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.
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…)
Tuesday, January 13. 2009
Before anyone accuses me of being an Objectivist, I guess I better make some quick, pointed critiques of Rand's philosophy. Nothing is quite so off-putting as someone who is too enthusiastic about a new philosophy. Every philosophy has its problematic parts; even Jesus got some 'splainin' to do. Anytime someone preaches a gospel that doesn't seem to have a downside, the audience suspects they have not lived with it long enough to hit the catch. As C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed: "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I will listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."
Part of the appeal of Atlas Shrugged is how clear it makes everything. One senses that with the light of reason, you could plot a clear and unambiguous course through life, freed from messy emotions and bothersome moral imperatives and liberated to pursue one's "happiness as the moral purpose of one's life." Of course, the reason it all seems so clear in the book is because (duh) it's a story. Rand's characters are black-or-white cut-outs, unambiguous manifestations of good or evil. In Rand's imagination, every self-interested industrialist is a paragon of action and intention who just loves to create; meanwhile, every altruist is a worthless, sponging bastard who uses political intrigue to steal what they want. Nobody is quite so simple as that; if they were, we wouldn't need moral philosophies at all. I understand that Atlas Shrugged was deliberately written to be overstated and unambiguous; however, the real test of a philosophy is how well it holds up in the face of ambiguity.
The biggest problem I have with Rand's "virtue of selfishness" is that it does not completely "save the appearances," as they say in philosophy: it doesn't fully explain things that we can plainly see in the everyday world. Sure, some calls for altruism are just smarmy ploys to win mercy for oneself and excuse weakness . . . but it I have also seen 100% bona fide altruism, where strong and capable people help others, just because they can and should. Nor does rational self-interest inevitably lead to moral perfection – Rand doesn't even begin to contemplate the possibility of repressive economic regimes, true robber-barons and such. I agree with her that talk of "selflessness" inevitably runs afoul of some "performative contradictions," as Ken Wilber would say; you can't negate the self without negating life. But glorifying the self just makes the opposite mistake. Something fishy is going on . . . and I think it all hinges on how we define the self.
Monday, December 15. 2008
Most theories of human nature (especially those that inform people's politics) boil down to two simplistic notions:
Generally speaking, conservatives believe people are naturally bad, and liberals think people are naturally good. Conservatives focus their attention on controlling and directing the individual with rules in order to preserve the common good (e.g. "law and order" campaigns, big defense budgets, etc.). Liberals focus their attention on controlling collective organizations (governments, businesses, families) in order to preserve the individual good (e.g. government mandates for worker safety, "safety nets," etc.)
I think most people are moderates, since they find the first position too cynical and the second too naïve. The truth is that human beings are naturally selfish and naturally cooperative. Things would be a whole lot easier if it was one way or the other; then we wouldn't have to spend so much time trying to figure out which response was the right one.
This poses some problems for anyone trying to construct a consistent model of fairness . . . since fairness is only consistent with about half of human nature.
Sunday, December 14. 2008
I reflected some more on the nature of fairness, and the nature of selfishness, in light of my recent political experiences. I was a little surprised, and a little scared, by how easily the mind can flip from an attitude of "let's figure out what's fair" to "me-me-me-me-me!" Evidently the wiring for both programs is present in my brain, and either can be activated at any time, with very little cognitive dissonance.
An image keeps coming to mind -- a scene from a movie. Actually, an archtypal scene that turns up in almost every action/adventure/thriller/drama movie. Three guys (they might be women, but usually men) are standing around facing each other at a cautious distance. They are all heavily armed (guns, swords, mystical powers, whatever). They all know each other, either through long collaboration or long competition or usually a little of both. Some treasure is in their midst -- cash from a bank heist, the Ark of the Covenant, the last piece of bread, whatever. They all want it. They may or may not be willing to share it. None of them completely trusts the others, however. The tension is excruciating. Dialog ensues. On the surface, they are negotiating, cooperating, suggesting . . . but the audience knows that at any moment the talk may end and guns will blaze.
The scene could resolve in any number of ways. The tension might be temporarily postponed: "Look, we're never gonna get out of this cave if we're shooting each other." New alliances might form, and enemies become friends: "You're right. We must defeat the Warlock . . . together!" But more often than not, guns will blaze and only one will be left standing. Regardless of the outcome, the scene pivots on the same question: is it time for trust, or is it time for shootin'?
Note that the characters on stage could be all bad guys, or all good guys, or a mix of good and bad guys, or a mix of totally ambiguous characters. It doesn't really matter. The soul of drama lives in the one question: trust or fight?
It's no coincidence that this question is wound throughout practically every story we bother telling. The dynamic tension is built in to human nature. We are built to trust, and we are also built to fight. We have friends and we have enemies. Our big brains are primarily dedicated to sorting the one from the other.
Friday, November 14. 2008
In response to my discussions on meaning and purpose, Kenny writes:
Feels kinda hair-splitty to me. I'm looking for The Good. I'm looking for That Which Ought To Be, as opposed to That Which Ought Not Be. I don't know if you call that "meaning" or "purpose" but it has to go beyond "It ought to be this way because I want it to be that way" (or "the majority of people want it to be that way" or "God wants it to be that way"). It has to be a more real "ought" than that. If there is no such thing, we might as well all chase our tails.
Ok, so why talk about "meaning" and "purpose" at all, instead of just talking about the Good? If figuring out "meaning" and "purpose" is just hair-splitting, why not just skip to the end and set your criteria for Good, and go after that?
Well, for starters: that's not the question most people are asking. Figuring out what's Good does not seem to trouble most young people. Good, or at least relative Good, is pretty easy to figure out. Most people look at helping the homeless, or creating new technology, or writing a novel, or pretty much any form of socially acceptable employment and say, without hesitation, "Yeah, that's Good."
There are LOTS of good things to do in the world. Our world is chock-a-block with good things that need doing. The much harder question is: which one are YOU going to do? Almost every person who comes through the SKS expresses something to the effect of: "Sure, I've found plenty of good things to do . . . I just haven't found something I want to give my entire life to."
People sense that there is a Right answer to the question, "What should I do with my life?" Or at least Better and Worse answers to that question. And the answer doesn't hinge on whether something is Good or not, but whether it is worthy of the focus of one's limited time and energy on this planet. For instance, providing aid and comfort to homeless dogs seems Good, but spending billions of dollars exclusively on helping dogs (as hotel magnate Leona Helmsley recently did in her will) is a focus some find questionable.
It's a practical question, as well as a philosophic one. Everyone who runs a business faces the same challenge: of the millions of good things they could do, what is the most important? All individuals, organizations, governments face the question of prioritization -- since we only have limited time and resources, what deserves our full attention right now?
So, the question is not, "What is Good?" The question is: "What is BEST? What's the best thing I personally could be doing right now?" Note the word "personally," because I think the correct answer will hinge on the personal: your own talents, and your own desires. Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, tries to identify the factors that make really great people great. He found that talent was generally overrated; yes, some talent is necessary, but experience – the sheer number of hours given to a pursuit -- is more important. And that the number one factor in getting that experience is having a passionate interest. Also in his list of critical factors: self-determination. Super-successful people continually choose to do what they do.
The meaning or purpose of one's life is not strictly a question of what one wants to do. Yes, there are better and worse things one could do with one's life, and those valuations must have reality outside of one's desires or intentions, if they are to be meaningful at all. As it turns out, though, your desires play an integral role in determining whatever is the highest and best use of your life.
Monday, November 3. 2008
A recent New Yorker article ("Red Sex, Blue Sex," by Margaret Talbot, November 3, 2008) challenges some assumptions about whether conservative attitudes towards sexuality are really "pro-family". Some new sociological studies find that evangelicals who most strongly push for abstinence before marriage are also the groups that have the most sexually active teenagers, the highest teen pregnancy, the lowest age of marriage and (as a direct consequence) the highest rate of divorce. Meanwhile, the liberals who are generally accepting of both teenage sex and abortion are the ones having the lowest teenage pregnancy rate, delaying marriage and childbearing, and therefore having kids when they are more emotionally and financially mature.
I have mixed feelings about the results they report . . . Primarily because I have lived on both sides of their conservative/liberal divide, at least as far as sexuality was concerned. I grew up with a belief that one should postpone sexual activity until marriage, instilled by my family as a part of my religious beliefs. And I did, in fact, remain a virgin until I married.
However, I had a lot of the "blue" factors at work as well. My parents were explicit about practical perils of sex as well as the moral ones -- "if you father a child, you are the one who will be raising it, not me," my mother told me on more than one occasion. And though my mother was vehement about postponing sex until marriage, she was far from being against sex per se. Sex was not banned because it was evil, but precisely because it was good -- a sacred bond, something to be cherished and not debased. And, like many teenagers, I engaged in certain, erm, practices that only barely qualified me as a "technical virgin," as is typical of the liberal-minded prescription.
The New Yorker article didn't mention some of the downsides that I see to the "liberal-minded" approach to sexuality. It completely ignores the emotionally charged nature of sexuality. All the condoms in the world cannot protect the psyche from the ramifications of such intimacy. Today's youth might be more informed about sexuality, more careful in a practical sense, and yet they also seem numb. It seems as if the only way they could deal with the emotional consequences of sex was to shut down. I can't speak to this with any authority, since, as I said, I took a different path and have no direct experience with promiscuity. But, as one young woman told me, "With my generation, it's like, sleeping with someone is no big deal." And while some liberals might cheer at such an attitude, I find it unnerving, in the same way I found mandatory promiscuity to be unnerving in Brave New World. If we conquer sexuality by sucking absolutely all meaning and significance out of it, then I'm not entirely sure we're better off.
Interestingly, the study found that the abstinence-only works fine for those who score high on measures of religiosity -- those who go to church often and pray at home. People who get plenty of support and attention, and who are embedded in a cultural alternative to the sexed-up popular culture, can succeed in delaying sex. But, as with lots of religious groups, most who identify themselves as evangelicals are not deeply observant. So it's not enough to have the conservative beliefs about sexuality -- you have to have a lifestyle that supports those beliefs in order for them to have any significance.
All this reinforces some basic SKS messages regarding one's philosophy:
Saturday, November 1. 2008
I have more thoughts on what is the essential nature of "good" and "meaningful"... But I better finish my thought on necessity and freedom before I lose the thread.
I started out on this track because I've always felt this tension between what I felt I ought to be doing and what I really wanted to be doing. Some would argue that this is perfectly natural, seeing as how people tend to do exactly what they want to do and only the super-egoic constraints of what they should be doing keep them in line. People want to eat chocolate cake, but they know they should eat their vegetables. People want to sleep in, but they get up when the alarm clock tells them to . . . Because they must.
But what I felt is more than just garden-variety tension due to deferring gratification. I've always felt an odd dissociation between my sense of should and my real desires. For one, my sense of should is, as far as I can tell, absurdly unrealistic in its expectations. Part of what routinely gets me in trouble is that I commit to what I think I should be able to do instead of what I actually think I will be able to do. The result is I feel enslaved to my sense of should, slaving away to do things I didn't really want to do in the first place, and barely succeeding at them anyway.
Even once I bring my neurotic overachieving into line (and I am just barely starting to do this), I still see a big difference between my moral oughts and my real desires. It isn't just that I don't have the capacity to do all the things I feel like I ought to do; fundamentally, I lack the desire to do them as well. I was inspired by Richard Rose and Augie Turak to lead the life of a philosophic brahmacharya for many years . . . But eventually I gave it up, because my desire to get married and have a family outweighed my desire for spiritual enlightenment. I was inspired to create a spiritual community of fellow-seekers in the SKS . . . But after many years found my enthusiasm dwindling, to the point I couldn't assume the same leadership roles I had held for so long.
When I asked Augie how I could address the gap between what I felt I ought to do, and my real desires, he gave me an answer that surprised me: "You can work for a long time from a sense of duty . . . But eventually it is unsustainable. To do something great, you have to really want it. It has to be your idea of fun, something you can't wait to do when you get home from work. So . . . Why don't you figure out what it is you really, really want to do . . . And then go do it?"
So, some Venn diagrams to illustrate:
Initially, my view of the moral universe looked like this:
I thought that all that really mattered was determining the ought, the moral imperative for how one should live. My own desires were of far less importance; all that mattered was, "What's the right thing to do?"
In that universe, my view of moral perfection was simply bringing my desires into accord with the moral imperative; that is, try really hard to want to do what's right:
Now, I've come to appreciate the intractable limitations of my abilities and my desires. No matter how much self-improvement I undertake, I will never be able to do all the things I think I ought to be able to do. No matter how much I clench my teeth, I can't want to do all the things I think I ought. But there is a small niche where all this conflict disappears: the intersection of all three factors, where what you ought to do is also within your ability, and is what you really want to do:
And that is your vocation.
In response to my recent posts on necessity and freedom in relation to a meaningful life, Kenny writes:
"...There is this huge overwhelming trumps-everything question of whether the word "meaning" refers to anything at all, and if so what, and so on. Doing something that "means something" is the ultimate question. But it seems to me that you're talking around it, asking the question "Do you arrive at meaningful actions by doing what you have to do, or what you want to do?" which is impossible to ask, much less answer, without first addressing the question of what it means to mean anything at all, if you see what I...well, what I mean."
Kenny is referring, in part, to one of his own essays, "Only the Eternal Matters," in which he challenges the notion that anything can be said to have meaning if everything is impermanent. (If you haven't read this or any of Kenny's other excellent essays, check them out.) His reasoning goes something like this:
Kenny concludes that this is a reductio ad absurdum – if we are to believe in meaning at all (and he does) it must not have permanence as an essential attribute. But he leaves the question open: if not permanence, what makes something meaningful?
I agree with Kenny. I don't think you can find meaning by looking at some "final outcome" of one's life (see my previous post, "The Meaning of Now"), but rather at the present moment. But we still haven't identified what makes something meaningful. Here's a partial list of contenders:
Can anyone think of any others to add to the list?
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