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September 18, 2008

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Nato

I think in a sense that the "Whoever looks at a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart" quote might be said to point out a truth that is at least as descriptive as it is normative. In a sense, we are going to be unhappy if that about which we fantasize diverges from what we intend to live, depending on the type of fantasy. If I contemplate, at some point, maiming someone with a knife, the impact on my life and continued mental balance is pretty indeterminate. If I constantly fantasize about the same thing, then 1) clearly I already have a problem and 2) I'm probably making it worse by rehearsing the scenario repeatedly. Changing the circumstances slightly, my office worker fantasizing idly about being a soldier grinding through legions of enemies is likely to find the increase in her propensity to turn into a killing machine than a professional soldier habitually imagining the same thing. A man idly imagining an erotic encounter with a supermodel probably won't experience the same subsequent temptations as a man fantasizing about a coworker. The latter is, clearly, a habit of thought of which one should be extremely wary.

Tom

"First, is it wrong to imagine doing evil?"

Wrong in what sense? Let's assume, for the moment, that we know *doing* the action is evil and wrong. It does not follow that imagining doing the action is also wrong. People have evil impulses all the time. A good person is someone who does not act on those impulses. Now, how can people train themselves not to act on evil impulses? Doesn't imagination play a big role in that? If someone is mentally prepared through the imagination of evil scenarios, then when the impulse strikes, it will have little effect. In the case of the adulterous impulse, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that those who try to mitigate and prevent those impulses are the very same who are the most susceptible to them. Imagining adulterous encounters ends up conditioning oneself against actuating it. Of course, if one is resolved to committing an immoral act, then the imagination of that act is a moot point. I don't think imagination by itself could make someone resolved to committing an immoral act, and it may even prevent them from committing the act by bringing up all of the uncomfortable scenarios involved; they may become sheepish through imagining.


"What conclusions, if any, may be drawn from this contrast between the morality we live by and the reality we portray in the arts?"

Statistical data is instructive on this point. As violence and sex in the media have become more mainstream, the incidence of violent crime and rape (and even abortion during the Clinton years) has decreased. Look at the DoJ statistics and it is quite apparent that violence and rape have been steadily decreasing despite the increasing moral depravity of popular media. This, to me, is clearly supportive of my argument above that imagining evil scenarios conditions oneself against actuating them.


'So, might "develop an imagination as best you can" be a moral imperative?'

Yes, I think it is a moral imperative. Morality is contingent on a person's understanding of the ramifications of their actions. I made a post on your blog awhile ago about innocence and ignorance, and the gist was that it is a moral imperative to fight against ignorance, to become better informed about the effects of one's actions. Imagination plays a vital role in understanding the possibilities.


"If so, how can we characterize the ethos of those the utilitarian is parasitic on?"

People choose to damage themselves for lots of different reasons, and it would be difficult to make a blanket characterization of them all. But what is clear is that the damage is often intriguing to others. This is perhaps due to the inherent empathy of people. The empathy evoked through the perception of the pain and struggle of others tends to bring people together and make them more compassionate. However, when empathy is not evoked, all bets are off! Another thing that is clear is that the greatest artists were all obsessed with their craft. Obsession by itself is very damaging, and if anecdotes are any indication, it's not very healthy either. Can you imagine being as obsessed as some artists have been? I find it a rather difficult thing to imagine.

Nato

"I don't think imagination by itself could make someone resolved to committing an immoral act, and it may even prevent them from committing the act by bringing up all of the uncomfortable scenarios involved; they may become sheepish through imagining."

This points out a dynamic I left unsaid in my response despite it being a central part of moral self-creation. That is to say that the type of imagining we undertake is critical in the creation of our moral selves. By responsible consideration (imagining) of the true content of prospective actions do we determine for ourselves the kinds of behaviors to which we are disposed. It is, in my view, the very foundation of free will to create of ourselves dispositions to behave in the manner we consider morally best, mitigating to the extent possible the degree to which our behaviors are not a result of moral reasoning*. Only then do our wills determine our actions to the fullest extent.

"Morality is contingent on a person's understanding of the ramifications of their actions."

This is very much of a piece with what I was calling a 'metaresponsibility' in my commentary of Utilitarian ethics. Of course, one might ask why, from a hedonistic perspective, one would choose to accept this metaresponsibility. My answer is essentially that in avoiding understanding the ramifications of one's actions, one is also intentionally abdicating some of their potential humanity. One's life becomes less aggravating, but only because it is so much smaller. I have always thought the ultimate Buddhist goal** of minimizing suffering to be fundamentally mistaken in emphasis. We should strive to make ourselves as large as possible***, to live the most fully.


*This is not to say that every action is proximally a result of a chain of explicit moral evaluation. If anything, I mean the opposite: we create ourselves, in an ongoing sense, so that our operating conscience *implicitly* conforms to our considered moral evaluations.

**Of course, I do not mean to asseverate that all Buddhist interpretations approach the problem of living the good life from this abnegatory perspective.

***Life is a marathon, not a sprint, so I don't mean to elide the necessity of moderation the pursuit of self-enlargement. It's crushing to be totally open to all the pain as well as joy in the world.

Nathan Smith

re: "Wrong in what sense? Let's assume, for the moment, that we know *doing* the action is evil and wrong. It does not follow that imagining doing the action is also wrong. People have evil impulses all the time."

The 'wrong in what sense' is, I think, an un-answerable question. To justify even the existence of such entities/properties as 'right' and 'wrong' by reducing them to something else is impossible. We are familiar with right and wrong through direct experience, perceived via the faculty of conscience, and even if moral reasoning can help us to understand them, it cannot explain why they exist or provide reductionist accounts. If you disregard the fundamental witness of conscience, the logical choice is ethical nihilism. So Tom's question seems legitimate, yet I think this kind of question always has to be treated as illegitimate and pushed aside. Wrong in what sense? No, there is no distinguishing 'senses' here. Just wrong.

It does not necessarily follow that if Action X is wrong, imagining Action X is also wrong; yet because wrongness seems to have much to do with the attitudes and intentions and emotions of a subject, and since imagining Action X may involve many of the same attitudes and emotions and, in some sense-- I think distinguishing senses is more tenable here-- intentions, as doing Action X, there does seem to be reason to entertain the idea that imagining Action X is also wrong. Surely not in the same degree, and perhaps not for all wrong actions, but it seems likely.

As for 'people have evil impulses all the time'... well, yes, but *ought* they to? Perhaps they can't help it, but is that absolutely true? One has, I think, some control over what thoughts one *entertains*, as opposed to what merely occurs to one. More importantly, one's mode of living affects one's stream of consciousness, so that different lifestyles may cause more or fewer evil impulses. Does Tom think all people are equally prone to evil impulses? Does Tom think the evil impulses to which people are prone are wholly independent of their lifestyles? Is a person wholly free of evil impulses conceivable? (My answer: yes.) If so, is that state, or something close to it, attainable by the human race as it exists here on earth? (My answer: We cannot escape temptation here, but by the grace of God we can be freed from some of it.)

re: "Now, how can people train themselves not to act on evil impulses? Doesn't imagination play a big role in that?"

Good point, but this also ignores a crucial distinction. There is a huge difference between (a) imagining *doing* an evil act, and (b) imagining *being tempted by but refusing to do* an evil act. The latter may be useful, but the former?

re: "As violence and sex in the media have become more mainstream, the incidence of violent crime and rape (and even abortion during the Clinton years) has decreased."

Good point again, and very interesting. But correlation is not causation, and in this case I think a hypothesis that, say, people kill and rape people less because they're exposed to so many images of sex and violence in the movies, is far from the most plausible. The simplest explanation of the fall in crime is that as living standards rise, one sacrifices a better and better life by opting for crime, and likely imprisonment and early death. Also there's the timing: sex and violence in the movies spiked, I think, in the 1970s and 1980s; I'm not sure that it's particularly *risen* in the 1990s or in this decade, though certainly there continues to be a lot of it. And crime did rise in the 1970s. It may be that initially sex and violence in the movies did trigger imitations in the general society, but later people learned to disregard the examples set in the movies and live according to something more like rational self-interest, or in some cases religion. But Tom's statistical point is an antidote to the widespread and very naive view that sex and violence in movies inevitably influence behavior. I'm not sure they have the *reverse* effect, but certainly people seem able to shut them out.


My question is different though. Suppose we have a society where people are full of evil impulses and evil imaginings, yet manage almost wholly to restrain them, locking them into the realm of personal fantasy, while they live orderly, bourgeois lives. Is this desirable? Doesn't the idea disturb you?

Tom

Regarding "wrong in what sense", I think it's pretty clear why committing murder is wrong: if everyone committed murder, there wouldn't be any people left! But if everyone imagined committing murder, and yet didn't, it's less obvious why that should be considered "wrong". However, Nathan is talking about more than just imagining, he's talking about fantasizing/desiring. Even in that more morally dubious case, I think my argument holds. When people desire something, the urge is to sate that desire. If the desire is not sated in fantasy, then there's a greater potential for it to be sated in reality. The real danger is when desire can't be sated by fantasy but only reality, as is the case for certain physical addictions. There are some who believe in trying to remove all desire and all temptation in order to prevent themselves from committing evil acts; Buddhists are a good example of that. But it seems the chance of failure is higher for people who try to lead perfect, ascetic lives, and their contribution toward human progress is also diminished; hermits in the mountains are ultimately selfish and benefit no one.

There are many observable and testable mechanisms that support my thesis to the mutual exclusion of the "remove desire/temptation" thesis. Virology presents a potent analogy. Take two subjects, put one in a hermetically sealed bubble and put the other in a normal environment. Which is going to resist disease most effectively? A more realistic example would be to vaccinate (or in other words, inject with viral matter) one subject and not vaccinate another. Which subject is most likely to resist disease? We know that immune systems exposed to diseases they can fight off are stronger and more resistant than immune systems that aren't exposed to diseases. This is a direct result of evolutionary principles; Nietzsche puts it best: "whatever doesn't kill me, makes me stronger." Likewise, a person who is subjected to much temptation is less likely to be tempted than a person who is rarely subjected to temptation. Just look at various cultures' attitudes towards clothing. The cultures that have the most strict views also succumb to temptation the most. In some cultures, seeing a woman's breasts means nothing at all and is not particularly more tempting than other physical characteristics, whereas in stricter cultures seeing a woman's breasts is extremely tempting.


"Suppose we have a society where people are full of evil impulses and evil imaginings, yet manage almost wholly to restrain them, locking them into the realm of personal fantasy, while they live orderly, bourgeois lives. Is this desirable? Doesn't the idea disturb you?"

Let's pretend that we're one of these people. We can't assume whether or not anyone else also fantasizes about evil things, and so how are we to judge them? Well, quite clearly we can only judge their actions, and since no one commits acts of evil, we must therefore declare that these people are good. Is there any other way to evaluate morality? Actions speak louder than words; intent/desire is flowery but irrelevant. If I beat my wife "for her own good", I presumably have good intentions, but the moral content of my actions would not therefore be good. If I fantasize about making people suffer but end up treating them perfectly well, then aren't I a morally good person?

Nathan Smith

re: "I think it's pretty clear why committing murder is wrong: if everyone committed murder, there wouldn't be any people left!"

And what's wrong with that? I agree that that's bad, because I have a moral intuition that it is good for people to live and be happy. But that same moral intuition is my reason to be uncomfortable with the idea of a world full of people fantasizing evil actions. I don't claim my moral intuition is infallible, and it can be influenced to some extent by arguments, narratives, etc., but if you try to delegitimize it by ignoring it entirely, you take away my reason for believing the extinction of mankind is wrong.

Also, the "if everyone did it" line does not seem like a generally valid moral argument. If everyone studied to be an economist, would the world be a better place? Surely not; but the world may nonetheless be a better place with some economists in it, so I don't feel guilty getting a PhD in economics. Likewise, it's possible that a limited amount of murder could be good. I don't believe that, but the reason is certainly not just because I rationally deduce the consequences "if everyone did it" and regard them as undesirable.

This empirical claim...

"When people desire something, the urge is to sate that desire. If the desire is not sated in fantasy, then there's a greater potential for it to be sated in reality."

... is at the heart of Tom's argument. It is certainly not self-evidently true; and it seems to me almost surely false. A scientific/empirical test of even moderate quality would probably be very difficult if not impossible. Also, Tom takes the frequency of evil desires as a given, which I think is very wrong. This empirical claim...

"Likewise, a person who is subjected to much temptation is less likely to be tempted than a person who is rarely subjected to temptation. Just look at various cultures' attitudes towards clothing. The cultures that have the most strict views also succumb to temptation the most."

... is certainly quite wrong, as the geographical patterns in the spread of AIDS has, sadly, shown: a lot in sub-Saharan Africa with its loose morals, and in Russia; very little in the sexually strict Islamic world. Places where society restricts occasions for temptation seem to have less promiscuous sex. (Of course, the US and Europe have low AIDS rates for a different reason, namely successful promotion of contraceptives, but that doesn't affect the point.)

Tom

Is murder wrong? Again, wrong in what sense? Surely it's good to murder if killing indiscriminately is the end goal. If the end goal is proliferation and well-being of mankind, then murder is wrong. Why do people in general believe that murder is wrong? The people and societies that would have believed otherwise get selected out of the population through evolutionary mechanisms: it's less fit for a population to murder itself. The "murder is evolutionarily wrong" argument could easily be proved with a simple Conway's game of life experiment. The wrongness and rightness of other things could theoretically be similarly shown through an evolutionary fitness analysis, not just of individuals, but of societies, cultures, ethnicities, etc. It may even be the case that what once was right in human history is now wrong, and visa-versa, as the wrongness and rightness of a thing may be highly contingent on particular circumstances. The intuition that something is wrong or right is a direct result of evolutionary mechanisms. Morality, as an extension of Freedom, evolves.

Regarding the heart of my argument, according to Nathan, it could be inferred from statistics (obviously, imagination is subjective, so any empirical test of my claim would have to use heterophenomenological methods, which is hardly impossible). Infidelity, for example, has been fairly rampant for as long as there have been people, which is why they say prostitution is the oldest profession. The sexual urge is very potent. There is a never ending stream of anecdotes of people trying to remain celibate and failing. There are plenty of people who try to deny their urges, refuse to sate them, and end up doing all sorts of crazy things -- rape, incest, self-mutilation, etc -- as a result. The fallacy is that people think they can will themselves not to want sex, but it is biologically ingrained and cannot be denied. The best you can do is trick your body into thinking you've just had sex, thereby sating the desire. The same goes for other biological urges like hunger: gastric bypass surgery makes the stomach smaller, which tricks the body into feeling full sooner than it otherwise would have. The alternative for people who are addicted to food is to simply eat less and feel hungry all the time until the stomach shrinks naturally. Sadly, the only way to shrink one's libido is to grow old or take drugs. Good luck willing it away; the success rate is not very good.


"Also, Tom takes the frequency of evil desires as a given, which I think is very wrong."

I didn't specify a particular frequency, so I don't see how I could be wrong or right on that point. Certainly there is some frequency, whatever it is. Nevertheless, I suppose Nathan would estimate the frequency lower than I would.


"Places where society restricts occasions for temptation seem to have less promiscuous sex."

That is very naive. Didn't you bring up the fact that Islam promises 72 virgins in paradise? Did you also know that young boys are encouraged to experiment with each other in some sexually strict societies? According to my Arabic teachers, it's quite common for Muslim women to wear sexy clothes around the house and under their burkas when in public. In certain places in the Middle East there are women that Muslim men can "marry" in order to have sex with legally, and when they're done, they get the marriage annulled. In the UAE, 80% of the population consists of foreign nationals. Men go there to work, and average in age 32 years. Women go there to "work" as well, and their average age is 24 years. I'm sure you can fill in the blanks.

Nathan Smith

re: "Is murder wrong? Again, wrong in what sense? Surely it's good to murder if killing indiscriminately is the end goal..."

That's not what right and wrong mean; they're not just instrumental towards arbitrary ends. Some goals are wrong; some means are wrong even if-- as far as we can tell-- they advance goals that are right.

"Why do people in general believe that murder is wrong? The people and societies that would have believed otherwise get selected out of the population through evolutionary mechanisms: it's less fit for a population to murder itself..."

How does Tom *know* (or think he knows) that that's the reason people in general believe that murder is wrong? What's his evidence? This is the problem with what Nagel calls 'evolutionary hand-waving': you can explain-- in a loose sort of way-- just about anything with evolutionary stories of one kind and another; the result is to promote unseriousness and lack of curiosity. Actually, this evolutionary argument probably doesn't work: murdering one's close kin is evolutionarily stupid; but murdering neighboring tribes, or, say, the mates of desirable females, is likely to be evolutionarily smart. Evolutionary reasoning-- "survival of the fittest" is the popular phrase!-- would seem to suggest anything but a *general* rule against murder, and the fact that semi-plausible story of how the taboo against murder could have an evolutionary justification just underlines how evolution is so flexible as to be unfalsifiable pseudo-science. But that's not the main point. The point is, even if Tom's evolutionary account of the prohibition of murder made sense, we would need *evidence* for it.

And of course, that wouldn't prove in the least that murder *really is* wrong. My selfish genes' interests are probably best served by trying to make a fortune in banking or something, then moving to a sub-Saharan African country that allows polygamy, buying a harem and fathering a tribe. That doesn't make it right-- or even wrong! That ethics and evolution have little or nothing to do with each other gets obvious pretty fast if you think about it, and even if you don't explore the ramifications of the view, I think moral intuition recognizes at once that 'murder is evolutionarily wrong' is a very weak substitute for 'murder is wrong.' The corner Tom is painting himself into is an ethical nihilism which I think he doesn't want to and wouldn't practice because he doesn't let his sophistry interfere with his personal decency, but that would result if anyone tried to work his views into a practical philosophy.

"The intuition that something is wrong or right is a direct result of evolutionary mechanisms."

Again, how does Tom know? Was it revealed to him from on high or something?

re: "I didn't specify a particular frequency, so I don't see how I could be wrong or right on that point. Certainly there is some frequency, whatever it is. Nevertheless, I suppose Nathan would estimate the frequency lower than I would."

Tom, the point is that you're taking the frequency of evil desires to be *exogenous* (i.e., given). You're assuming there's nothing to do but either sate them, performatively or imaginatively, or suppress them, which requires scarce willpower and is thus dangerous. But there's no reason to think that there's some fixed quantity of evil impulses. One's actions may increase or reduce their frequency.

re: "The fallacy is that people think they can will themselves not to want sex, but it is biologically ingrained and cannot be denied."

Silly, silly, silly. Example: Hagiography reports many saints who have been freed from sexual temptation. You can deny those stories from blind faith; I'm enough of a rationalist that such a wantonly unmotivated belief is against my values. As far as I know, there are holy men and women who have become free of sexual temptation; how could I know the contrary? But anyway, there are obviously differences of degree, with some people's sexual urges much stronger and more insistent than others'. It's not as simple as "willing" away the desire for sex, but it's rank superstition to think that one can't influence it by one's mode of life.

Tom calls my mention of Islam as a society where strict sexual norms reduce promiscuous sex "very naive," but he's banging his head against a wall with his irrelevant anecdotes. The facts stand firm: AIDS has spread a lot faster in Africa, with its rather relaxed sexuality, than in the Middle East.

Nato

"sub-Saharan Africa with its loose morals"

Actually, it would be loose enforcement of moral standards. Their moral standards are very old school, but chaos and corruption have created space to get around those. In the frighteningly-closely patrolled Islamic societies, sure, there's less HIV, which would seem to support Nathan's point. My main feeling is that it's a bit like a pressure cooker. If the lid's left off, it never gets very hot. If the lid is sound and on tight, the contents are contained. If there's a crack in the lid, or it's not fastened on well, there'll be explosions and/or jets of scalding steam. Civil wars, population displacement and economic desperation create a lot of the last scenario, but the first one is better.

Nato

The first one is better than the second in any case, is what I meant to say

Tom

I was going to write a lengthy response to Nathan's last comment, but I just don't have the time. Maybe someday I'll write a book and Nathan can critique it.

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