Democracy

Ignorance, Misinformation, Irrationality

Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Against Democracy is titled “Ignorant, Irrational, Misinformed Nationalists”. In that chapter, among other things, I review the empirical work on voter knowledge and behavior and establish that most voters are, as you might have guessed, ignorant, irrational, misinformed, and nationalistic.

But a friend’s friend on Facebook yesterday (FWIW, a person who hasn’t read the manuscript) claimed that irrationality and misinformation are really just forms of ignorance. That doesn’t seem right. So, I’ll briefly explain the differences among the three in this post.

Ignorance is a feature of what a person knows. A person who is merely ignorant about X lacks information about X. A person who is truly and completely ignorant about X would have no beliefs at all about X.

Misinformation is also a feature of what a person knows. A person who is misinformed about X has false or mistaken beliefs about X.

Cognitive irrationality is a feature of how a person forms beliefs. A cognitively irrational person forms beliefs the wrong way, using unreliable and/or biased thought processes. Believing P because the evidence overwhelming supports P is rational. Believing P on the basis of wishful thinking is not.

In principle, an irrational person could only have true beliefs. To illustrate, suppose Bob stupidly believes that he has magic dice that can give him answers to his questions. He wonders, “How many million miles is the Earth from the sun, approximately?” He rolls two ten-sided dice. Coincidentally, they say “93”. Bob now believes the Earth is about 93 million miles from the sun. Bob is not ignorant or misinformed, but he holds this true belief irrationally.

UPDATE:

Why does this matter? Is it merely a semantic issue?

The following three phenomena are different:

1. Simply lacking information.
2. Having false beliefs.
3. Coming to form beliefs using unreliable and unscientific thought processes.

These three things are not the same thing, though of course we can come up with an umbrella term that includes all of them. For some of us who work on voter behavior, we have reason to distinguish the three not merely because as a matter of conceptual clarity they are different, but also because these three phenomena lead to different predictions about what people will do and what macro-level effects will result.

For instance, if 99% voters were perfectly ignorant, while the other 1% were well-informed, then democratic voting would lead to good results. But if 50% are misinformed rather than ignorant, it won’t.

Or, if most voters were ignorant and misinformed, but not at all irrational, then having voters deliberate together with better informed voters might cause them to all become better informed. But if voters are irrational, then having them deliberate could cause them to become less informed. 

  • Lacunaria

    Is it assumed that both ignorance and irrationality result in uniform distributions?

    Perhaps the only thing that distinguishes acting upon ignorance from acting irrationally is knowing that you are ignorant.

    It also seems like Bob could be seen as simply being misinformed about the magic dice since he acted rationally based upon the false belief that it provides true answers to his questions.

    So, irrationality would seem to be the absence of any explanation, since once you apply a rational framework, error can be attributed to false beliefs.

  • Ben Kennedy

    “Coming to form beliefs using unreliable and unscientific thought processes.”

    Hmm, like believing in the existence of inalienable rights, even though we are fully aware that out minds were created by evolutionary process designed to facilitate survival? Moral realism is a perfect example of cognitive irrationality

    • Jason Brennan

      Is that supposed to be a swipe at me? Cause it missed.

      • Ben Kennedy

        No, not you specifically – just a swipe at moral realism in general. I don’t know where you stand on that issue. I agree with the content of your post

      • Libertymike

        My, my, somebody’s especially sensitive. Perhaps misinformed as well – if we are to believe Ben.

    • Lacunaria

      So, belief in inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property facilitates survival. Where is the conflict?

      • Ben Kennedy

        Saying “do not steal, because a society with theft is unpleasant and inefficient” is a statement that is true and justified

        Saying “do not steal because there is an unalienable right to property” is (according the error theorist) false and unjustified

        Life, liberty, and property are great things, I’m just arguing that beliefs like those should be held rationally. Arguments that start with “unalienable rights” really don’t hold water

        • Lacunaria

          The latter saying is not false, it’s just tautological. And the former must then justify why it is wrong to do unpleasant or inefficient things, because that, too, might end with tautologies such as “do not do unpleasant things because they are unpleasant”.

          The essential point is that if belief in unalienable rights facilitates survival, then it is a rational belief to hold if we want to survive.

          As far as I can tell, you are asserting one or more of these arguments, perhaps you can elaborate on which ones:

          (1) despite evolutionary processes, the belief that theft is merely unpleasant and inefficient equivalently facilitates survival as the belief that property is an unalienable right.

          (2) “unpleasant and inefficient” does not bolster a persistent right to property (unalienable rights)

          (3) functionally effective generalizations from evolutionary trial and error is not a rational method for drawing conclusions.

          • Ben Kennedy

            There are plenty of people out there who don’t think “do not steal because there is an unalienable right to property” is a mere tautology. That is where the falseness comes from, the belief external universe supplied “rights”

            If you view it as a tautology, then you are coming down on some form of non-cognitivism. This is fine, but I do think that when people talk about rights, they are actually generally talking about universe-supplied Natural Rights. When they say “I have a right to…” they think they have some universe-supplied justified reason for whatever. Maybe not “endowed by our Creator” anymore, but endowed somehow nevertheless. *This* is what I am saying is not justified.

            “The essential point is that if belief in unalienable rights facilitates survival, then it is a rational belief to hold if we want to survive.”

            Suppose I believed for no particular reason that a hidden masked man was always ready to pounce and kidnap me. This, by itself, would be irrational, false, and unjustified. But, let us stipulate that because I have this false belief, I was more vigilant about my surroundings, and therefore avoided accidents which facilitates my survival. Would I therefore conclude that my irrational belief is rational because it has a positive outcome?

            The answer is, no – the fact that it has a positive benefit is a coincidence – like rolling dice to guess the distance from the Earth to the Sun. My belief that my irrational belief is in fact rational is itself unjustified.

            One could argue that this isn’t fair – if we evolved the ability for something to feel inalienable, then it must be rational to rely upon that or else we would not have evolved it. I think this is true, insofar as we want a lifestyle that allows us to survive in primitive stone age conditions. But given that we don’t want to live in the stone age, we have no real idea at all whether or not our “inalienable” feeling rights are useful. For all we know, maybe they will lead to the collapse of the species. That is why simply relying on inalienable-ness is also unjustified.

            We should, as a species, just give up on our program of “unalienable rights”. We can find what is useful in the the rights we feel (like noting that vigilance about our surroundings is helpful), strip out the nonsense, and move forward.

          • Ron H.

            Suppose I believed for no particular reason that a hidden masked man was
            always ready to pounce and kidnap me. This, by itself, would be
            irrational, false, and unjustified.

            While it seems highly unlikely, how can you be so sure this isn’t actually the case? If this is a useful adaptation for survival, why must it be true to be rational and justified?

            Such a belief that something was always ready to pounce served out distant ancestors very well.

          • Ben Kennedy

            “While it seems highly unlikely, how can you be so sure this isn’t actually the case?”

            We think in terms of probabilities – acting like a low probability is likely is a cognitive distortion (that explains why lotteries are popular)

            “If this is a useful adaptation for survival, why must it be true to be rational and justified?”

            I’m just sticking with the original knowledge framework of the post. For the sake of argument, we can use the common-sense correspondence theory of truth that a belief is true if it corresponds to reality, and false if otherwise. So “there is a man following me” is a false belief.

            A belief is justified if I have good distortion-free reasons to think it is true based on our understanding of reality. I would say “A man is not following me” is justified because I am aware of my surroundings, I have no enemies, etc.

            By this framework it is logically impossible to have justified false beliefs. False beliefs by definition do not correspond with reality, so there is no rational thought process that justify them as true.

            The larger point is that if I say “murder is wrong” (setting aside the ontological problems of whether or not “wrongness” is even a thing), is this belief justified? I say not. I may “feel” it is wrong, but I know that my beliefs are results of evolution and cognitive processes designed to fend of large predators and get along with other people. Evolution just as well could have made us like lions, where a male can kill the head of another household and take over his harem. That is why evolution is an attack on the justification of moral truth (though you need to show additional work to show that moral sense isn’t “truth tracking” in the same way that something like vision is)

          • Lacunaria

            If you view it as a tautology, then you are coming down on some form of non-cognitivism.

            I just meant that the right to property already means that you should not steal, by definition.

            In my view, moral statements can be true or false based upon a convergent predictive deontological framework which incorporates common outcomes including subjective valuations. The convergence makes it a fairly objective feature of the universe that we can appeal to.

            That is where the falseness comes from, the belief external universe supplied “rights”

            If better outcomes naturally result from the preservation of certain rights, then why shouldn’t those rights be considered to be supplied by the universe and therefore morally supercede oppressive laws by men? i.e. unalienable rights.

            We may even agree that unpleasantness is an empirical origin of unalienable rights, but that doesn’t detract from their existence, it just further grounds them in reality.

            Suppose I believed for no particular reason that a hidden masked man was always ready to pounce and kidnap me. This, by itself, would be irrational, false, and unjustified.

            We are stipulating that it is false (and in that sense “unjustified”). “for no particular reason” asserts irrationality, but that assertion comes into question once you establish that it makes you more vigilant and helps you survive. Once the belief is reinforced by positive outcomes, it thereby become a rational reason for the belief (and to that end it is “justified”).

            The answer is, no – the fact that it has a positive benefit is a coincidence – like rolling dice to guess the distance from the Earth to the Sun. My belief that my irrational belief is in fact rational is itself unjustified.

            No. Hypothetically, a belief may be false and it may still be rational to believe it if it consistently helps accomplish your goals. We often aim for things which may not actually be possible, but believing that they are helps us get closer to them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t supplant it with a provenly more useful belief, which is why the truth generally wins out.

            In other words, if rolling that dice actually did truthfully answer your questions in practice, then it would be rational to believe that the dice would continue to do so, even if it was actually some extremely improbable long run of coincidence. Once it is proven to no longer be effective, however, it would be irrational to continue believing it is true.

            But given that we don’t want to live in the stone age, we have no real idea at all whether or not our “inalienable” feeling rights are useful. For all we know, maybe they will lead to the collapse of the species. That is why simply relying on inalienable-ness is also unjustified.

            I think this is the crux. You seem to acknowledge that belief in inalienable rights was useful in a former context, but based upon no discriminating evidence that I can see, you are asserting that it is now false and no longer useful compared to a broad belief in pleasure and efficiency. This is essentially my #1, I think.

            We should, as a species, just give up on our program of “unalienable rights”. We can find what is useful in the the rights we feel (like noting that vigilance about our surroundings is helpful), strip out the nonsense, and move forward.

            “unalienable rights” is already a stripped down version without nonsense. It is useful to refer to objectively better rights than those permitted by the oppressive laws of men.

          • Ben Kennedy

            “If better outcomes naturally result from the preservation of certain rights”

            This is disputable – imagine a simple rule where every day, $1,000 dollars was transferred from the world’s single richest person to the world’s poorest person. This is definitely trampling on what some people would call inalienable rights. I would also suspect that many people would also say the world is better off for this rather minor change. Part of my beef with the concept of inalienable rights is that it is usually trivially easy to create plausible moral scenarios where violating the right “feels” correct. The concepts are useful in some areas, but not in others.

            “Hypothetically, a belief may be false and it may still be rational to believe it if it consistently helps accomplish your goals.”

            There is a word for this – superstition

            “You seem to acknowledge that belief in inalienable rights was useful in a former context, but based upon no discriminating evidence that I can see, you are asserting that it is now false and no longer useful compared to a broad belief in pleasure and efficiency.”

            I think evolution provides a persuasive case of A) why we experience morality, and B) why morality “feels” universal, binding, etc. Or, why rights feel like they inalienable (despite our willingness to constantly create exceptions). They wouldn’t be evolutionary useful if they felt optional all of the time.

            And I definitely feel like there is a large overlap between rights and preferences. It is not a coincidence that the things we things we label as “rights” are inverses of things we find unpleasant. We declare a “right to life” because we prefer life to death. We declare a “right to property” because we don’t like people taking our stuff. And conversely, gun enthusiasts are more likely to champion a “right to bear arms” than someone repulsed by guns.

            The evolutionary explanation of moral thinking plus the rather diverse conception of what “rights” even are demonstrate that inalienable rights are really just a cognitive illusion

          • Lacunaria

            I would also suspect that many people would also say the world is better off for this rather minor change.

            In isolation, sure. In fact, your example is so minor that the richest person may very well do that voluntarily, resulting in no violation of rights.

            But what becomes of that forced rule as time goes on? Why limit it to 2 people or $1,000? Who wants to be the poorest and who wants to be the richest? Once we can see the actual causality and objective outcomes long term, would people still agree with it?

            Part of my beef with the concept of inalienable rights is that it is usually trivially easy to create plausible moral scenarios where violating the right “feels” correct.

            Sure, sometimes reality is counter-intuitive, especially pertaining to liberty since we commonly fail to account for side-effects and feedbacks. That doesn’t mean that switching to what “feels” correct now will lead to better results later than a more principled framework.

            “Hypothetically, a belief may be false and it may still be rational to believe it if it consistently helps accomplish your goals.”

            There is a word for this – superstition

            No, unlike superstition, we are assuming that it is logically related to the outcomes (it “consistently helps accomplish your goals”). It just may be inaccurate, like believing that there is an actual man who endangers you because it is easier for us to focus upon concrete dangers rather than abstractions.

            And conversely, gun enthusiasts are more likely to champion a “right to bear arms” than someone repulsed by guns.

            Yes, but morality not only incorporates how we feel now, but also actual outcomes including how we will feel in the future and thus identify with others.

            As an ideal, morality represents what we would choose if we knew all of the repercussions. It’s no coincidence that people argue morality by arguing over actual outcomes. This is an objective basis even if we disagree in our predictions.

            The evolutionary explanation of moral thinking plus the rather diverse conception of what “rights” even are demonstrate that inalienable rights are really just a cognitive illusion

            Are you saying that morality itself is a cognitive illusion? If so, then how do explain its basis in real outcomes, including our present and future preferences? Do you consider our preferences to be illusions? Do you not actually have those preferences?

          • Ben Kennedy

            “In isolation, sure.”

            That’s all I need to show. Maybe society is better off with lots of “inalienable rights” violations, like by killing innocent civilians on war. Or maybe not. Or we explain away war deaths as somehow not a rights violation. The point is that the “inalienableness” of rights doesn’t necessarily lead to the best outcomes in all circumstances. And usually when it doesn’t, people use fancy footwork to rejigger their conception of which rights are inalienable to be consistent with the outcomes.

            I’m not opposed to deontological frameworks that say things like “all things being equal, minimize stealing”. If you want to express this as “yay, property rights”, that’s fine. My only point here is that you have to justify that somehow with something more than “natural rights are good” and ending the conversation. That’s about is justifiable as “God made man in His own image, and thou shalt not steal”. This is why I am a Hayekian and not a Rothbardian. Hayekian arguments to justify decentralization are wonderful. Rothbardian arguments that simply equate taxation to theft are useless.

            “It just may be inaccurate, like believing that there is an actual man who endangers you because it is easier for us to focus upon concrete dangers rather than abstractions.”

            There is a distinction between “acting as if a man were after you” and “believing a man is after you”. The first is rational and justified because you see the benefits of extra vigilance, and maybe the game helps your self-motivation. The second is probably irrational (unless you have good reason to suspect someone is in fact after you) and unjustified

            “Are you saying that morality itself is a cognitive illusion? If so, then how do explain its basis in real outcomes, including our present and future preferences? Do you consider our preferences to be illusions? Do you not actually have those preferences?”

            I’m not sure I understand your question about “basis in real outcomes”. People are definitely motivated by their perceptions of morality. And, people definitely have preferences. The only issue I am raising is whether moral beliefs are justified

          • Lacunaria

            “In isolation, sure.”

            That’s all I need to show.

            To accomplish what? All you’ve shown with that hypothetical is that some people are morally myopic and ignore side-effects.

            The point is that the “inalienableness” of rights doesn’t necessarily lead to the best outcomes in all circumstances.

            It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to lead to better outcomes than your proposed replacement with a generic pleasure principle.

            I’m not opposed to deontological frameworks that say things like “all things being equal, minimize stealing”. If you want to express this as “yay, property rights”, that’s fine.

            Almost. It’s more like “all things being equal, do not steal”.

            According to natural law, stealing is always wrong. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t situations where stealing may be the least bad option. But if you do steal, then you should make amends.

            So, this does minimize stealing, but it does so in a principled way that includes making amends, and I would argue that it is more practical and useful than other formulations.

            My only point here is that you have to justify that somehow with something more than “natural rights are good” and ending the conversation.

            And generically saying “pleasure is good” is a better end? “Life, liberty, and property rights are good” is much more meaningful to me.

            Natural law is founded upon empirical nature: if you want certain outcomes, then you should follow certain rules and principles. It’s akin to ending with a statistical assertion.

            This is why I am a Hayekian and not a Rothbardian. Hayekian arguments to justify decentralization are wonderful. Rothbardian arguments that simply equate taxation to theft are useless.

            I think Rothbard can mischaracterize justice and I might agree with you that simple equation is wrong since it does not incorporate degrees of consent. That said, what is immoral about taxes is the same as what is immoral about theft: the lack of consent in taking property, and I think Hayek would agree.

            There is a distinction between “acting as if a man were after you” and “believing a man is after you”.

            Are we assuming that they are functionally different in terms of achieving the goal, or that you have a more useful belief to substitute? Are we assuming that the person knows it to be false or just extremely unlikely?

            My point is that if you do not know of a substitutable belief with greater utility, then that utility differential is a rational reason to hold onto the original belief.

            My larger point is that, strictly speaking, truth serves utility, not the other way around.

            In any case, this is a bit of a rabbit hole since we are actually discussing natural law and unalienable rights and you seem to agree that it may or may not give the best results, so we cannot assume it is false. I would even say it is close to the truth, if not the perfection you are looking for.

            I’m not sure I understand your question about “basis in real outcomes”. People are definitely motivated by their perceptions of morality. And, people definitely have preferences. The only issue I am raising is whether moral beliefs are justified

            I was trying to ask what specifically makes it an illusion, given that the moral calculus is based upon real preferences and real outcomes (which is what makes it “natural” law).

          • Ron H.

            Ignoring the obvious theft issue – which assumes private property is a thing, and taking other people’s stuff is wrong – for your $1000 transfer to “feel right” in any sense requires a belief that the poorest person in the world will create more overall positive value with the money than the richest person – something that’s contrary to the evidence, and contrary what most people believe as shown by the way they vote with their dollars.

            We declare a “right to life” because we prefer life to death.</blockquote

            Natural rights proponents would say that we have inalienable negative rights to not be killed, to not be limited or restrained, and to not have our stuff taken, based on our autonomy, or self ownership, or our sovereignty, and that this is a part of our nature as human beings.

            We can observe that people instinctively defend themselves against violation of those rights by other, without any need to articulate any concept of rights.

            When people declare: "I have a right…" I think they are really saying they are allowed, or have permission. A positive right isn't possible because it could require that someone be placed in the service of another, which isn't permitted by any system that includes a concept of self ownership.

          • Ben Kennedy

            “for your $1000 transfer to “feel right” in any sense requires a belief that the poorest person in the world will create more overall positive value with the money than the richest person”

            I wish I could figure out how to quote properly – my Disqus interface doesn’t seem to allow it. Anyway, tweak the scenario. Suppose every a rich guy stands on is front step and burns a $100 bill in front of the eyes of onlookers to prove how rich and powerful he is (he gets immense satisfaction from this). One day, mere moments before he ignites the bill, a kid swipes the bill from his hand. He takes to the local orphanage to buy medicine that saves the lives of 15 orphans (did I mention that there is a cholera outbreak?). If the theft had not occurred, the only productive value is a small pile of $100 bill ashes.

            I suppose one could argue that by letting the thievery stand, we’d be eroding institutions that produce much greater good by protecting those rights. The Walter Block approach would probably be to throw the kid in jail until someone paid the rich guy his $100 back. Of course it feels weird to me to jail a kid just a rich jerk can burn yet another $100 bill

          • Ron H.

            I assume you have tried the “blockquote” HTML tag? Enclose the word between less-than and greater-than symbols to begin quote and /blockquote between the two symbols to end the quote.

          • Ron H.

            Of course it feels weird to me to jail a kid just a rich jerk can burn yet another $100 bill.

            Yeah, me too. Perhaps justice would be better served in some other way, but there are currently very few remedies available to the so-called justice system.

            In reality, Mr. Jerk has earned that $100 bill through a voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange with someone else, in which he provided something the buyer valued more than the $100, and that it was now his to do with as he pleases. We could also say that Mr. Jerk is very wealthy because he has provided a great deal of value to a large number of people who have willing and maybe even eagerly offered money in exchange for what he provides.

            In other words, Mr. Jerk is providing a great deal more value to others (from their viewpoint) than he is receiving. For that, we should celebrate his wealthiness and encourage him to do more of the good things he is doing.

            Additionally, from the viewpoint of others in the economy, the best thing Mr. Jerk can do with his room full of $100 bills *is* burn them. They represent IOUs -demands for goods and services – that must be provided by others. If he burns them no no one must give him anything in return, and he has effectively provided his goods or services for free.

            It requires a lot of moxie on our part to determine the best use of other peoples resources.

          • Ben Kennedy

            It sounds like you are probably aware of this, but just in case:

            http://www.slate.com/articles/life/holidays/2004/12/what_i_like_about_scrooge.html

          • Ron H.

            Thanks for the link. I hadn’t read that particular piece, but I agree with it 100%. Landsburg is a smart cookie.

            Creating great wealth and not spending it is good, creating great wealth and spending it is good – creating great wealth is good, period. It is a measure of the value a person has provided to others.

            I’ve sometimes joked that the poor should be taxed at a higher rate than those with high incomes, as they (the poor) are producing less value for others, as evidenced by their lower incomes.

    • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

      Have you read Michael Huemer’s book Ethical Intuitionism? I sure hope the answer is “yes,” and that you are prepared to refute his arguments. Perhaps you have written a journal article on this?

      • Ben Kennedy

        I’m familiar with his arguments – I think they are particularly vulnerable to evolutionary debunking.

        Imagine I have a belief that eating meat is morally wrong. According to Huemer, the principle of Phenomenal Conservatism provides justification for me belief, because my intuition tells me it seems true, so all things being equal it probably is. Yet, one day I am shown a video of myself at a hypnotist implanting that suggestion in me and telling me to forget about my visit. Regardless of the truth of my belief, can I still appeal to Phenomenal Conservatism to validate the truth of my belief? I don’t think so – I have clear and compelling evidence that by belief was made out of whole cloth by some hypnotist. He could have made be believe “it is true the moon is made of green cheese” and I would intuitively believe it is true. But I have no reason to thing that this hypnotist is only implanting true suggestions, so I need to reject such suggestions as unjustified (even if they happen to be true). My belief is convincingly defeated.

        Now tweak the scenario – suppose I have a strongly held intuitive belief, and I am show video of my *parents* being hypnotized. Being good parent, they imparted their beliefs into me, including ones gained through hypnosis. Because I am aware that my moral beliefs have been heavily shaped by their unjustified beliefs, those moral beliefs imparted by the hypnotist are now similarly unjustified.

        Now, replace the parental hypnotist with “evolution”. Evolution is not unlike the hypnotist, as it selects for beliefs not based on truth value, but on ability to impart fitness. They *might* be true, of course. However, if it were evolutionary advantageous for us to believe that moon is made of green cheese, we’d be walking around trying the shift the epistemic burden of proving the moon is not made of green cheese on to the cheese-skeptics.

        I’ll leave the journal articles to Richard Joyce:

        “The evolutionary hypothesis explains away those knee-jerk intuitions that stand against it, for it provides a plausible and potentially confirmable hypothesis about where those intuitions come from and why they should seem so strong and compelling to those creatures for whom they are a design feature. Any methodology that allows one simply to cite the strong and compelling nature of those intuitions as one’s ground for rejecting the respectable hypothesis is corrupt. Epistemic conservatism taken that far fosters an uncritical attitude, and becomes nothing more than a fancy name for gullibility.”

        • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

          See my above addition, which destroys your argument. No offense, but I think its wise to leave the journal papers to others more qualified.

          • Ben Kennedy

            “Our grasp and use of elementary logic and math obviously has evolutionary advantages, but this doesn’t prove them false, now does it.”

            For math to be evolutionary useful, it must produce *true* beliefs – if there are three lions chasing me, and I see two have stopped, and I get the math wrong and decide to rest, I’m going to get eaten by a lion. Our senses provide reliable beliefs about the world because it was useful for survival. Evolution gives a good account why those beliefs are vindicated, and is an argument against general skepticism. Phenomenal Conservatism is alive and well.

            With morality, the question is whether or not our moral senses are truth-tracking, and this depends on your account of the evolutionary origins of morality. If morality exists as a way to show commitment to a certain social order, then the “truth” of the moral statements doesn’t matter – just the fact that being moral is a potentially costly signal. Since different societies with different conceptions of morality can thrive in their own ways, this is very plausible

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You’ve completely shifted, if not abandoned, your original claim. This is where you started: …using unreliable and unscientific thought processes… like believing in the existence of inalienable rights, even though we are fully aware that out minds were created by evolutionary process designed to facilitate survival? Moral realism is a perfect example of cognitive irrationality. So, somehow, the fact that our minds were created by an evolutionary process has implications for whether or not moral claims are true.

            Now, we’re on to “the question of whether our moral senses are truth-tracking.” But this isn’t the question. The question is whether moral claims can be true, which is precisely what Huemer affirms and opponents of moral realism deny. You give us no argument for why something being “useful” for evolutionary purposes has any bearing on this question. The speed of light in a vacuum is (as I recall) 186,000 miles per second. But for most of our evolution we didn’t even know this, or tons of other scientific facts. So does this ignorance render them all suspect, as well as truths that we haven’t yet discovered?

            Arguably, as Huemer suggests, moral truths occupy the same metaphysical space as logical and mathematical truths. I understand that this is a controversial view, and may be wrong. But to say, as if it were self-evident, that moral realism is a perfect example of “cognitive irrationality” is just an ugly amalgam of stupidity and arrogance.

          • Ben Kennedy

            “So, somehow, the fact that our minds were created by an evolutionary process has implications for whether or not moral claims are true.”

            Close.. my argument is that the evolutionary origin of our minds has implications on whether not moral knowledge is *justified*. Going back to Jason’s original post, this is the difference between 2 and 3. For this discussion, I’ll cheerfully stipulate that moral knowledge is real (that is, it can be true according to point 2). The narrow question is whether or not it can be justified by intuition alone, to which I say no. This doesn’t preclude other ways of obtaining justified moral knowledge, I’m just responding to the ethical intuitionist.

            “You give us no argument for why something being “useful” for evolutionary purposes has any bearing on this question.”

            Well, to be fair I mentioned the lions. But I can unpack it more. The question is “Does sense X [vision, hearing, etc] provide justified knowledge of the world”. That is, if I see a tree, how confident can I be that the tree is really there. So, we know evolution favors fitness. In practice, this translates to being able to navigate your environment more effectively, among other things. If birds constantly flew into trees, they would die off pretty quickly. So, we conclude that evolved sight accurately locates trees, because there are still birds around. Consequently, our beliefs about the position of trees is generally justified, because vision is truth-tracking. Or course, our other senses can reinforce these perceptions as well. We can touch the tree, we can hear the tree fall (or can we….)

            Cognitive beliefs are not automatically truth-tracking. Consider the phenomenon of illusory superiority – In the US, over 90% of people think they are above-average drivers – in short, our intuition is just plain wrong. Perhaps this cognitive bias may enhance survival because it encourages some useful risk-taking. However, it does not track the truth. Now, suppose Joshua Greene is right in his hypothesis that morality evolved basically to solve the prisoner’s dilemma problem within groups, which is very plausible. This would mean our moral beliefs were selected to facilitate cooperation with strangers, and that our ethical intuitions are cooperation enhancers. But when you read Greene’s recent book, you’ll find no mention of “truth” at all. Even if everyone’s belief were objectively false, things would have turned out the exact same way. If an accurate account of the existence of morality is completely compatible with Moral Error Theory, then the moral realist has a justification problem.

            So if you have a hypothesis on how ethical intuition that evolved to facilitate social cooperation actually tracks real moral truth, I’d love to hear about it – if persuaded, I’d be happy to call my moral beliefs justified

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            On Humer’s view (and mine), truth is mind independent. If there were no intelligent life in the universe, everything that is now true would remain true, and all that is false, false. Obviously, then, evolution has no impact on the truth of propositions. As far as I can tell, you offer no argument against this. You now raise a separate question: how do we have access to moral truths. Huemer’s answer (and mine) is, roughly in the same way we have access to elementary facts about logic and math. How do I know that if number A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, that A is larger than C. Well, I just know. How can I get you to see this if you don’t, other than with examples, I can’t think of a way. How do I know that there are no special moral rules designed for my benefit, so that it is wrong for you to kill me for fun, but not wrong for me to kill you for the same purpose. Well, I just know. How do I persuade you? I don’t know. Huemer considers various objections to this account in his excellent book. This issue has vexed philosophers for all time. I have already said that my account is controversial. Moral Error theory has its own set of problems. So, to simply dismiss one view, even if wrong, as “cognitive irrationality” is arrogant.

          • Ben Kennedy

            Yikes, it looks Disqus is flagging me for spam when using blockquotes! Anyway, this is what I said and I hope it comes through this time

            “As far as I can tell, you offer no argument against this.”

            Correct – my specific argument is that if mind independent truth existed, what we understand as “morality” as determined by evolution would be unrelated to whatever it is, as we can have a fairly complete accounting of human morality, including both the content and universal “feel” of it, without reference to mind-independent truth. Plus, we get a skeptical account of phenomenal conservatism with respect to our senses – just not for morality.

            “Huemer’s answer (and mine) is, roughly in the same way we have access to elementary facts about logic and math.”

            Huemer acknowledges the existence of “defeaters”, which can either rebut or undercut seemingly obvious intuitions. Evolution is, I believe a clear defeater. We can leave it at that

            “So, to simply dismiss one view, even if wrong, as “cognitive irrationality” is arrogant.”

            I apologize for my arrogance and will strive to do better in the future

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You keep making the same mistake, so this is my last word. To explain how we come to hold certain beliefs is NOT to debunk them, whether this involves math, science, or ethics. So, if evolution explains why we generally believe that it is wrong to inflict gratuitous, non-consensual pain on other persons, it has no implication for the truth of this proposition. And you have repeatedly ignored my challenge regarding why this claim is any less self-evident than the mathematical property of transitivity. For this reason, evolution is NOT a defeater for Huemer. At most it could be invoked to explain we have sometimes held erroneous, yet intuitively compelling, ideas. It doesn’t at all undercut the claim that SOME of our moral beliefs are true.

          • Ben Kennedy

            “So, if evolution explains why we generally believe that it is wrong to inflict gratuitous, non-consensual pain on other persons, it has no implication for the truth of this proposition.”

            I agree completely! That’s why I have already stipulated to the existence of mind-independent truth for the purposes of this discussion.

            “And you have repeatedly ignored my challenge regarding why this claim is any less self-evident than the mathematical property of transitivity.”

            I’ll take up the challenge. Math and logic exist in fictional universes we create for ourselves. Mathematical concepts are not ontological entities. I know some people believe otherwise, and this is controversial.
            So if someone seems intuitive in math like “if A=B and B=C then A=C” it’s because we define it as an axiom, or it is derivable from axioms.

            “At most it could be invoked to explain we have sometimes held erroneous, yet intuitively compelling, ideas. It doesn’t at all undercut the claim that SOME of our moral beliefs are true.”

            As I said, I don’t evolution can be invoked to show any belief is false, any more than flipping a coin can reveal a natural truth about the world. Huemer himself does a better job presenting this very argument than I possibly can in his most recent paper http://philpapers.org/archive/HUEALR.pdf :

            “The debunking explanations for morality thus engender skepticism as to the reliability of our moral belief-forming mechanisms, on the assumption that there are objective moral facts. This in turn leads us to doubt that our moral beliefs could constitute knowledge of objective facts.”

            Section 1.2 gives the argument. I disagree with his overall conclusion though – the spread of liberal values can be well explained by other factors (like the spread of wealth)

          • Lacunaria

            The fictiveness of mathematics and logic is entirely dependent upon its scope of application to reality, just like every other model.

            So, transitivity is not just an axiom, it has vast empirical applicability and utility, which is why we often use it as an axiom.

            Evolution orients to “facilitate survival”. What is a coin flip oriented to do?

            The widespread moral against murder is directly entailed by survival. Why is that not real or rational? What falsehood or arbitrary whimsy are you asserting?

          • Ben Kennedy

            Just look at section 1.2 of the Huemer paper I linked above – that is the specific argument against ethical intuitionism. If there is a mind-independent moral domain of truth, our evolved moral intuition does not give us reliable access to it

          • Lacunaria

            None of 1.2 addresses my questions. Preferences are not simply emotions. I have not argued for a basis in culture. The moral against murder does contribute to reproductive success.

            How would you answer my questions?

          • Ben Kennedy

            Well, it sounds like you are some form of Constructivist (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/constructivism-metaethics/). So if you want to base your morality around claims of reproductive success, that’s fine and rational. My tendendency would be to try to maximize cooperation, but either way murder would not be rational in that society.

            I stop short of claiming the existence of mind-independent Universal Truth that Mark talked about above. Moral Error Theory is potentially compatible with Constructivism depending on where the Constructivism comes down on the realism/anti-realism side of the debate

          • Lacunaria

            Depending upon how you measure and maximize voluntary cooperation, our views might be compatible, but my point was just that survival is a significant, objective, rational justification for the moral against murder. Why wouldn’t that make it a real moral truth?

            Constructivism is all over the place, but I would say that the process for determining moral truths does include rational deliberation on facts including our long-term preferences, generalized predictions, and human nature. This is basically natural law.

            As far as I can tell, Moral Error Theory seems to ignore the convergence of general interests in the long-term due to human nature.

          • Ben Kennedy

            I don’t think we are using the term “moral truth” the same way. CS Lewis said:

            “Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.”

            What I’m talking about is the “ought”-ness of morality, that buzzing in our brains that says “this is good!” or “this is wrong!”. Lewis’s observation is absolutely correct. Now, he goes to argue that our ‘oughtness’ feelings are so strong that it implies universal Moral Law. At this point, we have meta-ethical moral realism, and Huemer is probably on board. Lewis then argues even further that there must be a universal Law Giver, which implies Theism – most modern philosophers step off the bus before this.

            So I view morality as a existing phenomenon to be explained, not as something that we rationally determine. I agree with Lewis and Huemer that what we experience as ‘morality’ is definitely intuitive – for example, my young kids have a very clear idea of “fairness” without ever getting a clear explanation of the concept from me.

            If you want to live your life or design institutions around rational principles, great! I’m on board. I just hesitate to label that as “morality” as is commonly understood

          • Lacunaria

            I have been talking about “ought”-ness, too, and asserting that there is a consistent, rational explanation for why we ought to do or not do things rather than there simply being an innate moral “buzzing” that is somehow detached from the rest of reality so that it defies rational explanation.

            Even you seemed to formerly agree that the buzzing comes from our solving a general optimization problem. It’s not just a phenomenon, it’s a real, convergent, and rational phenomenon.

            That’s Natural Law. And if there is a Creator, we would expect our universe to be somehow consistent with moral law, not independent of it.

            By analogy, if I learn to play billiards intuitively, does that make my knowledge and ability irrational? Is it just coincidental that my intuition roughly matches the laws of physics? Are the laws of physics fiction because they abstract reality?

            I don’t see how your innate “buzzing” theory is more in line with common understanding of morality. No one commonly subscribes to the idea that simply feeling strongly about something makes it moral, except as a specious rationalization. After all, people can be utterly convinced by the buzzing morality of their actions and turn out to be utterly wrong.

          • Ben Kennedy

            “I don’t see how your innate “buzzing” theory is more in line with common understanding of morality. No one commonly subscribes to the idea that simply feeling strongly about something makes it moral, except as a specious rationalization”

            As I said, “moral buzzing” (for lack of a better term) is not a theory, it’s a human characteristic. It’s not inherently rational or irrational. Those are words to describe thought processes, and are subjective to a standard. We wouldn’t ask “are spleens rational” – but we can inquire into the nature of spleens, why they exist, and how they are useful. The same with morality.

            Of course, acknowledging a robust moral sense doesn’t mean moral realism is true. I’m a moral skeptic, and I’m fully aware of this buzzing. I don’t steal, rape, and murder largely because my moral sense says “don’t steal and don’t rape, and for crying out loud don’t murder”.

            For people that don’t navel gaze all day on morality, “following your conscience”, which is just going along with the buzzing, is *exactly* how most people act when they act “morally”.

          • Lacunaria

            As I said, “moral buzzing” (for lack of a better term) is not a theory, it’s a human characteristic. It’s not inherently rational or irrational.

            Yes, but we are discussing your theory about that human characteristic, namely that the characteristic has no rational antecedent, correct? i.e. it doesn’t sense anything objective, like optimal solutions to a problem.

            Of course, acknowledging a robust moral sense doesn’t mean moral realism is true. I’m a moral skeptic, and I’m fully aware of this buzzing.

            But all of our senses sense something in reality. Why would you assume that our moral sense is different, especially since the morality that it senses seems to be broadly convergent?

            For people that don’t navel gaze all day on morality, “following your conscience”, which is just going along with the buzzing, is *exactly* how most people act when they act “morally”.

            Sure, but the fact that people, and most often children, can get that wrong in hindsight and converge, suggests that there is a real, objective morality being sensed, doesn’t it?

          • Ben Kennedy

            “Why would you assume that our moral sense is different, especially since the morality that it senses seems to be broadly convergent?”

            This was all covered in the exchange with Mark –

            Normal senses (sight, smell, etc) are truth-tracking. If we want to explain why enhanced sight favors survival, part of the story is the *truth* of sight-tracking. If sight produced inaccurate beliefs about reality, then it wouldn’t have evolved.

            How about moral sense? Take Joshua Greene’s theory that morality evolved more-or-less to solve prisoner’s dilemma in groups. There is nothing inherently reality-sensing about this role of morality. Feelings of rightness, wrongness, transgressions, shame, authority, repentance, etc solve this problem without any kind of reference to truth. From a survival standpoint, it doesn’t matter if murder is actually right or wrong, it just matters that people don’t do it. Also, this explains the “buzzing”, If moral rules didn’t feel universal and binding, then they couldn’t do their job to enhance cooperation.

            Huermer’s paper above defends the notion that because we see societies seeming to converge on certain liberal positions, then liberal moral realism is true. I think this conclusion is unwarranted, and that other factors explain this better. Robin Hanson has a post on the subject – http://www.overcomingbias.com/2015/10/testing-moral-progress.html

          • Lacunaria

            How about moral sense? Take Joshua Greene’s theory that morality evolved more-or-less to solve prisoner’s dilemma in groups. There is nothing inherently reality-sensing about this role of morality.

            The optimal solution itself is (at least prospectively) real and we are sensing it. Why isn’t that “reality-sensing”?

            Feelings of rightness, wrongness, transgressions, shame, authority, repentance, etc solve this problem without any kind of reference to truth.

            If I feel that hitting a billiard ball at this angle will cause it to go into the pocket, and it does, then was I sensing reality? Were my feelings true?

            From a survival standpoint, it doesn’t matter if murder is actually right or wrong, it just matters that people don’t do it.

            But you are skipping over the key fact that people have a choice, which is the whole point of morality. And in light of that choice, “don’t do it” is exactly what “wrong” means.

            So it is contradictory to say that right and wrong don’t matter and yet claim that (people’s decision) not to actually murder is all that matters.

            Also, this explains the “buzzing”, If moral rules didn’t feel universal and binding, then they couldn’t do their job to enhance cooperation.

            Right, meaning that the need for such universal and binding reciprocity that we feel is real.

            And I’ve been meaning to ask: Cooperation to what end? I mean, morality is essentially cooperating with good and opposing evil, so cooperation is not an end unto itself. Or is your focus actually voluntary consent? Or perhaps the Golden Rule?

            Huemer’s paper above defends the notion that because we see societies seeming to converge on certain liberal positions, then liberal moral realism is true. I think this conclusion is unwarranted, and that other factors explain this better. Robin Hanson has a post on the subject

            Huemer might go too far in his claim of accelerating convergence, since the biggest and most obvious morals like “do not murder or steal” occurred long ago. So, Hanson takes a tangent in his criticism as far as I’m concerned.

            Hanson also seems to oversimplify the process of discerning morality, and most significantly, he erroneously conflates contextual emphasis and preferences with morality itself.

            For example, valuing children and being raised by both parents is practically a universal moral, but Hanson breaks it down into the amount of children and the social acceptability of divorce. Noting that the change correlates with wealth, he then seems to suggest that wealth is the biggest driver of morality.

            Many of his examples are also probably reactive to the particular political environment, such as increased state control increasing interest in politics.

            In other ways, the professed values of the rich commonly subsumes those of the poor, showing evidence of increased sensitivity, which can ironically corrupt moral prioritization, such as we see today in free speech on campuses. We end up conflating what people should do or not do with what we should force people to do or not do.

          • Ben Kennedy

            I can’t reply to everything, but

            ‘The optimal solution itself is (at least prospectively) real and we are sensing it. Why isn’t that “reality-sensing”?’

            ‘So it is contradictory to say that right and wrong don’t matter and yet claim that (people’s decision) not to actually murder is all that matters.’

            From a survival standpoint, it’s the cooperation that matters, not the truth of the moral beliefs that engender cooperation. We see a parallel with religion – studies show that religion makes people happier. Is this because religion is true, or because religion comes with support structures of people looking after each other? Do the truth of religious claims even matter when people with radically different claims seem to get these benefits?

            So to with morality. Humans with an aversion to murder likely out-competed humans without that aversion, for obvious reasons. This is what I mean by saying *cosmic* rightness and wrongness (Moral Realism), doesn’t matter while behavior does.

            ‘And I’ve been meaning to ask: Cooperation to what end?’

            I’m not sure what you mean – evolution doesn’t have ends, it’s just a process for change

          • Lacunaria

            From a survival standpoint, it’s the cooperation that matters, not the truth of the moral beliefs that engender cooperation.

            Sure, hypothetically, people could unintentionally cooperate to survive, but regardless of how it happens, the fact that cooperation does aid survival justifies that moral belief.

            We see a parallel with religion – studies show that religion makes people happier. Is this because religion is true, or because religion comes with support structures of people looking after each other? Do the truth of religious claims even matter when people with radically different claims seem to get these benefits?

            Right, utility does not imply complete truth, but it implies some truth. Support structures are certainly part of that for many religions.

            So too with morality.

            Yes, morality is similar, but it is typically already reduced to pertinent factors compared to religion. It’s just the moral leading to real solutions. What is extraneous in that?

            Humans with an aversion to murder likely out-competed humans without that aversion, for obvious reasons.

            And yet it is the murderers who survive and the victims who do not. Indeed, empires have been built upon murder, including unjust war.

            It’s only when murderers are killed or castrated that any sort of innate aversion could possibly be evolutionarily selected. There is also no proximal difference between murder and justifiable homicide which argues against a simple physiological basis for morality.

            That is why morality cannot be rooted in our feelings at the moment, but is instead rooted in our expectations for the future. Morality must be learned as surely as we learn cause and effect. Indeed, our feelings often mislead us and we must learn to act morally despite them and eventually align our feelings accordingly.

            This is what I mean by saying *cosmic* rightness and wrongness (Moral Realism), doesn’t matter while behavior does.

            What does “cosmic” add to that statement? Are the real, optimal solutions that define morality not part of the cosmos?

            I agree that behavior matters, but specifically, it matters whether behavior is right or wrong.

            ‘And I’ve been meaning to ask: Cooperation to what end?’

            I’m not sure what you mean – evolution doesn’t have ends, it’s just a process for change

            You proposed “cooperation” as the purpose of morality and I was pointing out that cooperation has no moral entailments by itself.

            In other words, you are not addressing morality if you think mere cooperation is the point. That is why you had to appeal more specifically to cooperation in survival above, as opposed to cooperation in the extermination of the Jews, for example.

          • Ben Kennedy

            I’m fairly sure we are talking about different things. Consider what Mark said above:

            “On Humer’s view (and mine), truth is mind independent. If there were no intelligent life in the universe, everything that is now true would remain true, and all that is false, false.”

            and:

            “How do I know that there are no special moral rules designed for my benefit, so that it is wrong for you to kill me for fun, but not wrong for me to kill you for the same purpose. Well, I just know.”

            This is robust moral realism. The key here is that moral rules are design features of the universe, and not contingent on people (mind independent). If it were not wrong to kill people, that somehow our reality would be a different one than we are in. Where do you stand on these statements?

          • Lacunaria

            Good questions.

            “On Humer’s view (and mine), truth is mind independent. If there were no intelligent life in the universe, everything that is now true would remain true, and all that is false, false.”

            I agree, but excluding intelligent life renders morality as a latent quality of the universe because morality is not fully revealed until an actor with free will makes a decision.

            e.g. by itself, there is no moral component to an ocean eroding a mountain. Even a cheetah killing a gazelle does not quite reveal morality without some awareness and choice between alternatives.

            “How do I know that there are no special moral rules designed for my benefit, so that it is wrong for you to kill me for fun, but not wrong for me to kill you for the same purpose. Well, I just know.”

            I agree with his opposition to that sort of special moral rules, but I’m not impressed by the explanation that “Well, I just know.”

            Morality is a predictive framework. You could call Baby Hitler an exception to the “don’t murder” rule, but if we cannot predict when murdering babies is the best option, then we cannot rely upon it, so it doesn’t achieve the status of a “moral rule”.

            In other words, there are no special moral rules designed just for my benefit because they are not predictively useful and the probability is overwhelming that I will rationalize that I am special when I am not and cause all kinds of havoc.

            So, morality is certainly dependent upon people’s minds to the extent that it is only evinced through free will. From that arises localization of responsibility for the consequences of our decisions, including our preferences.

            But that should not be interpreted to mean that morality is solely determined by people’s feelings or minds, as if murder would be moral in a society that believes in the benefits of child sacrifice. They are objectively wrong about those benefits, and hence it is objectively immoral, even if they refuse to believe it.

            So, I don’t consider it a violation of moral realism to include humans, as I have explained it. Natural law likewise depends upon human nature rather than being independent of it.

            If it were not wrong to kill people, that somehow our reality would be a different one than we are in.

            That is theoretically true since morality is directly tied to cause and effect in our reality. e.g. if cutting people did not do damage but was instead pleasant, then the moral ramifications of stabbing people would be significantly different.

          • Ben Kennedy

            “Morality is a predictive framework.”

            This is crux of it – I actually think Mark’s description of morality is the correct one. If morality is simply a predictive framework as you describe, there is no particular reason why we should follow the rules. A constructionist view of morality just doesn’t account for the “oughtness” of categorical imperatives. There is no binding quality to them that motivates, and this is a key aspect of morality.

          • Lacunaria

            I wasn’t asserting that it is only a predictive framework, lacking any “ought”.

            Morality is both: it is a predictive framework for human fulfillment in light of free will and human nature.

            That’s the ought.

            What’s lacking is your idea that “cooperation” is the moral “ought” even though it doesn’t actually match any moral system.

          • Ben Kennedy

            My view of morality is that it encompasses many concepts – right, wrong, obligation, desert, etc. This is why your account is lacking. Morality is a set of cosmic rules people react to. But as a skeptic, I am simply honest about the lack of an objective cosmic playbook

            Yes, you can say “in order to promote human flourishing, based on what I know about human nature, then it is true that murder is wrong”. Fair enough. But why promote human flourishing? What if I want to promote human misery? Then murder would be “right”. Semantic truth value in what you describe as “morality” simply is not the same thing as Mark’s account of morality (for example). You are talking about different things.

          • Lacunaria

            Morality is a set of cosmic rules people react to. But as a skeptic, I am simply honest about the lack of an objective cosmic playbook

            Do you see any objective consistency to human nature, albeit with some exceptions, or is it all just random to you?

            But why promote human flourishing?

            Because that’s what humans want in the long run. It’s human nature.

            What if I want to promote human misery?

            You could, but the outcomes of that are contrary to human nature, so you will probably be opposed by the rest of humanity. It will not go well for you in the long run.

            Then murder would be “right”.

            And yet there is practically universal agreement that murder is not right, so that should tell you something about your premise.

            Morality is an objective phenomenon that we are modeling. So, when you hypothesize goals like “human misery” or even “cooperation”, it’s important to consider how well your model matches that phenomenon.

            Semantic truth value in what you describe as “morality” simply is not the same thing as Mark’s account of morality (for example). You are talking about different things.

            I think we are probably talking about the same thing, though we are giving different accounts of it.