The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality and What To Do About It

Joshua Greene has a PhD thesis called The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality and What To Do About It. What is this terrible truth? The essence of this truth is that many, many people (probably most people) believe that their particular moral (and axiological) views on the world are objectively true—for example that anyone who disagrees with the statement “black people have the same value as any other human beings” has committed either an error of logic or has got some empirical fact wrong, in the same way that people who claim that the earth was created 6000 years ago are objectively wrong.

To put it another way, Greene’s contention is that our entire way of talking about ethics—the very words that we use—force us into talking complete nonsense (often in a very angry way) about ethics. As a simple example, consider the use of the words in any standard ethical debate—“abortion is murder”, “animal suffering is just as bad as human suffering”—these terms seem to refer to objective facts; “abortion is murder” sounds rather like “water is a solvent!”. I urge readers of Less Wrong to put in the effort of reading a significant part of Greene’s long thesis starting at chapter 3: Moral Psychology and Projective Error, considering the massively important repercussions he claims his ideas could have:

In this essay I argue that ordinary moral thought and language is, while very natural, highly counterproductive and that as a result we would be wise to change the way we think and talk about moral matters. First, I argue on metaphysical grounds against moral realism, the view according to which there are first order moral truths. Second, I draw on principles of moral psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary theory to explain why moral realism appears to be true even though it is not. I then argue, based on the picture of moral psychology developed herein, that realist moral language and thought promotes misunderstanding and exacerbates conflict. I consider a number of standard views concerning the practical implications of moral anti-realism and reject them. I then sketch and defend a set of alternative revisionist proposals for improving moral discourse, chief among them the elimination of realist moral language, especially deontological language, and the promotion of an anti-realist utilitarian framework for discussing moral issues of public concern. I emphasize the importance of revising our moral practices, suggesting that our entrenched modes of moral thought may be responsible for our failure to solve a number of global social problems.

As an accessible entry point, I have decided to summarize what I consider to be Greene’s most important points in this post. I hope he doesn’t mind—I feel that spreading this message is sufficiently urgent to justify reproducing large chunks of his dissertation—Starting at page 142:

In the previous chapter we concluded, in spite of common sense, that moral realism is false. This raises an important question: How is it that so many people are mistaken about the nature of morality? To become comfortable with the fact that moral realism is false we need to understand how moral realism can be so wrong but feel so right. …

The central tenet of projectivism is that the moral properties we find (or think we find) in things in the world (e.g. moral wrongness) are mind-dependent in a way that other properties, those that we’ve called “value-neutral” (e.g. solubility in water), are not. Whether or not something is soluble in water has nothing to do with human psychology. But, say projectivists, whether or not something is wrong (or “wrong”) has everything to do with human psychology.…

Projectivists maintain that our encounters with the moral world are, at the very least, somewhat misleading. Projected properties tend to strike us as unprojected. They appear to be really “out there,” in a way that they, unlike typical value neutral properties, are not. …

The respective roles of intuition and reasoning are illuminated by considering people’s reactions to the following story:

“Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decided that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love?”

Haidt (2001, pg. 814) describes people’s responses to this story as follows: Most people who hear the above story immediately say that it was wrong for the siblings to make love, and they then set about searching for reasons. They point out the dangers of inbreeding, only to remember that Julie and Mark used two forms of birth control. They next try to argue that Julie and Mark could be hurt, even though the story makes it clear that no harm befell them. Eventually many people say something like

“I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”

This moral question is carefully designed to short-circuit the most common reason people give for judging an action to be wrong, namely harm to self or others, and in so doing it reveals something about moral psychology, at least as it operates in cases such at these. People’s moral judgments in response to the above story tend to be forceful, immediate, and produced by an unconscious process (intuition) rather than through the deliberate and effortful application of moral principles (reasoning). When asked to explain why they judged as they did, subjects typically gave reasons. Upon recognizing the flaws in those reasons, subjects typically stood by their judgments all the same, suggesting that the reasons they gave after the fact in support their judgments had little to do with the process that produced those judgments. Under ordinary circumstances reasoning comes into play after the judgment has already been reached in order to find rational support for the preordained judgment. When faced with a social demand for a verbal justification, one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth.

The Illusion of Rationalist Psychology (p. 197)

In Sections 3.2-3.4 I developed an explanation for why moral realism appears to be true, an explanation featuring the Humean notion of projectivism according to which we intuitively see various things in the world as possessing moral properties that they do not actually have. This explains why we tend to be realists, but it doesn’t explain, and to some extent is at odds with, the following curious fact. The social intuitionist model is counterintuitive. People tend to believe that moral judgments are produced by reasoning even though this is not the case. Why do people make this mistake? Consider, once again, the case of Mark and Julie, the siblings who decided to have sex. Many subjects, when asked to explain why Mark and Julie’s behavior is wrong, engaged in “moral dumbfounding,” bumbling efforts to supply reasons for their intuitive judgments. This need not have been so. It might have turned out that all the subjects said things like this right off the bat:

“Why do I say it’s wrong? Because it’s clearly just wrong. Isn’t that plain to see? It’s as if you’re putting a lemon in front of me and asking me why I say it’s yellow. What more is there to say?”

Perhaps some subjects did respond like this, but most did not. Instead, subjects typically felt the need to portray their responses as products of reasoning, even though they generally discovered (often with some embarrassment) that they could not easily supply adequate reasons for their judgments. On many occasions I’ve asked people to explain why they say that it’s okay to turn the trolley onto the other tracks but not okay to push someone in front of the trolley. Rarely do they begin by saying, “I don’t know why. I just have an intuition that tells me that it is.” Rather, they tend to start by spinning the sorts of theories that ethicists have devised, theories that are nevertheless notoriously difficult to defend. In my experience, it is only after a bit of moral dumbfounding that people are willing to confess that their judgments were made intuitively.

Why do people insist on giving reasons in support of judgments that were made with great confidence in the absence of reasons? I suspect it has something to do with the custom complexes in which we Westerners have been immersed since childhood. We live in a reason-giving culture. Western individuals are expected to choose their own way, and to do so for good reason. American children, for example, learn about the rational design of their public institutions; the all important “checks and balances” between the branches of government, the judicial system according to which accused individuals have a right to a trial during which they can, if they wish, plead their cases in a rational way, inevitably with the help of a legal expert whose job it is to make persuasive legal arguments, etc. Westerners learn about doctors who make diagnoses and scientists who, by means of experimentation, unlock nature’s secrets. Reasoning isn’t the only game in town, of course. The American Declaration of Independence famously declares “these truths to be self-evident,” but American children are nevertheless given numerous reasons for the decisions of their nation’s founding fathers, for example, the evils of absolute monarchy and the injustice of “taxation without representation.” When Western countries win wars they draft peace treaties explaining why they, and not their vanquished foes, were in the right and set up special courts to try their enemies in a way that makes it clear to all that they punish only with good reason. Those seeking public office make speeches explaining why they should be elected, sometimes as parts of organized debates. Some people are better at reasoning than others, but everyone knows that the best people are the ones who, when asked, can explain why they said what they said and did what they did.

With this in mind, we can imagine what might go on when a Westerner makes a typical moral judgment and is then asked to explain why he said what he said or how he arrived at that conclusion. The question is posed, and he responds intuitively. As suggested above, such intuitive responses tend to present themselves as perceptual. The subject is perhaps aware of his “gut reaction,” but he doesn’t take himself to have merely had a gut reaction. Rather, he takes himself to have detected a moral property out in the world, say, the inherent wrongness in Mark and Julie’s incestuous behavior or in shoving someone in front of a moving train. The subject is then asked to explain how he arrived at his judgment. He could say, “I don’t know. I answered intuitively,” and this answer would be the most accurate answer for nearly everyone. But this is not the answer he gives because he knows after a lifetime of living in Western culture that “I don’t know how I reached that conclusion. I just did. But I’m sure it’s right,” doesn’t sound like a very good answer. So, instead, he asks himself, “What would be a good reason for reaching this conclusion?” And then, drawing on his rich experience with reason-giving and -receiving, he says something that sounds plausible both as a causal explanation of and justification for his judgment: “It’s wrong because their children could turn out to have all kinds of diseases,” or, “Well, in the first case the other guy is, like, already involved, but in the case where you go ahead and push the guy he’s just there minding his own business.” People’s confidence that their judgments are objectively correct combined with the pressure to give a “good answer” leads people to produce these sorts of post-hoc explanations/​justifications. Such explanations need not be the results of deliberate attempts at deception. The individuals who offer them may themselves believe that the reasons they’ve given after the fact were really their reasons all along, what they “really had in mind” in giving those quick responses. …

My guess is that even among philosophers particular moral judgments are made first and reasoned out later. In my experience, philosophers are often well aware of the fact that their moral judgments are the results of intuition. As noted above, it’s commonplace among ethicists to think of their moral theories as attempts to organize pre-existing moral intuitions. The mistake philosophers tend to make is in accepting rationalism proper, the view that our moral intuitions (assumed to be roughly correct) must be ultimately justified by some sort of rational theory that we’ve yet to discover. For example, philosophers are as likely as anyone to think that there must be “some good reason” for why it’s okay to turn the trolley onto the other set of tracks but not okay to push the person in front of the trolley, where a “good reason,” or course, is a piece of moral theory with justificatory force and not a piece of psychological description concerning patterns in people’s emotional responses.

One might well ask: why does any of this indicate that moral propositions have no rational justification? The arguments presented here show fairly conclusively that our moral judgements are instinctive, subconscious, evolved features. Evolution gave them to us. But readers of Eliezer’s material on Overcoming Bias will be well aware of the character of evolved solutions: they’re guaranteed to be a mess. Why should evolution have happened to have given us exactly those moral instincts that give the same conclusions as would have been produced by (say) great moral principle X? (X = the golden rule, or X = hedonistic utilitarianism, or X = negative utilitarianism, etc).

Expecting evolved moral instincts to conform exactly to some simple unifying principle is like expecting the orbits of the planets to be in the same proportion as the first 9 prime numbers or something. That which is produced by a complex, messy, random process is unlikely to have some low complexity description.

Now I can imagine a “from first principles” argument producing an objective morality that has some simple description—I can imagine starting from only simple facts about agenthood and deriving Kant’s Golden Rule as the one objective moral truth. But I cannot seriosuly entertain the prospect of a “from first principles” argument producing the human moral mess. No way. It was this observation that finally convinced me to abandon my various attempts at objective ethics.