Unlike the old testament god of "power and might", the Christian God is great, precisely because he can choose to refrain from exercising his power, for the sake of something greater. The defining example of this, of course, is Christ's last moments on the cross, in which the Romans are permitted to murder his Son, and in a brief moment of his human frailty, Christ begs to know why. Thus, the God of Christianity has free will, and Christ answers Socrates Euthyphro dilemma, by suggesting that yes, there is a moral order written into the universe itself, that even God himself looks to for guidance.
In a previous post, I outlined some significant differences between Mill and Plato on the question of Pleasure, that I think are grounded in a misreading of Plato. Here, I present a few differences between Mill and Aristotle on the summum bonum, right and wrong action, and pleasure.
When considering the arguments in Utilitarianism, and the obvious allusions to Plato and Aristotle within it, many seem to me to be incomplete at best, and misguided at worst. The main disagreement, almost from the start, is on the question of both what constitutes a “chief good” (and how its justified), and what the chief good actually is. Namely, what is happiness. As we’ll see, this divergence is immediate, and catastrophic. Mill is clearly adopting Aristotle’s framing of the problem of morality, as one in which we must identify the highest good, and then justify our actions relative to it:
“All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient.” — Mill
But Aristotle takes this a step further in his introduction, positing the summum bonum almost immediately:
“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is though to aim at some good; and it is for this reason, the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim… If, then, there is some chief end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this)… clearly this must be the chief good. Will not knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?…” — Aristotle
Mill agrees that the question of how we decide right action from wrong is the same as the identification of the summum bonum; or, the explication of the foundations of morality, but:
“…a test of right and wrong must be the means… of ascertaining what is right and wrong, and not a consequence of already having ascertained it…” – Mill
To the question of determining right and wrong action, prior to knowing the chief good, Aristotle argues that this is not as easy as it sounds:
“Noble and just actions… exhibit much variety and fluctuation, so they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. But goods exhibit a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for in the past, men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage…” — Aristotle
Mill responds, stretching the problem by arguing that there is no special faculty by which we can know what the chief good is:
“…the existence of a [natural] moral instinct is itself one of the matters of dispute… our moral faculty, according to all those of its interpreters… supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgment; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for abstract doctrines of morality, not for perception of it in the concrete…” — Mill
But Aristotle insists that what is evident to us by reason should be enough to at least recognize the summum bonum as Eudaemonia:
“…both the general run of men, and people of superior refinement, say that [the summum bonum] is [Eudaemonia] and identify living well and flourishing with this; but with regard to what [Eudaemonia] is they differ, and the masses do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is something plain and obvious, like pleasure, wealth, or honour… let us not fail to notice, however, that there is a difference between arguments from an those to the first principles… while we must begin with what is evident, things are evident in two ways – some to us, some without qualification. Presumably, then, we must begin with things that are evident to us…” — Aristotle
Mill seems to agree that a first principle is necessary, but insists it cannot be Eudaemonia, arguing for the pleasure principle instead:
“…[Aristotelians hold] that morality must be deduced from first principles to support their pretensions that there ought to be either some fundamental principle or law at the root of morality, or if there be several, there should be a determinate order of precedence among them… the non-existence of an acknowledged first principle has made ethics not so much a guide as a consecration of mens actual sentiments. Still, as mens sentiments, both of favor and aversion, are greatly influenced by what they suppose to be the effects of things upon their happiness [pleasure], the principle of utility, or as Bentham latterly called it, the Greatest Happiness Principle…” — Mill
Mill goes much further in his skepticism, as well, insisting that first principles cannot be justified:
“…questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good by its conducing to health, but how is it possible to prove that health is good?…” — Mill
To which Aristotle retorts that Mill has forgotten to infer the Telos from the design or function of man, himself:
“…Let us return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be… Surely that for which sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health… it is for the sake of the [chief good] that all men do whatever they do. Therefore, there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action… the chief good is evidently something final… we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself, and never for the sake of something else… Eudaemonia above all else, is held to be [final], for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else; honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue, we choose indeed for themselves, but we choose them also for the sake of Eudaemonia, judging that through them, we shall achieve a life of Eudamonia…” — Aristotle
Mill rejects this, insisting that Eudaemonia is a myth, and simply asserting that all this ever really meant, was pleasure:
“…every writer from Epicurus to Bentham, who maintained a theory of utility, meant by it, not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with the exemption from pain; and instead of opposing the useful to the agreeable or the ornamental, have always declared that the useful means these, among other things…” — Mill
But Aristotle did make this “contradistinction” (and, arguably, so did Socrates). He adopts a similar tripartite psychology to Plato’s, even while disputing Plato:
“…Let us separate, then, things good in themselves from useful things, and consider whether the former are called good by reference to a single Form… of honour, wisdom, and pleasure. Just in respect of their goodness, the accounts are distinct and diverse. The good, therefore, is not something common answering to one idea. But what then do we mean by the good?…” — Aristotle
Aristotle’s answer to this question is Eudaemonia, as mentioned before. And the three goods of honour, wisdom, and pleasure, answer to it.
Mill completely ignores the idea of Eudaemonia, blithely ploughing ahead with his equation of happiness and pleasure. He did concede, at least, two kinds of pleasure (a trap that Socrates also laid for Callicles in The Gorgias, and as I mentioned in my previous post, Mill also chose to ignore):
“…Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and whence once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification…” — Mill
The trap, is that this implies a standard by which “high” and “low” pleasures can be judged. Aristotle partly agrees, and again, articulates his tripartite view. But says that Mill is mistaken to think that high borns aren’t susceptible to low pleasures:
“…the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts, but they get some ground for their view from the fact that many of those in the high places share the tastes of Sardanapallus. A further consideration of the prominent types of life shows that people of superior refinement and of active disposition identify Eudaemonia with honour; for this is, roughly speaking, the end of political life… the third kind of life, is the contemplative life…” — Aristotle
Mill’s task, then, is to name this standard, and explain why pleasure is to be adopted to the exclusion of honour or wisdom, and Eudaemonia is to be jettisoned altogether. He never really does this. The best he can offer, is a slightly better enumeration of the kinds of pleasure, than Callicles could offer, in the Gorgias:
“…of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or most give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure… if one of the two [pleasures] is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent… we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality…” — Mill
So, there is no standard beyond a democratic vote, among the “competently acquainted”. Mill never explains what would constitute competent acquaintance, or why a democratic majority constitutes a standard for “superiority in quality”.
Aristotle differed from Mill dramatically on the question of pleasure. He did not reject it as the ascetics did. He did not elevate it to the summum bonum the way Mill has. Rather, in addition to conceding it as one pathway or life among the three that leads to Eudaemonia, he also saw it as an instrumental good. It is an “instrument reading” telling us whether we’re achieving what we hold valuable (what we love). To wit:
“…pleasure is a state of the soul, and to each man, that which he is said to be a lover of, is pleasant; for example, not only is a horse pleasant to a lover of horses, and a spectacle to a lover of sights, so too in the same way are just acts pleasant to the lover of justice and in general virtuous actions to the lover of virtue… the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature… the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good, since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly…” — Aristotle
The question of Mill’s disagreement with Aristotle on the topics of virtue and justice is so large and complicated that I’m going to have to address it in another post. Suffice to say here, that the divergence between Aristotle and Mill after the question of the summum bonum and the pleasure principle is so great, that by the time we get to virtue and justice, the two are utterly unrecognizable.
Ultimately, I think Plato and Aristotle in combination, have actually presented a far richer and more sophisticated picture of moral psychology, than Mill has. His idea, even while borrowing Aristotle’s good-centered morality, is heavily dependent upon appeals to Victorian sentimentality, and an implicit reliance on progressive notions of the development of history and human society that require utopian optimism. What’s more, as I’ve outlined here and in the previous post, he reduces all of human motivation to a single variable — pleasure — and fails to explain why his conception of the pleasure principle is impervious to the objections presented by Plato and Aristotle — the two philosophers beyond Bentham that lurk constantly in the background of everything Mill did.
Thus, while Utilitarianism may provide some utility (pun not intended) in very localized and immediate circumstances, I do not think it is sufficient as a theory of morality in general, nor a palatable model for moral decision-making.
A just and ordered polity requires a rational, well ordered soul. Not all souls will achieve the rational ideal. This leaves the political voluntarist with a dilemma. Plato solved this by just putting the most just and ordered souls "in charge". But, of course, this is no solution at all, for the voluntarist.
I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ ~Isaiah 46:10
In The Republic, Socrates repeatedly insists that truth will be the highest value of his utopian society. To accomplish this, he argues that the myths of Homer and Hesiod should be hewn down to only those stories that are in accordance with what we know to be true, by proper philosophic study and dialectic argumentation. He further describes how the golden souls — those destined to be the philosopher king rulers of this utopia — having been weened and nurtured on these stories of truth, and having eventually come to know the truth for themselves in adulthood, will happily choose to submit themselves to the proper order of a truly just society.
And yet, he goes on to deny these “guardians” their own property, wives, or children, on the grounds that they will be overcome by their natural impulse to self-interest and find themselves in conflict with the good of the society as a whole. To mitigate the contradiction, in other words, Plato decides to institute a form of primitive communism. In order to institute the communization of guardian life, Plato has Socrates declare the necessity for the founders of this society to instill a falsehood in the first generation of guardians. This is to be a new myth, in which their childhoods were but a mere dream implanted in their memories by their ‘true’ mother, the soil of Hellas which birthed them whole, and to which they now owe their undying allegiance.
Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, expresses an explicitly self-conscious pang of guilt to Glaucon at the utterance of this “noble lie”, as well he should. This is because this step in Socrates’ argument (if it is Socrates’ argument) is the complete undoing of his entire utopian vision. To put the point bluntly, one cannot base an entire society on the absolute value of truth (and beauty) as ultimate ends, while simultaneously infecting it with an obvious and egregious lie at its core — even if that lie is encapsulated in a rapturous myth. Eventually, the love of truth will expose the myth for the lie that it is, and the entire civilization will dissolve into nihilism and hedonism.
This should be ringing some bells for wary modern ears. Another great philosopher once identified exactly the same flaw in our own society. If you’ve ever read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, or Thus Spake Zarathustra, you know what I’m alluding to. In these works, Nietzsche describes a western society that is dedicated to truth as an ultimate value, but simultaneously committed to a mythology that elevates self-sacrifice as a means of redemption from sin against the creator god himself. Because this mythology has an ultimate value in competition with truth — namely, self-justification through redemption versus self-justification through the pursuit of truth – and because truth is a natural acid to mythology, the mythology is ultimately doomed to fail, and the value hierarchy along with it. In other words, the death of God will spell the death of our civilization. Nietzsche thought this was because truth alone could not stand as sufficiently meaningful to stave off the onset of nihilism, but I think the dissolution of this myth has rendered us incapable of imbibing truth through myth anymore; and even more deadly, has left us certain that redemption is no longer necessary, let alone possible.
In any case, Nietzsche tried in vain to rescue us from our fate, but his work on the revaluation of all values is as horrifying as it is tragic. In it, you can hear the strong echoes of voices like Callicles from the Gorgias, whispers of Protagoras, and of course, whole refrains of Thrasymachus from The Republic. Socrates does a masterful job of dispatching Callicles and Protagoras, but there are niggling missteps in the argument of The Republic around the problem of self-interest and the common good that he is never quite able to put to bed. That should give one pause, and I do find these realizations immensely disturbing. It means that recent critics of the Enlightenment are very likely on to something, even if they may be wrong in the particulars. It means that, after all these centuries, not only have we not solved the problem of value, we still don’t have a clear answer to the much more primitive problem of the relationship of the individual to his society. This last realization came itself on the heels of another recent realization: Plato’s model of moral psychology is far more sophisticated than our own, and men like Hume and Mill have done an enormous amount of damage to the study of the nature of the human soul (as Plato would have put it), by trying to reduce it to mere sensual satisfactions (i.e., pleasure-seeking). In the process, they’ve made it more difficult than ever before, to solve the two problems I’ve enumerated here.
Modern-day acolytes of Hume (see my review of Jonathan Haidt’s book), recognizing the primitive nature of Hume’s work, have attempted to layer on modern explanations for his rudimentary theories of moral psychology, but this is doomed to failure, because it reflexively dismisses Plato as archaic, merely because he came before Hume (Haidt even tragically references The Republic in his unfortunate book). This is a mistake I’ll have much more to say about in future, but for now, suffice to say that we are living in dangerously perilous times. A world which both Plato and Aristotle would have found horrifying. A world in which we are being encouraged from birth to indulge our appetitive nature, and to believe there is no such thing as a spirited conscience, or a free will with which to act upon it. In spite of the shiny appearance of “progress” our science and technology has glossed the world in, it seems to me that this modern evacuation of such concepts as conscience and will can only lead to disaster. In our zest for truth, we’ve abandoned the false myths of religion, but have tossed out the true myths of moral psychology along with it, and now we can’t seem to find our way back.
Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” is an admixture of continental philosophy, eastern mysticism, Jungian psychology, Christian theology, clinical psychotherapy insights, personal biography, and folk wisdom. At 368 pages, it’s just large enough to keep a thoughtful layman engaged without the more intimidating academic burden of his first book, “Maps of Meaning”. Dr. Peterson is obviously well read and quite thoughtful. In addition to some of his own occasional profundities, the book is absolutely littered with references to Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and many others. If you’re a curious reader, following these up will take you weeks.
A Jungian at heart, Peterson loves to cast his arguments into metaphorical and mytho-poetic form, which can be remarkably frustrating for a more hard-nosed analytical thinker like myself (he does this much less so, in Maps of Meaning). But Peterson is still very careful to cite modern sources for most of his empirical assertions throughout the book (with one significant exception, which I’ll get to later).
It took reading nearly the entire book to figure out how each of the 12 rules were related to each other as a whole, and the effort was well worth it. Chapters 6 (“Set your house in perfect order…”), 7 (“Pursue what is meaningful…”), and 8 (“Tell the truth…”), constitute the heart of the book in my view, with chapters 10 (“Be precise in your speech…”), and 11 (“Do not bother skateboarders…”) serving to really drive home the overall message of the book. What is that message? First, that contra Descartes, the fundamental unshakeable truth of human existence is the experience of suffering – a pre-rational essential phenomena that is, as Descartes might have put it, the primary “clear and distinct” knowledge we have of ourselves and of our “Being” (Peterson’s term. It seems to mean something like the state of existing and experiencing existence). Moreover, that suffering is a result of our having awakened to the fact of our own Being, that this was in some sense a choice, and most importantly, that now leaves us facing the perpetual choice of either accepting or rejecting the burden of this knowledge. The implication of all this, for Peterson, is that this is the fundamental moral choice. Our burden of this conscious choice – and the selection itself – is the acting out of our fundamental value. The ultimate consequence is the wholehearted embrace or rejection of the whole of creation. Not simply, as Nietzsche or Camus might say, the choice of suicide, but the choice of becoming judge, jury, and executioner of all Being including your own. The moral man, then, chooses life, and makes that his ultimate value in the process.
These chapters are, by far, the most philosophical of the book. They are essentially Peterson’s response to Nietzsche’s famous critique of value found in Zarathustra and the Genealogy of Morals. His formulation and answer to this problem is clearly influenced by Kirkegaard (whom he quotes twice), but the far stronger influence it seems to me is the Judeo-Christian Bible. Peterson casts the opening books of the bible into Jungian archetypes, and uses them to make his case. The Priestly Genesis is the origin of all Being: The Word is self-conscious Truth spoken as a means of deriving order from the chaos of the deep. Eve chooses to invite chaos into the walled garden of Eden and Adam follows her lead. In their offspring – Cain and Abel – we are confronted with the choice of life stated above, only in archetypal form: Cain condemns the world, its creator, and himself, out of resentment for the suffering he encounters; and not just for the suffering, but for the apparently unequal distribution of that suffering between himself and his brother Abel. Abel, on the other hand, chooses to properly honor himself and his creator with honest sacrifice. Peterson draws upon this metaphor again later, in a masterful parallel between this and the parable of Christ’s temptation in the desert.
So, for those who do their philosophy metaphorically, this book is a feast. It is an homage to hope, and a powerful argument against the nihilistic despair that seems to permeate our present modern culture. Still, I think this book is only likely to find fertile ground with seekers still open to the intuitive and allegorical approach to philosophical investigation. More to the point, those jaundiced by academic cynicism or jaded by ideological or intellectual biases, will generally find nothing more than a twenty-first century Joseph Campbell.
To be sure, there are some problems with the book. Rule 5, for example, lacks much of the intellectual rigor and careful citations of the rest of the book. Peterson makes numerous appeals to the work of B. F. Skinner in this chapter, which is only obliquely relevant anymore, since decades of work has been done on the developmental psychology of children since then (none of which he notes). Worse, he also makes appeal to several trite and easily refutable arguments in support of his position (for example, what I like to call the “hot stove defense”), and fails to acknowledge that much of what he put in this chapter is very often used as post hoc justification by many very poor parents. I think Peterson could have left this chapter out, and it would have been a better book.
Also, it is possible to charitably dispute Peterson’s allegorical approach to the question of meaning. The Joseph Campbell complaint, while somewhat of a straw man, is not entirely without merit. Sam Harris makes an excellent illustration of this, in his book “The End of Faith”, in which he satirically describes the spiritual significance of a Hawaiian snapper recipe. Though it is hyperbole, it does raise the question of how one would anchor the claims drawn from allegory in something more empirical, in order to make them properly defeasible. Peterson has yet to address this objection fully, as far as I know.
Despite these problems, I think the book is still well worth the effort to read, for any lay-philosopher looking for an interesting angle of approach to the problem of value and meaning, and its application in a very real-world way. The parallel psychoanalytic threads running through this book, also make it an excellent tool for meditation and self-reflection. It might be tempting to think that the work is mere “self-help”, because of this and because of the title. Don’t be fooled. Peterson explicitly rejects “giving advice”, in the book. What’s more, he’s secretly not even giving you “rules” to follow. What he’s offering, through the mnemonic device of easy-to-remember “rules”, is a glimpse into a unique psycho-philosophical framework for making sense of our phenomenal experience of the world. Or, to put it as Peterson might, a means of forging some order out of the chaos of your own suffering existence. The principles that make up the framework will sound surprisingly familiar to anyone who’s read any Greek philosophy:
- It is better to choose life, than death
- Aim for the ideal of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, but work on earth with what you have
- The responsibility for these choices is yours, and yours alone.
In a nutshell, he implores us all to be philosophical before (but not to the exclusion of) theological, and he thinks that if we would be, we would make the world better, even if only a little. Who can argue with that?
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.
Is it better to be truly just, or merely to seem so? This is the question put to Socrates by Glaucon in The Republic. Jonathan Haidt, in his book, “The Righteous Mind”, counts Glaucon among the cynics for putting this challenge to Socrates. But Haidt is missing a subtle and very powerful nuance in Plato’s story. Socrates had just finished embarrassing Thrasymachus for his weak defense of cynical egoism. Glaucon and Adeimantus were certainly entertained, but they were not satisfied with Socrates. They sought much stronger reasons for accepting the conclusion that true justice is preferable to appearance, because they did not want to merely seem to agree with Socrates. They really wanted to believe that genuine justice was better, and giving Socrates the strongest possible objection that could be mustered is the only way an honest man (if he is honest with himself) can do this.
Socrates’ initial response to Glaucon was not the description of the ideal state that the story has become famous for. Rather, it was a likening of the soul to the body. Repeated abuses and illnesses corrupt and degrade the health of the body over time, until at some point it is no longer possible to experience vigor and vitality. Likewise, says Socrates, repeated vices and injustices committed in pursuit of wealth or power or honor will eventually render the soul so degraded and corrupt that it will no longer be capable of achieving eudaemonia (aka ‘contentment’, ‘happiness’, or ‘flourishing’). This is the fate of the man who pursues a life of politics, without first tending to his soul.
Haidt seems almost proud of his “Glauconian cynicism” – a socio-biological view in which he believes he can show that, regardless of which is better, seeming just is what we humans actually seek. Haidt claims explicitly and confidently not to be offering an argument for what ought to be, only what is. But the enthusiasm with which he reports this supposed scientific fact suggests that he also thinks that what is, just is what ought to be. But this is precisely the challenge posed to Socrates by Glaucon: it certainly is true that many people (perhaps even most) are cynical and self-serving. So, why oughtn’t they be? Haidt’s response to this recurring implicit question seems to be to just keep reasserting the fact, in ever more sophisticated and complex ways.
Near the end of the book, in spite of already offering an explicit refusal to address the problem of normative ethics, Haidt tosses off a flippant endorsement of Utilitarianism as if this view has already settled the normative question, or simply to signal to the reader that the question just isn’t interesting enough to bother investigating. But this has profound implications for how seriously one can take some of the claims he makes in this book. The tension between what is and what ought to be plagues this book, and any reader eager for insight into the gap between descriptive and normative ethics will find it profoundly frustrating.
The Basic Theory, and It’s Problems
Haidt’s basic theory of the “Righteous Mind” comes down to two hypotheses. First, that the human brain has evolved for both “tribal” and “hive” social structures. To put it in his terms, “we are 90% chimp, and 10% bee”, and a special “hive switch” in the brain is flipped, when conditions are ideal, that suppress our self-interested “groups” psychology, and make us more altruistically “hive-ish”. It’s not quite clear what sort of mechanism this “switch” is, what causes it to flip, and how it gets reset. But he offers a lot of anecdotes from his research that describe evidence suggesting its presence.
The second, and much more complex portion of the theory, is his six-dimensional model of moral psychology. His system is powerfully reminiscent of David Hume’s own four-pole system of moral emotions (Pride-vs-Humility / Love-vs-Hate). But there is one extremely significant difference. Hume’s theory was one meant to describe morality as a system of “passions” (special kinds of emotions). These passions derive from a natural propensity for pleasure, and a natural aversion to pain (he presages the Utilitarians in this respect). What’s more, moral judgments are not reasoned, but felt. Morality, for Hume, just is emotions expressed. Haidt’s theory, on the other hand, describes six dimensions of values, not emotions: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Haidt says that all human beings have this six-dimensional system built-in as a consequence of thousands of years of socio-biological evolution. He argues that the “sensitivity level” at which each of these is not permanently fixed, but is set to “defaults” at birth, and adjusted over a lifespan by experience. How, precisely, this happens and by what mechanism, is a bit murky, but again, he offers loads of anecdotal examples (and data from his studies) to show how each of these dimensions is expressed by individuals.
A few questions and objections arose for me, about these two hypotheses, as I read through the book, that never seemed to get a satisfactory answer. First, on the six aspects: are they like adjuster knobs on a sound board? Or, are they merely barometer needles reporting varying pressure levels set by environmental impacts on a biological system? If the former, then surely there are “optimal” positions for each of these knobs (even if only circumstantially optimal)? In that case, then there is indeed an opening for a normative ethical theory, describing these optimums. However, if the latter is true, then it is hard to understand how there could be any such thing as an “ought” at all, much less a system prescribing them. Haidt is constantly nudging up to the edge of this Humean is-ought cliff, and retreating from it just when things start to get interesting.
Second, Haidt never quite explicitly acknowledges that he’s describing a system of values, rather than a moral psychology. One might object that a system of values could be said to be a variety of moral psychology, but I would reply that by the time we get to values, we’re already one layer above fundamental psychology. Why these six, and not others? Indeed, in the book, Haidt explicitly acknowledges that some early reviewers of the book objected to the lack of “equality” as a value on his list of “aspects”. If “liberty” counts as a foundational psychological value, then why not “equality”? It has just as long a history, after all. More importantly, to talk of values at all, you’re once again in flirting in the realm of the normative. I would have to look more closely at the research he used to back this section of the book, but how do we know he didn’t just happen to find the set of six values that he and his team were particularly focused on already? That is a normative selection process: “these values are more important than those”.
Third, returning to the “hive switch”, Haidt emphasizes the “dangers” of too much hive-ishness or too much groupishness. But he never quite explains how there could be any such thing as a “right amount” of either, in the absence of a normative theory. Without any idea of what an ideal amount of either would look like, why would the horror of the Hobbesian anarchy or Stalinist oppression even count as “bad”? Lower primates seem perfectly satisfied with brutal inter-tribal conflict, and ants are obliviously willing to destroy themselves en masse for the sake of colony and queen. What’s worse, is that there’s no clear explanation for how the “hive switch” and the six-dimensional moral psychology fit together. Do certain knob settings produce hives instead of tribes? Do others produce tribes instead of hives? What are the right tension levels between the two modes? If the knob settings do influence this, how do we know what those should be? None of this is discussed in the book, except in passionate warnings to beware of extremes. A laudable sentiment, but so what?
Lastly, while Frans de Waal is largely an asset to Haidt’s book, there is one key notion from de Waal that highlights the primary problem with Haidt’s “Glauconian moral matrix”; de Waal captured it in a rather pithy phrase: Veneer Theory. In his book, “Primates and Philosophers”, de Waal uses the phrase to criticize Huxley and Dawkins for uncritically accepting a view of human nature that is Hobbesian without providing an explanation for how a self-serving egoist gets to altruism all on his own. Haidt’s book suffers from a similar problem. Though he does a great job of bridging the gap between egoist and “group-altruist”, what he fails to do is explain how the “Glauconian cynic” becomes a genuinely caring being. Haidt has concocted his own variety of Veneer Theory by redefining it as a complex inter-subjective social delusion that we all agree to participate in. He takes this as an answer to the problem of a “veneer” layer. But it only makes his own set of theories seem like a Rube Goldberg machine. Haidt makes a strong case for the biological and psychological reality of moral experience as a genuine phenomenon. But this works directly against the idea that we merely wish to appear to care, or to be virtuous. Why layer a “moral matrix” on top of a perfectly reasonable explanation of genuine moral emotions? More to the point, why would evolution tolerate such an expensive and convoluted cognitive load, such as layers of delusion, on top of the already demanding task of navigating the social world in real time? Even more curiously, why would we count the primitive primate morality of chimps and bonobos as “actual” or “genuine”, while regarding our own as a mere matrix-like delusion?
Anyone who has read the entirety of The Republic has to come to terms with a powerful dissonance in Plato’s tale. Either Socrates truly misunderstood human nature (perhaps he confused it with his own psychological projections), or he didn’t actually believe what he was saying. Some philosophers argue for the latter theory: that the ideal state was ideal intentionally. Socrates was never going to convince the Athenians to drive all the old folks out of the city in order to start afresh, or convince the educated classes to surrender their private property holdings to the commons, or convince them to put their women and children into a breeding commune to be tended by specially bred and trained guardians. He must have known that. What was really going on here? Remember that the tale was written by Plato, long after Socrates’ execution. Plato was engaging in his own bit of cynical rhetoric, grounded in bitterness. He wanted to demonstrate the utter impossibility of the larger task: convincing men to love virtue for its own sake; to be just, rather than simply to appear just. He had given up on the possibility, and the Republic was his way of showing this. It is hard to blame him, on one level. He’d watched these people destroy his master and teacher; a man for whom Plato had given up a promising life as a poet, in order to follow him in philosophy. Haidt, on the other hand, embraces his cynicism with zeal, because he believes the data tells him he must, and he refuses to even entertain the possibility that we might just be better than that. In effect, he takes Plato’s implicit condemnation of man and turns it into a simple matter-of-fact. But recasting the condemnation as mere description doesn’t change the moral reality; it just hides it behind a veil of cynicism.
…When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the designed end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter. A trivial good may, from certain circumstances, produce a desire superior to what arises from the greatest and most valuable enjoyment; nor is there any thing more extraordinary in this, than in mechanics to see one pound weight raise up a hundred by the advantage of its situation.In short, a passion must be accompanyed with some false judgment in order to its being unreasonable; and even then it is not the passion, properly speaking, which is unreasonable, but the judgment.
The consequences are evident. Since a passion can never, in any sense, be called unreasonable, [except] when founded on a false supposition or when it chuses means insufficient for the designed end, it is impossible, that reason and passion can ever oppose each other, or dispute for the government of the will and actions. The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our reason without any opposition. I may desire any fruit as of an excellent relish; but whenever you convince me of my mistake, my longing ceases. I may will the performance of certain actions as means of obtaining any desired good; but as my willing of these actions is only secondary, and founded on the supposition, that they are causes of the proposed effect; as soon as I discover the falsehood of that supposition, they must become indifferent to me…. [Book II, Part ii, Section iii]
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature: Bestsellers and famous Books (pp. 388-389). anboco. Kindle Edition.
According to Hume, reason is but a slave to the passions. We are moved to act by a process of primary impressions (e.g., pleasure and pain, or grief and joy, or attraction and aversion), giving rise to relations of ideas (memories and reflections), which then give rise to secondary impressions (pride and shame, or love and hate, etc).
Hume was probably hyperbolizing for the sake of highlighting the point (later on in life Hume apparently lamented stating it so forcefully). But the point was not simply that passions are neither ‘reasonable’ nor ‘unreasonable’, it was primarily that reason is inert; That no calculation of circumstances or train of logic is capable of moving a man, all on its own. He reasoned that there must be some process by which ‘relations of impressions and ideas’ are converted into passions (the things that actually provide us with the impulse to act). Hume often depicts reason as lying somewhere between initial impressions, and final passions, acting merely as a conduit or proximal cause (though I suppose he would have balked at the word ’cause’ here).
His explication of that process and how it works is woefully naive and speculative (in addition to being incorrect in most respects). However, I think he was on the right track, and simply lacked a sophisticated enough science of human biology and psychology to render his theory into something that made better sense to a modern mind. For the most part, in the 18th century, the only tool available to him was introspection and a smattering of knowledge of human and animal anatomy. So, frankly, not only should he be excused, he ought to be lauded as a genius for (nearly) single-handedly inventing the science of psychology and the philosophical notion of moral psychology.
Still, I find myself disagreeing with Hume for the following reasons:
First, “reason” and “passion” are not separate ‘faculties’ of the mind, placed into a hierarchy with each other. Even Hume seemed to understand this (at least in part). They are functional capacities that express themselves in varying degrees in concert, under various circumstances. Reason is no more the slave of the passions, than the strings and woodwinds are the ‘slaves’ of the french horns and trumpets in an orchestra.
Second, Later on in the Treatise, he’ll introduce yet a third relation: that of moral judgment. At which point, all he’s really doing is describing Plato’s tripartite soul, in a much more complex way (Plato, of course, placed reason in the charioteer’s seat). Why philosophers traditionally have insisted on conceptions of consciousness as simple hierarchies is something I don’t quite understand, but in truth, the mind is more like an evolving ecosystem, not a top-down political structure.
Third, Hume reifies the phenomena in his model. He says that passions are derived from relations of impressions and ideas. He also says that the “self” is itself nothing more than an idea that arises from a relation of other impressions and ideas. But, he then says that pride and shame are passions, and that pride and shame have as “their object”, the self. And, for this to happen, there must be a “we” (i.e. the “self”) that receives an impression of something beautiful that “we” own. But this is to assign intentionality to mere phenomena. Hume never explains how this is possible. You can’t on the one hand, say that all the phenomena of the brain are merely the effects of causal inter-relations between impressions and ideas, and then on the other, somehow make the impressions and ideas capable of choosing objects at which to direct themselves.
The consequence of this, is that the most Hume could have reasonably said, was that he didn’t really know whether passions ‘ruled’ or reason ‘ruled’. At most, our cognitive and emotional capacities are cohabitants, and if you look at the modern scientific literature (admittedly, I am but a layman), there is little in the brain itself to distinguish them apart. Some would say the difference between the limbic system and the frontal lobes is enough to show this, but despite being separate physical structures, the actual neural activity isn’t so distinct. The limbic system, for example, in addition to being responsible for most of our emotions, is also responsible for several functions related to memory(something Hume would have counted as part of his ‘relations of ideas’ rather than as a sensation). The point is, rather than being master and slave to each other, they’re more like ‘dance partners’.
In fact, it seems to me, the core question here is exactly what role do each of the cognitive and emotive capacities of the brain play, in decision-making? Unfortunately, I’m no psychologist, and only have a layman’s familiarity with a smattering of the scientific literature on the question (which might help answer the question). But, I suppose one criticism you could levy at Hume, is that his overall theory (as its proposed here) is unfalsifiable: no matter what you decide, it’s always evidence of the passions at work. But then, it’s not like Hume had access to a rigorous methodology.
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.
The genius of Plato was both in recognizing the reality of these competing features of the human psyche, and in realizing that ultimately it is the rational portion that must stand apart from the horses and act as the ‘guardian’ of the entire self, rather than the hopelessly inadequate servant to the fractious elements, competing for its efforts. The genius of Orwell, whether he quite knew it or not, was in recognizing that modern man had surrendered responsibility for the charioteer by embracing men like Skinner and Freud, and that nothing good would ever come of it.