Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why must others count in my deliberations?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why must others count in my deliberations?
Date: 25 May 2001 12:15

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your e-mail of 15 May, with your essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ‘Why must others count in my deliberations?’

I am impressed by the power of the moral vision which you describe, of a natural progress towards an increasingly empathetic, and decreasingly self-centred attitude towards other sentient life. I was moved by this essay.

However, I disagree with you, on two counts. First, with regard to the facts of natural history which you cite. Secondly, with regard to the alleged inference from those facts to the claim that others ought to count in my deliberations.

It would indeed be an important discovery about the animal kingdom that the impulse to altruistic behaviour develops in parallel with the development of consciousness, and also with the increasing awareness of the conscious states of members of the same (or possibly different?) species.

Note that there are three things to keep in parallel: we can focus on any two of these and ask what is the evidence for a naturally necessary link between the two terms. I.e. between:

a. altruistic behaviour and consciousness
b. consciousness and awareness of the conscious states of others
c. altruistic behaviour and awareness of the conscious states of others

To keep things simple, however, I shall just focus on c. Is it the case that, e.g. an orang utang’s an awareness of the conscious state of another orang utang is in itself a motivation for altruistic behaviour, or at least an effective motive for altruistic behaviour? I see no reason why that should be the case. Consider, for example, two male orang utangs spoiling for a fight. The first orang utang reads the flicker of fear in the eyes of the second and pounces. That is the way of the animal world. Evolution has equipped the genes of the orang utang with a very valuable power, namely to make an animal which has the ability to ‘read’ another’s mental states from its posture and facial expression.

Where there is apparently altruistic behaviour in the animal kingdom we have to ask how it could serve the purposes of gene propagation, or ‘gene selfishness’ as Richard Dawkins calls it. (My premise here is orthodox Darwinian theory. I certainly do not accept Dawkins’ reductionist ‘meme’ theory as an account of our moral beliefs which is a totally different matter.) It is true that a troop of altruistically motivated orang utangs have better chances in the survival stakes - other things being equal - than a troop of non-altruistic orang utangs. The benefits of co-operation and mutual aid are enormous. The problem is getting there. Evolution does not work via groups but individuals. It is individuals who possess genes that are passed on or fail to be passed on, not groups. Amongst a group of non-altruistically motivated individuals, a lone individual with a gene for altruism doesn’t stand a chance. However, there is a chance for a gene which determines a quality not altogether unlike altruism, which is the tendency to offer help, but withdraw that offer if the other fails to reciprocate when the occasion arises. In other words, the principle, ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Let’s put arguments over the facts aside (I would accept that the case is not closed) and consider what consequences might be drawn from the observation that, on some occasions, we, and possibly other members of the animal kingdom, do exhibit genuinely altruistic motivation, or Humean ‘natural sympathy’.

My worry about natural sympathy is the same as Kant’s. It has no rational basis. I might have ever so much natural sympathy for my friends and family, or a dumb animal in the street, then go out to do my day’s bloody work as a Mafia hit man. You would no doubt respond, ‘But it is unnatural to discriminate. Natural sympathy should be extended to all!’ But what is the force of the ‘should’ here? Is it not inconsistent of me to like apples and pears, but not bananas or oranges? Are they not all fruit? I like what I like, and there is no argument you can make against it. Similarly, the Mafia hit man cares for the persons he cares for, and there is no way you are going to prove that caring for some, but not for others, is in any way inconsistent or irrational.

I have wondered about what extra ingredient would be needed to make your story a convincing argument ‘why others must count in my deliberations’. Let’s assume that Darwin’s theory is in fact false. Let’s suppose that, in the terminology of the film Star Wars, there is something called ‘The Force’ which underlies the development of sentient life, guiding it towards increasing awareness of the moral universe which we all inhabit. Then all we have to do to become moral is become aware of that fact, to ‘feel the Force’. Even that, I would argue, would not be enough. For we would still have to face a version of the old question, Is an act good because the Force directs us to do it, or does the Force direct us to do it because it is good?

All the best,

Geoffrey