My Scratch or the World?

Paul Bloom's article about the moral lives of babies is a nice treat for the thinking mother...and everyone else.  (Happy Mother's Day, all.)  Here's a quote from Hume that appears half-way through the article:
'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.
Bloom uses the quote to make the point that babies have to have emotional reactions to good and bad, fair and unfair, before they can develop into moral adults.  Reason won't suffice to put them on that path.  "To have a genuinely moral system, in other words, some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering."

OK, so other people's problems don't start to matter to us unless we have the right rudimentary responses, which appear to be innate.  If that's so, must it really be true that reason plays no role in allocating concern so the whole world's destruction matters more than a finger scratch?  Bloom actually gives a non-Humean nod to reason later in the article.
The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality. If you are asked to justify your actions, and you say, “Because I wanted to,” this is just an expression of selfish desire. But explanations like “It was my turn” or “It’s my fair share” are potentially moral, because they imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same. This is the sort of argument that could be convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law. The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that this notion of impartiality can be found in religious and philosophical systems of morality, from the golden rule in Christianity to the teachings of Confucius to the political philosopher John Rawls’s landmark theory of justice. This is an insight that emerges within communities of intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings, and it can override our parochial impulses.
"Intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings"are rational, right?  And they do not prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching a finger! So Hume was a little bit right, but not entirely. He was right that moral thinking doesn't get started without moral reactions, but wrong that it's compatible with reason to care more about the scratch.

Unfortunately, Bloom muddies the waters in the next paragraph--
The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.
A product of culture?  Transmitted by culture, yes.  That's got to be at least partly so.  But culture doesn't make the "general" and "universal" aspect of morality, if we come to it through "rational insight." 


s. wallerstein said...

I agree with what he says except I want to point out that much of culture is also the product of our innate dispositions, that culture orders those dispositions and makes them into rules, traditions and customs. The role of reason seems to be to justify those rules to others and to explain them to others.

Faust said...

But culture doesn't make the "general" and "universal" aspect of morality, if we come to it through "rational insight."

I see. So "rational insight" transcends culture. Wait. How does that work again?

Jean Kazez said...

Calling the universal aspect of morality a "product of culture" is very different from calling it a "product of rational insight." Take the Pythagorean theorem--a product of rational insight. It wouldn't make sense to call it a product of culture, would it? Although it's transmitted by culture (math class, etc), to call it a product of culture suggests it's arbitrary, could have been different, etc. It puts it in the same category as clothing and hairstyles, which are in fact arbitrary and really could have been different.

Faust said...

So you really think that discovering moral truths is like discovering mathematical relationships? Math is an "is" in my opinion. Not an ought.

But charitably speaking I can see what you mean, Kant's comments about the categorical imperative and its extensibility to a universal law status, embodying principles of non-contradiction seems to get at something like the Pythagorean theorem (which is why he's dominated moral talk ever since).

On the other hand, we simply never seem to make progress with ethics the way we do with math. You can be taught the Pythagorean theorem in high school, but apparently the language of applied ethics is "too boring" for general discussion: we've got to make it more accessible etc. Why do people prefer their priests and saints to the holy cohort of academic ethicists. Don't they get that with enough big words you can settle these issues cross culturally once and for all?

And one does wonder what morality will look like after we strip away all those aspects of "morality" that are unquestionably like clothing and hairstyles (THOU SHALT NOT WEAR MIXED FIBERS), what would we be left with?

I'm not sure we've quite figured that out yet, but by hypothesis it would result in a cross cultural moral matrix: eventually once we develop the right culture transmission tools, along with our final rational insight, we'll be able to spread the moral truth throughout every community in the world.

s. wallerstein said...

Morality has a universal aspect in much the same way that dwellings universally have roofs. A house without a roof is not functional or practical, so cultures everywhere build houses with roofs. You could build a house without a roof, but it would not last long. So too, a culture without an ethical code with certain basic assumptions could not function. I don't think that cultures are arbitrary, as you claim, although certain aspects of culture may be arbitrary. It's arbitrary whether vehicles go on the left or right side of the road, but it's not arbitrary that vehicles going in the same direction all travel on the same side of the road. Culture serves people (or at least certain groups of people, males, the rich, the ruling class, etc.)
and there are only a determined number of forms of culture that serve people: you can organize the economy as a market, as socialism, as kibbutzes, but you have to organize the economy.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust--I don't think there's anything intrinsically spooky about "oughts." If you are adding together 1 + 1, you ought to give the answer 2. So?

If you are on the verge of enslaving someone because of their skin color, you ought to stop.

It's a rational insight that people don't have different rights just because one is a different color than the other. I think it's also a rational insight that animals can't be completely dismissed because they are not members of our species.

Anyway, my point is not really to defend and explain all of the above, but that BLOOM talked about rational insight, so it was weird for him to turn around and call the universal aspect of morality a cultural product. That makes it seem like hairstyles.

Faust said...

I think you are mixing categories. 1+1 ought to be 2? No. It IS 2. That you "ought to say 1+1 = 2" is a recommendation that you make sense when you speak. One ought not to speak utter nonsense.

The equality of people of different skin color can be rendered into a fact. It depends on the criteria they must be equal on. If we are measuring intelligence, and someone makes a claim "this race is inherently smarter than this other race." That's something we can go out and gather data on. The moral principle then can be resolved into something that is based on those facts i.e. "One ought to treat people of equal capacity equally" since capacity then becomes the prime criteria for moral judgment.

But the injunction "we ought to tie our treatment of others to their capacities" is NOT a fact. It is a recommendation for behavior.

But back to Bloom. I do see your point, he mixes in the same sentence "rational insight" and "hard-earned innovations." Our value of logical tools, tools a heck of a lot like math, and our use of those tools to solve moral problems, seems like something that we should not call merely "produced."

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, I'm just wondering how he can call something both a "product of culture" and a "product of rational insight." On the face of it, this doesn't make sense.

Moral realists think that "oughts" are realities. So, it IS the case that we ought not torture babies just for fun. There's no need to "derive" these oughts from facts to make them facts. They are themselves facts.

OK--gotta do some work now!