Philosophers on Moral Bias

The concept of bias seems to be central to the concept of morality.  Philosophers often say the moral action is simply the action you have the best reasons to do.  But we do not usually treat immorally-acting people as if they had made a random analysis error.  We instead treat them as if they were enemies, acting against us on purpose.  And our explanation is usually that they are biased. 

What are these key moral biases?  A few years ago, when writing a Bioethics paper, I collected these quotes from six philosophers, John Rawls, Peter Singer, Norman Daniels, John Arras, Jan Crosthwaite, and Richard Brandt: 

John Rawls: We can discard those judgments made with hesitation, or in which we have little confidence. Similarly, those given when we are upset or frightened, or when we stand to gain or lose one way or the other can be left aside. All these judgments are likely to be erroneous or to be influenced by an excessive attention to our own interests.    

Peter Singer: All the particular moral judgments we intuitively make are likely to derive from discarded religious systems, from warped views of sex and bodily functions, or from customs necessary for the survival of the group in social and economic circumstances that now lie in the distant past. 

Norman Daniels: [Moral] opinions are often the result of self-interest, self-deception, historical and cultural accident, hidden class bias, and so on. 

John Arras: It may well be that some of our most strongly felt convictions, far from being obviously right, are actually the fruit of profoundly unjust social practices and institutions. If we could just step back and gain some critical distance, the injustice might become visible.   

Jan Crosthwaite: Feminist analysis is concerned less with conscious motivations than with discerning underlying assumptions, and patterns of thinking and practices, of which people may be quite unaware. . . . It also prompts reflection on the possibility of gender biases in the theoretical frameworks of bioethics.

Richard Brandt: One important source of ethical errors is doubtless the complexity of ethical problems. . . . Another important cause to which differences of ethical opinion may be ascribed is the degree of maturity of the person judging. . . . A third source of “error” or disagreement [is] . . .the distortion or warping of the organ of insight by passion, disinclination to make any sacrifice of pleasure or the lower values, and so on. . . . [I]nterest may prevent us from seriously examining a problem although we may talk as if we had done so; or it may make us rest with an incompletely analyzed conception; or it may make us ignore certain factors in the situation of which we are vaguely aware and which we would consider if we were honestly interested in an impartial and objective view.

So, is there a consensus here on the sources of moral error?   

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  • Whatever one does will likely be viewed by someone else at some time in the history of intelligences as completely and utterly immoral. There’s simply no need to concern oneself with fads, just as long as you can sleep peacefully.

  • Patrick, if Hitler slept peacefully at night, would you say he was moral?

  • Greg

    Patrick, Robin’s right, the Singer quote explicitly states that the sort of intuitionist judgments one might use to justify actions so as to sleep at night are likely derived from “discarded” sources or motivations and therefore replete with bias.

  • Essentially, my argument is that if you take today’s moral measuring stick, there are lots of people who are bad. If you take another century’s or culture’s measuring stick, those same people might not be “bad”. There is a bias in assuming today’s moral measuring stick is the one true measuring stick.

    Since we cannot say that there is a Universal Moral Measuring Stick, then I say our optimal policy is ensure that we can sleep peacefully at night by not giving our neighbors a reason to disturb us and by not acting in a way so as to disturb our conscience (sometimes those may be mutually exclusive and then you live in times that try people’s souls).

  • Rue Des Quatre Vents

    If there is a consensus among these philosophes, it’s oversimplified in its assumptions about the transmission of cultural knowledge across generations. They give no account of human nature. Singer is the worst of the bunch, since he assumes our morality is something close to a blank slate waiting to be filled in by vile tradition. I find Rawls’s comment interesting because I believe there are empirical ways of testing its credibility. Can we prune our way to the truth by discarding weak intuitions? Not just in morality, but in other domains? Now Rawls doesn’t make any comments about the human nature underlying morality. To be sure, he offers the language analogy that Marc Hauser and othes have dilated upon. Still, why should we trust ourselves? There’s no reason to believe we might not be innately biased in some way to have strong intuitions about some moral cases and weak intuitions about others. Jonathan Haidt’s work might be relevant here.

  • Carl Shulman

    Patrick, we do have some ability to predict future trends in moral views. Consider support for gay rights: in addition to being the overwhelming consensus of elites, it is also predominant among the younger generations, so that one can reasonably expect it to become as pervasive as opposition to racial segregation within one’s lifetime. The stock of moral opinion reflects a legacy population anchored to old beliefs developed without contact with openly gay people, but the flow is clearly in favor of equal treatment. In such a case, do you try to behave in a way that will not disturb your neighbours today, or your neighbours in 2020?

  • Riddle me this: What do societies gain by hammering on those nail heads that stick out?

    Whether tacit or express, the rules of conduct in a society exist for a reason. My guess is that it conserves societal wealth by prevents factionalization / splitting up of societies, which then makes everyone involved less likely to survive.

    If factionalization threatens society, then we would react harshly when rules are broken. But then why are some infractions treated differently than others?

    Regardless, History shows that the rules of conduct change over time, so if you find reactions unconscionable, you have to choose between trying to change society and trying to change yourself.