Empirics, Morality, and Rational Ignorance

Empirics, Morality, and Rational Ignorance August 6, 2010

Time for another go round of responses to comments on the last two posts in my current series on math and morality:

Hendy wrote:

So turn this to morality. What if smoking pot was permissible starting tomorrow. A large number of people would now take part in it while many others would consider to hold it wrong. Are their internal sensors faulty? Repeat this with abortion, nation-wide permissibility of gay marriage, etc. Some would immediately partake and others would still hold that it was wrong. 

If the moral sense is a human universal, it would seem that we would line up fairly reasonably on these issues because we’re using an innate human “sense” to pick up some objective, external signal of what the morally upright action is.

And Charles replied:

Hendy, you mix issues that actually have to do with morality with those that don’t. Very few people would argue that smoking pot (privately etc etc) is a moral issue in the same way that abortion is. Abortion is also cloudy because pro-choice folks are not in favor of murder, they just value the fetus less than anti-choice people. 

Charles is right. A lot of the disagreement about the moral issues cited above (pot, abortion, etc) are disagreements about the facts of the case, not about how they correspond with morality. I think C.S. Lewis had it right when he said in Mere Christianity:

“But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things… There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.” 

Whatever moral frame you subscribe to, and whether or not you believe it is transcendent or absolute, most of your moral heavylifting is still going to come from trying to get a empirical sense of the stakes of whatever you’re dealing with, not from figuring out how they match up to moral behavior.  I think the most common moral problem we face is the question of how much examination of a choice is necessary to meet a standard of due diligence.

I remember, when I was in elementary school, I read an article describing the brutal conditions in Nike’s sweatshops, and, since that day, have never bought or worn a Nike product.  I missed the next step, which would have been to look into other sneaker manufacturers to see if they were just as abusive as Nike.  To be honest, I still don’t meet this standard when I buy shoes, apparel, or electronics, all of which carry the risk of being complicit in abusive business practices.  I just don’t have the time to investigate the provenance of everything I buy.

Instead, I outsource a lot of my responsibility to reporters and advocacy groups.  I rely on them to uncover horrific practices and publicize them.  Similarly, I look to them to tout eco- or worker-friendly companies and products, which I then will make a point to seek out and buy.  At what point does my outsourcing become irresponsible?  How complicit am I in the decisions I make that are guided by rational ignorance?

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  • The abortion debate is actually a good basis to use for a mental exercise in discussing this issue of objective morality precisely because I have never met anyone who contests the other side's morality, only their basic assumptions. (Well, thats not true, I have met anti-abortion folks that claim to believe pro-choice people are evil and want to harm children)A common comment I have heard from pro-choice people (not in serious debate mind you, just in polite conversation on the topic) is that the vast majority of anti-abortion activists don't 'REALLY' believe its murder, otherwise they would all be shooting abortion doctors, for if a building in town house someone who was dismembering children at lets say the age of 5, surely a mob would rush in and violently stop them if the police refused?Clearly I don't claim that this is an entirely sound premise and conclusion, but it does raise the interesting point that reasonable people on this issue aren't in fact arguing on morality (they way they are on issues such as pre-marital sex, homosexual activity, etc). If Lewis is right, and I would think he is, at some point in the future we may be able to say "clearly we don't abort fetuses anymore because we have all come to accept that they are equally valuable human lives, not because we have stopped thinking human lives were disposable" – I don't know if this is the direction we are heading, and know that pro-choice folks would find it unthinkable, but I do know that many pro-choice people only cloak this issue as a woman's rights issue and NEVER think about the fact that some people value the fetal life differently than them, and the reverse is all equally true.Obviously one can play the 'walk a mile in the other guys shoes' game with any debate, with this one it is just strikingly obvious that the difference isn't morality, its basic disagreement on 'facts'.

  • @Charles:I tend to agree. I think it comes down to when life begins. I find it reasonable to define life at the formation of a nervous system (6 weeks or so) while some define life as late as "when a fetus is able to survive outside the womb", which is shifting since this also depends on technology. It's not just "survive on its own" but "survive, period" and thus the earlier and earlier that fetuses are successfully delivered via c-section and kept alive, the earlier that date becomes.In reality, I think the heavy focus on this debate when it's between religious and non is whether humans have a soul. That seems to be the underlying premise of theological opposition even if it comes out as, "But it's a person." I could be wrong.

  • Well yes the abortion debate is a soul debate. However the soul is just cover for the premise that christians view all life as having equal intrinsic value. (At least catholic christians do) – Rational people don't. This is why Catholics can't be for abortion, or euthanasia, yet someone else can rationalize both is certain cases.The soul situation is interesting, because morally abortion is only wrong theologically when the fetus has a soul, so you can debate when the soul is inserted, or whatever you call it, and theologically cover your ass so to speak. (this is not to say that the church approves of abortion at a theoretical time before the soul is imparted, it doesn't on other grounds) – This is where you get folks claiming gastrulation as an obvious place (this is when differentiation occurs and the first point that the male DNA is active) – if one were to believe in the existence of a soul it seems to me this is a reasonable place to draw the line, but we are getting off topic. Also its mildly ridiculous to decide to scientifically ascertain when a non-scientific thing happens!

  • @Charles: agreed re. scientifically deciding non-scientific things. Catholicism holds that the soul exists at conception so that's pretty much the end there…I'm heavily pondering this series of posts! It's quite interesting! I think I come across as anti-objective values, but truly don't mean to do so! I just want to understand what Leah thinks everything is supposed to rest upon :)Thanks for the discussion.

  • While off topic I should point out that the church doesn't say the soul enters at conception. The church says that the embryo is definitively on a course to be human after conception, and since no one can know for sure when the soul enters you are morally obliged to assume it enters at conception. This is why the church was against abortion as far back as the 1st century when people reasonably put the soul at 'quickening' or when the mother can first feel the fetus move, much later than anyone would today.One article I have read make the analogy that you wouldn't think it morally acceptable to toss a live grenade into a room you presumed to not be occupied, without definitively knowing!

  • Hmmm. Good point. Must be a "common myth," then. Searching for it one can find unbelievably numerous references to it arriving at conception from various sources, but it seems that the few who actually quote would agree with you. Paul VI appears, for example, to have said that although Aquinas held it didn't necessarily happen at conception, we don't know and thus your "better safe than sorry" point holds.Using the soul as a reason not to abort with those who don't think the soul exists does get tricky! Kind of like trying to prove Christianity using the Bible 🙂

  • Souls or no, you have to admit there is a compelling aspect to the church's die-hard respect for human dignity in our society that seems to have no respect for anything.

  • Absolutely. I think the lack of respect is due to a perpetuated idiocy and ignorance. Perhaps more of a simply apathetic tendency. As a believer, those around me cared about living good lives, how to serve god in the best way, how to make good decisions.I wouldn't say that the opposite = non-believer and thus those people don't care about such things.I would say that there seems to be a sharp division between those who care about "higher things" regardless of where they think the source is. I've found an atheist meetup group in my area and was simply amazed at their compassion, care, and wisdom toward me when sharing my story. It was identical to what I would have expected from expressing hardship to a group of believers.Contrast this to those I work with who don't seem to care about higher-order things in general.I don't know what creates this divide. Some really want to ponder these matters and others seem to more or less just 'go with the flow.'Here's an example I ran across at one point. Check out how Valerie Tarico discusses abortion.

  • Its funny that you say that Hendy, because when I told my wife I was going back to church, she said she didn't understand why I would do that since almost all of the Christians she has seen were spiteful hypocrites and mean. I could not disagree with her. Clearly I don't think one has to be religious to have respect, etc…

  • @Charles:Absolutely. Many probably are. I think I'm in quite a wonderful "pocket" of people but definitely have run into spiteful, down-talking types, etc. This class probably falls into the non-TrueChristians(TM) category 😉