Monday, April 27. 2009
So, I started arguing against the infinite moral demands of helping the poor, and Kenny responded:
Dude. All I'm claiming is that helping a child grow up healthy and productive, instead of suffering permanent damage from malnutrition or disease, is more important than a mocha cappuccino. While I have to grant that this is not defensible in any ultimately logical sense, it hardly seems like an extraordinary claim that requires some extraordinary proof.
Sigh. Ok, let me start again, because this is where I feel like all the moral confusion comes in (for me, anyway). If you leave it at that the above statement – "helping a child grow up healthy and productive . . . is more important than a mocha cappuccino" – then nobody has any particular disagreement. I think a weak version of Peter Singer's argument – "let's do a little more to help the poor" – can get some traction in my philosophical universe.
Where things get hopelessly confusing for me is the strong version of Singer's position: as Kenny put it in his essay, "No amount of sacrifice seems sufficient." If someone tells me I have a moral obligation to give away everything to the poor, that I deserve nothing more than the most impoverished person in the world . . . that's when alarm bells go off in my mind. And not just the bells of my selfish desire to have the mocha cappuccino – some part of me honestly believes that total denial of the self is somehow Wrong, with the same moral grounding that says that letting a child starve is Wrong. My sense is that most people agree with me, too, whether they are willing to admit it or not, because that's the way the vast majority of good people actually live. That's the cog I'm trying to deconstruct. If I successfully challenge that conviction, then I can happily proceed with doing as Singer suggests and giving unreservedly to the poor. If that conviction stands, though, I have a hope of living without perpetual guilt.
Guilt, I think, is an important part of this equation. I am not willing, as Kenny seems to be, to accept a moral philosophy that condemns me to be forever guilty, no matter how much I do. That just can't be right.
Gary correctly identified the critical question: how much is enough? I already give dozens of cappucinos worth to the poor, blood to the Red Cross, etc. I don't need anyone to tell me that's good. What I need to know is -- what would be enough? And to answer that question, we have to look all the way back to the basis of our moral convictions, and how we conceive of the meaning of life.
Saturday, April 11. 2009
So, how do we make decisions, especially moral decisions, in the absence of absolute knowledge?
There is one field of human knowledge that spends almost all its time on this question – the law. In civil and criminal cases, judges and juries are routinely asked to suss out the truth in the face of conflicting claims, and make weighty decisions on the basis of their findings. The court system is designed to be as fair and true as possible while still being pragmatic. What can the law tell us about practical epistemology?
For one, courts use different standards of evidence for different kinds of cases. Thanks to Law & Order and other such courtroom dramas, we're all familiar with the standard of evidence for murder trials: the defendant must be found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt in order to be convicted, and twelve different people must all agree. Lesser standards prevail in most other cases. Many legal principles use the "reasonable man" test: what would any reasonable person conclude, given certain evidence? The important point here is that our standards for evidence vary with the case, and extraordinary measures (e.g. executing someone) must be justified with extraordinary proof (i.e. beyond all reasonable doubt).
The other important concept outlined in the law is burden of proof. The law recognizes that epistemological confusion can justify anything or nothing, depending on your inclination, so it determines ahead of time what course should be taken when insurmountable doubts arise. In nearly all criminal proceedings in the United States, the burden of proof is on the prosecution: if reasonable doubts about a particular case exist, criminal law presumes the person is innocent. (Note that in lots of other non-legal proceedings, the burden of proof is quite different; when a salesman is trying to convince us to buy a used car, the burden of proof is upon the salesman to prove the car is not a lemon, and even the slightest suspicion of problems can be sufficient grounds not to buy the car.) The important point here is that we need to decide what's the reasonable "default" to take with certain kinds of cases.
Does any of this help with our ethical questions of helping the poor? The standard of evidence required is going to vary with just how big a claim you make about our moral responsibilities to alleviate poverty. If you say everyone should give a little bit to help the poor, then you can probably get away with the simple "fed people are better than starving people" argument. If you are going to claim (as Kenny did) that everyone has an infinite duty to help the poor, to the extent that they should give away everything until they live in poverty themselves . . . well, that's going to demand a pretty high standard of evidence. It almost certainly flunks the "reasonable man" test; a grand jury would probably approve of pressing murder charges against a man who stands by and watches a girl drown in a pond, but would never dream of prosecuting someone for not giving to Oxfam. The prevailing "reasonable" position is that giving to the poor is good, but superogatory. And, I believe, the burden of proof is upon Kenny to prove that it's otherwise.
Again, none of this proves that Kenny is wrong about helping the poor. Principles of law are often not the same as principles of ethics, nor should they be. I just want to make it clear that I'm not hiding behind an epistemological fog. Reasonable standards of practical evidence do not demand the ethical standard that Kenny is proposing, at least with the rationale he has presented so far.
In his comments, Kenny writes:
Descartes made a very strong distinction between the kind of truth you look for in philosophy--the truth of absolute certainly beyond a doubt--and the kind of truth that you have to use as a basis for action, which is more probabalistic, based on the best evidence you have at the moment. Both are important, but don't get them confused. That's the big distinction I see here. I want moral truth on the level of absolute certainty--this is, in fact, the very heart of my own justification for the life of the mystic (shameless plug for another of my own essays, I know, but really, it's all based on the necessity of finding some absolute basis for morality, and the impossibility of doing so through reason).
At the same time, there is the practical level that you have to act on. From all I can tell, right now, well-fed people are better than starving people. That unjustified assumption gives enough basis for making decisions.
Ok, all philosophic discussions have to run up against the questions of epistemology: "How do you know what you know?" Absolutely everything gets harder to talk about once you recognize the fact that you have incomplete and incorrect knowledge. In college my twin brother and I took a seminar class called "Personal and Disciplinary Approaches to Truth," in which a bunch of different professors from various departments discussed how their particular field (science, engineering, design, etc.) thought about truth. For our final exam we had to write papers about what we had learned from the class, and then in the last class meeting the instructors asked us to pick out the one most important sentence from our papers to share with the class. I don't remember what I wrote, but I do remember my brother's: "You could be wrong."
The problem with epistemology, of course, is that it has no end. There are an infinite number of explanations that can be made to explain our observed phenomena. Maybe the world was made by an omnipotent God. Maybe it was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Out of the millions of potential models for the world, which one do we pick to guide our actions?
Epistemology can be used to forestall action forever. We are all familiar with government agencies and officials who, when pressured to implement a policy they don't like, will declare that "further studies are needed." I call it the "epistemological punt" – "We don't know enough yet to know if it's the right thing to do, so let's do nothing." Cowards and couch-potatoes delight in the realm of epistemology, since it gives a never-ending reason to put off doing absolutely anything, forever, for no particular reason. Intuitively, most of us realize that "how-do-you-know-that-you-know-that-you-know-that-you-know" is a trap, a recipe for inaction not unlike death. We need some other mechanism or standard for operating in the realm of partial or conditional truth.
One can, however, make the exact opposite mistake about epistemology. "Oh, since we can't know anything for sure, all models are equally valid." I call this the "epistemological push" – "you can't really prove anything, so I'm going to go right on believing that homeopathy really works." While the Punters would have you do nothing in the absence of sure knowledge, the Pushers believe that anything goes. This form was mastered by the Postmodernists, who declared nothing was true and therefore anything was valid and therefore we have to believe anything they say. Pushing can be used in moderation, too, to justify whatever we happen to uncritically believe, because "that's just the way I see it."
So, getting back to our original discussion about the moral demands of helping the poor . . . Kenny seems to think that I'm Punting. I started questioning the logic and assumptions that he used in his assertions, essentially raising epistemological doubts to the degree that I could say, "You don't know that for sure, therefore your case is flawed and I don't have an infinity moral responsibility to alleviate poverty." And, for my money, I think Kenny is Pushing: he's making claims without sufficient proof, and claiming that the necessity of immediate action is sufficient to overcome any deficits in our absolute knowledge.
What to do?
Thursday, April 9. 2009
Some good comments from Gary and Kenny; let me return to those in a moment.
Pinker had another point in The Stuff of Thought (another of his books that I just finished and am still digesting) that seemed relevant to the discussion, about the nature of taboos. A taboo is a cultural norm, but it's not just that a certain action is proscribed, but rather that even directly thinking about something is forbidden. You can violate a taboo just by mentioning it in conversation, or otherwise inviting other people to think thoughts that should not be thought. Taboos are kinda weird, because it's not that the taboo subject is completely unknown to the people who respect the taboo – it's just that they don't want to think about it directly, or behave as if it's a subject for rational contemplation.
Sex used to be a taboo subject in our culture. You could offend someone just by mentioning its existence. Everyone, of course, knew all about sex and certainly engaged in it – it was just not a subject for conversation or contemplation. Over the last fifty years or so that taboo has faded considerably, given what you see on TV, but you will still see some boundaries in what most people will comfortably talk about in public. Religion was also a great taboo that has faded over time; there is more talk now about the "religious marketplace" in which people freely mix and match religious traditions and beliefs. But with religion, too, we become conscious of certain taboos when we see them violated. Recently, the atheists started crossing a taboo line by boldly, publically declaring the non-existence of God. Lots of thinkers declined to believe in divine personage over the centuries, but their opinions tended to be quiet and oblique. It is still largely considered rude to announce one's atheism loudly in a dinner party.
Why do we have taboos, if everyone knows about what we're not talking about? In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker suggests some taboos are related to the terms on which we define our relationships. The anthropologist Alan Fiske categorized all human relationships into three broad categories: Communality (freely sharing among kin and community), Authority (using power to claim resources), and Exchange (trading resources for mutual gain). Each kind of relationship has its own rules and logic, and if you mismatch the rules to the situation, the result is a faux pax. A man who gets up from his mother's Thanksgiving feast (Communality) and offers to pay her $200 for it (Exchange) will certainly offend her and everyone present. Likewise, if a waiter in a restaurant provides good service in hopes of receiving a big tip (Exchange) and instead gets a hearty "thanks!" from the patron (Communality), the waiter will be offended.
Some topics, then, are taboo because they frame the relationship with the wrong set of instinctive relationship-logic. Pinker gives the example of the pre-nuptial contract. Since half of all marriages in our country now end in divorce, you might logically think everyone ought to get a pre-nuptial contract spelling out how a divorce would be handled. Yet most couples strenuously resist even discussing prenuptials, because it engages Exchange mentality ("I'll give you this if you give me that") at precisely the time they want to be emphasizing Communality ("what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine") to ensure a committed marriage. Even thinking the thoughts can bring about the outcome they are trying to avoid in the first place.
I think religious taboos follow a similar sort of logic. People don't want to discuss religion because it undermines the intuitive logic of Communality ("we are all children of God") and Authority ("He alone is the Lord") which defines the nature of our relationships with each other. Whether there actually is a God is not the point – we just want to keep treating each other as if there is a God. And while specific religious traditions have blurred into one another in the multicultural melting pot, the most basic common elements of religion as a definer of our relationships persists: a belief in God (though barely defined), and a vague consensus on a moral reality.
Which brings us up to the current conversation about the genesis of morals. Whenever I pursue moral arguments out to their logical ends (as Singer does), I wind up standing at the precipice of this final taboo: no one wants to admit that our morals are hanging in space with no visible support. Even atheists such as Pinker, who are perfectly comfortable declaring God to be "palpably unreal," are unwilling to say that "there is no moral law." Even after demonstrating that the emotions that support morality and ethics are evolved mechanisms, he will still vehemently insist there really is such a thing as right and wrong. Pinker suggests that maybe morality is the necessary result of logical truth: it always stands to reason that everyone is better off if everyone helps everyone else. Maybe our brains evolved the moral emotions to perceive an objective truth, just like we evolved the mechanism to understand mathematics. These explanations are hardly explanations; to define morality as merely enlightened self-interest is just to say, once again, that we only have self-interest and all we do is look out for ourselves. To say that morality is character of the universe simply begs the question: morality is real because it's real. I have to suspect that Pinker is holding back for reasons other than logic. Perhaps even he can't override the programming in his brain that says right and wrong are real. Or perhaps he just knows it's taboo: to declare morality to be non-rational is social suicide. Nobody trusts the man who has no law.
Wednesday, April 1. 2009
One part of the whole "helping the poor" thing that bothers me is that it seems to leave unanswered the whole question of why we are alive to begin with. I have dialogues with myself that run something like this:
Noble Me: "What is my purpose in life? I know – I'll be a saint. I will dedicate myself to alleviating the suffering of the poor."
Skeptical Me: "So . . . the purpose of your life is to help those poor people."
SM: "And the meaning of your life will be manifested in the sorts of lives they have, because of you."
SM: "And . . . what's the purpose of their lives?"
NM: "Well, um . . . to be happy, I guess."
SM: "Happy how, exactly?"
NM: "Well, that's for them to figure out, isn't it?"
SM: "Yes, but what do you imagine they will do with their lives?"
NM: "Well, they'll work. They'll make things. They'll do things. They'll have families, and love their children. They'll live."
SM: "So the purpose of living is . . . being alive?"
NM: (hesitating) ". . . Yessss"
SM: "Sounds kind of tautological, doesn't it?"
NM: "Well, being alive beats the alternative, doesn't it?"
SM: "Well, yeah . . . probably. But if being alive is the point, why worry about having a purpose at all? Why don't you just live?"
NM: "Well, that would just be selfish, wouldn't it? There's much more to life than just enjoying yourself. What's the point of just living for yourself?"
SM: "So, what about the people you help? What if they're selfish? Does that mean their lives have no purpose? And, since you said the meaning of your life is tied up in their lives, does that mean by extension your life would be meaningless?"
NM: "Well, no . . . they'll find their own ways to have a meaningful life."
SM: "How? By helping someone else? Does that mean you have to have someone less fortunately than yourself to give to, to make your life meaningful? Do we need the poor in order to make life meaningful?"
NM: "No, not necessarily helping other people. They'll find other ways."
SM: "So helping others is just a way to pass the buck – to make someone else figure out what a meaningful life is supposed to be?"
NM: "No . . . they'll find other ways to make people happy."
SM: "So happiness is the purpose of life?"
SM: "Sounds kind of selfish."
I could go on with this sort of thing, but it tends to bite its own tail, repeat itself, and generally gets boring long before any kind of conclusion is reached. I come away with the same conclusion: I must be missing something, because none of this fits together quite right. If happiness is the point, then why bother with helping other people? Why bother helping other people, if happiness is not the point?
(Page 1 of 1, totaling 5 entries)
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