Conscience Does Not Explain Morality
Lead Us Not Into The Temptation Of Using The Wrong Model
Posted Sep 10, 2013
“We may now state the minimum conception: Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason…while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual affected by one’s decision” (emphasis mine).
The above quote comes to us from Rachaels & Rachaels (2010) introductory chapter entitled “What is morality?” It is readily apparent that their account of what morality is happens to be a conscience-centric one, focusing on self-regulatory behaviors (i.e. what you, personally, ought to do). These conscience-based accounts are exceedingly popular among many people, academics and non-academics alike, perhaps owing to its intuitive appeal: it certainly feels like we don’t do certain things because they feel morally wrong, so understanding morality through conscience seems like the natural starting point. With all due respect to the philosopher pair and the intuitions of people everywhere, they seem to have begun their analysis of morality on entirely the wrong foot.
This is the key distinction, then: moral conscience (regulating one’s own behavior) does not appear to straightforwardly explain moral condemnation (regulating the behavior of others). Despite this, almost every expressed moral rule or law involves punishing others for how they behave – at least implicitly. While the specifics of what gets punished and how much punishment is warranted vary to some degree from individual to individual, the general form of moral rules does not. Were I to say I do not wish to have homosexual intercourse, I’m only expressing a preference, a bit like stating whether or not I would like my sandwich on white or wheat bread. Were I to say homosexuality is immoral, I’m expressing the idea that those who engage in the act ought to be condemned for doing so. By contrast, I would not be interested in punishing people for making the ‘wrong’ choice about bread, even if I think they could have made a better choice.
While we cannot necessarily learn much about moral condemnation via moral conscience, the reverse is not true: we can understand moral conscience quite well through moral condemnation. Provided that there are groups of people who will tend to punish for you for doing something, this provides ample motivation to avoid engaging in that act, even if you otherwise highly desire to do so. Murder is a simple example here: there tend to be some benefits for removing specific conspecifics from one’s world. Whether because those others inflict costs on you or prevent the acquisition of benefits, there is little question that murder might occasionally be adaptive. If, however, the would-be target of your homicidal intentions happens to have friends and family members that would rather not see them dead, thank you very much, the potential costs those allies might inflict need to be taken into account. Provided those costs are appreciably great, and certain actions are punished with sufficient frequency over time, a system for representing those condemned behaviors and their potential costs – so as to avoid engaging in them – could easily evolve.
There are two ways of answering that question, neither of which is mutually exclusive with the other. The first is that the cognitive systems which compute things like the probability of being detected and estimate the likely punishment that will ensue are always working under conditions of uncertainty. Because of this uncertainty, it is inevitable that the system will, on occasion, make mistakes: sometimes one could get away without repercussions when behaving immorally, and one would be better off if they took those chances than if they did not. One also needs to consider the reverse error as well, though: if you assess that you will not be caught or punished when you actually will, you would have been better off not behaving immorally. Provided the costs of punishment are sufficiently high (the loss of social allies, abandonment by sexual partners, the potential loss of your life, etc), it might pay in some situations to still avoid behaving in morally unacceptable ways even when you’re almost positive you could get away with it (Delton et al, 2012). The point here is that it doesn’t just matter if you’re right or wrong about whether you’re likely to be punished: the costs to making each mistake need to be factored into the cognitive equation as well, and those costs are often asymmetric.
The second way of approaching that question is to suggest that the conscience system is just one cognitive system among many, and these systems don’t always need to agree with one another. That is, a conscience system might still represent an act as morally unacceptable while other systems (those designed to get certain benefits and assess costs) might output an incompatible behavioral choice (i.e. cheating on your committed partner despite knowing that it is morally condemned to do so, as the potential benefits are perceived as being greater than the costs). To the extent that these systems are independent, then, it is possible for each to hold opposing representations about what to do at the same time. Examples of this happening in other domains are not hard to find: the checkerboard illusion, for instance, allows us to hold both the representation that A and B are different colors and that A and B are the same color in our mind at once. We need not be of one mind about all such matters because our mind is not one thing.
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References: Delton, A., Krasnow, M., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2012). Evolution of direct reciprocity under uncertainty can explain human generosity in one-shot encounters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 13335-13340.
DeScioli P, & Kurzban R (2009). Mysteries of morality. Cognition, 112 (2), 281-99 PMID: 19505683
DeScioli P, & Kurzban R (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological bulletin, 139 (2), 477-96 PMID: 22747563
Rachaels, J. & Rachels S. (2010). The Elements of Moral Philosophy. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.