About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A different kind of moral relativism

by Michael De Dora
Recently I had the fortune of attending an exceptional philosophy discussion hosted by Massimo Pigliucci, with featured guest Jesse Prinz, a philosopher of mind at the CUNY Graduate Center (where Massimo also teaches). The topic was an essay Prinz recently wrote in the magazine Philosophy Now, called “Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response.” Our conversation included exchanges on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Sam Harris, the is-ought gap, the connection between emotion and reason, and even abortion and female genital mutilation. But the central theme was Prinz’s position that moral relativism holds sway more than moral objectivism (well, that and the delicious Thai food that accompanied the discussion).
Prinz’s basic stance is that moral values stem from our cognitive hardware, upbringing, and social environment. These equip us with deep-seated moral emotions, but these emotions express themselves in a contingent way due to circumstances. And while reason can help, it has limited influence. It can only reshape our ethics up to a point, and cannot settle major differences between different value systems. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to construct an objective morality that transcends emotions and circumstance. As Prinz writes, in part:
“No amount of reasoning can engender a moral value, because all values are, at bottom, emotional attitudes. … Reason cannot tell us which facts are morally good. Reason is evaluatively neutral. At best, reason can tell us which of our values are inconsistent, and which actions will lead to fulfillment of our goals. But, given an inconsistency, reason cannot tell us which of our conflicting values to drop or which goals to follow. If my goals come into conflict with your goals, reason tells me that I must either thwart your goals, or give up caring about mine; but reason cannot tell me to favor one choice over the other. … Moral judgments are based on emotions, and reasoning normally contributes only by helping us extrapolate from our basic values to novel cases. Reasoning can also lead us to discover that our basic values are culturally inculcated, and that might impel us to search for alternative values, but reason alone cannot tell us which values to adopt, nor can it instill new values.”
This moral relativism is not the absolute moral relativism of, supposedly, bands of liberal intellectuals, or of postmodernist philosophers. It presents a more serious challenge to those who argue there can be objective morality. To be sure, there is much Prinz and I agree on. At the least, we agree that morality is largely constructed by our cognition, upbringing, and social environment; and that reason has the power synthesize and clarify our worldviews, and help us plan for and react to life’s situations. But there are some lingering questions I have after the article and conversation.
Suppose I concede to Prinz that reason cannot settle differences in moral values and sentiments. Difference of opinion doesn’t mean that there isn’t a true or rational answer. In fact, there are many reasons why our cognition, emotional reactions or previous values could be wrong or irrational — and why people would not pick up on their deficiencies. In his article, Prinz uses the case of sociopaths, who simply lack certain cognitive abilities. There are many reasons other than sociopathy why human beings can get things wrong, morally speaking, often and badly. It could be that people are unable to adopt a more objective morality because of their circumstances — from brain deficiencies to lack of access to relevant information. But, again, none of this amounts to an argument against the existence of objective morality.
As it turns out, Prinz’s conception of objective morality does not quite reflect the thinking of most people who believe in objective morality. He writes that: “Objectivism holds that there is one true morality binding upon all of us.” This is a particular strand of moral realism, but there are many. For instance, one can judge some moral precepts as better than others, yet remain open to the fact that there are probably many different ways to establish a good society. This is a pluralistic conception of objective morality which doesn’t assume one absolute moral truth. For all that has been said, Sam Harris’ idea of a moral landscape does help illustrate this concept. Thinking in terms of better and worse morality gets us out of relativism and into an objectivist approach. The important thing to note is that one need not go all the way to absolute objectivity to work toward a rational, non-arbitrary morality.
Indeed, even Prinz admits that “Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves.” That is, there are such things as better and worse values: the worse ones kill us, the better ones don’t. This is a very broad criterion, but it is an objective standard. It seems Prinz is arguing for a tighter moral relativism – a sort of stripped down objective morality that is constricted by nature, experience, and our (modest) reasoning abilities.
I proposed at the discussion that a more objective morality could be had with the help of a robust public discourse on the issues at hand. Prinz does not necessarily disagree. He wrote that “Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground.” But Prinz pointed out a couple of limitations on public discourse. For example, the agreements we reach on “moral common ground” are often exclusive of some, and abstract in content. Consider the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a seemingly good example of global moral agreement. Yet, it was ratified by a small sample of 48 countries, and it is based on suspiciously Western sounding language. Everyone has a right to education and health care, but — as Prinz pointed out during the discussion — what level of education and health care?

Still, the U.N. declaration was passed 48-0 with just 8 abstentions (Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, USSR, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). It includes 30 articles of ethical standards agreed upon by 48 countries around the world. Such a document does give us more reason to think that public discourse can lead to significant agreement upon moral values, even if debate will inevitably persist.
Reason might not be able to arrive at moral truths, but it can push us to test and question the rationality of our values — a crucial cog in the process that leads to the adoption of new, or modified values. The only way to reduce disputes about morality is to try to get people on the same page about their moral goals. Given the above, this will not be easy, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too optimistic in our ability to employ reason to figure things out. But reason is still the best, and even only, tool we can wield, and while it might not provide us with a truly objective morality, it’s enough to save us from a complete moral relativism.


  1. Why do you persist in feeling that the emotional brain does not reason with objectivity, when it's been demonstrated by neuroscientists (Damasio, et al.) that our emotions are the final arbiter of our choices?

  2. Baron, I've read Damasio, and he says no such thing. On the contrary, he argues that reason and emotions need to be in balance and continuous feedback for a functional human brain to work.

  3. @Massimo, yes, that's what I got from my reading of Damasio.

  4. Damasio, in Descartes’ Error, pointed out that our so-called rational brain is far from being the final arbiter of our perception of reality, and he's not, as I indicated, the only one - just the more prominent one. If you don't agree, fine, but your continuous feedback argument has little to do with the determined actions that this process finally and separately trigger.

  5. How does the idea that reason is not the final arbiter imply that emotions are?

  6. But Baron, I never argued that the rational (i.e., reason) is the final arbiter of moral values. I only argued it is an essential part of the process, and is enough to potentially place our moral values on more objective grounding.

    Also, could you go into a bit more detail about this?

    "... your (Massimo's) continuous feedback argument has little to do with the determined actions that this process finally and separately trigger."

  7. @Massimo, good point. I don't think there is a "final arbiter" for our moral values and choices. Like has been said, it's a much more complex process.

  8. It's the subconscious process that we have come to call emotional that does the predictive assessment, and subject to the veto power of the so called rational process, the predictions become the basis for the actions. The interplay of veto and reassessment is continuous, but the trigger pulling duty (with rare exception) continues to be the function of the predictive processor.
    So in fact, reason/logic IS the final arbiter, but it's predictive logic, not classical.

  9. This quest for some ultimate universal morality strikes me as rather Quixotic.

    Each of us is a process and collectively our race is a process (a story if you will). Times and conditions change.

    If one accepts the premise that human racial survival is 'good'. Then you have to accept changing morality. During one of the population bottlenecks one could reasonably argue that celibacy would be immoral and having as many children as possible would be moral. Today when there are seven billion humans and we are having an adverse effect on our environment the opposite is true celibacy and childlessness have become laudable. Times change and the story progresses.

    Morality depends on the premises you begin with (such as the one above), the environment you want to live in and how you want events to play out. There are human commonalities certainly, but no absolutes, no ultimate arbiter to whom one can appeal. One can simply shop among philosophers (typically in aisle 7 at the grocery store) until you find one whose ideas appeal to you, but as skeptics we are always told that arguments from authority sans confirming objective proof are suspect.

  10. [O]ne can judge some moral precepts as better than others, yet remain open to the fact that there are probably many different ways to establish a good society. This is a pluralistic conception of objective morality which doesn’t assume one absolute moral truth. For all that has been said, Sam Harris’ idea of a moral landscape does help illustrate this concept. Thinking in terms of better and worse morality gets us out of relativism and into an objectivist approach. The important thing to note is that one need not go all the way to absolute objectivity to work toward a rational, non-arbitrary morality.

    Michael, I'm very much with you on this. I know that Massimo and Russell Blackford have raised important criticisms of Sam Harris's arguments in 'The Moral Landscape', but I share Harris's conviction that there are such things as 'beneficial-thus-better' values and 'harmful-thus-worse' ones.

    Yes, Harris assumes human well-being as a premise and therefore fails to solve Hume's is-ought problem. But in the context of human life, of human aims and aversions, surely this is an acceptable premise on which to construct a quasi-objective morality? Isn't this the pragmatic path to take, even if it means failing to address Hume's (perhaps insoluble) problem?

  11. Sam Harris's moral landscape doesn't solve anything.

    The argument goes something like this. Imagine you’re in a hellish situation, say, you’re chained to a rock, and every morning a giant bird flies down and eats your liver, and every evening it grows back, so it can happen all over again, forever. I’m sure we would both agree, not getting one’s liver eaten would be a better situation to be in. This being the case, there are obviously situations that are ‘better’ than others, and by extension, actions that are better than others. Thus we have value in action and actions can be moral…

    Except, that is not the is-ought problem. Of course we can think of a better situation, that is trivial. But the question is, does the fact that one IS getting one’s liver eaten, mean that this OUGHT to be the case? Does the fact that something happens to us, mean that we deserve it? Should it be better, not, could it be.

    Relativism has nothing to fear from Sam Harris.

  12. It seems strange to me to argue on the one hand, "Difference of opinion doesn’t mean that there isn’t a true or rational answer," but suggest on the other that public moral discourse can improve morality's rationality. These two points aren't irreconcilable, but the essay says that opinions aren't necessarily informative while taking them as being informative when they're largely in agreement. It just seems to me that if you deny that moral disagreement is at least suggestive of moral objectivism being false, then taking moral agreement as indicative of moral rationality becomes problematic, and would require a stronger defense than I see here.

  13. @Timothy, you wrote:

    "It just seems to me that if you deny that moral disagreement is at least suggestive of moral objectivism being false, then taking moral agreement as indicative of moral rationality becomes problematic, and would require a stronger defense than I see here."

    Good point. I'll have to think this one over.

  14. @Timothy, would this sum up what you think?

    "If moral disagreement is not an argument against moral objectivity, then moral agreement is not an argument for moral objectivity."

  15. Well, that conditional is an obvious position to adopt. It could be contingently true (it's not a tautology). If you think moral objectivity is correct then you could say people's rationality will, as an empirical issue, lead them to it, and so their reasoned agreement can indicate its content - but then you would need a story as to why, when substantial reasoned disagreement exists, it does not indicate either that moral objectivity is rationally inaccessible or that it is not a matter of rationality at all. It's just that, to me, what that story would be is not particularly clear.

  16. Michael,

    So long as we're clear that moral facts or truths are not mind-independent, and that moral reasoning assumes certain common human emotional inputs (like empathy and compassion), I'm on board with your argument.

    To put it another way, if we think in terms of the following spectrum:

    (1) subjectivity =>
    (2) intersubjectivity =>
    (3) objectivity

    then, at the very least, public discourse brings us from (1) to (2). And, the wider that discourse becomes, the more it is informed with other types of knowledge (e.g. from the sciences) and by rational analysis (e.g. by resolving logical contradictions and conflicts of interest) - then the closer we get to (3).

    But I use the term "objective" here with hesitation, given its connotation of absolute certainty. If that's the definition we bear in mind, then I don't believe that we ever actually attain (3) (in morality or in any other conceptual domain, for that matter).

  17. Moral acts are not only to be justified by an assessment of expected consequences under expected circumstances; there is also the objective aspect of purpose as it relates to these same circumstances.
    Purpose is not defined or justified by consequence as much as consequence is defined and justified by purpose. And neither can be accurately assessed without considering the other.

  18. I just want to say -- in lieu of a reply from Massimo -- that the Baron has not addressed Massimo's question —" how does the idea that reason is not the final arbiter imply that emotions are?" In fact, the Baron's rigidly hierarchical view of what he takes to be emotion-driven choice is unfounded -- he conveniently does not mention that we do not properly understand the predictive power yielded by the neural factors underlying "subconscious" processes. Indeed, it is merely arbitrary to speak of "emotion" as the underlying base for decision-making -- even "the subconscious process that . . . does the predictive assessment" relies on different neural substrates —themselves not "emotional" precisely. And in any case, since the mechanisms of emotion and reason are tightly intertwined from early perception to reasoning, it is dogmatic of the Baron to assert an invariable predictive relationship.

  19. Re @aharrel
    I thought I did address the question to Massimo's satisfaction - at least with my meaning, if not with my conclusion. Massimo's already aware that our logical processes are primarily subconscious and primarily predictive. That doesn't mean he has to agree with my analysis, but I'm fairly confident that it's in line with the current research on the subject.
    But since aharrel was not addressing his complaint directly to me, I'll assume I'm not expected to go into further detail as to why I've presumed to understand a bit of what in his words "we do not properly understand."

  20. Baron, subconscious is not the same as emotional, so it still doesn't follow that emotions have primacy over rational thinking. Also, just because a large portion of thinking is subconscious it does not mean that reason is subordinate, as it can act as a filter on subconscious thinking.

  21. Baron — Massimo states my own view, albeit more succinctly.

  22. Massimo, you'd do well to get out that stuff from Damasio and reread it. Emotions are generated by the subconscious processor commonly referred to as the emotional (as opposed to the rational) brain. Of course we know now that we have more than two such "thinking" systems, but we should also be aware that in concert they serve a predominantly predictive purpose.
    That has little to do with the inductive functions needing to have primacy over the more recently evolved deductive thinking processes, any and all of which are rational, but each to a different purpose.
    There can be what's known as a rational override of the the inductive system when the emotional signaling system freezes up, but other than that, the emotional brain acts as the executive.
    That's its evolutionary purpose.
    You don't agree that anything evolved to serve a purpose, so of course you won't and can't approach any of life's philosophical problems from that perspective.
    Although if you could you should.

  23. Baron is making a valid point. The following analogy will help to clarify.

    When a person's blood sugar drops, the sub-conscious is triggered to find a solution. It will find one such as, "snack machine", and present it the conscious. The conscious can then reason, "too expensive" or "unhealthy". The subconscious will search for another solution as the blood sugar continues to drop. At some point, as solutions become exhausted and the subconscious will start releasing hormones and proteins designed to suppress conscious reasoning while creating a sense of urgency. The emotion generally manifests itself in the form of frustration. Yes, conscious reasoning an overpower this, but most people do not have an iron will. Yes, emotions can overpower this, but it typically requires an extreme, such as an unhealthy phobia or a burning desire, both of which most people do not have.

  24. Baron, I insist, Damasio says no such thing. Moreover, you are confusing the distinction between emotional and rational systems with the one between induction and deduction - nothing to do whatsoever with each other, as the rational system uses both induction and deduction, while the emotional one doesn't really "think" in the same sense at all. You are also confusing the distinction between subconscious and conscious thought with the one between emotions and rationality (we can be and are conscious of emotions). Finally, modern neuroscience - including and particularly Damasio's - suggests that the two systems (which are themselves made up of a bunch of sub-systems) continuously interact to come up with the best decision making procedure.

  25. Massimo, I was trying to clear up your confusion regarding the emotional process as a non-thinking one, when in fact the bulk of our thinking is done by the subconscious processing that in the end (which is of course never ending) sends the emotional "feelings" to our more conscious processes for "advice." (Some argue that it's these feelings that best represent our consciousness but I'm not trying to go there just yet.)
    Until these feelings are dealt with, there will be no decisions. Further, the subconscious process is primarily predictive, which is primarily inductive.
    I made the mistake of assuming you knew this already, as I was not about to write a page or two about the matter here. And I'm still not about to.
    I leave you with this quote from Damasio:
    "My hope is that… the elucidation of some of the biological mechanisms of emotion and reason…may help others see emotion not as the evil twin of reason, but rather as a very natural and inextricable component of the nature of being rational, for better and for worse."

  26. Baron, I insist: you are confused about both what I said and what Damasio wrote. The Damasio quote you cited precisely makes my point that reason and emotion have to go together for a human being to function.

    When you say that I think of emotional processing as non-thinking you are playing on an ambiguity in the notion of thinking: *everything* the brain does, including controlling your heart bit, can be interpreted as "thinking" in the broad sense. But that's not interesting. By thinking I mean rational deliberation, which is distinct from - though not necessarily opposed to - emotional "thinking."

  27. Massimo, are you insisting that the emotional process does not involve intelligent assessments of both learned and instinctive strategically relevant possibilities for choosing among these available options, with predictive expectations formed accordingly? And do you really think that process is otherwise accomplished with conscious deliberation? Get real.

  28. Baron, I do wonder why is it that every time I back you in a corner you result to either switching the subject or to crypto-language that simply obfuscates matters. Is it your rational self that is writing, or your emotional one?

  29. Massimo, from where I stand it's you that, when I get you cornered, re-designates the dimensions and locations of the corners.
    And it's my emotional brain that does the writing while my rational brain reads it back and edits it for an emotional yet stoic rewrite.

  30. Naturally, and so we reach another impasse. Oh well.

  31. Baron—many of your arguments are based on statements of dubious neuro-scientific validity that are presented as if they were indisputable fact (what McGinn criticized Damasio for). First, it's not clear that emotion is an exclusively subconscious process, "primarily predictive . . . primarily inductive" Second, it's not clear whether "emotion" is rooted in specialized brain centers ( "thinking systems") as opposed to being implemented by continuous, instantaneous, patterns of neuro-modulation operating in numerous structures simultaneously. In light of the empirical literature and recent data, it remains merely dogmatic to assert that emotion is "generated by the subconscious processor referred to as the emotional brain" and that this processor serves a "predominantly predictive purpose"

  32. I finally encountered a magnitude of time permissive of perusing Prof Jesse Prinz's article (this post whetted my appetite and I've been looking forward to it). His assertions are logical. It seems to me that the biggest obstacle standing in the way of intellectual advancement, is the tendency of divergent groups to prejudice each other.

  33. aharrell,
    Massimo and I have beaten this subject near to a death experience so I don't know what to add except to say that I don't get my hypotheticals from Damasio, and I don't consider having confidence in one's working theory as necessarily dogmatic. I turn to Damasio and others such as Steven Rose for guidance, but my own approach involves the proper determination of biological systems' evolved purposes, for me a necessary part of understanding why and how they function.

    And if I'm dogmatic about anything, it's this, that all evolution is the proximate result of the entity or entities involved reacting strategically to their experience - acquiring and evolving their varieties of predictive purposes accordingly. Even though I sense that you're coming at this with the usual stochastic explanations for motivation of physiological functions, it's not my intention to debate these matters further in this particular forum.


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