Monthly Archives: September 2013

Johannes de Silentio and Wooster

Evans’ book “Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love” contains a wonderful parallel between Kierkegaard’s and P. G. Wodehouse’s styles of writing. In “Fear and Trembling”, Kierkegaard writes under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, a man of ethics who can only appreciate faith from the outside. In Wodehouse’s wonderful “Jeeves” series, he writes from the perspective of Bertie Wooster, a bumbling fool who misunderstands every predicament he falls into and is only saved by the machinations of his hyper-competent butler. Both cases write about something extraordinary – Abraham’s faith and Jeeves’ shenanigans – from the perspective of somebody incapable of understanding it.

In Wodehouse’s books, Evans writes, we “come to see the truth” through the unreliable narrator, and the same with Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard and Wodehouse were two great ironists, after all. Kierkegaard’s works are full of assertions that his ideas cannot be directly communicated: that they must “come from behind” by covert means like irony.

The epigraph of “Fear and Trembling” reads like this: “What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not.” It’s a reference to a story where the son of Emperor Tarquinius had captured an city and sent a messenger back to his father for instructions. Not trusting the messenger, the Emperor simply walked around the garden cutting off the tallest poppy flowers. When the confused messenger related his actions back to the son, the son understood the coded message (to weaken the city by assassinating its leading citizens). It’s a somewhat macabre way to think about an unreliable narrator.

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Some Ways Around Euthyphro

I’ve been reading up on divine command theory – the idea that our ethical obligations are rooted somehow in our relationship to God – and although I am not finding it exactly convincing on a fundamental level, there are some interesting points I think worth sharing. Anybody who participates in atheism discussion on the internet will run across the Euthyphro dilemma sooner or later. The dilemma is meant to be a knock-down response to people who think God is the source of ethics. It was proposed by Plato and goes something like this:

1) Are moral actions good because God commands them, or does God command them because they are good?

2) If they’re good because God commands them, couldn’t God command us to murder/steal/etc and that would somehow become moral?

3) If God commands them because they are good, then there exists some external standard of morality independent of God.

Settling with (2) is unpleasant for most people – I certainly wouldn’t like to think that a divine command to kill everybody ought to be obeyed – but if you fall on (3) you have to concede that while God might have the best knowledge of morality, He neither created it nor justifies it. In C. Evans’ words, if (3) holds then “the reality of moral obligations would not change if God did not exist”. This is usually unpalatable for a theist.

How can we sidestep this dilemma? Well, one way is to adopt a conception of right action that is related to the structure and design of humans, what Evans calls a “teleological vision of the good”. According to this view, God’s commands are intended to aid us to function best as human beings: to act so as to fulfill the demands of our innate human nature. Divine commands, then, are not justified simply because God commands them – after all, they’re based on material facts about how humans work – so this avoids (2). On the other hand, our innate nature was created by God and may only be appreciated through a relationship with Him, which neatly avoids the trap of (3). There is an external standard of morality, but it’s far from independent of God.

What does this mean (besides the fact that Internet Atheism’s relationship with philosophy is strained at best)? It means that we might have to cede some ground to the divine command philosophers. A sufficiently robust conception of God may well be able to ground ethics and morality. As an committed Internet Atheist, I suspect that it ultimately fails. However, it is necessary to show how it fails. Euthyphro just won’t cut it anymore.

Caring About Ethics

In an essay called “The Normative Question”, Christine Korsgaard describes moral scepticism as the idea that “once we see what is really behind morality, we won’t care about it anymore.” She goes on to argue that a simple explanation for morality – perhaps a proof that our moral impulses have strong evolutionary reasons – will be inadequate to induce us to act morally. “Suppose morality demands that you yourself make a serious sacrifice,” she writes,”… is it really enough for you to think that this action promotes the preservation of the species?”

Well, you might say, you wouldn’t be acting to promote the preservation of the species. You’d be acting because that’s what your conscience urges you to do, and (or in other words) because you genuinely care about the people around you. The idea that finding out the mechanism behind your motivation would cut your motivation off is profoundly strange, at least in this context. Finding out that my taste for chocolate ice-cream is because of evolutionary drives towards calorie-dense food does not in fact dissuade me from eating ice-cream. Learning that if I had been raised a different way I might have been a murderer or a fascist does not in fact make me more disposed to murder or fascism.

I think it is obviously possible to care passionately about ethics in the absence of any normative framework. “The answer we need,” writes Korsgaard, talking about normativity, “is really the first-person answer, the one that satisfies us when we ourselves ask the normative question.” But our ethical choices – at least mine – do not fundamentally flow from reasons or answers. The reasons are subsidiary, invented when I am challenged to justify my behaviour. What motivates me to act ethically is just that: a motivation.

Against the Is/Ought Gap

If you’re following the debate over whether science can take over morality it’s worth remembering Korsgaard’s distinction between explanatory and normative accounts of ethics. An explanatory account is an account which explains why we have certain moral convictions and what those convictions are; a normative account is an account that justifies having those convictions rather than some other ones. It’s easy to mix those together accidentally, Korsgaard writes, and indeed I believe that’s what most people writing about this debate do. The scientists and science-fans assume that an explanatory account is desirable, while the philosophers are focused entirely on a normative account.

Of course an explanation of morals is not going to lead to a justification of them. This is Hume’s famous is/ought gap: you can’t derive an ought from an is. Hume’s argument is gigantic. One of the most punchy criticisms of Sam Harris says that deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is like adding two even numbers and obtaining an odd one – you don’t have to check the working to know you’ve made a mistake somewhere. But is Hume’s argument really decisive?

Let’s take Dan Dennett’s response to Hume: that if you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, just what can you derive an ‘ought’ from? Look at it this way. We have ‘oughts’ in our lives, moral prescriptions and rules that govern our consciences. But by definition everything that is in our lives ‘is’: it exists in the real world! So what are these ‘oughts’ based on, if not something about the real world?

Secondly, take Philippa Foot’s argument from her essay “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” (although she recanted much of that later on.) Can’t we just agree that there are no ‘oughts’ that impose duties on us? Sure, you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, but that doesn’t matter because all our ethical duties originate from our built-in feelings. In short, there is nothing on the other side of the is-ought gap.

Okay, Science Can Determine Ethics (Sort Of)

Here’s a quick statement of my current perception of the relationship between science and ethics. What it boils down to is this: in theory, science can determine how we ought to behave, but a) it would have to be magic future science, and b) you have to accept that there is no external ‘ought’. Let’s just do it in dot-point form:

1) There is no external ‘ought’. No rational rule or natural law or God is handing down a code of ethics. Our only motivations to do good (or way of figuring out what is good in the first place) are our own sentiments of kindness and compassion and so on.

2) Sentiments of kindness and compassion correspond to certain brain-states which are, in theory, measurable by magic future brain scans. Indeed, one day brain scans may be the best method of measuring the nature of our sentiments.

3) Therefore science, through the medium of brain scans, may one day be able to quantify our inherent ‘good’ sentiments to the extent that it can tell us what course of action will best satisfy our positive impulses.

Now I think this argument works pretty well. If you disagree with (1) you’re in good company – Kant, Plato, Aquinas, and so on – but as I’ve already detailed I side with Eliot and Foot. It’s hard to disagree with (2), but I think you might do it on the grounds that ‘sentiments’ are culturally constructed and so any brain scan is going to have unavoidable cultural bias. If you accept (1) and (2), (3) follows automatically.

The problem I have with the kinds of people putting this argument forward – Richard Carrier, Sam Harris – is that they’re not making it clear that the kind of ethics science can determine is not what most people mean by ethics. Accepting Carrier and Harris’ argument means accepting a pretty radical philosophical take on ethics: that there are no rules or principles, and that it is really all down to how we feel. Which is correct, I think – but that’s what they need to argue, and in general they just pass it over as if it were obvious.

Korsgaard on Moral Motives

The true nature of moral motives must be concealed from the agent’s point of view if those motives are to be efficacious. Suppose that people came to believe Mandeville’s theory or the evolutionary theory, and as a result they gave up their moral practices. Then those accounts would lack transparency.

That quote is from an essay by the philosopher Christine Korsgaard, and I have to ask: does anybody really believe that? Has anybody actually given up their moral practices – whatever that means – when they came to understand “the true nature of moral motives”? Wouldn’t we immediately and correctly judge somebody claiming to have done so as not really having those moral motives in the first place?

What Should We Value?

One question ethical philosophers tend to ask all the time is the one in the header: what should we value? It’s an attempt to cut off people who argue that ethical philosophy is over, since we can determine the best way to achieve our values with science. The problem with that, philosophers point out, is that our values aren’t necessarily the best ones, and that failing to critically reflect on the value of our values often leads to some pretty horrific actions.

The problem here appears to be finding some kind of criterion to judge values by, which is an immediate red flag. There are obviously many criteria we could use here; how are we to judge between these? We need a second-order criterion – but which to choose? Before we start that, we need a third-order criterion, and so on. You get the point. If we’re not careful, the question “what should we value” will lead us down an ancient Greek rabbit hole.

If you, like me, accept Foot’s theory of hypothetical imperatives – in short, that our values are the only thing that determines what we ought to do – the question makes even less sense. Obviously our values determine all relevant uses of the word ‘should’ for us; to turn around and apply that back to our values is an error of recursion. The only way we can assess our values is by reference to our other values, which quickly turns into a process of finding out what we really do value most of all.

As loath as I am to agree with the scientific philistines who want to see moral philosophy folded into science, I’m forced to accept the conclusion that the is/ought distinction (if we accept Foot’s theory) doesn’t seem that important after all when we try to determine what we should do. After all, we value what we value.

Does this mean that sufficiently advanced psychology could figure out our exact values and thus make our ethical decisions for us? I don’t think so – but rather than resting on the solid ground of the is/ought distinction, I’m resting on the much shakier idea that our values and real-life situations are too complicated to ever be modeled adequately by a scientific process.