16 October 2010

Writing Against The Scholars

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "Kant wanted to prove, in a way that would dumbfound the common man, that the common man was right: that was the secret joke of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in support of popular prejudice, but for scholars and not for the people."

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.


Henry said...


Based on your summary of Greene's article, it appears that his point is that, if we would act and thereby kill one person in order to save half a million people, then we ought to take the same action to save two people. I agree that there is no way logically to distinguish the two situations. Nevertheless, it would feel a lot worse to allow half a million people to die than to allow two people to die; we would feel more responsible and more guilty in the former case. Maybe having that feeling is part of what makes us human, so we should follow it. If so, Greene's point would fail.

In my comment on your 2007 post (available at your "Pragmatism Refreshed" link), I brought up a real-world problem with the trolley hypothetical. I have another one now. The law generally holds one criminally and civilly liable only for actions, not for failures to act. In other words, you could get prosecuted for murder or sued for wrongful death if you switch the trolley's direction, but not if you don't. That might influence a person's decision.

Christopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher said...

Here's the URL for that obit.


Christopher said...

I just deleted what had been the second post of this thread because of annoying typos. I'll try again.

Interestingly, Philippa Foot, a renowned moral philosopher, died recently -- October 4th I believe.

The weekend edition of The Financial Times has an obit for her. The headline reads, "Influential thinker on ethics who devised the 'trolley problem'". Of course, she did much else, as the body of the obit makes clear. But it is fascinating that this is the one aspect of her work that made it into the headline.

Anyway, as to your points, in reverse order: (1) the legal environment may or not be evidence to any moral or philosophical conclusion. One could make a case that the law refuses to impose duties of action to save strangers because it embodies moral intuitions -- but that seems a tough sell. At any rate, for most purposes it seems best to abstract from the legalities; (2) I think Greene would say that the ability even to conceive of the death of half a million people as the consequence of any single detonation is a very recent development, so natural selection hasn't had time to wire it into our brains yet. And the hard-wired quality of responses seems to be what he has in mind when he speaks of emotions versus reason.

Henry said...

Although I do not disagree with either of your two new comments, I think that they raise some difficult and perhaps unanswerable questions.

(1) Is moral philosophy legitimate if we base it on hypotheticals that abstract legalities, lack of certainties, and other real-world facts? Or is it, as Wittgenstein said in a different context, language idling? ("Lack of certainties" refers to my 2007 comment that one could not know with certainty that the trolley would kill either one or two people, as an unexpected event could intervene.)

(2) If "being human" refers to behaviors that are hard-wired, then it doesn't necessarily refer to behaviors that are moral, because who knows what tendencies toward immoral acts are hard-wired in us? Some of them, such as wars of aggression, murder, rape, and theft, seem always to have been present among humans, and may be hard-wired. Maybe loving one's own children more than other children is immoral, but it is hard-wired to such an extraordinary degree (because it is more necessary than most other hard-wired behaviors for passing on one's genes), that we must accept it anyway. For a moral philosopher not to accept it would be, again, to abstract from the real world and put his moral philosophy into question.

That aside, the ability even to conceive of the death of half a million people as the consequence of any single detonation may be hard-wired if we view it as part of a more general ability that some evolutionary scientists believe to be hard-wired, and that is the ability to act altruistically. These scientists believe that altruism is "designed" to pass on one's genes, and is therefore directed at those who share one's genes the most. One would, therefore, be more likely to save a sibling than a half-sibling, but more likely to save three half-siblings than one sibling. Who knows how many genes one might share with half a million people?

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.