Thursday, March 13, 2014

Moral philosophy and values-mysticism

Last September, I wrote an essay titled "Are moral philosophers scientific pessimists?" wondering if part of the reason that moral philosophers are so upset by Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape is that they believe that science simply won't ever be capable to answer questions about human values. (To be fair, rather than a moral philosopher, the target of my commentary in that piece was conservative Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat, writing for the New York Times.)

I still do think many moral philosophers are scientific pessimists in exactly the way I outlined in my previous essay, but I don't think this accounts entirely for their reluctance to accept the notion of a science of moral facts. In addition to their pessimism about science--which may be justified in a system as complex as neurobiology and its interactions in socieites--I suspect that many moral philosophers are also values-mystics. They elevate the notion of "value" beyond fact into a mystical realm which only they can effectively plumb.

An unlikely connection

I have known for a long time that I get much of my best work done while listening to music from video games, mostly those I played as a child and teenager (in fact, I'm doing so now). And I'm not alone in this. I know several other people who have experienced exactly the same circumstances, and we've even noted together at times that the soundtracks for video games outstrip even classical music for getting many of our tasks done. I had, until today, attributed this largely to a combination of the fact that the music is largely neo-classical instrumental and, more importantly, nostalgic.

I ended up wondering today why video game music seems so conducive to getting work of various kinds done, and I realized that video game music is composed specifically for this purpose. The music playing in the background on a video game, like with movies, is meant to enhance mood and add to the overall scene, but in contrast to scores timed with the silver screen, video game music it is also designed specifically to keep the player engaged in the game without distracting her focus. (It's also often upbeat in a task-oriented kind of way.)

Then the operational question struck me: how did the composers of video game backgrounds make music so conducive to this particular goal. The problem seems inordinately hard to solve, but rooting out how they did it wasn't. Obviously, experience and knowledge of musical composition for setting moods played a role, and getting it just right required some kind of an editorial (read: evolutionary) process by which musical formulae that worked were kept and those that didn't were rejected. And the measuring stick by which various songs and types of songs were rejected or accepted was user experience. This isn't hard to accept, and it isn't really either here or there.

The ah-ha!

The next deeper question provided the eureka moment: how did the game design team know which kinds of music facilitated gameplay without distracting the player from her task? "Experience" is too vague a response. The answer is obvious, though, and superficially banal: with their brains. That's the insight I've been looking for regarding the fact-value distinction for months. With their brains.

A truly sophisticated instrument

The thought I've been trying to think for months about moral philosophy is that the human brain is a remarkably sophisticated tool. Particularly, it is a magnificent instrument for receiving certain kinds of complex inputs and interpreting them into what we call "the human experience." Thus, even without having any of the relevant hard data about the interaction of musical and psychological theory, the brain is able to crunch out the facts about video game background music that create an experience that will work--enhancing engagement without distracting focus--for most human psychologies.

The same is true for another complex phenomenon integral to the human experience, psychosocial valuation, the various means by which we evaluate ourselves and others. One of the key aspects of psychosocial valuation is morality. In that sense, then, the brain is a remarkably sophisticated instrument to work out the details about moral facts.

What are moral facts, then? To quote physicist Sabine Hossenfelder (this link is well worth the diversion), "Morals and values are just thought patterns that humans use to make decisions." Moral facts are the facts relevant to those thought patterns, including an assessment of the consequences of applying them. Sam Harris's Moral Landscape saliently grounds moral facts in the quality of the experiences of conscious beings ("well-being and suffering," in Harris's formulation). The facts are goal-directed, and we call them "values," and generally speaking, the goal is "the good life" (more on this shortly).

When we have a goal, there are immediately questions raised that bear upon its satisfaction, and the human brain is a remarkably sophisticated tool for trying on and testing the answers to those questions--just like with music and many other complex phenomena. Indeed, at least for now, the human brain is the best tool that we have for evaluating moral facts. We simply do not possess the technology to have developed better ones. In fact, we don't even possess the technology to know if we can develop better ones. In this ignorance hides the scientific pessimism of many moral philosophers, which may also be their hope.

The matter of whether we can develop a better tool lies apart from this discussion, though it's entirely fair to point out that the effort will be probably be unimaginably hard. Whatever the device is will very likely have to be designed to have a decent understanding of what it is like to be human, since ultimately we are talking about human values--facts that arise from within and bear upon the human experience. That we may never succeed in the endeavor to outstrip the human brain in this regard, though, is immaterial to the point that what the brain is dealing in is facts.

To elevate the status of values beyond the level of being a particular kind of fact is to flirt with a kind of mysticism for values, and it is the part and parcel of too many moral philosophers and all religious people. It's almost a sort of dualism, something that says that there's something fundamentally different between a human and an oak in which we can be said to be acting according to our values in choosing nutritious foods while the tree cannot when it grows its foliage in the areas that optimize sunlit surface area for a given amount of wood. (If an oak is too distant a cousin of ours, pick the most complicated animal you're willing to say can't value meeting its basic needs--surely there is one.)

A note about the good life

The invariable question here, one that muddies up the water, is what makes the good life good, as if this implies we must insert a mystical value, one independent of the facts about the world, to make sense of a "good life."

I don't think "good" is arbitrary, though, and Harris did a great job with articulating the reason. If we imagine a hypothetical state of the worst possible suffering for every conscious being as the pinnacle of whatever is meant by the word "bad," then "good" is that which moves us away from it. (Harris is right to ponder rhetorically what else the word "bad" could intelligibly mean.) That we wouldn't necessarily call the circumstances "good" until we've reached a certain elevation in Harris's metaphorical moral landscape need not distract us from this understanding of "good." The "good life" is a life that succeeds at the goals of living--meeting our various biological, psychological, and sociological needs--well enough for it to outstrip being a misery by some arbitrary margin. It need not be more complicated than this.

What about the fact that different people value different things? So what? That's the chief effort in the moral dimension of the human drama, trying to integrate, streamline, and mitigate various individual differences in what helps the most conscious beings achieve their own best-possible "good life."

Another question stirs the muck. Do people have to value the "good life"? This question--which would only be asked by a philosopher--is a weird one. I'd urge any tangled up in it to decide if the word "value" applies if we answer in the negative. (Note that what people consider a "good life" might be quite twisted by other people's standards, and we would recognize this as a pathology, that which is aberrant enough and injurious enough to others' pursuit of the good life, or one's own well-being, to warrant the special treatment.)

Moral values versus human values

Indulge one more brief aside for me to explain a difference between "moral values" and "human values." A science of morality would deal with the latter. The former appear to be cultural artifacts, but I think it's actually the other way around. A culture can largely be defined in terms of the moral values that the people in it espouse. Of course, most of the time, for a great many values, many moral values align with human values (read: moral facts). On the other hand, they can go staggeringly wrong, and moral values can--and have and still do--fall very much afoul of human values.

The difference between the two, really, comes down to a matter of guesswork. Moral values are the guesses about human values that various peoples have made and codified into moral frameworks that define their cultures and subcultures. (People like, and may need, relatively simple rules of thumb and thus moral codes.) Though often insightful about human values, moral values are almost universally tainted by superstition and other forms of bad thinking. Moral values are normative. The human values they attempt to approximate aren't.

Facts are facts

No appeal to the complexity of the situations in which moral facts hold salience can elevate human values out of the realm of facts or put them outside the province of scientific inquiry. Such arguments are simply statements that moral facts are sufficiently complex that the only tool we possess that is sufficiently honed to the job of sorting them out is the human brain. And so what? Moral facts are facts that, for now, require a human brain to make sense of, subject to all of the systematic and instrumental error that comes as a byproduct. Complicated and error-prone measuring instruments do not a fact unmake.

When it comes to attempting to sort out ethics, the only elements involved are certain kinds of facts and epistemically limited estimates (probabilities, broadly) about what will become facts in the future. We say that we "should" do this or that, implying that we hope to achieve some goal or another, and "should" merely reflects that we perceive our chances of success to be higher with that course of action than with any others we have considered. Moral values are particular patterns of thought for handling certain kinds of psychosocial data as they come into and are processed by the human brain. Thus, the effort by moral philosophers to divorce values from facts is misleading, relying on something like mysticism about the nature of the human mind and its capacity to choose its values.

To wit, the composition of musical pieces that achieve a particular effect on the psychological state of the listeners is a clear-cut case where we have information that is extraordinarily complicated, admits exceptions across the spectrum of human experiences, and yet is considered to be well within the realm of facts about the world. The music impacts our nervous systems via our senses, the changes in our brains have psychological and thus physiological implications, and we don't lose for a moment that we're talking about the interactions of various kinds of sound waves and and the immensely complex activity of the human brain--that we're talking about facts.

Suddenly, though, when talking about the aspect of human psychosocial valuation that we call morality, we have to treat values as though they are something different, indeed special. That various incidents in our lives, including the behavior of ourselves and others, impact our nervous systems in ways we consider evaluative, lead to changes in our brains that have psychological implications in terms of valuation, and happen to be about the interactions of various states of the world with the immensely complex activity of the human brain, we're mystically not talking about facts anymore; we're talking about something completely different, values. This seems to be little more than an overassessment of how much free choice we have about our values, a cognitive error that we could value different things than those we do if we wanted to. This overassessment, the separation of facts and values, is values-mysticism.

Free will had to show up eventually

Of course, we "could" value different things (which is a prerequisite to feeling that we "should" value something else), but not really. I do not intend to devote much time or space in this essay to addressing the problem of free will, but it simply seems like we do not have it to work with. For the moment, it suffices to say that if we cannot account for what we think and have no real and fundamental freedom of choice, the values we could "choose" are seriously limited, as in uniquely determined.

Certainly, lacking free will, we cannot choose to value anything, at least not in the way we usually mean by that term. We still make decisions, of course, but the "we" doing it isn't what we normally think of as "we," and the process isn't the same as what we imagine it to be. We tend to think of ourselves as the conscious authors of our thoughts, to paraphrase Sam Harris, but in reality, "we" are "whatever brain process works with whatever input [we] receive," to quote physicist Sabine Hossenfelder again, from the same piece as earlier. (Note that Hossenfelder doesn't argue that free will is impossible, just that we don't have any good reasons to believe we have it.)

Critically, we, as the illusory conscious authors of our thoughts, cannot choose to value something other than what we value. Our values are simply goal-directed facts about ourselves, facts that change over time for various reasons--facts related to our biological, psychological, and sociological welfare--and we cannot account for them as being the result of free choices. I have no more influence over what I value than I do over what I believe. Both are mental states--facts--based upon other mental states, that which I esteem to be true. (Whether "true" means true or provisionally true is immaterial here.)


Values-mysticism takes Hume's fact-value distinction at face value without accepting that values ultimately either are a kind of facts or are fancies of the mind (which seems to have been Hume's point). It asserts that the fact-values distinction is a real one and that values are their own kind of mental object, and thus it concludes that science cannot even in principle address matters of human values. All it can do is hope to provide facts upon which the high-priests, moral philosophers, can work their magic to provide us with moral insight.

Pause for a moment to appreciate how preposterous this is, unless we just take it to mean that the human brain is still the best instrument going for working with moral facts. The basic assumption is, that which is impossible to handle by any amount of careful observation and testing can instead be dealt with instead by mulling it over in an armchair. Either this admits that the brain is a sophisticated instrument honed by natural selection to work with moral facts, or it is so wrongheaded that it should be offensive to our better sense. If human values are so out of the reach of science that we cannot even in principle deliver a science of moral facts, then they are even further out of reach from the armchair.

Values-mysticism is a bane of moral progress, and it is the provenance of moral philosophers who refuse to remake themselves as moral scientists. Not only does values-mysticism overcomplicate an already desperately intractable field, it leaves open the door to the real priests--those values-mystics who have so mystified themselves about moral values as to believe they can only be made sense of by deifying an abstract concept they call "God." The un-hijacking of morality by religion remains impossible so long as human values are treated as mystical.


  1. I've never read any Sam Harris. Obviously, you recommend "The Moral Landscape." Is there anything else of his that you recommend more highly?

    Also, the Hossenfelder link you provided is awesome. I love the observation that: a question that science can't answer is (most likely) due to the question being sell ill-defined there's nothing that science can even address.

    1. I've honestly been stunned by everything I've read from Harris, which is pretty much everything he's published except Lying. If you liked Hossenfelder's take on free will, you'll probably also like Harris's, which is very short.

    2. I second what James said. Harris is sharp--I recommend going through his debates and videos listed on his blog.

    3. Though, I do wonder why James said "except Lying." I enjoyed Lying, and I think it might provide the core thinking to the rest of Harris's work on morality and critique of religion.

    4. Sorry, Brad, I wasn't sufficiently clear. I haven't read Lying yet. That's all.

    5. Thanks to you both -- I'm on it.