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Post-Brunch Intelligencer

Midmorning ramblings on the state of the species

A Case for Intuition

Posted by Nath at 6:07 AM
If human beings can reason objectively about mathematics and natural science, why can't we apply the same sort of logic to questions about ethics and morality? It's a question I've heard from time to time, most recently (though not in those words) in Sam Harris' The End of Faith.

It is strange that we treat something as important as morality as little more than aesthetic preference. Why can't moral scientists come up with hypotheses, experiments and so on, the way physicists do? Imagine how easy it would be to work together on the world's problems if we could only agree that (say) genocide is bad, the way we agree that F = ma.

The problem, of course, is that there is no obvious way to determine what really is objectively moral. This is not a problem for most theists, of course – they can just do whatever their deities say (and, when their gods contradict themselves, they can do whatever seems most convenient). Atheists, such as Harris, have to come up with their own criteria for morality. For instance, one might decide (more or less as Harris did) that any action that increases the net happiness of human beings is objectively moral.

This sort of approach brings its own problems. Why is human happiness moral? How do you measure happiness? Is everybody's happiness equally valuable? I'm not aware of any universal answer to these questions. It seems to me that moral objectivism is really the same thing as moral subjectivism, except that objectivists' subjective opinions are one level further removed from their moral beliefs.

I think that morality comes from within us. It is partly genetic – behaviour that made humans more likely to survive probably appeals to you as 'good'. It is partly environmental – the more resilient of your ancestors' beliefs are passed on to you by parents, teachers, sitcoms and Christmas specials. (A different sort of evolution is going on here – natural selection of beliefs instead of organisms.)

We may not be consciously aware of our moral beliefs; they are mostly instinctive. For instance, when you see someone committing murder, or eating marmite, you simply feel that something is wrong. This feeling sets in before you start trying to justify it. Consider the following (hypothetical) headline:


If you are not psychopathic, you probably found this headline at least slightly distressing. Is that because you believe that these actions (murder, marmite consumption) reduce the net human level of happiness? No; it is because DEAR GOD THAT GUY COMMITTED MURDER AND/OR ATE MARMITE AUGH.

When people try to formalize their ethical beliefs, perhaps they are simply trying to rationalize their existing intuitive beliefs about right and wrong. Perhaps making people happy feels right. If so, you might claim that increasing human happiness is the ultimate moral imperative. You might then make all your moral decisions based on this assumption.

What you've really done here, assuming you are a moral objectivist, is base your actions on a statement which in turn is based on your opinion. You differ from a subjectivist only in that a subjectivist skips the middle step; in other words, subjectivists base their actions directly on their moral opinions, rather than pausing to create a so-called objective justification.

Disclaimer: I'm not claiming that reason has no part to play in moral decision-making. Consider the following thought experiment, borrowed from Terminator 2. A scientist invents something that is used (against his intentions) to kill a large number of innocent people. You are given the opportunity to go back in time and kill the scientist (who has really done nothing wrong). Killing an innocent scientist would undoubtedly feel wrong – more wrong, perhaps, than leaving countless equally blameless people to die. However, most people would agree that in this specific case, the needs of the many...


Posted by Anonymous Kenneth at 07 June, 2007 08:31:
The problem, of course, is that there is no obvious way to determine what really is objectively moral. Speak for yourself! It is statements like this that make us so tolerant of the evil in the world today.

Ethics is not a mystic fantasy -- nor a social convention -- nor a dispensible, subjective luxury, to be switched or discarded in any emergency. Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival -- not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.

Posted by Blogger Nath at 08 June, 2007 06:59:

Speak for yourself! It is statements like this that make us so tolerant of the evil in the world today.

So there is an obvious way to determine objectively what is moral? What is it? How do you make meaningful, falsifiable statements about morality? How do you design experiments to independently verify these statements? The ability to do these things seems important if you want to treat morality like an objective science.

Posted by Anonymous Kenneth at 08 June, 2007 11:09:
One of the most eloquent symptoms of the moral bankruptcy of today's culture, is a certain fashionable attitude toward moral issues, best summarized as: "There are no blacks and whites; there are only grays."

This is asserted in regard to persons, actions, principles of conduct, and morality in general. "Black and white," in this context, means "good and evil." (The reverse order used in that catch phrase is interesting psychologically.)

In any respect one cares to examine, that notion is full of contradictions (foremost among them is the fallacy of "the stolen concept"). If there is no black and white, there can be no gray -- since gray is merely a mixture of the two.

Before anyone can identify anything as "gray," one has to know what is black and what is white. In the field of morality, this means that one must first identify what is good and what is evil. And when a man has ascertained that one alternative is good and the other is evil, he has no justification for choosing a mixture. There can be no justification for choosing any part of that which one knows to be evil.

If a moral code (such as altruism) is, in fact, impossible to practice, it is the code that must be condemned as "black," not its victims evaluated as "gray." If a moral code prescribes irreconcilable contradictions -- so that by choosing the good in one respect, a man becomes evil in another -- it is the code that must be rejected as "black." If a moral code is inapplicable to reality -- if it offers no guidance except a series of arbitrary, groundless, out-of-context injunctions and commandments, to be accepted on faith and practiced automatically, as blind dogma -- its practitioners cannot properly be classified as "white" or "black" or "gray": a moral code that forbids and paralyzes moral judgment is a contradiction in terms.

If, in a complex moral issue, a man struggles to determine what is right and fails or makes an honest error, he cannot be regarded as "gray"; morally, he is "white." Errors of knowledge are not breaches of morality; no proper moral code can demand infallibility or omniscience.

But if, in order to escape the responsibility of moral judgment, a man closes his eyes and mind, if he evades the facts of the issue and struggles not to know, he cannot be regarded as "gray"; morally, he is as "black" as they come.

Many forms of confusion, uncertainty and epistemological sloppiness help to obscure the contradictions and to disguise the actual meaning of the doctrine of moral grayness.

Some people believe that it is merely a restatement of such bromides as "Nobody is perfect in this world" -- i.e., everybody is a mixture of good and evil, and, therefore, morally "gray." Since the majority of those one meets are likely to fit that description, people accept it as some sort of natural fact, without further thought. They forget that morality deals only with issues open to man's choice (i.e., to his free will) -- and, therefore, that no statistical generalizations are valid in this matter.

If man is to be "gray" by nature, no moral concepts are applicable to him, including "grayness," and no such thing as morality is possible. But if man has free will, then the fact that ten (or ten million) men made the wrong choice, does not necessitate that the eleventh one will make it; it necessitates nothing -- and proves nothing -- in regard to any given individual.

There are, of course, complex issues in which both sides are right in some respects and wrong in others -- and it is here that the "package deal" of pronouncing both sides "gray" is least permissible. It is in such issues that the most rigorous precision of moral judgment is required to identify and evaluate the various aspects involved -- which can be done only by unscrambling the mixed elements of "black" and "white."

The basic error in all these various confusions is the same: it consists of forgetting that morality deals only with issues open to man's choice -- which means: forgetting the difference betwen "unable" and "unwilling." This permits people to translate the catch phrase "There are no blacks and whites" into: "Men are unable to be wholly good or wholly evil" -- which they accept in foggy resignation, without questioning the metaphysical contradictions it entails.

But not many people would accept it, if that catch phrase were translated into the actual meaning it is intended to smuggle into their minds: "Men are unwilling to be wholly good or wholly evil."

The first thing one would say to any advocate of such a proposition, is: "Speak for yourself!" And that, in effect, is what he is actually doing; consciously or subconsciously, intentionally or inadvertently, when a man declares: "There are no blacks and whites," he is making a psychological confession, and what he means is: "I am unwillling to be wholly good -- and please don't regard me as wholly evil!"

Just as in epistemology, the cult of uncertainty is a revolt against reason -- so, in ethics, the cult of moral grayness is a revolt against moral values. Both are a revolt against the absolutism of reality.

Observe, in politics, that the term extremism has become a synonym of "evil," regardless of the content of the issue (the evil is not what you are extreme about, but that you are "extreme" -- i.e., consistent). Observe the phenomenon of the so-called neutralists in the United Nations: the "neutralists" are worse than merely neutral in the conflict between the United States and the Middle East; they are committed, on principle, to see no difference between the two sides, never to consider the merits of an issue, and always to seek a compromise, any compromise in any conflict ... .

Like a mixed economy, men of mixed premises may be called "gray"; but, in both cases, the mixture does not remain "gray" for long. "Gray," in this context, is merely a prelude to "black." There may be "gray" men, but there can be no "gray" moral principles. Morality is a code of black and white. When and if men attempt a compromise, it is obvious which side will necessarily lose and which will necessarily profit.

Such are the reasons why -- when one is asked: "Surely you don't think in terms of black-and-white, do you?" -- the proper answer (in essence, if not in form) should be: "You're damn right I do!"

Posted by Blogger Nath at 08 June, 2007 15:32:
That's an interesting essay, Ayn Rand -- I mean Kenneth -- thanks for posting it. But it isn't really relevant to what I've written. I have made no assertions about whether people are black or white or gray. I am saying, essentially, this:

"In the field of morality, this means that one must first identify what is good and what is evil." -- this can be hard to do, because morality doesn't lend itself well to the scientific method the way, say, physics does.

Posted by Blogger Revealed at 30 October, 2007 01:04:
Well, that was neither here nor their. I agree with you about atheists having a serious responsibility towards ethics. It should definitely be made more specific. I think, though that it will always be subjective. I go by the moral standpoint that you do what you can to never wilfully hurt another human being. I feel that this much I can live with. Is it subjective? Hell, yeah. But is it practical? I think so.

Posted by Blogger Nath at 31 October, 2007 04:56:
I wasn't arguing against subjective morality. On the contrary; I think that it's the only kind of morality there really is.

I go by the moral standpoint that you do what you can to never wilfully hurt another human being. I feel that this much I can live with. Is it subjective? Hell, yeah. But is it practical? I think so.

It's a reasonable starting point, but there are certain situations when that definition won't do. I would be willing to hurt another human being in self defence, for instance. I'm guessing that you would, too, even though it conflicts with your definition of morality. (You could argue that defending yourself only when you really have to counts as 'doing what you can', but you get the idea. It's a grey area, and I can come up with several greyer examples, if you want.)

So what is a reasonable definition? I don't know, and I don't see the point of having one. Most of the time, you'll decide what's moral on the fly, and update your definition to match your intuitive views. Or, at least, that's what I find myself doing.

(There was recently a longish discussion on this subject on the XKCD forums.)

Posted by Blogger Revealed at 12 November, 2007 18:30:
Wow. That was a pointless discussion for the most part (over at XKCD - was it just me or did it seem puerile?).

It is a starting point, yes and most of us do build up from that based on instinct, the situation, emotions, etc. But then that's what a moral system is for, right? It's only to provide a framework. Not tell you exactly what to do in every situation (it's not a scientific protocol). Once you decide on a starting point, the rest is as easy as having a Bible or a Gita to rely on. Far's I can see.

Posted by Blogger Nath at 13 November, 2007 01:49:
Wow. That was a pointless discussion for the most part (over at XKCD - was it just me or did it seem puerile?).

Yep. But it's a debate on the Internet; it's supposed to be pointless.
(Though that XKCD thread was pure gold compared to this.)

And I suppose a moral framework could be useful, but it still seems kind of circular.

Posted by Blogger Revealed at 13 November, 2007 22:27:
Hahahahaha. You've gotta be kidding me. Mathematicians! Sheesh!

Probably is circular. Morality comes full circle? :)

Posted by Anonymous Olive at 12 November, 2008 04:43:
Great work.


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