Ask me: who gives a shit!

>> Saturday, October 16, 2010

The irascible Nathan insists:

Who gives a shit!

I do, Princess, I do.

Seriously, though: as I was walking up to the Smelly Cat this fine Saturday afternoon to drink coffee and try to do the whole "writing" thing, I wasn't thinking about Nathan's question but I was thinking about an item Roger Ebert had tweeted about earlier in the day that raises a related issue. Ebert was proffering a link to a Washington Post op-ed piece by Michael Gerson, "Christopher Hitchens: A humanist at heart"; Hitchens, as you know, is fighting off cancer, and one very public result has been that Hitchens' status as one of the vocal, so-called "New Atheists" is seemingly shadowed by the Angel Of Death: will Hitch suddenly see the light? Undergo a deathbed conversion? Regret all the mean things he's ever said about Mother Teresa now that he's about to join her (or, more likely, go to the deepest, fieriest of Hells where the air is pungent with the aroma of roasted behinds)? It's all a bit ghoulish, if you ask me, but whatever.

Anyway, the question Gerson wants to focus on is the same idiotic one that religionists seem to fixate on, the one that goes back to what Nathan asks. Gerson, discussing a recent public forum event featuring Christopher Hitchens and his religious brother, Peter, writes:

But Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.

Who cares? Why bother? If there isn't a divine being to punish the lot of us, why shouldn't we live in a miserable anarchy where it's every one for himself? Why that question isn't self-evidently stupid is beyond me: who wants to live in a miserable anarchy where it's every man for himself, invisible great Kahuna in the sky or no?

There are a couple of ways you can rationally arrive at a system of ethics through reason with no recourse to a deity at all. One is to start with John Rawls' original position: in Rawls' thought experiment, one tries to imagine what an ideal society might be like if one could start the whole thing over from square one and design civilization from scratch, but only from a position of ignorance as to what one's own position in the imagined society might be; i.e. if you designed a state in which one man would be king and everyone else gets to be a slave, is that a place you'd want to live even if you didn't know which one you'd be? Clearly, a sane, rational, self-interested person would design a society with a minimum of social inequality and the maximum degree of social justice that could be imposed--you'd want to make sure that if there was a chance you'd be the very worst-off person in the entire culture, you'd still be as well-off as you could be under the circumstances.

The point of the original position, of course, is not that anyone's likely to be able to reform society from scratch (not unless you're planning on being a revolutionary somewhere, and that hardly ever works out very well for anyone involved); the point, rather, is that the original position gives us ideas for what a just society ought to look like and it therefore makes sense to try to bring that state into actual existence working from the present position. Rawls work at that point tends to focus on things like economics and laws, but one can certainly consider one's personal life in terms of the original position. That is, it's hard to imagine a society in which the strong take from the weak and it's okay for someone to be cheated as being the society you'd come up with starting at the original position, so then why would one in turn take from the weak or cheat others, thereby increasing (and not decreasing) the amount of injustice, strife and pain in the world and therefore making the world that much less than what one would like to live in?

A second, related point is this: that unless one wants to spend all of one's time defending oneself and eking out a subsistence living providing entirely for oneself, one must coexist in society with other human beings, and coexistence requires at least a minimum level of trust and transparency. This is, perhaps, less directly Rawlsian and more in terms of classical game theory (specifically, life might be regarded as a kind of iterated Prisoner's Dilemma in which life's prisoners are allowed some degree of communication). If I am willing to lie, cheat, rob and hurt my neighbor, why on Earth should I expect him to treat me any differently, with or without the threat of divine sanction? And if my neighbor does treat me better than I treat him, why should I expect him to continue to do so over time: as my reputation for being a menace to society increases and spreads, the best I might hope for from a civilized people is shunning and the worst might be their decision to remove me as a problem through exile, incarceration or death. And in an anarchy--they cannot trust me to be good, but neither can I trust them: accordingly, I'll be spending my whole miserable experience protecting myself from others or trying to preemptively get them before they get me. Such an existence has nothing to offer but fear.

What Gerson doesn't seem to understand, then, is that the moral lines are the ones most favorable to my interests. I will do unto others as I hope they will do unto me, not because I'm afraid God will punish me for not doing so, but because I'm afraid they'll punish me for not doing so, and because I hope they will extend me the same courtesy. I will strive to be honest and peaceful because I think behaving in such a way makes life better for myself and everyone else, while behaving in a fashion contrary to that makes life worse for everyone else and ultimately for myself (there may be short-term benefits from taking advantage of others, but what of my--and their--long-term interests?).

While it seems small and mean-spirited to point this out, I cannot help mentioning that fear of divine reprisal certainly doesn't keep the prisons from being filled with the faithful. Plenty of believers appear to be willing to foul their nests even if they stay out of jail or manage to conform to the letter of man's laws: fear of God hasn't kept mill owners from poisoning their neighbors' drinking water between church Sundays, hasn't inspired every religious captain of industry to pay his employees a living wage, any number of avowedly religious politicians have lied to their constituents and too many religious leaders have molested members of their flocks. I don't bring this up to smack around the faithful with the failures in their midst; rather, the reason I mention it is that I'm not convinced that, for many of them at least, their religion doesn't undermine their reason to be good, contrary to what Gerson may presume about believers versus infidels.

Let me put it to you this way: many Christians (certainly not all--sects vary in their doctrines, of course) believe that the bulk of their existence will be spent in the afterlife; furthermore, many of them also believe that the way to have a good afterlife--an eternity in Heaven with their God and their loved ones--is to accept Jesus as their saviour or express or engage in other doctrinally-appropriate behaviors (regardless of what other transgressions they may have indulged in as well), and Jesus (being a loving and merciful and, most of all, forgiving) entity, will absolve them of their sins.

I believe, on the other hand, that my entire existence in the universe will be whatever span of years I have on this Earth, and that there will be nobody and nothing to forgive my trespasses, whatever they might be; that even if other people forgive and/or forget the ways I've hurt them, I still have to live with and remember my failings and offenses. Furthermore, I believe that all that will be left of me when I'm gone is the memories held by those whose lives I've touched, and while I will be beyond caring about such things when I'm dead, until I'm dead I have to live with the burden of hoping that I will have given them more good things to remember me by kindly than awful ones to hold against me--which is something that probably bothers anyone with a conscience.

So there are religious people who believe that this is a moment and they can be forgiven, and I believe this is everything and I can only hope to be remembered well, and Gerson thinks the former have more of an incentive to be moral than I do? Really?

I care. Because I should, not because I have to.


Jim Wright Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 3:34:00 PM EDT  

If you only behave morally because of threat of punishment by God, well, that's not really morality at all is it?

I adhere to a personal code of conduct because it's the right thing to do, not because some mystical man in the sky told me to

Mrs. Bitch Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 4:17:00 PM EDT  

Let me put it to you this way: many Christians (certainly not all--sects vary in their doctrines, of course) believe that the bulk of their existence will be spent in the afterlife; furthermore, many of them also believe that the way to have a good afterlife--an eternity in Heaven with their God and their loved ones--is to accept Jesus as their saviour...

See, here's where I lose faith in man's faith. As a society, we are scared shitless of dying. Most people will go to ANY length to hang on to every nanosecond available to them here. You would think a true believer would welcome the chance at eternal bliss. Obviously, most folks aren't as convinced in the afterlife and angels and God, and all that good stuff, as they'd have you believe.

And you know what else bugs me about trying to argue with folks of faith? Do you ever feel like you're put in a position of being the grinch who steals Christmas? I mean, how the hell can you try, in good conscience, to take away another person's solace regarding their own mortality? If they find comfort in belief, it just seems so wrong to try and take that from them, even as you wish there was a God to smite them upside the head as they deliver their harangue about why your lack of faith is wrong.

vince Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 5:13:00 PM EDT  

In a philosophy class in college (Mark II) the name of which I no longer remember our textbooks were Rawls "A Theory of Justice," Robert Nozick's "Anarchy, State and Utopia," and John Stuart Mill's "Utilitarianism." I quite enjoyed it.

There is currently a large discussion on whether or not science can tell us what to value, or how to be moral. There's a old saying, going back to David Hume, that you can’t derive ought from is (Book 3 "Of Morals of his "A Treatise of Human Nature.") However, a talk by Sam Harris (author of the book "The Moral Landscape") at TED disputes this (as he does in the book I mentioned.)

However, many scientists (some of whom are atheists) strongly disagree with Harris. One of the leading opponents of Harris' view is Sean Carroll, a well-known theoretical physicist at Caltech, author, and blogger at the Discover website (his blog is Cosmic Variance.)

Additionally, are you really only being moral if you act from an internal evaluation of the morality of act, as opposed to wishing to avoid the perceived consequences of not acting morally? If this is true, then why is it true? If I don't steal because I don't want to go to jail, does that make me as immoral as someone who goes ahead and steals regardless of the possible consequences? Or are there degrees of morality? And are certain acts moral or immoral outside of their consequences?

However, I must disagree with your view concerning the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. The problem with the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is twofold - it requires all parties to have perfect knowledge, and it requires all parties to always act rationally. In the real world, perfect knowledge rarely exists. You must know which opponents are following what strategy, In the real world, the more actors there are, the more difficult it is for all the actors to know what each other is doing. Further, with a large number of actors, there will always be a percentage able to disguise their true actions.

Second, people regularly act irrationally for a variety of reasons. They can have physical or metal problems that prohibit rationality. They can be manipulated to believe irrational choices are in fact rational.

The current political climate speaks volumes to the problem with the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma as a strategy for determining moral action.

I probably should have saved this for a blog post, but hey, I'm having fun here.

vince Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 8:32:00 PM EDT  

Well, I had a comment, but Blogger ate it (although it appeared when I first hit "Publish Your Comment."


Eric Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 9:47:00 PM EDT  

The Blogger spam filter is a little buggy and for some stupid reason it sent your comment to keep company with a piece of actual spam that was deleted several months ago but won't remove itself from the spam folder in spite of the fact it should no longer exist. Go figure.

You're right that any Prisoner's Dilemma presumes rational action, and people can behave very irrationally. But I think any discussion of ethics has to proceed from the view that people will try to act rationally or at least they ought to. Irrational behavior, in any case, can't really be deterred by any moral system, whether derived from reason or supernatural command or elsewhere--e.g. someone who kills in a blind rage isn't thinking of social norms, criminal punishment, threat of damnation, or arguments concerning the utility loss caused by indiscriminate killing.

As for the information issue, however: maybe not. Experiments have suggested that the optimal iterative PD strategy if the prisoner doesn't know how many iterations there will be is a tit-for-tat strategy in which the prisoner assumes good faith and behaves altruistically until screwed (and then retaliates for the screwing). Interestingly, information can have a negative effect: if a prisoner knows which iteration is the final one, the prisoner's optimum strategy is (of course) to screw the other prisoner.

In life, we never know which dealing with another will be our last one.

One other thing, of course: I've focused on self-interested reasons for morality because of the way Gerson framed things; however, there may be simpler reasons for behaving morally, like the simple fact it's nice, for instance, or that some things seem intuitively good without a lot of thought necessary as to why.

Nathan Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 8:23:00 PM EDT  

I, for one, am deeply offended that you took my utterly glib comment and proceeded to turn it into a serious discussion. You, sir, will burn in hell for reasons you never previously considered!


(But, otherwise, well said.)

jamie Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 8:35:00 PM EDT  

Well said Eric, it sort of reminds of the idea behind Pascal's Wager; which sounds nice in theory (believe in God and go to Heaven!) but, if God is real, then you're probably going to hell for believing in him/her/it for completely selfish reasons.

Basically, being good because of the possibility of a divine reward or punishment is not an ah, 'good' reason to be good. I much prefer to be nice to people because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside (and they might return the favour!)

Eric Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 9:52:00 PM EDT  

Thanks, Jamie!

There are a lot of problems with Pascal's Wager, of course. The biggest being that it presents a false dichotomy; e.g. what if there's a deity but it's not Pascal's Catholic God, in which case choosing the wrong deity can result in going to Hell just as easy as choosing no deity at all. Then there's the point you raise, as well as the dire implications the Wager has for free will whether there's a God or isn't....

Ichthus Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 1:05:00 AM EST  

The is-ought fallacy is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief. In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence. If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy. If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy. Related to moral truth--if a justified (answering the question of Ethics--"How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?") moral standard doesn't describe anything in reality, to consider it "true" commits the ought-is fallacy. If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy. In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics). Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is).

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