Is Biology a Normative Science?



Is Biology a Normative Science?



At first sight biology would appear to be steeped in normative concepts. Animals act for their own individual good or for the good of their offspring or for the good of the species,[1] and their organs are designed to promote these goods. Biologists speak of adaptations, where an adaptation is a trait that benefits an organism, or possibly other organisms—it is a trait that contributes to wellbeing in some way. The OED defines “adaptation” thus: “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment”: the phrase “better suited” is normatively loaded (as normally understood). Adaptive traits contribute to fitness, health, survival, flourishing, robustness—all these are normative notions. It is a good thing to be adaptive. We might naively suppose that adaptations help ward off death, which is a bad thing, so that makes them things of value. We might even suppose that adaptations promote the happiness of organisms (in those organisms capable of happiness): they make the animal less prone to disease or injury or hunger or loneliness. Evolution produces, by means of mutation and natural selection, organisms that are constituted so as to live longer and do better than their evolutionary rivals—the “survival of the fittest”. The fitter the organism the better it will perform in the race to reproduce and pass on its genes, so evolution favors the good—health, wealth, and happiness. It favors strength, speed, agility, beauty, intelligence, and the absence of neurosis—all those good things. So we might suppose that biology as a science is concerned to study the means and mechanisms that contribute to something of value: life, health, and fitness. Its theme song is “I Will Survive”.

But this naïve picture is apt to make the professional biologist wince, precisely because it interprets biology as centrally concerned with questions of value. Physics and chemistry don’t deal with value, so how can biology be a “natural science” if it does deal with value? Worse, isn’t value really a subjective matter? We like to say that life is good (and death bad), and that happiness is better than misery, but these are subjective value judgments not reports of objective fact. What if other intelligent beings made different judgments of value—wouldn’t that mean that biology is only relatively true? No, biology must be purged of all such subjective normative notions, on pain of not being an objective science. Admittedly, it may be conceded, the vocabulary of biology might naturally be interpreted in a normative manner, but that is merely superficial; all these terms can be defined without reliance on normative notions, which are merely heuristic. Thus we can define an adaptation as a trait that maximizes the number of an organism’s offspring, or a trait that ensures the maximal propagation of genes into future generations. There is nothing normatively good about this property; we define it in strictly mathematical and descriptive terms. Evolution produces organisms that outperform their rivals at causing a certain outcome—offspring creation or gene propagation. We don’t say whether this is good or bad, merely a fact. The biologist quabiologist is not concerned with the value of life in the way we are concerned with it as moral beings that make value judgments; he or she is normatively neutral about life and death, merely regarding them as biological facts that affect the power of organisms to generate copies of themselves or their genes. Thus biology is an objective science as “natural” as physics and chemistry, and not mired in the subjectivity of the normative. It is true that the facts it describes and explains are correlated with things we treat as having value–being alive for longer (surviving) is correlated with producing more offspring than your rivals—but biology is not concerned with value as such. It is no doubt good to be healthy, but health is only relevant to biology as a fact that can contribute to offspring generation. Medicine cares about health in the normative sense—doctors strive to realize an admittedly valuable thing—but biology as a science is not concerned with such matters. Doctors are ethical beings by profession, but biologists are scientists—they deal only in facts. Any appearance to the contrary can easily be removed by appropriate redefinition.

Let’s consider some thought experiments. Suppose that a certain trait has the property that it increases procreative productivity but decreases wellbeing in the ordinary sense: it makes the organism have more offspring but at the same time it makes it less healthy, less long-lived, less happy. Picture this as an odd kind of disease that causes all the organism’s energy resources to go into its reproductive organs. Conspecifics that lack this trait live longer, are healthier, and enjoy life more, but they don’t produce as many children; maybe their reproductive years are simply fewer, while their sicklier comrades go on reproducing to the bitter end (fewer kids, good life; lots of kids, rotten life). According to the objective conception of biology, the latter organisms are more adaptive, fitter, and more biologically successful than their healthier counterparts. Or suppose that the sicklier organisms produce sicklier offspring compared to the less procreative but healthy organisms: there are more of them but they are not as robust and full of the joy of life. Then they are more reproductively “successful” than their rivals, if we define success numerically, simply because there are more of them. Suppose that intelligence causes animals to restrict the number of their offspring, the better to take care of the kids they have, so that intelligence acts counter-reproductively: that would lead to less intelligent animals having more kids. So intelligence wouldn’t be an adaptation in the biologist’s objective sense: it wouldn’t lead to comparatively higher reproductive productivity. So what we regard as good when making value judgments is not “good” in the biologist’s austere sense. Suppose that a species has two sorts of member, the sort that retain consciousness throughout life and the sort that have consciousness only up to an certain age, after which they become zombies. However, the loss of consciousness has no impact on reproductive fitness; in fact it enhances it because it allows more resources to be directed to the reproductive organs. Then whatever value life has in the ordinary sense evaporates when the age of unconsciousness begins, though in the biologist’s sense these zombie organisms are a roaring biological success—look how many of them there are! If you are a biologist member of this species, you might relish the loss of consciousness because it will enable you to outdo your rivals in the reproduction stakes—though of course you will derive no pleasure from this victory, since you are a zombie. What these thought experiments all illustrate is that the objective non-normative notion of adaptation (and allied notions) can logically come apart from the ordinary normative notions we bring to biological understanding. What is bad in the ordinary sense becomes “good” in the stipulated sense, and what is good becomes “bad”.

Now it is not that this stipulation is impossible or contradictory, but it is instructive to see how far it departs from ordinary notions of fitness, success, adaptation, etc. In order to make biology like physics and chemistry we have to detach it from the ordinary understanding of the form and function of organisms. We normally think that the form and function of organisms contributes to their wellbeing, health, happiness, and life expectancy—all regarded as valuable things—but we are told that this is of no concern to biology as a science, which deals only in causal relations between traits and their reproductive consequences. As things actually stand, these two levels coincide, more or less, but this is not a necessary truth; and once we separate the two we see how far the official conception of biology departs from our ordinary conception of organisms. What I want to suggest now is that we should not accept the elimination of commonsense biology, indeed that it is quite wrong to suppose that a normative biology is somehow unscientific or lacking in objectivity. The first, and weaker, claim I want to make is that there is room for both sorts of biology, properly distinguished: we can do objective biology in the sense outlined and we can do a normatively loaded type of biology closer to common sense. There certainly are facts of the kind identified by the austerely objective type of biology, so it is possible to study these facts; but there are also facts of the kind the second type of biology recognizes—facts of health, flourishing, happiness, etc. There is nothing to stop us from studying how these facts are produced and what their consequences are. We can investigate what traits are adaptive with respect to these facts—what traits are apt to lead to their obtaining. Strong muscles, an effective immune system, efficient digestion—these all help to produce valuable states of organisms (life, pleasure, vigor). The imaginary organisms I described will have adaptive traits in this sense, though not perhaps in the other sense, since their health, happiness, and continued life depend on their biological make-up. So we can envisage two types of biology, each focusing on a specific kind of fact—reproductive fecundity or valuable states of conscious beings. These subjects can coexist and are not in competition with each other. We could call them “normative biology” and “non-normative biology”. A given biologist might identify as a normative biologist, while others are proud non-normative biologists (compare social and physical anthropology).

But it may still be insisted that the normative type of biology is not objective, not scientific, and not factual. To this I make two replies: the first is that this is a substantive stance in philosophical value theory, not a datum we are required to accept. According to value objectivists, the value of life and happiness (etc.) is objective, absolute, and incontrovertible—not subjective, relative, and disputable. So we can’t just assume as a dogma that where there is value there must be subjectivity; nor that value and science are incompatible. This may be a philosophical opinion common among biologists, but it is not an opinion we are obliged to endorse. I certainly don’t, but I won’t pursue the matter now. The second, and more telling, reply is that it is a biological process that has caused value to come into the world: evolution by natural selection is a value-generator, an engine of the normative. For evolution is what has led to the thing we call life, to consciousness, to freedom, to knowledge, even to virtue: these are biological phenomena, i.e. results of biological processes—as much as hearts and kidneys, species and genes. For example, pain is an adaptation brought about by mutation and natural selection—a biological trait built into the genes—and pain has a normative dimension, i.e. it is bad. It hurts, it is not something we desire, it is connected to death; a life with it is worse than one without. So actually it is the duty of a biologist to be interested in value: it is part of his subject matter. It is an aspect of the evolutionary process.[2] Not that the evolutionary process aimed at value, but it did bring things of value into the world—they are a biological outcome, like teeth and flesh. Evolution caused there to be things of value in the world (this is not to say that it caused them to be valuable). And aren’t biologists supposed to be interested in the products of evolution? Darwin’s great book is called The Origin of Species, but he could have also written a book called The Origin of Value. According to the rival theory, God is behind the origin of value since he intentionally created beings about which value judgments can be made—and God was generally supposed the origin of all value. Darwin tells us that value was created by a natural process beginning with value-neutral materials (inorganic matter): that is, the traits of animals that have value (positive or negative) arose by a process that had no value at its origin or in its mode of operation. That is a highly significant claim, and one that every biologist should heed. So the biologist must study the organism as an entity laden with value; and part of that is recognizing that its traits contribute to the value of the organism’s life. When we say that organs of the body and mind are adaptive we mean (or should mean) that they contribute to valuable states of the organism. These can vary from hedonic states to cognitive states to moral states, depending on the organism. Granted that it is good to he happy, good to know things, and good to be virtuous, we can say that biology is properly concerned with the value of these products of the evolutionary process. If eyes lead to knowledge, then eyes are good, because knowledge is good; if taste buds lead to pleasure, then taste buds are good, because pleasure is good; and so on. Traits enable good things and hence are adaptive with respect to those things. They may also be adaptive in a non-normative sense by producing an outcome that lacks any normative dimension, such as the sheer number of offspring or the volume of genes that get passed on. I would regard the latter as a derivative notion of adaptation; the primary notion relates to facts with normative significance. Likewise, when we speak of “fitness” we primarily mean it in the ordinary normative sense; the non-normative use is a derivative sense. There is really nothing wrong with accepting that biology is steeped in normative notions, and we may as well acknowledge that fact. Biology is more like medicine than physics.[3]



[1] Actually animals never act “for the good of the species”, but people talk this way clearly intending a normative assertion.

[2] I hope it is clear that this claim is not tantamount to some sort of biological reductionism about value, as that “good” is definable as “what natural selection selects”. It is merely the claim that the things that are valuable are precisely the things that have evolved by biological processes, particularly states of mind. So the biologist is unavoidably studying things that have intrinsic value. It is a good question whether any evolutionary process will inevitably lead to things with value built into them.

[3] Medicine is really applied biology, so the notions it works with (notably health) need to be grounded in biological fact; and so they are because biology deals with facts that have value. Psychology is a branch of biology, and psychological facts are the locus of value.






Idealism is the thesis that the world is mind-dependent. In particular, the things we call material objects are dependent on the mind for their existence: to be is to be perceived. Realism is the thesis that the world is mind-independent, so that material objects can exist whether perceived or not. Here is a simple argument against idealism and in favor of realism: the mind depends on the brain, which is a material object, but no material object can depend for its existence on another material object; therefore, material objects cannot depend for their existence on minds. If material objects depended on minds for their existence, then they would depend on brains for their existence, because minds depend on brains; but brains are material objects, which would imply that other material objects depend for their existence on these material objects, but material objects never depend on other material objects for their existence; so material objects cannot be mind-dependent, and idealism is false. I think this is a valid argument, but it may be thought to beg the question: for can’t we say that brains also are mind-dependent? But suppose that were so: it would imply that the being of brains consists in their being perceived—but those very perceptions would themselves depend for their existence on a brain, and hence would call for a material object to exist that is not itself merely a perception. Perceptions of brains need brains too. Moreover, suppose that we had never perceived a brain and had no knowledge of the existence of brains: there would then be no perception of a brain for a brain’s existence to be dependent on. No, the existence of brains cannot be a matter of the existence of perceptions of brains; the existence of brains is an objective matter that is necessary in order for minds to exist. But since material objects can never depend for their existence on the existence of another material object, including a brain, they cannot depend for their existence on minds. The doctrine of “cerebralism” has zero credibility—that is, the doctrine that the entire material world depends on the existence of brains. No one supposes that tables and chairs, trees and mountains, depend on brains. That would not be idealism but a peculiar form of materialism—everything material is really one type of material thing. This is not the identification of reality with appearance, as idealism maintains, but the identification of reality in general with brain reality in particular (neurons, blood, brain chemicals).

Why don’t we see this point, thus rendering ourselves immune to idealism? The reason is that the dependence of mind on brain is opaque to us: we don’t have a grasp of how the mind depends on the brain, though we know that it does. Thus we think we can conceive of a universe in which minds exist but brains don’t, which contradicts the thesis of necessary brain dependence. But such intuitions are immediately suspect stemming as they do from ignorance of the mind-brain nexus. Not that the brain must be just as we conceive it, but there has to be something to do the job of the brain even if it isn’t exactly as we conceive this thing now (even Berkeley saw the necessity for finite and infinite spirits in addition to the ideas that exist in them). The fact is that (barring skepticism) we have discovered empirically that brains are the basis and sine qua non of minds, so that any dependence on the mind is also a dependence on the brain: but brains cannot be what material objects in general depend on, since material objects don’t depend for their existence on other material objects.[1]

Note that the idealist claim is never that the world depends on someone’s mind (unless that someone is God); it is the thesis that my mind is what the world depends on. The idealist never says that the world depends for its existence on (say) the mind of Justin Bieber: why him, we might wonder. But we are easily seduced into thinking that our own mind might be the one on which everything depends (the world is my world). Why? Because of a certain kind of egocentrism: we don’t tend to see ourselves as merely one subject among many. Once I see myself as something in the world along with other subjects, I see that the world as a whole cannot depend on me in particular—why me and not him? Putting this together with the point about brain-dependence, why should reality depend upon my brain, which is just one brain among many (many billions in fact)? Why should this particular material object (the one in this head) be the font of all being? My brain does not enjoy this momentous privilege, and neither does my mind. In the case of God we are more inclined to accept that God’s mind could be the basis of all being, but that is because we don’t tend to see him as merely one person among many, with no more power to generate reality than anyone else; also, we are far hazier about the kind of existence God possesses. But putting aside this kind of theistic idealism and sticking to the usual secular kind, there has to be a question about whose mind is doing the ontological work; and Colin McGinn’s mind is no more privileged in this respect than Justin Bieber’s mind (rather less so). I am just one subject among countless others, and my brain is one among a multitude of brains (cf. my kidneys), so reality as a whole can’t depend on my mind or my brain. I am something in the world; it is not in me. We only fail to see this because of a stubborn (and callow) egocentrism that insists on putting ourselves at the center of things.

Once we see that our minds depend on our brains, and that our brains are just material objects among other material objects, the appeal of idealism evaporates. The world can never reduce to my world, i.e. how it seems subjectively to me. There must be a reality external to my experience (starting with the brain). This would not need arguing if the dependence of mind on brain were written into our everyday lived experience, but that would imply that the mind-body problem has a readily accessible solution. In a way, the mind-body problem is at the root of idealism: a solution to the former would do away with the latter.[2]


Colin McGinn

[1] Spatially separate from them: of course, objects can depend for their existence on their parts. But it is not plausible to suppose that ordinary material objects have brains as parts. The general principle I am relying on is the standard notion of a material substance—that which does not depend on other substances for its existence (“self-subsistent”).

[2] I don’t wish to suggest that idealism is not a respectable philosophical position; indeed, I think that the debate between idealism and realism is one of philosophy’s deepest questions. I am simply pointing out its connection to the mind-body problem, also one of philosophy’s deepest questions. Idealism is as attractive as the mind-body problem is hard.


Animal Deontology


Animal Deontology



The moral theory usually applied to animal ethics is utilitarianism. We are to be concerned exclusively with the suffering and happiness of animals: we must minimize animal disutility and maximize animal utility. That, and only that, is what animals have a right to expect (transposing utilitarianism into a rights-based theory). This seems eminently reasonable: how could a deontological theory apply to animals? How could it be wrong to lie to animals or break promises made to them or be ungrateful to them? They don’t have language or freely perform acts of generosity towards us. We don’t have a duty to carry out their last will and testament, simply because they don’t make wills. The only duties that bind us in relation to animals are related to suffering and (possibly) happiness—the kind that reflect their nature as sentient beings. We don’t have any duty to educate them in world history or respect them as persons or listen to their defenses of their actions or grant them due process in a court of law, since these all presuppose attributes that they don’t possess (even the most intelligent ones). So animals only partially fall under morality as we apply it to humans; they don’t have the kind of across-the-board moral standing we typically accord to each other. They are not full moral beings like our neighbors and friends or people from other lands. They exist a step down the moral ladder, not quite as deserving as fellow humans. True, they fully deserve not to be made to suffer unnecessarily, just like people, but they are not de jure recipients of the full range of duties recognized under deontological ethics. And this shapes our general moral attitude towards them.

But this picture, accepted as self-evident, seems to me fundamentally wrong. Let’s start with lying and promise-breaking (a kind of lying): true, one cannot tell a lie to a dog or break a promise, since dogs don’t understand the relevant speech acts, but performing a false speech act is not what the wrongness of lying and promise-breaking consists in. It isn’t a matter of falsehood as such, or else actors would be liars, but rather of deceiving someone by making false statements. It is the deceiving and misleading that is wrong, not the fact that it is done in language: creating false beliefs and raising dashed expectations is what is wrong. But it is possible to do that non-linguistically: you can act in such a way as intentionally to generate the belief in a dog that it is about to be taken for a walk, but then decline to take it. You can pretend to put food in a bowl for the dog to eat and then hand it an empty bowl. You can regularly give the dog a treat at a certain time each day so as to create an expectation, and then intentionally omit to do so on a particular day, thus disappointing its expectations. These are all examples of deceiving and misleading an animal, even though the means adopted is not a speech act in a shared language. And don’t you normally feel a duty to take the dog for a walk if you have created the expectation that a walk is in the offing? Isn’t it incumbent on you to feed your cat in the morning given that its past experience has led it to expect to be fed then? So the duties that come under the heading of truth-telling and promise-keeping in deontological ethics are applicable to animals, though they are not linguistically mediated.[1] In fact, animals belong with pre-linguistic human infants in this respect: in both cases deception is possible without the mediation of language, and it is as wrong as linguistically mediated deception.

Here we can make a general point about morality, namely that we are apt to be too fixated on language in applying moral principles. We have become familiar with such concepts as racism, sexism, and speciesism as markers of discriminatory types of moral stance; but we can add to this list speech-ism as another type of discrimination, i.e. taking the possession of language as a criterion of moral standing. In fact, language has nothing essentially to do with morality—it is not a morally relevant characteristic. Being capable of being deceived is a morally relevant characteristic, but it is possible to have that and not understand language. If we all lost our linguistic ability tomorrow, that would not affect our moral standing, so long as the rest of our psychology remained intact. It is a failure of imagination to suppose that animals that don’t speak like us don’t have the moral standing that we enjoy; they simply lack a contingent human attribute that evolved some 200,000 years ago while still possessing a psychology much like ours, cognitively and affectively. Language possession is like gender or race or species—not a litmus test for equal moral consideration. Animals can suffer and therefore should not be made to suffer for no good reason, but animals can also be deceived and therefore should not be deceived for no good reason. Suppose you were to poison your dog by giving it tainted food: there would be the wrongful act of causing the dog to suffer (and maybe die) but also the wrongful act of misleading the dog about the food it has been given to eat. It doesn’t matter whether the misleading is done through language or in some other way; it is wrong in either case. Allowing for a bit of poetic license, we can say simply and succinctly that it is wrong to lie to animals and to break promises made to them, i.e. to mislead them intentionally. What makes it wrong to mislead someone linguistically is the same as what makes it wrong to mislead someone in other ways; language is incidental to the wrongness of the action. So we should eschew discriminatory speech-ism (or linguistic-ism): grammar is not the measure of morality any more than gender or race or species is.

I mentioned ingratitude earlier: one of the standard duties listed by deontological ethics is gratitude for good actions performed. It might be thought that this cannot apply to our attitudes to animals for the simple reason that they are not themselves moral agents. I will put aside the question of whether animals are (or can be) moral agents; there is still a question about whether it is appropriate to feel gratitude to an animal. And here I think it is evident that gratitude is an appropriate attitude in our dealings with animals: we can be grateful for their love and also grateful for their existence. We love our pets and our pets love us: this enriches our lives and we feel happier for it. We are, and should be, grateful for this love, even if the animal is not acting from moral motives—as we can feel grateful for the love of our family and friends. Not all actions that occasion gratitude are moral actions, and it would be strange not to feel gratitude for the love of others, animal or human. Also, I think it is appropriate to feel gratitude for the existence of animals—their beauty, their fascination, their affinity to us as well as their difference. Life is better because animals exist as objects of contemplation, aesthetic and scientific. They are a marvel to behold. We are rightly glad to share the planet with them (many of them anyway). Someone who doesn’t feel this is defective in some way—just like someone who fails to appreciate when they have been treated kindly. We call them hard-hearted or blind.[2]

It is difficult to think of a standard moral duty that has no analogue in the case of animals. Beneficence and non-malificence (W.D. Ross’s terms) obviously apply, but it turns out that truth-telling, promise-keeping, and gratitude also apply, suitably extended. What about the duty of making reparations for past wrongs? Even here we can think of cases in which such a duty would be applicable—as with stealing the land of an animal population or removing its source of food. Suppose you decided in your selfishness to buy something fancy to eat instead of buying your dog food and left it to go hungry one day: wouldn’t you owe it to the dog to make up for that the next day? You should give it extra food and pet it penitently or some such thing. You need to compensate for the deprivation you visited upon your dog earlier. Isn’t that what justice requires? The dog may remember your past actions and your present actions will go some way towards making up for what you did earlier; it may think better of you for making amends. This would be even clearer for animals closer to us zoologically such as chimpanzees, though we typically don’t have them for pets. If I accidentally trip over my cat, I feel an obligation to pet him gently and perhaps given him a treat—aren’t I trying to make reparations? The duties we feel towards our intimates do not magically disappear when the species changes. No doubt if Neanderthals still existed and mingled among us we would extend deontological ethics to them too, recognizing the similarities behind the differences; the case of other existing species is not essentially different. Of course, there are animals that really do fall outside the moral circle defined from a deontological point of view: some animals cannot constitutionally be deceived and can feel no love for us humans—starfish, bacteria, flies. These animals cannot be made to have false beliefs or disappointed expectations because of their restricted psychology, so they impose no corresponding duties on us; but many animals clearly do impose such duties. Acknowledging this removes the last remaining gap that separates us morally from other species: now we can see that animals deserve more than what utilitarian ethics can deliver.[3]They are fully within the moral circle defined by deontological ethics. Our duties towards them include more than merely reducing suffering and providing happiness.



[1] We could assign them to the class of implicit truth-telling and promise-keeping: intentionally creating the impression that certain beliefs and expectations are warranted without explicitly saying so, which we do all the time.

[2] There are also those who feel particularly grateful to animals because humans are so awful.

[3] I am of course assuming that utilitarian ethics is incomplete; there are duties that cannot be subsumed under the utilitarian framework. My point is that if you are a committed deontologist you can still include animals within your official moral theory. Put differently, deontology is not limited in scope to humans, ceding territory to utilitarianism in the case of animals.


Emotion and Perception



Perception and Emotion



Everyone knows that sensory qualities are associated with emotions, though the manner of association is obscure. Colors suggest emotions (red passion, blue sadness); sounds are perceived emotionally especially in speech and music; tactile sensations are felt as pleasant or unpleasant; smells can be appetizing or revolting; tastes delicious or nasty. It is a question what establishes these associations–whether they are innate or cultural, the result of arbitrary conditioning or of a perceived intrinsic connection. They seem to bypass explicit belief: it is not that we are of the opinion that screeching noises are irritating, or that rotten food tastes disgusting, or that green is soothing. Artists and musicians, not to mention chefs and masseurs, know how to exploit these emotional resonances. The sensory faculties are clearly hooked up somehow to the affective parts of the brain. We sense feelingly. The same must be true of other animals, even when cognition is not at the human level. Imagine how birds see colors or cats and dogs hear sounds (the bat may thrill to its sonar perceptions). These sensory qualities clearly have affective, motivational, and appetitive connotations for the animals that sense them. They are not emotionally neutral.

It is noteworthy that all the sensory qualities mentioned so far would be classified as secondary qualities, i.e. qualities originating in the mind (or brain) and projected onto the world. Let’s call these qualities subjective: then we can say that subjective qualities are apt to have an intimate connection to emotion. What we project we resonate to; what comes from us excites us in this way or that. But is the same true of primary qualities, particularly size and shape? Here we seldom hear talk of emotional associations, and scientific studies of possible such associations are few and far between. What is the emotional meaning of a straight line as opposed to a wavy one? Are circles evocative of different emotions from rectangles? Does size matter emotionally? Maybe some sort of affective meaning can be conjured up by remembered resemblance, but it doesn’t seem natural or intuitive (geometers might feel differently about circles and squares). So the following generalization suggests itself: objective qualities don’t have the emotional associations of subjective qualities. That is, the perceived qualities of things that are discovered not invented, received not projected, lack emotional resonance—or if they have it, it isn’t in the same way subjective qualities do. What doesn’t come from us doesn’t move us in the way what originates internally does.  Emotion-laden perception is confined to projected subjective qualities. Proponents of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, past and present, have not noticed this difference, but it appears to exist—and it is not altogether surprising on reflection. For secondary qualities have been manufactured biologically as a tool of survival, so they are likely to have conative significance; but primary qualities exist in the world anyway, whether relevant to organisms or not. They might be relevant to survival, adventitiously so, but they are not guaranteed to be, unlike secondary qualities. The absolute conception is not emotionally imbued, save per accidens.

One can envisage an extreme reaction to this point, namely that secondary qualities are emotions, projected outward. To be red, say, is to be imbued with passion. That would be pretty crazy, to be sure, but it brings out an interesting point: perceptive and emotive theories are not necessarily opposed. In ethics people have discussed whether moral qualities are perceived or are merely reifications of our emotions: but they can be both. Maybe we perceive moral qualities and at the same time, inextricably, feel certain things (a rush of approbation, a surge of indignation). If perception is essentially emotional, it won’t be surprising to find that moral perception has a characteristic type of affect associated with it. And it is surely true that moral impressions (for want of a better term) are heavily emotion-laden, as well as motivating—which is what we would expect if they are perceptual in nature. It might even lend support to the idea that moral qualities are manufactured by the mind and projected outwards, not found among the objective features of the world, though perceived there. The indicated theory might thus be labeled “perceptive emotivism” or “emotive perceptivism”. This seems like a pleasant resolution of an old dispute.

It must be admitted that the connection between perception and emotion is far from pellucid. Why particular colors have they associations they do is puzzling and not at all self-evident; and it is not plausible that we are somehow taught to make these associations. Clearly that is not so for taste and smell. The mind is so configured that the senses and the emotions are coupled to each other in multiple and complex ways. Nerve fibers spanning cortical regions must be the basis for this, and these neural connections must have been established somehow. Why is the Blues called “the blues”? Why are we said to “see red”? Why are cowards described as “yellow” and novices as “greenhorns”? But some semblance of intelligibility arises from the observation that the sensory qualities with pronounced emotional meaning are mental projections—they come from the same place that emotions come from. Emotions are not objective qualities of external things—potential subject matter for physics—but neither are secondary qualities. The perceived world and the emotional world are inextricably intertwined, both having their origin in the subject. The objective world of primary qualities, by contrast, is emotionally neutral and not a mental projection. It has nothing intrinsically to do with the needs of perceiving organisms.[1]


[1] It is good for organisms to have accurate perceptions of primary qualities, but the qualities themselves are not reflections of the organism’s own nature—hence the lack of emotional punch. Subjective qualities, by contrast, are bound up with the inner life of the organism. It is as if they are emotions distilled and objectified.


Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk



Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk



Mr. Spock feels no emotion; Captain Kirk overflows with it. Spock coldly calculates; Kirk passionately emotes. Spock has no sense of humor and never smiles; Kirk enjoys a joke and smiles frequently. Kirk loves, not so Spock. Do they understand each other? It seems clear that Spock doesn’t understand Kirk: he finds emotions alien. He is to Kirk as we are to bats. He observes Kirk’s behavior, listens to his words, knows all about his nervous system (what does Spock not know about?)—but he doesn’t know what it is like to be Kirk. For he lacks the experiences that define emotions, and you can’t grasp experiences that you don’t yourself experience. He sees no point in emotion, and looks disdainfully upon it, but he also has no idea what it is. If he were a philosopher, he would see in it an objection to materialism (you can know all the physical facts about Kirk but not know his emotions). Kirk’s phenomenology is unknown to him: he knows what it’s like to be a cold calculator but not what it’s like to be a hot feeler.  Spock, after all, is not human, as his pointy ears indicate (he is Vulcan)—he is a conscious being of another species. Even his vast intelligence doesn’t extend to knowledge of human psychology (except perhaps functionally).

But does Kirk understand Spock? You might suppose that he does because he is also a rational thinker, no stranger to logical calculation (Mr. Scott is another story). He knows what it’s like to reason logically, maybe even to detach himself from disruptive feelings, so he should be able to extrapolate to Spock’s pure logicality. But actually it is not at all clear that he understands Spock—he is constantly puzzled and nonplussed by his Chief Science Officer. The reason is that he can’t really grasp what it’s like to have a non-emotional psychology; he is so steeped in emotion himself that to imagine a life without emotion is beyond his powers of comprehension. How can Spock notfeel? How can Spock be a person and yet have no emotions? What is it like to experience the world without having any feelings about it? An intelligent bat might likewise have trouble understanding human psychology precisely because of something it lacks: what can it be like not to experience the world by sonar? Do the sighted really grasp what it is like to be totally blind? Our imagination is shaped by our own inner life, but that inner life is made up of a totality of components, all interacting. The components suffuse each other, forming an entire phenomenological landscape; it is not so easy to detach one component and leave the rest. What would it be like (Kirk might muse) to think and yet have no feelings about what you are thinking about, especially concerning matters of life and death? So we don’t know what it’s like to be a bat, and the blind don’t know what it’s like to see, and Spock doesn’t know what it’s like to be Kirk; but similarly bats don’t know what it’s like to be us, the sighted don’t know what it’s like to be blind, and Kirk doesn’t know what it’s like to be Spock. Or maybe there is partial knowledge in this direction but not complete knowledge (as is the case in the other direction too). The general point is that it is hard to get outside of one’s own phenomenology. We tend towards phenomenological solipsism.

There is also something inherently puzzling about Spock, which is skirted by Star Trek: does Spock have desires? He is depicted as having few desires, but he appears to have some—and how can he not given that he is capable of intentional action? He doesn’t love or lust or grow angry or feel dejected or grief-stricken, but he seems to desire to do his duty, to save lives, and to make his voice heard. He certainly has values and these must exist in the form of hopes and wishes. He wishes, above all, to be logical, which is a wish easy for him to fulfill. But now, if he has desires, even quite strong ones, shouldn’t he also have the emotions that typically go along with desire—frustration, satisfaction, unease, and tranquility? Here Spock seems paradoxical: he values and desires yet he doesn’t feel. This is a psychology genuinely difficult to make sense of. Kirk sometimes shows awareness of this point when he quizzes Spock rather skeptically about his lack of emotion: surely, he suggests, Spock must feel something about this! How can things work out the way Spock hoped and yet he feels no joy in that? Spock merely cocks his eyebrow, leaving the enigma unresolved. Desire and emotion necessarily go together and yet Spock maintains his emotional blindness. So he might really be objectively unintelligible as well as relatively so (to humans like Kirk). What would Spock feel if his logical powers deserted him following a head injury? Would he feel precisely nothing or would it bother him to lose the faculty he prizes above all others? He wishes humans were more logical, but then isn’t he upset when they are not? Or is it just that he has reduced emotions, the kind that don’t spoil the psyche’s overall equilibrium? The matter is left unresolved by the great Gene Rodenberry.

I will mention one other philosophical issue raised by the Spock-Kirk duo, concerning the nature of virtue.  There is no doubt that Spock is depicted as virtuous, irritatingly so at times, but he is a man (sic) without feelings, including empathy. So virtue cannot (according to Star Trek) consist in having good feelings—it is not ethically Humean. He always does what is right, but he has never felt compassion or generosity in his life. On the other hand, Kirk is also depicted as virtuous, despite his emotional gushing (those passionate speeches!): he is a soul whose emotions are good. So he is far from the Kantian ideal: his emotions are his moral guide not dispassionate reason. The thing is both depictions are persuasive: we have here a representation of two possible human types, both virtuous in their own way. Was the creator of Star Trek alert to this debate in moral philosophy and anxious to maintain an inclusively dual conception of virtue? It really is possible to be virtuous in one of two ways the series seems to say. Not Hume or Kant but Hume and Kant. There is Spock-style virtue and Kirk-style virtue. Possibly each has its blind spots and weaknesses, but each also has its strengths. Moral psychology is thus complex and not unified; virtue can reside in very different types of mind. Viewers of the series might identify with each man alternately, seeing the merits of one kind of virtue compared to the other (logicians always preferring Spock). The point is repeatedly made that Spock’s type of virtue, admirable though it is, comes at the price of a lack of humanity, in the form of an absence of emotion; while Kirk’s kind is more erratic and unreliable, though never fundamentally on the wrong track (he is Captain James T. Kirk, after all). Spock seems above the other crewmembers in respect of moral rectitude, with the possible exception of the Captain, but we find him a cold fish despite his moral probity. The contrast between the two presents an excellent class in philosophical moral psychology.[1]


Colin McGinn

[1] My own attitude is that I sometimes grow impatient with Kirk’s passionate excesses, but I feel a bit sorry for Spock. Still, I’d be proud to serve on the Bridge with either of them (along with Lieutenant Uhuru of course).


Are Reasons Causes?



Are Reasons Causes?



It used to be held in the 1950s that reasons are not causes (the “logical connection” argument), but the tide turned in the 1960s. The new orthodoxy was that rational explanation of actions is a species of causal explanation: beliefs and desires are the causes of action.[1] True, this is a special kind of causal explanation, since reasons have a rational structure exhibiting logical connections; but that is no bar to their also being causes (efficient causes, in Aristotle’s terminology). Beliefs and desires cause actions in the same sense that impacts cause motions or smoking causes cancer. Since a reason is a combination of a belief and a desire it too causes actions: it causes what it rationalizes. I go to the shops intending to buy fruit, desiring some fruit and believing that the shops are the place to go; these mental states cause my shop-going behavior. It is rational to go to the shops if you desire fruit and you believe the shops are the place to get it, and these attitudes operate causally to bring about the behavior in question. The attitudes are causal factors, triggering events, effect-producers; no doubt they are underlain by brain causes that exploit efferent nerves and send neural volleys. What we have here is just another example of multi-factor common-or-garden causation.

But another point about reasons and actions also gained traction at around this time, namely that desires and beliefs cannot act on their own—they must always work as a couple.[2] Suppose I leave the house with an umbrella: you might surmise that I do so because I believe it is about to rain. But that is only a rational action if I also desire to keep dry: I might have that belief and fancy a dousing, so I leave the umbrella at home. Similarly, a desire to stay dry will only lead me to carry an umbrella if I believe umbrellas are a good way to keep dry. The desire supplies an end, but it takes an instrumental belief to determine a particular type of action. The action is a means to satisfying a desire, but it takes a belief to link the desire to a suitable action. This is a kind of confined holism whereby beliefs and desires only cause actions by conjoining with each other. The point I want to emphasize is that the components of reasons (beliefs and desires) have no intrinsic causal power with respect to action. Logically they cannot bring about actions individually but must rely on each other to generate an action. It is not that they have no specific causal powers considered singly; rather, they cannot cause action in isolation. If you ask what action a desire to keep dry will cause, you will get no answer, because that depends on what the agent believes; and similarly for the belief that umbrellas keep you dry. It is only as a pair that a specific action emerges as the rational thing to do: if you want this and you believe that, then (and only then) will an action of a certain type ensue. Actions are selected according to means-end reasoning, and that requires the belief-desire combination. Desires can cause both mental and physical happenings, as when one desire causes another desire or induces a flight of imagination, or when the desire causes the body to react in a certain way (blushing, etc.); but in the case of action only the pair together can produce anything. But then, isn’t there a problem about the causal story, since the components of reasons lack determinate causal powers with respect to action? Normally when two causal factors are at work we have a causal contribution stemming from each, as when two people combine to lift a heavy object: but nothing like this holds of beliefs and desires—considered separately there is no causal input into the motor system. So even if reasons cause actions their components don’t operate in the standard causal manner: there is no cumulative or additive causal contribution. Each is impotent in relation to action, so how can they combine to produce a causal result? We would have a strange kind of causal holism unlike anything else in nature: causation by the whole resulting from non-causation in the parts. Wouldn’t it be better to abandon the idea of rational explanation as causal explanation?

And then there is this familiar point: the holism is also operative across reasons. For an agent will not act on a given reason unless his other reasons are conducive: I might want to keep dry and believe an umbrella will do the trick, but I might also reason that it’s too much trouble to carry an umbrella or that I will look uncool with one or that it’s against my religion to ward off God-given showers. So reasons only cause actions (if they do) against the background of other reasons, but nothing like this holds outside of the rational realm. The causal story thus seems inconsistent with a commonsense form of holism: the alleged causes just don’t operate in the way causes are generally wont to do. The causation is not atomistic (bottom-up) in the standard style–but then why speak of causation at all? The model of specific causal powers possessed by separate states or events breaks down. The causal thesis conflicts with the two kinds of holism described (and generally accepted). There is no causal line linking beliefs and desires separately to specific types of action, so why speak of causality at the level of combinations of the two?

Let me emphasize that this point arises from the logical nature of reasons: the desire component and the belief component are logically incapable of producing a specific action individually. The desire needs an instrumental belief to generate a means, while the belief has no practical consequences without an accompanying desire. Action cannot logically spring from either component alone, but then the model of additive causation breaks down. This is nothing like a combination of separate forces leading to a certain effect. A being without desires will logically never act, and a being with only desires will be bereft of a means of satisfying the desires it has.[3] When we give the reason for which an agent acted we don’t specify two causal factors that combined to produce that action, since neither belief nor desire can cause actions by themselves, or even tend to produce specific actions. This is nothing like explaining why someone has food poisoning by saying that she ate both bad oysters and off chicken. If reasons cause actions, they do so by some magical process that generates holistic causation from atomistic non-causation. Whatever causal powers are possessed by beliefs and desires separately are not exploited in the production of rational action; so it seems merely verbal to insist that causation is operating here as it operates elsewhere. We can call this causation—the concept is capacious—but it is not the kind of causation with which we are familiar in paradigm cases of efficient causation. Certainly it would be futile to seek laws connecting desires with actions or beliefs with actions, as if these could be separate things.

The holism of belief and desire was initially used to refute behaviorism, since no behavioral disposition is associated with a given desire independently of belief (and contrariwise). But the same point undermines the idea that belief and desire operate as summative causal factors in the production of action: no unique disposition to action can be associated with a given belief or desire that might combine with another such disposition. This is a special feature of practical reasoning as means-end reasoning. The type of reasoning that is involved precludes the model of separable causal powers joining forces, because ends need means and means need ends in order to lead to rational action. No causation without causal separation. It is the logic of practical reasoning that precludes the standard model of causal explanation. They were onto something in the 1950s, even though they might have misrepresented what it was.


[1] It was Donald Davidson who mainly instigated this change of view in “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” (1963).

[2] I believe it was Peter Geach who first made this point in Mental Acts (1957).

[3] I hope it is clear that I am not denying that in certain cases beliefs can motivate, as in cognitivist theories of moral motivation. By “desire” I mean (as is standard) any kind of pro-attitude, even if it takes the form of a value judgment; it will still need an instrumental belief to lead to concrete action.