Sunday, January 26, 2014

On Moral Discovery

It is easy to give uncontroversial examples of important scientific and mathematical discoveries. Are there similarly uncontroversial examples of important moral or otherwise normative discoveries? Does your answer imply anything interesting about the nature of moral inquiry or moral knowledge?

Matt McCormick

I think we’ve recently discovered several important moral truths: equality for people of different races (The Civil Rights movement), equality for women, equality for people with different sexual orientations. Human moral knowledge is slowly expanding, facilitated by medical, social, educational, and economic advances, that are making possible the expansion of the sphere of inclusion. As humans on the planet get more prosperous, standards of living rise, and education levels rise, more of us come to appreciate the implications of some of the fundamental moral truths, and then we improve our social structures, our legal structures, and our cultures to reflect those improvements. The expansion of the sphere of inclusion, and the broadening of the class of beings whose interests should count, suggest that in the future many of the entities who we afford less consideration now will come to be treated with equality and rights entitlements. So irreligious minorities, who are currently some of the most reviled people in the country, more non-human animals, and even artificial intelligences are on the moral horizon next.

Christina Bellon

I’m wary of the implied assertion that we make “discoveries” in the same sense in morality as in science. But, I suppose, when we come to discern our practices as conflicting with moral principles or values, it is a discovery of sorts, akin to the observation that light contradicts classical physics’ wave theory and participle theory, made way for relativity and quantum theory. Similarly, the inadequacies of ethical realism and ethical intuitionism to account for moral action move us to develop alternatives. But it’s not like you lift up a rock, long untouched by human or other forces, to find a moral principle, as you might to discover a new species of nematode; or look to heaven for moral values written in the stars, as you might for evidence of the movement of Jupiter’s moons. Are there clear examples in morality? Yes, about as clear as they might be in science. But, like the latter, their conditions for truth, clarity, or indisputability have to be stipulated or framed. I use the example, “It is wrong to pull the heads off of kittens.” It is wrong by several measures, by appeal to values and principles which we accept as true and use regularly in our everyday lives. If questioned, we confirm their truth by example. I even confirm students’ agreement that it is wrong by demonstration, much as my chemistry colleagues mix sulfuric acid with sugar to demonstrate exothermic reactions.

David Corner

It is easy to find uncontroversial examples of important moral truths, but it's hard to characterize these as discoveries. A discovery is something that we come to know, and as far as I can tell, we have always known these things. Examples: The fact that an action causes pain is reason not to do it. I don’t mean by this that we should never do anything to cause pain; this claim is plainly false. I mean: When we sum up reasons to perform, or not to perform, a particular action, the fact that it causes pain counts against doing it.

Similarly I think that if an action advances knowledge, promotes social cooperation, or cultivates harmonious relationships, these things would count in favor of doing it.

A good candidate for an uncontroversial moral discovery is the principle that slavery is wrong. This principle has been denied in the past by philosophers that are otherwise widely respected and admired, e.g. Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke. But it’s hard to imagine any paper being accepted for publication today, in a peer-reviewed journal, that defends slavery. I offer two qualifications here: (1) This discovery can’t be identified with a particular event, like an experiment or the publication of a particular book. (2) There are surely people alive today who think slavery is morally permissible. But universal agreement can’t be a criterion for something’s being uncontroversial, since otherwise the theory of evolution would not qualify- nor would the claim that the Earth is round.

Randy Mayes

This question presupposes a distinction between moral facts and empirical facts that one might simply reject.  A utilitarian, for example, would say that the answer is clearly yes.  We have discovered a great deal about what sorts of practices increase and diminish happiness.  Diminishing marginal utility is a profound moral discovery from this perspective.

However, if we stipulate that moral facts are not empirical in nature, the answer to this question is no. Surprising moral discoveries compelling more or less immediate and universal acceptance of a previously unknown fact obviously do not occur. Consider Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter, which demolished the Aristotelian conception of celestial motion. There are no moral discoveries analogous to this.   

The idea of gradual moral discovery is perhaps more plausible, but it is still dubious. Copernicus provided the original model for an earth in motion, but it took over 100 years for this fact to become known. Still it was a discovery; the earth's motion was a fact about the universe hidden from view.

Did we, in the same way, gradually discover, say, that all humans are moral equals? I do not think it is plausible to regard this simply as a fact hidden from view in patriarchal and slave holding societies of the past (and present). Ought implies can. Moral facts can not even be so until we have become the kinds of beings capable of accepting them.

Do we wish to speak of the discovery of moral facts? Naturalize them.

Brad Dowden

The quick answer is “yes” to both questions. It is easy to give the following uncontroversial examples of important scientific and mathematical discoveries: (i) Physics: Four-dimensional space-time has both negative and positive microscopic curvature. (ii) Mathematics: Every elliptic curve can be associated with a unique modular form. (iii) Chemistry: 2-deoxy-2- [18F]fluoro-D-glucose is a stand-in for glucose in pharmacokinetics. These three examples are easy to give, but not easy to explain, to the non-experts.

It is also easy to give the following uncontroversial examples of important moral and normative discoveries: (i) Garrett Hardin discovered a thought experiment involving the dilemma of members of a lifeboat deciding under what circumstances some of the surrounding swimmers should be taken aboard the lifeboat. (ii) John Rawls discovered a new social-contract-type thought experiment: the Original Position. (iii) Philippa Foot discovered the runaway-trolley problem. The conclusions that Hardin, Rawls and Foot draw from their thought experiments are controversial, but what is uncontroversial is that their thought experiments help clarify the moral issues. These moral discoveries are both easy to give, and easy to explain, to the non-experts.

So, my conclusion is that moral knowledge of this sort is easy to explain to the non-experts, but scientific and mathematical knowledge is not.

However, a more interesting question is whether the discovery of moral thought experiments is really representative of all moral knowledge.

Scott Merlino

There are moral facts and principles which ethical deliberation discovers by reason alone or in concert with empirical observations. For example, consider principles that Thomas Hobbes calls “Laws of Nature” in his Leviathan. He argues for adopting a social contract, because doing so produces a more desirable state of affairs within which to live than simply following our natural appetites and aversions to the detriment of those around us. We may infer the truth of such principles by assessing the effects of abiding collectively by such contracts.

Hobbes’ normative rules: Seek peace. Lay down one’s right to all things when others do so also, so that peace and security can be maintained, otherwise use all the advantages of war. Keep promises and honor contracts. Be grateful for gifts. Be sociable by accommodating and cooperating with others.

Where people adopt such rules, objective well-being (OWB) and subjective well-being (SWB) are high, people thrive. OWB describes a standard of living. When disease, poverty, crime, and economic inequality are high, OWB is low. SWB refers to the self-described quality of one’s life, health, emotions, judgments, happiness. Among people with high SWB, there is less disease, less anti-social behavior, greater longevity, more optimism, and higher prosperity.

One moral, non-trivial, uncontroversial implication: If people desire to preserve life and liberty, then they ought to form and obey a social contract, and punish or banish those who don't. This isn’t rocket science, but it also isn’t obvious to selfish bastards among us.

Kyle Swan

Yes, and I think so.

My example is the rejection of general natural moral hierarchies; alternatively, the widespread acceptance of the idea that there is no moral obligation to submit to subjugation because everyone has the equal moral authority, as Mill said, “to employ their faculties, and such favorable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable.” In other words, the days of, e.g., the divine right of kings are well behind us. We now regard it as unreasonable for people to expect others to comply with their assertion of control over what these others have reason to do. When they reject the assertion of this control they are demanding that people leave them sufficient authority to act in accordance with their deliberations about what they should do or what kind of life is best.

The fact that this demand to be treated as moral equals is legitimate, while the demand to submit to another’s control isn’t, suggests (at least to me) that moral reasoning is deeply reciprocal and that moral rules are practices based on reciprocal demands. When, for example, Lucy rejects Ellie’s subjugation, she only insists on the very thing that everyone, including Ellie, presumes – the standing to order her life in light of considerations that make normative sense to her. Likewise, when Ellie subjugates Lucy, she insists on the very thing that she herself would reject were Lucy, or anyone else, to presume to direct her reasoning.

Russell DiSilvestro

Q1: C. S. Lewis claimed that

“The first thing to get clear about Christian morality between man and man is that in this department Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule of the New Testament (do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that.”

Q2: Yet when Lewis discussed morality through the lens of virtue, he claimed that

“According to this longer scheme there are seven “virtues.” Four of them are called “Cardinal” virtues, and the remaining three are called “Theological” virtues. The “Cardinal” ones are those all civilized people recognize: the “Theological” are those which, as a rule, only Christians know about.”

P1: Perhaps some moral knowledge is (near-) universal and ancient—if so, our oldest records everywhere should testify to that knowledge even if they do not testify to its ‘discovery’.

P2: Perhaps some other moral knowledge is particular and (relatively) recent—if so, not all persons and communities had it (or have it now).

I1: If we want to think about discoveries, we should not just look back decades or centuries, but millennia (think: fire).

I2: We should look for such discoveries, not just in one branch, but in many (think: biology and astronomy; obligation and virtue).

Tom Pyne

Are there uncontroversial examples of ‘discovery’ in science and mathematics? A conceptual relativist like Ernest Sosa would deny it.

But let’s take ‘what-sometimes-happens-in-science-and-mathematics’ as what this prompt means by ‘discovery.’

Moral facts are fixed only in part by natural facts; there is also an indispensible role for convention. It is a truism about conventions that, even while following the convention, the parties may have only very limited cognitive access to its content.

A fundamental feature of all human societies is conventional division of social roles. Og makes flint weapons; Glug gathers roots and berries; Reginald hunts for meat.

How do we commensurate these goods?

The core meaning of ‘market’ is a kind of event. We all meet in one spot at the same time, ‘Market Day,’ with what we have to obtain what we want. Goods get commensurated by exchange.

But for millennia the effort to produce the good was identified with the good. Tool-making and hunting were different activities. Plato makes the incommensurability of the basic social activities the foundation of his Republic.

Then Adam Smith saw that these different activities were commensurated after all. Human effort forms a market too. We just hadn’t realized it before.

Coming to understand that the effort used to produce goods is just like the goods themselves in this respect is an astonishing discovery.

For millennia the motion of a freely-falling body (natural motion) and projectile motion were similarly incommensurable. Adam Smith’s discovery is on a par with Galileo’s .


  1. I have a question for the panel, although I suppose it will be most interesting for those who think that (a) moral discovery is possible and (b) it is similar to scientific discovery in some important way.

    There seems to be a very important difference between scientific discoveries and moral discoveries. In scientific discoveries, it counts for very little that a scientific discovery seems to line-up with a lay-person's (or even expert's!) intuitions. We might think that it is a nifty bonus that some scientific discoveries mesh well with how we think about the world, but what really matters is how the theory responds to the rigors of the scientific method, how well it accounts for the data, and how it meshes with other discoveries we think we have made.

    But, in moral discoveries, people seem to think that our intuitions are the ultimate arbiter of moral truth. This can be seen with how much weight we give to moral thought experiments versus scientific ones. (See Professor Dowden's examples of moral discoveries - and I actually think they *are* moral discoveries - they mostly involve theories that seem to support our moral intuitions.)

    I suppose this leads to a lot of different questions, but I'm mostly interested in whether you all think this sort of disparity is epistemically justified. Are we justified in thinking that our intuitions mostly get it right in morality, even if they fail us in other ways of knowing about the world? (I think Professor DiSilvestro's answer hints at one possible reason for thinking this is true.)

  2. Matt, my view is that as long as we insist on a distinction between natural and moral facts, moral discovery can not occur, and I think you've given a reason in support of that. It's impossible for us to discover surprising moral facts in anything like the way scientific inquiry does. The reason for this is, as you indicate, that in moral inquiry a claim being surprising (i.e., highly counter intuitive) counts as a strong reason for believing it is false. This is true in science to some extent as well. For a very brief period Galileo's astronomical discoveries were suspected of being artifacts of the telescope. For a much longer period Michelson and Morley's failure to detect the ether was blamed on the technology employed. But in science surprising, even astounding, facts, both general and discrete, often gain universal acceptance. This is because in science, the fact that something is counter intuitive is only prima facie evidence of its falsity. Ultimately you have to show that some measurement error was made of that the result is not repeatable.

  3. Hi Matt!

    As one of those who thinks that "moral discovery is possible and (b) it is similar to scientific discovery in some important way" (whatever way that is), I'm prepared to deny that our intuitions arbitrate moral truths.
    Suppose the assumptions I employed are correct:
    i. Conventions must be included in any satisfactory account of moral facts.
    ii. The content and the implications of a given convention may not be cognitively salient or apparent.
    Then some consequences seem to follow:
    1. Ratiocination, as well as observation of the actual workings of moral agents are necessary. Determining the content and implications of a convention will be accomplished by methods similar to linguistics - and indeed, for the same reason: the grammar of a language is a set of conventions.
    2. Naturalizing moral facts seems a hopeless project, since they would be underdetermined by natural selection to a degree that made appeals to such selection wholly inadequate as an explanation for why the moral facts are what they are.
    The existence of a market in labor has important entailments. You have a nice explanation for the immorality of slavery. And employment is seen as the important moral tie it is.

  4. I don't think it was intuitively obvious that there is a market in labor.
    Indeed, Plato, and most thinkers would have denied it, with varying degrees of indignation.
    I certainly would deny that intuitive obviousness is what makes it true that there is.
    There is a moral realm that is unfixed by natural facts alone, to which our cognitive access is limited in the same way as it is limited toward the natural realm, and that it is beyond our current-time-slice power to change.
    That is, it has the objectivity and independence of our wishes characteristic of the natural realm.

    1. Tom, I am having trouble seeing how Adam Smith's discovery is moral in nature. I see it as conceptual insofar as it massaged the notion of a market in such a way that it's status as an event was moved out of the core. Otherwise I see it as empirical. Is your point that Smith's discovery involves an insight into what is permissible as opposed to what is possible for people to do?

      In my own case, I don't mean to be taking on the objectivity of morality, only that it is the kind of objectivity that admits of discovery. I blame this entirely on the fact that we have no agreed upon method of measuring moral properties. We have multiple rather imprecise ways that produce contradictory answers in hard cases. The objective features of the moral landscape are those for which these different detection modes produce the same result, the silent majority I suspect.

    2. It’s no accident that Adam Smith was the professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow.

      After the enclosures in the Scottish highlands displaced the subsistence crofters in favor of sheep, the Scottish public was concerned over the precipitate decline in moral standards: Where did all these lazy, shiftless paupers come from?

      The solution was to brand them with the mark of their parish, so they couldn’t double-dip by getting charity from several.

      The realization that labor formed a market provided the solution to this moral crisis. The mills in Manchester, the end-users of the wool from all those sheep, were crying out for workers.

      Is this is the discovery of a hitherto unrecognized moral reality? I think it is.

      If an individual is not a peasant by status, so that his ceasing to be a peasant is his ceasing to have worth, then what other worth-making feature can we discern?

      Well, he is the possessor of a capacity, labor, with a real, but unrealized worth. What is that worth? To be determined by the market in labor: what wages his labor will fetch.

      The semantic root of ‘ethics’ is ethos, Greek for ‘custom’ or ‘practice.’ The principles of ethics are the necessities internal to the fundamental human practices, which are conventions of immemorial antiquity. As I said, one such practice is division of social roles.

      What Smith discovered was that the necessity internal to the hitherto unrecognized practice of having a market in labor is the individual’s capacity to exchange that labor. That’s why slavery is wrong. That’s why confining the crofters to the parish was an affront on their moral status: it constrained their capacity to exchange.

      The semantic root of ‘moral’ is mos, the Latin cognate of ethos.

      Let’s grant, momentarily and for the sake of argument, your supposition that measurability is a marker for discoverability.

      Until Adam Smith we had no agreed-upon measure of the relative worth of a peasant’s labor as opposed to a factory worker’s. Now we do. The worth of an individual’s labor now has a clear measure: what does he make?

      Other moral properties cannot be assigned a monetary value, of course. Just this one.

      But other moral properties can be ordered and ranked.

      So maybe that discoverable properties needn't be measurable.

      Perhaps is it is sufficient that the degree of their possession be orderable. That seems to have Plato’s socratic assumption: just as we can recognize when someone is a better flute player than another, so we should in principle be able to recognize when someone is a better human being and citizen than another.

    3. Tom, this is cool. If Smith's discovery is moral in nature, I'm sure you'll agree it isn't of the of the form "X is good/bad, right/wrong, etc." You say it provides an explanation of the moral wrongness of slavery- which is very interesting- but not that he discovered thee wrongness of slavery. Typically you can't explain things that you don't already accept as facts. (Though this is Procrustean. I believe that the ability to explain something actually solidifies our acceptance of it as fact.) I also don't think you are suggesting that Smith's discovery is moral in nature because it solved a moral crisis. Though I'm not sure I know what a moral crisis is.

      Maybe what you are showing here is that the there are discoveries to be made, perhaps especially in the social sciences, that can't be easily categorized as moral or scientific. This makes even more sense when you consider that the sorts of entities studied in economics- agents - have moral capacities by definition. But I wonder if we at least agree that the more straightforwardly, stereotypically normative a claim is, the less discoverable it will be.

      Anyway, where is Kyle?

    4. A lot depends on what you think makes a discovery moral in nature (you seem to want to separate it from the empirical -- or maybe something that's merely empirical?). But here's Jerry Gaus channeling Hayek: “Our reason did not produce social order – we did not reason ourselves into being followers of social [moral] rules. Rather, the requirements of social order shaped our reason" (Order of Public Reason, 547). The part of Hayek he's channeling is here: “Man is as much a rule-following animal as a purpose-seeking one. And he is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in a society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations” (Law, Legislation and Liberty, 11).

      I take the idea to be that we have to see moral norms arising out of our interactions with others. Have we made discoveries about how to live together in mutually acceptable ways? You betcha! We shouldn’t divorce questions of morality from the question of what sort of social arrangements are acceptable to (or work for, or make sense to) people as they actually are. How people actually are (e.g., their moral emotions) conditions what arrangements will allow them to live together in mutually acceptable ways because, among other things, it affects what model of strategic interaction applies, and downstream from this, the moral rules they converge upon. At some point in our history we recognized that slavery didn't ‘fit’. It's wrong.

  5. Matt, good question. I believe it was Peter Singer who referred to intuitions as biological residue, at best beliefs built from inculcation in and uncritical acceptance of "how we've always done things." At best, in my opinion, intuitions get a discussion started. They form the starting point for most of our reflections on the nature of things, including in the sciences, which then might lead to discovery a long way down the road of inquiry. But an intuition, on its own isn't necessarily definitive of whether we're on the right track with things. And if our inquiry leads to an inference contrary to our intuitions, this should not lead necessarily to rejection of the inference. Some of the most profound discoveries in what we now call the sciences contradict our most deeply held intuitions about the way things are. Even after observational confirmation, some of those intuitions just don't go away. We all know that the earth revolves around the sun, but look at our language -- we feel the romance, the poetry, the certainty that all is right with world, when the sun rises and sets as expected -- as though we are stationary and the sun is doing the moving. Of course, we also know that the relative locations and motion of the earth and sun were discovered before there was something called a scientific method... just a dude, with a candle, some ink and paper, applying a little math and logic to some diagrams (Copernicus), not unlike we do with moral thought experiments (Dowden) and other known facts (McCormick, Swan, Pyne, me).

  6. Star Trek inspires my answer to this question. Moral discoveries seem to me to be the product of us figuring out how to best survive. Humanity isn’t assured, we could totally kill ourselves off in any number of ways (Cold War nuclear destruction, kill the planet, create a blackhole in Switzerland). Morality seems to be geared towards keeping us from doing this. We agree that aggressively killing each other off in wars is wrong, not so much because people die, we all gotta bite the big one someday and it won’t be nice, but more so because potential is lost with every death of every person who could have invented a new cool thingy, or had a radical idea that could help us all out. Similarly smaller wrongs such as lying and cheating are frowned upon not so much because “now my sister thinks she got the all the gum out of her hair” but because communication breaks down. Once a lie is told and discovered untruth is been set as a precedent and all further communications need to be reconfirmed. Such communication barriers are insufficient and a harm to the social environment.
    Absolutely moral discoveries can be made according to this vague idea I put forth. Pain is foundation for such discoveries. Getting beat up sucks because it’s painful. If no lessons are learned from it then it is a bad thing. From this we discover that random beatings, popular in futbol matches, and in the American ganglands is wrong. Not to say every beating was a bad thing, couple times I learned a very valuable lesson form one, and in the end it made my life better. Morality is human in nature, not so much objective to reality. But in ethics courses I have learned to better evaluate myself and the powers that be.