So, why are we probably failing to see the Hamming Problems of our time?
The biggest enemy often turns out to be our propensity to rationalize our gut feelings, instead of truly reflecting on them
Let’s contrast two famous Enlightenment thinkers, Immanuel Kant and Ben Franklin.
Both Kant and Franklin stood at the forefront of the Enlightenment. Both were advancing the state of knowledge through their science. Kant left his mark in astrophysics, Franklin was instrumental in shaping our understanding of electricity. Both defended democracy and the abolition of slavery and both actively contributed to the fast (though inadequate) sweep of moral progress through Europe and North America. Relative to most of their contemporaries, they were well ahead of their time.
But both of them held beliefs that seem far less enlightened with the benefit of historical hindsight.
Kant believed that the difference between blacks and whites was so “fundamental” that it “appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color”. He also believed that “wives, servants, and children are possessed in a way akin to our possession of objects.” Consequently, they “should not be permitted to vote or take an active role in the affairs of state”.
Franklin was no more enlightened by default. In “Observations on the Increase of Mankind,” he defended the abolition of slavery, but not for reasons that we would consider particularly enlightened today. While the main thrust of the argument was economic, he also argued that America would be diminished by increasing the proportion of blacks in the population:
“Why increase the sons of Africa by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? (…)” However, Franklin was already aware that this belief may be a result of his tribal biases: “(…) But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my country, for such kind of partiality is natural to mankind.” Franklin and Kant had the same parochial intuitions. But unlike Kant, Franklin managed to reconsider his position later in life as a result of his personal experience with in schooling of black students: “I was on the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children. You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my prejudices“
A reprint of the Observations on the Increase of Mankind that came 18 years later contained no mention of the desirability of keeping America white.
A Reasonable Creature
What separated Kant and Franklin was not intelligence, strength of will or natural moral perfection. Instead, it was the ability to take a step back, reflect on their intuitive judgment, and consider the option they are wrong.
Early in his life, Franklin was a devout vegetarian. Walter Isaacson documents how his moral conviction was tested on a ship sailing to London, where the only food available was the fish caught en route.
I balanced some time between principle and inclination until I recollected that when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs. “Then,” thought I, “if you eat one another, I don’t see why we may not eat you.” So I dined upon cod very heartily and have since continued to eat as other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet.
So Franklin was not some moral saint – he had the same flaws and weaknesses as everyone else. What separated him was his ability to reflect on his intuition, summarized in a creed he drew from this story:
“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
The quote illustrates that Franklin had a healthy dose of self-skepticism. This ability didn’t help Franklin stick to vegetarianism, but it was instrumental in re-examining his racial biases.
Starry Heavens, Moral Law and Wanton Self-Abuse
Kant, on the other hand, had much more faith in his Reason and its capacity to lead him to correct moral judgments.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
This approach, however, led him to use philosophical argument primarily to rationalize his prejudices. A somewhat lighter example of his propensity to rationalize can be found in his essay “Concerning Wanton Self-Abuse”, where he argues (or rather, claims) that masturbation is a highly immoral act.
“That such an unnatural use (and so misuse) of one’s sexual attributes is a violation of one’s duty to himself and is certainly in the highest degree opposed to morality strikes everyone upon his thinking of it…”
Kant starts with the conclusion, and then attempts to find a rational-sounding justification for it:
However, it is not so easy to produce a rational demonstration of the inadmissability of that unnatural use, and even the mere unpurposive use, of one’s sexual attributes as being a violation of one’s duty to himself (and indeed in the highest degree where the unnatural use is concerned). The ground of proof surely lies in the fact that a man gives up his personality (throws it away) when he uses himself merely as a means for the gratification of an animal drive.”
“Wanton self-abuse” is not a great candidate for the Hamming Problem of any generation, but Kant’s reasoning illustrates an important pattern in human thought. As the economist Robin Hanson puts it, we should not think of the conscious mind as the president of our brain. A better analogy is that of a press secretary – a person who only gets information about the president’s decision after the fast and whose job is to come up with a good explanation.
This propensity for confabulating is most apparent in “split-brain” patients whose right and left hemispheres lost the ability to communicate following a surgery to prevent seizures.
In one study, a patient’s right hemisphere was shown a snow scene and instructed to select a matching picture. Using his left hand, the hand controlled by the right hemisphere, he selected a picture of a shovel. At the same time, the patient’s left hemisphere, the hemisphere that controls language, was shown a picture of a chicken claw. The patient was asked verbally why he had chosen the shovel with his left hand. The patient (i.e., the patient’s left hemisphere, seeing the chicken claw but not the snow scene) answered, “I saw a claw and picked a shovel, and you have to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel.”
(Amazingly, it seems that Kant may have suffered from a similar condition.)
But split brains are not necessary for us to fall prey to rationalization. Often, it is the case the evolutionarily the younger modules of our brain responsible for slower, verbal (and sometimes even logical and deliberate) reasoning (System 2) make up stories for the behavior of the older modules responsible for fast, intuitive responses (System 1).
And this turns out to be a key problem for those of us trying to continue the Enlightenment project and work on the Hamming problems of our time. While the intuitive apparatus we received from evolution is certainly impressive relative to the single-celled organisms it descended from, it falls short for anyone aspiring to even remotely resemble a Reasonable Creature.
Before delving into the most important limitations of our moral cognition, here is a small appetitizer from Luke Muehlhauser’s series No-nonsense metaethics:
• Our moral judgments are significantly affected by whether we are in the presence of freshly baked bread or a low concentration of fart spray that only the subconscious mind can detect.
• Our moral judgments are greatly affected by pointing magnets at the point in our brain that processes theory of mind.
• People give harsher moral judgments when they feel clean.