16 August 2020

Lamentation For How The World Might Have Been: Reflections on Science And The Good by James Davison Hunter & Paul Nedelisky

A Book Review by Don Berg
(~10 min. to read)

Imagine that you have worked out the next iPhone for your industry, the most perfectly designed product that will create a major revolution. You create a mockup that is elegant and you figure it will be cheap to produce in factories that won't pollute anything. You get your colleagues to start working out how to make it as you raise money to fund their work on a prototype. Social media is abuzz with the possibilities; anticipating a moderate price that would generate abundant profits, millions of people have promised to buy it, if your initial assumptions all hold true. 

This story of potential success would mean that you have created a compelling case for the way you want the world to be. But it turns out that deeply hidden in the recesses of your idea is an assumption of perpetual motion, moving faster than light speed, spontaneous generation of life, or some other violation of the known facts about the physical, chemical, biological, or psychological universe. If you refuse or fail to disclose the underlying assumption upon which your invention relies then you will be risking accusations of fraud. You can argue that achieving the necessary breakthrough is just about to happen, but you should be prepared for your investors, potential customers, and regulators to lose their patience if you switch from producing the promised product to doing basic research.

This is not a complete fantasy. Cold fusion energy, laundry balls, Baby Einstein videos, and many other inventions have run some variation of this course. In a more basic context, the statement “grass is green” is also about the world as we would like it to be rather than about how the world actually is. Despite our assumption that color is inherent to objects, vision scientists have determined that this is not technically true. According to the book Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought, by cognitive linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson, when linguists examined what people mean by the phrase “grass is green” they mean that there is some inherent quality of the grass that has the property of greenness. But what the vision scientists declare to be true about the universe is that there is no inherent characteristic of the grass that has the property of greenness. All colors arise only as a consequence of the interactions among the reflectance of objects, e.g. blades of grass, the local lighting conditions, and the neural structures of our vision systems. Greenness is an emergent property of the situation of looking at grass with a mind embodied in a particular way, not something about the grass independent of the rest of the situation. 

The nature of morality, it turns out, is like the nature of color. Despite a long history of well respected people making the assumption that morality is a transcendent mind-independent reality, there is no empirical evidence that this is true. Morality ultimately depends on cultural assumptions and/or individual understanding, no matter how much we might prefer that NOT to be the case. It is not relevant to the facts of the universe how widely accepted or how convincingly argued the case for a transcendent mind-independent moral reality is.

Science And The Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality by James Davison Hunter & Paul Nedelisky is a book length lamentation of this fact. They, however, take their lamentation one step too far. I will let the authors set out the terms that are under consideration and then quote their own summary of their argument to present the step that is too far. 

A Lexical Range: The Prescriptive, the Descriptive, and the Prudential 

First, "morality" can mean the realm of right and wrong, good and bad, whether these are grounded by fundamental moral laws or by the value of particular things and states of affairs. … This morality is prescriptive, meaning it is supposed to justifiably guide human action. This is the kind of morality we might describe as "genuine," "real," "prescriptive," or "authoritative." [Following Lakoff and Johnson, I also refer to it as “transcendent,” as in transcending the embodiment of individual minds.]

Second, “morality” can mean what people think is right and wrong—the realm of social rules and practices, and the rules or decisions that describe what groups of humans believe constrain certain kinds of behavior and encourage other kinds. This is the sense of morality we intend when we talk about a society’s moral code without intending to say anything about whether such a society’s codes really are right or wrong. This is also the sense of morality under investigation in the vast majority of scientific work on morality. We might call morality in this sense descriptive.

Third, "morality" can mean something practical or instrumental. In this sense, it concerns what one should and shouldn’t do, but where the "should" isn’t a moral "should" in the lived and prescriptive sense. That is, there’s a kind of ought that is practical without being ethical. It’s the sort of "ought" we mean when we say things like, "Well, if you want to win the lottery, then you ought to buy lottery tickets. In such cases, we aren’t saying that anyone morally ought to buy lottery tickets, but instead just that if someone’s goal is to win the lottery, then to achieve it they would have to buy some lottery tickets. This kind of normativity is sometimes called prudential. [pp. 141-142]

The following quotes are from their preface with their claims in bold:

[T]he new moral science … tells us nothing about what moral conclusions we should draw. 

This is not happenstance. There are good reasons why science has not given us [genuine/ real/ prescriptive/ authoritative/ transcendent] moral answers. The history of these attempts, along with careful reflection on the nature of moral concepts, suggests that empirically detectable moral concepts must leave out too much of what morality really is, and moral concepts that capture the real phenomena aren’t empirically detectable.

[T]he idea of morality as a mind-independent reality has lost plausibility for the new moral scientists. They no longer believe such a thing exists. Thus, when they say they are investigating morality scientifically they nowmean something different by "morality" from what most people in the past have meant by it and what most people today still mean by it. In place of moral goodness, they substitute the merely useful, which is something science can discover. Despite using the language of morality, they embrace a view that, in its net effect, amounts to moral nihilism.

When it began, the quest for a moral science sought to discover the good [as in a genuine/real/prescriptive/authoritative morality]. The new moral science has abandoned that quest and now, at best, tells us how to get what we want [because they found only descriptive and prudential moralities]. With this turn, the new moral science, for all its recent fanfare, has produced a world picture that simply cannot bear the weight of the wide-ranging moral burdens of our time. [pp. xiv-xv, Preface: The Argument, In Brief. Italics in original. Bold added.]

Most of Hunter and Nedelisky's claims are simply consistent with the facts stated by the “new moral scientists” and the book seems to have been motivated by their dislike of what “the new moral science” has found. It is the accusation of “nihilism” and the claim that the morality described by science “cannot bear the weight of the wide-ranging moral burdens of our time” which shifts their lamentation from a thoughtful exploration of the findings into an accusation that is a step too far.

A quick online search suggests that “nihilism” is defined as the rejection of all religious and moral principles, the belief that life is meaningless. To illustrate my concern, let's apply their argument to the scientific finding about the greenness of grass. Would it make sense to say that because vision scientists have found that objects are objectively colorless that they reject all color principles? Do artistic principles of color become invalidated by the fact that those colors do not happen to inhere in the objects that we perceive to be colored? That is a leap too far. It is irrelevant to the art world that color does not technically inhere in objects. That specific finding from vision science is just makes no practical difference to the art world or any other everyday application of color. An artist can insist all day long that visual art must adhere to abstract principles that happen to insist on color being an inherent property of objects but that discourse does not make their visual creations any better or worse. That insistence is irrelevant to the fact that the colors they use in their artistic creations are not inherent in the objects they created and that all non-blind people perceive as colored. They might attain some success for their insistence on those abstract principles, but that should be attributed to their flair for marketing, not to any meaningful insights into how the reality of color vision actually works. 

I suggest that it is irrelevant to human communities struggling with moral issues that morality is embodied rather than transcendent. It might have been convenient for the resolution of conflicting moral worldviews to have lived in a reality in which morality was transcendent. But, once we take a close enough look, science has consistently revealed that reality does not tend cooperate with our intuitions. It is, some might argue, a defining feature of science that it tends to contradict human intuitions about how the world works and the logical trains of thought that make the intuitions seem plausible. Quantum physics, evolutionary biology, and situational psychology are all anti-intuitive descriptions of the universe. It is not reasonable to argue that they are false because they are anti-intuitive, or because they contradict the a priori justifications and logical reasoning that props up the intuitions they falsify. You would make yourself irrelevant to making important things like engineering bridges, constructing buildings, and manufacturing computers by insisting on your intuition and subsequent logical reasoning that the fundamental elements of the universe are air, fire, water, and earth. Morality science is joining the anti-intuitive findings club. If you insist on abstract mind-independent moral concepts then you are insisting on eventually being rendered irrelevant in the reality of moral decision making. It has always been fiendishly difficult to alter the assumptions that consistently lead people to make and defend ideas that turn out to be poor descriptions of reality, but that does not mean we should give up the quest. 

Whether or not morality is embodied or transcendent is irrelevant for most practical purposes. It will be helpful to those with more technical interests in morality to be clear about how the reality of morality works since they can reject reliance on transcendent conceptions as inconsistent with practical moral decision making. After these scientific findings become more widely known and accepted in the fields that apply these concepts, such as our legal and political systems, there are probably important aspects of those systems that will greatly benefit from the new moral science. If the subsequent practical developments that followed from the insights from the sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology are any indication we can expect exciting things. But the implications need to be worked out in technical arenas before we can hope to apply them more broadly. And the changes they bring will not be easily accepted by everyone, there will be important political work to do if the changes are to bring about improvements rather than merely chaos.

It is romantic optimism to hold out for the development of a moral conception that fits with the intuitions that have energized the debates about morality throughout the ages, which Hunter and Nedelisky do a good job of summarizing. According to Lakoff and Johnson, cognitive linguists have already given us a crucially important insight into what we mean by morality: “Morality is about well-being.” This is the first line of Lakoff and Johnson's lengthy chapter on morality. I admit that I don't know how well validated this is across cultures, but I would be surprised if anyone outside of academia would balk at the idea. There are important questions about how big each person's moral universe is in terms of who gets included as a member of the group whose well-being they take to be important and how they intend to achieve well-being. 

By creating counterexamples with parallel logic and structure, Hunter and Nedelisky give the following examples to illustrate what they claim are “fatal assumptions” embedded in the idea that morality is about well-being.

[Quoting Sam Harris,] “Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science.… I think our concern for well-being is even less in need for justification then our concern for health is.… And once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.” [This may have been written in ignorance of the much bolder and empirically validated claim made previously by Lakoff and Johnson in 1999.]

  • Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value the enslavement of Africans. But once we admit that slavery is the proper concern of social science, we can then study and promote it through science.… I think our concern for embracing slavery is even less in need for justification then our concern for health is.… And once we begin thinking seriously about slavery, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.

  • Science cannot tell us ... the purging of Jews, gypsies, and the mentally disabled from society. But once we admit that their eradication … .

  • Science cannot tell us … the prohibition of gay marriage. But once we admit that such a prohibition … .


The reconstructed statements they present are predicated on a moral logic that says, “My in-group is in a zero-sum game with that out-group and they are compromising our well-being. Therefore, in order for us to increase our well-being we must eliminate or take coercive control of that group.” The statements are all moral statements. What differs is who gets counted as us versus them and what we should do about the harms we perceive to be visited upon us. Those statements are only rendered abhorrent by changing the underlying conceptions used to understand them. If we enlarge who counts as us to include all human beings and change well-being into a non-zero-sum game then the moral conclusion is different, but the competing statements are no more or less moral. If we take them to be abhorrent it is because we operate from a different conception of how to achieve well-being for us. If Lakoff and Johnson are correct that morality is always conceptually about well-being (except in impractical esoteric contexts of speculative philosophizing), the challenge is to discern who is included and how the causality of well-being is conceptualized, which they go into in detail. 

As I understand the state of scientific facts at this time, A) cognitive linguists have studied moral concepts and determined that morality is fundamentally about well-being in everyday (non-academic) use, B) within psychology, my area of expertise, there is clear evidence that well-being is predicated on satisfying psychological needs for sleep, autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and C) ill-being diminishes human psychological functioning. Therefore, if we value maximizing or even optimizing human psychological functioning then maximizing well-being is necessary. Self-Determination Theory, the framework I study, implies that psychological well-being is not a zero-sum game. The alternative constructions above are proposing to harm to the well-being of the out groups they target by, at minimum, thwarting the primary psychological needs of those out groups. I conclude from this line of reasoning that the assumptions underlying the morally abhorrent examples are the result of faulty assumptions about the state of their world, not faulty moral reasoning. The burden of proof should be on those asserting such moral arguments to prove that their assumptions are true facts about the world. Self-defense is morally allowable, but only in the circumstance in which the “self” you are defending, whether individual or collective, is in mortal danger. If there was no mortal danger then any harms caused by the defensive actions taken are wrong. Those who create and perpetuate false alarms of mortal danger are potentially heinous villains and should be held responsible for any harms they may precipitate. This would be extremely tricky in practical terms, so I suspect it may not be currently plausible to impose an enforcement regime based upon this kind of assessment. But my premises about the state of the world, assumptions about who counts as “us,” and embodied moral reasoning are no less valid for being prudential and not having been based in transcendent moral ideals.

I found Hunter and Nedelisky's book to be quite readable and I appreciate their providing a concise summary of the deep background to this debate about the nature of morality. It took me a while to figure out my objection, since they do such a good job of presenting the scientific findings that I have been reading about for many years. Based on an early negative intuition I found myself looking for something to object to, but I also had to keep conceding that they were getting all the facts right. Even after identifying “nihilism” as the source of my discomfort it took careful reflection to articulate what specifically was objectionable about it. It's well worth the read, but keep in mind that they are merely lamenting their discomfort with the scientific findings that they report on so well.

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