Monday, December 29, 2014

178. Moral instinct

The analysis of morality according to the causality of action, discussed in the preceding items in this blog, may suggest that moral conduct is a conscious, deliberate affair. It may suggest that there is a deliberate matching of perceived situations with conscious moral principles, to be confronted, next, with interests and motives of the agent in question, in some rational trade-off. But while this may occur, morality is largely subconscious and driven by emotions.

In item 119 I proposed that even animals could exhibit moral conduct, in particular in altruism, as demonstrated in Frans de Waal’s experiments with apes. This claim was based on an analysis, in item 46, of how altruism may have survived in evolution, to evolve into an instinct, in tension with a rival instinct for survival and self-interest.

The drive to survive as an individual and the drive to be a loyal member of a community, in give and take, in some degree of altruism, are both deep instincts of human conduct, and constitute rival mental frames of action. Depending on the situation one may be in one frame or the other, and events may trigger a shift between them. One may be in a benevolent frame until one feels threatened in one’s existence.

I discussed this earlier in my treatment of trust, in items 68-73.

How would all this be embodied in the brain? How do cognitive habits form, even in competition with each other? Cognitive scientist Gerald Edelman proposed neural Darwinism. Associations in thought arise from more or less random tentative connections between parallel neural networks, triggered when those are active simultaneously in specific conditions. Such tentative connections are reinforced as a function of experienced success (presumably arising on an in some sense ‘higher’ level of neural circuitry). There may be competing emerging circuits, selected according to success, as a function of conditions. Hence the notion of neural ‘Darwinism’. This is how I read Edelman.

Much, if not most, of this goes on subconsciously, and this explains how much of our thought and action is subconscious, limiting the scope of free will, as discussed in item 5 of this blog.

So, the morality of action, and the perception of moral action, may shift according to conditions, triggering one mental frame or the other.

How does all this work out in terms of the causality of action discussed before? The mental frame one is in, loaded with feelings of threat or safety, self-interest or benevolence, depends on conditions (conditional cause) and on one’s position as an agent (efficient cause), and will determine what motives (final cause) are salient, and will colour or select the moral sense one attaches to observed situations (formal cause), or even those observations themselves (material cause). In this, one may be driven by emotions such as those of fear or bliss.

Actual conduct may then be in conflict with what one would rationally see as morally justified action. The resulting tension will evoke excuses in terms of the causes of conduct. One claims not to have seen, not to have judged appropriately, to have been unable to act appropriately, or to have had competing obligations.

Monday, December 22, 2014

177. Tolerance and forgiveness

The debatable ethics that I propose in this blog requires the ability and commitment of tolerance, in an effort to understand and perhaps forgive what appears to be moral failure.

Kevin DeLapp (p. 152)[i] proposed three forms of tolerance: normative, epistemic, and pluralistic. Normative tolerance entails ‘this is not my business’. It is close to indifference. Epistemic tolerance is modesty: ‘I don’t know, can’t judge’. Pluralistic tolerance entails the recognition that there may be alternative moral views or systems. Thus one may recognize as different but valid a consequentialist ethic where only outcomes matter, not motives, as well as a Kantian ethic where motives matter regardless of outcomes. This view can perhaps be seen as relativistic.

Epistemic tolerance may yield the effort to understand apparent moral failure, in recognition of the complexities, dilemmas and tragedy that may be involved in moral choice. What appears to fly in the face of one’s moral principles may upon scrutiny hide a commonality of such principles. Epistemic tolerance may lead to forgiveness.

For this, I propose, the causal analysis discussed in preceding items in this blog may help, with an analysis of the material, formal, final, efficient and conditional causes of action.

In debatable ethics this is to be combined with ‘voice’, extending the benefit of the doubt, listening to reasons given, and the effort at empathy. Only when that persistently fails should one resort to the ‘exit’ of censure, condemnation, or separation. That is also what I recommended for the building and maintenance of trust, in items 68-75 of this blog.

Concerning the material cause, one may find that the culprit did not see or have the morally relevant information on what happened.

Concerning the formal cause, one may find that he/she did not see or understand the moral salience of what happened.

Concerning the final cause, one may find that he/she saw a conflict between what was morally required and what was in his/her interest. Here the motive matters. 

Concerning the efficient cause, one may find that he/she had conflicting moral obligations. In case of tragedy all options were bad.

Concerning the conditional cause, one may find that he/she was following different moral principles, at odds with one’s own.

Concerning the exemplary cause, finally, one may find that he/she was following a bad example that to him/her was presented as a good example or an example of customary conduct.

All of these depend, in one way or another, on upbringing, education and social conditions.

So when does forgiveness arise? Clearly, when there was lack of perception, lack of moral ability, conflict between obligations, or tragedy, forgiveness is easiest. With respect to motive especially there is need for debate. How understandable was self-interest in comparison with moral obligation? That depends on the moral principles and their underlying ethic that were at play.

What if one disagrees with the underlying ethic? One may accept that it is an established ethic, even if one disagrees with it. This is pluralistic tolerance. Then a debate is in order to compare the alternative ethics. Here, voice may meet its limit, in the inability to agree or accept, and this may yield exit. When one can only see the other ethic as evil or unacceptable under any circumstances, exit is inevitable.

Such debate may stall in the inability to cross cognitive distance, or in emotions attached  to morality, obstructing empathy and understanding. Then a knowledgeable and wise third party may help, as a go-between, to help cross cognitive distance, defuse suspicion, dampen emotions and make repairs when debate is torn. Or in other words: to help voice and try and prevent exit. Providing an exemplary cause.   

[i] Kevin DeLapp, Moral realism, London: Bloomsbury, 2013

Monday, December 15, 2014

176. Moral failure

The multiple causality of moral conduct set out in the preceding item in this blog can be employed to analyse moral failure.[i]

It can be put together in the following scheme

material cause > formal cause  >  final cause > moral action
perception           moral ability  >   motivation        |
                                        |                          |              |
                            conditional cause     efficient cause
                            moral principles       moral position, role
                            context of action               

Moral failure can now be traced to lack in one or more of the causes.

First, moral principles may be lacking. Second, one may fail to have the requisite perception of a situation. Third, one may be unable to see its moral salience in relation to the specific context of action, or one may be unable to conduct the requisite action (for example inability to swim and make a rescue). Fourth, there may be lack of motivation to act accordingly. One may disagree with the moral principles (people ‘should be left to fend for themselves’), be weak in will, be simply too lazy, give priority to self-interest (afraid to drown oneself), or be confronted with conflicting duties (leaving an infant in hazard on the embankment if one jumps in). The last depends on the position of the agent and roles he has to play.

Moral role models help to develop especially moral ability and motivation. Think of parents, friends, teachers, sages, etc. Here literature may help, as an exercise in moral judgement, as I argued in items 92 and 120 of this blog. Take, for example, Ian McEwan’s latest book (The childrens act), in which a judge is faced with a series of moral conflicts and paradoxes. 

In tragedy, the moral agent has a choice only between morally bad options. The classic case is that of the Greek general Agamemnon who had to choose between sacrificing his daughter or the army he led. As DeLapp pointed out, here moral failure can be condoned, but it would be morally dubious if the agent were not plagued by qualms of self-doubt or self-recrimination.

As DeLapp also pointed out one may profit from a morally dubious situation without being causally responsible for it. The example he uses is profiting from discrimination (in getting a job, say), while disapproving of it. But the question then is how much effort one is making to ‘change the system’.

In item 166 I discussed the issue of moral justification of harm that is foreseen but not intended. Collateral damage of bombing, for example. I showed how this can be approached distinguishing between guilt and punishment. To establish guilt one should look at one’s responsibility as a cause of harm. For punishment, on the other hand, mitigating circumstances are taken into account, such as the ones discussed above, lack of ability, pressure of self-interest (e.g. survival), conflicting obligations. Past conduct and expectations of future conduct also matter. Did the culprit admit guilt, express regret, and was that credible in view of past conduct?

What about the conduct of bankers in the recent financial crises? They made profits while hiving off risks of failure onto society. They claimed that they were not aware of the risks of their conduct for society (material cause), or that their conduct was dictated by the demands of capital markets or organizational culture (conditional cause), or that they obeyed prevailing ethics in financial markets (conditional cause), and were unable to escape from them (formal cause), or were forced by the responsibilities of their positions (efficient cause). Those arguments are either not credible or not adequate. They are mostly excuses for masking the self-interest of profit, bonus or job (final cause).  

[i] As in the preceding item in this blog I employ the moral issues raised by Kevin DeLapp, Moral realism, London: Bloomsbury, 2013. However, my arguments and conclusions differ.

Monday, December 8, 2014

175. Morality of causes

 In the preceding item of this blog I discussed the causality of morals: where do moral principles come from? Here I discuss the morality of causes: how do moral principles affect behaviour?

In classical Greek philosophy it was assumed that knowing good automatically produces doing good. Clearly that is not the case. Sociopaths know of good and bad but don’t care, or even enjoy going against that knowledge. We often suffer from weakness of the will: we know how we should act but are not motivated to do so. And there may be other causes that enable or prevent moral conduct. 

To proceed, I make use of a multiple causality of actions, going back to Aristotle, that I used before in this blog, in items 96-99. Multiple causes are tailored to human conduct, with an efficient cause (the agent), a final cause (motives, goals), a material cause (available material, means, resources), a formal cause (method, skill, technology), a conditional cause (conditions that ground, enable or disable, the other causes), and an exemplary cause (a role model).

I now propose that these different causes of conduct determine how morality affects conduct, yielding a morality of causes. This, I propose, may help in the practical implementation and adjudication of morality and in dealing with moral complexity.

In the preceding item in this blog I proposed that cultural principles are social, cultural constructs that are not arbitrary but emerge from selection in the evolution of societies. I now propose that moral principles yield the conditional cause of moral conduct, which  also requires other causes.

Moral principles are institutionalized in legal, educational, medical, and other practices and standards. Together, they enable, constrain, and impel moral conduct. They are external to the agent.

To have an effect on conduct, moral principles must be supported by the motivating factor of the final cause, goals and desires, internal to the agent. This includes emotional drives of guilt, shame, and fear of social retribution. It also includes a balancing of moral considerations and the flourishing of the agent’s own life.

How this works out depends on the efficient cause, i.e. the moral agent, with its corresponding positions, roles and responsibilities. This may include features of the networks in which agents are connected (such as structure of the network and positions in it). 

These positional features of the agent determine the requirements and available options for moral choice, with complexities of responsibility towards different individuals and institutions, and the resulting moral dilemmas. A politician or manager has to weigh individual and collective consequences of possible actions. The collateral damage of bombing, for example. A parent has to include responsibilities towards his/her children.

Next, moral conduct is also affected by availability of the means needed for requisite conduct, in the material cause, and requisite abilities and know-how, in the formal cause.

The material and formal causes, and to some extent also the positional features of the agent, are external to both the agent and the moral principles.

The material cause entails the materials for moral deliberation, such as relevant logics, practices, literatures, precedents, cases, and illustrations.

The formal cause entails knowledge and skill, in the ability to see events as morally salient, to engage in moral conduct, and to argue in moral debate, given the complexity and context-dependence of moral considerations. They yield the ability of Aristotelian ‘practical wisdom’. 

The exemplary cause is the ‘moral hero’ who can manage the complexities of Aristotelian virtue ethic well, in practical wisdom. This can be an exemplary manager, politician, arbiter, judge, or author, for example. Moral decisions vary with the context, and cannot be codified in universal protocols. The moral choices of the hero cannot be copied from one situation to another, but exemplary behaviour concerns the ways in which he/she goes about navigating moral complexities.