Friday, July 31, 2009

The Cuckoo and the Con-Man: All-American Schizoid Hypocrisy

Adapt or perish. It's the story of the genetic war called "life" which has been waged since the first replicators self-assembled. That doesn't sound very poetic, but "since time immemorial" simply does no justice to the true enormity of life's history. As far as this categorical imperative is concerned, it well and truly doesn't matter how life on Earth originated, whether by a magical sky-wizard, or extant life on another planet, or in our very own oceans. The fact of the matter is that there is a scarcity of resources, and a variety of living beings to compete for those resources; some of those beings will be more successful than others, and this success varies by generation depending on random mutations and environmental pressures, giving rise to the universal maxim that summarizes the struggle of life in three little words: adapt or perish.

Today I want to take a look at one particular ideology, that of the "All-American Republican." I use scare quotes because, in the first place, I just made up this term. In the second place, there is no globally accepted term for what I'm talking about: Christian, capitalist, conservative, and anti-intellectual are some of the chief characteristics of this mentality. "Red America," or throwbacks to the Deep South, or Arch-Conservatives, or whatever you want to call them. Behaviorally, this kind of person votes Jesus, supports industry, wants government to be big on business but small on restrictions and helping the little guy, takes science for granted while eschewing its "unfavorable" discoveries and implications, and thinks that unbridled and uncritical patriotism is a good thing. Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, George W. Bush the Lionhearted, these people are examples of who I'm talking about.

As for scope, I will not be talking about specific facts or events, but rather about a deep-running hypocrisy that I have not seen discussed before. Namely, the schism involved in enshrining the invisible hand of laissez-faire capitalism while at the same time decrying evolutionary theory. This schism is not only a source of inborn hypocrisy for all who buy into the two opposed tenets, but is also standing directly in the way of scientific, educational, social, economic, and political progress (basically every area of relevance to civilization in general). This is an argument from philosophical principle, not an attack on any particular person, organization, or belief system (at least, not any belief system that doesn't endorse these two specific values).

With that said, let's jump right in. The All-American Republican, as I shall refer to this schizoid pair of beliefs from here on in, believes that evolutionary thinking - the belief that life on Earth as we see it today has evolved by natural selection from previous forms - is inherently evil and drags humanity down. Ironically, this is correct in an important way, though not in the way that the All-American Republican thinks. The All-American Republican also believes that businesses must run free from government interference to form a solid backbone for our economy. While it is true that excessive interference can be the death of any business, what constitutes "excessive" (or even "interference") is a matter for vigorous debate. Laissez-faire capitalism coupled with some manner of morally-charged creationism: this is the essence of the All-American Republican.

As for their bioethics, the proposition that "evolutionary theory is morally deleterious" is intellectually bankrupt. Other writers have elaborated upon this idea at great length and with greater elegance than I can muster, and anyone likely to read this will probably agree with the point anyway, so I shall skip some of the formalities and simply summarize. First of all, ethics is what it is, and any serious philosopher can tell you this: ethics applies to us as ethics, no matter what our origin or ancestry may be, because we are human. The definition of "human" refers to us as we are today: we are the referent, and nothing will change that. Discovering facts about our history will not change that, whether or not a deity exists will not change that, and analyzing our ethics as evolved organisms in an objectively amoral universe will not change that. Second, no one and nothing may impart moral worth where none exists, nor can moral worth be eliminated on such say-so where it does exist. Whether ethics is real or not, objective or subjective, anthropologically universal or culturally relative, biologically necessary or merely contingent, that is the fact of the matter. No god, no king, no book or brain may change this - the status of ethics, whatever that may be, is an objective fact which may be discovered but not dictated. If atheistic worldviews are morally bankrupt, then so are theistic ones. Morality simply does not depend on a god's say-so. Say what you will about the factual support for evolution (it's solid), or its allegedly controversial status in the scientific community (there is none), or the lack of all-encompassing undeniable proof (that's impossible). Evolutionary biology and evolutionary thinking are simply not inimical to morality, no matter what the All-American Republicans would like to say about it.

On to economics! What the All-American Republicans don't seem to understand is that, without interference from outside institutions, businesses evolve and compete in an evolutionary way. As new businesses arise, old ones must adapt or perish if their source of revenue is in any way threatened. The "invisible hand" is nothing more than natural selection in the marketplace. Corporations change over time, either by changing their internal power structure, changing their employees, or merging with each other and splitting from each other. Looking at a corporation and all the various aspects of it that are subject to change, it's trivially easy to demonstrate by way of sorites paradoxes that, like the Ship of Theseus, corporations are fluid and evolve in ways very similar to the gene pool of a species (so similar, in fact, I can't readily think of a coherent and non-arbitrary way to distinguish the two types of change). Businesses vary and compete for a scarcity of money; they have differential economic success, and this drives them to follow exactly the same maxim as living organisms: adapt or perish.

In this way, I should hope that it is obvious that "let the market decide" is nothing if not code for "survival of the fittest." In a strong sense, the All-American Republican wants to see evolutionary values injected into the marketplace. This does not mean "values that evolve," it means "values based on the process and function of evolution." A quick note on the recent bailout debacle: asking for federal support without regulation is nothing more than wanting to have one's cake and eat it, too; my overarching point is unaffected by this doubly-hypocritical insanity. More on this later.

I mentioned earlier that, ironically, the idea that "evolutionary thinking is harmful" is correct in a way. This is it: letting businesses evolve in this way causes them to compete simply on the basis of resource acquisition; as businesses, in other words, and not on any outside criterion such as, I don't know, ethics. Businesses are measured as successful not based on which one does the most good for people, or which one has the most valuable product, or which one is the most environmentally sound (all of which are legitimate concerns), but solely on the basis of which makes the most money. While the creation of wealth is undoubtedly a good thing, as increasing the resources available at any given time certainly does no harm (all other things being equal), the mere acquisition of wealth in and of itself is amoral; to the extent that those resources are denied to "more worthy" enterprises (based on whatever system of ethics you'd care to dream up), this acquisition may be rightly termed "evil." Under an evolutionary laissez-faire capitalism, however, what makes an enterprise "worthy" of wealth is having wealth, no matter how it was acquired. Snagging resources, ipso facto, makes one worthy of possessing those resources. Just as the cuckoo proliferates in nature, so the con-man proliferates in an unregulated economy - and the Corporation, the Man, the all-monetizing consumerist mess of "it all," whatever you want to call it, it's just a con-man writ large. For businesses with questionable practices, corrupt leadership, and enormous profit margins, this is the best of all possible systems; businesses that seek to do well under any other system of ethics are institutionally fucked. And so it comes to pass that businesses make money based on how good they are at making money. While having a good product is certainly of no harm to such an endeavor, it is neither a guarantor of success, nor required for it.

Now we put this view - that driving the economy by evolutionary values is good - right next to the other view - that thinking of life in evolutionary terms is bad - and what do we get? A puzzling question: how can it be that thinking of the one in terms of such principles is bad, while doing the other according to such principles is good? The only defense I can think of is that, in biology, evolutionary thinking devalues humanity by making it no more special than any other form of life, while in economics, evolutionary thinking simply drives businesses to do well as businesses; there is a moral difference between the two (the former is moral, the latter is amoral), and so it's apples and oranges. This breaks down, though, on closer scrutiny. On the one hand, if humanity is imbued with some unfalsifiable deity's magical awesometude, then how we came to be (evolved from other animals, or shaped by hand from dust) is irrelevant to the fact that we have that magical awesometude independent of our origin. And on the other hand, driving businesses to be good as businesses, when divorced from ethical concerns, entails that we don't need to do business ethically (which you would be hard-pressed to get someone to say in public). But once again, the fact that we are human is what makes ethical concerns apply to us, not our status as divine creations or whatever - evolution cannot rob us of that, nor can a god imbue us with it. Ethics is independent of our origin. And while acquiring money is, as I stated before, amoral in and of itself, the effects of resource acquisition absolutely have ethical impact, which makes it a morally-charged matter. Insofar as this potential is actualized, economics is a matter of moral import. This cuts off their distinction at the knees: in short, I say to the All-American Republican, "The apples aren't really apples, the oranges aren't really oranges; they're all pears and you're an idiot."

Evolutionary thinking does nothing to devalue humanity's position in the cosmos, whatever that is. We are what we are, and however we describe the process behind how we came to be, our place is still our place. Describing our origin in terms of evolutionary principles does not affect this - if you think humanity's worth depends on the description of our origins, then you're quite frankly doing it wrong. Our place is a matter of value, and value judgments are ethical matters, while causal origin stories are purely descriptive statements of "is" and do not affect the validity of our "ought" statements (unless those oughts are bankrupt to begin with, as all divine command theories inherently are); these concerns are quite simply independent of one another. And when it comes to doing business, if we wish to be ethical businesspersons, then our economic practices should not be based on evolutionary principles: they should be, dare I say it, intelligently designed so as to be imbued with our own ethical values and insulated from the heartless forces of natural selection. Does this mean socialism? Well, yes, to a degree - and in a way that would make the All-American Republicans cringe.

So that is the essence of the hypocrisy of the All-American Republican: a resistance to an uncomfortable truth, and an enshrinement of an unjustifiable business ethic. The former is the evolution of humanity, the latter is laissez faire (or evolution-driven) capitalism. I mentioned earlier that there was a "doubly-hypocritical insanity" to the recent bailout debacle, and my meaning should be clearer here: their business models, as practiced in a wild environment (a series of naturally occurring - that is, undesigned - economic situations), got them to the point of needing outside (read: "unnatural") funding to avoid bankruptcy (read: "death/extinction"). Rather than accept the prognosis of cold natural selection, they asked for an intelligently designed solution to avoid an undesirable foreseen outcome. In other words, they were asking the government to think ahead and make an ethical decision, two things which natural selection never does by definition. What. The. Fuck. (Side note: be advised that this applies strictly to those corporations/individuals who both asked for federal bailout money and balked at oversights on what would be done with that money. I'm defining my way to victory here, not generalizing hastily.)

I also mentioned that I would show how these values are anti-progressive: by eschewing a descriptive account of natural history based on evidence and rational inference (namely, evolution), the All-American Republican's values are holding back education and science, with all that that entails. And by enshrining a naturally evolving economy rather than taking steps towards an intelligently designed one (that is, by insisting on laissez-faire capitalism), business is effectively prohibited from becoming ethical because they won't allow an artifical and ethical system to take root, forcing us to accept the ebb and flow of natural economic tides rather than work on designing our own for long-term stability and ethical soundness. (An ethical economy must be artificial, because nature has no inherent ethics aside from "adapt or perish" - and even that only applies if you don't want to perish.) Put simply, in order to run our country better, we need to drop creationist fairy tales and become more scientifically-minded, while also dropping our faith in the invisible hand of the free market to become more economically ethical.

All-American Republicanism, as I have labeled and described it, is by no means the only (nor even the first) source of these evils, but it is a stunning case in point. For endorsing evolutionary economics while decrying evolutionary thinking, this particular mode of thought cannot die out soon enough. Fortunately, All-American Republicanism is a memetic construct and, in the marketplace of ideas, is subject to exactly the same selective pressures as any other idea: adapt or perish. This meme is now in the midst of violent and embarrassing death throes, as any adaptation is seen as a compromise of moral principle (rather than compliance with one, as it ought to be seen). Whether by deliberate refusal or helpless inability to adapt, All-American Republicanism appears doomed to take a backseat to more flexible and survivable memes better suited to cosmopolitan life.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Poison for Your Brain: Misogynistic Quackery!

So there's this doctor, name of Denis Walsh. I like to call him "Doctor Douchebag." This man has an idea about how mothers ought to give birth to their children, and it's totally ridiculous. I mean that in the original "worthy of ridicule" sense. You may have seen this dick-bag on Pharyngula: he's the guy who says that women ought to decline painkillers during childbirth because the pains of labor happen and it will strengthen the bond between mother and child.

No joke.

Since this is Poison for Your Brain and not a rigorous philosophical paper, I'm just going to come out and say that this is nothing more and nothing less than hazing. Yes, it's a well-known phenomenon in psychology that an investment of time, money, effort, or pain will tend to cause the object of that investment to be perceived as more valuable. It doesn't matter if you're beating in a gang member, paddling the ass of a frat boy, embarrassing the shit out of a new sorority girl, or screaming in pain during childbirth. Leaving aside (for the moment) the fact that this is extremely sexist because there's no analogue for men (how should two male parents achieve such a bond with their adopted child?), he also commits the naturalistic fallacy: this is how something is, therefore it is good that it is that way, and doing it differently is bad.

Horseshit.

We humans need our pelvises to be a certain way - or, more accurately, within a small range of possibilities relative to all of the options available - in order to be able to walk upright as we do. We also need large skulls to house our prodigious brains. Being placental mammals as we are, these two biological necessities are at odds with one another, which puts humans in a fairly unique position when it comes to how our young are brought into the world. An equally valid interpretation is that human births are unnaturally painful and so should be heavily medicated in order to avoid a whole bunch of unnecessary pain that only the mother will experience for no good reason.

If a woman wants to go through childbirth totally sober for any reason (or even none at all), that is her prerogative and unwanted medications should not be forced upon her. This is already an option, and it's also not what Doctor Douchebag is proposing: he's saying that all women ought to be this way, ought to have these certain values, and ought to do things his way. Getting back to the sexism alluded to above, this entails that men do not need to form a bond in such a way. Why not? Well, either they don't need to be that connected to their children, or they can establish an equally valuable connection by other means. And corollary to that is the idea that mothers, for whatever reason he'd care to dream up, need to have this connection which men don't, or can't get it by that other means (otherwise he'd have no cause to say that the connection should be strengthened in this way specifically). Because this is based on differences between the sexes, this position is sexist insofar as it treats women one way because they're women and treats men a different way because they're men. And because what he is advocating is pain for women (whether they are OK with that pain or not, which some-but-not-all clearly are), it is also misogynistic.

What an insufferable fuckwit.

BONUS! I texted the following to my roommate:
Doctor, to Women: you shouldn't use painkillers during childbirth, because labor pain will make you more attached to your child. My comment: like hazing?
My roommate's response:
Sure! Just like if he got a root canal he should do that without painkillers, so he will appreciate having teeth more.
Fucking priceless.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Participating in the Internet: Beware the spinal trap

So there's been a bunch of to-do about Simon Singh, the science writer who said "bogus" when he probably meant to say "bullshit" and is being sued for libel. Personally, I don't know what's wrong with the Britich Chiropractic Association - they can't even make acronyms properly, it ought to be the British Association of Chiropractors, making it a proper backronym! Anyway, Orac has the scoop, PZ has joined in, and others have as well. There are alterations in these at the request of SAS (Sense About Science, not the British commandos), on the grounds that they could still get Singh in trouble. Whether or not that's true - and in a country without our robust protections of free speech, it may well be - I don't think the factual claims made in his article are affected by the presence or absence of the word "bogus." At any rate, as a gesture of journalistic aptitude, here is the internet cache of the original article. Below is the "current" version:
Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results - and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that "99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae". In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer's first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying - even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: "Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck."

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.
Update: We have something of an expert opinion on this, right in the comments! Dale, the first commenter, has posted some good points which have precipitated a further response of my own. Depending on how involved the discussion gets, this may be followed up on in another post (due to space restrictions in the comments). Stay tuned!

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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Moral Platypus, or: Towards a Scientific Ethics, but Not Quite Yet

The platypus is a fantastic little critter for a wide variety of reasons. Its evolutionary significance alone is multi-faceted: it lays eggs, a feature that has been lost by the overwhelming majority of mammals; it nurses its young with milk but lacks nipples, which traits we might otherwise be tempted to think of as inseparable; its sense of electroreception is highly developed, unlike the rest of the mammals; and its venom is a striking example of convergent evolution, as the proteins it co-opted for the purpose are a different set from those in cobras, spiders, bees, etc.

The platypus is also of historical significance, as its discovery was first thought to be a hoax, and then precipitated a revision of our taxonomic system. Before the platypus, we had such a neat little system: fish and amphibians laid soft eggs in the water; birds and reptiles laid hard eggs on land; mammals had fur and bore live young which they nursed. Then comes along the platypus: it has a leathery bill that looks like a duck; but it has fur like a mammal; but it lays eggs like a duck; but it nurses its young like a mammal; and it has a cloaca, and flippers, and venom, and electroreception, and how the hell do we classify this thing?

When a system encounters a situation in the real world that it can't accommodate, it can be said to have broken. The platypus broke our taxonomy: our system, as we had conceived it, could not accommodate a living creature which we thought "should" have been able to fit into one of our categories. And so we invented the monotremes so that we could stick the platypus into one of our boxes. A moral platypus is not a literal platypus out in the world, it is a metaphor for some morally-charged situation that breaks one's system of ethics and forces one to either revise the system or ignore the problem.

It's easy to find a moral platypus: take your ethical system and find its central source of normativity (happiness, duty, virtue, what-have-you). Now take this value and pit it against any other deeply-held value (survival, liberty, justice, etc.). Then try to hash out which value ought to take priority in the situation (while controlling for all other factors like a good thought experimenter, of course), and if you've done it right, you probably won't be able to arrive at a satisfactory decision. Note that a moral platypus is distinct from a tragic dilemma: while they may certainly overlap, the hallmark of a tragic dilemma is that there is no good outcome available, while the hallmark of a moral platypus is that outcomes which may be naively interpreted as "good" or "mandatory" are counterintuitively evaluated as unacceptable on a principled analysis.

Trolley problems are a great source of moral platypi, especially the first time around. For the uninitiated, "trolley problems" refer originally to a paper written by Phillippa Foot in which a moral dilemma was considered: a trolley driver, about to run over five people, could take action and instead kill only one person. Should the action be taken? That depends on whether there's a moral difference between killing and letting die. Foot goes on to show that, no matter how one answers, trying to isolate that moral principle and apply it in other situations leads to similar problems with unexpectedly contrary outcomes.

One important ground rule that often seems to get lost in the shuffle of trolley problems is that of stipulation. In thought experiments, certain conditions may be stipulated - they simply are the case, for the sake of argument, based on nothing more than a person's say-so. Logically impossible things may not be stipulated (you can't say, "Suppose you ran into a square-circle," because square-circles are impossible), but unknowable things can be stipulated - and refusal to accept logically possible stipulations is tantamount to not taking the experiment seriously. In the most basic version of the trolley problem (killing one versus letting five die), many respondents attempt to get around the problem by saying that they would try to stop the trolley, or redirect it such that nobody is killed, or any of a number of creative solutions which nevertheless do not abide by the stipulations of the problem: you may kill one by action, or let five die by inaction. Those are your choices. Given only that option, which is right?

Still, respondents will attempt to say that the blame lies elsewhere, on the mechanic responsible for making sure the brakes work, on the bystanders for not warning whoever is about to get run over, or even on the driver for failing to ensure that the trolley was in proper working order. The point of these dodgy attempts seems to be to fix blame on any other causally antecedent action so that the driver may be concerned only with damage control (rather than the harder work of figuring out what ought to be done), since the moral heavy lifting has already been accomplished by some villain. Again, this is a refusal to take the example seriously: however the circumstances came about, they are by stipulation accidental. That is, the point of the problem is that no person is morally blameworthy for the situation as it stands, such that the trolley driver is the only active moral agent. Again, for clarity, the problem is as to whether it is morally better to kill one by action or to let five die by inaction, all other things being equal - using the particulars of the situation to get around the problem is simply ignoring the question.

For a trolley driver, the answer may be easy enough, but Foot doesn't stop there. Her next challenge is to put a surgeon into a similar dilemma, and while most would say that it is better (or at least permissible) for a trolley driver to kill one rather than let five die, almost nobody would seriously argue that it is better for a surgeon to kill an innocent bystander in order to save five dying patients. The details, again, are unimportant: it is stipulated that the only relevant consequences are that a healthy person is killed, and five otherwise doomed people are instead saved in the process. Why is it that most would allow a trolley driver to kill one so that five may live, but not a surgeon? It may have to do with notions of fairness, cultural norms, or intuitions about what the acceptable hazards are around trolley tracks versus hospitals (trolleys can at times be legitimate hazards; surgeons ought never to be).

Another moral platypus is the "utility monster," a hypothetical creature from the imagination of Robert Nozick, who is vastly more effective at converting resources into utility than any other moral agent. If utility equals happiness, then the utility monster feels more intensely than any other agent (or all other agents put together). The utility monster can only be pleased by methods which cause intense suffering to many people, but the pleasure experienced is stipulated to outweigh the suffering of the victims. Without this pleasure, the utility monster feels an agony far greater than the sum of that which would be experienced by any potential victims, and the pleasure they would feel at living their lives unimpeded is less than that which could be felt by the utility monster. The dilemma is simple: feed the beast and maximize utility, or deny/slay it and be a bad utilitarian. What do you do?

Some may attempt to say that this is "against the rules," that all moral agents are equivalent in value. If that is the case, then what makes a moral agent? It seems too anthropocentric to state that only humans are moral agents, not to mention the fact that we'll have a serious taxonomic problem as we go back in time to say when humans started existing (i.e. when our ancestors first became moral agents). If the capacity to experience pleasure and suffering alone constitutes a moral agent, then we already treat ourselves as utility monsters in relation to other species. How many insects, game animals, wild predators, and others are killed every day for our sake? If moral agents are equivalent, then the pain of a single ant, termite, or bee counts as much in the utility calculus as our own. If all moral agents are not equivalent, then it must be the case that there is something about us that makes our moral capacities weigh heavier than those of bees, and the utility monster is simply able by stipulation to do that thing to an even greater extent than we can, robbing the objection of all force. Or we really are morally equivalent to other sensate beings, and we are all of us monsters of unconcscionable magnitude. So, once more with feeling: do you feed the beast, or be a terrible person?

Deontology, as a system, tends to be the most honest (and the least interesting) about moral platypi. If duties are duties and that's that, then any intuitively problematic situation lends itself to only two interpretations: either we haven't figured our duties properly, or we're simply evil for feeling bad about the right decision. Hell, these aren't even mutually exclusive! A moral platypus can't illustrate a conceptual shortcoming in a system of duties where nothing else counts; at least, not in the same way as the utility monster shows a conceptual shortcoming of the utility calculus. When it's stipulated that the world will end unless you tell a lie, die-hard Kantian hand-wringers will say that it doesn't matter what happens to the world so long as you retain your moral purity by sticking to the truth, consequences be damned. Nearly everyone else will say "That's stupid" and saving the world is worth getting your hands at least a little dirty. The only trick here is to find which unacceptable action will be tolerated in order to avoid which unacceptable outcome, and hey presto! You've broken another deontologist. Suppose I say that "Wacky God" is in charge and says that everyone goes to Hell for satisfying their duties - should everyone tell the truth and go to Hell to be tortured forever? Strict deontology says yes.

Virtue ethics, at the other end of the spectrum, is exceptionally difficult to pin down on this issue. Since virtue ethics takes its "oomph" from a robust cultural context rather than an explicit algorithm or ruleset, it's a bit more difficult to show systematic flaws. Instead, you have to start at a common point of agreement with whomever you are arguing, and then take it to absurd lengths. I'll try to argue with myself as an example. Yogendra Singh Yadav climbed a mountain while being shot at, and after taking bullets on the way to the top, ran into machine gun fire to throw a grenade into a bunker (killing the four men inside), then went into another bunker after taking several more bullets and killed everyone inside with his bare hands. Where on the spectrum of courage, between cowardice and recklessness, would such a set of actions fall? Cowardice is out, for sure. But it would be reckless of anyone to attempt such a thing - you'd almost certainly be killed! But Yadav survived, so was he just courageous enough? But how could he have known how courageous to be beforehand? And if he couldn't have, then shouldn't he have refrained from the attempt? And if he should have refrained, then how does it come out good that he did not? And if it's not good that he made the attempt, then why reward his success? Why reward anyone's success for defying the odds? And if the moral status of his actions hinges upon success or failure, then aren't the "virtuous" really just "lucky?" How, then, can a person affect their own virtue any more than they can affect their own luck? And so on and so forth.

Yadav is a moral platypus for virtue ethics, not only because it's difficult to see how other people should apply the lesson of his example to their own lives, but because it's difficult to figure out just what the lesson is in the first place. Virtue ethics, as a system, has trouble accommodating the life of Yogendra Singh Yadav. He does not fit. Most people, when faced with a moral platypus, will either ignore the problem and forget about it in a few hours or days, or else make a revision to their ethics which accommodates the platypus (sometimes causing problems elsewhere, sometimes not). The point, however, is not that any particular moral platypus exists; the point is that, in principle, a platypus may come up at any time. A moral system may be broken by simply asking, fancily, "But what happens when it breaks?" OK, fine, big whoop. Who cares? Well, if a moral platypus is able to break your system, it indicates that there is a flaw with your system - certainly, addressing and accommodating a platypus will make your ethics better than it was before, so does that not entail that your system was worse in that previous state?

Again, big whoop: all that means is that revising your ethics will be a never-ending project, right? I mean, Newtonian physics is way less accurate than quantum mechanics, but even NASA uses Newtonian physics to send robots to other planets - the point being that a system doesn't have to correspond completely to reality in order to achieve robustly satisfying results. But on the other hand, ethics might be more like biological classification than like physics, where the occasional platypus serves as a reminder that our classification system, while relying on objective criteria, is fundamentally arbitrary and not really any better than a similarly principled and coherent system of vastly different criteria and categories.

So which is it? Is ethics more like physics or more like taxonomy? Or, to paraphrase the comment that led me to write this post, is the good more like etiquette or more like a duck? Well, the chief difference I can think of between physics and biological classification, or etiquette and a duck, is quantification. Both systems involve observing phenomena, labelling things, and evaluating things; but in physics, all these phenomena, labels, and evaluations are accompanied by unambiguous numbers which bear experimentally verified relationships to one another. In biological classification, we just made up a bunch of categories after noticing that some animals were more like each other than they were like others (yeah, we've revised it since then, but still...). To be fair, molecular genetics has done a great deal to straighten out the general family tree, but where on that tree we choose to draw lines between all the potential categories is still just as arbitrary an endeavor as it ever was (more on this later). Ducks can be measured and meaningfully compared against one another in terms of height, weight, color, and so on, and all of these characteristics may be expressed with mathematical precision. Etiquette is an arbitrary social construct that picks some behaviors and calls them "rude" or "polite," and while it draws from an objective list of criteria (like biological classification), the particulars of the system itself are arbitrary (also like biological classification). Ethics, in evaluating events as "good" or "bad," still draws from a list of objective criteria (like biological classification and etiquette do), but what these criteria are, and the relationships among those criteria, are entirely arbitrary (at least, at present).

Getting back to the relationship between molecular genetics and biological classification, we could make taxonomy as objective as physics by basing it not on arbitrary categories but degrees of relatedness. Scientists in white lab coats who make the title of "Doctor" sound sexy are already working on this: it's called molecular phylogenetics. We'll have to do away with a lot of the terms we're accustomed to using, and probably invent quite a few more, but we could express all our phylogenetic ideas in terms of the molecular relatedness between organisms, if we only sat down and did the math. This is because molecular genetics provides us with a stuff of relatedness, a measurable phylogenetic substance that may be unambiguously compared between objects (well, the results are ambiguous insofar as our methods and equipment are imprecise, and there are other problems, but we can still do science to the phylogenetic tree!). There is no such moral substance, no stuff of goodness which we may measure with any degree of precision whatsoever. Now everybody stare off thoughtfully into the distance, stroke your chin, and say, "Unless..."

Under an ethics of happiness, there is in principle a way to find a "hedon," a unit of happiness, by observing brain states and figuring out a way to measurably compare them; but there are other morally charged terms such as justice, equality, mercy, and so on which are not nearly so easy to quantify (let alone compare). We could do away with these concepts, as in the example of a taxonomy of relatedness, so that we're only talking about happiness when we talk about the good. But then justice comes along looking for a fight, and as soon as you make happiness and justice fight each other, you're going to run into a problem: why should ours be an ethics of happiness, rather than one of justice, sex, prosperity, irony, or plushies? What standard of value should we use? Which system of ethics is best?

Uh oh. We have no principled way of comparing ethical systems on ethical grounds, because the ethical grounding required to do so necessarily relies on an existing ethical system. Newtonian physics and QM can be meaningfully compared in a whole lot of ways - chiefly, their relative degrees of accuracy and difficulty. QM is more accurate, but also more difficult, than Newtonian physics; but the accuracy afforded by QM is on scales below NASA's concern, while the computational demands of QM are of great concern. Newtonian physics affords accuracy that meets NASA's needs rather handily, while the computational demands are easily met by NASA's budget. For NASA's purposes (purposes like staying under budget, putting robots in space, and slingshotting probes out the solar system), Newtonian physics is just better than QM. But when our concern is ethics, we cannot compare ethical systems on an ethical basis without descending into meaninglessness. If our purpose is to maximize human happiness, of course an ethics of happiness will suit our purposes; if our purpose is to get everyone following the rules, of course an ethics of duty will suit our purposes; if our purpose is to get everyone acting like role models, of course an ethics of virtue will suit our purposes; and if our purpose is to see plushies everywhere, then of course an ethics of plushies will show us the way.

But purpose is a chosen value, not a dictated or discoverable fact. And since we can only distinguish between ethical systems on the basis of satisfying a chosen purpose, then this inevitably entails that all imperatives are hypothetical: an ethical system can only generate "shoulds" in relation to a purpose, and since purpose is ipso facto arbitrary, any "shoulds" generated are therefore fundamentally arbitrary themselves, not objective. Are there good and bad purposes? Of course, but only in the context of certain ethical systems, and which one of those we choose will rest upon preexisting values, and so on and so forth and blah blah blah. My point with all this is that we don't just have a young, underdeveloped, or bad science of ethics "for now" - ethics, as it has been done since the word Go, has been non-science insofar as it has attempted to get a "should" out of purposeless reality, or to find a way to decide which method of generating "shoulds" we "should" use, or what version of "the good" is "goodest."

So what do we do? Well, to be truthful to the point of boring, we keep on keeping on. We can decide (individually, of course) to go with an ethics of happiness, and there's nothing "wrong" with that. We can even get all scientific about our happiness, measuring hedons and right-ons and hate-ons and whatnot, but we have to keep in mind that it's happiness on which we are so enthusiastically doing science, not ethics. By choosing an ethics of happiness, we are doing ethics arbitrarily, and then we have the option of doing happiness scientifically. We should also be aware that, while happiness may be our main concern, we probably also want to do other things like justice, sex, prosperity, irony, and plushies.

This is getting long. More later.

With acknowledgment to Jack Phillips, the moral ironist.

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.

Catastrophe averted!

OK, so the bus thing didn't come through, but I did get into an attendance situation at one of my jobs, which gave me pause for thought. Basically, I was having trouble showing up and doing well at both places, so I decided to do one job well instead of two jobs poorly. I now receive standard human sleep dosage, and have time to blog again. Polyphasic self-experimentation is over.

Now to argue with the internet!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Catastrophe looms!

Not really. But I got off my sleep schedule and can't get back on, and trying has made me late for both jobs. Gallavantin' about on the innernets, fun as it is, really shouldn't be my priority at this point. So: hiatus!

I applied for a job as a bus driver, which would earn me just under what I get for both my current jobs. I should know whether I'll get the job some time next week; if I do, there will be more content. If not, I'll have to shut up and work. Wish me luck!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Ethical Cornerstones

"If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It's all an illusion. We've been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?"
- Francis Collins, 2008 lecture at UC Berkeley


A common complaint leveraged by theists is that atheism provides no foundation for morality, and fair enough at that: the mere lack of belief in a deity is metaethically inert. But so too is the active belief in such, so whatever. Theists sometimes go one step farther and insist that, even if we atheists managed to set up a solid foundation for morality, our general lack of belief in an afterlife destroys any sense of "ultimate accountability" or what-have-you, taking all the "oomph" out of whatever ethical system we'd care to imagine. Fine and dandy: religion cannot be used as a cudgel to beat us into good behavior, since we've inoculated ourselves against it. But theists must also acknowledge that the cudgel doesn't even work on their own: time and time again we hear news stories about prominent theists who are just as prone to error as the rest of us (some of them even moreso), and demographic studies continue to support the conclusion that, whatever the effects of atheism are on a populace, they are certainly not bad by any measure.

Today I'm going to crack open the vault of highly-guarded, mission-critical atheist secrets and admit that there is no objective basis for morality. Not just for atheists, mind you: no truly objective ethical system is even possible. Period. To do this, I'm going to have to get down to the Serious Business of defining what "truly objective ethical system" means, outlining the conditions for such a thing existing, showing that reality is not like that, demonstrating that normative ethical theories fail to bridge any gap left, and positing a basis for Humanist morality in the aftermath. Probably not in that exact order, though.

Morality is fundamentally descriptive and prescriptive: any system of ethics worth its salt must tell you, respectively, what it is and why you should care. In other words, descriptivity defines what the good is, and prescriptivity is where the "should" comes from. These two demands cannot be meshed in a consistent, coherent, non-arbitrary fashion under any system of ethics. As soon as you meet the descriptive requirement and hash out just what the good is, anyone is free to shrug and ask, "So?" But if you start at the other end, meeting the prescriptive requirement and trying to work back to the descriptive requirement, you'll run into a quagmire of inconsistent motivations, cultural relativism, and other such philosophical boogeymen that have plagued ethicists for centuries.

Immanuel Kant recognized this problem and tried to address it directly by showing that rationality entails morality: if one is a rational being, then one will be compelled to care about morality - and we all want to be rational, right? Were this to ever be conclusively demonstrated, it would be a genuinely exciting development in the field of ethics! However, Kant failed. Don't get me wrong - I like Kant's idea very much, I just think he has the bad fortune of being flat-out wrong. Philippa Foot, author of the famous trolley problem, shows in Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives that morality, like etiquette, only holds sway over a person if that person already wants to be moral. In other words, no categorical imperative can have any "oomph" unless you already buy into it - the "oomph" comes from within you, not from the imperative itself. Moreover, deontological theories of ethics fail categorically by their very nature, in that they are by definition duty-based: no matter what set of duties you come up with, the question of "why" can never be finally answered; i.e. deontological theories are always arbitrary at root.

Virtue (or "Areteic," from the Greek word arete, usually translated as "excellence") theories of ethics cannot bridge this gap, either. Aristotle's characterization of Man as the anima rationale is perhaps an anticipation of Kant's attempt to marry rationality and morality, but virtue theories are categorically arbitrary as well because they rely on contingent facts about human nature and individuals. "This is what it means to be a good person," says the virtue theorist, then adding under-the-breath, "With respect to various contingent factors related to your rather circumstantial existence." Why these factors and not those? Well, these are the ones we have to work with because they're the case (for us, at the moment), but others could be just as easily, and were it so, that would change morality - making it inconsistent between possibilities. As an example, Aristotle states that "courage" is a virtue between the vices of cowardice and recklessness. How courageous one should be, however, depends not only on one's own strength, but also the strength of the opposition and how these facts compare. Arnold Schwarzenegger ought to be more courageous than Woody Allen. But Audie Murphy is a goddamned hero. When trying to explain things like this, it's easy to give in to the temptation to ascribe "moral luck" to some people - Audie Murphy's heroic actions, independent of his small stature, could easily have gotten anyone killed and so shouldn't be considered to be generally advisable to anyone. He's just lucky that it happened to work out for him. But then Arnold is just lucky that he's capable of a higher degree of courage than Woody is, and Woody is conversely lucky that less courage is required of him. But what of people who are naturally cowardly? Their moral luck seems to have handed them a bum deal. What use is it to come up with these virtues when they seem to vary so wildly between individuals, and the exemplars can go so far beyond the reach of most "normal" people?

Consequentialist ethical frameworks tend to be better at consistently and coherently meeting descriptive requirements, but only arbitrarily so - and the prescriptivity is just as lacking as in deontology, for similar reasons. The reason that any consequentialist theory (which seeks to maximize "the good" as actualized via consequences of actions) must fail at identifying a non-arbitrary starting point for morality is that consequentialism assumes that "the good" is something "out there in the world," which is simply not the case. For the good to be out there in the world, for it to be a "thing" that is able to be maximized, there must be a moral substance, otherwise we could not point at it and say "That is what is meant by 'the good.'" The term "substance" is used loosely here, for "happiness" also counts as a "moral substance" if that is what's meant by the good: "happiness" may be analyzed in terms of brain states of living beings, it is an objective and quantifiable thing that we can point at out in the world. But the question of how, why, and whether the good is happiness has yet to be answered in any rigorous manner.

All three of these objections apply equally to all three ethical frameworks, because they are fundamentally interchangeable. By this I mean simply that any one of them could be stated perfectly well in terms of any other:
Consequentialism wearing a Deontological hat: We have a duty to act in a way that maximizes good consequences.
Deontology wearing a Consequentialist hat: The consequences we must seek to maximize involve people satisfying their duties.
Consequentialism wearing an Areteic hat: Good people act in such a way as to maximize the best consequences, and we should act as they do.
Virtue Ethics wearing a Consequentialist hat: The consequences we must seek to maximize involve people obtaining the best sets of characteristics.
Virtue Ethics wearing a Deontological hat: We have a duty to behave as our role models behave.
Deontology wearing an Areteic hat: Good people act in such a way as to satisfy their duties, and we should act like good people.
Because each of these general frameworks may be phrased in terms of the others, any objection to one theory applies with equal weight to all of them. Ultimately, normative ethics as a whole could be summed up in the statement, "Maximizing the good is a duty that morally good people perform." Specific formulations of this maxim differ only in the placement of emphasis, and they all fail to conclusively answer the questions of what the good is, why it's a duty to maximize it, and how it ought to be done; in other words, any normative theory of ethics may be objected to with a simple "Says who?"

Not even divine command theories can escape this. So God says this is good? Why does that count? The Euthyphro problem shows handily that the relationship between God and morality is an open question at best (and, when taken seriously, it shows that God has no power over moral facts). And while using Heaven and Hell as motivators can certainly set up a hypothetical imperative that is convincing to some, the power to reward or punish simply is not an argument, cannot tell us what is right or wrong, and does not constitute a foundation for an ethical system; it is merely a brute fact about the world, The End. The presence or absence of any gods quite simply has no bearing whatsoever on moral facts, whether they exist or not.

All of this is corollary to the fact that when we talk about "the good," we are not talking about something out in the world, we are talking about ideas in our own heads. Without a moral substance to point at and say, "That is the stuff from which goodness is made," there can be no such thing as objective morality: because morality is only in our heads, and objectivity refers to a quality that is not merely in our heads, the two concepts "objective" and "morality" are intrinsically opposed to one another. Not even God - any god at all - can get around this. Under a divine command system of ethics, God simply projects his own ideas of good and bad onto the world, rewarding and punishing according to his own ideas. Without God, we project just the same, but with "jail" instead of "Hell" for a cudgel to threaten those who fall too far out of line.

So what's a Humanist to do? Well, if morality isn't written into the world, then by the stars that died to make us, we'll write it in ourselves. So what if we can only project our ideas of good and bad on to the world? We'll just continue to refine our ideas and continue to project them on to the world. "But if there's no objective standard for morality," comes the cry, along with much hand-wringing and general whining, "Then, then, umm... then there's no objective standard for morality!" So? What do you want, a score? The Universe does not give a shit if you rape a pile of babies or not, which means that we mortals must be all the more vigilant against such things if we don't want them to happen. Morality simply is Foot's hypothetical imperatives, it is the emotivist's gut reactions, it is the non-cognitivist's covert commands, and we need to take these facts on board and work from there to create the kind of society we want.

What kind of society do we want, anyhow? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I want a liberal, progressive, permissive society that values individual liberties and freedom of conscience as well as social cohesion, that discourages meddlesome bullshit and reprimands unprovoked violence. I want a society where people really take to heart the idea that it's more important to get along than to get your way all the time. To make this kind of society, some rules will be useful and some will be stupid. "Live and let live" is a good start, but it lacks punch. "If you don't approve of what informed and consenting adults do to themselves and each other in the privacy of their own homes, then leave them to it and live your own damn life according to your own damn principles" is a bit closer. "Don't do drugs for fun," on the other hand, strikes me as a stupid rule. "Don't do drugs to the point that you neglect your responsibilities," by contrast, is a useful rule of thumb. Hell, I'll even go one better: "Don't do anything to the point that you neglect your responsibilities." Ooh, even better: "The key to all things is moderation, and that includes moderation." Golly, this is almost starting to sound like Buddhism's Middle Way... which in turn sounds an awful lot like the Aristotelian mean... which can also be phrased in consequentialist or deontological terms... look, I'm sure you can see where this is going by now. We can't get to morality from nothing, but we can get to hypothetical imperatives from existing values, and then as long as you play by your own rules, it doesn't matter which normative framework you use: all roads lead to Rome.

Just as there is no possibility of externally justifying induction, there is also no possibility of externally justifying morality. You can't get to "therefore induction works" unless you already buy into a system that gets you to "therefores," and you can't get a "you should do x" unless you already buy into a system that generates "shoulds" in the first place. But this isn't a problem - in fact, trying to work around this non-problem has generated a plethora of rather ingenious tools: the veil of ignorance, the social contract, the second formulation of the categorical imperative, the utility calculus, these are all useful tools for helping us figure out how to get what we want once we've identified what it is that we want. Similarly, a variety of strategies/moves are available to help one win at chess, should one desire to do so. Most people, I'd wager, just want to live their lives in peace, find some form of employment that's meaningful to them, and have some fun on the side. Great! Some people want to make sure that nobody else "sticks it in the naughty place," though, and they're meddlesome haters. Fuck the haters, and fuck their meddlesome, hand-wringing bullshit.

OK, so what does all this have to do with Humanism? Well, how about the fact that we're human? Humans come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and flavors, and if we want to make a society where everyone can live their lives in peace, find some form of employment that's meaningful to them, and have some fun on the side, then we need to accommodate as many of these shapes, sizes, and flavors as possible. This involves being permissive and inclusive, and having a general cultural outlook of "fuck the haters and fuck their meddlesome bullshit." We should also try to fix rapists, murderers, thieves, and other such criminals who actually harm people, and lock them up if we can't. The morality we project onto the world, if we want to create a Humanist society, should be a morality appropriate to humans. It should deliver goals that humans can meet, it should prohibit only those actions as are harmful to others, and it should permit just about everything else. These kinds of rules will be conducive to a Humanist society, no matter whether there's a single objective moral fact in the world or not.

At the end of the day, it well and truly does not matter that there's no moral substance, because we still have values. If we want to see those values realized - and we surely do, for that's what makes them "values" - then we ought to live them, to act as our own ethical cornerstones. That's the basis of a Humanist morality. That's the only practical basis possible for any morality.

This post was featured in the 39th Humanist Symposium.