The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright has a thought-provoking review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene used scans of people’s brains to examine their responses to the famous (famous by the standards of professional philosophy, anyway) “trolley problem” thought-experiment. In the thought-experiment, people are asked whether they would divert a runaway trolley about to hit five people onto a track where it would hit just one person. Most people think this would be the right thing to do. But when the conditions of the experiment are changed, people tend to respond differently. For instance, many people say they wouldn’t be willing to push someone onto the track to prevent the trolley from hitting the other five, even though the utilitarian moral calculus (one life for five) is the same.
Greene found that MRIs showed that people who said would be OK to push the one man onto the track were using the portions of their brains associated with logical thought, while those who said it wouldn’t were responding more emotionally. He concludes that emotional bias–inherited from our evolutionary past–clouds our judgment. Because our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, we’re good at group solidarity, but bad at inter-group harmony. Pushing someone to their death is the kind of thing you could be blamed and swiftly punished for in a small group, so the idea of doing that lights up some deep-seated moral aversions. Green concludes that humanity needs a global moral philosophy that filters out these atavistic types of responses can “resolve disagreements among competing moral tribes.” And the best candidate for this is a form of utilitarianism.
Here’s Wright summarizing Greene:
One question you confront if you’re arguing for a single planetary moral philosophy: Which moral philosophy should we use? Greene humbly nominates his own. Actually, that’s a cheap shot. It’s true that Greene is a utilitarian—believing (to oversimplify a bit) that what’s moral is what maximizes overall human happiness. And it’s true that utilitarianism is his candidate for the global metamorality. But he didn’t make the choice impulsively, and there’s a pretty good case for it.
For starters, there are those trolley-problem brain scans. Recall that the people who opted for the utilitarian solution were less under the sway of the emotional parts of their brain than the people who resisted it. And isn’t emotion something we generally try to avoid when conflicting groups are hammering out an understanding they can live with?
The reason isn’t just that emotions can flare out of control. If groups are going to talk out their differences, they have to be able to, well, talk about them. And if the foundation of a moral intuition is just a feeling, there’s not much to talk about. This point was driven home by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an influential 2001 paper called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail” (which approvingly cited Greene’s then-new trolley-problem research). In arguing that our moral beliefs are grounded in feeling more than reason, Haidt documented “moral dumbfounding”—the difficulty people may have in explaining why exactly they believe that, say, homosexuality is wrong.
If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.
Whenever I see someone arguing that “science” can tell us which moral framework to adopt, it sets my Spidey-sense tingling. Simply saying we should all be utilitarians dodges a bunch of important and contested philosophical questions, like
–What is “happiness” (or “utility”)? Is it just the net balance of pleasure over pain (as the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, thought)? Or does it include “higher,” more complex elements (as Bentham’s protégé and critic John Stuart Mill thought)?
–Assuming we can define happiness, can we quantify it in such a way that allows us to determine which course of action in a given case will yield the most of it?
–Even if we can define and quantify happiness/utility, might there not be other things that are good and whose promotion should enter into our moral calculus? What about beauty? Truth? Should those always be subordinated to happiness when they conflict?
–Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. But can we know what the likely consequences of our actions are ahead of time? Can we even specify what counts as a consequence of a particular action with any precision?
Wright says that Greene studied philosophy, so presumably he knows this. And it’s not that utilitarians don’t have responses to these questions. But they don’t all agree among themselves on what the answers are. And these are properly philosophical questions, not questions that the natural sciences (including neuroscience) can answer in any straightforward way.
To Wright’s credit, he is skeptical of Greene’s advocacy of utilitarianism as a kind of “moral Esperanto.” And he notes that some of the most intractable conflicts in our world aren’t necessarily conflicts over ultimate values, but over facts. For instance, most Americans are, at best, dimly aware of our history of meddling in the internal politics of Iran, so they attribute Iranian mistrust of the U.S. to irrational animus or religious fanaticism. The problem is that we are all afflicted with a self-bias that inclines us to filter out facts that our inconvenient to our cause and which makes it difficult for us to view a situation from the perspective of our opponent. Christians would call this a manifestation of Original Sin.
UPDATE: At Siris, Brandon offers some thoughts on the Atlantic article and utilitarianism in general.
In an article that otherwise makes some good points about conservatives’ “populist” defense of junk food, Rod Dreher just can’t resist taking a swipe at a time-honored liberal strawman:
For conservatives, it may be revealing to compare the defensiveness with which many of us discuss what we do in the dining room to the defensiveness liberals approach discussion of what they do in the bedroom. Liberals, to overgeneralize, believe that what consenting adults do in bed with their bodies is immune from moral judgment. Social conservatives recognize the falsity of this view, understanding that immoderation in sexual matters corrupts individual character and can have deleterious social consequences.
I can see why this neat bit of parallelism may have been too tempting to leave on the editing-room floor, but it just doesn’t wash. A more accurate approximation to the “liberal” view would be that what consenting adults do in the bedroom is not a fit matter for state regulation. But liberals are hardly barred from making moral judgments about sexual relations. This is because consent is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for morally appropriate sexual acts. A liberal can easily say, for instance, that a relationship of equality and mutuality is morally superior to one based on humiliation and degradation, even if all the parties involved consent to their treatment.
Dreher here makes the common conservative mistake of assuming that because liberals object to some longstanding moral prohibitions (on, say, homosexual relationships) that they must object to all moral judgment in matters of sex. This only follows if you treat sexual ethics as a seamless whole that can’t be altered without the whole thing unraveling. But liberals typically take a different approach: they look for the deeper, underlying principles that justify a particular sexual ethic and try to prune off the bits that seem inconsistent with those principles, understood in light of changing social contexts and new knowledge. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant made some particular judgments about sex that nearly all of us (conservative and liberal) would now reject, but we can still use the principles of human flourishing or respect for persons to articulate a consistent sexual ethic.
Contrary to what you may have heard, I don’t intend this to be an all-vegetarianism, all-the-time blog, but this objection came up in comments to the previous post, and it seemed like it was worth addressing separately. The objection here is that a vegetarian diet also results in animal deaths, since animals such as voles, field mice, and certain birds will be killed in the process of clearing land to grow crops and during harvesting.
I’ve seen this argument canvassed more widely in recent years, and its popularity seems to stem in part from a 2003 paper by Steven Davis in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. Davis argued that, because of the animals killed unintentionally in raising crops, a diet consisting of plants and pasture-raised beef actually would actually result in fewer total animal deaths than a strictly vegetarian diet. Note that Davis is not defending the status quo–his “least harm” diet would actually require a radically different food system (chicken, pork, eggs, and dairy are out, as is conventionally raised beef).
Moreover, Davis’s article was criticzed by, among others, Gaverick Matheny, who pointed out some critical flaws in Davis’s calculations, including that he assumed that the same amount of land would be required to support a plant-based diet as one that included beef. Since less land is required to produce the same number of calories from plants than meat, the relevant comparison should be animals killed per capita. Matheny also pointed out that Davis only considered animal deaths and ignored the question of animals’ suffering during their lives, which is surely a relevant part of the moral calculus.
While this is an interesting debate, I’m not sure it’s a terribly relevant one. As I’ve pointed out before, the debate between proponents of all-vegetarian (or vegan) diets and proponents of free-range, “humane” meat-eating is a rarefied one. The overwhelmning majority of meat produced and consumed in the U.S. results in far more death and suffering for animals than either. That’s why I think “progressive disengagement” from the factory farming system is a worthy goal, but am not particularly interested in picking fights with people who choose to eat meat raised in more humane or sustainable fashions.
–A challenge to libertarians on the coecivene power of private entities.
–A.O. Scott on superhero movies as a Ponzi scheme.
–Richard Beck of Experimental Theology on why he blogs.
–A political typology quiz from the Pew Research Center. (I scored as a “solid libera.l” Although I’d take issue with the way some of the choices were presented.)
–An end to “bad guys.”
–Def Leppard’s Hysteria and the changing meaning of having a “number 1″ album.
–The folks at the Moral Mindfield have been blogging on the ethical implications of killing bin Laden, from a variety of perspectives.
–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Abraham Lincoln and slavery.
–Marvin had a good post earlier this week on the death of bin Laden and Christian pacifism.
–Christopher has a post on problems with the language of “inclusion” and “exclusion” in the church.
–I don’t always agree with Glenn Greenwald, but I’m glad he’s out there asking the questions he asks. He’s been blogging up a storm this week on the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death.
–Brandon has a concise summary of the history behind Cinco de Mayo.
ADDED LATER: How do you feed 10 billion people? By eating less meat for starters.
From Grist, a run-down of the various schemes to label meat and other animal products as “humane” or its equivalent. Some key points:
- There are no legally enforced definitions of “humane” (the same holds for “all-natural,” “sustainable,” “cage-free,” etc.); only products labeled “organic” are legally required to meet certain standards.
- There are both industry-produced and independent schemes for determining if producers meet certain standards. Industry-led programs typically have no third-party audits to ensure compliance.
- Even the independent third-party standards (e.g., Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane) vary widely in the specific requirements they make. For instance, in the case of laying hens, whether access to outdoor space is required or debeaking is prohibited.
At times, I wonder if all this futzing around with labeling schemes is merely tinkering with the machinery of death (to borrow a phrase from Supreme Court justice Harry A. Blackmun) and whether the only sensible policy is strict vegetarianism. On the other hand, I’m as guilty as anyone: I buy “cage-free” eggs and feel better about myself, even though I really have no idea how the birds are treated. Either way, there are good reasons to be concerned with what the article calls “humane-washing” and, if we’re concerned about animal well-being, to make sure that these kinds of labeling programs have teeth.