Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cognitive Projectivism and Religious Morality

In making sense of the world around us, the mind is not simply a passive gatherer of sensual data. In construing a given object or event, the mind has a vast array of tools to give sense and meaning to what it experiences. In Kantian philosophy, such inherent abilities are known as synthetic a priori judgements: that is, judgements that one can make about the world (consciously or otherwise) before any direct experience. The example Kant invokes is that of a man, blind from birth, who has just been given an operation to see. For those who have a longer familiarity with the sense of sight, our minds are able to process the sensory data delivered by the eyes and to recognise important concepts like depth, extension and so on that permit us to distinguish one discrete object from another. For the blind man in Kant's example, however, the mind simply has not learnt to process the data it receives, and the world is presented as an indistinguishable mess of light and colour. For Kant's blind man - and others who have undergone similar operations - it became more comfortable for them to close their eyes and to navigate their way around the world in darkness again, rather than having to undergo the mental strain of learning how to see.

Kant suggested that we have two primary synthetic a priori tools at our cognitive disposal: the capacity to understand space and the capacity to understand time, and that these capacities exist independently from - and prior to - sensual experience. In developing this theory of cognitivism, Kant was responding to the challenge laid down by David Hume, whose position was rather more skeptical. For Hume, the mind was a rather promiscuous imposer of order onto the world - for example, its inherent tendency towards belief in causality and the properties of objects (colour, shape etc.) - that did not actually exist in the world itself.  To quote from his Treatise on Human Nature:

Tis a common observation, that the mind has a great propensity to spread itself on external objects, and to conjoin with them any internal impressions, which they occasion, and which always make their appearance at the same time that these objects discover themselves to the senses.

 This philosophy itself was a reaction to the Cartesian epistemology which posed the question about how we know what we know. For Descartes, there was an ontological rift separating the world in itself from our perception of it: if our senses can - on occasion - be deceived, how can we be certain that they are not always deceived? How do we know that we are not living in a dream, or that we are not being perpetually mislead by some malevolent power? Hume's response to this was rather skeptical, suggesting in essence that this ontological rift could not be bridged, and that our sense of the world is entirely shaped by the mind's inexorable propensity to impose itself on the world without. We can, for this reason, never know things as they actually are, because it is simply impossible to stop the mind from projecting its own expectations onto the sensory data we gather. Kant's response to Hume was an attempt to rescue the veracity of our understanding of the world by positing that these a priori judgements we project are actually present in the world as well.

It is far beyond my capacity to comment on these philosophical ideas in much greater depth - much less to propose a compelling solution to them - but I do want to use them as a springboard to explore mental phenomena that are currently being explored by science. They concern the way we make moral judgements - rather than strictly epistemological ones - but the philosophy underpinning them is largely the same. With regards to morality, there is the question of what kind of ontological judgements are being made when we deem some action to be "immoral". Are we saying something about the event itself? Are we correct in thinking that there are some actions that are - in and of themselves - immoral? How exactly does the mind process judgements concerning morality, and what connection - if any - does this process have to the philosophies I briefly outlined above?

The first and most important question at this stage is what role reason plays in making moral judgements. If moral judgements are generally rational in construction, for instance, then it is clear that we are not making any ontological claims about a given action when we deem it "immoral". The action happens, we think it over (however briefly) and then we arrive at an appropriate reaction. The action itself isn't considered moral or immoral, rather we simply making a post hoc evaluation that needn't have been directly derived from our immediate, pre-rational experience of the event. Conversely, if moral actions are not predominantly informed by reason, then we must look for other causes for our sense of disapprobation - emotional causes, for instance - that might be traced more directly to our immediate, ad hoc experience of the event. That is, does the mind engage in moral projectivism - does it impose our moral reaction onto the events themselves, as though they were an inherent property of the events to begin with - or does it operate in a more rational, detached, post hoc manner?

Let me use a concrete example to illustrate what I mean. When I was younger - twenty or so - I witnessed two men kissing in a club for the first time. I'm not sure if I had a particularly sheltered upbringing, or whether the continuing disapproval of open homosexuality in our culture meant that there just simply aren't many opportunities to witness such an event, but yes - I was about twenty when I first saw two men kissing. My first reaction, I must admit, was an uncomfortable one, if not a feeling of outright repulsion. I don't know what the source of this reaction was - I certainly didn't have a problem with homosexuality at the time, nor was I ever taught to have such a reaction, nor do I believe that my reaction was somehow "natural" or "innate" - but it was there all the same. Immediately after this gut reaction, though, I stopped and thought: "Is it them with the problem, or me?" I recognised what they were doing was perfectly natural, and that I wouldn't have thought twice about it had it been a man and a woman in the same position. They were harming no-one - least of all me - and I realised that it was clearly incumbent upon me to be accepting of their presence, rather than incumbent upon them to pre-empt my sense of mild repulsion by taking themselves somewhere else.

So what we have here then is an initial reaction to the situation that was completely pre-rational and projective ("that is repulsive...") and then a rational reconsideration of the problem ("I felt repulsed by it, but I shouldn't have...") of the varieties I explained above. The grammar here is important. My initial reaction - had I vocalised it at the time - would have been expressed using an active tense, denoting - perhaps unconsciously - that the "repulsion" I felt was inherent to the event itself ("It is repulsive..."), rather than a mere product of my own thought process. My later reaction would be better expressed using a passive construction ("I felt repulsed by it") to properly explicate the distance between the event itself and my reaction to it. Instances of outright moral projectionism can thus be partly identified by the use of an active tense, which - deliberately or not - place the cause of our repulsion in the very act itself, whereas the passive tense conveys a less immediate causal relationship between the action and my (subsequent) reaction.

But wait: did I just conflate the feeling of repulsion with morality? Is it really correct to conflate a base emotional reaction with something so important and so complex as morality? Not always, of course, but I think there is a much stronger relationship between feelings of disgust and moral judgements than we would care to admit. To quote Richard Joyce1:

In one study (Wheatley and Haidt 2005), highly hypnotizable participants were given a post-hypnotic suggestion to feel a pang of disgust whenever they read an arbitrary word (“often” or “take”). They were then asked to read a variety of fictional vignettes—some involving moral transgressions and others involving no transgression at all, some using the target word and others not using it. In cases where disgust was prompted, the subjects’ moral condemnation was heightened. Even in the non-transgression story, subjects who felt disgust were often inclined to follow up with a negative moral appraisal. This is striking when one considers that there was nothing in the story remotely to support such a judgment:

Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He [tries to take] 〈often picks〉 topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.

Disgusted subjects nevertheless reported that “it just seems like he’s up to something,” or “he’s a “popularity-seeking snob,” or “it just seems so weird and disgusting,” or “I don’t know [why it’s wrong], it just is.” This is evidence that a great deal of the time it is our emotions that are driving our moral judgments, but it certainly doesn’t seem this way “from the inside.”

We can see here how the feeling of disgust, no matter how preposterous its origin, can lead individuals to make projective moral judgements about the nature of the person in question. Note that even the later comments on the "reason" for their disgust are constructed in the active tense, showing quite clearly that the subjects of this study are not simply explicating their subjective reactions to the story but rather making deeper ontological statements about Dan's moral constitution ("he is... a snob", "“I don’t know [why it’s wrong], it just is”). A second facet of this study is that moral reasoning appears to be guided by the initial emotional response to an unnerving degree. The moral reasoning exhibited by the subjects is little more than a post hoc rationalisation: no reconsideration of the appropriateness of the reaction appears to be taking place. This subservience of moral reasoning to instinctive gut-reactions has been well explored in the current psychological literature. Johnathon Haidt, for example, notes, in response to a study he conducted:

People made moral judgments quickly and emotionally. Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made...2

And Howard Margolis notes:

...human beings produce rationales they believe account for their [moral] judgments. But the rationales (on this argument) are only ex post rationalizations.3
So there is then a clear body of evidence to suggest that moral judgements are frequently (if not necessarily always) formed instinctively in deference to one's initial emotional reaction, and that "moral reasoning" (such that it is) is just some piece of post hoc fluff invoked to rationalise the judgement to oneself and others. This particular explanation also implies a sense of moral projectivism, because - to quote Joyce again - moral judgements "would serve this purpose ["encouraging successful social behavior"] only if they seem like they are depicting a realm of objective moral facts"4. All this is not to say that it is not possible to arrive at moral positions thinkingly, or that our emotional responses cannot be over-ruled by the judicious use of reason (as in my own example above) but rather that we must be conscious of the kind of processes that lead us to make moral judgements under normal conditions. That is, the initial moral judgement must be followed by the thought "Why do I feel that way?", or - better yet - "Should I feel that way"? I'll expand on this shortly. For now, though, I want to apply this reasoning to religious conceptions of morality and explore what we might be able to learn about how the religious mind processes moral judgements.

Until now, I have been talking as though all moral judgements are one and the same in nature, but in truth they can be divided into at least two groups. The first concerns what we might call deontic moral judgements. These are the kind of moral judgements that concern absolute standards of right and wrong, and the belief that certain actions are inherently right or wrong independently of social expectations. These are the kind of moral judgements I've mostly had in mind until this point. The second category concerns what we might call conventional moral judgements and these moral judgements that are entirely contingent upon social context: i.e. the adherence to - or transgression of - social conventions. There is strong evidence that the human brain processes these claims in different ways, and that it is capable of doing so prior to cultural inculcation: children as young as three are able to distinguish between these two categories, for instance, quite independently from any specific instruction5. They can recognise that a pronouncement like "boys shouldn't wear dresses" is culturally contingent in a way that a pronouncement like "you shouldn't hit people" is not. Both kinds of moral judgements are present in the religious morality to which we now turn, the important question is how they might be teased apart in practice.

I'll focus here specifically on Biblical morality - and the Christian theology it has inspired - simply because this happens to be the tradition I'm most familiar with. In the Old Testament books of law, moral instructions are explicitly directed to the "Israelites" and - to my knowledge - it is never stated within the text that these instructions are expected to have a universal application. When dealing with the "abhorrent practices" of foreign nations, for example, the prohibitions seem to be specifically directed to the Israelites (those "among you") rather than as representing a generalised moral disapprobation (e.g. Dt. 18). These practices are depicted as being wrong because they are "abhorrent to the Lord" rather than because they are inherently wrong in and of themselves. The Israelites who penned this text - and others - may have believed in the universality of these laws, but it doesn't carry through in the text. Paul apparently had a similar interpretation, arguing that the Law (torah) "speaks [only?] to those who are [already?] under the law" (Rom. 3:19) and that "all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law" (Rom. 2:12). This implies that following the Jewish law was not a universal requirement and that it should not - therefore - be imposed on the Gentiles of his day. The second passage demonstrates a clear distinction between sin (deontic morality) and the transgression of the Law (conventional morality).

Such distinctions are - as I have said - so comprehensible that even children are able to grasp them, even when they are framed in a specifically religious context. To again quote Joyce:

Larry Nucci... found that among Mennonite and Amish children and adolescents God’s authority does not determine moral wrongness. When asked whether it would be OK to work on a Sunday if God said so, 100 percent said “Yes”; when asked whether it would be OK to steal if God said so, over 80 percent said “No.” Such findings contribute to a compelling body of evidence that moral prescriptions and values are experienced as “objective” in the sense that they don’t seem to depend on us, or on any authoritative figure.

Both injunctions (against working on the Sabbath and against stealing) are present and active in the religious traditions into which the children were born and both can be found in the Bible, which at no point indicates explicitly that one should be given preference over the other7. In fact, there are far more Biblical passages explicating the sanctity of the Sabbath than there are explicating the wrongness of theft. Yet, despite this, the children are clearly capable of recognising that the first injunction is contingent in a way that the second is not - but contingent on what exactly?

As the above passage hints at, the concept of "authority" is a vital component of conventional morality, particularly in its religious guise. I touched on this concept briefly in this post, but it deserves a fuller treatment here. The Bible - as I explained above - does contain the recognition that there is a distinction to be made between conventional morality (limited in scope) and deontic morality (universal in scope). So far as the former is concerned, the injunctions are conditional and frequently invoked in the context of divine judgement: that is, these injunctions are not valid in a deontic sense, but rather only in the context of a particular religious system. This immediately raises the question of the nature of divine authority: we must ask "whether the holy... is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods"8. In other words, can God (in Christian theology) make something "moral" purely by an act of divine fiat, or is there some more absolute standard of morality that God merely is merely sanctioning when he pronounces it to be good?

In my opinion, the question is a much neglected one in Christian theology, but it touches at the heart of this topic. As I mentioned above, children (and presumably a great many adults) are able to make the distinction with relative ease: an injunction like "rest on the Sabbath" is entirely contingent on God's will, and it carries no weight beyond this point. The injunction might just as easily have been "rest every 6th day" or "rest every 8th day", and such injunctions would have been followed just as assiduously. However, we also recognise that the commandment "thou shalt not steal" is of a different moral category: would stealing be moral if God said so?

For the children in the above study, the answer is no: stealing is wrong quite independently from divine pronouncements. But how would a Christian theologian approach the problem? For Robert Adams - and most other theologians I've seen address the problem - it can be explained away by invoking the idea that God would never make such a pronouncement because he is omnibenevolent and that such a pronouncement would therefore go against his very nature. This argument, however, contains a hidden assumption about what it means to be "benevolent" which is itself a moral problem of the very kind we are supposed to be addressing. In practice, I think, the problem is insoluble: one must simply take it on faith that God is "good", that God's moral injunctions are "good" and that therefore how to be "good" can be inferred from these injunctions. This may be well and good in the disconnected world of academic theology, but what does such a perspective lead to so far as quotidian theology is concerned?  What does a fundamentalist Christian believe with regard to the origin of morality?

Formally, the fundamentalist will not even consider the question to be worth asking: our morality is derived from God, and the only way to be moral is to follow his injunctions. It makes no sense to ask in what sense one might be said to precede the other. In practice, however, the fundamentalist does not get his laws from the Bible. The majority of Biblical injunctions are ignored with impunity, and usually on the flimsiest of pretexts. But if not the Bible, then where? What else could be the origin of the contorted, recklessly simplified moral compass of modern Christian fundamentalism? The answer, it may be no surprise, is the same as it is for the rest of us: emotions, and other pre-conscious impulses.

 Consider, for example, the fundamentalist pre-occupation with homosexuality. It is true that the Bible is rather unequivocal in its denunciation of the practice, but no more unequivocal than in its denunciation of other practices. The extremely small percentage of text in the Bible devoted to homosexuality is completely dwarfed by other injunctions that are completely ignored: for instance, the laws concerning sacrifice and priestly behaviour, or the laws which counsel concern for the poor. Yet homosexuality remains intractably central to the moral concerns of many fundamentalist Christians, and I believe that the reason pertains to the reaction I had when I first saw two men kissing: it is born entirely of an otherwise unjustifiable sense of disgust. The subsequent appeals to Biblical doctrine are simply the post hoc rationalisations we addressed earlier.

Note, though, that there are three main obstacles to the fundamentalist undergoing the same kind of self-realising epiphany I experienced. The first is the belief in the authority of the Biblical text (however poorly interpreted) and of church doctrine. They are taught, in this regard, to ignore the possibility of distinguishing conventional morality from deontic morality: morality is God's morality, and God's morality permits no degrees of nuance. In this respect - remarkably - they have succeeded in making themselves ignorant of something that a three year-old child can recognise effortlessly. Such a mindlessly inflexible conception of morality cannot make one arrive at abhorrent positions in and of itself, but it can make one feel entirely justified in holding such a position. This particular theological hermeneutic simply renders moral growth impossible, because all these pesky concerns that might otherwise occur to the believer are simply drowned by this blind appeal to the authority of God. If you adhere to such a theology, literally anything - no matter how obviously immoral it may seem to the rest of us - can justified.

The second major obstacle concerns the role of moral judgements as mental "conversation stoppers", to borrow a term used by the philosopher Dan Dennett. There is some evidence to suggest that the primary role of moral judgements (vis a vis other judgements) is to act as a kind of terminus to rational consideration: the point beyond which no more deliberation is considered necessary. This may have emerged in human cognition as a way to prevent deliberations like "Should I murder my brother?" or "Should I renege on my agreement with my neighbour?" that would prove to be socially harmful. They clearly demarcate, in our own minds, the boundaries of our potential choices: even the thought of committing such actions can fill us with the kind of moral disgust I discussed earlier, and the mind simply drops the matter right then, prior to the commencement of any serious deliberation. The value of such a cognitive block in every day life is obvious: would you trust or form any kind of relationship with a man who was seriously deliberating, in a cold and calculated way, whether or not he should murder his brother?

 The trouble with morality as a "conversation stopper", however, emerges when the moral sense becomes indiscriminate or promiscuous - that is, when it starts to treat even prosaic choices within a moralistic framework. This is becoming particularly rife in US politics, where important policies such as health care or tax reform - issues that deserve genuine debate and rational analysis - are treated as inviolable moral norms. When a Republican hears the phrase "Universal Healthcare" she has been trained - in an almost Pavlovian way - to feel moral disgust at such a prospect, and the issue is immediately withdrawn from her mental conversation before any rational consideration is permitted to take place. Among religious fundamentalists, similar intransigence with regards to issues like abortion or stem-cell research are a consequence of the same process: that is, promiscuous moralising. Such positions are often euphemistically described as making one "principled" (and this is certainly how such moralisers would see it) but in fact it's little more than a rigidity of mind, borne of the propensity to treat every issue under consideration moralistically. Once one has consigned oneself to such a state of knee-jerk moralism, one has literally forfeited the capacity to think rationally: the mind simply pulls the issue in question off the table before any deliberative thought is allowed to take place.

 The third obstacle which prevents the fundamentalist from recognising the poverty of their moral outlook concerns the notion of "sin" inherent to it. Notice from the beginning what such a concept like "sin" entails: it is an object, something of the world, and something which inheres to objects, events and people. Immorality conceived as sin is not simply an ephemeral judgement, constructed in the mind of an individual; it is rather something with a real ontological presence. Note, also, how similar this is to the moral projectivism we discussed earlier: we are attributing our moral objection (or, better, our "disgust") to the object, event or person in and of themselves, as though this "sin" were a categorical property no different to colour or shape. In Christian theology, this concept of "sin" reaches its most absurd apotheosis under the guise of "original sin": we are ontologically burdened with this sin prior to - or irrespective of - any particular action we might undertake. If one believes in such a conception of morality, where is the spur to become more discerning or reasonable in one's judgements going to come from?

 And that is my final point. We cannot control our intuitions, nor can we exercise very much control over the form they take. If our body compels us to be "disgusted" at something, there is very little we can do to instruct it otherwise. What we can do, however, is control how we deal with such intuitions. When we get the sense that something is morally wrong, we must seek to understand why and to ask in what sense such intuitions might be justified. We must not assume that the "disgust" we feel is an inherent property of the object, event or person under our judgement and must rather recognise that it is merely a cognitive reaction to some given stimulus. There are, indeed, some things that we have every right to feel morally disgusted about, but such an emotion should not be nourished with every little slight or inconvenience that befall us, but should rather be preserved for only the most egregious assaults on social well-being that we encounter. It is here, with its projective, hysterical outrage on the most innocuous of pretexts (for instance, the presence of homosexuality) that religious fundamentalism exposes itself for the impoverished moral system that it is.


1) - The Evolution of Morality,  p. 130.

2) - The Righteous Mind, Chapter 2.

3) - Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition, p. 21.

4) - The Evolution of Morality,  p. 131.

5) - Ibid., p. 136.

6) - Ibid., p. 129-130

7) - The idea that the Ten Commandments exist in a special class over and above the other laws is largely a later invention that cannot be inferred from the Biblical text itself. The Bible never identifies these as being the "Ten Commandments" as such, and in fact the only place it uses this phrase is with reference to a completely separate set of commandments in Exodus 34. The commandments do not occupy a privileged place in Rabbinic Judaism either, which avers there are 613 commandments, none of which occupy an inherently pre-eminent place with respect to the rest. Rabbinic Judaism also asserts, to continue the theme of this post, that these commandments are conventional in the sense that they apply to Jews only, with "universal laws" - applicable to all of humanity - to be found in the seven Noahide Laws.

8) - Plato, quoting Socrates, Euthyphro 10a.

No comments:

Post a Comment