Tuesday, March 31. 2009
I'm going to keep chiseling away at the utilitarian ethic represented by Kenny's essay on poverty and Peter Singer's essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." I want emphasize, again, that I am not out to prove them wrong. If I did that, I doubt anyone would hear me out, because they would just assume I'm one of those ethically-challenged people who don't want to admit that he should chip in to Oxfam. I wouldn't be bugged by the whole thing, unless I thought they were at least partially right. It's the paradox that bugs me – the fact that it seems like we should care more than we do, but don't. I am led by Harry's Law (in honor of my boss, Harry Shaughnessy): "If what you're doing seems to be really, really hard, you're probably not doing it right."
So, I did some homework on Singer. It turns out there is a name for this reluctance to accept his conclusions: the Demandingness Objection. Various philosophers have taken a crack at explaining why Singer is wrong. Some do little more than restate the observed intuition: we don't feel like it's a profound moral obligation, so we shouldn't treat it as such. Or that it's simply too demanding to be considered reasonable. Those approaches just beg the question: why is it unreasonable? A few others, such as Thomas Nagel and Philip Pettit, dig into the intuition that most people feel: that an infinite demand of the world's needy upon our resources somehow compromises our own interests too much. "What about me? Doesn't my happiness and suffering matter?" is the usual, sometimes explicit response. It defies our sensibilities to have our own interests swamped and made insubstantial by the demands of millions of others.
Even Singer, it seems, doesn't take his own prescriptions to that length. He claims to give 25% of his income to overseas relief, which is certainly generous, and yet still far short of the full-on sacrifices his ethics seem to demand. Even Singer, at some undetermined point, seems to think his own interests trump those of the little girl drowning from hunger right in front of him in far-away Namibia.
Of all the approaches to the Demandingness Objection, Pettit's seemed the most sensible: we are not responsible for ALL world suffering, merely our fair share of the world suffering. If everyone in the First World nations chipped in a little for the Third, then the problems could really be solved without anyone having to make superhuman sacrifices. At least that approach allows us to accept some responsibility for our fellow human beings, without turning ourselves into victims.
But even that approach has a certain cold, number-crunching aspect that doesn't sit well . . . not mention that it opens up a whole new set of questions: how much is "my fair share"? Which needs are the ones that exert a moral demand? Is it enough to keep people from dying, or do I need to bring them up to an identical standard of living as my own? What constitutes suffering, or happiness, and are they completely correlated with material wealth? And how do we measure it?
In fact, the whole utilitarian project, once you truly start to implement it, runs into lots of problems with measurement. There is another well-known objection called the Mere Addition Paradox, which tries to run with the assumptions of utilitarianism and finds itself in some weird conclusions. If we add people to the world who are somewhat less happy than everyone else, is the world diminished? If you say yes, then you might be lead to conclude the solution to inequality is to kill all the sad people (a la Monty Python's King Otto). If you say no, then through a series of calculations you might ultimately conclude that having an enormous number of marginally happy people is better than a smaller number of quite happy people, and the goal of our ethical manipulations becomes the multiplication of misery. The paradoxes suggest what I had outlined in the beginning of our discussion: rather than the moral intuition being right, or the ethical rule being right, perhaps neither is right, and we're trying to rationalize something that is not altogether rational.
Sunday, March 29. 2009
In his comments to yesterday's post, Kenny writes:
I love what you're doing with this. I love the careful analysis of the basis of the moral instinct which I exploited, but did not examine at all, in my essay.
But where I feel like you are headed, or at least where my brain heads once I start down this path, is to the ultimate question: why, in fact, is it a bad thing to boil babies? If Pinker is right--if "Boiling babies is bad" is just a convenient shorthand for "Humans have a hard-coded instinctive aversion to boiling babies"--then, as Bergman's knight says, life is an outrageous horror. Nothing really matters at all. Pinker can't even say to me "You should face the truth," because any sentence that contains the word "should" is fundamentally meaningless in his world.
Believe me, I understand dangers of nihilism when asking these questions. These posts have taken me a very long time to write, because I keep alternating between the excitement of knowing I'm asking the right question, and the stark depression of realizing I don't like the answers I'm finding.
Pinker devoted an entire book – The Blank Slate – to showing the awful mistakes that come from rejecting a truth when it threatens to overturn your world view. Pinker was just trying to state what he thought was obvious: that there is such a thing as human nature, and that certain things about our nature are built-in, hard-wired capacities of our organism. But lots of forces lined up against him – progressive liberal academia as well as right-wing fundamentalists – because they couldn't comprehend how there could be human nature and still preserve the things they held most dear: moral responsibility, free will, self-determination, or an immortal soul. The result is that otherwise rational beings twist themselves into knots trying to sustain their world-view, trapped in self-contradictions and sometimes spinning out disastrous policies as a result.
We've all seen this sort of conceptual evolution in others, and even in ourselves. In this week's Independent I saw an interview with Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted. Ehrman was an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian who wanted to learn as much as possible about the scriptures, and who found himself inexorably dragged into questioning his faith as he learned of historical critiques of the Bible. It's relatively easy for someone like me or Kenny to look a fundamentalist in the eye and say: "Look, I know you think that everything hinges on the Bible being absolutely true. It feels like if the Bible is taken away, everything is going to crumble and you'll be left in total darkness in a meaningless universe. But I'm telling you, it's not like that. You will not become a bad person by doubting. You might even become a better person. It takes some getting used to, living in the doubt. But eventually you'll realize that dealing with the doubt is better than caging yourself in a lie. And you might even find the real truth, the thing you were hoping to find in the scriptures to begin with."
We are no better, though. When the evolutionary biologists come along, telling us that our morals are evolved mechanisms for reciprocal altruism, we plug our ears and say, "LALALALALA -- I'm not listening! I know you're probably right, but if I start believing that, I will live in a meaningless universe, and I don't want to live in a meaningless universe." And Pinker say, "Look, I know it feels that way right now, but . . ."
I'm not saying anything Kenny doesn't already know. Kenny wrote that essay on poverty because he believes in trying to face the truth, even if it's a truth he can't handle. He put his moral conviction out for all to see, in spite of the fact that he couldn't live by it himself, because he trusts that facing the truth will ultimately lead to the best possible outcome. I agree with him . . . which is why I'm going to keep going down this rabbit hole.
Saturday, March 28. 2009
Continuing our discussion of Kenny's essay on poverty: Where do moral intuitions come from?
When we have one, it certainly feels like a self-evident truth. No argument is required to convince me that boiling babies is wrong. And, since vast majorities of people have the same intuition, I might be tempted to conclude there is a universal moral law, a sense of right and wrong built-in to the human psyche. Lots of religious traditions point to that moral sense as the stamp of the Divine in creation. How else could all peoples share such a clear understanding of right and wrong?
Except, of course, that it isn't always that clear. Annoying thought experiments like Kenny's fruit-juice sacrifice prove that moral intuitions are often opaque and open to disagreement. And different cultures, while they agree on some of the big-picture concepts (e.g. rape and murder is wrong, fairness is good, etc.) they have profound disagreements on the details (e.g. whether a woman should be stoned for adultery).
Steven Pinker wrote an excellent summary of evolutionary biology's findings on the origins of morals in the New York Times. (If you have time, I would read it now -- it's more valuable than what I have to say here.) In it he discusses how all human cultural have the same basic five elements of moral prohibitions (concerning harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity) but vary in the relative emphasis of each category. Moreover, he demonstrates how each form of morals could be evolutionarily advantageous: an instinct to help others, especially when the cost to you is little and the benefit to the other is great, would allow an organism to propagate its genes, by helping it's relatives to survive, or engaging in reciprocal altruism with its neighbors, trading help now for the expectation of help later.
I bring up Pinker's article in this discussion because I think the evolutionary psychology does a pretty good job of explaining the contradictions that come out from Kenny's fruit-juice dilemma. Biologically speaking, people are programmed to help the people who are close to them -- their family, their neighbors, the members of their immediate community -- because they might share genes with them, or because they might get helped by them in turn at a later time. In contrast, helping far-away people with whom we have no relationship at all has practically no evolutionary benefit. If there were a gene that made us feel compassion for starving Third World children, it would probably not be preserved by natural selection. From a biological perspective, the Christian commandment to "love thy neighbor" is not metaphorical, but literal -- it means, "help the people who are close to you."
Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that Kenny is wrong. Just because we are not biologically programmed to do the right thing in this instance doesn't mean that it isn't right. It just makes it a whole lot harder. But the insights of evolutionary psychology do force us to rethink the origins of our moral convictions, and identify the ultimate source of what compels our action. Do we believe something is right because our potentially fallible moral emotions tell us it's right? Or do we believe it because it aligns with some rational principle? Or does it all depend ultimately in unquestioned faith in something else? That's the question I don't think Kenny really answered in his essay -- he obviously believes helping the starving masses is the right thing to do, in spite of the fact that he doesn't find it compelling enough to actually do it. The question is: why?
Friday, March 27. 2009
In his comments yesterday, Kenny cited his essay on poverty as part of his response to Ayn Rand. I want to dig into the arguments of this essay, because I think it actually does shed light both on why Rand appeals, and also where she goes wrong. So go read it, and then come back to my comments.
I am very familiar with Kenny's basic argument. In fact, I had used essentially the same arguments in a couple SKS meetings and class his mother taught at Raleigh Charter High, based on a book review in The New Yorker. The essential argument is: if you would expend a tiny bit of effort to save the life of someone right in front of you, why won't you expend the same tiny amount of effort to save impoverished people overseas? If we think we are good people, why don't we give to Oxfam?
Let's look at Kenny's version of the thought experiment in detail, looking at each step in the reasoning:
Each of these approaches has potential. We all know of people who are ethically challenged (certain Wall Street investment bankers come to mind), who do the wrong thing and feel no remorse about it. So option A is certainly plausible, though we'd rather not contemplate the thought that we are the ones who are ethically challenged.
On the other hand, it does seem slightly fishy to me that Kenny's argument is deeply trusting of the moral intuition to help the person in the movie line, but then deeply distrusting of the disinclination of othewise good and upstanding people to help the starving kids overseas. If the strong moral feeling is the crux of the argument, why shouldn't the lack of a strong moral feeling about the kids overseas be sufficient argument to overturn Kenny's case? That line of reasoning carries its own frustrations, because it points toward a complete moral relativism: right is whatever I feel is right. That doesn't quite feel right either (see the previous paragraph about the ethically challenged), so ethicists try to re-jigger the statement of moral principle to somehow account for the fact that the average person doesn't give 50% of his earnings to Oxfam, and doesn't even feel like he should. One solution that Peter Singer proposed: instead of feeling crushed under the burden of the world's need, a good person is only obliged to do their fair share of the giving -- to give whatever would be sufficient to meet the need, if everyone in the country and the world did the same.
Confronted with all these contradictions, we come to the third option: maybe we're just thinking about this all wrong. The fruit-juice argument treats a moral intuition like it was identical to an axiom of geometry. It assumes the sense that "saving this woman with my fruit juice is good" is an intellectual intuition of a real truth, just like "two parallel lines will never intersect" is an intuition of a real truth. It assumes that the ethical principle we derive from our moral feelings can be infinitely extended by logic, and potentially lead us to non-intuitive truths by the power of reason. That's an assumption most ethicists seem willing to make, but it is an assumption, and it seems like it does not "save the appearances" of our moral intuitions. We are cheerfully irrational about our moral behavior.
To answer this question, we have to get to the bottom of where these moral intuitions come from, and what they mean, and what we can conclude from them. (to be continued…)
Wednesday, March 25. 2009
I have continued chipping away at Atlas Shrugged while on the elliptical machine. It has made for timely reading, since during the period I was reading it the financial system melted down. Lots of Ayn Rand fans have commented on the fact that current events somewhat parallel the events of Atlas Shrugged – government efforts to serve the needs of the unproductive leads to economic failure, which leads to more government interventions, which leads to more failure, etc. I must admit, Congress' platitudes about helping out the little guy by pushing Fannie and Freddie into ludicrous loans, and then the Wall Street rush to exploit this unsustainable generosity, looks an awful lot like the "looters" of Ayn Rand's magnus opus.
If current events made Rand's philosophy look more plausible, though, it was counteracted by the fact that I was also reading Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works at the same time. Evolutionary psychology blows a lot of big holes in Rand's philosophy, and it looks like the critics of Objectivism have noticed. It was screamingly obvious to me that Rand's view on sexuality – that people are sexually attracted to those who manifest their highest ideals – was perfectly consistent with what evolutionary psychology would predict for a woman. Females' genetic interests are best served by mating with the most fit male, i.e. the wealthiest, most productive one, and since they have such a high investment in having a baby, they will tend to be very selective of their mates. That same formula doesn't quite work for the males, though – males get much more genetic, ahem, bang for the buck by being promiscuous, since the have to invest much less than the female in generating offspring. Rand concocts a contorted theory that only men who hate themselves could be promiscuous, and that promiscuity is antithetical to their true nature. I didn't buy it. Even men who are profoundly committed to monogamy (such as yours truly) will admit that it is not the natural state of affairs – if commitment was natural, why would we have to make vows to stick to it? Evolutionary psychology presented a cleaner explanation than Rand, in this case.
The gaps were even more noticeable in Rand's notion of the virtue of selfishness, and the sin of altruism. Evolutionary biology points out that people are self-interested, but not exclusively self-interested. We are also predisposed to helping our relatives, since they share our genes, and helping our mates, since their genetic interests are mostly identical to ours. Rand would have us believe that altruism is nothing but an illusion and a sham, but in fact our inmost nature tells us otherwise. There are no children in Rand's books, because love for one's children blows apart most of her ideas. Nearly all parents do believe in sacrificing their own interests for the sake of their children's interests – and no amount of arguing will make us think otherwise. Again, evolutionary biology perfectly explains what Objectivism strains to cover.
If she was so wrong about human nature, then, why does her philosophy appeal so strongly to so many? The world-view in Atlas Shrugged is not implausible – I often find myself seeing life as a war between the competent producers and the incompetent freeloaders. There still may be some truth to be mined from it.
Saturday, March 21. 2009
I hope that when BeliefNet and other such outlets are judging “best spiritual films” for 2009, they will include Coraline, Henry Selick’s 3-D stop-motion animation adaption of Neil Gaiman’s novel. I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s Sandman comic for years, and Coraline has the same creepy-fantastic-dreamworld feeling that pervades Gaiman’s stories of the King of Dreams. And, like Sandman or Pan’s Labyrinth, you go into it thinking you’re getting fantasy and are shocked to find that it’s really horror, a genre you wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot-pole had you not been tricked into it. Then you have to deal with the surprising self-knowledge that you kind of like horror, if it’s done right.
Many parents will see trailers and think this is another Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride – that is, faux horror, a cute take on horror, not real horror. But when the MPAA ratings say “PG for thematic elements,” they mean that the movie is designed to creep you out. Critics seemed to differ on whether this is a good thing or not – some found it to be a defect in what they continued to mistake for a children’s film, while others recognized it as the film’s conscious achievement.
So, if Coraline is so horrific, why then am I proposing it as a “spiritual” film? Partially, it’s to cure the prevailing notion that “spiritual” is synonymous with sunshiny, feel-good moral uplift. There can be a lot of spiritual value in being disturbed, and sometimes the best way to discover the light is to face the darkness. But besides that, Coraline is packed with so much Jungean archetypal imagery and spiritual themes that some pop-culture grad student is certainly writing their Master’s thesis on it right now.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I would catch the DVD and then see if you caught the same details I did (caution: spoilers follow):
Continue reading "Coraline"
Monday, March 16. 2009
I put Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works into my recommended reading list for spiritual seekers primarily because it was the best all-around introduction to evolutionary psychology that I've ever read. And evolutionary psychology is one of those subjects that spiritual people tend to avoid – primarily because it makes too much sense to be complete hokum, and yet raises questions that spiritual models of humanity would rather not face.
Pinker is not going to explain the basics of evolutionary theory to you; you'll need a good biology course to completely, thoroughly convince you that evolution is not merely a "theory", but one of the most well-supported pieces of human knowledge in the history of science. Once you can accept that complex creatures can evolve, achieving awe-inspiring designs without a hands-on Designer, then you might be ready to face what comes next. I realize that for many people, that's an enormous step to take, since they (erroneously) assume that to acknowledge the reality of evolution is to deny the reality of a God who was supposedly the creator of humanity. If you have a strong vested interest in not believing in evolution, I doubt any argument is going to change your mind; evolution through natural selection is a subtle enough idea that you'll find it easy to block out. Most sensible religious people defeat the theory of evolution by simply ignoring it – neither accepting it nor denying it, but just letting it lurk. (In all fairness, that's how most atheists avoid troubling questions about the nature of consciousness, too – ignore it, and hope it goes away, or at least doesn't bother you.)
If you're an honest spiritual seeker, though, you have to play this one through. You will not find the Divine in mankind or the universe by denying the obvious fact that people are also animals. If you are willing to entertain the notion that our minds evolved, just like the wings of birds or the gills of fish, you will find an astounding number of mysteries of human nature cracked open and explained, including:
In fact, if you went down the top-ten list of social issues facing humanity today – war, crime, greed, injustice, inequality – you would find evolutionary psychology would have something to say about all of them. Can we afford not to look at it carefully, if it holds the keys to, if not solving all the world's problems, at least understanding them?
The one thing I can promise is that contemplating evolutionary psychology will not lead you to abandon notions of morality, justice, personal responsibility, or even the possibility of a divine soul. Recognizing the truth of our evolutionary heritage is not a one-way ticket to nihilism. It will, however, force you to rethink a lot of truisms about human nature, and reconsider what, if anything, makes us so special.
Sunday, March 15. 2009
Another unexpected spiritual insight from Pinker's How the Mind Works is that it almost exactly reproduces Richard Rose's general view of human psychology. People usually think of themselves as a single person, making decisions consistently in their own rational self-interest. Rose, however, noted that if you observe the proceedings of your own mind through introspection, and observed the behavior of people in general, it made a lot more sense to think of the mind as a collection of people: a bunch of Mini-Mes, often coalesced around desires and fears that competed with each other for control of the body.
It's not hard to persuade people of a multiple-self model – it pops up all over the place in our language and culture. Cartoon characters, when facing a moral dilemma, often have little angel and devil versions of themselves sitting on either shoulder, whispering in their ears. An overweight person wakes up determined to stick to a diet, and then ends the day eating a piece of chocolate cake – behaving almost exactly like two completely separate people with contradictory goals.
Based on this observation of the multiplicity of selves, Rose's advice to spiritual seekers was half common-sense folk wisdom and half mystical philosophy:
Rose's model of psychology came out of his own observation, and the pastiche of pop psychology, folk wisdom, and plain old superstition. Pinker's model has a much more scientific providence, but essentially confirms the same observations. A major theme of How the Mind Works is that human intelligence is not some undifferentiated blob of reasoning stuff, but rather a collection of discrete tools for cognition, each with its own programming and often leading the organism to differing conclusions. Pinker recognizes that each human emotion is a separate set of programming, to cope with different situations, and that they often contradict each other. He goes a few steps further and even demonstrates that because of the multiplicity of modules, evolution has designed certain emotions to override reason and seize control of the organism, so that other humans could count on a consistent reaction from someone regardless of the turn-over of motivations and rationales (e.g. marital infidelity will be consistently met with murderous rage). And, like Rose, Pinker sees consciousness as the mystery sitting in the middle of it all, the one begging to be explained.
Friday, March 13. 2009
Of all the emotions that Pinker dissects with evolutionary theory in How the Mind Works, I think the most significant one is happiness. If emotions are the "prime mover" of behavior, then happiness and unhappiness are at the top of the pyramid, since we generally hold it to be "self-evident" that everyone pursues happiness. Evolutionarily, happiness appears to be the constant drive to biological fitness: as Pinker puts it, "We are happier when we are healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved. Compared with their opposites, these objects of striving are conducive to reproduction. The function of happiness would be to mobilize the mind to seek the keys to Darwinian fitness."
Ok, sensible enough. However, Pinker immediately shows that such programming is going to have some insurmountable catches:
These scientific insights are not that different from those of spiritual traditions. Sages have known for thousands of years that happiness was a receding goal, that desires were impossible to fill, and that life as we live it on this earth is something of a treadmill. Now, at least, we have a compelling scientific rationale for the state of affairs we find ourselves in. It also gives me plenty to watch for, inside my own skull. Now I know why sticks are more attention-getting than carrots, why I scramble to avoid censure in my current duties rather than seeking achievements in new directions, and why I spend so much mental energy comparing myself to others.
Thursday, March 12. 2009
For most of my life, and most of my career as a spiritual seeker, I had a classically Romantic notion of reason and emotion:
In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker inverts this model. Pinker asserts that the mind is an evolved mechanism, and as such any complex mechanism in the mind must have served a survival function. And that function is not the lowest of functions, but rather the highest.
Pinker posits that if you had a perfectly rational, sophisticated cognition machine without emotions (say, a robot, or Dr. Spock) and you set it lose in the world with no instructions, it would do . . . absolutely nothing. Intelligence has no use at all unless it has goals – it has to want something. It has to have a motive. And intelligence itself cannot generate the motive; it can figure out how to achieve a goal, but it can't figure out what goals to achieve. The highest-level goal has to come from somewhere else. And that's where the emotions come in. Pinker: "The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting."
So, rather than reason controlling emotion, it's exactly the other way around – emotions mobilize reason to fulfill goals. Every emotion we have is evolutionarily designed to meet some challenge in the world. Pinker spends most of the second half of the book deconstructing the design and survival value of every human emotion: fear, disgust, happiness, friendship, gratitude, sympathy, romantic love, guilt, grief, etc.
For now, though, just consider the ramifications of that simple formulation: emotions trigger responses that lead to action. It becomes a sort of mindfulness meditation: what emotion is motivating my thoughts and actions right now? If you want to change your behavior in some way (after, of course, considering the emotions that make you want to change your behavior) you will probably have to consciously manage your emotions – figure out what environmental cues trigger the emotions that generate the thoughts and behaviors that are manifesting in your life.
These ideas were not entirely new to me – I was always partial to Hume's formulation: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." But this was the first time that I heard a strong scientific case for that position. And rather than seeing the emotions as "primitive" or somehow undesirable, Pinker gives the emotions their due as sophisticated, engineered, essential aspects of cognition. It makes it that much easier for me to accept them and understand them for what they are.
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