(N.B.C.) How conceptions of ‘what ought to be’ can interfere with moral action.

By Kai Terran

David Hume and naturalists since him such as Adam Smith have proposed that morality does not stem from reasoning but from a ‘moral sense’. Psychologists and other theorists have extended this line of thinking – humans have a moral ‘organ’ of functionality. This moral organ generates the perceptions, discriminations, and positive and negative feelings to do with the moral dimensions of a situation. Also important in this naturalist conception of morality is the insistence that it the moral feelings generated by this moral organ that motivate behaviour NOT the human faculty of Reason.

Empirical investigations have shown that moral decision making is remarkable quick. For example one can give the following hypothetical moral dilemma to a person and they are able to give you their answer within a couple of seconds: You and your baby child are hiding from enemy soldiers in a hidden basement with the rest of your village. If the enemy soldiers find the villagers and yourself in the basement then everyone will be killed. Your baby starts crying and you cover your baby’s mouth to silence it but it is not working. The soldier are about to discover your fellow villagers and yourself. You have to make a decision immediately – do you smother your baby and kill it to save yourself life and the lives of your fellow villagers, or not and be discovered by the enemy soldiers (which will result in the deaths of you, your baby and all your fellow villagers). What psychologists have discovered is that when they pose this scenario to people and measure there brain with a fMRI machine, the people who say they simply would not kill there baby are making that decision within  a few hundred milliseconds and the decision is being made outside the cerebral cortex. The people who say they would kill their baby take slightly longer to make their decision (but still only several hundred milliseconds) and the frontal cortex is involved in overriding the primitive part which is screaming “NO! Do NOT kill your baby!”

I would like to make a small claim: that thought can impede the moral organs ability to rapidly perform a moral calculation thus making us less moral. For the moral organ to generate a positive or negative feeling and thus drive behaviour it needs access to ‘what is’. However a notion of ‘what ought to be’ can interfere with this access. It is likely there are multitudes of ways we can prevent moral action. One of the simplest is to insist that one needs more information, more thoughtful deliberation or just more time to make your decision. Another would be to actively avoid thoughts, conversations or physical circumstances that would directly stimulate the moral feelings.

One could postulate that ideologies could have evolved to interact with the moral organ, manipulating its functioning to suit the purposes of those same ideologies. My idea provides an interesting juxtaposition to the Humean conception of reason being the slave to the passions.


11 responses to “(N.B.C.) How conceptions of ‘what ought to be’ can interfere with moral action.

  1. Hmm so you’re pretty much saying that philosophies on morality such as Utilitarianism make us less moral because they are based on reason, not immediate, instinctive, primitive responses? I dont know about that – im a big fan of keeping everything natural, u know, the less interference with nature and the way things are naturally the better, but restricting our minds to primitive mindsets and restricting our thinking isnt really a good idea – i think knowledge and intellect is much more preferable to automatic and primitive responses… you have to ask yourself, why have we evolved with the development of our intellect and ability to consider, theorize and rationalize if not to use it to make better decisions and help us live better lives? If intellect and reason really are holding us back from being as moral as we can naturally be, why have we evolved with this intellectual ability? Isnt morality an intellectual phenomenon? And isnt our intellectual ability inherent and natural to us as humans? Not a hindrance?

  2. However, just to go against my own argument, while intellectual ability may be natural to the human species, who’s to say humans are the most moral species? I mean, we have already had a bit debate (related to the meat eating issue) over whether morality applies to animals… it is a human concept… however there are arguments that claim if humans were more like animals, the world would be a more peaceful, moral and selfless place. Animals dont kill each other for no reason, they dont fight eachother for no reason, mothers will often go hungry or sacrifice themselves for their young… Germaine Greer recently released a book called ‘Rage’ i think, where she has tlaks about how research has shown that animals do not actually have the ability to feel rage or anger. Rage is a uniquely human phenomenon… so animals never get angry and kill or hurt one another out of anger… and Germaine’s point was that, if humans were to become more like animals, in that they didn’t let emotions such as rage overcome them and drive them to commit immoral acts, humans would become a better, more mroal species. SO i guess in total conflict with my original argument, im pointing out that while intellect and reason may seem natual to humans, it should not be assumed that because it is natural to us it is good. Perhaps some ‘natural’ things about us, such as certain emotions like anger, should be challenged and controlled…

  3. But then controlling emotions such as rage is a completely different issue to controlling thought or reason… perhaps that is why we humans have developed the unique ability to reason – its in response to our emotions – we need intellect to control and master our baser, primitive emotions… whereas animals do not have the ability (as far as we know) to use intellect or reason like humans do because they dont have the need, they dont have those certain harmful emotions such as rage that need to be controlled by reason.
    haha im just thinking out loud now… Maybe i should have studied psychology instead of philosophy… 😛 would have been helpful…

  4. My points were about how the flow from perception to conception to action can brake down, that the break down can happen in many different ways, and that strategies to cause a breakdown could evolve (or be engineered).

    Let me come at the same point from a different angle: how does one avoid being a hypocrite? There are two ways: one can change ones behaviour to match one’s beliefs, or one can change one’s beliefs to match one’s behaviour. So if one believes that ‘eating pigs is wrong’, the way to avoid being a hypocrite is to stop eating pigs. If one continues to eat pigs and doesn’t modify their belief to ‘eating pigs is fine’ then one is a hypocrite.

    I’ll leave it up to you to decide when t

  5. I’ll leave it up to you to decide when the moral organ is functioning properly in this example, and when its function is being manipulated to postpone or eliminate the action required to act morally.

  6. I dont see how the two examples (either believing eating meat is wrong and not eating it, or believin git is wrong but eating it anyway) are relevant to ur point about how conception breaks down morality… i would say the latter is the least moral, because for one its hypocritical, the persons actions go against their intellect and values, whereas the former option where theyre actions mirror their beliefs shows the domination of the intellect, and i think that is the more moral option. So im saying intellect/morality should rule actions, not vice versa… your point?

  7. I think your difficulty in understand what I have written stems from your assumption that I’m claiming that reason/intellect/conception is THE ENEMY OF MORALITY. It’s not black vs. white. Surely its not too difficult to imagine a scenario where one knows what one is doing is wrong so instead of immediately ceasing wrong doing, one instead uses one of many mental tricks to distract oneself until the inconvenient feeling passes for example, another example would be to ‘redefine’ the problem so that the suspect behaviour is no longer suspect.

    If you still don’t get what I’m saying then here is an intution pump for you: mediate on the phrase “Oh, you’re just RATIONALISING the problem away”.

  8. Kai, you appear to be quite inconsistent in what you’re saying. In your post you wrote: “thought can impede the moral organs ability to rapidly perform a moral calculation thus making us less moral” which says that thought (“reason/intellect/conception”) makes us less moral…or that it is the enemy of morality.

    Now, instead of sticking with this strong claim, you appear to be making the alternative claim that thought can be used to interfere with morality, which is much weaker and surely both true and uncontroversial.

    Which claim are you trying to make?

  9. I don’t think I’m being inconsistent. I have carefully read and reread your two paragraphs and they seems to be saying the same thing: “thought can interfer with morality” and “thought can impede the moral organ..” are expressing similar sentiments. If you think there is a strong and weak version of my argument, please feel free to articulate it as best you can.

  10. It’s not “thought can interfere with morality”. Your second claim is “thought can be used to interfere with morality”. In the post you talk about decision-making times. This seems to be a very different issue from that of rationalising and using “mental tricks to distract oneself”.

  11. Andy, I’m not sure where your confused about. I discuss an empirical fact about moral judgments discovered by psychologists (it is a rapid process) and I discuss ways we avoid the urgency of moral action by various using our intellectual capabilities to delay (one might say to ‘Fillerbuster’) moral action, or to completely derail the moral decision making process (such as redefining the problem away). The second point requires the first as background. The first point states the existence of a moral organ that gives us a moral sense, the second brings up the possibility manipulating that organ with our other intellectual capabilities.

    If this is still not clear please feel free to bring it up in person. 🙂

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