Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Ethical Cornerstones follow-up

My post, Ethical Cornerstones, was featured in the 39th Humanist Symposium over at Daylight Atheism. By a rather pleasant coincidence, another entrant wrote in the same vein, though I believe that if we get down to brass tacks, we're talking past each other. One commenter, Scotlyn, had some tangential musings which quickly led to an interesting discussion in the comments, eventually circling back to specific claims I was making. I'll try to summarize Scotlyn's position here:
1. Regardless of whether there is moral substance, it is true that we have ethical intuitions.
2. These intuitions can be screwed up in a variety of ways, just as people may be objectively wrong in their ideas about a duck (arbitrary example which became a recurring theme).
3. These ideas are still real, in the sense that they affect people's behavior in various ways. Ideas have real power over us.
4. Because these ideas affect us so much, they can be said to be just as real as ducks.
Conclusion: Therefore, the distinction between "ethics" and "a duck," in terms of objective existence and/or truth, is practically of no consequence because they are equally real to us.
And Scotlyn, if you're playing along at home, feel free to correct me! If you don't have enough room in the comments (space is limited), I'll be happy to post a summary of your position in your own words. No restrictions, in the interest of fairness - I'm primarily concerned with not misrepresenting you. At any rate, I agree completely with Scotlyn on 1 and 3, I have minor quibbles with (but not substantial objections to) 2, I disagree with 4, and I don't think that the premises lead to the conclusion.

My own response to Scotlyn got very long, so I decided to just put it up on my own damn soapbox. Without further ado:

Your examples of memetic realism (how we treat our ideas as real, regardless of whether they correspond to reality at all), Othering ("us" vs. "them" ethics), and enculturation cut right to the heart of the matter. While I agree that "it's too simplistic to say that [ideas] only have the power we give them" and just stop there, the oversimplification can be addressed by simply acknowledging that these ideas receive quite a lot of power because they are taken for granted by quite a lot of people, and changing this situation is very difficult. For example, the racism meme that has so plagued humanity has, in recent decades, suffered great losses at the hands of more progressive values. This took years of hard work by individuals who may or may not have lived to see the fruits of their labor - to expect sudden, dramatic changes would have been naive, yet the racism meme only had the power that people gave to it, and that power supply has been drastically reduced in a relatively short time (relative to the age of racism itself). After causing untold misery for millennia, racism struggled for a bit as slavery was abolished in many advanced and populous countries, then was cut off at the knees during the civil rights movement (in America, at least), and is now in its death throes (though regrettably still kicking). The point is that the age or popularity of a meme doesn't matter; they're all subject to change, up to and including elimination (phlogiston, anyone?).

The rest of your post seems to be mainly in support of your descriptive account of memetic power; I don't wish to dispute the sources or functions of memetic power (not here, anyway). I agree with you that our moral intuitions do, to some extent, have biological roots and the rest is due to environment (including culture); even our reasoning processes are subject to environmental influence, and constrained by our biological equipment - without a mystical "I" at the helm of consciousness, there's simply nothing else to account for (and the precise balance between "nature & nurture" is immaterial). Your defense of empathy from a theory of mind is streamlined and elegant, and definitely gets a "hooray" from me!

I have one substantial quibble about what "ethics" is, though. You say it's the Golden Rule, while I say that it's a question. The Golden Rule is one possible answer to the question, "How ought we to live?" All the different approaches to answering this question constitute the field of inquiry that is ethics. On this approach, epistemology is the question, "How do we know what we know," metaphysics is the question, "What is the ultimate nature of existence," and biology is the question, "How does life work?" Alternatively, these fields of inquiry could be seen as the study of "core terms," e.g. ethics is the study of the term "ought," metaphysics is the study of the term "exist," epistemology is the study of the term "know," and biology is the study of the term "live." On either account, the Golden Rule is a small (albeit important) part of ethics in general, and taking it for granted could be seen as a sneaky move.

So yeah, fatness is a made-up problem - if people would rather live abundant and tasty lives than lean and long ones, that's their prerogative and looking down on them for making that choice is somewhere between silliness and hypocrisy. This extends to any other value judgment based on competing values, such as valuing a long life and valuing dangerous fun. I myself spent a summer doing in-house care for a man in his nineties (his wife couldn't handle it any more), and pardon my language, but cleaning shit off the balls of a ninety-year-old man twice a day for three months straight taught me that it is better by far to live a fun life than a long one, so I have no qualms about getting pleasure from smoking, drinking, and other recreational drugs, even though I know all those things will shorten my lifespan. Getting back to obesity, "pretty on the outside" and "tasty in my belly" are both legitimate values which, for some people, are in direct competition (exercise can factor in, too). The matter of how to strike a balance is left to each person to decide for themselves. Similarly, those who suffer from gender dysphoria experience a mis-match between their outer presentation and their inner self-image; some try to change the situation by altering their outer presentation through a variety of means (and to a wide range of degree), while others choose to live with the dysphoria and find happiness/meaning in other ways so as not to come into conflict with the waning-but-still-pervasive heteronormativity of our culture. Other genderqueer folks, living examples that heteronormativity isn't for everyone, have similar judgments to make. Again, how to make this call is a matter for each individual to decide.

This is known as "freedom of conscience," and it's a value which I would wager that you and I share. It's the freedom to arbitrarily decide how some parts of your life are going to be, no matter what anyone else wants to say about that. Part of freedom of conscience is the liberty to choose the people with whom you associate in your free time, and with whom you will share your sexy times. I try to be as permissive as possible in terms of what I label as "acceptable" in a culture at large, and we call this practice "tolerance" and we value it in general; I'm much more discriminating in social and romantic situations, and we call this "compatibility" and we value it, too. So long as we're cool with the fact that there will be people in the world with whom we just won't see eye-to-eye, none of this is a problem. This is called "civilization," and it's the idea that we can get along even if we don't always get our way. In all of this, I have invoked no moral substance, no objective values, just a general exhortation: "Let's do these things we like."

Here's the practical upshot to all of this: there are many people who do not see things this way. Some of them think that there are rules to relationships, like "don't fuck before you marry," "don't stick it in the naughty place," and "promises you made at one time in public are more important than how things have gone since that time." Some of these people also think that there are rules for how you eat (what you eat, in what combinations, or in what amount), how you maintain your body (whether to use medicine, what medical research is appropriate, or to what extent you may control your own body), and how we treat the planet (whether to use certain materials for fuel, to what extent, and how we can know if we're screwing it up). All of these "rules" are behavioral prescriptions based on values which other people may or may not share. For some people, many of these rules are based on some books written by human beings, and these books are valued to different degrees both within and between groups. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that most of these people disagree with each other on what values these books should instill, and to what extent people should be allowed to deviate from the rules before other people can step in and interfere with their lives.

Here's the kicker: though these people may agree in valuing their holy books generally, they pick and choose what parts of their books they're willing to get uppity about. "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" is not taken very seriously in California, but "thou shalt not suffer a gay to marry" is taken very seriously by a lot of those same people. These people say they value their book, they say the book is the source of their rules, but then they go and fuck it up by strictly adhering to some parts (and yelling at those who do not) while completely ignoring other parts (whether or not they're even aware of them). This is not a hasty generalization: I am pointing out that there is no person who behaves consistently with the entirety of any holy book, because all holy books are inconsistent (literalist apologists can go pound salt on this one, I don't care to back this up here), which makes it impossible to behave consistently with the book as a whole. Yet some of these people insist that their ideas must be taken seriously without rational justification, and when certain persons vested with certain powers tell them that this is against the rules of our country, they call it "legislating from the bench."

To recap, moral exhortations derived from holy books are reasoned poorly and applied inconsistently. Their behavioral prescriptions (their answer to the question, "How ought we to live") are silly. Their beliefs, attitudes, and actions stand in direct opposition to reason, tolerance, and civilization. If we value reason, tolerance, and civilization, then we should not be shy about this. If we value freedom of conscience, then we should also not prohibit them from believing as they will - and here I think we will agree that people can believe whatever they want.

But as for the way we legislate, the way we run our country, the way we come up with the rules to which we hold all citizens of our nation, we should give no quarter whatsoever to those who would threaten us with Hellfire, teach Genesis as science, use public funds for religious purposes, legislate based on the Bible, or prohibit same-sex marriage/physician-assisted suicide/abortion, until or unless they make their case on rational, tolerant, and civilized grounds. Without a rational argument that ties their "should" to our shared values, their exhortations should be seen as vacuous and arbitrary as this: "You can't eat Corn Flakes on Saturday, you should eat Cheerios instead, because the number of syllables in your breakfast cereal should match the number in the current day of the week." The idea of a week is an arbitrary convention; the names of the days are arbitrary conventions; the names of our breakfast cereals are arbitrary conventions; and the idea that any of these arbitrary conventions are connected to each other in any way at all is nonsense; and thinking that a person is better or worse based on how they adhere to such rules is nonsense on stilts.

Sure, these arbitrary conventions are the "winners" of the historical record (so far, at least), and they function at some level based on facts about us, such as our ability to recognize cardinal numbers only up to a certain size, our capacity for pattern recognition, and our penchant for labelling things. The matters of day names, of grouping days into weeks, and of naming our breakfast cereals, while legitimately related to facts about us and steeped in our history and culture, are still arbitrary. The biological normativity you so elegantly described, even if it's based on facts about all of humanity as a whole (and I doubt that's possible, let alone that we'll ever accomplish it), would still be contingent facts about us in particular and would tell us absolutely nothing about how other people with different contingent facts of history/biology/culture should behave. The facts about us may be objective (OK, there are knowledge problems, but I'm willing to sweep them all aside at the moment for the sake of argument), but the behavioral prescriptions derived therefrom are still arbitrary, based as they are on contingent facts about us and not on objective facts about the Universe independent of us.

And even if we go by the Universe as a whole, we might get prescriptions such as "expand as much as you are able," "be sterile most of the time, but fertile in a very small area," or "no matter what catastrophes may occur, keep on keeping on." These are things that the Universe seems to do which might be applicable to our lives, but there are still several open questions. For example, how to decide whether our Universe is an example worth following, or which facts are most relevant, or which competing values should win out in the event of a conflict, or why these facts should have privileged status above any others in the first place (such as facts about quasars or black holes in particular). But role models, relevancy, value conflicts, and fact prioritization are all matters which presuppose an existing system of values and a decision theory for settling such questions, so again we descend into arbitration.

In conclusion, ethics as the study of how we ought to live, or as the study of what the word "ought" means, is a system of hypothetical imperatives because all "oughts" rest on a preexisting value system which is capable of taking situations as input and generating behavioral prescriptions as output. Because no such code of conduct is written into the Universe (with the possible exception of Ayn Rand's idea that, "Reality, to be commanded, must first be obeyed," which only applies to the laws of physics anyway), any such code that we may wish to supply is just as arbitrary as our system of taxonomy or the names given to the chemical elements. For objective facts, we may always question how we know something and, though causality and sophisticated math may be involved, we can go back to reality and show that, at some level, that's just how the Universe is. For no question of the form, "How do we know x is good," may we answer, "Because that's just the way the Universe is," and be correct.

With acknowledgment to Jeremy Bentham.


info said...

Hi, D. I'm still reading, so not yet ready for full argy-bargy, but I want to take up this point - "So yeah, fatness is a made-up problem - if people would rather live abundant and tasty lives than lean and long ones, that's their prerogative and looking down on them for making that choice is somewhere between silliness and hypocrisy" as it is essentially incorrect. Obesity does not represent the "choice" of living "abundant/tasty" vs "long/lean." Although people assume that your shape indicates a "choice" you've made (and often religiously assign such loaded terms as "sloth" and "gluttony" to their evaluation of that "choice,") in fact, there is seldom a "choice" involved in determining body shape. Many long/lean people live the abundant tasty life. Many large people live in continual denial of their hunger, and have never experience the "abundant, tasty" life to which they are entitled. Rather than predicting weight loss, over a period of more than a year it actually predicts weight gain. So quite often when you look at a large person and assume their size is due to their "choice" to eat a lot, you are quite wrong, in fact you may be looking at the result of their self-denial and restriction of food - probably not so much a choice, but a response to the "fatphobia shaming" meme which we haven't yet managed to cut the legs off of yet. Just for one aspect of this meme in operation, consider how fat-hating, for example, has become a new sneaky way to express your racism and poor-hating.

I'll take a break now, but be back for the main course in the next day or two. You take care!

info said...

Sorry, the missing word in the "predicts weight gain/loss" sentence is "dieting."

D said...

Whoah... good point. OK, yeah, I see now that I was totally misrepresenting the actual reasons that a lot of people are "overweight." Looking back, there are still people for whom their weight is more in their control (I'm one of them - when I don't exercise at all, I get fat; when I exercise moderately, I'm in a pleasant shape; I was in the best shape of my life when I was training for high school sports), and that was the sort of people I was talking about. But I should have chosen another example to make that point. I still agree that our "thin-o-centric" view of what's normal is skewed, and we shouldn't look down on those heavier than us if we value tolerance, inclusion, and valuing people for their relevant characteristics (as people, not as eye candy). For clarity, I also believe that one can't help what one is attracted to, and so discriminating on the basis of weight when it comes to who one chooses for one's partners is still not a "bad thing" (so long as one leaves it at that: merely not pairing up with the kinds of people to whom one is not attracted).

As a determinist, it's kind of hard to find an example of "preference" that doesn't break down under scrutiny. Trying to find an example of a value judgment that "could have been made otherwise" is something of a fool's errand. We simply don't choose to prefer things; we do prefer things, and that's it. Though we engage in deliberative processes (whether or not the outcome could possibly be otherwise), those simply aren't involved when it comes to what someone "just likes." Acknowledging the influence of cultural pressure just makes it all the more complicated: some people would rather fit in than "be themselves," some would rather be themselves than fit in, and some don't want to fit in no matter who they "are" (and then they band together and pretend they're all unique). The fact that these matters of temperament are not "true" choices (in the sense that they could not have been otherwise given the same initial conditions), to me, highlights the importance of a tolerant and inclusive society. Accommodating misfits is another one of those never-ending projects, like updating one's personal ethics or world model, that will continue to make demands on us as unknown and unexpected new information continues to become available.

Not really trying to prove a point there, just gesturing at the difficulty in talking about this sort of thing in both a relevant and accurate way. Anyway, I hope everything is OK with your family, and I look forward to continuing this discussion!