Friday, July 24, 2009

The Phenomenology of Normativity: Towards a Scientific Ethics, part two

The goal of my last post on this subject was mainly to establish that ethics, as it has been done throughout history, has been more like a creative art and not a science. Whatever scientific endeavors we might wish to pursue, in ethics we are limited to scientifically examining the value we take as our source of normativity, since we cannot compare ethical systems on an ethical basis without begging questions. This is a step removed from studying normativity itself, which would be the goal of a "truly" scientific ethics.

Today, I'm going to switch gears and talk about the possibility of studying normativity itself. Whatever our basis for ethics, whatever our source of normativity, we certainly experience normative feelings, and that means there's a phenomenology lurking about (there's a "what it's like" to these experiences). Where there's phenomenology, there's brain states, and where there's brain states, there's neuroscience. While we cannot meaningfully compare systems of ethics on an ethical basis, we can evaluate our experiences in relation to those systems, and that may be a way "forward." Though, as I hope to explain, there will still be some fairly major roadblocks along the way.

Let's start with some predictions. If the idea that ethics is fundamentally arbitrary ever takes root, then I predict that ethics will take a much broader turn for the scientific in an effort to explain how we experience normative feelings in fearsome scientific detail (more precisely, this will become more popular at a rate greater than that at which it is currently so doing - it's going to "pick up"). There would be described something along the lines of a "right-on," corresponding to some brain state which results in feelings of moral righteousness or satisfaction, and a "hate-on" corresponding to brain states for moral disgust and outrage. Right-ons make you say, "Right on!" Hate-ons make you want to "get your hate on." Easy enough, yeah?

So we'll see all these right-ons and hate-ons, and we'll start to notice something. Within cultures, there will be certain shared values, to nobody's great surprise. But between cultures, and also within cultures, and even within individuals, there will be certain things that conflict with each other. Sometimes, generally reliable precursors to right-ons and hate-ons will behave in unexpected (well, not entirely unexpected) ways when placed at odds with each other. Sometimes, justice will have to compete with happiness, liberty with social order, sex with hunger, plushies with irony. Then we'll scientifically prove something we've known all along: people are messy and complicated, and we get inconsistent when pressed on matters. La-de-friggin'-da.

Fine and dandy, but then what? Well, we're probably going to try to base a "new and improved" ethics on all this sexy new research, which isn't a wholly bad idea, but again we'll run into a problem. There will be outliers, deviations from the norm, and we will need to accommodate these with our new system. We will find a platypus. Some of these will be easy: cultural differences valuing politeness over directness, or vice versa, can be chalked up to learned behaviors. Some things, like sexual orientation, could prove more difficult, depending on what cultural progress has been made. Most interesting, and most problematic, will be things like "insanity." For people whose brain states are so radically different from most anyone else's in terms of when right-ons and hate-ons are generated, it will be tough to deliver a principled (to say nothing of non-arbitrary) account of where to draw the line and say, "These brain states are acceptable and should be tolerated by all; those brain states are insane and should be quarantined and fixed."

So what's next? I'm thinking we'll start looking at behaviors to see if the misfit brain states are actually resulting in any problems, or if they just "look funny." Or we may come up with some sort of "rules of sanity," where you have to more or less pass a test to qualify as sane. Perhaps we may come up with a set of symptoms, not unlike now, where if you act like a crazy person then you're probably a crazy person. Does any of this sound familiar? This has been deliberately phrased to resemble the "classic" moral debate between consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics, but no such resemblance is necessary. Whichever way things go, we're going to run into the same damn problem as we had before: when trying to figure out the "right" way to do something, there is no principled and non-arbitrary way to decide which among these competing accounts is best, since the criterion we'll be using for "best" will itself frame the terms of the debate into a circle. Or, in other words, we can never square ourselves up with "right" apart from "purpose," but purposes are categorically chosen and thus always suspect, so we will always have to second-guess ourselves. People have consequentialist intuitions, and they also have deontological intuitions, and they have aretaic intuitions as well; and they apply these intuitions inconsistently most of the time, and frequently in unprincipled and self-serving ways. When it comes to matters of public policy, we need to be all the more cautious.

I have a guess as to what the root of the problem is. My guess has explanatory power, but I don't think it can be verified until we've got a much more robust neurological account of the phenomenology of normativity ("what it's like" to experience right-ons and hate-ons). I think that we crave moral authority. I think it is written upon the human brain that there is such a thing as moral rectitude and dammit, I gotta have that. We want to be able to know, in an uncaring and uncertain Universe, that we have done some manner of "right," and that counts for something. Righteousness, then, acts as a sort of emotional security blanket, telling us that no matter what happens, we're still good people and somehow different from and/or elevated above the hostile and insensate world around us in a meaningful way.

I think that we, as a species, need to get over this. For one thing, we'd save a lot of time and energy by not worrying about whether what we're doing is "right," and instead evaluating whether it's in line with the values of those concerned (ourselves, our loved ones, our culture, our neighborhood, etc.). Contextualizing our moral dilemmas like this, tying them down to actual values rather than an ethereal "good" independent of the full range of human concerns, would go a long way towards clearing up ethical debates. The reason for this is simple: contextualizing the dilemma, phrasing your ethical propositions in terms of chosen purpose and value, leaves less room for inconsistent views of the ethereal "good" and helps prevent people from thinking they're talking about the same thing when they're actually talking right past each other. It makes us clarify our ideas and that facilitates communication, plain and simple. Let's look at a few examples:
Mecca Religious Police, 2002: Our purpose is to follow the commands of Allah, and Allah commands that women not be seen in public without headgear, period. This means that women's fashion is more important than women's lives when it comes down to it, like in that burning building right over there.
Firefighters: Umm... fuck that! Our purpose is to save people from burning alive, no matter what your stupid god has to say about it! If that means pissing in your Cheerios, then so be it. Allah can take it up with us later if he likes.
- - -
Pro-Life Lady: Our purpose is to do right by God, and that means treating all these helpless embryos as full persons in their own right, protecting them from would-be murderers who carelessly create and then abandon them. We value the lives of people, from zygotes on up, more than the convenience of people with the luck to have been born already.
Pro-Choice Lady: Cute rhetoric, but our purpose is to secure the reproductive rights of women, which means that they don't have to reproduce if they don't want to. We also value born persons over unborn anythings, and while abortion's always a fucking tragedy, it's even worse for a woman to be unable to control her body because of something someone else is doing to her, which is the situation you'd be putting her in if a zygote has personhood.
- - -
Homophobic Man: I value marriage as something that only one man and one woman can do together. My purpose here is to stop teh gheyz from getting their relationships legally recognized, because that makes me feel like my kind of relationship is no longer more valued than theirs.
Normal Man: Grow a pair, you twit - that's the point! We value equality, and our purpose is to make it so that the love between any two people is equal in the eyes of the law. This way, anyone can marry anyone, and we can all drink from the same fuckin' fountain.
OK, so it wouldn't happen just like that, but I still think that phrasing our hypothetical imperatives as hypothetical imperatives, complete with values & purpose, would still help clear up all this talk of what's right. At the end of the day, nothing is really changed: "the good" still hasn't been settled, "how should we live" has not been solved, and ethics still has no more of a foundation than it has ever had. In a way, that's kind of my point: "the good" can't be settled, "how should we live" will always be an open question, and ethics can only be founded on arbitrarily chosen purpose and value. All science can do is identify some trends (which may or may not change), crunch some numbers (which may or may not apply to individuals), and give an explanatory account of how things got that way (which is an "is," not an "ought"). Don't get me wrong - these are useful things to have whether or not we end up with an objective ethics. I'm just saying that, in order to identify a source of normativity by way of science alone is an absurd notion, unless the source is our own imaginations. And that's a full surrender to my position that ethics is made-up and entirely in our heads.

Ultimately, I suppose that all this fancy talk doesn't have an impact upon the brute fact that we still have values and choose purposes. But acknowledging the fact that these are subjective and arbitrary, if we value things like reason and truth, is something that ought to be done.

No comments: