Outstripping Even Itself

May 5, 2010

Boy, the New York Times is outdoing itself today. It has two asinine articles on ethics. Here’s one, by Paul Bloom, on the amazing inclinations toward justice and morality of infant babies. (Yes, you read that correctly.) See? Fuck it. Reflection be damned, even babies are moral!

And here’s another, by Robert Wright, on the amazing application of justice and morality to invading space aliens. (Yes, you read that correctly.) See? Fuck it. Normative ethics be damned, if space aliens figure out how to get here, they will have needed to develop a sufficiently self-preservationist ethic to survive, which will ipso facto translate into respect for humans.

All ethics hacks must know, instinctively, that the end of the semester is upon those of us who are actually serious about ethics — at least, those of us who basically read and study ethics all day long. Exam week is like amnesty for the promulgation of stupid ideas. (What is it about these guys that gives them the impression that they don’t need to know anything about ethics to write about it?)


Let’s take these one at a time, shall we? (Quickly. And then, back to grading and writing.) Bloom first, and our tip to his mistake comes in his opening sentence:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands.

No. No, they did not watch that, unless you think of justice as the kind of thing captured in a Charles Bronson movie.

But the current work I’m involved in, on baby morality, might seem like a perverse and misguided next step.

Yes. Yes, it is a perverse and misguided step, because babies are not moral agents, unless you don’t take moral guidance and reflection seriously, in which case they’re moral in the same way that my computer is moral.

A reason this view has persisted is that, for many years, scientists weren’t sure how to go about studying the mental life of babies.

No. That’s probably not the reason that this view has persisted. The reason that this view has persisted is because ethical action is generally contrasted with instinctive or brute action, and as any parent will tell you, babies are friggin’ brutes.

Look, that babies may be involved in doing “rudimentary math,” or that they may speak in rudimentary grunts and monosyllabic words, or maybe even that they know that some grown-ups have false beliefs, doesn’t at all suggest that somehow they’re engaged in the moral community, or that, god forbid, they’re morally responsible for their actions. They’re just trying to figure it all out. Aristotle said as much several thousand years ago. It’s interesting, but it’s a misapprehension of the highest order to suggest that somehow this is morality. At the very best, it’s a nascent morality, prone to completely fucking things up.

To be fair, Bloom redeems himself partway through his article. It’s pretty interesting research he’s conducting — it’s just that his conclusions are cockamamie. He’s not actually studying the roots of ethics or morality. He’s just watching what babies do, much like I could watch what grown-ups do. I don’t even think it’s right to refer to it as the “moral life of babies.” That’s like talking about the “aesthetic, the literary, or the mathematical life of babies” and suggesting somehow that babies are aesthetically, literarily, or mathematically plugged in. They’re just not.

Now onto Wright. He has this to say:

A slightly less hopeful argument has been made by — well, by me. In my book “Nonzero” I argue that the moral progress Singer rightly celebrates has been driven less by pure reason than by pragmatic self-interest. Technology has drawn groups of people into more and more far-flung “non-zero-sum” relations — relations of interdependence; increasingly it has been in the interest of one group to acknowledge the humanity of another group, if only so the groups can play win-win games. In this view, the decline of American prejudice toward Japanese after World War II was driven less by purely rational enlightenment than by the Japanese transition from mortal enemies to trade partners and Cold War allies. (In this TED conference talk, Steven Pinker, who is writing a book on the decline of violence, contrasts my view with Singer’s.)

If I’m right, and we generally grant the moral significance of other beings to the extent that it’s in our interest to do so, then whywouldn’t we, in 100 or 200 years, do what Hawking imagines aliens doing — happen upon a planet, extract its resources through whatever brutality is most efficient and then move on to the next target? Absent cause to be nice, why would we be nice?

Wait, you have a book? Is it for sale? Too bad you don’t have a internationally distributed column in which to mention something about it. You might sell a lot of copies.

Okay, first things first: this “slightly less hopeful argument” is made by — well, not just you, but every fracking undergraduate in my introduction to ethics class, most of whom are sophomores. I’ll leave you to find the appropriate adjective to describe your idea.

If you’re right, you may have just tipped your hand that you, too, do not understand the first thing about normative ethics, because as a matter of empirical fact it may be true that — generalizing here — we maybe do extend moral significance to other beings to the extent that it’s in our interest, but the fundamental ethical question isn’t what do we do, it’s what we ought to do. Since you don’t understand that, you fail.

It gets worse:

I argue in the penultimate chapter that if we don’t radically develop our “moral imagination” — get much better at putting ourselves in the shoes of people very different from ourselves, even the shoes of our enemies — then the planet could be in big trouble.

How original. Are you suggesting that we should think about how things ought to be? Curious… because that’s exactly what ethicists do. And we don’t do it by strengthening our “moral imagination” or by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. That kind of thinking died a violent death in the 1700s, if not before that, once we recognized that our imagination is itself shaped by our animalistic predilections toward our own friggin’ self-interests, which can’t be what ethics is based on, despite the facile and confused scribblings of the world’s most unjustifiably renowned Russian emigrant.

Sorry. I’m cranky. I’ve read too many undergraduate exams in the past 72 hours. It pains me to read similar such drivel in the New York Friggin Times.

To put a cap on this, I was talking about these articles with one of my philosophy colleagues today and he said the following:

Just once, I’d like to see one of these articles go: “Can they really tell right from wrong? No. The end.”

Couldn’t’ve put it better myself.


  1. I never took an ethics course in college – so I find this stuff interesting.

    I wonder thought, how does one even begin to evaluate what the ethics of an alien race might be?

    It seems to me that we have absolutely nothing to guide us, other than ourselves, which I would imagine we have to discount as observer bias.

    With nothing to guide us – all possibilities must be considered – at least that is the way it seems to me.

    So an alien race could find exterminating us to be ethical or not.

    Or one individual alien might exterminate us, even though that would go against the norm of its culture.

    Or maybe they would “protect us” like we protect whales (only eat a limited number and cheat when you can get away with it).

    Maybe to silicon based life – ethics only apply to other silicon based life?

    Maybe there are lifeforms so large out there that our whole planet could be to small to even perceive (like a bacteria).

    Given our absolute lack of information – perhaps Hawking is correct in his advice (to lie low).

  2. Hey Rick:

    I do think it’s all very interesting. But there’s much better stuff out there than this. The problem is (a) that this is a distraction from the good stuff, (b) that as a distraction, it gets all intermingled with the good stuff and makes the good stuff look mighty stupid, and (c) it implies that it doesn’t take much to know or write about ethics — I mean, hell, if babies can do it, then why can’t anybody do it?

    It’s tantamount to suggesting that all babies have the makings of great nuclear physicists, or that the rudiments of economics can even be witnessed in the actions of babies. I mean, yes, babies know that shit falls to the ground when dropped and that there are costs to not eating when mommy tells them to eat, but that doesn’t amount to (a) unearthing the fundamental laws of physics or economics or (b) having a physical or economic life. It’s just crazy to say such a thing.

    As for the ethics of aliens, I would find it hard to believe that an advanced alien race would function according to self-interest or that they’d be out to conquer. Seems to me that the dynamics of that arrangement would be a recipe for self-annihilation before anything else.

  3. Regarding only the Bloom piece, I’m not sure I understand your vitriol, Prof. Hale. Perhaps he rides a bit roughshod over some distinctions, and yes his intro story is over-dramatic (but a good story, nonetheless), but he’s trying to popularize his research. And as you note, his research seems quite interesting – anyone who’s into a naturalistic approach to our moral development, behavior, cognition, whatever, could get a lot out of this article, and without feeling that professional ethicists had been too disrespected. At least, so it seems to me.

    Is there some norm of ethics discussion or information exchange which Bloom has violated?

    • It’s not that he’s violated any norm of ethics discussion, it’s just that it’s a stupid claim, and I’m not sure that stupid claims should be put in the service of elevating the intrigue of his research. He says something equally stupid about babies demonstrating the rudiments of mathematical reasoning. Okay, fine, maybe they do demonstrate such things, but we can’t tell much about math from that. It’s one thing to observe that babies loosely understand quantities and ideas like ‘more’ or ‘less’ — that is actually kind of interesting — and another thing to say (a) that babies “know” mathematics, or worse, (b) that the principles of mathematics are somehow derivable from the rudimentary counting practices of infants. To say such a thing completely misunderstands mathematics.

      Maybe some people will fall for it — heck, maybe a lot of people will fall for it — but since it doesn’t bear on the actual content of those disciplines, it’s a stupid thing to say, and he should be called out for it.

    • Watch the video on the website. Seems to me there’s a lot of fast-and-loose going on.

  4. ‘I’m not sure that stupid claims should be put in the service of elevating the intrigue of his research.’

    Agreed. The rhetoric of some social psychologists who work on moral questions should certainly be dialed back. The first time I read Haidt’s stuff, for a metaethics course, I felt like I feel when the refs blatantly screw my preferred college football team. So he should not claim that babies take justice into their own hands (although there do seem to be some nascent reactive attitudes at work). And the makers of that video should not be claiming that babies can tell the difference between right and wrong. Hell, I can’t do that consistently.

    I wonder how much of this language is influenced by how much it stokes the interest of the funders of such research? And, of course, the Times readers of such articles.

    The primary thing I was responding to was your assertion that Bloom studying ‘baby morality’ is a perverse and misguided step, because babies are brutes. Without further details, I’m not sure what brute means for you here, any more than I’m sure what the term baby morality is supposed to mean (brute seems to imply that there’s nothing to learn about human cognition from babies, and baby morality implies something fairly developed: both strike me as wrong). Personally, I find the term baby morality offensive on grounds of over-cuteness – I’d like to see some studies on baby savagery. Anyway, whatever we want to call it, I think you’d agree that Bloom’s research project is not entirely perverse and misguided. Would you agree that his research could be relevant to the work of moral philosophers?

  5. The Wright book (Evolution of God) is actually quite entertaining when he talks about religions. When, in part IV, he gets to ethics, it becomes deeply confused, confusing, and even annoying. And it’s not only the ethics. He appears to think that his idea of “nonzero” somehow provides evidence of design and intelligence in the universe. But if you stop reading before those chapters, it’s not bad.

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