Tag: moral-psychology

Hume, Plato, and the Impotence of Reason

Hume infers from his insight that it is not reason but moral opinion that moves us to act, that reason is not the source of moral opinion. From this, he then further argues that moral opinion is a product of the passions – special emotions that arise out of the relations of ideas and impressions. In this essay, I will argue that Hume’s initial inference is correct, but that his subsequent inference is not. Passions may indeed arise from relations of ideas and impressions, but there is no good reason to presume passions, though necessary, are sufficient to produce a moral opinion.

So, what exactly is a “moral opinion”? Plato believed that opinion (doxa) was something that lay in the gray area between true and false belief. He argued that opinion did not deserve the respect of a truth because it lacked the justification of an eternal, unchanging quality necessary to rise to the level of êpistêmê (true belief). If we apply this standard to moral opinion, then, it would be a doxastic belief about the rightness or wrongness of an action, or the goodness or badness of a character. Moral knowledge, on the other hand, would be a belief of a much stronger type. To say, for example, that I believe stealing to be unpleasant, or that I wouldn’t do it, or that it seems wrong, would be to say something contingently true, relative to myself, and subject to correction. To say, “stealing is wrong”, on the other hand, is to make a truth claim asserting the real existence of a property in a certain class of actions. To make such an assertion, I would need to be able to identify the property, point it out, and name it. That would require some sort of perception, and perception requires a sense organ or a faculty of the mind, or both. Plato would rule out a sense organ as the source of our moral knowledge, because sensible phenomena are mere imperfect reflections of the ultimate reality of the form of the good.

The faculty of the mind that perceives such things as rightness or wrongness, according to Plato, is therefore a certain kind of judging faculty that need not rely on the senses. The traditional interpretation is to say that this is reason, and to make analogies to mathematics to bolster the claim because this is what Plato seems to do, but I disagree. In The Republic, Plato provides an ornate metaphor for his tripartite soul: that of a charioteer and two great horses. Plato puts reason in the charioteer’s seat, and assigns the role of appetite (passions) and judgment (moral judgment) to each of the two horses. This arrangement is important, because it speaks to Hume’s own assertion that “reason is and only ever ought to be the slave of the passions”. The charioteer is the apprehending ego, the “reasoning” member of the triad. He does not motivate the chariot. He only steers it. This is consonant with Hume’s view, that reason can only guide the passions, but where Hume fails is (to borrow Plato’s analogy), in thinking there is only one horse. Hume is presuming there is no judging faculty. With only one horse to pull the chariot, the best the driver can do is provide a bit of helpful guidance as the appetitive horse causes the chariot to careen in whatever direction its whim pulls it.

Jonathan Haidt, in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, provides a more vivid metaphor: that of a thin, scantily clad tribesman mounted atop an unruly African elephant. In this metaphor, the elephant is almost entirely in control, and all the rider can do is suggest minor alterations in direction with a swat of reeds or a tug on a rope. His metaphor, like Hume, includes no faculty of judgment, no capacity to discern the difference between mathematical or empirical facts, and the normative consequences of actions taken in light of them. No capacity for selecting among possible goals. For Haidt, the elephant dictates the terms of engagement to the rider, and his only choice is over how enthusiastically he accepts them. Haidt is dutiful in his acceptance of Hume’s model of moral psychology. But Hume, as I have said, is wrong. Hume is indeed correct that the rider does not form his opinions on his own, but he is wrong to say that they necessarily derive from the elephant. Hume is ignoring the judging horse. Kant, reacting to his own observation of this problem, attempts to right the ship by overcorrecting in the opposite direction: he denies the importance of the appetitive horse, and gives control of the chariot exclusively to the driver. On Kant’s model, neither appetite nor judgment are empowered to lead us anywhere, and the charioteer is forced to get out and push the chariot, out of “respect for the moral law”. This will not do.

To properly form a “moral opinion”, as anything more than just opinion, requires judgment. Judgment is the reconciliation of “is” with “ought”, by means of a value determination. That determination requires a negotiation of experienced desires and reasoned principles. In this way, the rider and his two chariot horses have an equal say in the speed, direction, and ultimate destination of the chariot. For all it’s metaphorical mysticism, Plato’s model of the tripartite soul is a profound insight into human character that is lacking in almost all of his successors, save perhaps, Aristotle. The rational portion of the soul is the master of what is, the appetitive portion is the master of what I want to be, and the judging portion of the soul is the master of what ought to be. Our task, as thinking, self-conscious human beings, is to train ourselves so that these masters learn to live in harmony with one another. When we do, the result is eudaemonia.

Morality in a Determined World

This essay will attempt an answer to the following question: If determinism is true, is morality an illusion? In other words, if we take the basic fact of causal necessity – the brute physical explanation that every effect has a cause – as a given, can we justify a belief in moral value and normative judgment in the narrow sense of “good” and “bad”? I will argue that there are good reasons to believe in the reality of both moral judgment and moral value in spite of causal necessity. Firstly, I will show that causal necessity does not entail what determinists insist of it. Secondly, I will argue that causal necessity leaves us no choice but to accept the responsibility of making moral choices, as members of the human community. Lastly, I will argue that the status of morality as a real phenomenon need not rest on naïve notions of ontological independence from the human mind.

The determinist insists on a universe in which all effects are perfectly determined from prior causes all the way back to the so-called “Big Bang”. He argues that we could, in principle, explain all effects in terms of their prior causes, if we only had the means to acquire enough knowledge to do so. We know from quantum physics that this is not actually true. Quantum indeterminacy shows that predictions at the sub-atomic level are a probabilistic affair, at best. Though this is not enough to claim free will (because brute randomness is just as much a causal driver as a perfectly predictable mechanical universe), it does show that the traditional view of determinism is in need of some updating. What’s more, as Peter Tse1 has argued, neural activity – one level up from the sub-atomic – is not a purely ballistic process (i.e., like billiard balls bouncing around). Rather, according to Tse, neurons behave more like a “store and forward” messaging system, in which groups of “epi-connected” neurons assemble into temporary networks, that collect and release electrochemical energy by way of criterial threshold triggers that may be pattern-specific. These criterial triggers can effect future neural states, and the arrangement of subsequent “epi-connected” networks, which makes their behavior indeterminate, but of a non-random nature. These two phenomenon (random quantum indeterminacy, and non-random neural indeterminacy) together, function as a necessary first condition for genuine choice-making activity in the brain. But none of this need be true, necessarily, to refute the main complaint of the determinist. Namely, that moral “responsibility” could not rest with the individual making the apparent choice, because the individual is not the “ultimate” cause of his behavior and because he’s not really making a choice. To begin with, there is no reason I know of, why responsibility can only rest on a causal terminus. So what if I’m not the ultimate cause of my choice? In fact, I can’t really think of any choice I’ve ever made, in which I was the originating source of the choice. By this reasoning, the Big Bang itself would become the ultimate scape goat. So, that objection seems spurious to me. On the question of whether I’m actually making a choice or not, this objection seems to beg the question it is trying to prove. Perhaps I am making an actual choice. The traditional determinist has yet to prove otherwise, and as I have shown, there is good evidence to suggest that he may be operating on obsolete information.

But Dr. Tse’s work is, at the moment, only an untested theory. So, prudence and charity suggests that taking the determinist’s position as a given might be the safer bet. If the human mind is indeed determined in a ballistic sense, just as the rest of physical matter in the universe, and the barrier to making all human activity predictable is not one of principle, but of mere technological prowess, would this mean our impulse to moral judgment is illusory, or that maintaining moral position is indulging in a fiction? When I consider what it means to be a human being, I think not. While we are animals that have evolved just like all others have, we are yet primates of a very peculiar variety. We are creatures driven by a psychology that was chiseled out of environmental pressures that determined a set of genetic traits that were necessary for the reproductive success of primates in that early environment. That process has, as Frans de Waal2 has outlined, equipped us with a highly sophisticated cognitive and emotional apparatus (whether as primary or secondary traits is somewhat irrelevant at the moment), that enabled such things as gratification deferment, long-term planning, cost/benefit calculation, and comparative judgment. These traits have enabled highly sophisticated social interactions and complex social structures in which genetic relatedness, reciprocal altruism, sympathetic resentment, emotional contagion, empathy, and a robust theory of mind, have all culminated in a “moral sense” that is both self- and other-directed. This collection of “moral sentiments” is necessarily normative, because each of us, as a specimen of the human primate species, requires a means by which we can determine our “fit” in the social order so as to budget our resource acquisition and mating opportunities. The ways in which this evaluative process expresses itself and the individual, and subsequently the group, is going to vary broadly with climatic conditions and population (and is a topic for another time), but in general, when attitudes arising from these evaluations are systematized into moral “codes”, or political philosophies, this we want to call “morality”. What this means, is that morality is not illusory, but it is also not what we typically think it is. It is a psycho-biological phenomenon that consists in a process of continuous negotiation, competition, and collaboration, that regulate the behavior of the species over time, and in response to environmental pressures. There is a further consequence: as a member of this species, I have no choice but to participate in this process. My brain is constructed to perform these evaluative judgments, and to seek commerce with (and protection within) my in- groups. The common question, “why should I be moral?”, is thus answerable by saying that you already are, necessarily. The only thing that remains is, what are you going to do about it?

It might be objected at this point, that these evaluations are purely mythical because no such qualities as “good” and “bad” can be identified in the actions of an individual in the way that angular momentum or velocity can be. Or, it may be contested that because such things as moral “value” are negotiated, they are a mere “social construct”, and therefore ought not be taken seriously. Both objections, it seems to me, come down to an unreasonably reductive insistence on a narrow conception of “existence” as nothing more than physical matter and energy. Even the most materialist of Marxist economists would be willing to acknowledge the “real” store of value present in a ten pound note. As noted above, such things as the capacity for long-term planning, gratification deferment, and cost-benefit calculation (as well as language, and a sense of reciprocity and expectation), enable the creation of real symbols of evaluative judgment – simple commodities upon which we psychologically project a certain qualitative or quantitative meaning. While it is true that different groups of people have used different commodities and have imbued those tokens with different degrees of importance and different kinds of meaning, they have all nonetheless engaged in the creation and representation of real value. If we are willing to accept this as an example of value in real form, why would we not accept the same for morality? Why would we take the collective store of moral value to be less “real”, than the collective store of economic value? Seems to me, without a principle for making such a choice, I’d only be engaging in an act of caprice, and denying my own nature in the process.

The arguments above cannot help us explain what kinds of things we need to evaluate, what means of evaluation we ought to engage in, how much importance the evaluations deserve, or even which evaluations are appropriate in any given situation. Rather, all I have tried to show, is that accepting a deterministic view of reality hardly excuses us from the fact of morality, as a human phenomenon. Far from excusing us from moral choice because mere illusion, a deterministic understanding, when coupled with the science of evolution and psychology, makes morality an inescapable inevitability for us (or, at least, a biological fact of life – even if accidental). What’s more, in trying to characterize morality as an “illusion” because of causal necessity or biological determination, we’re doing nothing less than trying to deny the responsibility with which nature itself has tasked us. For those of us who choose to take up this burden, the challenge is precisely this: to explain what it really is, and to show how we can best make use of it.


  1. Peter Tse, The Neural Basis of Free Will, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2013 
  2. Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2006 

The Ought In The Machine

Our moral consciousness is at the epicenter of our sense of free will, the core of our emotional experiences, the bedrock of our individual identities, the binding chords of our relationships and social structures, and the frameworks of our political systems. Moral _psychology_ is not enough. _Evolutionary_ morality is not enough. What we need is _moral philosophy_, now more than ever.

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