Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why do we dislike it when bad things happen to us?

It is easy to give a theistic answer to the question in the title:

  1. Bad things should be avoided, and so it is likely that God would make rational beings dislike them.
Presumably, the naturalistic story is going to be roughly something like this:
  1. We tend to avoid things we dislike (this may even be analytic), and bad things tend to be detrimental to our fitness, so there is selection for dislike of bad things.
But there is still a puzzle: Why is it that bad things tend to be detrimental to our evolutionary fitness? Is it not a great coincidence on a naturalistic account that such highly varied qualities as ignorance, loss of limb and cowardice have both the property of badness and the property of being detrimental to fitness?

Of course some folks may say that there is no puzzle here, because our belief that these qualities are bad is caused by the fact that they are detrimental to fitness. However, that only answers why it is that there is a correlation between being believed to be bad and being detrimental to fitness, while the puzzle was about the correlation between being actually bad and being detrimental to fitness. Some of the folks I am imagining will go on to say that there is no such thing as badness, only beliefs about badness, and others will go relativistic and say that to be bad is to be believed to be bad. The problems with these options are obvious and well-known.

The sensible naturalist had better be a realist about the good and the bad. And then the correlation between badness and lack of fitness is, indeed, puzzling.


larryniven said...

Well, loss of limb makes sense on its own, right? Really the puzzling ones are like cowardice and ignorance.

And actually, in those cases, it's not clear that they do negatively impact fitness as a general matter. For starters, fitness isn't an absolute: it's easier to be an evolutionarily fit coward in the presence of competitors who are more cowardly still. But it's also true that ignorance and cowardice don't tend to have particularly detrimental effects on one's odds of reproducing. I mean, unless you have access to some evidence that I don't, the world just doesn't seem to operate this way.

(On the flip side, moral goodness doesn't necessarily increase one's odds of reproducing: I guess you think that celibate priests practice a very morally good profession, but by doing so they've taken themselves right out of the gene pool.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

So that makes it even harder to get a naturalistic story for why we dislike it when bad things happen to us? (We dislike having an attack of cowardice or being ignorant.)

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Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how a evolutionary account for this would be any different from any other characteristic that we possess through evolution. In principle, wouldn't a response to this would be a Just So story (as you say) like any other? Even if this is problematic, it is the way that such evolutionary explanations work across the board.

Alexander R Pruss said...

For any particular dislike--say, dislike of cowardice or dislike of loss of limb--we can give a just-so story. But these just-so stories fail to give a unified explanation of what appears to be a unified fact--that we tend to dislike it when bad things happen to us. In other words, the just-so stories, if not unified, give us a coincidence--a coincidence between just-so stories. If we came upon a bunch of rocks on a beach and they spelled out "Welcome", we would be dissatisfied with a non-unified explanation--an explanation of each rock's being where it is in terms of a seemingly independent causal history. And we would be right to be dissatisfied.

Nick said...

I think the sensible naturalist is going to just deny your premise: that we necessarily dislike it when bad things happen to us. The only way to save this premise is to define a "bad thing" as "something we dislike", but that is clearly not going to fly, for at least the reason that people can like and dislike the same thing.3

So, we are left with the obvious fact that we will sometimes dislike "good" things and like "bad" things, through the various accidents and contingencies of character and situation. There really isn't anything to explain, here.

Alexander R Pruss said...

We tend to dislike it when bad things happen to us, don't we?

larryniven said...

"We dislike having an attack of cowardice or being ignorant."

Do we? "Ignorance is bliss," I thought was the phrase. I mean, I'm ignorant of lots of stuff without it really bothering me - geological facts, my daily horoscope, the average height of British 12-year-olds. Some of that is probably trivial, but a good deal of what I don't care about not knowing isn't. And I'm a philosopher, for crying out loud, just think how little other people care.

That's sort of a specialized example, though, so it's also worth my time to consider cowardice. An important aspect to this whole story is the knowledge that you're being cowardly (or whatever) - if you don't know, all bets are off. (That is, sometimes you will feel bad, but sometimes you'll feel good and sometimes you'll feel nothing in particular.) But at that point it might as well just be socialization: we already know that we tend to dislike behaving in unpopular manners, and pretty much every society has a large intersection of morally proscribed behaviors and unpopular behaviors. We also know that societies that encourage morally bad behaviors tend to end up with people who enjoy those behaviors, or at least who don't feel bad engaging in them, so it's not like this socializing effect isn't strong enough to override whatever preexisting preferences we might have.

I guess at this point the question shifts to asking why this intersection exists, or why it also contains a large number of actually morally bad behaviors, but that's basically the law of large numbers, isn't it? With a big enough number of social guidelines, some of them are bound to at least resemble actual moral laws.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ignorance is not just nescience. Socrates' account is that ignorance is thinking you know when you don't know. A perhaps broader characterization is that ignorance is not knowing the sorts of things that it behooves you to know. The "behooves" is broad and vague, but that is how it should be, because there are many forms of ignorance, and they are all bad. Socrates' case might a special case of this one, because Socrates would say that it behooves you to actually know when you think you know. :-)

Your "law of large numbers" (not sure technically it's an application of that) argument may be right in the case of the moral stuff. But there are non-moral bads, too, and we don't like those, either. For instance, we don't like to be stupid (perhaps even more than we don't like to be immoral; we are more offended when someone thinks we're stupid than we are thought wicked), weak, sick, blind (physically or intellectually), etc.

Still, you've now got me thinking. It would be hard to get good empirical data that most types bad states are in fact disliked. One would have to have a good way of counting types of bad states. I don't think this is insoluble, but it does make the argument much harder to run. Thanks!

Michael said...

On the "ignorance is bliss" points:

1) We don't care that we don't know trivial truths. But given a choice, with no cost, wouldn't you prefer to know the geological facts to not knowing them ? If that were intellectual clutter, there would be a cost. But what if it weren't ? What if you could know it without being burdened by the knowledge ? The bliss is not caused by the ignorance per se, it's caused by things like relief from the burden of clutter, or relief from the effort to know clutter. Interesting question though: If you could know everything (without burden or clutter at least), would you want to ? I think this would probably be impossible to bear for anyone other than God.

2) We dislike this state of affairs: being blissful due to ignorance. That is a dislike we might not have were we blissfully ignorant, but we do reasonably dislike it. In evaluating this state, we shouldn't ask "how would we evaluate it if we were in that state ?" but "how should we evaluate it from our present perspective ?". I might not mind being comatose if I were comatose. But I do mind being comatose (or an Epsilon in Brave New World). If you don't know/believe you're ignorant, all bets are not off. Something can be genuinely bad for you, by your own lights, even if you'd have no idea it was so if it was so.

3) There's some correlation between adaptation and goodness. An unintelligent race of beings that enslaves, rapes, and pillages might well have a survival advantage in some environments, and a race of altruists might be exploited to extinction by a race of selfish beings. Still one could ask for an explanation of a weak correlation, in the actual world.

Nick: Alexander's premise was not "that we necessarily dislike it when bad things happen to us." It's that there is a "correlation between badness and lack of fitness" or "We tend to dislike it when bad things happen to us".

larryniven: The question is about a correlation between adaptation & goodness. Why does the large number of cases shake out in strong or significant correlation, rather than weak or none ? Answering "chance" or "coincidence" requires justification, like answering those to a strong correlation between smoking & lung cancer. Could be chance, but it defies belief. A unified explanation of the weak correlation might be tried: people who tended to like good things and dislike bad things tended to survive in their environments, and in each case how the trait was adaptive or neutral can be given the "just-so story", if the trait is heritable. That the details will vary doesn't make the explanation lack unity.

Ignorance, loss of limb and cowardice are not heritable traits so far as I know. Evolution never claimed to explain the non-heritables, like scars, limps, steroid-induced musculature, or playing the piano. Non-heritables like being at the right place at the right time (not under the lightning bolt) can affect "adaptability" and "reproductive success". It's not true that "organisms with traits that give them an advantage over their competitors pass these advantageous traits on".

But I think in the end that "good/bad things" cannot be given a naturalistic interpretation.

4) On "spandrels" (they should be called "counter-examples"), no one has succeeded in specifying when something counts as one.