Moral Fundamentalism is a Scientific Sin

Kate Douglas’s 26 May 2014 New Scientist Article ‘How moral fundamentalism becomes a scientific sin’ is a review of Mark Johnson’s ‘Morality for Humans’ book (parts available on-line via Google Books). The article is reproduced here with some highlights (in bold) and comments from me. Italics are in Johnson’s original.

(Johnson is an Ethical Naturalist and this is a brief detour from the current ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series, which next looks at Ethical Naturalism.)

The article’s headline sets out the major proposition:

We are moral because we need to be, argues Mark Johnson in Morality for Humans – and our moral compass rests on our knack for imagining future scenarios

Johnson takes a naturalist approach to ethics:

WHAT an enticing title: Morality for Humans. In three simple words, it promises both to reveal human morality as natural rather than supernatural, and to provide a sort of manual on how we might best employ our particular moral sense. But beware high expectations.

Pragmatic and obviously social:

Don’t get me wrong: Mark Johnson’s thesis is eminently sensible. He argues, in a nutshell, that we are moral creatures because we need to be, in order to survive and flourish. Ethical reasoning is a form of problem-solving primarily concerned with situations where our values and interests conflict with those of others. Any social species encounters such situations, so morality is not uniquely human.

Hinting at the interplay between the complexity of the mind and the complexity of society:

But our morality is more complicated, nuanced and reflective than that of other animals. “What mostly separates human morality from the morality of certain non-human species is the complexity of human mind and society,” writes Johnson.

Against an exclusively idealistic rational morality:

Of course, this runs counter to traditional ideas about morality. They see it as uniquely human and resting on absolute principles, which are there to be discovered. Most religions locate the source of these moral principles in god. Western philosophers – most notably Immanuel Kant – have replaced the deity with “universal reason“, so that human rationality becomes the source of unconditional moral laws. Such “moral fundamentalism” is wrong, Johnson argues.

But whom is he trying to convince? Not the likes of me, who already knows this to be true. Not the millions who hold a god to be at the centre of their moral universe; they have their faith, and the fact that Johnson spends so little time questioning it indicates that they are not his target audience either.

Kate Douglas is more than a little dismissive of deontologists!:

That leaves the Kantians. But do they even exist outside the philosopher’s imagination? I find it improbable that anyone would live according to such mumbo jumbo in the moral morass of the real world.

Nevertheless, Johnson expends long, impenetrable passages and entire convoluted chapters in his attempt to put these deluded Kantians right. I suppose it is the philosophers’ job to argue the pants off each other but, really, do they have to do it in public? Besides, Johnson has some good points and he doesn’t need to win battles against straw men.

Morality is about intuition as well as reason. There is a two-tier ‘dual-process’ (fast unconscious ‘System 1’ and slow conscious ‘System 2’) psychology:

He notes that, traditionally, moral reasoning has been seen as a matter of conscious analysis – to identify pre-existing moral principles and then apply them. Cognitive science reveals that this cannot be correct, since much moral thinking happens subconsciously. As a result of experiments in moral psychology, many scientists have concluded that intuitive judgements come first, followed later, if at all, by rational justification.

Dennett’s ‘Popperian creatures’ are able let their own hypothesis ‘die in their stead’. In moral terms, they are able to hypothesize the consequences of their actions in order to veto those actions, and do something else.

That’s fine as far as it goes, says Johnson. But he recognises a key third process, which he calls “imaginative moral deliberation” – and this is where his real insight comes.

Imaginative moral deliberation is a form of simulation. In the face of a tough moral conundrum, we are able to mentally rehearse possible solutions to see which feels like the best way to resolve the problem at hand. This has several important implications.

Without this imagination, we are ‘Darwinian creatures’, without morality. Morality is social and dynamic:

Morality is based upon values that arise from our shared needs, desires, interests and practices – values that change continuously. Deliberation allows us to adapt to these changes by bringing new information to bear on a problem. If morality were built solely on intuitive judgements and after-the-fact justification, there would be no moral progress. But add imaginative moral deliberation, and our morality can evolve.

Moral fundamentalism takes us back to being ‘Darwinian creatures’, denying what it is to be human:

So, human morality is contingent, experimental, a work in progress. That sounds about right. It also underpins Johnson’s most provocative statement, that moral fundamentalism is not just incorrect, but a “sin”. “Moral absolutism is immoral,” he argues, “in that it shuts down precisely the kind of empirically informed ethical inquiry we most need for our lives.”

It is easier to discount what morality is not (absolutist) than to provide a positive account of what it is:

What is a morally responsible human to do? Although Johnson assumes that we all wish to make the world a better place, he is disappointingly short on advice. That you should aspire to be conscientious is about the sum of it. “Conscientiousness requires the mental and emotional flexibility to imagine new solutions and new ways of going forward that resolve pressing problems.” In other words, keep pushing the moral boundaries because there are no absolutes.

Morality is an optimization (maximization) problem:

For humans, morality is not about Right or Good, simply about Better.

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