Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight (bram) wrote,
Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight

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The Ethics Entry

Did some Chandra work today--stuff needed for the paper to get done, but not to advance the scientific understanding. You know, "We used the Chandra X-ray telescope, which has these features and is described in this other paper... we detected 600,000 photons or so after rejecting the sucky ones..."

The weekend, I hope, will be spent rollerblading on the beach with LQ, Li, and Co. I was going to rent a car, but that fell through. Luckily we still have transportation to the beach, and I can take a bus to Pasadena.

I also have an idea for an entry on male body image (after having written about female body image), inspired by a recent entry of fauxpas, which was just absolutely hilarious.

(Warning, possibly disappointing to non-positivists. By temperment I give priority to logic.)

Why bother? Because some people have clear ideas of just what is right or wrong that come from religion, and being irreligious, I don't. I still believe in right or wrong, but what makes them so? I have to keep asking that from philosophy. My brother mattboroson once said to me, "No Bram, you believe in right and wrong not because of philosophy, but because you learned it at your mother's knee." To which I said, "Yes, but why did Mom teach us that?"

You can let compassion be your guide and selfishness your enemy, but then I have to ask: what compels compassion to be superior to selfishness? What causes the asymmetry? Because you feel one stronger than the other? And what if you feel the reverse tomorrow? These can both be strong feelings, but why is one ultimately better than the other?

The last time I wrote down serious thoughts on just what "right" and "wrong" are anyway was probably a paper for freshman philosophy, and my basic ideas haven't changed much since then. So perhaps these ideas are in their arrested adolescence. Thinking about this entry has raised some new nuances for me, which I will tuck at the end under the Newances header.

My college philosophy professor had much influence on my ethical philosophy overall. He's Laurence Thomas, who wrote a book Living Morally about altruism, sociobiology, and friendship, and also Vessels of Evil about American Slavery, the Holocaust, and group identity (Thomas is both black and Jewish.) Also, he lived in my dorm my junior and senior year, and spent much time in the dorm as a lounge lizard debating philosophy or just joking around.

Ok, so one thing that Thomas quoted in Living Morally was Hume (who asked all the best questions in philosophy): "As far as reason is concerned, I might as well prefer the destruction of the Universe to the prick of my finger." So then Hume goes on to say we shouldn't base our ethics on reason, but "reason should be the slave of the passions." Someone like Kant went the opposite way, trying to argue for ethics from purely rational arguments, establishing a kind of golden rule through a "categorical imperative" that every rule to live by should be universal.

Well, I agree completely with both Hume and Kant.

Which is to say my philosophy's a mess of absolute relativism (not even cultural relativism, but all the way to metaethical relativism) and a dogmatic universal rationalism. (BTW, Thomas sides with Hume.) Still, I think it's consistent.

I do believe that statements about the physical world can be true or false. Some people find rational/empircal science to be dogmatic in this way, but this is probably a separate debate. I think there are a multitude of different ways of talking about the world. You can use geometry or algebra, base 10 or base 27, any number of coordinate systems, or mathematically equivalent theories. And these different ways of talking or thinking may strike people differently emotionally. But within each way of talking about the world, some things are so, and some things just aren't. Although we may never be sure which are true and which aren't, evidence accumulates.

I have experiences that tell me about the nature of the world, if only in that any model of the world that can't account for my experiences must be wrong (those who want to debate "naive falsificationalism" and put some nuances on it such as "hypothesis bundle testing" do so but that's another argument.)

And yet I have never had an experience that had any bearing on the truth of a prescriptive statement. I can't even imagine that. If I find someone suffering, does that prove that they shouldn't suffer? Does my suffering prove that I shouldn't be suffering? Certainly I might think very strongly that I shouldn't be suffering, but mightn't I be wrong? People often think things that are wrong.

So I came to the conclusion that every "should" statement is false, or meaningless. (This is something I'll take up in the Newances, because I've realized that words that certaintly seem to have meaning such as "should" at the very least need to have the fact of their apparent sensibility explained.)

But instead of being stuck in relativism, I would argue that behind every evil is someone who believes a "should" statement. Hitler thought Jews should die. That was a prescritive statement, and as such, wrong or meaningless. If Hitler killed Jews in an unconscious blind fury, unable to control his actions, without the belief that Jews should die, well then, he wouldn't have been much different from a natural disaster, or a rock that fell on someone and killed them.

Although I've fallen into relativism, I've gained the ability to argue that Hitler was objectively wrong on a matter of belief. (Larry Thomas used to say that he'd accept any philosophy paper except those finding no fault in slavery or the Holocaust... his favorite example of a touchstone of evil that reasonable people would agree on was "the gratuitious slaughter of innocent civilians", the word gratuitious being the clincher.) And I can put some indignation into it; Hitler and his ilk are more wrong than someone who simply mistakenly believes that, say, human adults can't grow new brain cells. No, such mass-murderers instead have the perversity to cling to a prescriptive statement with no possible justification against the full disagreement of their victims.

(Besides their passionate acceptance of a prescriptive statement, mass-murderers usually believe all sorts of other blatantly false things--racist theories, etc. They stick to these as tenaciously and as perversely as they do to their prescriptive statements, as they support each other.)

So, well, why should one belive true things? I don't believe one should believe true things. I don't believe any prescriptive statements! I believe that when faced with evidence, one simply can't help but believe the truth.

The path of moral improvement is one of increased understanding, and I don't think it's an accident that this word is used both to describe increasing one's knowledge and the act of compassion.

One potential pitfall of this theory, or at least one way it doesn't square with "what I was taught at my mother's knee": how do we account for positive ethical deeds? (Sorry, I'm using morality and ethics interchangably!) If I believe that starving children should be helped, isn't that a wrong belief, because there can never be evidence for a "should" statement?

For a long time, I thought the solution to this was simply that a person who believed true things would only perform positive moral acts out of instinct, not out of belief. Such a person would help the poor because their compassion simply couldn't be stopped.

Still, I felt uncomfortable because I was equating unconscious do-gooders with unconscious evil-doers, and wrongly prescriptive do-gooders with wrongly prescriptive evil-doers.

So I guess the obvious way around this is simply that if you think someone should die, and you kill them against their wishes, the fact that you cross their wishes shows you are strongly attached to your prescriptive belief. If you give food to someone starving in accordance with their wishes, even though you might go around saying "oh certainly this person should live and not die!" you are not so attached to that statement that you blot out the contrary.

So I think it's natural that I find that the fundamental reason why killing people is wrong is that it imposes one's beliefs on others (you want them to die, they want to live)... This is a very liberal approach. It's not a "sanctity of life" approach at all, as I don't have a diety that sanctifies. The fundamental evil is interference in the lives of others contrary to their wishes (however that certainly doesn't imply I'm a lassaiz faire Republican; economics is vastly complicated.)


Ok, just what do people mean when they say "Everyone should do X"? If it's truly meaningless and has nothing to do with reality, why do I know exactly what it means?

I'm not really sure. I think it may be a figure of speech that means something else. Maybe it's like an "impossible object" out of one of Escher's drawings that we can describe even though it doesn't exist.

I've decided to think separately about what people mean by "I should do X" and "You should do X." And then of course the universal prescriptive statement "Everyone should do X" is simply a conjunction of the two.

When someone says "I should do X" they mean they are planning to do X. That's the most sense I can make of the statement. If they truly believe they should do X, then what I understand from normal language is that they will then take steps to do X. (Also the other way around--it they are planning to do something, they must believe they should do it.) It may be very difficult, and getting X accomplished may feel hopeless. They may be lost in a maze and think "I should get out," but not be able to form an effective plan.

"I am planning to do X" is at least something I understand as meaningful. It talks about the real world, about a person's mental life, and I know my own mental life somewhat from introspection.

But here's the problem. Hitler plans to kill Jews. That's a verifiable statement, and a true one. In my formulation, it's equivalent to Hitler's statment "I should kill Jews." Reductio ad absurdum.

Solution (?): "Hitler plans to kill Jews" is equivalent not to "Hitler should kill Jews" but to "Hitler thinks he should kill Jews."

So I still have no non-prescriptive translation of "I should do X", only "I think or believe I should do X" which is always true, given accurate self-reporting.

When someone says "I think YOU should do X" I understand that to mean "You would be planning to do X, if only you had my belief system."

Once again though, I don't see how to isolate a "should" statement--they are all prefaced by "I think that." Perhaps this is the definition of subjective beliefs. People can think them and they can affect actions, but that's it. They can't be matched against reality to be true or false.

Ok, maybe I should stop there, after 34 years of thinking, finally figuring out this subjective "should" stuff.

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