In reply to my post a week ago on the incoherence of saying that we relied upon God, or at least religion, in order to either discover or verify what was good and evil, Clergy Guy asks:
Daniel, do you have some thoughts on defining good and evil apart from religion? How do we/should we develop our morals.
I can’t believe that our sense of values is completely arbitrary and I’m sure you don’t either.
Addressing the (at least) three topics raised in Clergy Guy’s query will require (at least) three posts. Let me start with the last topic raised: No, our sense of values is not completely arbitrary at all. First of all, our value judgments do not arise arbitrarily at all. Whether they are correct or incorrect value judgments, they all result from biological, psychological, cultural, and innumerable other factors that shape our perspectives on the world, including of course what we find attractive or repulsive (valuable or not valuable).
But there are two senses of value. There is valuing in this psychological sense of “preferring” or “being inclined towards” something, which has certain causal determinants, and then there is what is truly valuable–i.e., the sense of value in which we can say that one thing is of genuine use for something else. We are naturally born not only equipped but inclined to eat the vegetables and meat and fruits and grains, etc. from which we get our absolutely indispensable nutrition. The strong desire for food is our valuing food but it is not the value of food itself. The value of food is its uses for us that make our subjectively valuing it an objectively good idea.
So, food is valuable for animals to stay alive. That’s a fact. That’s an indisputable fact about values. That’s a fact about values for bears and otters, as much as it is a fact about values for humans. And our psychological acts of valuing food, in the senses of liking it and prioritizing its acquisition, etc. was naturally selected for in the most powerful ways because of the intrinsic links between desiring food, acquiring food, and living both long enough and healthily enough to reproduce. In other words, those animals that desired food strongly, acquired food better than any who defectively may not have desired it enough or at all, and acquiring food they persisted in living and were able to have babies and their babies carried their genes which led them too to prefer food. We are born preferring food and it is right we do it. This is a naturally arising value relationship, part of nature with no human feeling making it so—it was valuable for fish, for example, to eat long millions of years before the common ancestors we share with contemporary fish ever evolved into being us humans.
Not all of our value preferences so perfectly align with what is objectively valuable for us, of course. Even with respect to food, many of us subjectively value (in the sense of prefer or prioritize) unhealthy levels of foods which are otherwise valuable for us and those foods become counter-productive to the very pursuit of health they were evolved for their ability to advance.
And the same can be said not just of food but our various natural dispositions towards love and hate, compassion and anger, cooperation and competition, submission and dominance, etc. Our minds and bodies are made up of innumerable inclinations and complex combinations of those inclinations shaped by chemical, biological, psychological, and cultural forces. All our various “atomistic” inclinations and the complex inclinations which are made up out of them can either take forms that lead to our flourishing or which backfire to destroy us. We have to fit them to our circumstances. They are generally good for us in that they’ve been naturally selected for us as valuable inclinations for surviving and passing on our genes. But the ways to follow them in any given circumstance are variable on the circumstance.
We must figure out where and when and how in our very specific lives, in our very specific social circumstances, to get angry, to love, to punish, to forgive, etc., etc. As Aristotle would argue, we have to develop highly tuned powers of cognitive and emotional discrimination to discern what is objectively the most valuable use of all these inclinations within ourselves, that we can maximally flourish as the types of beings we are. This requires extensive experience learning about what is valuable through practice responding to different situations in different ways and seeing where the successes and failures are and learning how to train our inclinations such that they automatically respond in the way that will lead to the most objective value.
So, I counter pretty strongly those who want to define values in terms of our emotions themselves or in any other part of our psychologies themselves. Our emotions indispensably incline us towards many things of value (though not all—some emotionally unappealing valuable things need to be explained to our more strictly rational side and we need to begrudgingly realign our emotions to acknowledge their value) but our emotions are not themselves the source or justification of the value of what we desire. The emotions are like the gauges on the dashboard of your car. They measure things going on in the car and warn you about things you need to do to service it, but it’s the objective things that they are indicating to you about what is objectively happening in the car and objectively good for the car if it’s to keep running smoothly (or at all) that really matters.
Our emotions are not themselves the valuable thing, they are only the indicators of what is actually of importance to us, the overall functioning of our lives. They’ve been naturally selected to generally help us pick out what will benefit us and steer clear of what will harm us. But they are not perfect gauges. They were “selected” by an inexact process that makes broad general associations between some things as broadly desirable and others as broadly undesirable. So we have automatic preferences and aversions that make good rules of thumb but which we must use our best abstract reasoning about objective relationships of benefit and harm to correct for when the automatic settings are too imprecise. The moral psychologist Joshua Greene compares our emotions to the automatic settings on a camera. Usually they’ll do the job, but sometimes you need to switch to manual to get the shot right.
In addition to saying that the emotions themselves are not values themselves but tools for gauging value that require some cognitive input to approve or correct of their immediate responses, I think pleasure and pain should not be confused for our good or bad themselves either. Tomorrow I will explore their roles as gauges which indicate to us when we are in good or ill circumstances and the benefits they both provide in both guiding actions and being truth-having creatures. I will return to the questions of evil and specific processes by which we should “develop our morals” in later posts.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.