a blog by josef johann

Friday, December 31, 2010

Really, what is left?

I hope Brian doesn't mind my quoting his outstanding comment here, originally left over at Russell Blackford's blog.

Once we realize a few things, I wonder how much else discussed here will be important. Those things include:

a) that we can describe our desires as properties of physical brain states and others' desires as properties of physical brain states,

b) that any of a set of activities would fulfill those desires,

c) that any of another set of activities would change those desires to those corresponding to other brain states, i.e. there are fact about how people will respond to stimuli. There are facts about which arguments people will and will not find persuasive at different times and under different pressures.

d) people actually mean things when they talk and this generates meaningless fake problems when their meaning does not correspond to their words (broccoli questions go here),

e) people think they think things that they do not think,

f) the moral systems people believe in and think they believe in form an incredibly complex conglomerate into which all beings' actions fit morally,

g) people may believe in square circles or a certain definition of "free will", "maximizing utility", or "morality" but that does not mean they can exist without internal contradiciton,

If someone asks me "Why should I be moral?" I can (in theory) tell them many true things. I can tell them if they are using the word "moral" to represent a coherent concept. I can tell them what they care about and why, as well as what it would take for them to care about different things. I can tell them which of those arguments that would convince them are invalid and/or untrue and which arguments they reject that are valid and true. I can tell them the relationship between their biology, what they care about, what they think they care about, and what it would take to change their desires.

In the midst of all this I don't feel poor for not being able to tell someone "why" they should do something. If I know how to make Biff my slavish handyman, and that certain people can't be convinced to be harmless due to their religious upbringing, and how to change the minds of others, and what mix of desires in the population results in honor killings and that all but the tribal and addled abhor that practice for good reasons, etc. please tell me what, if anything, I am missing out on by not being able to convert an "is" to an "ought".

I don't know what is left for "ought" to be about that is actually meaningful. And perhaps an error theorist like Russell Blackford would say "that's just the point!" And maybe so. But he also says this unanswerable, unfillable "ought" is the very thing laypeople address themselves to in their everyday moral discourse. I'm not convinced this is true.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

If you want to uncover absolute insanity, ask a group of people whether they would want to live forever in perfect health. At least one of them will say they do not want to do it. The rationalizations will be inexplicable, completely out of left field, and always confidently given as if the forces of the universe conspired to make their ridiculous explanation inevitable. It will have to be a project of this little blog of mine to aggregate all the different responses I have heard.

Another angle, taken by many internet atheists, is to say "how can I be afraid of death? Death isn't anything so it doesn't make sense that I should be afraid of it." It has the seductive elegance of shifting to a newer, high minded premise that happily dissolves the problem by trading in the whole framing for a different one.

If your best friend could be vanished from existence Marty Mcfly style, and your memory wiped of any recollection of the friend so would never experience any emotional suffering at the loss, would you say you lost nothing?

No one ever wants to admit that it is them, personally, then and there, that is succumbing to an emotional need to rationalize away grief. Society at large, a person in the abstract, or me so long as I'm merely equally guilty with others. For most of us death really is tragic. It's a problem to be solved.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nice second wave of political victories for Obama.

First wave: S-CHIP, Health Care, Student Loans, Stimulus bill with thousands of things in it such as high-speed rail and his tax cuts, Financial Regulation, Iraq withdrawal, saving GM. Ezra Klein and others would add TARP but I'm not sure TARP necessarily "worked."

Second wave: DADT Repeal, DREAM Act (hopefully, please!!), START treaty (hopefully), tax cut compromise (a mixed bag yes, but said to have a stimulative effect)

And imagine if there wasn't a mother fucking filibuster. We could have had an energy & climate bill and a comprehensive immigration bill rather than the less ambitious one we have. I think energy & climate was nearly as important as health care.

And the DREAM act would not have "failed" 55-41 today. The mother fucking filibuster.

And that if we passed an energy & climate bill instead that would have been a tremendous achievement on the level of health care.

If he wasn't absolute shit on civil liberties...

The most infuriating thing is there is so much good Obama could do on civil liberties without having to be held up by the Senate.

Friday, December 17, 2010

My notes The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Critics of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape wrongly expect that Harris will give a knock-down argument to convert everyone into moral realists, and then express disappointment when he fails to give one. But Harris openly concedes he is not going to give one:

Let me simply concede that if you don't see a distinction between these two lives that is worth valuing (premise 1 above), there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape. Likewise, if you admit that these lives are different, and that one is surely better than the other, but you believe these differences have no lawful relationship to human behavior, societal conditions, or states of the brain (premise 2), then you will also fail to see the point of my argument.

Of course the problems of why we care and why we ought to, and what it is we are caring about are very real. But much more consensus exists than we would like to admit. We are, after all, going to put down Harris' book, and go on getting oil changes and cancer screenings and looking both ways before crossing the street -- behaving in a way that communicates a belief in the value of human life (and perhaps other lives as well). Most of us end up ultimately unconvinced by the very philosophical points we bring against Harris. It is, I think, this inner conviction Harris is appealing to. Once we take our moral behavior seriously, as if it pertained to real things in the world, it has all sort of implications: implications for how and whether we should adjudicate over competing claims of cultures, for one. So he asks:

Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?

And must we? In this I see echoes of Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech, which is, I think one of the greatest assertions of human value ever made by an American. Douglas reacts to those who expect him to debate the wrongness of slavery:

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

And what would they imply? Whose sense of human dignity could be so hedged and contingent that they could speak of it relatively, and positively, and negatively without suffering trivialization? It is embedded in facts of the lived life. We climb over these facts and through them before any discussion starts.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

You already know what it is to you!

Russell Blackford frequently defends his belief in error theory with something like a Moorean open question argument. You can always cast doubt on any moral theory by saying "so what's it to me?"

Whenever this comes up, I've been saying that a True Moral Theory would not prevent the asker from repeating their question. Instead it would show the repetition of the question to be absurd after a certain depth of explanation.

If the Mafia is trying to assassinate Louis Griffin, she can explain to Peter why he should care. But, Peter can always say "so what's it to me?" Or as Russell says,

if he ultimately doesn't [care], then there's ultimately nothing more we can say.

And here we are supposed to believe that moral theory X loses its claim to objectivity.

But the "force" of morality comes not from its compelling people to see the light, or (as some of Ophelia Benson's commenters seem to believe) intervening as if it were a force of nature and preventing an immoral activity. The "force" comes from its universal and consistent application. People who choose not to act morally according to the theory cannot escape being labeled "morally wrong" by that theory. In that sense it is inescapable.

The meaning of "flashlight" doesn't break down because you choose not to build one. An instruction manual on how to build flashlights doesn't need to include a section persuading people that they should build flashlights. Perhaps it would if they want to sell their manual, but the section would have no bearing on whether the methods were correct.

Similarly I don't think an instruction book on morality needs to include section on why you "should" behave morally in order for it to be morality.

I do think, most of the time, people who might consider themselves amoral, or ambivalent or otherwise hard to pin down, are actually moral in a conventionally acceptable way after all and don't realize it because of fuzzy thinking. For them you actually can build a bridge into morality, because, with eloquence, you can reveal the pre-existing concern for moral issues they already have.

I don't mean to sidestep the problem. Just, I think most people who would count themselves as instances of the problem aren't, and most things people would point to as instances of the problem aren't either. And most of these, I think, contribute to our belief in the significance of the problem. If this point could be well made I think it would alleviate most concerns we have with what morality is.

For the true believers, the case is tougher. I don't see that any "should" can lead in to morality from without.

If any kind of bridge could be built, it would have to be from within the preexisting interests of the person who is still on the fence about whether they should be moral. But then, you are appealing to them on the basis of something other than morality. If someone truly doesn't share any of the interests embedded in the moral theory, you cannot persuade them without changing their interests. But it is wrongly expected of morality that it should concern itself with appealing to the self-interests of particular individuals.