Knee Jerk Deontology

Spiritual entities were once said to determine what was right and what was wrong. This force was thought to be God. Atheists and rationalists rejected this saying that the mind is best equipped for this duty. In this view, what is right or wrong is best judged by the smart educated people because they are most capable of being rational. Thus we have philosophers of ethicists and people who cruise the internet who tell us what is right and wrong. If you don’t believe me, just look at how many posts deal with right and wrong.

Ordinary people get by on a blend of consequence and principle in which they feel principled themselves and expect others to be that way too but their own behavior is arrived at situationally by deciding what is best at the moment.

Since deciding what is principled is difficult, only the most qualified, and smartest people can decide in advance what is right and by looking back hundreds of years they can also determinine what the correct things that everyone in the past should have done. Many of these people, since they no longer go to church inhabit certain departments of certain big time colleges, as I understand it.

Yet if deontology requires such great intelligence, why is it that the anointed get so emotional when their principles are violated. Since brainpower and thus philosophical acumen are unequally divided, as readers here should know, why would one be more emotional about a deontological error than if someone forgot a phone number or muffed an arithmetic problem?


The answer comes from neuro-imaging and psychologic studies
that seem to show that deontological decisions, despite being based on supposedly intellectual considerations, actually are knee jerk responses that take less mental work than utilitarian decisions. They are feelings individuals invest in. In this way deontology and ideology are similar. The thing that takes more mental work is when you have to weigh and balance the inevitable utilitarian trade offs, having to choose the better of two evils.

How much simpler life was when superstitious primitives only had to ask if God approved of their deeds. If a violation of His will occurred sacrifice or prayer would tend to make things right. No worrying about the morality of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, global warming, and saving the lives of panda cubs. Whereas you used to have to worry about being persecuted for failing to attend church, now you are labeled as immoral if you don’t recycle, or if you drive an SUV, smoke, discipline your children or go fishing. And you wonder why some people are conservatives.

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I'm not sure that deciding

I'm not sure that deciding what is principled (i.e. deontology) is any more cognitively demanding that deciding what act or rule results in the best consequences, or that anyone ever claimed that the first is more cognitively demanding than the second. If anything, as you pointed out, consequentialism, which requires doing a cost-benefit analysis, is more cognitively demanding than remembering a set of rules. This is one of the arguments made in favor of deontology; that it requires less effort to reach the correct conclusion, and is thus less likely to result in error.

What is cognitively demanding about both ethical systems, and philosophy in general, is maintaining consistency among seemingly conflicting values or situations, and a willingness to explore lines of argument far beyond what a "typical" person would normally consider.

This topic reminds me of a recent article published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies: "Who's to Say What's Right or Wrong? People Who Have Ph.D.s in Philosophy, That's Who".

Don't let the source of the article scare you; it's not especially related to libertarianism, aside from its delicious elitism.

Rent -a- Philosopher

This topic reminds me of a recent article published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies: "Who's to Say What's Right or Wrong? People Who Have Ph.D.s in Philosophy, That's Who".

Don't let the source of the article scare you; it's not especially related to libertarianism, aside from its delicious elitism.

Yes, thanks for the reference. I read it and now I agree that murder is wrong. If I decide to kill someone I will look up in the phone book for a list of philosophers and find one that will produce arguments that will support my position and that is the problem. I think that deontology is a natural state of mind. The average person does not advocate killing another person unless there is some reason. There are all too many exceptions and no consensus that is not vague is philosophically possible. Even Hitler had philosophers who supported him. See Joke about Hitlers dog.
Or perhaps I will switch to consequentialism and do a cost –benefit analysis myself which might be cheaper. Also I am not afraid of libertarian literature. I just got my copy of “The Machinery of Freedom.”
Dave

If I decide to kill someone

If I decide to kill someone I will look up in the phone book for a list of philosophers and find one that will produce arguments that will support my position and that is the problem.

Well, no, I don't think you read the article very carefully. His point was that some ethical questions are in fact very difficult, and laymen are ill equipped to answer those sorts of questions, certainly less so than professional philosophers. It wasn't an argument from authority; that you should accept the opinion of a professional philosopher simply because they have a PhD. It was an argument that professional philosophers are the people most likely to have good reasons, and that if you are seeking to understand all the various reasons to choose one course of action over another, a professional philosopher will be the best person to consult. At the end of the day, of course, the decision (and the decision to carry out that decision in good faith) is your own.

The analogy does not hold

From the essay:

The only way out is to seriously study the science of ethics yourself. If you do not have the time or inclination for this, your next best strategy is to take your ethical problems to a professional philosopher. This of course is expensive—but so is any professional advice.

Philosophers are not scientists. So idea of a "science of ethics" and the profession of "professional philosopher" don't mix well.

Who’s to say what’s right and wrong about the strengths of bridge supports? A professional engineer. Who’s to say what medical treatment is right or wrong? A physician. Who’s to say what is morally or ethically right or wrong? A professional philosopher.

This presupposes that, just as engineers are the experts on bridge supports, so are professional philosophers the experts on right and wrong.

Unlikely.

Philosophers to study morality. Yes they do. And they also study quantum mechanics - there are several books written by philosophers about quantum mechanics. There is philosophy of language. Clearly philosophers study language.

But are philosophers the experts (the most expert experts) on quantum mechanics? No, they are not. Physicists are more expert.

Are philosophers the experts (the most expert experts) on language? No, they are not. Linguists are more expert.

Philosophers may, in fact, not be the most expert experts in any particular subject - aside from philosophy itself. I am pretty sure that philosophers are the most expert experts in philosophy.

Expertise in engineering comes about the hard way: by building stuff, seeing it fall down, and building again until it doesn't fall down. This is how the profession of engineering surely got its start. While a typical engineer does not see one of his massive structure fall down, he learns from previous engineers, who learn from previous engineers, who did see their own massive structures fall down.

I would like to suggest that expertise in morality comes about the hard way, and is created by people whose occupation it is to actually make important moral decisions, just as the expertise of engineering is created by people whose occupation it is to actually build massive stuff that does not fall down.

I'll let others imagine who might be the real experts.

Agree and Disagree

1. Philosophy is not science.

I agree, but I'm not sure the distinction makes a difference. I still expect those who study a field to have more expertise in that field than others, be it engineering, theology, or philosophy.

(One could also bring up the demarcation problem.)

2. Philosophers are not obviously the most expert experts on morality.

Doesn't seem to me there's any group obviously more expert in morality that philosophers. Ethics is, after all, a branch of philosophy, unlike quantum mechanics and linguistics ("philosophy of language" is a philosophical field, but that's not the same as "linguistics").

3. Analogy between bridges falling down and ethics.

The distinction that comes to light from the idea of engineers building bridges, I believe, is this: while one has to be an expert in engineering to create something, one does not have to be an expert to see if that something was a success. Medicine is the same. You don't have to be a chicken to know an egg is rotten.

It's not clear the same holds in ethics (unless we adopt some clear benchmark as to what is ethical--say, happiness--but we haven't done that).

While I suspect this distinction is ultimately a matter of degree, it's such a wide difference that I agree it debilitates the analogy.

Astrologers

I still expect those who study a field to have more expertise in that field than others, be it engineering, theology, or philosophy.

The term "field" tends to refer, not to the subject matter itself, but to a particular human activity, possibly surrounding a subject matter but not identical to it. Thus, while philosophers are surely more expert in the field, i.e., in their own activity, this does not make them more expert in the subject matter. Example: While the astrologer is surely more expert in the field of astrology, it does not follow that he is more expert in the subject matter of stars.

So whilt it is a truism and virtual tautology that philosophers of ethics are expert in the philosophy of ethics (sometimes called, just, "ethics"), it does not follow that they are more expert in the subject matter than someone else could well be.

Doesn't seem to me there's any group obviously more expert in morality that philosophers.

The philosophical study of the laws of the world is not, in fact, the same thing as the study of the laws of the world. It approaches the laws of the world from a particular angle, and evidently, a highly limiting angle, since it allows the creation of an entirely separate field (i.e., physics), whose practitioners have greater expertise in the same subject matter.

Same with language.

Same, I think it reasonable to infer, with morality.

I am inclined to maintain, furthermore, that the study of the fundamental laws of the world performed by physicists is in fact, not just the "physicistish study" of the fundamental laws of the world, but is in fact the study of the laws of the world. That there is, properly speaking, no other study of the laws of the world. I do not believe, for example, that a new field will open up that studies the fundamental laws of the world, whose practitioners will have greater expertise in the subject matter than do physicists. I'm pretty sure now that I would call any such practitioners physicists, and class their field as, if anything, part of the field of physics.

The very idea of physics is the idea of the study of the fundamental laws of nature. Any study, then, is necessarily physics. Philosophers who concern themselves with the fundamental laws are doing something different from this - possibly much as astrologers are doing something different from studying the stars.

So it's not just that physicists are more expert than philosophers in the subject matter, but that physics is in fact nothing other than the study of that subject matter, and that if philosophy is not physics (and it is not), then philosophy is in fact not the study of that subject matter, but is something else. Philosophy is something else. Not only are philosophers not really studiers of the fundamental laws. They never were. To the extent that Aristotle discovered something, he was not in fact what we today would call a philosopher. Rather, he was both a philosopher (in some of the things he did) and a scientist.

And same, one might reasonably argue, with the philosophical study of morality. If ethicists are genuinely studying morality then they are arguably not, in fact, philosophers, but have been wrongly categorized as philosophers. But I do not happen to think they were wrongly categorized. I think they are philosophers, and are therefore doing what philosophers do, and are not doing what philosophers don't do.

And same, one might

And same, one might reasonably argue, with the philosophical study of morality. If ethicists are genuinely studying morality then they are arguably not, in fact, philosophers, but have been wrongly categorized as philosophers.

I agree with this as far as it goes; philosophy just is whatever remains after sub-disciplines have been spun off from it. That doesn't make philosophy any less valuable; every discipline had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was generally within philosophy. Ethics has not yet reached (and may never reach) the point of being a self-sustaining discipline. It may forever remain within the folds of philosophy. But the fact remains that philosophers are still the best equipped at being experts of ethics, relative to any other profession. You can belittle that claim by saying that ethics isn't really a subject worthy of academic study since it remains stuck within the rubric of philosophy. But that still doesn't give anyone else a better claim to expertise of ethics than professional philosophers. Insofar as you think expert knowledge of ethics is valuable, professional philosophers demand your respect.

(This fits within your astrologer analogy. We are free to belittle astrology as an irrational, meaningless discipline. But insofar as we take astrology seriously, we must take professional astrologers seriously. So too, insofar as we take ethics seriously, we must take professional ethicists seriously.)

Really just a continuation

My comments here are intended to be supplemental to my comments here, where I compare moral philosophers to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. In both cases, the problem is the disconnect. The disconnect between moral philosophers and their subject matter resembles, in a key way, the disconnect between absolute rulers and right and wrong. A kind of connection is a hinge, and if there is no connection there is therefore no hinge. Moral philosophy is unhinged for broadly the same reason that absolute rulers are unhinged, as I explain in my linked comments.

Some recent books on physics have argued that certain departments of physics have become unhinged, have lost their connection to reality and now consists largely of useless wheel-spinning, because of the lack of experimental evidence to ground the theory. It's not just moral philosophy that is vulnerable to problems when the activity continues past its grounding in experience.

Missing the obvious?

Ethics has not yet reached (and may never reach) the point of being a self-sustaining discipline.

Isn't criminal law (and perhaps even contract law) the field of practical ethics?

"The life of the law has not

"The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics."

From the first of twelve Lowell Lectures delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. on November 23, 1880, which were the basis for The Common Law.

If we understand ethics to be a rational, self-consistent, logical enterprise, it deviates from criminal law to the point of absurdity (drug laws, prostitution laws, etc.). Contract law might have a better claim, but even that is greatly limited by the state's monopoly.

Further, a big part of being a lawyer is not determining what the law should be, but rather what the law is and how it should be applied. The political system has a better claim than the legal system on representing the field of applied ethics, and we see how well that has turned out.

Mark guessed it

Mark actually stated the most obvious gruop I had in mind. Morality is born of conflict resolution. Courts are centers of expertise in conflict resolution and therefore, unsurprisingly, in morality.

The state has warped law almost beyond recognition. But we need to separate the corruption introduced by the state, from the essence of the thing itself. Analogously, the state has corrupted the monetary system to the point that many people believe that in its essence, money is the creation of the state. The labyrinthine, largely socialist monetary system of the United States and most other present-day countries should not be mistaken for the essential nature of money.

I would also like to warn against making too much of certain kinds of distinctions. We can, to be sure, distinguish between law and morality by saying - positing, defining - that law is the law on the books and enforced by the state and nothing else besides, and morality is a kind of truth, unaffected by whether or not the state chooses to hew to it. But such a distinction is easily made in other areas where we would not make very much of it. For example, we can distinguish between arithmetical truth, and the actual results of actual calculations made by actual people, which results may or may not hew to the mathematical truth. We can make this distinction between arithmetic truth and concrete results of people practicing arithmetic, and yet we would still recognize those people as doing arithmetic, as concerning themselves with arithmetical truth, even if imperfectly. The activity of people engaged in arithmetic is correct or incorrect depending on whether it agrees with arithmetical truth. Which arithmetical truth we admittedly have no access to except by way of people engaged in arithmetic.

The distinction between positive law and morality parallels the distinction between actual arithmetical results and arithmetical truth, and in neither case does it follow that the human activity is not about that truth, be it moral or arithmetical.

Government-created law is, unsurprisingly, shoddy. But this doesn't in principle make it different from anything else. Command economies are notorious for the shoddiness of their products. We should no more draw general lessons about law from government-created law than we should draw lessons about agriculture from government-created agriculture. For example, governments produced famine. But it would be false and absurd to suppose that agriculture is the production of famine. And similarly, it would be false and absurd to suppose that law, itself, is all those things it is under the state - e.g., unjust. That the state's law deviates from justice and therefore from morality is obvious. But that the state's agriculture deviates from the production of food is also known. And yet we don't conclude that agriculture is something other than the production of food. So, yes, in certain situations, where agriculture was dominated by communism, the activities we associate with agriculture (e.g. toiling in the field) failed to produce food. And similarly, in certain situations, where the law is dominated by the state, the activities we associate with bringing criminals to justice failed to produce justice and therefore failed to display expertise in morality.

But still, the business of agriculture is the production of food, and the business of the courts is morality.

The distinction between

The distinction between positive law and morality parallels the distinction between actual arithmetical results and arithmetical truth, and in neither case does it follow that the human activity is not about that truth, be it moral or arithmetical.

Right, but no one here claimed that law has nothing to do with morality. The question we are concerned with here is who has the most expertise regarding ethical questions. Because of the corrupting influence of monopoly government in law creation, I would say that professional philosophers have a better claim to that kind of expertise than judges (outside of civil law) and politicians. What they are practicing is so far outside the realm of ethics (relative to philosophy) as to render it a completely different subject.

A few comments on Holmes

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.

Science also largely comes from experience, so it's not so disreputable to come from experience. Indeed, as I have tried to argue, the separation from experience is one of the problems with moral philosophy.

The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed.

Holmes talks about the syllogism, about logic, and about axioms. Are you an Ayn Rand follower? If not, are you some other sort of person who believes in "axioms or bust" - who believes that morality must, in order to be morality, be reducible to a set of axioms? If you are neither, then the Holmes quote is kind of beside the point, since all he's saying is that law is not mathematics, and if you don't think morality is mathematics either then Holmes isn't really distinguishing law from morality - considered from your own point of view. But I can see how an Ayn Rand follower might have some problems with it.

Science by the way comes from all sorts of weird sources - e.g., drug-induced hallucinations. What makes science science is not the nature of its origin, but the means of its survival - e.g., science is not merely handed down like holy writ but is aggressively tested by succeeding generations against - gasp - against dirty imperfect experience. Sometimes called "experiment", but in French actually called "experience".

The law embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.

While it is true that law - just, legitimate law - may differ from location to location, this does not mean it is not the same as morality, because morality may differ from location to location. This is because it is just, and moral, to assume a certain common background. If someone says to you right now, "afoiweflsaoi", then it would be immoral for you to kill him. But wait for a language to develop in which the same utterance precisely and unmistakably says, "your money or your life", and it becomes moral to kill him. The utterance has not changed, but the context has.

You might argue that morality should be considered as existing at a more abstract level, so that invariably it is immoral to kill someone who is not threatening your life and moral to kill someone who is. This abstract description manages to survive the changes from society to society.

But the same might apply to law. It is illegal to drive on the left side of the road in the United States and legal (mandatory even) in Britain, but we can easily back up and describe this in a more abstract way - the rule might be described as a rule against driving on the side on which a reasonable person would expect traffic to come from the opposite direction.

Science also largely comes

Science also largely comes from experience, so it's not so disreputable to come from experience.

What makes you think Holmes thinks law is disreputable? He is not making a normative judgment when he argues that law is experience. He is trying to explain why the common law does not always hew to strict deductive reasoning. We can best understand common law as the product of countless conflict interactions throughout history - the various solutions that judges have stumbled upon, and the social conditions that guided those decisions and permitted them to stand the test of time.

I don't think you and I actually disagree much here. Law does reflect ethics, more so when it is produced under competitive conditions, less so when it is produced under monopolistic conditions.

But though the legal system as a system does reflect morality (under competitive conditions), I'm not so sure that any individual person working within that system needs to have expertise regarding moral questions. In an adversarial system, lawyers are trained to represent their client, not necessarily pursue justice directly. And judges have incentives to reduce conflict, even if the decision that reduces conflict isn't necessarily the same as the decision that reflects true justice.

There are many problems with philosophy, and I definitely agree that detachment from empirical evidence is a huge blindspot, especially with regards to political philosophy and ethics not being exposed to basic economics. But that's just an argument for more cross-disciplinary exposure, not an argument for discounting the field altogether.

Not the experts

What makes you think Holmes thinks law is disreputable?

I am not arguing against Holmes, but against your use of Holmes to talk about the relationship (or lack thereof) between law and morality, so my responses are colored by my sense of your purpose. Call me crazy, but law is serious stuff and, being so serious, is not morally neutral (you can hardly imprison someone for years, or execute him, and claim to be morally neutral - if you do such nasty things to people then it's a pretty big moral deal whether they deserve it, which is a moral status), so if the law is not moral, then it's immoral, so when you argue that the law isn't moral, I take that as implying that the law is immoral. Ergo, disreputable.

And indeed, the examples you have given are of immoral laws:

drug laws, prostitution laws, etc.

I am presuming that you agree with me that it is morally wrong for the state to arrest adults for engaging in consensual sex, whether or not it is for money. Now, either you think that these laws are in some sense aberrations (as I myself believe), or else you think that they are not aberrations. If they are aberrations then they should not be used as examples of a general statement about law any more than gout should be used as an example of human physiology - unless you believe that law is nothing but aberrations. Holmes was making a general statement about law, a statement applying to non-aberrational law, so if you think these are aberrations then they aren't really the best examples for you to come up with to illustrate Holmes's statement. If you believe that these laws are not aberrations, then in fact you are in effect implying that law generally is disreputable, as these partiular laws are.

He is not making a normative judgment when he argues that law is experience. He is trying to explain why the common law does not always hew to strict deductive reasoning.

And neither does morality.

We can best understand common law as the product of countless conflict interactions throughout history - the various solutions that judges have stumbled upon, and the social conditions that guided those decisions and permitted them to stand the test of time.

Morality is produced the same way. Law is a part of this larger evolution of our understanding of morality.

But that's just an argument for more cross-disciplinary exposure, not an argument for discounting the field altogether.

Well, my main purpose here is to explain why I don't place them on a pedestal, because here I'm responding to an argument that they be placed on that pedestal - that they be considered the experts.

so when you argue that the

so when you argue that the law isn't moral, I take that as implying that the law is immoral.

Where did I argue that the law isn't moral? I argued that the law (especially as it currently exists) is not coextensive with morality, and that experts in law do not rise to the same level of expertise in ethics that experts in moral philosophy do. But that doesn't mean law has nothing to do with ethics; of course it does.

Well, my main purpose here is to explain why I don't place them on a pedestal, because here I'm responding to an argument that they be placed on that pedestal - that they be considered the experts.

I'm still not clear on what your argument is here. If by placing them on a pedestal, you mean that they are an authority to which we can appeal to directly solely by virtue of their authority, or that they are infallible, then I would certainly agree that we should not place them on a pedestal. But if by placing them on a pedestal you mean that relative to other professions, professional philosophers are the people most likely to have expertise in moral reasoning, then I can't think of any better candidate to place on a pedestal. Can you?

I disagree

Where did I argue that the law isn't moral? I argued that the law (especially as it currently exists) is not coextensive with morality, and that experts in law do not rise to the same level of expertise in ethics that experts in moral philosophy do.

I seem to have expressed myself badly because you're ignoring my argument. You quoted Holmes as pointing out that law was not logic, is not syllogisms, is not axioms and corollaries. But what you yourself were arguing at the time that you were using that quote was that ethics deviates from criminal law.

By using Holmes you are implying that morality is logic, is syllogisms, is axioms and corollaries. I dispute this. In fact I think that what Holmes has said can be said about our very understanding of morality. This being the case, then Holmes's quote has not, in fact, distinguished morality from law. So that's one key element of my argument.

Self-consistency and logic are formal qualities. The content of a moral theory can vary drastically while remaining self-consistent and logical, and therefore the formal criteria are no guarantee of correctness. Self-contradiction is something that sometimes needs to be tolerated in order to stay close to the truth. For example, general relativity is close to the truth and quantum mechanics is close to the truth, but in their current form they are often said, I think with reason, to contradict each other, the axis of this contradiction being the phenomenon of gravity. We don't want to discard either one, because they are our best theories. So the contradiction that currently exists needs to be tolerated.

So self-consistency and logic do not guarantee that a theory of morality is correct, and meanwhile lack of logical self-consistency does not guarantee that a theory of morality is sufficiently incorrect that it must be discarded.

Peter Singer is a respected moral philosopher. He believes that animals have rights. One might imagine a legal system based on his conclusions in which non-vegetarianism was illegal and in which there was a war on non-vegetarianism similar to the war on drugs. If he does not personally advocate this, one might (and I think with justice) accuse Singer of pulling his punches: a more strictly logical extension of his insights would yield even more extreme conclusions than Peter Singer's actual conclusions, because Peter Singer unfortunately engaged in special pleading on behalf of the human race in order to blunt the force of his own philosophy.

I think that Peter Singer is a good philosopher who has done utilitarianism proud. But I don't think that his thinking comes closer to moral truth than the actual law, even corrupted as it is by interference from the state. Human morality - the actual phenomenon of human morality - does now and always has treated animals as fundamentally distinct from humans. Utilitarianism cannot do this, because animals in fact are like humans in having pleasure and pain, likes and dislikes, and therefore in satisfying the criteria for inclusion in the global utility function. If utilitarians try to exclude animals by one flimsy excuse or another, they are engaged in invalid argumentation in an effort to prevent utilitarianism from diverging from what they already know about morality. If philosophers find themselves unable to capture the distinction between humans and animals in their theories, so much the worse for philosophy.

This example illustrates that philosophy is not a very good guide to morality. Philosophy that has to prune itself in order to avoid diverging from what philosophers already understand to be morality is not guiding anyone - it is being guided by an extraneous understanding of morality. Meanwhile, philosophy which boldly applies the logic of its own assumptions - as Peter Singer has - produces results which are wrong.

By using Holmes you are

By using Holmes you are implying that morality is logic, is syllogisms, is axioms and corollaries. I dispute this.

That's fine. My purpose in using the Holmes quote was to argue that law is more experiential, and that morality is more abstract. I agree with you that the better moral theories do take into account experience, but I still maintain that they occupy a higher level of abstraction than does law.

Peter Singer is a respected moral philosopher. He believes that animals have rights.

Singer is a utilitarian; he does not believe anyone has "rights".

If he does not personally advocate this, one might (and I think with justice) accuse Singer of pulling his punches:

Accusing Singer of tu quoque is a fun game; I've played it often, on this very blog. Ronald Bailey is an even more proficient at this activity.

I think that Peter Singer is a good philosopher who has done utilitarianism proud. But I don't think that his thinking comes closer to moral truth than the actual law, even corrupted as it is by interference from the state.

I disagree. I think Singer's most valuable contribution to ethics is his notion of the expanding moral circle, and his application of it to non-human entities. He has moved ethical thinking further towards progress.

Further, the issue of animals (and children, and the severely disabled, and fetuses) demonstrates a major distinction between law and ethics (even as you understand the terms). It makes sense, from a social contractarian perspective, to regulate interactions between healthy, rational adult humans to prevent violent conflict and maintain social cohesion. But these same justifications for legal regulation may not apply to interactions involving other entities. And yet we still might have ethical reasons for regulating our own behavior, and peacefully persuading others to regulate their own behavior, even if these reasons don't rise to the level of justifying legal restrictions.

Human morality - the actual phenomenon of human morality - does now and always has treated animals as fundamentally distinct from humans. Utilitarianism cannot do this, because animals in fact are like humans in having pleasure and pain, likes and dislikes, and therefore in satisfying the criteria for inclusion in the global utility function.

But why conclude from this "so much the worse for philosophy"? Why not instead conclude "so much the worse for previous understandings of human morality"? You seem to merely assume that animals do not deserve moral consideration, and then conclude that any ethical system that does give animals consideration must necessarily false.

Human morality - the actual phenomenon of human morality - has many times in the past (and many times in the present) treated some groups of humans as fundamentally distinct from other groups of humans - along racial, gender, class, ethnic, and national lines. And human morality was wrong. The history of human morality, as practiced and as theorized, is not an axiom with which you can ground your argument.

Meanwhile, philosophy which boldly applies the logic of its own assumptions - as Peter Singer has - produces results which are wrong.

What makes you think his results are wrong?

How are we to judge?

But why conclude from this "so much the worse for philosophy"? Why not instead conclude "so much the worse for previous understandings of human morality"? You seem to merely assume that animals do not deserve moral consideration, and then conclude that any ethical system that does give animals consideration must necessarily false.

What is more likely to be mistaken: that burning down someone's house is wrong, or [the fundamental hypothesis of utilitarianism (something like 'right is the greatest good for the greatest number')]?

I would argue that the latter is more likely to be wrong. The latter is far more iffy than the former. Therefore if the latter were to produce a conclusion which conflicts with the former, then the more likely conclusion is that this disproves the latter.

And similarly when we compare Peter Singer's animal rights advocacy to the law as it stands.

If you refuse to test the results of philosophy against what we already know, then you have rendered philosophy unfalsifiable. And if you do that then most definitely I must reject your position.

You might object, "but if we are simply going to go with what we already know, then what's the point of expertise"?

Ah, but we don't already know what's right in every possible situation. In some situations it is not at all clear what is right. People can conflict over something, and be unable to decide between themselves who is in the right. They take their conflict to an expert: a judge. He is an expert in what is right. He is, of course, an expert in law, but law itself is, rightly, his product (case law). The law itself reflects the pursuit of right. The law can, of course, be perverted. But anything can be perverted. Philosophy can be perverted. My point is that even when philosophy is not perverted, it is not the best guide to moral truth.

What is more likely to be

What is more likely to be mistaken: that burning down someone's house is wrong, or [the fundamental hypothesis of utilitarianism (something like 'right is the greatest good for the greatest number')]?

All you've done here is compare two concepts at different levels of abstraction. I could do the same thing - What is more likely to be mistaken: that we should avoid torturing kittens if we can avoid doing so at no great cost, or that trespassing is always wrong under every possible circumstance?

I would argue that the latter is more likely to be wrong. The latter is far more iffy than the former. Therefore if the latter were to produce a conclusion which conflicts with the former, then the more likely conclusion is that this disproves the latter.

If you refuse to test the results of philosophy against what we already know, then you have rendered philosophy unfalsifiable.

Who refused to test the results of philosophy against what we already know? What I argued is that what we already "know" is fallible and inconsistent. After all, Singer's whole argument is based on what we already know - that's the whole point of the expanding moral circle. "We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction."

Everybody knows what a collapsed building is

The distinction that comes to light from the idea of engineers building bridges, I believe, is this: while one has to be an expert in engineering to create something, one does not have to be an expert to see if that something was a success. Medicine is the same. You don't have to be a chicken to know an egg is rotten.

It's not clear the same holds in ethics (unless we adopt some clear benchmark as to what is ethical--say, happiness--but we haven't done that).

There's something to that. But can't people, in fact, easily judge that (say) it is unethical to massacre schoolchildren? And is there really a benchmark of health? Is there really a benchmark of non-collapse? Aren't these judged without resort to benchmarks? Is there really a benchmark of anything? Is there a benchmark of whether something is "a bird"? Or whether something is "human" (a member of our species) for that matter?

We resort to benchmarks in special circumstances: when our concepts have so far proven troublesome. We haven't so far really needed a benchmark of humanity. We can all pretty much tell the difference between humans and non-human animals in most situations that matter.

In certain special circumstances, we need benchmarks. But while we may joke, no one seriously needs a benchmark, or expert opinion, to tell him whether Michael Jackson is a human being or whether it is wrong to literally kill an annoying sibling.

When we do need benchmarks, they might be arbitrary - they can do the job even if they're somewhat arbitrary. Or they might, like Schelling points, satisfy cognitive criteria not necessarily connected to a scale of goodness. You don't necessarily need an ethicist. You might do just as well with a coin flip.

Ethicists would probably be ignored if they told us that it was okay for a student to kill a teacher in order to avoid a bad grade. And they would be superfluous if all they did was tell us that it was not okay to do that. What do we hire them for, if not to decide situations that we can't decide? But, precisely because we can't decide those situations, how do we have any idea they're giving us a quality product?

Which may in fact be your point.

Great post. Much value

Great post. Much value added.

We can call ethics whatever

We can call ethics whatever the hell we want, but the job of philosophy should not be armchair linguistics, but to understand the way the world actually is.

The whole point of ethical statements is that they have normative force. If you think that murder is bad, then you will refrain from murder, whereas if you think that murder is good, you will commit murder. (Give or take whatever other constraints you have on your behavior.) Simply defining morality in ad hoc ways to refer to the things we disapprove of to begin with completely neuters the concept. As such, the interesting question is what sort of propositions are there such that the understanding of them obligates behaving in a certain fashion. If these propositions are not quite what we would call moral, then good riddance to morality: I would rather act in accordance with reason than with whatever arbitrary proscriptions we decide to lump together as "morality."

Philosophers to study

Philosophers to study morality. Yes they do. And they also study quantum mechanics - there are several books written by philosophers about quantum mechanics.

Philosophy is the mother of all other disciplines, including the natural sciences. Many of the sub-disciplines eventually became well developed enough to survive on their own, and disciplines such as physics, psychology, linguistics, mathematics, biology, chemistry, economics, sociology, and computer science spun off from their origins in philosophy.

What remains in philosophy are those subjects that are not well developed enough to serve as their own discipline; philosophy remains the "god of the gaps", to borrow from another cliche. This may mean that the effort to better develop the study of ethics is hopeless; perhaps ethics never became its own discipline and has instead remained part of philosophy because there is no potential for further academic development and refinement.

But even if that is the case, the fact remains that professional philosophers are the people best equipped to answer questions related to the study of ethics. They are the ones most familiar with the various relevant reasons for choosing one course of action over another, and they are the ones with the best tool set for weighing competing reasons.

I don't disagree with your claim that a certain kind of expertise in ethics comes from lived experience, and not necessarily from armchair philosophizing. If you are interested in living the good life, it is probably a better idea to emulate an expert in living the good life - that is, a person who has already lived the good life - than to emulate a professional philosopher. But if you are interested in understanding why course of action A is preferable to course of action B for reasons D, E, and F, then you would have better luck asking a professional philosopher (who may be a horrible, misanthropic hypocrite in his or her personal life) than asking a virtuous layperson.

I would like to suggest that expertise in morality comes about the hard way, and is created by people whose occupation it is to actually make important moral decisions, just as the expertise of engineering is created by people whose occupation it is to actually build massive stuff that does not fall down.

Think about this analogy further. If you want to become a skilled engineer, one way to do so is to become an apprentice for a working engineer. Another option is to go to engineering school, and study the discipline at a more abstract level. Surely, there is much overlap here. But we recognize that not all engineering knowledge comes from on-the-job training and lived experience; much of it is abstract, textbook knowledge, perhaps originally derived from lived experienced, but past down from generation to generation through formulas and equations. Much of it comes from purely abstract experimentation, with no real-world correlate. But we generally don't discount what people with PhDs in engineering have to say simply because they've been stuck in the ivory tower all their lives. Being stuck in the ivory tower all ones life is often a good thing.

All in the abstract

If you want to become a skilled engineer, one way to do so is to become an apprentice for a working engineer. Another option is to go to engineering school, and study the discipline at a more abstract level.

There is beyond, and then there is beyond. Physics in a certain sense moves beyond experience, or above experience, by abstracting from it. But it can only go so far: physics needs experimental support.

Physicists can get away with going way, way beyond experience because the fundamental laws of the universe are so very, very regular, and (relatively speaking) so easy to tease out. The mathematical structures we build in our minds can closely parallel the behavior of the world for a long, long distance (once we get the axioms right). But human society is not like that. Hence the disasters that moral philosophy have produced. In case you're confused by this remark, I'm one who thinks that communism, with its attendant evils, is largely the consequence of bad ideas - and in particular, bad ideas which we still entertain, especially the philosophers among us.

Trying to determine morality by talking about it without actually engaging in morally significant activity (where we are sticking our own necks out - thus ruling out absolute rulers who commit morally significant acts but who get to escape the consequences of their evil) is a bit like trying to determine the correct market price of a good without actually having a market, but just by talking about it. Suppose that we lived in a totalitarian command economy, and a bunch of us sat around trying to figure out what the market price for a good would be. Of course, this is famously not doable, as Mises and Hayek have argued. This is a bit like what moral philosophers are doing.

One of my points is that the philosophical approach, the talk, the blah blah blah, is no substitute for actually participating in society, just as cogitation on the part of the planners of a command economy is no substitute for an actual market economy.

It would take some work to collect details, but I'll give you my impression: that a lot of the ethical dilemmas that exist, exist because an activity is controlled by the state and not by the market. For example, suppose you have a command economy in medicine. Then you have to decide who gets what medicine. This is a morally heavy decision. But in a market nobody is put in that position, so that problem does not exist. Since we have a market in food, there is no tsar of food tasked with the heavy moral burden of deciding who gets what food. If we had a command economy in food, doubtless we would have a lot of ethicists telling the government what was the most moral thing to do.

A lot of the philosophical thought experiments are also unhinged. If there are two trains and you have a switch and your decision will doom one train and save the other blah blah blah - fill in the details. What I have usually seen absent from these dilemmas is any consequence to the hypothetical switch-flicker himself. He is set up as a god, or as an absolute ruler, who suffers no consequences for his action. No mention is made of the consequences for the obvious reason that if we say, "if you flick the switch then you will be executed for murder", then obviously nobody will opt to flick the switch and the thought experiment will be boring. But this is actually a really important omission. Yeah, it will make the experiment boring, but this would not be the first time that sanity is boring and being unhinged is interesting.

Misreading

The answer comes from neuro-imaging and psychologic studies that seem to show that deontological decisions, despite being based on supposedly intellectual considerations, actually are knee jerk responses that take less mental work than utilitarian decisions.

Well, actually, the article makes clear that that's a wrong interpretation. Maybe the author falls into his own trap, I don't know, but the article says:

A judgment that it is appropriate to save the most lives, even if it requires you to suffocate a child, is labeled “utilitarian” by Greene et al., whereas a judgment that it is not appropriate is called “deontological.” These names pay homage to traditional moral philosophies.

These are labels. Not descriptions. Labels are just tags, not intended to make any assertions about what is tagged. And the labels merely pay homage to traditional moral philosophies. No assertion is being made here that the two judgments truly represent the respective traditional moral philosophies that are being paid homage to.

We can of course try to draw conclusions about those philosophies, but at least in that one passage the author carefully distances the result from any such conclusion.

Focusing on this:

despite being based on supposedly intellectual considerations, actually are knee jerk responses that take less mental work than utilitarian decisions.

These are not mutually exclusive. Suppose that, by yourself on your abacus, you calculate pi to the twentieth digit. Having calculated pi, then you memorize it. Ten years later someone asks you the first twenty digits of pi and you rattle them off, while an instrument measures your mental activity. It shows that you are engaged in almost no mental activity. Your current ability to recite pi takes almost no mental work today but is nevertheless the product of a great deal of mental work which you did ten years ago. Therefore, that your response takes very little current mental work, does not rule out the possibility that it was based on long and difficult calculations made some time in the past.

They are feelings individuals invest in. In this way deontology and ideology are similar.

An "ideology" is correctly defined at Wikipedia as "an organized collection of ideas." It is not "feelings". Now, someone who is well versed in an ideology will, of course, have memorized many answers to many questions so that he can rattle them off without thinking. That doesn't mean that those answers are not the product of thought. They may in fact be the product of profound thinking, done some time in the past, either by himself or by others.

A lot of ideologists are full of baloney. But this doesn't mean that ideology is garbage. It means that the particular ideas of these particular ideologists are deeply flawed. Marxism is build on a bunch of deeply flawed ideas, and this poisons the thought of all Marxists. Libertarianism, or classical liberalism, I dare say, has rather a better set of ideas to build on.

There is nothing wrong with ideas per se, and nothing wrong per se with collecting ideas together to form an ideology.

The thing that takes more mental work is when you have to weigh and balance the inevitable utilitarian trade offs, having to choose the better of two evils.

Not generally, no. If you find yourself in many crying-baby situations, eventually you will smother the baby without thinking twice. You will have memorized that solution to that problem. (If you do not smother the baby Darwinian selection eliminates you, so the ones who survived long enough to memorize a solution are the ones which smothered the baby.) So the thing that takes more mental work is not weighing the baby against the rest. The thing that takes more mental work is an unfamiliar problem, whatever it is, which is not handled well by the solutions that you previously memorized.

Our current "knee jerk" responses are themselves the product of history. Some of that history might be within a person's lifetime. Some of it may be cultural: it may represent lessons gradually shaped over hundreds or thousands of years. Some of that may history may actually be prehistory, represented as genetic programming. There is no easy way of saying, just by looking at the current "knee jerk" response as it stands, that it does or does not reflect a long and deep weighing of the pros and cons of various possible responses. At a guess, though, I would say that in all but very rare situations, the response "don't smother a crying baby" in fact yields an optimal or nearly optimal balance of the various trade-offs. So the response already "weighs and balances" the trade-offs. It doesn't take mental work now not because it's stupid but because it's the remembered result of past work. So the contrast you're making between weighing the trade-offs and not weighing the trade-offs doesn't hold here. The real contrast is not between weighing and not-weighing, but between using a remembered result tailored to the general situation and coming up with a new result tailored to a rare situation.

Now, if all you mean to say is that if we do the mental work now rather than making use of the remembered results of past work, then this takes more mental work today, then I agree. But the sense I got from your comments was not that you were contrasting doing the work now with having done the work before, but that you were contrasting doing the work at all with not doing the work at all. I didn't get any sense that you acknowledged the history of weighing pros and cons that may lie behind the knee-jerk responses of today and which may in fact rival or even exceed in perspicacity even the best current conscious weighing of pros and cons.

Read This Book

"If you do not smother the baby Darwinian selection eliminates you, so the ones who survived long enough to memorize a solution are the ones which smothered the baby."

I have noted that you get into evolutionary theory from time to time. It is a very active field of intellectual inquiry. I think you are at a level that you would benefit from reading a book I am also reading presently called Darwin's Cathedral. You can read reviews of it that are better than I could write so I will just give you THIS LINK.

Dave

Looks interesting. I expect

Looks interesting. I expect a review when you finish it. :P

I'm not sure what your point

I'm not sure what your point is here. Your implication seems to be that most ethicists are deontologists, not consequentialists--my impression is that the opposite is the case (though I haven't researched this in any detail).

Is your argument that ethicists should not be granted any privilege in deciding ethical issues?

Heat vs Light

This research is part of ongoing trend in moral psychology that seeks to explain decision-making without resorting to traditional rationalism, in which moral decisions were thought to be the product of cold reasoning.I know ethicists approach it that way. At the same time ethical decisions are highly emotionally loaded.Perhaps the research casts light on this.I know when I read some ethical arguments they generate more heat than light.

Dave

Are you just describing the

Are you just describing the state of the field then? I thought you were making some substantive point of your own, but I'm still confused as to what that is.

New Ways of Looking at Things

The observation I wanted to make was that by removing the Deity from our calculations of what is right and wrong and placing these decisions at the mercy of contentious, contradictory and supposedly rational intellectuals we have not solved all problems as much as having jumped from the frying pan into the fire. That doesn’t mean I didn’t make the jump myself or that I have any answers.

I am kind of excited about the fields of neuroscience, social psychology and evolutionary psychology because these areas seem to throw new light on the subject. Evolutionary psychology seems to show promise as a bridge between and a check on some of the other fields. I don’t think that these sciences have yet to out performed philosophy or religion as explanatory vehicles. Yet progress is being made.
Dave