Factoring Intelligence Into Assessments Of Morality

I think there's a reason philosophy has remained unable to resolve certain problems, and by no means do I claim to have the definitive answers regarding the complicated question of morality. With that being said, I would like to comment on the role our access to knowledge plays in the formation of accurate moral judgments. In order to have this discussion, we need to assume at least the premise that a distinction exists between "good" and "evil" acts, and we'll touch upon our old pal Euthypro, and the question of whether morality is subjective or objective. The essential question is this: Is evil act X always evil? If so, then morality seems objective, but does that make it absolutely inflexible? If evil act X is not always evil, then morality seems subjective or relative.

The other day I ran into a scenario where these problems came up. We had went to the local fast food restaurant where they prepare submarine sandwiches. I ordered a sandwich in line, and noticed my friends had gotten chips and soda seemingly without waiting in line, and I never saw them pay. So when we all walked out together, I commented about their smooth techniques, adding that I'd barely even noticed them myself. That's when they assured me I was mistaken, and that they had in fact paid for the items in question. One of them said, "I'm not good at stuff like that. I've been stolen from before and I know what it feels like."

Pushing the conversation a little further, this friend relayed a story about the one time he did actually steal. He said that at one time, neither he nor the friends he was with had any access to food, so they snuck into the back of a store and grabbed some stuff. Now the argument exists that they certainly would have survived without stealing the stuff, but was what they did wrong? Why or why not? On what grounds?

I think there is a ratio between intelligence and morality, in the sense that the more somebody knows, the more justification they can provide for committing an otherwise evil act. If it was possible to know for certain what Hitler's ultimate course of action was going to be, should the being that saw such be held to the same degree if they killed Hitler in attempt to preclude his course of action? What is it that separates the hero from the murder suspect?

The statement "Thou shalt not kill" is not synonymous with the statement "killing is wrong absolutely all the time." In this commandment, there is a speaker and a listener, and what the speaker decrees for the listener is not necessarily 'always decreeable' for the speaker, not of special pleading, but because the ability to render accurate moral judgments is somehow inextricably dependent on our access to complete data / knowledge. The commandment in question is meant to make killing off limits to people. Why might this be? People can be dumb, irrational, ignorant, misinformed, prejudiced, hateful, and all sorts of other interesting flavors that make giving humans the power to kill a risky proposition. But if a being exists that is not flawed as humans are in their judgments, is it wrong for that being to kill at any time? Why or why not? And more importantly for you rationalists out there, how do you know?

5 Comments

  1. Lifeguard says:

    Howdy.
    Interest post.
    I think you might need to make tease out some distinctions, however, between intelligence and knowledge, and “good/evil” vs. “right/wrong.”
    Bear with me.
    You can be very intelligent, but not know certain things as a result of understandable or willful ignorance. Someone may claim you’re not doing anything wrong by stealing bread to feed your starving child, but the act might result in “evil” insofar as it might mean less money for the baker to feed his kids.
    All of these factors impact judgements we make about the moral culpability of individuals and/or the moral consequences of their actions. These judgements get increasingly complicated when you start talking about intelligence, fund of knowledge, and foreseeable consequences.
    As for your parting questions, (1) they seem like an awfully tall order for a comment thread, but (2) here goes: Based on the premises of your question, the only possible answer would be that I know because “God wrote the law into my heart,” which he didn’t, because he doesn’t exist.
    I say that only because your question appears to ask the rationalist to explain how he or she would know that God would be right or wrong in killing when you believe God doesn’t exist. The only sensible answer if you’re asking me to judge God’s actions, then you’re asking me to assume he exists, which automatically solves the problem of how we know right and wrong.
    Unless your real question is “How do you, as a rationalist, claim to know right and wrong without recourse to god?” Totally different question.

  2. cl says:

    Good comments Lifeguard, especially on the distinction between intelligence and knowledge. My final thought before posting was, “Omit the word intelligence from the post’s title and replace it with knowledge!” Not that I’m saying you have, but a person could read this post and come to the incorrect conclusion I’m arguing that if one is smart, one’s crimes are justified. That’s not the intended implication.
    I meant generally that if one does not have access to sufficient knowledge, one cannot formulate a sufficient moral judgment. How many times is a homicide case overturned because during trial the jury did not have access to sufficient knowledge at the time of trial?

    You can be very intelligent, but not know certain things as a result of understandable or willful ignorance.

    Agreed 100%.

    …if you’re asking me to judge God’s actions, then you’re asking me to assume he exists,

    Of course. That’s part of my point as well. I feel it can entail special pleading, for example, when skeptics demand that a believer cannot begin argument A, B, or C by assuming God exists, yet in most every argument X, Y, or Z I’ve seen in which the skeptic attacks God’s character, the skeptic not only assumes God exists, but also judges God as any other human being by normal human standards.
    As far as the parting questions, well, they could use rephrase I suppose, but one need not assume God to answer – what I am asking is that if such a being existed (for example an 0^3 God), when could we reasonably judge the actions of such a being, and on what rational grounds?

  3. Lifeguard says:

    So let me just make sure I have this straight: You’re asking me, assuming God does exist, by what standards could we judge Him, especially taking into account that we could not possibly be aware of the breadth of God’s knowledge (omnipotence) and His infinite intelligence?
    We could not judge God by those standards, because we couldn’t possibly be privy to all the information He would have nor would we be intelligent enough to process it. This, as I see it though, raises two questions.
    1) If we can’t judge God, then how could we possibly say that He is good?
    Saying God is good is just as much of a judgement as God is bad, right? Given that we couldn’t know everything God knows or even intelligently process it, we are incapable of judging, one way or the other, whether He is all good or all bad. In fact, you might even be able to argue that we are not even in a position to say that He is all knowing or all intelligent, right? How could we make such an assessment given our limitations? We’d be just as justified in believing God is willful and capricious– a divine “enfant terrible (sp?).” At the very least, you could not blame someone for being agnostic. In short, if we lack the knowledge and intelligence to claim God something God did is bad, then we also lack the knowledge and intelligence to say something God did is good.
    2) So what?
    Circumstances being as they are, it is of no practical use to acknowledge that God’s supernatural knowledge, intelligence, and goodness would make his ways utterly inscrutable to us. We would be in the same situation– left to our own devices to interpret what he wants of us, whether a given situation is an opportunity or a test, and unable to decipher His will or, in some circumstances, whether we have chosen His will or fallen into temptation. Either way, we are stuck with our own limited judgement to guide our way.
    Thanks for you reply, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. cl says:

    Lifeguard,
    Thanksgiving was happy indeed, hopefully the same for you.
    As for 1), I freely concede the point. If accurate judgment of a purportedly evil act is obscured by lack of knowledge and motive, then surely accurate judgment of a purportedly good act suffers the same inherent weakness. Certainly. Such is arguably the basis of the axiom, ‘Beware the bearer of good tidings.’

    ..you might even be able to argue that we are not even in a position to say that He is all knowing or all intelligent

    I would actually argue we’re not in an intellectual position to intelligibly decipher the consequences of God’s omnipotence if God is omnipotent. That’s why we get logical disconnects like, ‘Could God make a rock so big as to be unable to lift it?’

    ..it is of no practical use to acknowledge that God’s supernatural knowledge, intelligence, and goodness would make his ways utterly inscrutable to us

    I agree, and that’s by no means the argument I’m making.

    Either way, we are stuck with our own limited judgement to guide our way.

    I both agree and disagree with this. For example, we can test morality claims whether they are made in the Bible or by the guy down the street. Of course, such is subjective. But, for example, if a book says the fruits of a good life are X, Y and Z, we could strive to develop X, Y or Z and see how attaining such affects our perception of ourselves or our surroundings. Conversely, a book may decry act X, Y or Z as negative and producing a predictable consequence, and we can look around to see if such is borne out by reality.

  5. Brad says:

    As a side note, I think the best objective definitions of good and evil are benevolent and malevolent. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ as applied to actions are misplaced qualifiers. Correctness is something that describes a statement or proposition, and measures (1) to what degree it coheres with other statements and propositions, and (2) to what degree it corresponds to concrete observation. Kindness is no more ‘correct’ than spitefulness is.
    When reading the main point of this post, I was reminded of a technical term in psychology called the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)’ or ‘Correspondence Bias.’ Gilbert and Malone define the CB as “the tendency to draw inferences about a person’s unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situations in which they occur.” Wikipedia says it is “the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations. In other words, people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person’s actions depend on what “kind” of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person.” If we do not know what situation God was in when we presumably observed him acting this or that way (the situation including all of God’s thoughts), then we are not universally guaranteed an absolutely correct judgment of his behavior.

    People can be dumb, irrational, ignorant, misinformed, prejudiced, hateful, and all sorts of other interesting flavors that make giving humans the power to kill a risky proposition.

    And God did supposedly give humans that power. (And the power to make torture devices and weapons of mass destruction…)

    But if a being exists that is not flawed as humans are in their judgments, is it wrong for that being to kill at any time?

    I respond that murder is neither correct nor incorrect. Murder either is or isn’t, and (for any absolute measure of ‘better’), it either results in better consequences or it doesn’t.
    If God knowingly murdered for the betterment of a greater number of people, based off of his benevolence, then he was intentionally acting good. If he knowingly murdered in a fashion which resulted in worse consequences for a greater number of people, then he was acting evil.

    And more importantly for you rationalists out there, how do you know?

    I suspect there is no way to know absolutely (even given that we presume or know that God exists). Of course, if our best rational conclusion about our best collection of empirical evidence is that God is not supremely good, then that is our best estimation of God. The epistemic worth of that estimation, or how much confidence we can rationally place in it, depends on exactly what kind of facts and reasons we’re factoring into it.

    I would actually argue we’re not in an intellectual position to intelligibly decipher the consequences of God’s omnipotence if God is omnipotent.

    I’m not so sure. If I were facing a machine at chess that I was told knew every possible game, then the machine might make moves that would seem out of its nature but were actually in line with its purposes. But, within the limited scope of my own capacity to foresee the future, if the machine makes a move that I correctly predict will lead to my winning no matter what, then I have figured out the machine did not ‘know’ every game or at least was not programed to always win. Even with moves of my digital opponent that I’m confused by, I could still, say, use probability to discern whether the quirky moves have statistical advantage or not. Hence, even without a universal guarantee of absolute certainty, there is still possible instantial guarantee of it, and also of varyingly reasonable estimations.

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