Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pro-life Arguments and the Sorites Paradox

The following was written as a reply to a blog entry by Jay Whip on his blog Pro-Life Apologetics at  

Jay says, “If you add one hundred zeroes together, your sum will still be zero. In the same way if sentience, brain waves, and conscious desires by themselves do not have any bearing on personhood, putting them together does not help.”

It’s true that a hundred zeroes still sum to zero. But what about a hundred ones?

It strikes me that what may be going on here resembles what philosophers call the “sorites paradox”. (Pronounced suh-righties, derived from the Greek for 'heap'.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it this way:

“The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.”
Of course the sorites paradox can be run in the other direction too. If you start with a heap, and take away a grain at a time, you can end up proving that any amount of wheat, even a single grain, is a heap. 

Here’s an excellent strategy for exploiting the sorites paradox: argue, along with Kaczor, that “each standard ... is an ‘independent operator’ that stands or falls alone and is in competition with the other proposed standards. As such, they must each be considered in turn.”

If the transition from a single-celled organism (the fertilized egg, which is prima facie not a person) to a toddler involves a myriad of changes, both small and large, any one of which is not sufficient to qualify something as a person, then it would not be surprising if people were stumped when challenged to name the essential difference. In the ‘heap’ argument, if someone offers a dividing line, say one hundred grains, and Jay scoffs at the difference between 100 and 101, and ridicules his opponents for offering such flimsy arguments, it does not follow that, as Jay says, “adding it to others does not help.”

The difference between an infant and a human zygote is as great, and as multifarious, as the difference between the members of any two species. Take a dog and an ant. I think we all agree that it is wrong, at least without extenuating circumstances, to crush or poison a dog. It is much less clear when, if ever, it is wrong to crush or poison an ant. I challenge you to name the one essential criterion that differentiates the two and is responsible for this moral difference. If you ask a hundred people you might get a hundred different answers. It might be the case that none of these would hold up to probing analysis. Does it follow that we must not step on ants? Or does it prove, by process of elimination, the existence of an arbitrary, authority-based rule that accords the species ‘dog’ special moral status? Would this really explain anything?

Imagine we discovered a species whose members, early in development, were exactly like ants, but which matured into creatures exactly like dogs. Would we think it morally incumbent on us to treat dog-becoming ants as if they were dogs, while we continued to disregard the interests of ant-ants? I suppose that your philosophy would force you to do this. Would your moral intuitions agree? Both my philosophy and my intuitions tell me that currently ant-like things are different from currently dog-like things, and their current natures would demand different treatment even if it were impossible, during development, to draw a clear boundary between ants and dogs, and even if I could not articulate exactly which properties justified dogs’ special moral status. The natures of creatures (unlike their species) can and do change. The current natures of fertilized eggs, regardless of species, resemble each other far more than they do those of the mature organisms they may develop into.

Jay accuses pro-choice advocates of invariably producing only “an arbitrary rule with the justification of abortion in mind.” If the question is one of boundary lines in a sorites kind of situation, with two clear poles and a continuum of complex changes intervening, arbitrary rules may be all that's available. Besides, isn’t the criterion of membership in the human species without regard for stage of development or mental status an equally or even-more arbitrary rule, invented to justify the moral intuitions of pro-lifers? And is this rule really true to their honest intuitions in concrete circumstances? Is one grain really a heap?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Responding to a Pro-Lifer -- summing up

The following was written in response to Jay Whip's comments (dated May 25) on my last blog entry.

Dear Jay,

Thank you for putting so much effort into reading what I’ve written and responding to it. Your challenges have spurred me to formulate more explicitly what it is I believe, and to see that I have a lot more work to do. I’m sorry if you found my last response mind-numbing and jargon-filled. Its length was not a tactic, and my vocabulary just is what it is. You had asked me challenging questions. I wanted both to think about them (my ideas on none of these topics could be called worked out or settled) and to show you how I thought about them. Since we seem to have radically different worldviews, this was not just a matter of answering yes/no questions, but of framing the questions in a way that allowed me to approach the issues from my own perspective. Despite my efforts, you have stubbornly adhered to your preconceptions, which prevent you, I think, from fully understanding me. Nevertheless, you made some good points.


This is the state of play, as I see it. With respect to abortion, you have been all offense and no defense:

You presented the substance-based rationale, that essence is constant and unchanging, using Koukl’s triangle analogy, and disputed my house analogy by distinguishing natural from constructed things. I demolished the substance-based approach, by situating it in ancient proto-science, by explaining the modern scientific understanding of open systems, and by presenting three analogies of development: the computer/plotter, the Mandelbrot set (did you ever take a look at that amazing video?), and a detailed model of the formation of cerebral cortex, all of which resemble early human development far more than does Klusendorf’s latent Polaroid image analogy without relying on any notion of unchanging substance, and which contradict the natural/constructed dichotomy. You made no answer.

You said “I see no rational defense of the idea that self-awareness separates human persons from human non-persons. It is merely something that authority figures have come up with because it is in their self-interest to disqualify the human fetus.” And you cited, as authority for the principle of equality that was supposed to justify the banning of abortion, the Declaration of Independence. I put the famous sentence, “We hold these truths...,” in historical context. The discovery of equality seems to have depended, in part, on a new way of taking seriously the sympathy we naturally feel for our fellow human beings. Sympathy means imagining yourself in another’s place, experiencing what they experience. So, from the beginning, recognition of equality was based on self-awareness. Secondly, being “created equal” referred to an original position in “the state of nature”, before the institution of government had been formed, not to being created in the womb. It expressed a historical understanding that distinctions of rank and privilege were man-made, not natural. Understood in this way, as the people of the time did, the sentence has no bearing on the issue of abortion. You made no answer.

As I see it, for all your talk about authority grounding absolute values, this left you without any authority for, or any rationale for explaining, the claim that embryos and fetuses deserve to be treated with the same respect we accord children and adults.

Instead of defending your previous claims, you produced a new attack, which could be called an argument by elimination. You claimed that, if the species criterion were rejected (“that all human beings are valuable because they are human”), the only logical alternative must allow all kinds of moral horrors. I answered, in my last response, that this was a false dichotomy. There are many possible alternative positions other than the nightmare scenario you outlined. I listed the kinds of issues open for consideration, different choices on which would result in different positions. You didn’t seem to get my point (it’s probably my fault), so you repeated the argument more explicitly in your last response, quoting Robert P. George. I will try here again to explain why this argument, until it is filled out, lacks force.

You list three alternatives, roughly these: no human beings, all human beings, or some human beings are more valuable than animals.

It’s a good start. That’s an exhaustive list. If you can eliminate two, the remaining one must be true.

Then you quote George. He eliminates “no human beings”, and continues: “Anyone who accepts the third position will, in fairly short order, find himself driven by the force of logical argumentation into the [infanticide] positions infamously defended by Peter Singer. (We can go through this exercise, if you like.) Assuming one doesn't want to embrace Singerism, that leaves the second position."

That’s really wonderful, pure Robert P. George. Let me offer another example of this form of argument:

There’s a large jar filled with marbles. We have to guess how many marbles it contains. There are three alternatives: the jar contains zero marbles, one marble, or more than one marble. Now clearly, since we see marbles, the jar can’t be empty, so we can eliminate “zero”. Singer has infamously proposed the jar contains ten million marbles. If we choose “more than one”, we will find ourselves being driven by force of logical argumentation into accepting Singer’s estimate. (We can go through this exercise, if you like.) Assuming one doesn't want to embrace Singerism, that leaves the second position.

Until the maker of such an argument troubles himself to “go through the exercise” of eliminating ALL the alternatives, he has proved nothing. The simple-sounding claim that “some human beings” are more valuable than animals covers a very large range of possible positions, corresponding to an even larger range of arguments for and against them, many of which, no doubt, have not even been thought of yet. You kept challenging me to argue against Singer. But if you are making an argument by elimination, it is up to you to eliminate every position besides the one you have otherwise failed to support.

Nevertheless, you have set the bar so low that it is easy to offer an alternative to the “all humans” criterion. As far as I can tell, you have offered and defended NO reasons to include human embryos and pre-sentient fetuses in the circle of moral concern (other than the very great concern that willing expectant parents very understandably have). It is not even clear to me that you do care about them. It seems to be more that you fear that dire consequences to other human beings would follow if we do not protect them. Given this weak position, to equal it, any other arbitrary criterion which is not logically self-contradictory and does not entail general mayhem should do. Very well, here is one:

Basic principle 1: only sentient beings are moral subjects (where by sentient I mean beings who have been conscious and either are conscious now or will be in the future.) Basic principle 2: only moral subjects have rights. Basic principle 3: Subject to principle 2, all humans have special, human rights. Conclusion: all sentient human beings and no non-sentient ones have human rights. 

I can’t justify this criterion as uniquely true with an argument by elimination, but neither can you yours. I haven’t tried to argue that this position is superior to Singer’s, but you haven’t made such an argument for the pro-life criterion either. That just leaves us with the task of doing the best we can at coming up with principles which seem to do justice to our moral intuitions while at the same time paying due respect to the facts of the objective world as we diligently try to understand them. There is no reason I know of that the answers should be simple, let alone summarizable in a simple slogan.

I am not claiming that the above criterion would be my final answer. I have not even read Singer yet. I don’t know the issues or arguments surrounding all the difficult bioethical situations that may arise. The main point I have wanted to make is that it is my strong intuition, and consistent with my other beliefs, that an organism which has never been conscious does not merit our moral concern. It makes sense to me that the much greater concern due a human being must be conditioned on this prior, more basic criterion of sentience. You have claimed that, if I accept this, I must also accept all kinds of propositions I may not be comfortable with. But unless you “go through the exercise” of demonstrating this, I have no reason to believe you. If you cannot, you have no reason to believe it either.

Reasoning by a process of elimination, when done right, is perfectly valid. It has been said (by
Bruce Thompson) that “the fallacy of Black and White Thinking mimics reasoning by process of elimination, but it eliminates too much too quickly, i.e. it places options out of consideration before they have truly been eliminated.” Perhaps it’s time you abandoned it.

Basis for Morality

Let’s begin with your very odd discussion of the Ring of Gyges. This may be at the heart of our disagreement over morality, and it may come down to a disagreement over human nature.

You say:
In his work, THE RING OF GYGES, Plato recognized that each person generally takes pleasure in harming others but displeasure in being harmed themselves. Thus, when we put ourselves in another man's shoes we decide that it would be better to agree not to harm others, such that we can guarantee that we will not be harmed. 
Contrary to what you are saying, though, it is not concern for another person's well being that compels us to do this, but concern for our own well being. Plato then pointed out that if it was possible to obtain the power to do whatever you wanted without fear of adjudication, no man would continue to adhere to this standard. If this is true, then morality is nothing more than an extension of the will of those with authority. Morality becomes meaningless if there is no one to enforce it.

Two puzzles about this passage struck me: how did you come to believe this, and what is your attitude toward this view of morality?

Obviously, you did not come by this bit of lore first-hand. There is no work by Plato called “The Ring of Gyges.” The story of the ring is told by a character in a Platonic dialogue, namely by Glaucon in Book II of the Republic. Socrates (who is usually closest to Plato’s point of view) had been defending the view that justice is good for its own sake, and that a just man will live well, and an unjust one badly, against Thrasymachus, who held that justice is just “the advantage of the stronger” (which sounds close to your view, that it is “the extension of the will of those in authority”). He also held that completely unjust men (like tyrants) are clever and good, and that justice is “just very high-minded simplicity.” But Thrasymachus got thrashed by Socrates, and threw in the towel. So Glaucon (Plato’s brother) stepped in to play the devil’s advocate, representing not his own view, but “most people’s opinion”, that “all who practice justice do so unwillingly, as something necessary, not as something good,” and that “the life of an unjust person is much better than that of a just one.” To press this case as strongly as he can, he tells the story of the ring, which makes its wearer invisible, and thus allows him to act unjustly while avoiding the consequences, so that Socrates will be forced to defend justice as a good in itself even when unrewarded and even when injustice is rewarded. As often happens in Platonic dialogues, it’s not clear this goal is ever accomplished, though Socrates clearly believes justice is a good.

How, I wonder, did you come to believe that Plato held a view he in fact strenuously opposed? And do you believe it yourself? You seem to. But this is a completely cynical and relativistic position, that justice is whatever benefits those in power. But you have spoken with the greatest disdain of “those in positions of authority” who invent ideas about what’s right and wrong merely to promote their own interests.

The best I can figure out, it goes like this for you: human nature is evil. Humans act only for selfish reasons, and they take pleasure in harming others. Wise pagans like Plato recognized this. So does your brand of Christianity, I would guess. If “morality is nothing more than an extension of the will of those with authority,” which you apparently believe (!?), then the only choice is what authority to recognize. If there is one Absolute, Divine Authority, then His arbitrary Will defines the one true universal morality. Without Him, we only have men who happen to be in positions of authority, who just define morality to be whatever is in their own self-interest. In other words, it’s another black-or-white choice between just two alternatives: God-dictated absolute values or interest-group-dictated relativism. Did I get that about right?

In the course of this debate, I’d always found strange your reference to people “in authority” as the culprits responsible for the moral ideas you oppose, because I view the morality of a society as arising much more widely, from the temper of the times, people’s ways of life, their ideas, their economic activity, their art forms, their religious beliefs, etc. No one clique, no matter how powerful, can determine what seems right or wrong to large groups of people. (Though, come to think of it, Fox does a pretty good job.) But you apparently believe it’s a war between God and, what? Liberal intellectuals?

Maybe it is. Except naturally I’d put “God” in quotes.

On second thought, no. There are Christians on both sides of this. Probably the more important divide is between those who believe, as you seem to hold, that humans only act selfishly and delight in harming each other, and those who take a more benign view of human nature. I urge you to read some of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It begins: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” (This, remember, is by the original theorist of free market capitalism, not some namby-pamby liberal.)

Current psychology supports this view. Even evolutionary psychologists now recognize that cooperation, not just competition, plays a central role in human evolution and behavior. The child psychologist Paul Bloom, for instance, in a May 2010 article for the New York Times Magazine,
The Moral Life of Babies, recounts many behaviors of babies which reveal an innate foundation for morality. Not only are they empathetic, crying in sympathy with others’ pain, and soothing others in distress. Toddlers spontaneously help others, without encouragement or reward. After witnessing puppet shows in which characters either helped or hindered others, five-, six- and ten-month olds preferred the helpers and showed aversion to the hinderers. 18-month olds identified the helpers as nice and good, the hinderers as mean and bad. 21-month olds rewarded the positive characters and punished the negative. Most remarkable, an experiment with 8-month olds had them choose between two puppets, one who had rewarded a good guy in the puppet show, and one who had punished a good guy; in another case they chose between a puppet who had rewarded a bad guy versus one who had punished a bad guy. The babies chose the puppet who was nice to the good guy (the helper), and the one who punished the bad guy (the hinderer). At eight months old they were demonstrating something like a sense of justice!

Bloom describes these responses as “gut level”, as probably “cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires.” He distinguishes these early stages from a mature morality which is based on a notion of impartiality, the idea that actions are justified not by the mere “because I want to” of selfish desire, but by appeals to principles like fairness that “imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same.” It is this kind of justification which can be “convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law.” But Bloom notes: “moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.” But, because youngsters are also inclined to favor members of their own group to outsiders, Bloom believes that generality and ultimately universality of moral judgements are not innate, but are insights that emerge historically. He cites recent social science research that shows that “people’s propensities to behave kindly to strangers and to punish unfairness are strongest in large-scale communities with market economies, where such norms are essential to the smooth functioning of trade.”  Bloom concludes that these properties of “enlightened morality” are “the product of culture, not biology... of the accumulation of rational insight and hard earned innovations.... Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations – the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.”

I don’t know if Paul Bloom makes this rather complex interaction of universal human nature and culture any clearer to you than I was able to with my clumsy music analogy and my account of a historical change in attitudes toward sympathy. For you to make heads or tails of it, you would probably have to begin by jettisoning the notion that “each person generally takes pleasure in harming others” and that we are only concerned with our own well being. If you really believed this, I doubt you would be so unselfishly active in the pro-life cause. The only people this description describes accurately are psychopaths, those who lack the capacity for empathy, and probably for moral sentiments of any kind.

Some claim that psychopaths are less rare than once thought (perhaps 1% of the population), and more prominent in positions of power. Jon Ronson’s new book The Psychopath Test deals with this humorously. Even if it turned out that psychopaths play important roles in society, it would still make no sense to try to understand morality as a system a psychopath would find compelling. For the vast majority of people, I believe, sympathy plays at least as important a role in their lives as raw self-interest. For them, it would not be true that “Morality becomes meaningless if there is no one to enforce it.”

Incidentally, the portrait of infancy Paul Bloom sketches reveals the simplistic nature of glib talk about rationality and moral agency as conditions of personhood which only appear late in childhood. These infants are exhibiting uniquely human non-rational capabilities which are at the core of our moral natures.

There are some points you made that I thought were well taken, or at least challenging. You wrote:

Is Classical Music right while Heavy Metal Rock is wrong? No. It's just a matter of likes and dislikes. In the same way, your beliefs about morality are reduced to nothing more than cultural norms and the will of those in the position of authority. 
As I recall, you originally said that it is dangerous to rely on cultural norms for determining morality, alluding to the holocaust as an example. But by your analogy, can you say the Nazis were wrong? I don't think so. They were just listening to music (morality) that they liked. 
Now, you do attempt to clear this up with reflective thought. Putting yourself in another person's shoes and then deciding whether or not an action is permissible. However, I think that without realizing it, you have assumed an objective moral. That moral being that we ought to care how others feel.

It might be useful to consider first how Adam Smith might have responded to the Nazis. Consider this passage:
When we read in history concerning the perfidy and cruelty of a Borgia or a Nero, our heart rises up against the detestable sentiments which influenced their conduct, and renounces with horror and abomination all fellow-feeling with such execrable motives. So far our sentiments are founded upon the direct antipathy to the affections of the agent: and the indirect sympathy with the resentment of the sufferers is still more sensibly felt. When we bring home to ourselves the situation of the persons whom those scourges of mankind insulted, murdered, or betrayed, what indignation do we not feel against such insolent and inhuman oppressors of the earth? Our sympathy with the unavoidable distress of the innocent sufferers is not more real nor more lively, than our fellow-feeling with their just and natural resentment. The former sentiment only heightens the latter, and the idea of their distress serves only to inflame and blow up our animosity against those who occasioned it. When we think of the anguish of the sufferers, we take part with them more earnestly against their oppressors; we enter with more eagerness into all their schemes of vengeance, and feel ourselves every moment wreaking, in imagination, upon such violators of the laws of society, that punishment which our sympathetic indignation tells us is due to their crimes. Our sense of the horror and dreadful atrocity of such conduct, the delight which we take in hearing that it was properly punished, the indignation which we feel when it escapes this due retaliation, our whole sense and feeling, in short, of its ill desert, of the propriety and fitness of inflicting evil upon the person who is guilty of it, and of making him grieve in his turn, arises from the sympathetic indignation which naturally boils up in the breast of the spectator, whenever he thoroughly brings home to himself the case of the sufferer. 
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments II.i.5.6              
I think this well-describes the feelings all of us have had toward the Nazis and other such modern Neros. Contrast this reaction with your claim that my “beliefs about morality are reduced to nothing more than cultural norms and the will of those in the position of authority,” and your surmise that I would not be able to tell the Nazis that they were wrong. Paul Bloom tells of an experiment in which toddlers were shown a puppet show in which one puppet was helpful and cooperative and another selfish and uncooperative. After the show, when given a choice of which puppet to take a treat away from, a one-year-old was not satisfied to take it from the “naughty” one. “He leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.” Punishment of wrong-doers is not a cultural norm. It is human nature.

So can I say the Nazis were wrong? Of course I can, and do.

It seems to me that you want to stand in the place of God and look down on the Nazis and say, “I know, because I am in possession of the absolute truth, that you are wrong. And as proof, you will be punished in the next life. And I thank God I know you will be punished, because if you weren’t, I couldn’t say you were wrong.”

This is what I would say: “I have seen the pictures. I have heard the stories. I know what you put innocent people through and what you took from them. In every morally relevant way, they were like you. They were like me. They had the same loves, desires and fears. Look now. See what you’ve done. You know as well as I do that what you did was wrong. If you don’t, you are either in denial about what was done, or you are mentally deficient, or still under the delusion that the Jews were subhuman, or evil and a threat. All the lies you let yourselves believe! That too was wrong. Shame on you! And remember, so you don’t do anything like that again!” I can say all that without pretending I know the mind of God, or anyone’s fate in the afterlife. I can say it as a human being, as this human being to those human beings, by calling on our common humanity. It is not hard to do.

It is not a question of whether “we ought to care how others feel”. We do. We’re just good at ignoring it sometimes. We fail to exercise our moral imaginations. But they are there and can be appealed to. Reason doesn’t have to start from scratch. It starts from this common ground, and then adds considerations of impartiality and generality and an unbiased weighing of the facts.

Germans have understood and admitted their crimes. They don’t simply regret their defeat. As a part of this willing admission, they have built monuments memorializing the Holocaust. Where, in the Vatican, is there a monument to the victims of the Inquisition or the Crusades? This is impossible, because the Catholic Church pretends to stand in the place of God, looking down on humans, and to speak in the voice of absolute truth. It cannot admit culpability and retain its authority. So instead of execrating ‘Hitler’s Pope’, Pius XII, who signed a treaty with Hitler instead of using his place of prominence and authority to witness for the good and stand with the victims, the church now seeks to canonize him! This should revolt everyone on earth. Anyone who speaks for the Catholic Church, far from being recognized as a moral authority on that account, should be considered morally suspect. They are posers and self-deceivers. I think it’s clear from this example that the mere belief in absolutes gets you absolutely nowhere.

But there is still your objection to be considered that “it’s just a matter of likes and dislikes”. Even if those likes and dislikes are largely instinctual, and can be traced back to infancy, have I assumed not only that we have these moral sentiments by nature, but that we ought to, that they are morally correct? If so, where is my authority for that?

As it happens, Adam Smith was aware of this problem, which, surprisingly, he addressed in a footnote to the above passage. Smith knew that its full-throated expression of resentment and vengeful anger, even toward a villain like Nero, was so shocking that it needed some justification. In a long footnote he defends the appropriateness of these sentiments, even bringing in the Biblical “wrath and anger of God” to show that such passions were not necessarily vicious or evil. But then he continues:

Let it be considered too, that the present inquiry is not concerning a matter of right, if I may say so, but concerning a matter of fact. We are not at present examining upon what principles a perfect being would approve of the punishment of bad actions; but upon what principles so weak and imperfect a creature as man actually and in fact approves of it. The principles which I have just now mentioned, it is evident, have a very great effect upon his sentiments; and it seems wisely ordered that it should be so. The very existence of society requires that unmerited and unprovoked malice should be restrained by proper punishments; and consequently, that to inflict those punishments should be regarded as a proper and laudable action. Though man, therefore, be naturally endowed with a desire of the welfare and preservation of society, yet the Author of nature has not entrusted it to his reason to find out that a certain application of punishments is the proper means of attaining this end; but has endowed him with an immediate and instinctive approbation of that very application which is most proper to attain it. The oeconomy of nature is in this respect exactly of a piece with what it is upon many other occasions. With regard to all those ends which, upon account of their peculiar importance, may be regarded, if such an expression is allowable, as the favourite ends of nature, she has constantly in this manner not only endowed mankind with an appetite for the end which she proposes, but likewise with an appetite for the means by which alone this end can be brought about, for their own sakes, and independent of their tendency to produce it. Thus self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which Nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals. Mankind are endowed with a desire of those ends, and an aversion to the contrary; with a love of life, and a dread of dissolution; with a desire of the continuation and perpetuity of the species, and with an aversion to the thoughts of its intire extinction. But though we are in this manner endowed with a very strong desire of those ends, it has not been intrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason, to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts. Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, the love of pleasure, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce by them.                                                                                       
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments II.i.5.10

In case this wasn’t altogether clear, Smith is saying that, just as we desire sex for its own sake, due to an instinct implanted in us by Nature to preserve the species, we desire punishment of wrongdoing for its own sake, due to an instinct implanted in us to preserve society from “unmerited and unprovoked malice.” Nature chooses that we should instinctually desire the means (sex itself, retribution itself), independent of the end, because it does not trust our reason to find out what the appropriate means are, even though we do desire the end as well.

I think this must sound very different to the two of us.

I can’t be sure how you would take it. One way would be to accept at face value that our moral instincts were put in us by God, and therefore have His authority. I have not heard from you, given that morals are supposed to be based on an absolute authority, how we are supposed to know what that authority says. Is conscience what you had in mind? Or the Bible? Or some church? I really don’t have a clue. According to Koukl, good and bad are supposed to be in the outside world as objective facts. How is that supposed to work, and what does authority have to do with that? Is the toddler who smacks the bad puppet doing so because he perceives objective badness? If so, why didn’t the Nazis perceive the wrongness of their acts? And if they don’t, on what authority can you tell them that they’re wrong? If you were to accept Adam Smith’s point of view, our moral sentiments would be our admittedly imperfect channels to God’s decrees for us.

For me, Smith’s account sounds very close to modern evolutionary psychology. We have these innate propensities because they led to the survival of our ancestors. If they hadn’t been adaptive, we wouldn’t have them, or we wouldn’t be here. But, regardless of how or why we got them, compassion and the thirst for justice are not just means to survival for us. They express what we value for its own sake.

So for you, if you accept conscience as God’s creation, its goodness is not in doubt. For me, there is the potential for irony. If I step away from humanity, and see us as evolved animals, then, paradoxically, the cold logic of survival seems to have determined that victimization of the innocent will cause my blood to boil with sympathetic indignation. (You may doubt that it does boil, because I am pro-choice. But “the innocent” for me means feeling human beings. Nonsentient bodies don’t ignite my passions.) Does this fact – that the Nature that endowed me with these feelings and perceptions was ... nonsentient itself – does this mean I should take my moral judgements less seriously? Are they just “likes and dislikes”, just evolutionary accidents, as opposed to objective moral truths?

Assuming you have gotten this far, you will probably hate it if I say I am not clear about this issue, but I’m not. But this is the way I have tended to think about it, in my own vague, fumbling way:

According to my beliefs, we are finite beings. We live a short time, and that is it. The best we can do is live a meaningful life as meaning presents itself to us. If we live according to someone else’s meaning, we have missed our chance for a life meaningful to us.

We are not privy to the mind of God. Or, as Adam Smith might say, we are ignorant of “what principles a perfect being would approve.” Our own minds are all we have to work with. If something is beautiful to us, it doesn’t matter how we came by this perception, or why we have this aesthetic faculty. Beauty is a good. We value it. If we care about someone being harmed, we care about it. It doesn’t matter if God cares or not. It doesn’t matter if we come by care for no moral reason, but because those who cared had their genes passed on. We are incensed at the victimizers, and we try to convince them to stop, or to stop them, because that is what makes sense to us. As far as I know, that is the kind of thing morality is (suitably abstracted to apply to all like cases. When it comes to abortion, what the ‘like cases’ are seems to be where you and I differ.)  Justice is a good to us. It is more than a personal like or dislike. It is a human like or dislike. If that does not amount to “a question of right” but only “a question of fact”, then so be it. At this point, it’s the best I know how to do.

I know that answer is incomplete. There are all kinds of things I haven’t considered – for instance conflicts between sentiments, their balance and the importance of fitting their degree to the circumstances. How do we come to value the just application of our sentiments? What is the role of reason? Is there some way in which objective truth might arise from the application of reason in this field which would not depend on anything innately human, as it does in mathematics for instance? I don’t see it, but I’m woefully ignorant, and perhaps I’ve missed something important. I’ve just tried to explain, as a person, not a philosopher (which I’m not), how things seem to me.

You are welcome to answer if you like. If you don’t I will not continue this, except for one last installment. It is a piece I wrote in answer to your May 4 comment on the Russian spy story at I submitted my answer – not a very long one – weeks ago, but LTI never published it. Since they never bothered to inform me why, I think it is fair to assume it was cowardice. I will publish a version of that response here shortly. I think it is quite tricky and clever (unlike most of what I write.)

Thanks again, Jay, for all the effort you put into this. I’ve enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Jerry  Lame