The Corner

Re: Robocop Replies

John,  I guess I’m supposed to be mad about that response.  The only problem is that I couldn’t stop laughing because it was so well done.

Much as I love playing the straight man, let me try to pull some of the red herrings off the table by setting out some premises.

1. The Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology is scientifically established.

2. The products of evolution include animals that live socially, do not typically “turn into ax murderers”, are capable of complex systems of cooperation, and of repeated actions that sure look like what we mean in normal speech by altruism.  Certain species of bees and ants are obvious examples.

3. Avowed human beliefs have a complex relationship with actual behavior.  In plain English, there are lots of hypocrites in the congregation, and lots of village atheists who are the first people to stop and help you with a flat tire on a rainy night.

Now, suppose a specific worker bee that normally has some function important to the survival of the hive is given a chemical injection that causes it to start instead stinging other bees in the hive wildly.  We would not, in normal speech, say that the bee has done something “wrong.” Suppose instead it had some genetic mutation that caused a series of biochemical processes that caused it do the same thing.  I still don’t think we would say it has done something wrong.  Crucially, most people believe that even if we can’t yet precisely define the causal pathways, all actions by the bee in all circumstances should be considered as outcomes of biochemistry.  Nothing any bee can ever do in any circumstance can be “right” or “wrong.” The bee lacks moral agency.

Now consider a human subjected to a chemical injection, or genetic manipulation, that caused him to start wildly killing people in his city.  Most people would say that he did nothing wrong in that case.  But, moral agency implies that there are at least some circumstances in which he can do things that are right or wrong.  If all of every person’s actions are the product of genes-plus-environment, even if we don’t yet fully understand these interactions scientifically, then in what sense can a human do anything right or wrong in any sense that a bee can not?

You asked me two questions.

1)  If belief in a supernatural origin for the moral sense is essential for moral behavior, how come people who don’t have such a belief manage to behave themselves pretty well? In fact, better? Crime rates are actually much lower in the “relativistic” Europe the Pope deplores than they are in deeply religious countries like Nigeria or Pakistan. Do you have an explanation? In fact, looking round the world, belief in supernatural moral codes seems to correlate well with bad moral behavior. With homicide rates in parentheses: Irreligious Japan (1.1), Hong Kong (0.63), and Iceland (1.03) are much safer places for three-year-old girls than much-more-religious Philippines (4.31), Sri Lanka (6.69), or for that matter the U.S.A. (5.9). Wassup with that, Jim?

See premise 3 above.  As you know, if one wanted to measure the attributable impact of religious observance on homicide, cross-sectional analysis such as this is notoriously unreliable.  Far better would be to examine the change in homicide rates before and after changes in religious practice as compared the change in homicide rates in control societies in the same time periods.  Best of all, would be to conduct replicated clinical trials in which religious practice was driven up or down in certain test geographies and not in well-matched controls.  Even in that (somewhat creepy) case, one would still face a thorny issue of how to generalize this result to other times and places, since it would be so difficult to understand all of the possible confounders

2) Are you sure you have understood the non-supernatural explanations (like this one) well enough to be able confidently to discard them in favor of the supernatural ones? If you came across a really convincing natural explanation for moral behavior in terms of heritable behavior characteristics, group dynamics in social animals, neuroscience, and genetics, would you drop the supernatural one?

I have not discarded these explanations in favor of the supernatural ones.  I believe that there is an intellectually respectable position that they are valid.  I believe that this is a plausible hypothesis, not an established fact.  I haven’t proposed a supernatural explanation for anything, but yes, if presented with a convincing natural explanation for (what is conventionally called) moral behavior based on the concepts you describe, I would accept it.



Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.