On Philosophy

June 5, 2009

Beyond Sense and Nonsense

Filed under: Ethics,Metaphysics — Peter @ 11:34 pm

Personally I am an advocate of the idea that the universe is essentially a meaningless place, onto which we impose meaning. We create significance, we constitute it – we don’t find it. However, there is a dangerous ambiguity lurking in this brief description. I said that the universe is meaningless – the events in it are without significance – without us. But what does it mean to say that something is meaningless? To call something meaningless is not to leave it exactly as it was, it is to look at it in a certain way. It is to deny the existence of meaningful relationships between it and other things. This looks very much like giving meaning to it, like taking up an attitude towards it, like interpreting it. In other words, “meaningless” is itself a meaning that can be given to things. To say that something is meaningless is not to deny it meaning, it is to give it a meaning – albeit a rather empty one. Nihilism is simply one way of constituting the world, not a refusal to constitute the world at all.

This raises the question of what things are like then before we give them meanings. In a way the question cannot be properly answered. We cannot say that they have significant relationships to other things, because that is to say they have meaning intrinsically. But neither can we assert that they lack such relationships, because that is a significant fact on its own, which is also to say that they have meaning intrinsically (the meaning of being “meaningless”). Perhaps weak souls may simply give up at this point and conclude that on the basis of this dilemma that meanings of some kind must be intrinsic after all. The problem, however, stems not from the fact that meanings are really intrinsic, but that to describe something, to understand it, we have to take up an attitude towards it. In other words, if we think about it we can hardly help but give some meaning to it. The apparent contradiction arose then because we were trying to explain what a thing is like outside all attitudes towards it, while at the same time taking up such an attitude. What we are left with are things-in-themselves, noumena, beings-in-themselves. This are all labels for the unthinkable that sits outside, and in a sense “behind”, of the domain of meaning.

This is more of a terminological clarification than anything, the idea of the noumena has already been done to death by Kant. And besides, what can you say about things of which you cannot think? The interesting lesson is not that noumena pop up, but that meaninglessness is a kind of meaning. One immediate consequence of this is that there are two kinds of nihilists, where nihilists are characterized by the slogan “it’s all meaningless”. On one hand we have the hypocritical nihilist. The hypocritical nihilist goes around labeling things as meaningless without realizing that in doing so they are giving them meaning. Thus the hypocritical nihilist is constantly in the business of contradicting themselves. On the other hand we have the catatonic nihilist. The catatonic nihilist avoids self-contradiction by actually refusing to give things meanings, and the only way to do that is to refuse to interact with them. Thus the catatonic nihilist must curl into a ball and shut out the world.

This is why nihilism is an absurd position. Are there ways for the nihilist to be consistent? Yes. The nihilist could embrace the terminological clarification we have made here and run around saying “it’s all noumena”. But this would hardly be shocking, because the claim that noumena exist and in some way lie behind the world we experience in no way contradicts our ability to find meaning in the world. Or the nihilist may admit that they had something more traditional in mind when they made their claim. Perhaps they meant only to deny the existence of absolute meanings or divinely ordained meanings. But is there really anything shocking about that these days? We are well aware that most meanings, and most values, vary from culture to culture. We would hardly be shocked if we ran into a culture that thought gold was worthless, even though our culture values it highly.

If it is at all bothersome it must be because we are attached to some small set of meanings that we hold to be above this. Ethical values, perhaps, or the significance of life. But I would say that there is nothing contradictory about denying absolute meanings while still holding on to an absolutist system of ethics. In fact the absolutist must affirm this. From the absolutist perspective an ethical fact is not something that exists because we constitute it. Rightness and wrongness are independent of people and their opinions about rightness and wrongness. Thus, so conceived, rightness and wrongness are not a meaning. Rightness and wrongness are as much a fact as the hight of the desk or the weight of the lamp. They are something that belongs to the noumena; they are something that we give a meaning to. Just as we give a meaning to the weight of the lamp (heavy enough to serve as a paperweight) so too would we give meaning to ethical facts. Thus the absolutist position, if it is indeed correct, is in no way threatened by the denial of absolute meanings. Nor is the relativist for that matter.

Perhaps I have once again made a straw man out of the nihilist’s position. Can’t the nihilist simply accompany their denial of absolute meanings with the additional assertion that ethical values are meaning and not facts? Perhaps they could, and this would threaten the absolutist conception of ethics. However, it is also to beg the question against the absolutist, and thus isn’t much of an argument. We can borrow an argument from the Euthyphro here, and ask why we constitute something as good or bad, if ethical values are meanings we give things. It it an arbitrary choice, or do we constitute it as good because it is good? The second creates a paradox – if good is nothing but our constitution of something as good, then this is to say that we constitute it as good because we constitute it as good, which says nothing. Thus it must be the first – it is an arbitrary choice. But this is nothing more, and nothing less, than relativism. And relativism is the denial of absolutism. So to tell the absolutist that ethical values are meanings and not facts is simply to assert that absolutism is false. Which is not much of an argument against it. The absolutist’s position presupposes that ethical values are facts and not meanings that we assign.

This digression into ethics, while not helping the nihilist look like less of a fool, has touched upon an interesting question, namely how to decide what is a “fact” and thus part of the noumenon, and what is part of the meaning that we give to the noumenon. Given that we can’t conceive of noumena I would say that it is impossible to know the answer to this question; we can’t look at the noumena as they are in themselves and see what we find there. But this is philosophy, the fact of the matter isn’t our concern here. On the philosophical level we are still free to hypothesize about what is and isn’t a noumenal property, on the same basis which we do all philosophy, namely that some ways of looking at the world are better than others. In simpler terms: the world makes more sense if we conceive of some properties as belonging to the noumenal, regardless of what the noumena is “really” like. This is why I think we can describe the size and mass of an object as “facts”, as properties that are what they are independent of us. It’s not that these properties couldn’t be understood as something we are projecting onto the world – they certainly could. We could point out that length is only something that comes into existence for us through our interactions with the world and through our interpretations of our experiences. This is why things shrank as we grew up, although since we are invested in the idea that length is an objective fact we describe that experience as the size of objects seeming to shrink.

But isn’t it absurd to say that length is merely a meaning that we impose on the world, and not a fact? It certainly seems absurd to me. The question is why. What’s so wrong about taking length to be something imposed on the world when it is perfectly acceptable to say it about the aesthetic value of the same item? One distinguishing feature is that we accept that judgments about aesthetic value can vary without indicating that some of them are in error, but we don’t say the same about length. If someone disagrees with us that the ruler is longer than the pencil after we place them side by side we conclude that their vision must be distorted, or that they have misunderstood the word. But if they disagree with our judgment that the pencil is more beautiful than the ruler we shake our heads and accept that they just see things differently than us.

The point is that we take uniformity concerning judgments about length very seriously, and judgments about beauty less so. A lot can hang on getting length “right”. We desire to communicate accurately and clearly about length, and we can only do that if length isn’t up for grabs. Much less hangs on beauty, and so it simply doesn’t pay to worry about having a single aesthetic standard. But I can imagine a situation where things are reversed. Imagine a culture with only a very primitive level of technology. Because they don’t have much in the way of technology they have no need for precise measurements. Indeed they don’t even have words for length specifically. Instead they have words for vaguely defined shapes each of which has a characteristic general size. In this culture there are valid disagreements about whether the ruler is “longer” than the pencil. One person might group the pencil under “A” and the ruler under “B”, which is characteristically larger. But another might classify the pencil under “C”, which is characteristically larger than “B”. Because these notions are vaguely defined, and they accept that there is no “right” way to classify shapes, both answers are equally valid. But, on the other hand, certain aesthetic values might play a large role in their lives. So large that they have developed a complicated numerical system for measuring beauty in its many different forms. They consider it to be an objective matter of fact that the ruler is 5.6 units in the R-h axis, while the pencil is only 3 units in the G-m axis. Thus the ruler has objectively greater aesthetic value than the pencil. If we disagreed with them about this they would conclude that somehow our perceptions were in error or that we didn’t properly understand what beauty means. Thus for them aesthetic value is properly placed in the noumena while length/size/shape is merely an interpretation of the world.

Now it is easy to object to this example by saying that,as I have described them, these people aren’t talking about length and beauty; the words they use simply don’t mean the same thing, so there can be no comparison. And that the words they use to describe shapes do not capture facts, as we take judgments about length to, thus says nothing about whether those judgments actually capture facts. This is a valid criticism. The reason I gave the example I did was because we are so set in our ways that we simply can’t conceive of using “length” in a way that isn’t factual. Thus I described a language that used non-factual shape words to describe something we normally think is factual, namely shape and size, to make plausible the possibility that the same could hold for length, that there might be ways of using length words and length concepts that isn’t factual either. At best this is an illustration, not an argument – and I’m perfectly happy with that because of my metaphilosophical commitments.

Let me finally get back to the point. The point of this lengthy digression is to show that what we choose to see as a noumenal property, and what we decide isn’t a noumenal property, depends on what we, collectively, consider important to communicate about in a clear, unambiguous, standardized, and objective way. We put length, charge, mass, etc into the noumena because they are part of our scientific and technological apparatus where all of the elements on the list are extremely important. It doesn’t matter if they are “really” – whatever that could possibly mean in this context – meanings projected out onto the world, so long as we are all projecting the same ones. Since beauty is not part of this or some similar apparatus we are free to leave it up for grabs.

So now let me tie this back into ethics and hopefully get some closure on this wandering mess. As I mentioned earlier, whether absolutism in ethics make sense under this worldview (where we project meanings onto a meaningless world) depends on whether right and wrong are facts – part of the substratum for interpretation, the noumena – or whether they are meanings. And that, if the second part of this piece is on the right track, depends on whether clarity, unambiguity, standardization and objectivity are things we want ethics to display. Whether they are things we need ethics to display. Obviously that is a philosophical argument in its own right. But I think the answer is yes; given what we do with ethics those features are features it needs to have, and thus we make better sense of the world we are in by placing ethical facts along with length and mass in the noumena (and let us leave questions of whether they reduce to some of those other properties to philosophers with more time on their hands).

July 24, 2008

7: The Unknown Are Also Vain

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

1. Interpretation: To remain unknown is also a kind of vanity, or at least it can result from the same kind of mindset that motivates vain actions. Of course the person who wishes to remain unknown instead of being recognized for some great work or great action probably does not think of themselves as vain. Instead they congratulate themselves for being so humble and not demanding that recognition. But therein lies the problem; they are busy congratulating themselves for being especially humble. Choosing to remain unknown, like attaching your name to something magnificent, is a way to set yourself apart from everyone else. It isn’t a case of outward vanity, but it is an example of inward vanity, a course of action we choose to take to prove to ourselves how awesome we are. A truly humble person doesn’t think about the credit they will or won’t receive and so ends up taking credit for their accomplishments because that is the normal thing to do; they don’t spend enough time thinking about the credit to worry about escaping it.

Evaluation: This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons to remain unknown. An informant, for example, may wish to remain unknown for their own safety. And if Einstein had published poetry he would probably have had to do so anonymously, otherwise his fame as a scientist would have prevented an honest evaluation of his non-scientific work. And it would go too far to accuse everyone who goes anonymous without a special reason of being secretly vain. No generalization of this sort can hope to include absolutely everybody. Still, it includes a fair number of people, because what are the advantages of being unknown? Certainly if you really are a humble person then praise won’t change that. Indeed praise is the best test, and demonstration, of a person’s humility, since it is easy to be humble when no one is trying to raise you up. So perhaps they wish to remain unknown because they think of themselves as humble now, and fear that praise might change that. But if they would lose their humility in the face of praise are they really humble now? Certainly a person who doesn’t do evil simply because they lack the opportunity isn’t a good person. Similarly a person who only acts humble because they haven’t been praised doesn’t really have humility.

2. Interpretation: Perhaps a more direct reading of the saying is take it as asserting that even people unknown because they have done nothing worth being known for are vain. This is simply a comment on the nature of the human ego, which can puff itself up without reason. Many people who have yet to do anything significant, and who are unknown for that reason, believe that they should be praised for their work. They believe that the right people haven’t looked at it yet, or that they are ahead of their time and can’t be understood properly by their contemporaries. And thus they come to think of themselves as actually better than those who are praised.

Evaluation: Of course the reasoning of these unknown but vain people isn’t completely wrong. Some people do great work and aren’t recognized for it. However, it is much more likely that they haven’t done anything worthy of being praised for and have an inflated sense of self worth. Perhaps then this interpretation aims to deflate their egos. But should we deflate their egos? Granted, vanity isn’t an admirable quality, but sometimes vanity motivates someone who hasn’t produced anything significant yet to keep pushing forward until they do create something noteworthy. We might reason that, since their vanity hurts no one but themselves, from the point of view of the rest of us it is better the let them be vain, in the hope that they eventually will do something useful. On the other hand, vanity can also serve as an impediment to making a breakthrough. Consider a painter who has developed their own unique style and which thinks so highly of themselves that they keep painting even though no one likes their work. The reason no one likes their work is because the unique style that they have developed is awful. Now in one sense their vanity is useful because it keeps them painting, but it also keeps them from trying a different style because they are too vain to accept that their invention may not be working. Thus what is needed may be just the right amount of vanity. Enough that they keep working, but not so much that they get stuck in a rut. But I know of no advice that can produce just that level.

3. Interpretation: Interpretation 1 could easily be extended beyond vanity and humility to good acts in general. Often people take good actions explicitly to do good or to be good. But, as with remaining unknown, that is an attitude that does not suit those actions. To do good because it is good is again to display a kind of inward vanity, as you congratulate yourself for doing the right thing. It also displays a kind of selfishness. Obviously the person who does good for these reasons wants to be good. But if you do something good because you want to be good then really you are doing it for yourself.

Evaluation: This interpretation raises the question: how is it possible to be a good person? Clearly we can’t be a good person if we don’t do good things. But, on the other hand, we can’t consciously choose to do good things, because in making that choice we would be choosing it because it is good (assuming we don’t have other impure motives) and thus would be choosing it for our own sake. But in presenting the puzzle in this way the answer also presents itself. The key is to do good things without having to make the conscious choice to do something good. In other words, become the kind of person who does good spontaneously without thinking about it; then you will really be a good person. Doing good acts because they are good might be a way to train the right habits, but it doesn’t make a person a good person.
This interpretation, and the above response to it, assumes that being good also requires the correct intentions, specifically those that are not in any way selfish. That assumption is not shared by everyone. There are some who argue that when it comes to good and evil all that matter is what actually happens, and that people should be judged by what they do and not by what goes on in their heads. That it is so hard to be a genuinely good person when intentions matter may make us sympathetic to this suggestion.

4. Interpretation: In a less literal sense this saying could also be read as expressing the idea that the unknown truth, or us the unknown in general, is vain. Of course an unknown truth does not have a personality, and thus cannot literally be vain. However, if it did have a personality how could it help but be vain, given how much we care about the unknown and how little we care about the known, in comparison. But perhaps that is an intellectual mistake on our part. If there are two boxes, one which is open and can be seen to contain four balls, and one which is closed and contains an unknown number of balls, why should the number of balls in the closed box be any more interesting than the fact that there are four balls in the open box?

Evaluation: This interpretation seems to be giving bad advice. Curiosity is an extremely important human characteristic. We find out unknown things because it is possible that we can use that new knowledge to make our lives better after we have exhausted all the possibilities for building upon what we do know. But there also is a sense in which this interpretation is entirely correct. It is entirely irrelevant how many balls are in the closed box. But what’s the harm is a little curiosity about irrelevant matters? None, as far as I can see. It is possible though for curiosity to be taken too far. A person who could never be satisfied with unknowns would never be satisfied, since it is impossible to know everything. So while curiosity is an important driving force it is sometimes necessary to be satisfied with not knowing. Indeed the not-knowing of strategic facts is essential to being a good neighbor.

5. Interpretation: The unknown are vain, in the sense of useless. Under this reading the saying would be making the claim that all that matters are a few important individuals, while everyone else is unimportant and largely replaceable.

Evaluation: The sentiment in this interpretation is hard to agree with because it reeks of elitism. However, unappealing as it is, there is a grain of truth in it. It is not true that everyone else could be gotten rid of; the world is built upon unknown individuals. But it is true that, from the perspective of society, one unknown individual is much like any other and can probably fulfill the same role. What are we to make of that knowledge? Should we strive desperately to be important and irreplaceable in the eyes of society? Or should we pretend that what really matters are the people we are close to, to whom we aren’t replaceable? Neither, I think, is the correct response. To strive to be recognized by and be irreplaceable to society is likely to be futile, and thinking only that mattered is likely to make you a very unhappy person. But valuing the perspective of the people who know you, rather than the perspective of society as a whole, is simply intellectually dishonest. The perspective of someone who knows you is no more important than the perspective of someone who doesn’t, by an objective standard. Thus the best response to this realization is to accept that being important or irreplaceable is irrelevant when it comes to living a good life. If you accept that being important doesn’t matter then the fact that the world doesn’t find you to be important won’t bother you.

6. Interpretation: As interpretation 4, but instead taking the unknowable, rather than the unknown, to be vain. The unknowable receives far more praise than the merely unknown. Because it lies in some way outside the human intellect mystics of all sorts have latched onto the idea of the unknowable as encompassing a domain of special or ultimate truths, which the mystic usually promises access to by transcending the intellectual. However, it is foolish to suppose that the unknowable is special just because it is unknowable; that would be to suppose that the human intellect is so special that everything outside it must be special as well.

Evaluation: Is anything actually unknowable? It’s hard to define precisely what is unknowable, because that would approach knowing it. However, it is possible to give a few examples of things that are unknowable. The decimal expansion of pi, or any irrational number, cannot be known beyond a certain point, simply because the universe doesn’t contain enough energy to carry the computation any further. There also may be regions of space-time that are inaccessible to us, such as the inside of a black hole or a region sufficiently far away. There does not appear to be anything special about these examples of the unknowable. Certainly they don’t appear candidates for anything like an ultimate truth. And so this interpretation appears to be on track in its recommendation not to treat the unknowable as anything inherently special.

7. Interpretation: The unknown, collectively, are vain. Consider how the unknown masses often demand democratic representation. A democratic system presupposes that the unknown masses are better judges of a politician’s quality than any expert or any objective measure. What could be more vain than that?

Evaluation: To be honest it is hard to find examples of the unknown masses acting vain collectively. At times it seems that almost every member of them is vain to some extent, and yet as a group they are surprisingly humble. How can that be? Well generally vanity takes the form of an inflated ego, and an inflated ego involves thinking that you are better than everyone else. So consider what would happen if you put four people with inflated egos in the same room. Each would believe that the other three were relatively incompetent. Thus, when they do something collectively, each believes that the group is only moderately competent, since their singular brilliance is outweighed by the other three idiots, and so as a group they tend not to express vanity. Thus in this case acting collectively results in a group that is better than the individual. I would also argue that a demand for a democratic system is not a rare expression of vanity in a group, rather it is a reflection of their fear of being exploited by others who might manipulate the system.

July 20, 2008

3: All People Are Good

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

1. Interpretation: The literal meaning of the saying is that all people are ethically good. Of course no one can deny that people do bad things, but perhaps the good they do outweighs the bad. Some have described evil as a kind of nothingness, and if that were true any amount of good, which is something, would outweigh any amount of nothing. Or perhaps this saying should be taken as part of an ethical approach that describes something unorthodox, such as selfishness, to be a virtue. It is possible that all people are selfish to some degree. Finally, all people might be ethically good in the sense that they are inclined or predisposed to be good. In other words, human beings are naturally good.

Evaluation: No matter how this interpretation is construed it seems implausible. However, without some standard for what a person ethically good, which is a matter of dispute, it is hard to refute. But suppose that this interpretation was true. Wouldn’t it undermine the force of ethics? If everyone is good what is the point of avoiding doing bad things in favor of good things? According to the saying we would still be good people, and thus to be approved of ethically in spite of our bad actions. Thus we may retreat to interpreting the saying as asserting that we are all inclined to be good. This seems more plausible, but it is also much harder to evaluate. What predisposes a person to be good or evil? It is certainly not impossible for people to born with a predisposition towards good behavior. For example, if you believed that homosexuality was a virtue then it is the case that some people are born with a predisposition to be good, at least under that definition of virtue. However, the environment that someone grows up in seems to be a much more powerful force for predisposing them towards good or evil – people tend to adopt as their own morality that of their culture. Thus whether people are inclined to good or evil by birth seems almost a moot point, given that where they grow up has larger effect. And it also makes determining whether people are inclined to be good or evil at birth nearly impossible, since any such inclination is overshadowed by other influences.

2. Interpretation: Often when the word good is used we are inclined to understand it in the ethical sense. However, good can also mean something that is valued, and so the saying could be understood as asserting that all people are valuable. In a practical sense this means that the life of every person is worth preserving, and that every person is worth investing some time and energy in. Such a perspective coheres well with ethical perspectives that place a high value on life in general.

Evaluation: As with interpretation 1 there is no way to refute such an assertion without appeal to a specific ethical perspective. However, we can point out that a number of possible unappealing consequences of such a view. Consider the worst person in all of history (probably Hitler or Stalin). Now suppose that they had lost all power and had no hope of getting it back. And suppose that it was your job to catch them and put them in prison. Now you find yourself in a situation where this person is about to elude your grasp and escape, and you know also that if they escape now they will remain free and have a happy life. And the only way to prevent them from escaping is by killing them. Should you kill them or should you let them go free and be happy? If we place a high value on life then we would be forced to conclude that letting them live is more important than punishment. Certainly that will strike some of you as the wrong choice. If it does that means that you are not inclined to place so high a value on life that all lives, no matter what the situation is, are considered to be good.

3. Interpretation: The saying does not indicate which perspective everyone is judged to be good from, which has made evaluating the previous interpretations difficult. And so we could take the saying as asserting that everyone judges themselves to be good (i.e. by their own standards). One reason this might be the case is if the standards that people use to determine whether someone is good vary so much that people we would judge to be evil are simply living by radically different standards. Alternately, it could also be that most people share similar standards but unconsciously overlook their own failings or are more likely to excuse them as justified than they are to excuse the failings of other people.

Evaluation: This interpretation does seem to be true for most people. No matter what they are doing most people believe that their actions are justified, or at least aren’t clearly wrong. For example, those who perpetrate genocide often believe that the people they are killing deserve to be killed, and thus that they are doing the right thing. And if someone can justify genocide to themselves then they can probably justify anything. However, I’m not sure that everyone does consider themselves to be a good person. Some people are plagued by guilt, which in some cases is justified and in others is cased by holding themselves to an unreasonably high standard. These people don’t think that they are good people. Even so it is wise to keep this interpretation in mind. Just because someone professes to be good doesn’t mean that they are, even if they sincerely believe themselves to be good. And just because we believe ourselves to be good doesn’t necessarily mean that we are either (although it is equally a mistake to believe yourself to be evil without evidence; I suggest withholding your judgment).

4. Interpretation: To say that all people are good could be construed as asserting that all people had or have the potential to be good (not to be confused with the inclination to be good, discussed as part of interpretation 1). Thus this interpretation serves as a caution against judging people too harshly on the basis of the person that they currently are. Yes, the person they currently are may be bad, but it is just as important to steer them towards changing into a good person as it is to punish them for being a bad person.

Evaluation: This interpretation does appear to be true; people are malleable enough that almost everyone can change. However, there are dangers to taking it too seriously. First of all that someone might change into a better person doesn’t mean that they will change into a better person. Nor is it obvious what influences would lead them to become a better person. Thus knowing that a person could improve isn’t necessarily useful unless we also know how to lead them to fulfill that potential. Secondly, taking this saying seriously could lead you to be deceived by someone who is pretending to have become a good person; the repentant and the unrepentant alike profess that they have changed. Thus this is an interpretation that is worth keeping in mind when thinking about human nature, but something that it is probably best to ignore, for the most part, when actually dealing with people.

5. Interpretation: All people are good, not all the time, but sometimes. And so it is possible to encounter an evil person in their rare moments of goodness and mistakenly judge them to be a good person. Thus we should try to judge the whole person, not one or two conspicuous acts. And of course the opposite is true too. We shouldn’t condemn a person as evil because of one or two conspicuous mistakes either (although punishment may still be warranted).

Evaluation: This interpretation appears to be a good one, and can be legitimately extended beyond ethics. For example, you shouldn’t conclude that someone is easily angered just because you see them fly off the handle once; maybe they were having an unusually bad day. It is easy to generalize from memorable incidents to conclusions about who a person is, but that habit is often misleading, since in many cases memorable incidents are out of character for a person. Additionally, devious people often exploit that tendency, and do good things conspicuously to distort our perception of them. Which can make distinguishing a truly good person from someone who merely wants to appear good difficult. One strategy I use is to do something conspicuously virtuous, such as tipping where it isn’t expected, and see whether that person does the same thing. If they follow suit then it is likely that they are worried about being seen as good, and hence are copying you because they don’t want to appear bad in comparison. A truly good person has no reason to copy you, and if they don’t normally tip in those situations they won’t start just because you did.

6. Interpretation: Claiming that everyone is good could be part of a perspective in which everything is taken to be good the way it is. Such a perspective would be a kind of stoicism, which emphasizes accepting the world as it is rather than passing judgment on it. Instead of getting upset over the fact that someone is evil we should simply accept that the person is an evil person, and accept that things are fine the way they are. By embracing such an attitude we thus shield ourselves from unhappiness and frustration, because those emotions are a result of wanting the world to be other than it is.

Evaluation: The problem with this kind of stoicism is that it promotes inaction. If you are fine with the world the way it is what reason is there to try and change anything? Now inaction is not necessarily bad. Stoicism promises happiness, and maybe inaction is a fair price to pay. Ultimately whether stoicism is agreeable depends on what your values are. If you just want to be happy then perhaps stoicism is the perfect fit, since it promises happiness without actually having to do anything. On the other hand, if you value anything outside yourself, such as justice, the happiness of other people, preserving the rainforest, etc, then a stoic attitude can be counterproductive. Being frustrated or unhappy motivates actions to change the way things are. If the thought of the rainforest being destroyed makes you unhappy then you will be motivated to try to do something about that. Inasmuch as stoicism promotes inaction it can create situations where a person is led to ignore the things they value because they are busy trying to accept destruction of those things instead of attempting to do something about it. Of course this doesn’t shed any light on whether a stoic perspective is a good one. To determine that we would have to know whether valuing things outside yourself is good or bad.

7. Interpretation: When we say that something is good we may mean that it is performing its function properly. For example, a good hammer is one that drives down nails, and a good thief is one that doesn’t get caught. In that sense if someone was a good person it would mean that they were performing their function or purpose as a person well. But what the function or purpose of a human life is, or if it even has one, isn’t clear. In a roundabout fashion this saying could be providing an answer to that question. Read in this light the saying claims that each and every person is fulfilling his or her purpose. And if everyone really is fulfilling his or her purpose then that purpose must be something that is shared universally, such as life itself. And so the function or purpose of a human life would be to live that life.

Evaluation: Of course it is not entirely clear whether talking about a human life having a function or purpose even makes sense. Most things in the universe don’t have a purpose but simply are. A rock, for example, does not inherently have any purpose. Of course we can put a rock to some use, and thus give it a purpose, but what is there to put human lives to use and give them a purpose? (And is it ethical to use a human life as a means to some end?) But let’s suppose that human lives do have some inherent purpose. Now to call a life good in this sense is to say that it is fulfilling its purpose well, which in turn implies that a life can fulfill its purpose to a better or worse degree. But if that is the case why say that every life is good? Why not draw the line for what counts as a good life somewhere in the middle, so that some lives are good and some are bad? Granted, there are no principles that say the line must be drawn in the middle, and so we could classify all lives as good without making some logical error. However, it seems to me that if we are willing to call all lives good then calling a life good loses its meaning. The life would have been good no matter how they lived it, and so under such a definition a good human life means nothing more than a human life. And thus the distinction between good and bad lives becomes useless.

8. Interpretation: So far these interpretations have taken the saying as making an assertion, as claiming that in some sense people are good. However, it could instead be taken as a definition for personhood in terms of good human beings. The notion of personhood has a special role to play in a number of contexts. For example, people are often given rights and privileges that are not extended to animals and plants. Being a person gives you special status, both ethically and legally. Usually it is assumed that all adult human beings are people and any debate surrounding the issue revolves around how far personhood should be extended. This definition, however, would narrow personhood to only those human beings who were ethically good. This might seem absurd, but when you think about it the legal system already reflects this idea to an extent. Criminals, who are supposed to be bad people, are not given all the rights (such as freedom) we assume people to have. Restricting personhood to good human beings would be one way to justify that practice.

Evaluation: This sounds reasonable in principle. Adopting such a perspective provides additional reasons to conform to ethical standards (in order to merit the full benefits of personhood) and provides an easy way to justify punishment, which can often be a tricky issue. However, no matter how good this sounds in principle, even if it can be demonstrated to be true beyond all reasonable doubt, it should never be incorporated into public policy. Doing so would give governments a backdoor for all sorts of abuses, so long as they could paint their victims as evil. Secondly, even the best intentioned government will probably be at least somewhat confused as to what the correct ethical standards are. For example, is abortion ethical or unethical? The US government can’t seem to make up its mind, nor does every other government take the same position. And so, because of its inability to get the ethical standards right, inevitably some human beings would legally be deprived of their personhood that didn’t deserve it. Thus it is better to form public policy under the assumption that every adult human being is a person, for safety’s sake.

December 11, 2007

When Telling People To Do The Right Thing Is Wrong

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

The title of this post may seem paradoxical. How could it possibly be wrong to tell people to do the right thing, unless you are in some strange situation where you know that they will do the opposite of what you advise? Well, before I get to that let me describe a kind of sister situation involving normative facts in general. By a normative fact I mean simply that someone should do some particular action, which implies in turn that acting in that way will satisfy their desires or facilitate such satisfaction. Given that it is obvious that in most situations there will be a number of normative facts, not all of them compatible with each other. If a person has five desires then there will be at least five things that they should do, which probably can’t all be done at once. And, furthermore, there will be a body of other normative facts relating to what would help fulfill those desires, both in the moment and in the long-term. But just because a person should do all of those things doesn’t mean that of them none are a better choice than any other, generally there is always one best course of action among many that they should do. Thus, if we have the best interests of the person who we are advising in mind, and nothing else, it would be a mistake to encourage them to do something just because it is a normative fact for them. What we should do is figure our which course of action is best for them overall and then recommend that; doing any less would be encouraging them to make a mistake.

Of course that applies to ethics as well, because that we should act ethically is just one normative fact among many with no special status. And thus there may be times when, even though they should act ethically, there are other normative facts that may demand satisfaction more pressingly and thus it may be in their overall best interest not to act ethically. But that situation is not what I have in mind here, because we aren’t motivated by the best interests of other people when we advise them to act ethically. Rather we are compelled both by ethics and by simple self-interest to advise people to act ethically. Ethics I take to be acting in the best interests of the community, and thus encouraging people to act ethically is generally in the best interests of the community, and itself recommended by ethics. And, from a purely self-interested standpoint, people are less likely to act against your interests if they are trying to be ethical, and so it benefits you to lead them to be ethical. Of course what I am interested here is just cases where it is actually unethical to encourage people to be ethical, where giving such advice will lead to more harm than good. Obviously there will be times where self-interest will encourage us not to tell people to be ethical, for example when we are benefiting from their unethical behavior, but such cases are trivial to generate, and thus not very interesting.

Before I proceed I also should note that when I talk about advising people to be ethical I have in mind specifically situations in which we are trying to argue a person out of taking a particular action or living a certain kind of the life on the basis that it would be unethical, possibly by explaining in detail why it is unethical, and why acting unethically is undesirable. Obviously it is possible to “advise” people to be ethical without ever mentioning ethics. We could, for example, bribe or threaten them into an ethical course of action. Doing that is probably always ethical, modulo the nature of the “advice” itself. Since we are interested in effects changing someone’s action from a bad one to a good one is good, assuming that we don’t generate more undesirable consequences in doing so. In contrast much more complicated situations can arise when we consider advising people to be ethical when we explicitly invoke notions of right and wrong, because what we say may tie into their conceptions of right and wrong, and may have a number of interesting side-effects. Specifically there is a chance that if we tell someone that they are doing the wrong thing and they do it anyways then they may begin to conceive of themselves as an unethical person. And that may lead them to further unethical actions, since as they see themselves as unethical already they may feel that things can’t get worse, that further unethical actions have no consequences for them. Indeed I suspect that this is the source of many unethical people, not necessarily people who have been told what is ethical and then acted against that advice, but those who, for whatever reason, have come to believe themselves to be unethical. We have a tendency to find words to define ourselves with, and then live in accordance with those descriptions. Obviously this is a bad habit, because we are mutable and what we are at one time need not constrain who we are in the future. Still, it is a common habit, and criticizing it will not make it go away.

Does this mean then that we should never give advice about what is right and wrong, fearing that someone might go against that advice and then become an unethical person? Of course not, but it does mean that we may need to take a second look at the advice we give. Certainly it is always safe to give general advice about the nature of ethics itself. That might seem contradictory, since obviously it is possible to deduce any legitimate ethical advice we might give from the general laws of ethics. However, given that ethics is complicated, people find it easy to make excuses for themselves, if they want to. Thus someone may know what ethics is and be acting unethically, and yet have convinced themselves that they are ethical. Naturally it would be better if they simply acted ethically, but if they are acting unethically it is better that they believe themselves to be ethical and thus follow the demands of ethics in other situations. Also the demands of ethics come in different strengths, some actions are slightly unethical while other are highly unethical. Given that it is probably always a good idea to give specific advice against doing the most unethical actions in every situation. Such advice, in general, does the most good, and it is likely that someone who is going to act in a way that is extremely unethical already realizes that it is unethical, and hence informing them of that fact isn’t going to change anything.

The rest seems to come down to a case-by-case basis. Obviously we should give advice about ethics in situations where we are trying to inform people about the nature of ethics in a broad sense and when that advice might cause someone to change their mind about how to act for the better. However, it would be best to withhold that advice when the person we are advising is going to ignore our advice anyways. Then it is just a wasted effort. Since they aren’t going to be affected by it we are, at the very least, wasting our time. And we run the risk of accidentally convincing them that they are an unethical person, and thus encouraging further unethical behavior. Perhaps the real problem then is recognizing when we are in one of these situations so that we can appropriately withhold our advice. Obviously nothing will ever be certain in that respect since we aren’t mind readers. However a little simple psychology can identify most such cases. For example, if that person has displayed a pattern of a particular kind of unethical behavior it seems unlikely that simply advising them about ethics will convince them to change their ways. Also we must take into consideration that person’s desires. If it seems likely that they are acting unethically simply because they don’t realize that it is unethical, or because they haven’t properly thought about the importance of acting ethically in that situation, then giving ethical advice is a good idea. However if they are acting unethically because they are driven by powerful desires then that advice will probably fall on deaf ears, exactly the kind of situation we are trying to avoid. Perhaps the best advice I can give about giving advice in these matters is simply that, if we are motivated by ethics, our goal is to maximize the other person’s good behavior, not to correct specific tendencies. Which means that some times we will have to turn a blind eye to certain faults.

November 22, 2007

Changing Choices

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

People like to think, when they have a choice to make, that every possibility is open to them, that they are really free in some way to choose whichever they like. Even putting aside the physical nature of the brain it is pretty clear this isn’t the case, simply from a psychological point of view. People always pick the choice that seems best to them and so, all other considerations aside, we are thus on a set of tracks from one choice to the next from one apparently best option to the next. Now, obviously, determining what will seem best to a particular person isn’t always easy, and often we will be unable to predict what will seem best even to ourselves at the time we will have to make the choice. Because of this unpredictability we have the illusion of “freedom” of the kind where we could really pick any option, but it is only an illusion, although we still have the real freedom of self-determination. (And, before some tries to disprove this claim by intentionally picking a less-than-optimal choice, let me point out that clearly if you pick the less optimal choice then you think that disproving this claim by doing so makes the less-than-optimal choice worth it. But then that choice really does seem best to you at the moment, even if it is sub-optimal by the standards you usually judge choices, which don’t take into account philosophical worries.)

Because people make choices in this fixed way we are open to purposeful manipulation by others. To manipulate someone, let us agree to say, is to affect someone so that they make a different choice than the one they would have made without manipulation. In this sense of the word one obvious way to manipulate someone is to take away all but one of their options, thus forcing them to take it. For example, if someone was in a maze and they found themselves at a junction we could manipulate them into following one of the paths in this way by lowing walls that block the other options. This is, perhaps, the least interesting way to manipulate someone. More cunning is to affect the choice someone makes by affecting which option seems best to them. And one way to do that is to diminish the value of the option that is currently perceived as best, perhaps by threats. To return to the example of the maze, to manipulate someone in this way would be to affect their perception of the other paths besides the one we want them to go down to make them seem less desirable. Putting up signs saying that the other paths contain landmines would probably do the trick, whether or not we actually can find some. The inverse of this is also possible of course, instead of lowing the perceived value of the options other than the one we desire someone to pick we might instead raise the value of desired option, perhaps with bribes. Returning to the maze, for one last time, this kind of manipulation might be effected by leaving a trail of money along the path we desire the person to take, or possibly signs saying that there is food to be had along it if they have been trapped in our thought experiment long enough.

Given that the choices we make play a central role in ethics and that manipulation affects how we make choices we might suspect that manipulation might have an effect on the ethics of the situation, both for the manipulator and the person being manipulated. But, at least for the person, being manipulated, the ethical consequences of their choices aren’t affected, contrary to what some might intuitively think. Whether a choice is good or bad depends solely on the intended consequences of that choice by the person making it, it doesn’t depend on how they were led to make it one way or the other. If that doesn’t seem plausible simply consider how someone might try to excuse their bad choices given the description of manipulation given above. Could they legitimately defend their bad choice by claiming that it seemed best for them at the time? I think not, because if they could every unethical behavior could be excused; clearly when people act unethically they do so because they think it is the best choice they can make at the time. They think that by acting unethically they will receive some advantage, that things will turn out better for them if they do so. And the person manipulated into acting unethically is in exactly the same position in this respect with the person who chose to act unethically without manipulation, they acted unethically because they thought that things would turn out better for them if they did so, whether because of some bribe or some threat. On the other hand, whether someone was manipulated into acting unethically does affect how that choice reflects on our view of them as a good person (or a bad person), because we make such judgments based on how much value the person places on acting ethically; on how likely they are to act ethically in any given situation. Thus if the person acted unethically only because of some huge threat or bribe this would be consistent with them being a good person, because even a good person can act unethically.

This brings us to the other half of the question, namely whether it is wrong to manipulate people. Some may again lean towards the intuitive idea that manipulation is intrinsically wrong, possibly because manipulation is a word with negative connotations. Still, I would deny that anything is intrinsically wrong. It seems clear to me that whether manipulation is good or bad must be decided on a case-by-case basis as a result of the effects it has. But this doesn’t prevent us from making some broad generalizations. Generally then manipulating people by threatening them or by blocking them from making other choices will be an unethical thing to do because you are making them worse off by doing so (as things were they could have picked some excellent choice, but your manipulations blocked them from picking it and now they must settle for less). But, naturally, this can be outweighed if the other consequences of their new choice are sufficiently beneficial. Maybe they are an intrinsically selfish person and by threatening them we force them to make an ethical choice in a situation where it has large-scale consequences. Thus, overall, our threatening them would still be the ethical thing to do. Conversely then manipulating someone by bribing them would seem like a good thing to do, because it makes one of their choices even better than the choice which was previously best. And, just as threatening people could be good if it led them to make an ethical choice, so can bribing people be bad if it leads them to make an unethical choice.

Of course this discussion has so far presumed that people are accurate assessors of the choices before them, such that what they perceive as best is actually best. But in many cases this is not so, the best choice may be hidden from them and they may only be picking a choice that is somewhat good. Thus our manipulation could very well be an alteration of appearances simply so that the best choice really does seem best. For example, by informing someone about all the facts we may manipulate them by changing which choice seems best, but we haven’t affected the actual consequences of their choices at all, nor are we pretending to. If we consider whether this counts as threatening or a bribe we see that it depends on whether the person was previously overvaluing some choice, in which case it counts as threatening, or undervaluing some choice, in which case it counts as a bribe. But, obviously, more accurate information is always good for a person. Thus what was said previously about threatening and bribing was really a loose way of describing manipulation capturing only those cases where appearance agrees with reality. What we had to say about threatening really applies to any case in which we cause someone to choose an option that was worse than the one they would have picked without our interference, and what we said about bribery applies to any case where we cause someone to choose an option that is better than the one they would have picked otherwise. Under this more accurate way of looking at matters giving someone more information about their options always falls under the category of bribery and is thus always a good thing, unless the choice they will make is unethical, as described above.

But, despite all this, some may still feel that manipulation is in some way unethical or wrong, that it diminishes people’s natural freedom to choose, and thus must be avoided out of a matter of principle. Well, I have bad news for those people: the manipulation of others is essentially unavoidable. If you have any affect on the world at all then there is a good chance that, on occasion, you will affect the choices people make, and thus will be manipulating them. For example, let us suppose that you write a blog entry, as I have today. By making it available for people to read I have affected the options available to them when choosing how to spend their time. And, if they read it, I have effectively manipulated them into doing so, although without any specific intention to have that particular effect on that particular individual. Because of this it seems hard to condemn intentional manipulation as a matter of general principle given that it not necessarily any more or less harmful than the unintentional manipulation that occurs constantly.

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