Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bad Dog: Morals, Pavlov, and Two Lists

Okay, this is reprehensible. I know pretty much BAGEL about actual science, and what I have read about morality has mostly confused me.

But, continuing on my list mania (it's like crack, I tell you!)....Five books at the intersection of "morality" and science (note that the use of quotes reveals some bias, almost certainly, the nature of which you are welcome to speculate about). And five books that tell a very different story of morals. Not that there is much agreement among books WITHIN categories.

The question comes down to this: When I say, "Bad dog! BAD dog!" because the dog got in the garbage, the dog cowers and runs to the other run. The dog gives every indication of feeling bad. Now, is that the way morals work in humans? Or do we have something else, a developed sense of the moral status of actions, separate from our fear of punishment, or avoidance of shame and shunning?

Note that believing that humans have an innate moral sense is a claim of human exceptionalism in evolution. (Creation would solve the problem, of course, since then humans ARE exceptional, since G*d created them to be exceptional, and to have souls, and a moral sense).

Science and Morals

Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems
Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation*
Dugatkin, Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees
Ridley, The Origins of Virtue
Skyrms, The Stage Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure

*Though I do buy Binmore's counterclaims about TFT specifically. Still, you get credit for failing in a cool and clever way.

Morals and Reason

Frank, Passions within Reason
Gauthier, Morals by Agreement
Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals
Nozick, Philosophical Explanations
Rawls, Theory of Justice

Are the distinctions between those perspectives as clear as I am making them? And do these readings simply reflect an idiosyncratic random sample, leaving out the important works everyone ELSE takes for granted? I restricted myself to books I have actually READ, so that list may not be representative....

I have to admit: I have trouble with the human exceptionalism idea, EXCEPT that reason and living in groups may have endowed us with quantitatively different capacities for cooperation. But we are clearly NOT like eusocial species such as honeybees or ants. In fact, emotions may well exist precisely because we do NOT expect others to be morals, and norms have to be enforced. A flush of adrenaline when I see someone violate rules means I provide the public good of enforcement even when it is individually irrational to do so.

Anyway, I rambled. I really wanted to know about more and better books.


coturnix said...

Try "Unto Others" by Sober and Wilson.

Tarendipitous said...

I'm not clear on what it took to get on your lists -- are these supposed to be the five most interesting books you've read in each category? Most influential? Most convincing?

Also, I think you miscategorize Nietzsche because you are conflating two categories into one, and two dimensions into one.

The dimension you say you are trying to get at is the dimension of "exceptionalism." For you, the perspective of believing humans are exceptional leads people to write books trying to define this exceptional sense of morality that they believe humans have, and explicitly or implicitly prescribe the actions that fall under their definition of "right." Rawls falls into this category, as do John Stuart Mills and lots of other classic ethical theorists (I don't remember Nozick, Gauthier, or Frank well enough, but they probably fall in this category as well).

At the other end of this dimension are people who don't believe humans are exceptional and (therefore?) write books explaning the origins of morality in historical terms. Your focus here is on "historical" in the sense of "evolutionary/biological," but to me the non-exceptionalism assumption might well also prompt people to write *cultural* histories of different ethical systems in the sense of an historian or anthropologist.

I think the best part of Nietszche's project is the cultural history of the Judeo-Christian ethical system, which is NOT the kind of thing an exceptionalist would usually be interested in doing. The reason you are tempted to lump him in the second category is because you see him making prescriptions and assume that that makes him an exceptionalist.

But that is where you are conflating two dimensions. The dimension of exceptionalism is separate from the dimension of, for lack of a better term, "activism." It is quite possible and consistent to reject exceptionalism and still make prescriptions in one's writing -- in fact, I dare say, your blogging is an excellent example of this. The goal of impacting others' behavior, including behavior in the realm of what we commonly term morality, through one's writings is not contingent upon the exceptionalism premise.

(NOTE: In a technical (but important) sense, all writings have activist projects -- the goal might be to affect the behavior of the committee making tenure decisions, for instance. But I'm using activism here in a much less inclusive sense of self-conciously attempting to influence the ethical norms of others)

Hence, I think that Axelrod and probably the other books you listed in your first set (I haven't read them) have non-exceptionalist, non-activist projects. Rawls (and probably some of the others in your second set) have exceptionalist, activist projects. But Foucault, me, non-exceptionalists who make policy recommendations, and (under some readings, at least) Nietzsche have non-exceptionalist, activist projects.

Jacob said...

a developed sense of the moral status of actions, separate from our fear of punishment, or avoidance of shame and shunning?

I'm not entirely sure I understand the underlying distinction or question; but this way of putting the point makes me pretty sure that Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, belongs on one of your lists. Which one? The second, I suppose; the moral faculty is gained through mutual judgment as assessment in that humanly-social way you talk about at the end. But the mechanism through which it's gained is in part the desire to avoid shame and shunning. We then learn to feel acts to be shameful even without being caught and shamed; we learn to be ashamed even without being shamed. But we probably wouldn't learn it without the more-social moment.

Aeolus said...

I recommend Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, by James Rachels. All will be explained to you!
As for human exceptionalism:

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