« Democrats for Immigration Decency | Main | »

December 05, 2007

Comments

Tom

'...individuals define what counts as a “good” condition for them.'

I like what you've written, but there is a major source of ambiguity and it is in the above statement. When someone defines something as "good", what does that mean? "Good" for what? What's lacking in your analysis is a treatment of purpose. I don't know that ethics and morality even have any meaning absent a purpose to point toward. When individuals define something as "good", it is with a specific purpose in mind, and so it is an individual's chosen "purpose" that determines whether something is good or not.

Nato

In my mind, the problem of purpose is a major part if not the bulk of gap 2. We're born purposeless except in the most attenuated sense, and over the course of our lives, we fashion for ourselves reasons for being. A parent bakes cookies for his daughter to take to school and share with the other kids. At first she is a little resentful that she has to give up so much of what could be hers, but the happiness she receives from her friends' gratefulness and joy surprises her, and she decides she shouldn't be resentful about generosity. Or perhaps she merely decides she likes to be the center of attention; each person takes away their own lessons. Whether we turn into people who crave happiness in those around us or merely the sinecure of the public eye depends on prior decisions about who we want to be. And the person into whom we turn ourselves decides whether cookies are a fun thing to make for the bake sale or a fattening danger to one's perfect figure.

Nathan Smith

Thanks to Nato for undertaking such an important and difficult task-- laying the foundations of a meta-ethics-- with a seriousness that I would be hard put to muster. I took the liberty of adding a second subject heading, "Utility Theory and Welfare Economics," to which I think this is highly relevant even if there's nothing in it about economics per se.

The post also inspired me to do something I ought to have done before: to look up the word "heuristic," which I've heard batted around in debates before without being sure I understood it. Wikipedia has this to say:

"A heuristic is a method to help solve a problem, commonly informal. It is particularly used for a method that often rapidly leads to a solution that is usually reasonably close to the best possible answer. Heuristics are 'rules of thumb,' educated guesses, intuitive judgements or simply common sense."

Now, this leads me to suspect that a heuristic ethics is question-begging. A 'rule of thumb' is something that works, but how do you know whether it works? We might know this (I do not necessarily claim the categories are exhaustive) (a) by deduction, or (b) by induction. An example of (a) might be the quadratic formula, or the procedure of parallel parking (lining up the rear-view mirror with the back of the other car or whatever it is) if that was developed by careful geometric analysis. An example of (b) might be 'Use two cups of flour in this recipe; I always find that turns out the best.'

But what is our yardstick in the case of ethics? One way to summarize this post is that Nato states a commitment to utilitarianism, then raises some strong objections to that view, and leaves them largely unanswered, yet does not abandon the position. Instead, he digresses into the question of "heuristics," while the main meta-ethical question remains unsolved. Certainly we make everyday decisions based on rules of thumb, or intuitions, or whatever. We don't probe the deep philosophical foundations of ethics every time we have to decide whether to give an old woman our seat on the bus. But what is it we're using our heuristics for? For what more rigorous process of ethical decision are they a substitute? And how do we know whether the particular rules we have are an effective substitute? I think Nato is saying we can rely, up to a point, on "tradition," to have done this work of ethical analysis for us. But how we do know-- or why should we think-- that *that* is what the processes which contributed to the formation of tradition were up to?

Here I think economics has a big contribution to make, for two reasons. First, it has dealt in a rigorous, systematic, and mathematical way with the idea of "utility," supplying a clear, parsimonious, and rigorous definition of the concept of utility as an ordering of preferences with certain plausible properties. It has done so not for the purpose of drawing ethical conclusions but for the purpose of modeling individual behavior. Second, it deals in more sophisticated ways than any other discipline I know of (even if it usually focuses on the limited sphere of commercial exchange) with the way that human behaviors interact with each other to produce larger outcomes not necessarily foreseen. Yet utility theory as pursued by economics is in a way subversive of utilitarianism as a meta-ethics, because one of its conclusions is that there is no meaningful way to compare inter-personal utility. "The greatest good for the greatest number" is meaningless. Moreover, it takes simply as an assumption that individuals are the best judges of their own happiness, but this doesn't seem to be true, for people frequently introduce us to pleasures that take us by surprise, and every time this happens, someone knew more about the nature of your own happiness than you did.

And then there's also the question: *Why* should we seek the happiness of others? I suspect the best man-on-the-street answer to that is: "Because it's the right thing to do." A philosopher has to reject that as question-begging/circular, and try something else, but what?

I think that utilitarianism without the naivete simply dissolves. Too many questions-- what is happiness? how do we know about others' happiness? how can we know enough about the consequences of our actions to achieve our ends? why should we seek happiness?-- remain unanswered and unanswerable. Whether I would know where to begin a meta-ethics, or how to proceed from there, is another question.

The most promising place to begin the inquiry, it seems to me, is with some kind of phenomenology of the human faculty of *conscience*. Conscience feels, subjectively, a bit like a Geiger counter informing us of right and wrong. I see little reason to think it is reducible to, or masks, some kind of utilitarian calculus. I think conscience can be distorted and misinterpreted, and people can do things for the sake of consciences that other people's consciences tell them are wrong. In this it is like our physical senses, which are also capable of being deceived.

Such an approach runs into the problem that it inevitably relies on subjective data. If you tell me your conscience feels exactly like a utilitarian calculator, there's not much I can say. Persuasion in such an area may need to take a different form... which may be related to the fact that ordinary people usually rely on religion, not philosophy, for guidance in matters of ethics. Anyway, it's useful to see a meta-ethical position laid out with such candor and thoroughness. It helps one frame one's views.

Nato

Nathan brings out why some of the things over which I skip are big problems - exactly the sort of response one hopes to elicit. I wish I could respond in something like the depth it deserves, but life being what it is, particulate commentary will have to do.

re: conscience-based moral epistemology -
Over the course of my life, my conscience has changed significantly in terms of what it labeled right and wrong in response to discoveries about what makes me (and others) happy or unhappy, and how the world works. It seems apparent to me that conscience takes empirical data about welfare (however the individual construes that) as calibration. Is the conscience a welfarometer? Clearly not; if nothing else, it must be more instrumentalist in its approach if it is not to be uselessly naive. We are leery of street racers regardless of their joy in racing because, proximally, we know street racing is generally unwise, even if we know nothing about the individual in question or in what exact circumstances she intends to race. We have also marked envy as wrong, though many probably could not articulate that amongst the reasons envy is wrong are that it's a punishment one inflicts against oneself, and that such resentments poison one's relationships with the fortunate. I can't think of any judgments of conscience that arise consistently even when neither learned through observation nor ingrained by society. Sexual jealousy might be one, though I don't know the research well enough to say one way or another.

Whatever the case, I don't think relying on conscience as an alternative to judgments of welfare changes our position so much as applies different terms to pretty much the same problem of defining, at the personal level, what seems "good". And it is a deep one.

re: "*Why* should we seek the happiness of others?" -
Well, humans and pretty much all other social animals are provably happier when surrounded by happy peers. Not in all cases and under all circumstances, of course, but all things being equal, we are happier when others are. In fact, our whole faculty of empathy seems to guarantee that whatever emotions we cause will reflect back to us. I don't believe animal ethologists think this is an accident: there are good game theoretical reasons for constituent agents of a social body to practice (and enforce) altruism. The same still applies to us humans, but we have the good fortune to be by nature both fairly predisposed to such euphonious interaction and able to comprehend its advantages in depth.

finally, re: heuristics
I use "heuristic" in a computer science or mathematics sense, to mean an algorithm that approximates an answer at better than chance. Cognitive neurologists generally think that many if not most discriminations in the brain are the result of aggregating the results of a variety of heuristic methods, any of which might individually be quite weak.

Nathan Smith

re: "Over the course of my life, my conscience has changed significantly in terms of what it labeled right and wrong in response to discoveries about what makes me (and others) happy or unhappy, and how the world works. It seems apparent to me that conscience takes empirical data about welfare (however the individual construes that) as calibration."

Let's call this-- particularly the 'empirical data about welfare'-- the utilitarian interpretation of conscience. I don't think it's quite right. Some of the strongest warnings of conscience involve *the sacred*; we would feel guilty trampling on the cross or the flag. That has no obvious connection with happiness. And sexual relations create strong stirrings in the conscience, whose connections with happiness is complex and non-obvious. Even when pity makes our conscience compel us to do things for people, there may be a gap between the urgings of conscience and what we rationally believe will maximize happiness. I suspect that people who are rationally convinced that it is right to kill certain innocent people for the greater good nonetheless feel resistance from conscience. A *subtle* phenomenology of conscience would, I think, leave the conscience-as-welfarometer story (which sounds to me like what Nato is saying even if he says it isn't) in the dust.

re: "I can't think of any judgments of conscience that arise consistently even when neither learned through observation nor ingrained by society."

'Ingrained by society,' a.k.a. socialization, points to a whole line of thought which is formidable though I think at one level spurious, or at any rate wrong-headed. It is obvious that society can influence the content of conscience. It does not follow that it can write just anything, or that it is writing on a blank slate. I was told, I think, not a great many times in childhood that lying is wrong. I was told with obsessive and monotonous insistence to brush my teeth. Nonetheless, my conscience urges me quite strongly not to lie, and bothers me hardly at all about teeth-brushing (though I do it for utilitarian reasons). The trouble is that socialization occurs so early in life that no one can make a completely credible denial that some belief is due to socialization. If you say, "I wasn't *socialized* to think this, but was rationally persuaded of it," or worse, "... it's just self-evident," well, that's just what a socialized person would say. The urgings of conscience are subject to a certain filter of socialization, particularly in their interpretation, yet I think the faculty of conscience is nonetheless quite independent of them. (To say that "judgments of conscience" are "learned through observation" strikes me as meaningless. How could mere *observation*, with no admixture of conscience, give rise to the belief that 'this is right' or 'this is wrong?')

re: "Whatever the case, I don't think relying on conscience as an alternative to judgments of welfare changes our position so much as applies different terms to pretty much the same problem of defining, at the personal level, what seems 'good'."

Sure it does, if we take conscience as authoritative. If we say, 'it must be wrong to lie because I feel remorse when I do it, even if the lie seems to serve the greatest happiness of the greatest number,' then we have introduced a new basis for deciding 'what seems good' ('at the personal level,' if you like, though I'm not sure what that phrase adds).

re: "re: "*Why* should we seek the happiness of others?" -
Well, humans and pretty much all other social animals are provably happier when surrounded by happy peers."

Nato walks into a trap here: he collapses altruistic utilitarianism-- maximize the general happiness-- into selfish utilitarianism-- maximize individual happiness-- which strikes me, and I think most people, and with good reason, as synonymous with, indeed almost the definition of, amorality. Maybe he doesn't mean what he says; strictly speaking, he didn't rule out there being *other* reasons to seek the happiness of others. But if a question is asked and a bad answer is offered, one has reason to conclude that one's interlocutor lacks a better one.

To try to building altruistic utilitarianism on selfish utilitarianism is certainly untenable. Yes, sometimes helping others also helps me, because they return the favor, or because I enjoy seeing their happiness. Those are not the interesting cases. To act ethically sometimes requires great sacrifice, even a permanent, as far as one can see, sacrifice of one's happiness or freedom or life; such cases are the paradigm cases of ethical behavior.

Nato

A quick side-comment before I begin: I don't believe humans are endlessly plastic; I think we all agree even babies have predilections in attenuated form, and as time goes by our mental topography becomes increasingly resistant to socialization that doesn't accord with our character.


If a utilitarian analysis is to serve as a foundation rather than a mid-level instrument, it *must* at some point reduce to selfish utilitarianism, since we all have experience only of the self. If this is a trap, then truly my project is a non-starter.

However, I don't think it's a trap; it's a problem, but it also seems to be a solvable one. Neither will I accept that anything that ultimately appeals to individual welfare is amoral by definitional fiat. Perhaps so construed it will seem so to some, but I think this comes of insufficiently-rich imagining of what self-interest means.

Perhaps it will help to clarify and elaborate on something that came later in my paragraph explaining why we should seek the happiness of others. Humans, like other agents, have good game-theoretical reasons to be the *kind of creatures* that care about each-others' welfare, tell the truth, and so on. These are mathematical and thus in critical respects a-priori. In fact, the longer one's life gets, the greater the incentive to not only help others, but to be the sort of person who enjoys others' joy. We - and our genes, though to a lesser extent - have the incentive to inculcate in ourselves the Kantian-type moral dictates that are familiar to our conscience.

I can give a great many analyses that could potentially explain why we feel guilty trampling on a cross or flag, and all of them trace back to love of ideals, empathy for the values of others, and so on. If I were to, say, have a great number of a picture of Kat, such that it was reasonable I throw them away, I might feel a sort of pang, that in some way I was disrespecting my love of her. Am I doing so? Perhaps I am - maybe if I was a true romantic I would treat it like a sacred object or whathaveyou, no matter the inconvenience - but generally, I know that this is more reasonable, and I can live with a me that isn't quite that romantic.

Which leads to why people can sacrifice their lives for something in which they believe, but it's still ultimately traceable back to selfish utilitarianism. I don't want to be the kind of person who will abandon what he loves - indeed, one's willingness to sacrifice is in critical senses constitutive of love - so I will, in the process of loving, make of myself someone who can do nothing else but sacrifice myself if necessary.

The problem with utilitarian ethics tends to be its application *beyond* the foundation, in which other forms of ethical analysis must come into play, because we are not omniscient nor are we instantly mutable*. In fact, I'm not even sure "ethics" makes sense for an omniscient being, nor if omniscient "being" makes sense, but that's a digression.

*If we were, then we'd have no enduring character.

Nathan Smith

The main mistake in the above appears here:

"If a utilitarian analysis is to serve as a foundation rather than a mid-level instrument, it *must* at some point reduce to selfish utilitarianism, since we all have experience only of the self."

But there is a critical difference between (a) seeking the welfare of others because it improves *one's own* utility as experienced by the self, and (b) seeking the welfare of others because one makes inferences about *their* utility by analogy with the experience of the self. (Is (b) the case that Nato describes as a "mid-level instrument?") In either case the experience of the self is the basis, but (a) is amorality, while (b) is something like the Golden Rule.

While we can certainly "analyses that could potentially explain why we feel guilty trampling on a cross or flag," I don't think utilitarian explanations are plausible, unless they are question-begging. If you say that in every case it foreseeably maximizes society's, or still more, my own pleasure, in an ordinary sense of that word, for me to die rather than trample on the cross, it's implausible. If you say that I'll feel such remorse afterwards at trampling on the cross that it would have been better to die, then utilitarianism reduces to a tautological "whatever people do maximizes their utility." Anyway, from intuition I think that some concept of the 'sacred' is needed to explain the phenomenology of conscience as we really experience it.

Tom

The cross, flag, and even God -- indeed, all things "sacred" -- have no meaning to children until they are conditioned to attribute meaning to those things. No toddler would have any compunctions about stomping on the cross or flag, or committing any other sacrilegious act.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Only use a payday cash advance as a last resort.

Categories

Blog powered by Typepad