Review: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s “Moral Psychology, Volume 4″

by Miles Raymer

Moral Psychology

This fourth volume in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Moral Psychology series is my favorite thus far. The issues of free will and moral responsibility have received so much attention lately––both from the academic community and the popular press––that it can be difficult to find sources that approach these topics with the rigor and nuance they require. Readers possessing a rudimentary understanding of philosophy and neuroscience who long to get past the headlines and into the thick of the conversation need look no further. Moral Psychology, Vol. 4 provides a complex and challenging portrait of our most cutting-edge theories, methods, and practical limitations.

One of the primary strengths of the Moral Psychology series is how Sinnott-Armstrong arranges each volume. Readers are presented with an academic paper followed by two short critiques by different authors from the same or related fields. The author of the original paper is then given a few pages to respond to the respondents. This format simulates an active discussion as it might occur at a conference or collaborative meeting, and shows that our understanding of these questions is very much in flux as new studies are devised and new data come in. Books like this are antithetical to the all-too-common notion that most academics are happy to carve out an intellectual niche, spend decades shoring it up against all criticism, and remain entrenched in an ever-narrowing ideological echo chamber. In a time when the benefits of “interdisciplinary research” have been clearly revealed but are still slow to be put into practice, Sinnott-Armstrong has forced a breach through which the voices of philosophers, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and psychologists can all penetrate with equal resonance.

Before presenting my general conclusions about what this volume has to offer, I must first air a major grievance. Of all the perspectives and arguments put forth in this book, only one struck me as patently fallacious. It would have been less galling had the article’s respondents pointed out the flaw, but since they failed to do so, I will take it up here. In Roy F. Baumeister’s otherwise informative paper “Constructing a Scientific Theory of Free Will,” the discussion takes a bizarre turn when Baumeister ventures a perplexing theory of meaning:

Meaning is not a physical entity. The meaning of a sentence, for example, does not have any of the properties of physical matter: mass, precise physical location, velocity, acceleration, chemical composition, atomic and molecular structure, electrical charge, and the rest. Insofar as meaning is not a physical entity but can be used by physical entities to cause changes in the course of physical events, we have a clear instance in which physical outcomes are not fully explained by physical processes, including the laws of physics and the like…I understand meaning as existing in a network of possible thoughts and ideas existing independently of human beings but discovered by cultures as a useful resource, not totally unlike the way in which cultures have discovered oil and how to use it to propel cars. (252)

Baumeister rushes to assure skeptics that “human action does not violate the laws of physics––but it uses causes and factors that are not fully reducible to them,” and that people “incorporate this nonphysical reality into the causation of their physical acts” (254). As if this were some kind of defense!

Baumeister’s effort to resurrect Platonism in an era when disembodied, non-physical notions of meaning have long been put to rest is ill-timed. The defenses against such a theory are well-known, so I will discuss them only briefly. The idea that meaning exists outside of bodies and was “waiting for us” to discover it is misleading and anachronistic. Humans collectively generate meaning through sociality and culture; further, the meaning we make does have physical properties because it resides within the structure of our bodies, our machines, our buildings, our stories––everywhere humans have influenced our environment. Take away those all those people and objects, and there would be no meaning at all (not terrestrial meaning, anyhow). Just because instantiations of meaning are diffuse and ubiquitous to the point of seeming invisible doesn’t make them non-physical. Baumeister seems to argue that meaning could be like mathematics––an integral part of the cosmos that we stumbled upon when we became smart enough––but this doesn’t follow. As far as we can tell, physical events are sensitive to natural laws, but not to “meanings.” Math describes the inherent structure of the universe, but meaning is local, contingent, and self-generated by creatures capable of forming culture. I agree with Baumeister that meaning is a causative force that influences human deliberation and behavior, but that is so precisely because meaning is part of our physical world. Claiming otherwise is unacceptable for someone purportedly seeking a “scientific theory of free will.”

Fortunately, Baumeister’s blunder is an aberration that does not significantly impugn the overall quality of this volume. After careful consideration, I think a few general conclusions start to take shape. The first is that humanity’s most effective and meaningful expressions of agency are best characterized by protracted pursuits of long-term goals, especially the acts of deliberation and reflection that make such pursuits possible. The second is that worrying about whether human behavior is strictly determined, inherently probabilistic, or radically free is in all likelihood not the best way to deal with pressing problems concerning free will and moral responsibility. The third and most important conclusion is that although scientists and philosophers are only just beginning to construct adequate theories describing the experience of human agency and its implications for how we should understand ourselves as moral beings, the further creation and fine-tuning of such theories is the best way forward.

In his recent book, Morality for Humans, Mark Johnson draws from the seminal work of John Dewey, making a strong case that the best way to solve moral problems is for humans to employ protracted, informed, and imaginative deliberation (as opposed to intuitive heuristics or rule-based judgments). Several authors in Moral Psychology echo this view, presenting evidence not only that the pursuit of long-term goals appears to entail a high level of causative influence from an individual’s conscious intentions, but also that regular people cite the realization and achievement of long-term goals as the strongest examples of their free will.

According to Eddy Nahmias, we can understand the pursuit of goals in terms of “distal…intentions or plans to carry out various actions, followed by conscious monitoring of what we’re doing to make sure our actions correspond to these general intentions or plans” (16). In this sense, many actions and decisions in our daily lives may be partially or even wholly automated (i.e. not the result of conscious choice), and yet there is a still a slice of mind guiding the agent in the general direction of his or her consciously desired ends. Baumeister characterizes the role of conscious intention as “steering rather than starting,” with the agent being like a ship that is already underway and subject to many forces beyond its captain’s abilities and knowledge (249). This seems an accurate and practical way of grounding our expectations for freedom and moral responsibility. Our conscious minds influence our behavior in limited but not insignificant ways, so we can legitimately feel free to make certain choices and be held at least partially responsible for the outcomes of those choices. Further, this view provides concrete evidence for why individuals ought to be held more accountable for moral transgressions that demand extended planning and execution of self-generated agendas than for ones resulting from ignorance, external coercion, or hasty impulse.

Whether humans are actually free when making choices is another matter. This question has traditionally hinged on whether or not we understand the universe as purely deterministic. This debate is ongoing, heated, and likely insoluble. The deeper I delve, the more I am convinced that resolving the issue of determinism is of little importance for those seeking to understand freedom and moral responsibility. Adina L. Roskies does an excellent job of problematizing the tendency to make the existence of free will dependent on the veracity or falsity of determinism:

Neither physics nor evolutionary biology has been able to supply the sort of factual information that could bear upon whether we are deterministic or indeterministic systems…The question of determinism cannot be settled by anything but complete predictability. This involves knowing the relevant laws and the physical state of the system at some time and, from this information, being able to predict the state of the system at later times. While inability to predict accurately might be evidence of indeterminism, it could well be evidence that we are mistaken about the laws and/or initial conditions used in our calculations. (108, emphasis hers)

Whether the “system” in question is a particular organism, ecosystem, planet, or even the whole universe, it is clear that we do not have (and may very well never have) the kind of technology and/or knowledge that would allow us to fully settle the question of whether human behavior is entirely deterministic or not. Additionally, even if determinism could be disproved, Roskies points out that there is no reason to assume that undetermined behavior is necessarily freely chosen; just because something occurs randomly or according to a probabilistic framework doesn’t make it free.

Does this mean there’s no hope of ever finding out once and for all if we have free will? Pretty much. But the takeaway is that we shouldn’t tether our understanding of moral agency and responsibility to a dispute we can’t resolve. The school of thought called “compatibilism” argues that free will is not precluded by determinism, but I see no reason to assume this perspective. Even though compatibilism has garnered many smart adherents, I don’t think it can escape the apparent contradiction at its core. If one takes determinism seriously, the only way to locate free will is to choose some arbitrary (or convenient) starting point sometime after the big bang, divorce it from all its previous causes, and declare a “moment of freedom.” Additionally, many compatibilists cite as support for their position the fact that conscious intentions can influence or control behavior, but there’s no reason why we should equate causative capacity with freedom. If scientific materialism is true and there’s nothing metaphysical or supernatural about human cognition or experience, then every causative moment or force is preceded by others, ad infinitum. Just because some causes are neural events that feel like moments of choice to us doesn’t exempt them from the greater causative chain.

To explain my view further, I should lay my cards on the table and reveal my personal bias: I am a hardline determinist. At a fundamental level, I believe all of my actions, desires, beliefs, and those of everyone around me are the direct and inevitable results of consistent natural laws. I do not think I freely “make choices,” although I accept that my experience is structured in such a way that I must experience myself as a decision-making being. Despite findings about the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics and chaotic systems, my intuition is that these predictive uncertainties are flaws in our methodologies and interpretations rather than end-points in scientific inquiry. And even if probability reigns supreme at certain micro- and macrolevels (which I’m willing to accept), that doesn’t necessarily mean physical laws are not deterministic at the levels of organization where human decision-making takes place (i.e. minds and communities). But in the end hard determinism is more of a personal inclination than a position I’d argue others should adopt. It’s what feels right when I consider my experiences and knowledge about myself and the world––a comforting thought that excuses the sins of the world by calling them destiny.

This book has given me the gift of realizing that, since the determinism debate is ultimately intractable, I can treat my penchant for determinism as precisely what it is: a philosophical and metaphorical position, not a scientific fact. I still consider scientific materialism to be factual, but must step back from any convictions about whether materialism necessarily entails determinism, because we just don’t know.

If we dispense with concerns about the implications of determinism, is there still a rich discussion to be had about free will and moral responsibility? Absolutely. The field of moral psychology might be far away from ending humanity’s longstanding discussions about how to understand these terms, but there are nevertheless some excellent starting points to examine. All of these focus on the intersection between the physical reality of the brain and the feeling of being a conscious mind. Even if we accept the proposition that mind is brain (which I do), that doesn’t mean the world as we experience it isn’t profoundly different from scientific accounts of how the world actually works. It’s the timeless and cantankerous qualia problem. Even as we rush to design better forms of brain imaging and behavioral analysis, we should assume for now that we won’t be overcoming Gödel’s incompleteness theorems anytime soon (i.e. no system can have complete knowledge of itself). Since this implies that there will always be limitations to humanity’s self-knowledge, we are forced to deal with the world both as we assess it through empirical analysis and as we experience it through the window of mind. These two pictures mirror each other very closely in some circumstances, but can likely never be rendered identical.

Several authors in Moral Psychology have good ideas about how we ought to deal with this situation moving forward. One important finding is that our experience of freedom is subject to a kind of happy medium effect. Ellen E. Furlong and Laurie R. Santos highlight the classic association between the feeling of freedom and positive life outcomes (378). We also know that trivial choices expend the same amount of neural energy as important ones, causing exhaustion in people whose jobs and/or personal lives require them to constantly make inconsequential judgements. Combined with current research suggesting that people tend to slip into choice paralysis when presented with a surfeit of options, we can surmise that building a better society will necessarily entail helping individuals and groups reach certain levels of self-actualization that allow at least the illusion of autonomy without offering too much choice.

As technology and economics propel us toward a world where offering people an ever-expanding panoply of choices is treated as an unquestioned good, these insights offer evidence for why and how we should exercise restraint, insisting that more is not always better. This includes ensuring that professional life does not have to be all-consuming to provide a decent standard of living (people in this situation rarely feel a strong sense of autonomy). We should gauge our success by inquiring at the level of human experience as reported through language, labor, and social expression, not by taking measurements of brain activity or modeling ourselves after ideological visions of societies that are “truly” free. If we do so, we are likely to produce communities where people feel a strong sense of self-determination because they have the time and energy to express it. It’s my suspicion that such communities will also have high standards for civil and moral responsibility because assuming those burdens requires effort from citizens who view themselves and their communities as improvable entities.

Another key aspect of this process involves doing whatever is necessary to help people become more comfortable with the ambiguities of nature without having to turn to religion or myth. As Hanah A. Chapman and William A. Cunningham suggest, the oversimplification of existence is one of the greatest threats to honest inquiry, and thus to the sense of freedom that comes with it: “The need to arrive at a single conclusion in the face of ambiguous and conflicting evidence may lead us to discount information that disagrees with our ultimate decision, and also to feel unduly confident in our choices” (398). It takes a huge amount of time and resources to help an average person get beyond the tendency to oversimplify reality, and even the best thinkers don’t escape it entirely. But nudging people in this direction is arguably the most important function of education in a secular, democratic society. Unfortunately, this reasoning is directly contrary to the prevailing trends in modern education, at least in America, where obsessions with assessment and quantitative analysis have largely stamped out the task of warming students up to the plurality of correct answers that comprise a coherent worldview. The contents of this book lend much weight to the arguments of those fighting to correct these missteps.

Michael S. Gazzaniga, perhaps the author in this volume with whom I agree the most, understands the project of embracing ambiguity as a matter of adopting a layered worldview in which truths are contingent on the level of physical organization at which they are relevant. Exposing the difficulty of analyzing complex natural systems, he writes:

Are we not forced to consider there are different levels of organization, and those different levels do have their own laws that can only be understood at the level being examined? Or, is it even more complicated: Do the levels necessarily interact, giving rise to yet another abstraction? (64)

This outlook allows us to accept that, even if every event in the universe could be reduced down to and explained by physics, that information would likely have no meaning from a human point of view. Our bodies and communities are structured by our ability to think abstractly, which requires us to categorize our observations into multiple levels of organization (layers of reality), some of which may seem to contradict (or actually contradict) one another. Gazzaniga gestures at the even more complicated possibility that those levels might influence each other, giving rise to emergent properties that perhaps we can observe and understand, but perhaps not. This may seem needlessly abstruse, but I think a world in which whole populations are educated to embrace multiple levels of natural truth and use them to contextualize their experiences is a much improved one.

Gazzaniga demonstrates the expedience of his layered approach by pointing out a hugely important insight about the nature of moral responsibility, namely that it only arises in the context of communities, not individual brains:

Brains are automatic machines following hierarchical decision pathways, and analyzing single brains in isolation cannot illuminate the capacity to be responsible. Again, responsibility is a dimension of life that comes from social exchange, and social exchange requires more than one brain. When more than one brain interacts, a new set of rules comes into play, and new properties––such as personal responsibility––begin to emerge. The properties of responsibility are found in the space between brains, in the interactions between people. (73)

Moral responsibility takes place within reality’s social layer, which humans inescapably experience as an arena where choices and judgments are constantly being made by agents with varying levels of influence and freedom. People intuitively understand that this arena is paramount when trying to structure and get along in human societies. It makes no difference if responsibility arises from the actions of radically free agents or automatons, because that is not the level of abstraction we use to analyze behavior and hold people accountable. I should stress that, for a hard determinist like myself, this is not a form of compatibilism or relativism, but rather acceptance of a seemingly contradictory pair of truths. I do not seek to rectify or explain away the inherent conflict between my experience of freedom and responsibility and my conviction that my thoughts and actions are predetermined. Doing so would feel disingenuous to me––a form of bad faith––so I embrace the contradiction and live with it.

Regardless of what we conclude about the existence of free will and moral responsibility, there is good evidence that ethical conflict and progress are both inescapable. Patricia S. Churchland and Christopher L. Suhler show how the intricate dance between nonconscious and conscious processes, opaque as it may sometimes prove, is the foundation of personal and social progress:

Your conscious life is what it is because of the way it meshes with the products of your nonconscious brain. Your habits of action and habits of thought are important for precisely the reason that Aristotle understood so well. Cultivate them carefully, make them work to your advantage, for they are a big part of what makes you you. (325, emphasis theirs)

If, as Sartre proclaimed and neuroscience suggests, the structure of human experience condemns us to choose (freely or otherwise), then it would seem we are equally condemned to cultivate. Regardless of the root source of these activities, we develop habits, choose some things over others, and feel at least partially responsible for the outcomes of our choices (socio- and psychopaths excepted). Learning, development, and progress are therefore baked into our wiring. We needn’t give up on the projects of self-betterment and intellectual growth because it would appear we can’t escape them.

Chapman and Cunningham suggest it is critical for individuals to assume moral responsibility within their social environments in order to foster authentic interaction and fruitful coexistence with others:

If we are merely slaves to our groupish tendencies and our inbuilt decision-making machinery, then what of free will, moral responsibility, and intellectual growth? But take heart, fellow travelers: Ironically, the very social processes that constrain the free will of individuals may also serve to aid the broader mission of intellectual and ethical progress…Each of us has a personal responsibility to actively listen to people who have a different view, both as academics and as citizens of the world. In this way, individual responsibility and intergroup processes may work synergistically, allowing social and intellectual progress to be made, scientific revolutions to occur, and people to change their minds from time to time. (400-1)

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Moral Psychology series is a shining example of this ideal made real.

Rating: 10/10