Zombies and Metaethics

I’d like to return to one of the favourite topics of Pea Soup for a bit, i.e., the Zombies. Couple of years ago we had great discussions about Zombies, well-being, and the notion of ‘good for’ (here, here, and here). We’ve even talked about whether it would be wrong to eat Zombies (here). I’m actually quite fond of the Zombies discussed in the philosophy of mind. For this reason, I’d like to put on the table a slightly more general question about what implications, if any, the conceivability arguments and their conclusions would have for metaethics.

     By Zombies, I, of course, mean beings that are physically identical with humans but which do not have qualia. They have no conscious experiences and thus there is nothing it is ever like to be them. On occasion, one finds such beings conceivable. The classic conceivability argument, much developed by Chalmers, is based on them. Conceivability of Zombies is taken to be evidence for their metaphysical possibility. They would not be possible if our phenomenal concepts referred to anything physical, be it brain-states or behavioural dispositions. Therefore, physicalist views about phenomenal concepts would be in trouble and we would be pushed towards some kind of property-dualism. All of this is very familiar.

     I’m not always sure about the argument and I know that there are ways in which physicalists can try to reply to it. But, let’s accept it at least for the sake of an argument. Now, if we can imagine individuals Zombies, it seems that we could imagine a whole Zombie world that would be physically identical with the actual world but in which no-one had any conscious experiences.

     If we looked at the Zombie world, we couldn’t tell it apart from our world. Even the moral practices would be the same. The Zombies would talk about morality as we do and they would act in identical ways to us. The Zombies would occasionally help others and sometimes they would break their promises and kill one another. Initially, we would take some of these actions to be right and some wrong. Some of the Zombies would seem to be cruel and some of them would seem to be kind. We would also attribute identical moral beliefs to the Zombies.

     However, when I think of the Zombie world as a world in which no-one would have any conscious experiences, I seem to get the intuition that this world would not contain any moral qualities. Some of you shared a similar intuition about nothing being good for the Zombies in any more robust sense than how things can be good for a tree.

I’m uncertain about what my intuition is based on. I don’t want to say that it is based on any strong implicit hedonistic commitments. It’s not only that the world lacks pleasure and pain. That is significant but there is more to it I think. In that world, no-one needs to experience being wronged in the many ways in which we can experience this. There is no ‘second-order evil. No-one needs to feel inferior when their legitimate expectations are violated. There are no experiences of the horror of being killed or of having expectations created by someone’s promises having been disappointed. In a similar way, no-one can experience the kindness of others either. The more I think about this, the more the moral properties of this world begin to disappear. It would just be an amoral world of automatons that was ticking along.

     I’m not sure how robust this intuition is. But, here is another route to it. In films, when a bad guy is killed, occasionally one has some moral worries about this. Maybe the general good can justify such killings but at least the villains have a moral status that requires some sort of justifiable treatment. With Zombies it’s different. You don’t worry about their treatment. Even if they haven’t done anything, you don’t think that there even could be anything morally suspect in killing them. Maybe this is zombieism. But, if you have this intuition, then it should generalise to the zombie world in which Zombies do things to one another.

     We then get to the question of metaethical implications of the Zombie world. First, I do find the initial intuition that the presence of conscious experiences is a necessary condition for moral properties quite interesting. If the conceivability argument goes through and we must resort to sui generis phenomenal properties, then some forms of ethical naturalism also begin to seem problematic. It couldn’t be that moral concepts referred to purely physical properties because the Zombie world would share them with ours.

     We can grant that the Zombies have psychological states like desires and beliefs as functional states (in the same way as we do to thermostats and computers). Often by ‘natural’ we mean what is either physical or psychological. In that case, if the Zombie world lacks moral properties, then our moral terms couldn’t refer to purely naturalist properties either. Furthermore, interestingly, this would mean also that moral properties would not even supervene on natural properties. Our world and the Zombie world are identical when it comes to the naturalist properties but they do seem to differ in their moral properties.

     Also, one starts to wonder that if there are good reasons to think in the mind case that there are properties that go beyond the purely natural, then there seems to be less pressure to reject sui generis moral properties merely on the grounds that they are natural. Of course in the mind case there is a temptation to include the sui generis phenomenal properties to an extended conception of the natural. If one can do this, then maybe one can do a similar move in the moral case.

     There seems to be an interesting difference between the cases too. The property dualists often claim that, even though Zombies are metaphysically possible, they are not naturally possible. There is a basic ‘law of nature’ because of which supervenience holds locally. In our world and in the other worlds in which this law holds, if two beings share the same physical properties they must share the same phenomenal properties. However, in the moral case, local supervenience, the ban of mixed worlds, seems to be too weak. In moral case, it is more difficult to conceive that an action that is wrong in our world could be not wrong in some other world that shared all the natural and phenomenal properties. 

16 Replies to “Zombies and Metaethics

  1. Hi, interesting post. I have myself wondered about utilitarians and zombies…but I wonder at your intuition that there are no moral qualities in the zombie world. Zombies can promise can’t they? I mean they have all the intentional states (minus qualitative character)…so if a zombie breaks a promise then they have done somethign immoral, no?

  2. That’s good. I do have the intuition about the Zombie world. Maybe it is just me. About promises. I would say that, yes, they can make promises but I’m not sure this implies that when they break the promises they have made to one another they act wrongly.
    The wrongness of promises does not only depend on the agents but also on the promisees. I can for instance make promises to trees or my computer. My intuition is that I don’t act wrongly when I break them. Similarly, if I made a promise to a Zombie, I’m not sure breaking it would be wrong. It’s not that the Zombie would mind, not even that it could mind in principle. Of course, the Zombie would go through the motions and act as if it minded. But, there would be nothing that it would be like for it to have the promise broken. If this goes for the promises I would make the Zombies, then it seems to also go for the Zombie-Zombie cases. Have to say that I’m not 100% certain about these intuitions.
    I am very uncertain about the sources of these intuitions. One thing that comes to mind is that the Zombies lack self-consciousness. We probably can attribute to them higher-order functional states – beliefs about their own states. But, it would be odd to think about the Zombies making choices or decisions based upon reflection. Reflection seems to require a stronger sort of self-consciousness. And, I’m starting to wonder if that sort of reflection is a necessary requirement for acting wrongly or rightly. Even acting in ways that have thick qualities seem to require the possibility of being conscious of certain considerations being salient for one’s actions.

  3. I have some similar intuitions, though I would not put a lot of weight on them. Still, I think part of what drives them is that I’m not sure the zombies are _acting_ at all. I want to say, their motions are all for causes, but not for reasons. However, I’m also aware that my intuitive metaphysics here is not necessarily compelling. Still, there you have it.

  4. I share most of your intuitions about the zombie moral world, Jussi. The Kantian in me takes from this that morality is principally about how agents relate to one another (the reasons they act upon and so forth) rather than the realization of natural states of affairs. As Heath suggests, zombies ‘act’ (in the sense that their bodies move in ways that are phenomenally indistinguishable from how we actual moral agents act) but are not thereby moral agents.

  5. Thanks for the response Jussi,
    Do you really think that you can succsessfully make a promise to a tree? If you take a Searlian kind of speech act theory seriously it turns out that you can’t.
    So if zombies can really make promises then they really have obligations and when they are broken the act is wrong…or so it seems to me…you would then want to rule out that the zombies were really making promises, in the way that (I think) Heath and Michael responded.
    One way to do that might be to argue that the zombies couldn’t really use the categorical imperative since it involves consciously ‘seeing’ or ‘realizing’ that a certain maxim can’t be universalized…they wouldn’t then count as moral agents because they cannot have their will determined by the categorical imperative.
    Of course one problem with this is that some people think that most of the decisions that we make are actually done unconsciously and that we confabulate a story that has us acting for reasons. If so, we might be zombies!

  6. Jussi,
    Here’s a worry. If you use ‘moral properties’ broadly, to include values as well as properties attributed in act appraisals like ‘being wrong’ and ‘being permissible’ and ‘being right’, then Zombie worlds do have moral properties. They would have moral properties in virtue of having value. For instance, Zombie worlds would have beautiful sunsets, life, and culture. On the other hand, if you restrict ‘moral properties’ to include only properties attributed in act appraisals, then the thesis loses a bit of interest since it’s plausible that acts are right or wrong only when they are performed from certain reasons. If they are performed from reasons, then it’s plausible that they are consciously performed and this would, not surprisingly, be excluded in a Zombie world.
    One may opt for a reductionist picture of value, a picture according to which the value of beauty, life and culture consists in one’s having certain desires (satisfied) towards sunsets, life and culture. So, then the idea would be that since Zombies do not have desires, there is no value in a Zombie world. This latter view, however, has its own problems. Desires do not need to be conscious, as we attribute desires towards things that we’re not inclined to attribute consciousness towards. Moreover, this reductionist picture sits uneasily with the anti-reductionist view that motivates a Zombie world. In the form of a question: Why should we be anti-reductionists about consciousness but not about value?
    As for myself, the two anti-reductionist views each seem just as conceivable as one another (not conceivable at all), but the alleged asymmetry would need to be defended or else the possibility of irreducible value will make Zombie worlds rich in moral properties.

  7. Christian: I think those who suppose that desires “do not need to be conscious” don’t thereby think they’re necessarily not conscious. I.e., it’s a condition of someone’s having a desire that it must be possible to bring that desire into consciousness. Given the descriptions of zombies, the only ‘desires’ they could have would necessarily not be conscious, hence not desires.

  8. Thanks everyone for interesting comments. I’m not too sure about this all but here’s few thoughts.
    Heath and Michael,
    I’m thinking about the Zombie-Jussi in the Zombie world currently typing these very words (would be cool to swap places…). It’s easy to describe him as wanting to make a point and believing that by writing these very words he can do so. I think I may be with the Humeans that such desire-belief pairs are necessary and sufficient for the Zombie-Jussi’s motions to count as actions.
    Of course one can do two things here. First, one could say that the desires and beliefs one is inclined to attribute to him are not *real* desires and beliefs – they would have to be conscious. I think Galen Strawson takes this line. Thus, you would not get actions. Or, you might deny that the Humean theory of actions is right.
    I like Michael’s proposal that Zombies would not count as agents in a rich enough sense for moral appraisal. You could accept that Zombies do act but they are still not agents. Robots seem to fall into this category.
    Richard,
    I think I might want to distinguish between three things:
    1. Promising something to x
    2. Making a successful promise to x
    3. Making a binding promise to x.
    I would like to say that if x is trees you can only get 1 but not 2 or 3. I wonder if zombies too would be capable of 1 but not 2 and 3. Or, they could be able to do 1 and 2 but not three. This would be the class to which coerced promises could fall. You can successfully promise to a tortured but I don’t think there is any obligation created.
    I’m not sure I’d like to go the Kantian way. This is actually quite interesting. Just for the reason you mention, I’ve always been attracted to the idea that the criteria for a good will in Kantian views should be understood as a formal criteria for a form of the will. And, one’s will can have the right form even when one doesn’t acknowledge it. If the Zombies have a rich enough set of functional states like beliefs and desires, then it could be that they are capable of having the right form of the will. But, from this you might get an argument that Kant’s criteria for moral worth of actions is not sufficient because otherwise the Zombie’s actions would be good.
    Christian,
    that is a worry. I think I would like to include some values to moral properties and not others. The Zombie world would have aesthetic values like that of the beatiful sunset, or biological values like life. I’m not sure what value culture has – probably many different values. But, I might want to deny that moral values are instantiated in that world. I’m also not sure about the other horn of the dilemma. It seems to me that accidental actions not done for any reasons can be right and wrong in our world.
    I do want to grant that Zombies have desires. On the reductionist picture of value you propose, the sunset would lose its value if the Zombies were removed from the world (as it would if we were removed from our world). I’m not sure I would want to say this. I’m also sorry that I’m not sure I follow the last argument.
    For what I know, the reductivist projects in both areas of philosophy often share same motivations. But, I take it that whether one should be a reductivist about some discourse depends on the plausibility of the reductive analyses one can come up with. Maybe one could find such for value concepts but not for phenomenal concepts. This could be due to asymmetric interrelations like that you need phenomenal concepts to analyse value contepts.
    Whether or not the asymmetry is defensible, I don’t think that the mere possibility of irreducible value properties can make the Zombie world rich in moral qualities. One would also have it that things in the Zombie world have the sui generis moral qualities.

  9. Michael,
    So you’re suggesting that Zombies couldn’t have desires? I put that as a question since I’m not sure. But let’s suppose that Zombies couldn’t have desires. I’m suggesting that a Zombie world would still have value since I don’t think the existence of desire is required for the existence of value. More precisely, I’m suggesting that the claim that a Zombie world must lack moral properties is true only if, when ‘moral properties’ are understood broadly, a reductionist view of value is assumed. But then the question is this: Why should we be reductionists about value, while at ther same time, anti-reductionists about consciousness.
    I’m also unsure why the view that it must be possible to bring a state S into consciousness is necessary for S to be a desire. But suppose that’s right. If so, it’s then arguable that Zombies “would have desires” since our duplicates are only contingently Zombies, and not necessarily Zombies, otherwise Zombies would only be ‘Zombies’ in name.

  10. Jussi,
    “It seems to me that accidental actions not done for any reasons can be right and wrong in our world.”
    A couple of things. I don’t think we have intuitions about the way things actually are. Intuitions must be about possibilities and necessities (though, of course, correct intutions about necessities entail facts about the actual world). More importantly, I’d like to hear more about this claim. It seems to me that an action performed from no reason at all can neither be right or wrong. A challenge: Find a better explanation for why animals cannot do right or wrong than the explanation that they do not act from reasons.
    “But, I take it that whether one should be a reductivist about some discourse depends on the plausibility of the reductive analyses one can come up with.”
    Yes. My point is that the conceivability intuitions seem to me to be symmetric between the cases. A Zombie world is no easier to conceive of than a duplicate world of ours without value. So, if we are to be reductionist about one, and not the other, we need a reason to think there is such a reductive analysis in the offing. What might that be?
    “I don’t think that the mere possibility of irreducible value properties can make the Zombie world rich in moral qualities. One would also have it that things in the Zombie world have the sui generis moral qualities.”
    The values needn’t be sui generis. The idea is that we can subtract consciousness from our world considering a duplicate of it, i.e. a Zombie world. Next, whatever values exist in our world that do not depend upon consciousness will carry over to the Zombie world. Since our world is rich in value that doesn’t depend upon consciousness, so does the Zombie world. You may restrict value to moral value, though I do not think there is a difference. But then my first worry arises again. If we restrict ‘moral properties’ to exclude interesting properties, then the conclusion of your argument is not at all surprising.

  11. Christian,
    good. This is helpful. Couple of thoughts on couple of thoughts.
    1. I’m surprised that you think that we don’t have intuitions about how things actually are morally speaking. Most people have a lot of intuitions about whether attacking Iraq for instance was right.
    When I’m driving if I’m not careful I might miss spotting the pedestrian crossing the street and run her over. That is an action of mine that I don’t do for any reason. Still wrong, right? A reply to the challenge is that animals lack what Wallace would call general normative capacities of responding to reasons. They could not even have acting for a reason. Agents can. Whether they do or do not in particular cases does not seem to be necessary.
    Of course, it can be that acting for a reason is necessary for responsibility, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness of the right and wrong actions. So, Arpaly for instance thinks that praiseworthiness requires that the act was motivated by concerns that track real good reasons. But, you can have wrong actions for which you are not blameworthy.
    2. It might be that this is true for you “A Zombie world is no easier to conceive of than a duplicate world of ours without value”. I seem to be able to conceive a Zombie world but not a world that lacks value but has all the same physical and phenomenal properties. I wonder how wide-spread these intuitions are. Some of the others above seemed to be on my side.
    3. Well, many people think that philosophy should not lead to surprising conclusions but rather leave things as it is. I like the idea of thinking about the thought experiment as extracting consciousness from our world and seeing what evaluative and normative properties are left. I find it interesting if any evaluative or normative properties disappear as they seem to in case of some moral properties. That would seem to imply that the naturalist, in the sense of physicalist, semantic views about some of the central moral and evaluative concepts could not hold. I would be surprised if the argument (which I’m not sure I would want to defend) have even this conclusion. But, I’m easily surprised.

  12. Hey Jussi,
    “Most people have a lot of intuitions about whether attacking Iraq for instance was right.”
    I’d distinguish between derived claims and basic claims and restrict intuitions only to basic claims. Derived claims depend upon basic intuitions as well as premises about the empirical facts; as would it be with the claim that “attacking Iraq was right”. There are subtleties, but that’s the idea.
    “When I’m driving if I’m not careful I might miss spotting the pedestrian crossing the street and run her over. That is an action of mine that I don’t do for any reason.”
    I’m missing something, but I think you have a reason to be careful.
    I don’t know what Wallace’s or Arpaly’s view is, but they seem to be getting at what I am. Animals don’t act wrongly because they don’t act from, respond to, or possess reasons.
    “I seem to be able to conceive a Zombie world but not a world that lacks value but has all the same physical and phenomenal properties.”
    I can’t conceive of either:)

  13. Christian,
    you wrote that:
    “It seems to me that an action performed from no reason at all can neither be right or wrong.”
    The case was supposed to be a counter-example to this. It doesn’t really matter that there is a reason to be careful because that isn’t a reason you acted on.
    In the Iraq case, or other actual cases, do you think that people really go through an inference to end up with the moral intuition? I would have thought that people can be sensitive directly and non-inferentially to such events and their moral features.
    I know many say that they cannot conceive Zombies. Occasionally I feel that way too. That’s one reason to be suspicious of the sort of arguments we are discussing.

  14. Jussi,
    I see. Now I understand the example. Someone is driving and they kill somebody through negligence and you want to describe the person’s action as being done for no reason though wrong.
    I want to say that the action is done for a reason, stipulation aside. People don’t drive for no reason. But if you really want to make the driving involuntary, like a cough, then I say his act isn’t wrong.
    There is an interesting question whether there could be an involuntary act, an act done for no reason, that should have been done for some reason. I need to think about this.
    I do think there are inferences involved, though they need not be conscious. The literature on heuristics and biases talks alot about this. Here is another worry though: intuition gives us knowledge, and when it does, it’s a priori. But, if intuitions were really about the actual world, then we would have a way to have a priori knowledge about which world is actual. But that’s impossible.
    I used to date a Zombie.

  15. Christian,
    I worry that you are switching actions. Sure, the action of driving the car is done for a reason. Trouble is that this seems to be a different action than killing the pedestrian. That the other action is done for a reason doesn’t seem to make the other action to be done for a reason. Doing something voluntarily also does not necessarily require doing something for a reason. I often just whistle for no reason at all. It’s still voluntary.
    I share your second worry. The problem is that since Kripke, Kaplan and others people do take a priori contingent knowledge seriously. Dancy thinks moral knowledge falls into this category in his new book. The main argument for this possibility is to refer to partners in crime. Ridge and McKeever have good commentary on that in their book.

  16. J-
    I think the contingent a priori examples are dubious, but fair enough, it’s not obvious. That was just a side argument, and there are all sorts of reasons to think intuitions can’t be about what is actually the case. But I suppose this is something of a digression.
    You say you whistle for no reason at all, while I think you whistle for reasons you are unaware of. I don’t think the relevant action is killing the pedestrian, but that it is a consequence of your action. Moreover, I think ‘driving the car’ counts only as a performed action derivatively, as being an apt description of more fine-grained actions that explain it. But, again, it’s not obvious how to individuate actions and I don’t want my point, that all actions evaluable for rightness or wrongness, must be actions performed from some reason, to hang on this.
    I’m open though. I just can’t think of an action I would want to describe as wrong, that wasn’t also performed from a bad reason.

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