Unspeakable Morality

It is a gen­eral and pri­mary prin­ci­ple of ra­tio­nal­ity, that we should not be­lieve that which there is in­suffi­cient rea­son to be­lieve; like­wise, a prin­ci­ple of so­cial moral­ity that we should not en­force upon our fel­lows a law which there is in­suffi­cient jus­tifi­ca­tion to en­force.

Nonethe­less, I’ve always felt a bit ner­vous about de­mand­ing that peo­ple be able to ex­plain things in words, be­cause, while I hap­pen to be pretty good at that, most peo­ple aren’t.

“I re­mem­ber this pa­per I wrote on ex­is­ten­tial­ism. My teacher gave it back with an F. She’d un­der­lined true and truth wher­ever it ap­peared in the es­say, prob­a­bly about twenty times, with a ques­tion mark beside each. She wanted to know what I meant by truth.” —Danielle Egan (jour­nal­ist)

This ex­pe­rience per­ma­nently trau­ma­tized Ms. Egan, by the way. Be­cause years later, at a WTA con­fer­ence, one of the speak­ers said that some­thing was true, and Ms. Egan said “What do you mean, ‘true’?”, and the speaker gave some in­cor­rect an­swer or other; and af­ter­ward I quickly walked over to Ms. Egan and ex­plained the cor­re­spon­dence the­ory of truth: “The sen­tence ‘snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white”; if you’re us­ing a bucket of peb­bles to count sheep then an empty bucket is true if and only if the pas­tures are empty. I don’t know if this cured her; I sus­pect that it didn’t. But up un­til that point, at any rate, it seems Ms. Egan had been so trau­ma­tized by this child­hood ex­pe­rience that she be­lieved there was no such thing as truth—that be­cause her teacher had de­manded a defi­ni­tion in words, and she hadn’t been able to give a good defi­ni­tion in words, that no good defi­ni­tion ex­isted.

Of which I usu­ally say: “There was a time when no one could define grav­ity in exquisitely rigor­ous de­tail, but if you walked off a cliff, you would fall.”

On the other hand—it is a gen­eral and pri­mary prin­ci­ple of ra­tio­nal­ity that when you have no jus­tifi­ca­tion, it is very im­por­tant that there be some way of say­ing “Oops”, los­ing hope, and just giv­ing up already. (I re­ally should post, at some point, on how the abil­ity to just give up already is one of the pri­mary dis­t­in­guish­ing abil­ities of a ra­tio­nal­ist.) So, re­ally, if you find your­self to­tally un­able to jus­tify some­thing in words, one pos­si­bil­ity is that there is no jus­tifi­ca­tion. To ig­nore this and just ca­su­ally stroll along, would not be a good thing.

And with moral ques­tions, this prob­lem is dou­bled and squared. For any given per­son, the mean­ing of “right” is a huge com­pli­cated func­tion, not ex­plic­itly be­lieved so much as im­plic­itly em­bod­ied. And if we keep ask­ing “Why?”, at some point we end up re­ply­ing “Be­cause that is just what the term ‘right’, means; there is no pure essence of right­ness that you can ab­stract away from the spe­cific con­tent of your val­ues.”

But if you were al­lowed to an­swer this in re­sponse to any de­mand for jus­tifi­ca­tion, and have the other bow and walk away—well, you would no longer be com­put­ing what we know as moral­ity, where ‘right’ does mean some things and not oth­ers.

Not to men­tion that in ques­tions of pub­lic policy, it ought to re­quire some over­lap in val­ues to make a law. I do think that hu­man val­ues of­ten over­lap enough that differ­ent peo­ple can le­gi­t­i­mately use the same word ‘right’ to re­fer to that-which-they-com­pute. But if some­one wants a le­gal ban on pep­per­oni pizza be­cause it’s in­her­ently wrong, then I may feel im­pel­led to ask, “Why do you think this is part of the over­lap in our val­ues?”

De­mands for moral jus­tifi­ca­tion have their Charyb­dis and their Scylla:

The tra­di­tion­ally given Charyb­dis is let­ting some­one say that in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage should be legally banned be­cause it “feels icky” to them. We could call this “the un­wis­dom of re­pug­nance”—if you can just say “That feels re­pug­nant” and win a case for pub­lic in­ter­ven­tion, then you lose all the cases of what we now re­gard as tremen­dous moral progress, which made some­one feel vaguely icky at the time; women’s suffrage, di­vorces, athe­ists not be­ing burned at the stake. Mo­ral progress—which I cur­rently see as an iter­a­tive pro­cess of learn­ing new facts, pro­cess­ing new ar­gu­ments, and be­com­ing more the sort of per­son you wished you were—de­mands that peo­ple go on think­ing about moral­ity, for which pur­pose it is very use­ful to have peo­ple go on ar­gu­ing about moral­ity. If say­ing the word “in­tu­ition” is a moral trump card, then peo­ple, who, by their na­tures, are lazy, will just say “in­tu­ition!” all the time, be­liev­ing that no one is al­lowed to ques­tion that or ar­gue with it; and that will be the end of their moral think­ing.

And the Scylla, I think, was ex­cel­lently pre­sented by Silas Barta when… ac­tu­ally this whole com­ment is just worth quot­ing di­rectly:

Let’s say we’re in an al­ter­nate world with strong, cod­ified rules about so­cial sta­tus and au­thor­ity, but weak, vague, un­spo­ken norms against harm that nev­er­the­less keep harm at a low level.

Then let’s say you pre­sent the peo­ple of this world with this “dilemma” to make Greene’s point:

Say your coun­try is at war with an­other coun­try that is par­tic­u­larly ag­gres­sive and will­ing to to­tally de­mol­ish your so­cial or­der and en­slave your coun­try­men. In plan­ning how to best fight off this threat, your Pres­i­dent is un­der a lot of stress. To help him re­lieve his stress, he or­ders a cit­i­zen, Bob, to be brought be­fore him and tor­tured and mur­dered, while the Pres­i­dent laughs his head off at the vi­o­lence.

He feels much more re­lieved and so is able to craft and mo­ti­vate a war plan that leads to the un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der of the en­emy. The Pres­i­dent promises that this was just a one-time thing he had to do to han­dle the tremen­dous pres­sure he was un­der to win the war and pro­tect his peo­ple. Bob’s fam­ily, in turn, says that they are hon­ored by the sac­ri­fice Bob has made for his coun­try. Every­one agrees that the Pres­i­dent is the le­gi­t­i­mate ruler of the coun­try and the Con­sti­tu­tion and tra­di­tion give him au­thor­ity to do what he did to Bob.

Was it okay for the Pres­i­dent to tor­ture and kill Bob for his per­sonal en­joy­ment?

Then, be­cause of the defi­ciency in the vo­cab­u­lary of “harms”, you would get re­sponses like:

“Look, I can’t ex­plain why, but ob­vi­ously, it’s wrong to tor­ture and kill some­one for en­joy­ment. No dis­re­spect to the Pres­i­dent, of course.”

“What? I don’t get it. Why would the Pres­i­dent or­der a cit­i­zen kil­led? There would be out­rage. He’d feel so much guilt that it wouldn’t even re­lieve the stress you claim it does.”

“Yeah, I agree the Pres­i­dent has au­thor­ity to do that, but God, it just burns me up to think about some­one get­ting tor­tured like that for some­one else’s en­joy­ment, even if it is our great Pres­i­dent.”

Would you draw the same con­clu­sion Greene does about these re­sponses?

Un­for­tu­nately, it does hap­pen to be a fact that most peo­ple are not good at ex­plain­ing them­selves in words, un­less they’ve already heard the ex­pla­na­tion from some­one else. Even if you challenge a pro­fes­sional philoso­pher who holds a po­si­tion, to jus­tify it, and they can’t… well, frankly, you can’t con­clude much even from that, in terms of in­fer­ring that no good ex­pla­na­tion ex­ists. Philoso­phers, I’ve ob­served, are not much good at this sort of job ei­ther. It’s Bayesian ev­i­dence, by the law of con­ser­va­tion of ev­i­dence; if a good ex­pla­na­tion would be a sign that jus­tifi­ca­tion ex­ists, then the ab­sence of such ex­pla­na­tion must be ev­i­dence that jus­tifi­ca­tion does not ex­ist. It’s just not very strong ev­i­dence, be­cause we don’t strongly an­ti­ci­pate that even pro­fes­sional philoso­phers will be able to put a jus­tifi­ca­tion into words, cor­rectly and con­vinc­ingly, when jus­tifi­ca­tion does in fact ex­ist.

Even con­di­tion­ing on the propo­si­tion that there is over­lap in what you and oth­ers mean by ‘right’ - the huge func­tion that is what-we-try-to-do—and that the judg­ment in ques­tion is sta­ble when taken to the limits of knowl­edge, thought, and re­flec­tive co­her­ence—well, it’s still not sure that you’d be able to put it into words. You might be able to. But you might not.

And we also have to al­low a cer­tain prob­a­bil­ity of con­vinc­ing-sound­ing com­pli­cated ver­bal jus­tifi­ca­tion, in cases where no jus­tifi­ca­tion ex­ists. But then if you use that as an ex­cuse to flush all dis­liked ar­gu­ments down the toi­let, you shall be left rot­ting for­ever in a pit of con­ve­nient skep­ti­cism, say­ing, “All that in­tel­lek­shual stuff could be wrong, af­ter all.”

So here are my pro­posed rules of con­duct for ar­gu­ing moral­ity in words:

  • “In­tu­ition” is not a trump card. If you had to spell out what your in­tu­ition was, and where it came from (evolu­tion? cul­ture?), and whether it has con­se­quences be­yond it­self, it’s pos­si­ble that we would find it un­con­vinc­ing in the stark light of re­flec­tion; that we would wish to in­tuit some other in­tu­ition than this. We can’t hold up the in­tu­ition for re­flec­tive judg­ment un­less we know what it is. So spel­ling it out, is im­por­tant; and if you can win ar­gu­ments by say­ing “In­tu­ition!” then no one will bother to spell things out any more. Please try to say what sort of in­tu­ition it is.

  • “I can’t put it into words” is be­liev­able to some ex­tent, but con­sti­tutes weak ev­i­dence against the ex­is­tence of valid jus­tifi­ca­tion. If this is a pop­u­lar de­bate and no one on your side, poli­ti­cian or philoso­pher or in­ter­ested sci­en­tist or elo­quent blog­ger, is able to give a con­vinc­ing jus­tifi­ca­tion in words, then that is stronger ev­i­dence that no good jus­tifi­ca­tion ex­ists. The longer the failure con­tinues, the stronger the ev­i­dence.

  • Still, at the end of the day, we don’t re­ally ex­pect peo­ple to be very good at ver­bal­iz­ing moral in­tu­itions, es­pe­cially since most of them have in­co­her­ent ex­plicit metaethics. So if you can give a jus­tifi­ca­tion for your poli­ti­cal policy that stut­ters off into in­co­her­ence only at the point of ex­plain­ing why pain is a bad thing—if you can give rea­son­able ar­gu­ments for ev­ery­thing else up un­til that point—that’s prob­a­bly about as much as we can de­mand of any­one short of a full-fledged mas­ter re­duc­tion­ist.

  • But we also ex­pect that peo­ple may pass judg­ments that they would re­voke in the light of bet­ter in­for­ma­tion or new ar­gu­ments; and, es­pe­cially be­fore pass­ing to that limit, it may be that so­ciopaths do not over­lap with the val­ues shared by most in a so­ciety. So if A says that event B is in­her­ently wrong and awful, and C dis­agrees on the grounds that it just doesn’t seem all that awful to them, then the bur­den of ar­gu­ment needs to lie on A be­fore any so­cial, le­gal, pub­lic ac­tion is brought into play. We should bear in mind that peo­ple of the past would have a lot of icky feel­ings about things that we, to­day, think are not only per­mit­ted but vir­tu­ous or even manda­tory—the challeng­ing of these icky feel­ings for good and suffi­cient pub­lic jus­tifi­ca­tion, was a key el­e­ment of their re­lin­quish­ment, which we re­gard as moral progress.