Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The moral pragmatist’s wager

I don’t write about meta-ethical epistemology often enough. Time to remedy that.

Something occurred to me as I was reading Jonathan Jong’s blog a few weeks ago. Jonathan said: “Most people want to be moral realists, to believe that there are such things as moral facts beyond our social conventions.”

I think that’s pretty much right. A lot of people do believe that there really is, objectively, right and wrong, and that this isn’t just a matter of following social conventions – and nor is morality merely a matter of conforming to our biological nature, nor satisfying personal preferences, nor complying with a set of laws, nor (as many would argue, given the preceding two points) obeying divine commands.

For morality to truly be morality, it would have to be something quite distinct from all these things – although that’s not to deny that conventions, preferences, scriptures and the rest can shape our thinking about what’s right and wrong. As well as being a notable school of thought in ethical theory (‘non-naturalism’), this view does in rough outline have appeal for a lot of people whose heads haven’t been saturated with academic philosophy.

And yet… if morality is to be something wholly standalone, then what exactly is it? What sort of things are moral principles? And, more practically, how can we come to grasp them? It seems that empirical observation and logical reasoning aren’t up to the job of delivering knowledge of these peculiar facts, so are we left to rely on some special sort of intuition? But that, too, is an obscure idea.

We want to be moral realists – because we want to be able to be moral people – but we’re not at all sure how to justify belief in objective moral truths (although this doesn’t prove that there are no such truths). So, are we stuck with a puzzled agnosticism that will paralyse us when we face up to it or awkwardly nag at us when we try to ignore it?

I think we may be able to do a bit better.

Pascal’s wager

In the same blog post, Jonathan also wrote, a few sentences earlier: “Perhaps there are good prudential or pragmatic reasons for assuming that God does exist, even if this assumption is not ‘belief’ in the proper sense. It's less, ‘I hold it to be true that God exists’ than, ‘I live as though it is true.’ Perhaps.”

And, although he was talking about Kant, this put me in mind of that more famous pragmatic religious argument, Pascal’s wager. This is not an attempt to prove god’s existence but a cost-benefit analysis to recommend the rationality of believing in god. It’s aimed at people who tend to like the idea of god but just don’t find themselves convinced that he exists.

Briefly: you can either believe in god or not. If you don’t believe in god and he doesn’t exist, then you lead an ordinary finite life. But if you don’t believe in him and he does exist, then you go to hell for eternity, which is the most awful thing that could happen to you. Your other option is to believe in god: if you do, and he doesn’t exist, then you’ve wasted some time and effort and perhaps money in your involvement with church activities, which is a loss, but only a modest one (you may also gain a sense of fulfilment, but the wager can assume that this is outweighed by the losses here). But if you believe in him and he does exist, then you’ve hit the infinite jackpot of heaven.

So the outcomes for you if you don’t believe are either unremarkable or utterly disastrous; if you do believe, your outcomes are either modest inconvenience or eternal bliss. Assuming you don’t rule out god’s existence completely, then even if you judge there to be only a slim chance of it, the average expected outcome of belief is immeasurably better than that of disbelief. So it’s in your interests to believe.

There are plenty of objections to Pascal’s wager. Here are some:

  1. It assumes voluntarism about beliefs. But we can’t simply decide to believe in the truth of something by an act of conscious will. How many emails did I receive yesterday? You don’t know, but try, now, sincerely to believe that I got 15. That may sound like a plausible number, but you really have no information. Can you firmly believe it, rather than merely entertaining the idea? No. You could freely choose to act as if you believed this, but belief itself isn’t like that. Something has to convince you.

  2. Even setting the above aside, it’s an abdication of rational judgement. While it does trade on rationality, this is of a calculating self-interested kind rather than the epistemic kind that judges propositions to be true, false or uncertain based on the available evidence. If the logic of the wager were extended across other walks of life, we would find that wishful thinking got in the way of our ability to judge true from false.

  3. It subverts whatever virtue there may be in belief in god. We might accept that believing in god is something that he would esteem as morally praiseworthy, but given the psychology of the wager – self-interested calculation to maximise personal advantage – it’s hard to see any virtue in this at all.

  4. It assumes the only relevant options are this god in particular (Pascal was a Catholic) or not. But the same argument could be made about the benefits of adhering to a number of different religious views. Accepting one means rejecting all the others, and if it’s equally rational to adopt belief in any one, then the wager’s logic could push you in many contradictory directions with equal force. Which means that it can’t justifiably push you towards any of them.

What does such a bad argument about religion have to do with wanting to believe in objective morality but not being sure how to get a handle on the idea? I think the structure of Pascal’s wager can be adapted, in a way that avoids equivalent objections, for people who’d like to be able to ‘do the right thing’ but don’t know how to justify the view that there really is a ‘right thing’ to do.

Betting on moral pragmatism

You can live you life either on the basis that there are moral truths (beyond conventions, preferences, etc.) or not on that basis. (a) If you disregard morality and indeed there is none, then you live in a way consistent with your non-moral desires, many of which you may satisfy, and it doesn’t morally matter. (b) But if you live in such a way and there is an objective morality, then while satisfying those personal desires, you will likely lead a morally bad life.

Your other option is to live with the working supposition that there are objective moral truths. (c) If you do, and there aren’t, then you sacrifice some of your personal desires and achieve nothing of moral value (although you may gain a sense of moral fulfilment, but let’s assume that this is outweighed by the losses here). (d) But if you live in such a way and there are moral truths, then you can adhere to these and achieve some good.

So the outcomes for you if you don’t live as though there are objective moral truths are a (potentially) materially satisfying life that is either morally neutral or positively immoral. If you do live as though moral realism is true, then your outcomes are either inconvenience or moral goodness. These different types of factor are harder to weigh than the purely personal costs and benefits of Pascal’s wager.

If we could assume moral realism, then it would be easy: moral considerations trump material ones. From the initial doubtful position, all we can say is that if there are any moral considerations, then they trump material ones. Two of the four outcomes do specify moral realism, so these will count as (b) very bad and (d) very good. The nihilistic other outcomes are morally neutral and either (a) materially satisfying or (c) materially unsatisfying.

Someone who’d like to be a moral realist and is considering this wager would agree that morality, if it is real, is by definition more important than personal advantage. This then requires the judgement that the moral badness and goodness of (b) and (d) respectively is greater not just in degree but in kind than the material goodness and badness of (a) and (c). Which means that acting as if there are moral truths leads to the best expected average outcome, as long as you don’t rule out moral realism completely.

So you may not be able to prove that morality is real, beyond conventions and preferences and the like, but the only way to have even the possibility of adhering to it is to act as if it is real. That’s the moral pragmatist’s wager.

Do similar objections to those that scupper Pascal apply here? Let’s go through them:

  1. Voluntarism about beliefs isn’t relevant. The moral pragmatist’s wager isn’t about choosing to believe in moral realism even though you’re unconvinced; it’s about choosing to act as if moral realism is true.

  2. Because it’s not about belief, it can’t be an abdication of rational judgement. But might it be an abdication of moral judgement, given your uncertainty about whether the moral principles you act on are really real? No. Because even if you’re uncertain about whether there are objective moral truths, acting as though there are is the only way you even stand a chance of doing the right thing and being a moral person. The driving motive in taking the wager is that you want these moral goods, and choosing to go the other way would guarantee that you won’t get them.

  3. It can’t subvert whatever virtue there may be in belief in moral realism, because it doesn’t mandate such belief. But perhaps acting on the basis of a moral belief that you don’t actually hold might somehow negate whatever moral value such actions have? It’s hard to see how this might be, though. To the extent that morality involves consequences of actions, these are unaffected; to the extent that it involves intentions or personal virtues, the wager is based on the intention to be as moral as possible, and this is liable to cultivate a virtuous character; to the extent that it involves rules or duties, these can be adhered to equally well on a pragmatic basis. Also, given that our beliefs aren’t voluntary, there can’t be anything reprehensible about not fully believing in something of which you’re genuinely unsure.

  4. Does it assumes the only relevant options are morality or none? What about different moral viewpoints? It’s true that there are such varied views, which might seem to pose a problem. But, as I said in the very first sentence, this argument is about meta-ethics. It’s about the very general nature of moral truth and moral knowledge at all. The fact that it doesn’t tell us which particular moral theory to favour, or how to resolve any given dilemma, is no criticism. The moral pragmatist’s wager simply tells us that, if moral realism is appealing but not proven, it can still make sense to treat it as a working assumption and to keep thinking morally about more specific issues.

So, there it is. Having only thought of this very recently, I can hardly claim that this line of thinking is what shapes my moral outlook. But it does seem to me (and I add the caveat that this isn’t my field) that the argument more or less hangs together. Maybe not, though; maybe it’s an old idea that’s long been dismissed. Maybe this is just an amateur’s light mental workout, or maybe it’s a striking new piece of moral philosophy.

Wanna bet?

18 comments:

Matt M said...

Is moral realism, or even just the belief in it, a good thing?

My knowledge in this area is extremely amateur - a few 'Philosophy for Dummies' books and the odd online article, but I tend to lean heavily towards the emotivist-type theories of moral judgment. When I say that murder is wrong, I'm simply asserting that I dislike murder.

As such, I see it as necessary to try to connect with people on an emotional/intuitive level on moral matters and build some kind of consensus in an effort to bring about the type of behaviour I want to see.

Acting as though my desires were facts about the external world doesn't seem to help in any way other than to make me slightly more dogmatic - it's not a case of building bridges, more making them see that I'm right. And given that there's no possible way to prove who's right or wrong the possibility of conflict seems quite high.

Tom Freeman said...

Well, while emotivism is easily defensible on metaphysical grounds, it risks you putting a dislike of murder on the same level as dislikes of cabbage or of James Blunt. It doesn't seem a very 'moral' morality.

Matt M said...

While James Blunt may be worse than murder, surely the difference between my dislike of murder and dislike of cabbage is the strength of feeling?

From an individual POV, moral realism seems unnecessary - my opinion of my moral judgments doesn't really affect their strength and impact on my behaviour. When it comes to donating money to charity, or preventing a crime, meta-ethics is the last thing on my mind.

When it comes to convincing others, moral realism seems counter-productive. If I try to argue that our moral intuitions reflect an external reality, how can I prove that my morality is any more real than theirs?

Tom Freeman said...

Matt, have you seen the discussion going on here?

"If I like vanilla ice cream best and you like chocolate best, there is nothing for us to argue about; but if you contend that abortion is never morally permissible and I say that it sometimes is, then we do have a point of contention to discuss rationally. The cases are simply different."

Matt M said...

Is that a polite way of asking me to bugger off? ;-)

Looks interesting though.

Have you ever read any Richard Rorty? I've only looked through 'Philosophy and Social Hope', but it did get me thinking about how 'objective' - in the sense of being beyond individual opinion - knowledge could possible.

Without relying on a God-like figure, how would we ever have access to knowledge that is outside what we see of the world?

Until someone can tell me how it's possible to differentiate between 'how it is' and 'how it seems to me', working out how individual moralities can co-exist seems more important than proving a fig-leaf of respectability to moral realism.

Tom Freeman said...

I am never polite about asking people to bugger off!

I've not really read any Rorty properly - dipped into Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature here and there at uni, but frankly the sheer cleverness of the guy was a bit intimidating...

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

In a hypothetical(?) situation in which our moral compass was dictated purely by our genes, would that constitute moral objectivity? Or would it still be subjective because only an individual with that specific set of genes can experience the sense of morality associated with those genes? These aren't rhetorical questions; I can't figure it out.

I guess I'm flummoxed by the question of whether we have any more flexibility in 'choosing' our morality as we do in choosing whether a good, sturdy kick in the testicles is actually going to hurt.

revvvvvvvd said...

No idea if this argument is sound, but I sure like the sound of it! But, I like pragmatic arguments in general, just because often I don't think we have much of a choice. Here's a realist beginning to sound pragmatist. *gasp* I've recently been feeling a little jaded about the kind of philosophy in which we engage, actually. What if Wittgenstein is right, and it's all just a game? *gasp part 2*

anticant said...

Pascal also said "All our reasoning reduces itself to yielding to feeling". Do we really have to go through all this tortuous speculation to discover the difference between good and evil? Small children have an innate sense of justice; they are upset when they discover - as we all do - that life isn't 'fair'. See "Where do we get our values from?" on anticant's arena.

Alex said...

This is KILLING ME not having the time to devote as much thought to this thread as I'd like. I have a moment or two now so I'll see what I can accomplish here.

Tom you embarrass me with the clarity of thought you are accomplishing here. Nice work! Of course you can just about imagine how much I like where you are going here, as I'm sure we all know I'm firmly in the realist camp. Having said that allow me to let my mind wonder, as I don't have the time to organize myself. (Seems to work for Matt most of the time, so I thought I'd give it a try.)

Matt says:
I see it as necessary to try to connect with people on an emotional/intuitive level on moral matters and build some kind of consensus in an effort to bring about the type of behaviour I want to see.

Couldn't agree with you more Matt. That's not a statement about morality though. What you are talking about is just good motivational technique. You make it sound as it a moral realist would not act in such a way.

Acting as though my desires were facts about the external world doesn't seem to help in any way other than to make me slightly more dogmatic

Now I've heard you bring this up before and I don't believe I've given it a proper response. Hopefully this will clear some things up for us.

The moral realist does not advocate living life as if your desires were perfect representations of some sort of moral fact. The moral realist will advocate living your life as if there were some moral fact outside of you that you can be either nearer or further from depending on the decisions you make.

It is a mistake to assume that moral realists assert that their opinions of morality are the perfect expressions of a moral fact. The moral realists simply state that there is a such thing as morality outside of chemical induced preferences. Does that make sense?

surely the difference between my dislike of murder and dislike of cabbage is the strength of feeling?

I'd suppose you could say that, but you must then be comfortable resisting the urge to call people who feel differently than you about things "wrong", "bad" or "evil". If a solider who has witnessed first hand the horrors of the battle field comes home almost completely desensitized to death and gore, does that make the "morality" he holds less than your morality? Or is it just different? People's ability to "feel" deeply about things varies quite a bit. Are those who are just biologically wired to feel more strongly than others automatically more moral?

My point is if emotivism is all you us in your construct of morality then you really ought not even call it morality. The only moral claims you can make are measured by the way you happen to feel... which changes from day to day, hour to hour. If some day you happen not to feel very charitable towards someone in need, there's no need to feel guilty about it. But you do... and that presents a problem for emotivism. To that you might reply, "Ah, but guilt is a feeling as well!". Then I will ask you, which emotion ought you honor... and why?

When it comes to convincing others...

of what? To do what your feelings want them to?

moral realism seems counter-productive. If I try to argue that our moral intuitions reflect an external reality, how can I prove that my morality is any more real than theirs?

You can't "prove" it. But if you are arguing about whether the topic at hand is "moral" or "immoral", it is helpful to believe that there is a such thing as morality to begin with. If all you mean is "I feel this way about such and such" This is no longer an argument about morality. It's an argument about getting your way. And that's a whole different topic all together.

differentiate between 'how it is' and 'how it seems to me'

it will ALWAYS be 'how it seems to me'. Believing in objective morality doesn't change that one bit. It's just that we have this inescapable feeling that our "feelings" point towards some kind of truth about the world. If you don't believe that then it is an even larger mystery why we continue this conversation!

Incitatus says:
In a hypothetical(?) situation in which our moral compass was dictated purely by our genes, would that constitute moral objectivity?

I'm not so sure you can talk of anything that arises out of a purely chemical process in terms of morality. I would agree that our "impulses" can arise strictly out of chemical processes, but I believe our impulses alone can not be spoken of in moral terms either. It's when you look at your feelings and say "this feeling is bad. I will not honor it." that this concept of morality comes into play.

We speak quite differently about morality than we do about things we simply do not like. For instance, I don't like receiving a strong impact to testicles. I think that's bad. Now if you were to sneak up on me and give me a kick in the jewels, I would say that what just happened was immoral. There's this element of intentionality that is required.

I guess I'm flummoxed by the question of whether we have any more flexibility in 'choosing' our morality as we do in choosing whether a good, sturdy kick in the testicles is actually going to hurt.

I think you are mincing words here a bit. To a large degree you cannot choose how you feel. That's not a question of morality. It's what you do with how you feel that kicks in the ability to make moral judgments.

I can see how this would be problematic for an atheistic naturalist. If we are determined strictly by the chemicals that make up our body, then even the feelings we have and the way we feel about our feelings MUST be products of the cause and effect reactions that sustain us. So at the end of the day nothing can be any more "good" or "evil" than carbonated beverage, or rising bread dough.

I would submit that it's difficult to live in that kind of reality.

Matt M said...

Alex,

The moral realist will advocate living your life as if there were some moral fact outside of you that you can be either nearer or further from depending on the decisions you make.

But if those facts are unknowable - unless you can point to one for me - then they're next to useless.

All we can do is assume that if we feel strongly enough about something then it's more likely to be "true" - but that's a rocky road to go down, and one more likely to lead to dogmatism.

All moral realism seems to do is conflate opinion with fact.

The moral realists simply state that there is a such thing as morality outside of chemical induced preferences.

But what?

I'd suppose you could say that, but you must then be comfortable resisting the urge to call people who feel differently than you about things "wrong", "bad" or "evil".

Why?

These are perfectly valid descriptive terms. We all have a conception of how we want the world to be - actions which fit in with this conception are 'right', those that conflict are 'wrong, and those that threaten its very basis are 'evil'.

does that make the "morality" he holds less than your morality? Or is it just different?

From my POV, less. Because it conflicts with my vision of an ideal world.

My point is if emotivism is all you us in your construct of morality then you really ought not even call it morality.

Morality simply refers to the ability to distinguish between good and bad - emotivism allows you to do that, it's therefore a moral theory.

of what? To do what your feelings want them to?

Pretty much. Though my reason plays a crucial part as well, in focusing what are general feelings into coherent and specific behaviours.

And that's a whole different topic all together.

I don't think it is at all. What is morality in your view but the way God wants us to live.

It's just that we have this inescapable feeling that our "feelings" point towards some kind of truth about the world.

You have something of a paradox here, don't you - that "inescapable feeling" is only true if it's true.

Tom Freeman said...

Incitatus,
“In a hypothetical(?) situation in which our moral compass was dictated purely by our genes, would that constitute moral objectivity? Or would it still be subjective because only an individual with that specific set of genes can experience the sense of morality associated with those genes?”
I guess I’d say that those attitudes would be subjective in the sense that they’re distinct to a unique individual (never mind identical twins), but they’d be objectively determined – like fingerprints. Whether those moral attitudes would really correspond to objective moral truth (independent of what anyone thinks or feels) is another matter…

Anticant and revvvvvvvd,
I often think there is an air of ‘intellectual mucking around to no useful end’ to this sort of thing. I once started a philosophy PhD but dropped out after the first year, partly because I lost interest in trying to operate in such a rarefied world for a living. But if it is just a game, then it’s one I still quite enjoy playing in my spare time now and then.
But it’s true, we don’t need to go through all these conceptual hoops to be decent people with a sense of fairness and injustice. This kind of argument is only likely to be of interest to people who do feel a genuine sense of puzzlement when taking a step back and looking at all our ordinary, perfectly serviceable assumptions about life.

Alex,
For once we’re on (sort of) the same page – what a result! Tag team on Matt? ;-)

Matt,
I completely agree with you about connecting with people and consensus-building as the way to engage in actual debate on practical moral issues (abortion, war, etc.). But if there are no facts of the matter about right and wrong, we get into a position where we can do no better than to ‘agree to disagree’ with a Nazi. (Think about how little argumentative scrutiny – beyond sneering – the British National Party gets when its people appear on Newsnight.)
“surely the difference between my dislike of murder and dislike of cabbage is the strength of feeling?
A few days ago, I accidentally swigged some milk that had gone off. That produced far stronger emotional reaction in me than I had on reading yesterday that 14 people had been injured in an attack on a mosque in Thailand. But I don’t believe for an instant that my few seconds of sourness was worse than this violence.
To the extent that we have feelings that resist our own rational attempts to impose a sense of perspective, emotivist approaches seem lacking. The basic idea of morality requires that it be impartial – but the way we’re wired, our personal attitudes are seriously biased to focus on our own situation.
It just really strikes me, when I take the step back from the ordinary moral convictions that most of us mostly share, that the importance of these convictions is missed (or denied) by non-cognitivism, and that the idea of what they’re aiming at isn’t done justice by naturalism. But, while moral realism at least aims to take morality seriously, it does seem obscure in many ways.
Hence the pragmatism. The wager I suggest is for people finding themselves in this boat.

Matt M said...

if there are no facts of the matter about right and wrong, we get into a position where we can do no better than to ‘agree to disagree’ with a Nazi.

Depends.

In a debate, it may very well reach the point where our views are just too fundamentally different to progress any further. Though, it would more likely be a case of 'agree to stop debating for a while so that I can find somewhere quiet and rethink my position and come up with a better point'.

Were they to take a more active stance - invading Poland, for example - I think we'd then have to choose upon a course of action: support them, oppose them, sit back and hope for the best. That choice would have to be made to the best of our abilities, and ALL would require a 'moral' decision. To be neutral would require me to be completely apathetic about the outcome, and I simply can't do that.

I don’t believe for an instant that my few seconds of sourness was worse than this violence.


Surely you're overlooking the difference between direct and indirect experience?

In the case of the newspaper report, you know from past experience that directly experiencing the attack would be worse than drinking the milk. That allows you to categorise it as worse.

The wager I suggest is for people finding themselves in this boat.

Maybe I'm just particularly dense, but I don't see how pretending that your moral intuitions reflect something that is ultimately unknowable (as it probably doesn't exist) is going to be make people feel more secure?

Matt M said...

PS - enabling the RSS feed for comments would be handy.

(Switch to 'Advanced Mode' under the 'Site Feed' bit of the 'Settings' page and then change the 'Blog Comment Feed' setting.)

Tom Freeman said...

OK, comments feed should be on. Let me know if not.

Paddy Carter said...

How about this:

There's no such thing as "good" but only of being "good for" (something) - and being "good for" is objective/real. Stealing is bad for people who don't like to be stolen from. People have a wide distribution of preferences, but over certain matters the distribution is pretty uniform - only a few like having their testicles nailed to a table - so as a very good approximation we can just say "nailing people's testicles to the table is bad". When it comes to things where opinions are split, like James Blunt, it doesn't make much sense to say he's good or bad.

You may object, why should I care about the welfare of others - surely this begs the question of morality. But I don't say there is a 'should', merely that doing so is what the word 'moral' refers to. I can say why I think being moral is a good choice, but I cannot analytically demonstrate it is the right choice.

Society is free to set up systems of punishment (formal and informal) that may provide a 'should' for those who need one - others may simply derive satisfaction from acting morally for its own sake.

This system has objectivity based on the preference of people.

It can be easily complicated by adding the feature such as preferences not being fixed but (to some extent) determined within the system (endogenous for all you dismal scientists), and you need to talk about how to resolve conflicts/trade-offs. But all that can be done in the setting of an objective moral system - objective in a sense that applies to contingent human beings, not some supposed universal scheme.

Tom Freeman said...

Hi Paddy

Yeah, I think a general preference-respecting system is the closest we can practically get to an ‘objective’ moral code, and that there are sensible reasons for anyone without extremely uncommon preferences to support that.

There’s still the issue of why people’s welfare is morally good (I’d say this merely asks the question rather than begging it), but that seems pretty irresolvable as well as too abstruse for most tastes.

After all, not even professional philosophers bother to stop to disprove Cartesian scepticism before trying to cross the road…

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