Monday, April 3, 2017

Moral failure and naturalism

Tripping while walking or acquiring an unjustified belief does not entail that we are in any way defective. It’s just not in human nature to walk steadily all the time—there is a tradeoff between perfect steadiness and the need to look for more distant dangers, or just the need to think about more important matters. Likewise, we sometimes need to acquire beliefs more quickly than checking the evidence carefully allows.

But a moral failure seems different. Acting immorally is always a defect. This tells us something interesting about nature: our nature has tradeoffs, but morality is never among the tradeoffs.

(A curiosity: If it is our nature never to act immorally, but it isn’t our nature never to trip, we would expect that tripping would be much more common than immoral activity. But it’s not like that.)

It is difficult, I think, to reconcile the special role that morality plays in us—the fact that moral failure is always a defect—with naturalism. On an evolutionary picture, we would expect tradeoffs to be everywhere in our nature. If we were meant by nature never to trip, we would expect to have an instinct that makes us always look down in front of us—but of course then we wouldn’t see distant danger, so instead we have a tradeoff where we scan the environment in all directions as well as looking down in front of us.

I have one worry about the above line of thought. Perhaps immoral activity is not always a defect. Maybe it is only a defect when isn’t innocently ignorant. Think of the extremely difficult cases that come up in medical or military ethics where one needs to act very quickly. In those cases, there just isn’t enough time to always figure out what the right solution is, and it does not seem to be necessarily a defect when the conscientious doctor or officer acts immorally, if she has given the matter as much thought and are as there was time for and innocently done what appeared right.

Maybe that’s right. It’s still surprising on a naturalistic picture of our nature and origins that it is always a defect to act knowingly immorally. We would expect our nature to exhibit tradeoffs even there.

And maybe the innocent ignorance cases aren’t a problem. Maybe in such cases, the action is to be described in terms that makes it right, like: “Performing an operation that after the due amount of investigation appeared most in keeping with the salient goods.”

Of course, some naturalists simply deny that there is any coherent concept of “defect” to be applied to us. The above line of thought may be grist for their mill. Another view might be to bite the bullet and say that we are riddled with tradeoffs through and through, and it is no defect when we occasionally act immorally. On the contrary, sometimes (say, when it causes great harm to one’s genes getting passed on) acting morally is a defect—but we should be guided by what is right or wrong, not by what is or isn’t a defect in our nature. This latter view is not, I think, very popular, but one finds it in Andrea Dworkin’s idea that “the God who doesn’t exist” (nature? evolution?) has designed us so that until recent times we could only reproduce by means that, according to Dworkin, are innately oppressive to women.


Heath White said...

I would say there are constant tradeoffs: between desert and equality, justice and mercy, freedom and social cohesion, working and recreating, spending time at work versus with the family, taking pleasure in one’s hobbies or performing onerous duties for others, etc. It’s just that the “moral” choice is making the tradeoffs correctly. Immoral choice is always a defect because it’s defined as “defective choice.”

Tom said...

I think this is at least implicit in Susan Wolf's paper on Moral Saints. The idea is that living perfectly morally (according to any popular theory of morality) would lead us to do very strange things that we generally think are contrary to living a good life (and not in the merely pleasurable or easy sense), so we do face tradeoffs between a strictly moral life and a good one.

bethyada said...

Tripping is a defect. We would not have tripped pre-Fall.

Trade-offs seem to be a slightly different issue. We can have trade-offs that are intrinsic and trade-offs because we are broken. Designing a car that is light, and fast, and attractive, and resilient will involve trade-offs that do not relate to brokenness. They are intrinsic trade-offs.

Trade-offs in morality may include lying to protect the innocent. Although I see this as a trade-off it is not immoral. It would be immoral to tell the truth.

Alexander R Pruss said...

My interest, though, was in tradeoffs between morality and other things, not tradeoffs within morality itself, interesting as the latter is.

The Wolf piece is directly relevant, but I don't think her pictures of perfect morality are correct.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Alex,

I think the fact that we age, while part of human nature, is a defect - sometimes, parts of our nature can be defective. I don't see why that would be a problem for unguided evolution (which is what you seem to mean by "naturalism", I take it?).
Regarding moral failure, not only is deliberately immoral behavior a defect - a moral defect, of course -, but it seems to me that the temptation to behave immorally under certain circumstances is a moral defect (not necessarily morally blameworthy in any way), even though it's very probably part of our nature. To put it in a different way, a person who never feels any inclination to behave immorally would be - all other things equal - a morally better person than a person who does, even the latter may very well be a normal human being.

That is to be expected: our nature is the result of evolutionary forces, and different forces pull in different directions. The moral part of our nature provides us with some motivation to act in some ways, but other parts of our nature may well pull in a different directions. There is no surprise in that. For example, it seems to me that if Joe insults of Bob unjustly and Bob is a normal human male teenager, it would be a normal human reaction for Bob to feel like punching Bob in the face, even though that would be immoral, as a punch is an overreaction to an insult, rather than a proper punishment.

That aside, even without unguided evolution but with evolution guided by, say, evil future scientists bent on making some agents for whom deliberate immoral behavior is not a defect, it's difficult for me to even conceive of a way in which they might succeed. More generally, it's seems to me that deliberately behaving immorally (and I'd say behaving immorally, deliberately or not, but either way the point is similar) is always a moral defect - it seems probably analytical to me, and so, you wouldn't expect to see exceptions on unguided evolution, evil-guided evolution, or anything else. Perhaps, you're saying it's a defect in a different sense? (i.e., apart from a moral defect?). But I'm not sure why that would be.