection and convictions.)

    Mother Teresa is for me a difficult example -- for many of the reasons pointed out by Hitchens and other observers of the hospitals in Calcutta -- but the intuitive appeal of a life which exemplifies "purity of heart is to will one thing" is powerful (and perilous!), and surely not to be despised.

    My current take on the import of Haidt's work is that it's seriously undermining of the confidence we can honestly claim for the authority of our moral outlook and attitude. Like Nietzsche, I think it shows that human nature is morally underdetermined, that probably a lot of mutually incommensurable ethical outlooks are possible, and that aspiring to reduce the complexity of such possibilities is less an exercise in the pursuit of clarity than an imposition of our natural hankering for simplicity. So, I guess I'm something of a naturalistic relativist: the constraints of human nature seem much broader than moral theory can generally tolerate.

    For example, in the incest case, Haidt indeed can be seen as merely providing fresh material for moral reflection, but I think there's a further cumulative effect of being made aware of the pervasive occurrence of non-conscious emotion-explicable judgments that disorients, rather than fortifies, moral reflection (in a way I haven't yet figured out how to characterize -- except, of course, by resorting to Nietzsche).

  7. the constraints of human nature seem much broader than moral theory can generally tolerate.

    Wittgenstein is reported to have spoken of "different ways of doing it," and I don't disagree with the thought that many sorts of "moral absolutes" are implausible. It's probably significant that folks like Haidt are particularly interested in emotional responses connected to disgust. But there are other things that are just obviously wrong, if anything is. Judith Licthenberg has a nice paper called "Moral Certainty" where she suggests that we can get a handle on that idea by focusing on particular actions rather than casting about for general principles. The driver who sees a child in the street and mows the child over is surely disturbed, but that doesn't lessen our certainty that what this person does is terrible. Nevertheless, I'm sympathetic with what you say about theory.

    PS: The Licthenberg paper is available via JSTOR; if 1994 isn't too "old," that would be something I'd be interested in doing for one of the faculty article discussions. (The only Friday I'm not free is Nov. 6.)

  8. Oh, yes, I agree there are some rough universals of the sort you mention, but I think that's just naturalistically-explicable stuff with which a lot of normative variety is compatible. (Wittgenstein's metaphor of the rope constructed of overlapping threads no single one of which is continuous with its entire length somehow comes to mind.)

    I've added you to the discussion schedule (9/25). Let me know if the date and the quotation I plucked out are okay. Looking forward to it!