16 October 2010
Writing Against The Scholars
Joshua Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at at Harvard University with an interest in moral philosophy, has evidently found that a stimulating quote. It inspired the title and much of the reasoning of his essay The Secret Joke of Kant's Soul. (Hmmmm. A Harvard man officially tasked with teaching psychology who writes about moral philosophy? Why would he interest a Jamesian like myself?)
Greene discusses trolley cars in that essay, and regular readers of Pragmatism Refreshed will not be surprised to learn that this bit drew my attention. [I'll assume my reader already familiar with the standard trolley-car hypothetical. Follow that last link if you want a refresher.]
Greene ups the ante: "What if the trolley is headed for a detonator that will set off a nuclear bomb that will kill half a million people?" he imagines asking a stubborn deontologist. "Suddenly the welfare of society as a whole starts to sound important again."
His point is that the initial refusal of many of his students to (imaginatively) sacrifice somebody to an oncoming trolley for the good of two or more somebodies is an emotional reaction, one bred into us by evolution, where immediate interpersonal relations are the only ones that really counted for our selfish genes. The emotional reaction gives way and "cognition" kicks in once numbers get really large.
So should we conclude that we owe it to ourselves as a species to get over our inbred emotional responses and do the right thing as our cognition indicates? That deontology is a phase in our existence we ought finally to outgrow? Green does not draw that conclusion. After all, taken without qualification that line of reasoning tells me also that I should "feel uneasy" about loving my children more than any other children. No parent [almost no parent?] feels uneasy about that, and Greene states the reason well. "It seems that one who is unwilling to act on human tendencies with amoral evolutionary causes is ultimately unwilling to be human." There must be a line between "correcting the near-sightedness of human moral nature and obliterating it completely...." Giving up on parental love would obliterate human nature. On which side of the line would one put the deontological refusal to stop the runaway trolley, even if it dooms two victims rather than one? Is that the humanness we must preserve or the near-sightedness thereof we should correct?
Greene leaves that question open. But the fact that he suggests deontology still has some life in it, even after treating it as an emotional response at odds with cognition, suggests that the secret in his soul may be the same as the secret in Kant's.
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.