Bridging The Will-Be/Ought Gap

indiana_jones_bridge.jpgSo I’ve been writing the last few days on a number of only tenuously related themes: cruelty and torture, probability and prediction marketstestability, middle-range theories, and moral realism. Today I’m going to try to draw these themes together and point to a couple avenues for further discussion.

Obviously, it’s important to me that our normative judgments be ‘about’ something, something testable, and that there be something like the possibility of moral progress. These are the claims I’d like to ‘mark to market,’ but it’s not clear how you’d go about doing that. If any of those claims are false, then my project is really doomed from the start. If they’re true, I suspect that we might make better progress in morals by breaking our research questions into testable chunks, and once the chunks are testable, we can get betting markets to help push research and excite thinking. To believe something in the face of doubts is to believe it in a probably-unreflective probabilistic way, and the best measure of our reflective probabilities is some sort of market that can mix the ‘show of hands’ model of a poll or vote with some kind of buy-in or stakeholder ritual to incentivize informed deliberation while holding bad faith participants accountable.

But the truth of the matter is that, while I think prediction markets can be tremendously helpful in the natural sciences and in some of the middle-range theories required for political philosophers (mostly social scientific assumptions we build into our institutional design), I don’t see much hope for closing the gap between prediction and normativity using markets alone. Too often, the obstacle is still the conceptual problem, the conditions of testability: disagreement on what counts as proof is usually going to trip up a futures contract, at least on the affirmative side.

On the critical side, however, there may still be room for this kind of falsification. In light of the X-phi movement, I think there is growing agreement that we can no longer ignore a set of questions usually dealt with in metaethics when doing ordinary ethics or applied ethics. These roughly correspond to the failures or major revisions of traditional ethical middle-ranged theories in deontology, virtue ethics, and utilitarianism.

Consider moral intuitions, which have long been the basis for deontology, even the Kantian deontology which requires us to find the result of some universalized maxim repulsive. The polling and fMRI evidence has been growing over the past decade, and it shows that we don’t really form moral judgments in a dependable way. Too often, priming effects have a tremendous power over how we judge a situation, and irrelevant framing effects often cause respondents to favor one or another alternative. If that’s true, then our unreflective moral intuitions are not to be trusted, and much of the “common sense” underwriting natural law and dignity theories is prone to self-deception. See, for instance, Jonathan Haidt’s work, Peter Singer’s “Should we trust our moral intutions?” or Woodward and Allman’s “Moral Intuition: its Neural Substrates and Normative Significance.” Particularly of interest to me is the way that the feeling of disgust often plays an intermediary role in our determinations of what is “just wrong.” Kwame Anthony Appiah has some good examples of disgust misleading moral judgment in his book Experiments in Ethics, but perhaps stranger still is the role that disgust and taste plays in determinations of veracity!

Similar verification problems have been well-document in various accounts of character, the founding concept in virtue ethics, where various kinds of irrelevant priming, like being hurried, or having just found a quarter, are larger indicators of a person’s likelihood to act charitably than anything internal or habitual. (Appiah covers some of this in Experiments, as well.) If I can’t be depended upon to have a stable character, what good are habits? What hope is there for a general epistemic virtue like phronesis, if there’s nothing like an excellence in identifying the minor premise? Combined with the growing acknowledgement of neuro-diversity, and our long-standing commitments to pluralism, both of which challenge the universality of the practical syllogism’s major premise, it has become increasingly evident that old models for human flourishing just won’t cut it any longer.

One middle-range theory that holds lots of promise for utilitarians is the moral heuristic, apparently conceived by the polymath Cass Sunstein. The obvious question is: if we know we can push heuristics with quandaries that lead to bad decisions, what happens when the world hits us with novel situations, as well? (Marc Hauser has charged that Sunstein’s heuristics aren’t testable: too vague!) But if we could somehow generate new heuristics, hopefully using carefully crafted exemplars, like narratives and stories that can serve as prototypes for the unique judgments required in the modern world, we may well be able to trump these limitations… even while leaving unresolved the question of what, exactly, we are obligated to maximize. (I’d love to find some preference utilitarians willing to take the other side of a bet on capability theory!)

In sum, we need a new ethics. (One that won’t quit.)

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