Tuesday, 20 March 2007

a difficult task

Writing a short piece on moral intuitions is not easy. And it's likely that Peter Singer was not responsible for the silly strapline of his piece in today's Guardian, which didn't really reflect what he was trying to say ('Would you kill one person to save five others? Your intuition is probably wrong').

As I went to find the web version of the piece I began to read the responses posted below - many of which are very sane, exposing the weaknesses of this type of 'moral' thought-experiment (FLYSWATTER at 2:39pm is sweeeet) - though few of them mention one of the largest problems with the article, namely the recourse to a just-so story (otherwise known as 'our evolutionary history'). [The poster TerenceUSA, 12:19pm, did note this in passing in his excellent analysis of the examples cited by Singer from the research by Greene.]

Basically, Singer has to try to explain why we would generally find it harder to push someone off a bridge to save five lives, than we would to flick a switch to save five lives at the cost of one. (And he also wants to suggest that this preference is dubious, and that arithmetic is best in these situations.) Based on fMRI data collected from those considering these particular moral problems ('increased activity in areas of the brain associated with emotions' in the pushing example - gosh, there's a surprise) he resortrs to the just-so story.

Apparently to deal with such [difficult/easy?] situations as must have been common for most of our evolutionary history (up-close and personal violence) 'we developed immediate, emotionally-based intuitive responses to the infliction of violence on others'. And this guy is a professor! How did these responses develop? There is no mechanism given, or even suggested. Why did we develop emotional responses? Oh, because we have them now, so we must have developed them (anyone else see a circle here...?) But the nature of the response over the last few hundred thousand years is not stated or explored at all.

Those lacuna are perfectly typical of the way the evolution is referred to in the media (and, sadly, in textbooks) - a cheap assertion of facticity without a shred of evidence or a moment of genuinely critical thought! But, to be quite specific, why is the particular 'immediate, emotionally-based intuitive response' that we have now more selectively preferable than the response exhibited or 'developed' (magically, of course) by an intelligent being with no compunction about killing a threatening person up close. Emotional responses to this sort of trauma and surprise are surely a selective disadvantage! It would seem that if the fittest are to survive they need to able to kill the slightly less fit, who might attack them or use up their resources...

GavP at 1:21pm points out that Singer's rather fatuous closing line, '...we should think for ourselves, not just listen to our intuitions', implies that modern weaponry is a good thing because it liberates us from having to confront [bad/inadequate] emotional reactions to killing and enables reason ('cold-hearted rationalism') to reign (and have full rein - and just how many times have those phrases been muddled!?). Quite so, and since Singer has already told us the correct, liberated answer, he is not encouraging us to think for ourselves, but to swallow a half-baked utilitarianism. A healthy and intelligent conversations did open up on the Guardian site following this opinion piece, but the article itself is all too ready to rush into the space recently vacated by vanquished moral intuitions...