Monthly Archives: August 2007

Morality on Mountaintops

Think about a moral principle or two.  You know what I mean.  Stealing is wrong.  Lying is bad.  You should not cause unnecessary suffering.  You should try to help those in need.  That sort of thing.

However you think about these sorts of rules or principles, you probably have a proviso attached — something like ‘all things being equal’ or ‘generally speaking’.  Things can get complicated, and you might think that in extreme circumstances it’s OK to lie or steal.  Maybe you want to add a self-defence escape clause.  Stealing is bad, but you would forgive a thief who stole to save himself from starvation.  If you think some sort of conditions or provisos are needed, it would be good to say why they kick in.  If it’s right to bend moral principles in extremis, why is it right to do so?  What’s the argument for thinking that morality changes when the going gets tough?  I really do mean cases in which someone might not just forgive an otherwise morally dubious action, but think it is no longer morally dubious, under certain circumstances.

If it’s wrong to eat other people, shouldn’t it stay wrong in open boats or on mountaintops?  Maybe it is precisely on mountaintops when morality matters the most.  There’s an intuition which can tug you away from the escape clauses.  Anybody can be good when being good is easy, when you have a full stomach and are sitting comfortably.  What’s a lot harder is doing what looks right when it stands a good chance of being painful or difficult or impossible, even something which might result in your own demise.  So if it is acceptable to cut the rope on mountaintops or eat the cabin boy in the middle of the Pacific, but it’s wrong to do this sort of thing in everyday life, what’s the argument, the reason, for thinking so?  Why do at least some extreme circumstances seem to relieve us of our moral obligations?  You can come around to thinking, perhaps uncomfortably, that maybe they don’t.

Can ape-men shave?

I came across an interesting article in The Economist recently which reminded me of Jeremy’s post about whether we should take into account hormones when deciding whether someone’s behaviour is more or less praise- or blame-worthy.
The report was about studies by Terence Burnham at Harvard on the effect of testosterone levels on the decision made in a well-known psychological experiment called The Ultimatum Game. In the game people are paired and given, say, $40. One person is then given the power to offer the other player either $25 or $5. The other person has to make a one-off choice to accept or refuse. If s/he refuses, neither player gets any of the money.
If we were rational self-maximisers, we would always take whatever was offered, because refusal leaves us with nothing. But people don’t always do that. Many reject the lower offer, and the most widely accepted reason for this is that we hate to see others get too far ahead of ourselves, whether or not we benefit from their advancement. Relative status is more important to many than absolute benefit.
In this experiment, Burnham recorded players’ testosterone levels, and found that those with higher levels were more likely to refuse lower offers. That’s because testosterone is correlated with desire for social dominance. It’s another example of how the way we think and act is at least in part determined by biological factors beyond our control.
What should we conclude from this, practically? It seems naive to simply insist that we have free will and can cancel out these biologically-based biases. But at the same time, we can and do exercise some rational control over urges and desires that have a purely biological basis. It seems to me that we too often want to either say “free will can conquer all” or shrug our shoulders and say “Hey, it’s a guy thing!” Worse, the more we get used to excusing behaviour on the basis of physiological (or sociological, for that matter) factors, the more we lose the capacity to exercise rational veto.
It isn’t just a matter of “needing to pretend” we have free will, but of acknowledging that the kind of control we have over ourselves is neither absolute nor completely illusory. Sometimes, we do lose all such control and it’s fair to say that “my hormones made we do it”. But more often than not, we do have the capacity to check our instinctive responses. For example, won’t someone who reads about this latest experiment be inclined to check their own response if confronted by the same dilemma? Can’t a high-testosterone individual think, “Aha, I find myself wanting to assert my social superiority over these other people, but should I really?” We may not be able to throw off our ape-like behaviours completely, but surely we can at least metaphorically shave a bit.

Getting Agrippa

A number of really interesting sceptical arguments were put forward by the Ancients.  One of my favourites, which should get more attention than it does, is owed to Agrippa.  Like quite a few good arguments, you can get it up and running quickly, but it can take a lot of effort to get past it, if you manage to get past it at all.  It goes like this.   Suppose you assert some proposition (p).  I ask if you know p or are just assuming p.  If you claim to know p, then you are claiming to have grounds, reasons, evidence for p.  If you say you know it, then it’s fair to ask how you know it, demand a peek at the support you ought to have for p.  Whatever your reasons (r), again I can ask if you know r or are just assuming it.  You’ve got to claim to know it if it is to count as a justification for p.  According to Agrippa, you now have just three choices.

(1) Continue giving reasons indefinitely (r1, r2, r3, …rn); (2) make a dogmatic assumption (r, damn it!); or (3) repeat something you already said and argue in a circle (p, r1, r2, r3, r1 whoops).  Agrippa argues that none of these moves gives us a real justification for p and, therefore, all belief is assumption, not knowledge.

On bad mornings you can wonder what we could possibly mean by justification, if not something which fits one of the three strategies above.  Those are the sorts of things we do when we justify a claim, and there’s not much room for anything else.  If Agrippa is right and those strategies are plainly wanting, it’s hard to think that we know much of anything at all.  You can bite the sceptical bullet, or you can try to get free of the tangle.

Lots of people are inclined to quibble with the set up.  Some claim that the burden of proof isn’t always on the person who claims to know, others maintian that there are other kinds of justification not mentioned by Agrippa, and still others go on about another kind of knowledge not tied to evidence and reasons.  You can also try to worm your way out while playing by Agrippa’s rules, try to find a way to say that 1, 2, or 3 really do count as justifications.  What’s wrong with giving lots of reasons?  What’s wrong with a foundational assumption?  What’s wrong with circularity if it’s not vicious.  It’s easy to think of Agrippa’s replies to those questions.  Maybe what’s harder is coming around to the possibility that we don’t quite have a grip on the nature of knowledge, that we really don’t know what knowledge is.  If nothing else, Agrippa can nudge you in that direction.

Let us eat cake

Here’s the Thought for the Day I did on BBC Bristol last Friday. All quite bland, you might think, and maybe you’d be right, but I’ll say after why the issue might be more interesting than you might think at first glance.

Imagine you’re at a meeting of a British train operator. Someone who speaks as only a manager can asks you to think out of the box about blue-sky suggestions to enhance the customer journey experience, 360-degrees. Once you’ve worked out that what that means, what might you suggest? Cleaner trains? More services? Greater punctuality? A buffet car that is not absurdly called “the retail outlet”?
Well, First Great Western have come up with a more novel idea. They’ve hired Sally Crabtree to be their first ever “poet on the platform”. From Tuesday, for three days, the former international gymnast will be showing off her performance poetry skills at eight stations, including Temple Meads, Bath Spa and Reading.
No doubt some people will complain that the only kind of performance First Great Western should be worrying about is its own.
Train companies have no reason to rhyme
They just need to make their trains run on time
But before you join the chorus, is efficiency really all that matters? Imagine a country where everything works but no effort is made to make things fun, interesting or beautiful. Has such a nation ever existed? And, no, “Canada” is not a fair reply.
Would such a functional country be a good place to live? I doubt it. Even the Ancient Romans knew that in addition to bread, the people need circuses. One reason Bristol is such a good place to live is because of free events such as the recent harbourside festival and this weekend’s Balloon Fiesta.
Life isn’t just about getting from A to B but enjoying the ride. If all we ever worried about were the functional aspects of living, we would never truly live at all.

Here’s the big issue. Many consequentialist arguments tell us we are morally wrong to spend money on luxuries, or even comparative luxuries, while people are dying because of a lack of basic needs. It may be unrealistic to expect people to actually give away all their “excess” wealth, but really, it is immoral not to.
If you take my argument above seriously though, does it not suggest that it may in fact be better to live in a world where some live in poverty and others have lives of great opportunity, than one in which everyone lives at a reasonable level of subsistence? In other words, although we may indeed be obliged to do more than we do to help the desperate, we are not in fact obliged to keep only what we absolutely need for ourselves?
If the answer is yes, then the bread and circuses argument can actually end up being rather harsh, since it implies some people living terribly can be justified, if that is the price we have to pay for a decent number of people being able to enjoy the finer things in life.
An idea to play with – not a settled conclusion…

A Kantian Guide to Good Sex

If anything is the opposite of an aphrodisiac, it’s Kant’s remarks on sexual ethics in Lectures on Ethics.  As one wag in the pub remarked to me, Kant’s point is that one should never treat people as objects, and never treat objects as people.  You can be forgiven for missing a few of Kant’s conclusions in the mass of prohibitions and pronouncements.  There is, anyway, more to Kant’s claims than the dubious bits.  Kant does argue for something which sounds true, that there is something morally problematic in using another person merely as a means, a tool for sexual gratification.  At the very least, it seems to conflict with the second formulation of the categorical imperative:  ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.’

I wrote a paper on all this while a postgraduate, trying to tease out a good Kantian argument against simply using another person sexually.  A clear if problematic case arises in Kant’s various injunctions against concubinage, the sale of sex by Kantian lights.  The person marking the paper had this to say in the margin, ‘But what about the glass-blower’s powerful lips, the tailor’s nimble fingers?  Is there supposed to be a problem in making use of their bodies too?’  Good question.  What’s the difference?  Is there a difference?

A Kantian answer, in line with the text of the lectures, might have something to say about what’s given over in such exchanges.  Kant might think that the tailor is contracting out the use of his hands for a reasonable fee and is thus being treated as a person, not just a means.  But for Kant in the case of sex there’s no question of giving over just a part.  The person is offered up, even if the contract only has to do with parts of the body.  That’s a little thin, maybe metaphysically weird, but is it on to something true, if there is something true in Kant’s thoughts on sex?

Short Q&A on atheism

Here’s a little thing I did for Oxford University Press on atheism. Or, if you want the highlights:

“We live in an incredible world and we should not spend all our time either looking to the heavens or pointing out they do not exist.”

Your word against mine

It’s a familiar fact that what you see isn’t what you get.  There’s more to a perceptual event than what strikes your eyeballs.  The point gets made by those who go on about the extent to which observations are theory-laden.  When we look around, we tend to look for something or anyway have a background of theory or assumptions which affects what we end up perceiving.  A wine taster has more winey concepts in her conceptual store than I do.  She can say something about the shape of the wine, its nose, its grassy undertones, its hints of citrus.  If I’m paying attention, I can maybe notice that it’s red and not white.  Similarly, an x-ray technician can spot a tibial plafond fracture where I see just blobs of grey.  The same stuff hits our tongues and our eyeballs, but further downstream concepts get to work, and we end up noticing different things, maybe having different perceptual experiences as a result.

 What’s a little spooky is the fact that people who can speak more than one language sometimes say that one language is better than another for talking about this as opposed to that.  Bilingual families drop in and out of languages, finding words which pick things out a little better, using concepts lacking in one language or another.  Some people go so far as to say that a word isn’t really translatable into, say, English.  She could maybe explain it a little, talk you through it, give you an English synonym which she says isn’t quite right, but it all might be lost on you in the end.  (Anybody have an example or two?)  Are some bits of the world just closed off to me because I speak only English?  Am I missing out on parts of the world, seeing past them or through them, just as I miss all those features of wine, all those details in an x-ray?  You can wonder a little about the aspects of the world we’re all missing, just because no language has the concepts required to think them through.

Moore questions

Moore’s paradox, as it is called, gets a lot of attention.  He claims that it would be absurd for me to say, ‘I went to the cinema last Tuesday, but I don’t believe that I did’, even though it might be true, might be something that someone else would be right to say about me.  Most of the philosophical action consists in diagnosing the absurdity, finding ways to explain it or otherwise tease it out.  There’s lots of talk of unspoken assertion.  This makes the absurdity stand out to you, explains the paradox.  If you are bored or just feeling irritable, you might head off in the other direction and find ways of showing that, sometimes, it’s not absurd to say something Moorish. 

Steve is killing time in a doctor’s waiting room and picks up a brochure called, ‘Are YOU an Alcoholic?  Watch for THESE 10 Warning Signs?’  He reads on: ‘1. Your work suffers because of your drinking.’  Well, he thinks, I have lost a few jobs because of booze, but I don’t believe I’m an alcoholic.  Lots of people lose jobs. ‘2 You can’t go a day without a drink.’  I do drink everyday, he thinks, but I don’t believe I’m an alcoholic.  I could stop whenever I like.  ‘3. Drinking has put pressure on your personal relationships.’  Well, she did day she was divorcing me because of the drinking, but I don’t believe I’m an alcoholic.  People can get divorced for reasons having nothing to do with alcohol.

He goes on like this, down the list, until he reaches the last line:  ’10. You don’t believe you are an alcoholic.’  Maybe the brochure falls from his hands.  Can Steve now have the thought:  ‘I’m an alcoholic, but I don’t believe that I am’?  Is it possible, in other words, to have a Moore paradoxical sentence, but no absurdity and therefore no paradox?  Can anyone think of a few more?  And if the absurdity sometimes goes away, any fresh diagnoses, any explanations of why some Moore sentences seem absurd and some don’t?

Cute monkeys and moral sense

I’m doing another run of BBC Radio Bristol Thought for The Days. The challenge here is to make people think at 7.40 a.m., using no more than 300 uncomplicated words. Here’s the latest:

Britain is famous for being a nation of animal lovers. Whether it’s a Sunday roast, chicken tikka masala or a full English Breakfast, we just can’t eat enough of the blighters.
Odd then that we also find ourselves getting sentimental about our cute little furry friends. Earlier this week, for example, we heard the heart-warming tale of a baby rhesus macaque monkey which mysteriously turned up in a Dorset garden. Fortunately for the scared simian, home-owner Marty Wright didn’t get out his shotgun, but tempted the frightened animal down from the tree with a banana, and called the RSPCA.
Before you say “ahhhh”, however, remember that the animal had probably escaped from a vivisection laboratory. We live in a contradictory country, where last year, £100,000 was spent trying to save one northern bottlenose whale stranded in the Thames, but millions of other mammals reared in factory conditions are devoured without a second thought.
So is it simply misplaced sentimentality which makes us care more about some animals than others? I don’t think so. When we see a frightened, vulnerable animal, like the Dorset monkey, our emotional response isn’t just a silly reaction. It’s an expression of our moral capacity to recognise suffering in a fellow creature and be moved to do something to alleviate it. This ability to empathise with the plight of other conscious beings is not an indulgent add-on to morality; it is an important part of what motivates us to relieve or avoid human suffering too.
That’s why our warm feelings towards animals reveal more than mere sentimentality. Whether we go as far as to be vegetarians or not, we should remember that the animals we eat can also suffer, and we should not be indifferent to their pain.