The Multiversal Sigh

Edit (3-25-14): added a summation at the end for clarity.

I ended up giving Elisa’s post, spurred by Jamess argument, on the possibility of morality in the multiverse a lot of thought on a long bus ride on Friday, and I finally got around to putting fingers to keyboard.  I originally intended to post a comment on her blog, but I got carried away and decided to publish my book here instead.

Like the other commenters, I’m not actually bothered by James’s concern; in fact, I think I’m psychologically incapable of being bothered by it, because the notion of the “multiverse” he appeals to is so removed from my experiences and nature, and it is my experiences and nature that are the primary bases of my ethical judgments.  Even if I were convinced of the validity of James’s concern, I wouldn’t change any of my behavior, and I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.  I intuitively care about this universe because I experience it, and no philosophical argument can possibly convince me of something as counterintuitive as the position that I am making a mistake if I care about the consequences of any of my actions.  (I’m not saying philosophical arguments never have practical weight, just that there are certain intuitions that are too powerful for them to override, especially in the realm of ethics, where intuition is the ultimate arbiter.)

That said, I’m going to argue that many of the responses to James are overly dismissive and prove too much.

I want to start by making what I think is the intuitive case for the validity of James’s concern, assuming the existence of his version of the multiverse.  It seems that his concern is based on the principle that an action can only have moral significance if it has an expected or actual net effect on the world.  I’m not well-versed in ethical theory, but this strikes me as a pretty intuitively sensible principle.  Morality, after all, is practical – it is meant to guide our judgments and actions – so how can an action possibly have moral significance if it can’t have any impact on the world?  And if an action must have an expected or actual net effect on the world in order to have moral significance, it follows trivially that in a world in which all possibilities are necessarily realized (i.e. a Jamesian multiverse), no action can have moral significance.

I see two basic ways of dealing with this claim, which are analogous to the “hard determinist” and “compatibilist” approaches to the problem of justifying our moral practices in a deterministic/random world (the problem being we feel compelled to praise or blame people for certain actions despite acknowledging that these actions are the result of the same physical laws that govern the wind).  One is to simply accept that no action can possibly have moral significance (though we may nevertheless feel compelled to treat actions as having such).  Based on my limited familiarity with the literature, I think this is what hard determinists are up to with respect to moral responsibility.  I take it they maintain that any worthwhile and intuitively satisfactory notion of moral responsibility inescapably rests on the assumption of metaphysical, you-could-have-done-otherwise free will, which unfortunately is ruled out by physics.  Needless to say, this puts hard determinists in a bind: they either have to treat their moral practices as bunk (good luck), or they have to live with the belief that these moral practices, which they find compelling, are bunk. 

In contrast, compatibilists avoid this bind by maintaining that moral responsibility is possible, because the moral judgments we feel compelled to make do not actually require the assumption of free will of the impossible metaphysical variety; rather, they rest on physically possible preconditions, such as freedom from external compulsion, and any sense we have that they require something more is, as a descriptive matter, baseless.  (I’ve heard Dennett’s book Elbow Room persuasively argues this, that metaphysical free will is not actually something we actually care about when deciding to assign praise and blame.)  And some compatibilists further argue that to the extent one’s moral judgments do rest on the assumption of metaphysical free will, one should revise her conception of moral responsibility, because it’s less useful than a compatibilist one.  (I’m not sure how such arguments are supposed to have traction.)  Essentially, compatibilists reject the premise that one must have metaphysical free will in order to be morally responsible for his actions.  Similarly, a compatibilist-style response to James would involve rejecting his premise that an action must have an expected or actual net effect on the multiverse in order to have moral significance. 

It strikes me that Elisa, among others, is enthusiastically taking a hard-determinist-style approach to dealing with James’s concern, and I think this approach suffers from similar drawbacks to hard determinism itself.  I think Elisa’s “resolution fallacy” argument is tantamount to a hard determinist saying: “sure, at the high resolution of physics, metaphysical free will is impossible, but we experience having metaphysical free will, and morality is only concerned with the low resolution of experience, so it’s cool for us to treat metaphysical free will as real when making moral judgments.”  Elisa herself actually compared James’s concern about the multiverse to worrying about determinism when making decisions.  She tweeted: “Do you let free will arguments muck with your internal moral compass?” – as if to suggest that free will arguments simply aren’t relevant to using one’s moral compass, even if one’s moral compass is sensitive to free will.  That’s a pretty big bullet to bite.  As outlined above, the compatibilist position strives to dodge this bullet by explaining that one’s moral compass is not, or should not be, muck-uppable by determinism, because one’s moral compass does not, or should not, rely on anti-determinist assumptions.  Compatibilism confronts determinism head-on; it grabs the purported dilemma by the horns, looks it in the eye, and says, “you’re not really a dilemma.”  It does not say, in the vein of Elisa’s response: “I acknowledge that determinism undermines my moral compass, but I’m going to continue to rely on my moral compass as if nothing’s the matter, because I still experience it as working.”  There is a certain intuitive appeal to this response, but it raises two serious problems: (i) why is it okay for morality to tolerate a high res/low res distinction, such that it does not hold up under “high res scrutiny” but somehow nevertheless has obligatory force under “low res scrutiny”; and (ii) even if this is acceptable, where do you draw the line between the two levels of scrutiny? 

I think another one of Elisa’s analogies further illustrates these problems.  She compares James’s concern about the multiverse to worrying about using Newtonian mechanics when making decisions about the macro world.  But it’s not clear to me that we should be comfortable with analogizing our moral practices to Newtonian mechanics, because that would entail conceiving of a correct moral argument as one that is false (like Newtonian mechanics) but happens to direct one to act in accordance with what morality actually requires (like Newtonian mechanics providing the same results as our better theories in the macro world).  We can justify our reliance on Newtonian mechanics because although it works on elephants and not on electrons, it provides the same results as our theories that work on both elephants and electrons.  In a very real sense, the problems with Newtonian mechanics are irrelevant if all we care about is measuring an elephant.  But in what sense could certain problems with our moral practices be similarly irrelevant?  And what better theory can we appeal to to justify the use of false moral practices?  (And why wouldn’t we just use that theory?  It presumably, unlike quantum mechanics, wouldn’t involve a lot of complicated math.)  I don’t think there are good answers to these questions.

Thus, I’m inclined to favor a compatibilist-style approach to addressing James’s concern.  As noted above, this approach entails rejecting James’s premise that an action must have an expected or actual net effect on the multiverse in order to have moral significance.  However, it’s not clear that this premise should go.  (So maybe the existence of the Jamesian multiverse really would undermine our moral theories.)  Perhaps it should be rejected on the grounds that while it makes sense to have a net-effect requirement for moral significance in our universe, it doesn’t make sense to apply this requirement across universes.  Perhaps the causal independence of the separate universes is somehow relevant. 

I’m not sure where to go from here (other than to greener pastures), but I hope I’ve established that James’s concern – at least on a purely theoretical level, and on the assumption that his version of the multiverse exists – is not obviously silly (at least not more so than plenty of other philosophical worries!).  I think the easy ways out that people have advocated draw untenable distinctions and/or render the moral playing field even more of a free-for-all than it inherently is.

In sum:
1. Our moral practices seem to endorse the principle that an action can only have moral significance if it has an expected or actual net effect on the world.
2. Assuming the Jamesian multiverse exists, no action can possibly have a net effect on the world, so arguably no action can possibly have moral significance.
3. One way of dealing with this is to simply continue engaging in our moral practices, even if they rely on the net-effect requirement, on the grounds that morality is only concerned with our experiences, and nothing feels any different if it turns out we live in the multiverse.  Elisa and many of her commenters seem to have initially made responses along these lines.  I think this sort of approach is misguided, because it embraces unprincipled incoherence.  It effectively says: so what if it turns out one of the principles underlying our moral practices can't be satisfied, our moral practices still feel compelling, and that's good enough.  It's analogous to a hard determinist qualmlessly dishing out praise and blame, on the grounds that praising and blaming feel justified, while maintaining the praising and blaming aren't actually justified (because they assume that people have impossible metaphysical free will).
4. Another response, which I prefer, is to challenge the net-effect requirement, either by saying it's completely bunk (as I imagine, e.g., a Kantian would do), or by saying it only makes sense with respect to this universe, not across universes (as Elisa and James do below).  (This response is akin to the compatibilist approach to moral responsibility, which rejects the notion that our practices of praising and blaming rely on the assumption that people have metaphysical free will.)  I'm sympathetic to the latter move, but, as I argue in this comment below, it also seems to raise real problems.
5. Thus, it's not obvious that living in the multiverse wouldn't shake the foundations of our moral practices.