Friday, May 11, 2007

The virtuous circle of causation and compassion

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Why Darwinism Isn't Depressing, Robert Wright puts a nice new spin on the connection between naturalism and empathy – at least it’s new to me. First, as many naturalists have suggested, when we understand the causal story behind say, brattiness, we stop blaming a bratty child in the way we did before. We see the factors (lack of a nap, bad upbringing, genetic predispositions, etc.) that contributed to character and behavior. We see that brattiness isn’t self-caused, but the result of various factors, and seeing this might lead to some forbearance in our own attitudes and behavior towards the child. There isn’t a self independent of these factors that could have overcome them during the kid’s development. In contrast, as Wright puts it: “the ‘brat’ reaction [calling the kid a brat] — isn't even an explanation.” This non-explanation might suggest that the “brat” could have helped becoming who he became (if indeed he’s predisposed to brattiness), reducing our forbearance.

What Wright does, which is cool, is to flip the relationship between seeing causation and feeling empathy around: once we start empathizing with people, we are better able to see and accept that there is a causal story behind their behavior (“Thus does love lead to truth”). We’re less likely to cut short our explanations by blaming the supposedly self-caused agent. And, he says, once we see the genetic contingency of our special love for our immediate family, we might be able to expand our circle of empathy, and therefore of causal understanding. This in turn (I extrapolate here) will lead to more empathy as explained above. A nice virtuous circle.

Of course as he points out, some people tend to get depressed by the Darwinian "selfish gene" explanation for familial love, thinking such love isn't real. But to explain isn’t to destroy, only explain. Unless, that is, you’re wedded to dualism and think it’s the case that the soul or something immaterial is essential for anything valuable. Which would be too bad, since the physical world has cooked up some pretty amazing and sometimes even loveable phenomena.


Blogger Otis said...

Naturalism's declarations of empathy may sound nice, but the philosophy goes far beyond such warm feelings. According to naturalism, people are just hapless products of causality. Consider this from Robert Wright, "we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can't discern but that science can." (From his book The Moral Animal.)

The Tenets of Naturalism give guidance on how to control these "people" machines: "Given the circumstances both inside and outside the body, they couldn’t have done other than what they did. Nevertheless, we must still hold individuals responsible, in the sense of applying rewards and sanctions, so that their behavior stays more or less within the range of what WE deem acceptable." (

Who are the WE in the above quote? Those who dominate and control. That quote is a clear statement of the "might makes right" approach to ethics.

And what is acceptable? Consider this, also from The Tenets, "There is no finally correct way to behave, nor are there finally justifiable goals, but only the desires and intentions that currently constitute us, all of which may change as human nature and cultures change."

The philosophy of naturalism, despite its declarations of empathy, is a recipe for disaster. There are no fundamental and objective human rights, just values subject to change that are imposed by the most powerful.

The antidote for this aspect of naturalism is the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, which states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Yes, there are unalienable rights, not subject to change. We are all endowed with rights, dignity, value and purpose by our Creator. We are not just helpless products of causality, to be pitied and controlled by the "enlightened" naturalists.

May 28, 2007, 9:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the French say, "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardoner."

This old proverb reveals the deep philosophical truth that knowledge of the particular history behind bad behavior undermines our tendency to blame people because we believe that they have chosen to act badly, through some inherent (chosen?) defect of character. It implicitly recognizes that our character is given to us, and we discover it, rather than chosing it.

May 31, 2007, 10:19:00 PM  
Blogger Sentient Being said...

Being a "product of causality" makes you more responsible, not less. Randomness or "supernatural intervention" just undermines any concept of personal responsibility.

Naturalism is at least compatible and arguably supportive of a Utilitarian ethics, derived from our interactions as a social species. In fact the US Declaration of Independence can be usefully viewed as a good example of rule-Utilitarianism.

In contrast a supernaturalism-based ethics is essentially arbitrary and unjustifiable.

Jul 1, 2007, 4:26:00 PM  
Blogger Juno Walker said...

Otis -

If you consider Saddam Hussein's regime, then yes, you would be justified in your "might makes right assessment". But we live in a representative democracy with checks and balances and free speech where the free exchange and debate of ideas is given (almost) full expression.

This system allows for a consensus to form, while respecting the equal rights of the minority (at least in theory).

You imply that objective values and morality derive from our 'Creator'. But if, as I suppose, you're speaking of the Judeo-Christian God, then you also run into the Euthyphro dilemma:

"Where then does this morality come from? It is tempting to say that moral law has its own lawgiver and judiciary. But the same questions that were asked about the law can be asked about the moral law: what is it that guarantees moral laws are indeed moral? It must be because the moral law-enactors and enforcers are acting within the confines of morality. But this then makes morality prior to any moral legislature or judiciary. To put it another way, the only thing that can show a lawgiver is moral is that their laws conform to a moral standard which is independent of the moral lawgiver. So if the lawgiver is God, God's laws will only be moral if they conform to moral principles which are independent of God.

Plato made this point extremely clearly in a dialogue called Euthypryo, after which the following dilemma was named. Plato's protagonist Socrates posed the question, do the gods choose what is good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods choose it? If the first option is true, that shows that the good is independent of the gods (or in a monotheistic faith, God). Good just is good and that is precisely why a good God will always choose it. But if the second option is true, then that makes the very idea of what is good arbitrary. If it is God's choosing something alone that makes it good, then what is there to stop God choosing torture, for instance, and thus making it good? This is of course absurd, but the reason why it is absurd is that we believe that torture is wrong and that is why God would never choose it. To recognize this, however, is to recognize that we do not need God to determine right and wrong. Torture is not wrong just because God does not choose it.

To my mind, the Euthypryo dilemma is a very powerful argument against the idea that God is required for morality. Indeed, it goes further and shows that God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary. There are attempts to wiggle off the prongs of the dilemma's forks, but like a trapped air bubble, pushing the problem down at one point only makes it resurface at another. For instance, some think the way out of the dilemma is to say that God just is good, so the question the dilemma poses is ill-formed. If God and good are the same thing then we cannot ask whether God chooses good because it is good - the very question separates what must come together."


Aug 1, 2007, 8:54:00 PM  

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