The final two chapters of 10 Moral Paradoxes are celebratory. We are told it’s good to think about moral paradoxes because they are fun, they can help us see the good in bad, they can help us make decisions, they can get us accustomed to uncertainty, deepen our understanding of morality, etc. etc. etc. But here’s my question. If paradoxes are so good for us, why do they make people so mad?
You may have noticed in the comments here that there was an occasional outburst of impatience. I noticed this up close, in the philosophy lab known as my dinner table. Interestingly, the paradoxes didn’t all get the same reaction. Blackmail and retirement were fun to discuss, as were the paradoxes about punishment. I was surprised by the very negative reaction to paradox #6—my own favorite.
I put it to my husband and children this way: say you are an African American happy to exist, and happy to live here in the US. You regularly rail against slavery and consider it abhorrent. Yet, without it your ancestors wouldn’t have met here, and you wouldn’t have existed, and you certainly wouldn’t have lived in the US. Are you sure you’re sorry that Africans were enslaved?
I was surprised this wonderfully interesting question was met with much philosophy-bashing. After recovering from the rejection and scorn, I got to thinking. As I believe I mentioned at the dinner table, part of paradoxophobia is a dislike of uncertainty and puzzlement, which is simply not good.
Then again, perhaps there really is something particularly annoying about paradox #6. Instead of hurling invectives at philosophy, we might say this to comfort ourselves: In the naïve state we really are sorry about some things and glad about others. These “pre-integrated” attitudes do reveal much about “who we are.” In fact, there’s maybe even something weird about focusing on these links between past and present, arbitrary and fortuitous as they are. We get particularly strong “skewing” when the later good event is our own existence—or the existence of someone we imagine as ourselves. It’s highly unappealing to imagine a world without ourselves.
Bottom line: the attitudes revealed by the paradox aren’t particularly the attitudes of my “true self” or my “best self” or my most rational self. With that realization, maybe we can just live with the paradox instead of trying to overcome it. I’m not sure, but the same strategy might help us live with some of the other paradoxes as well.
Well, all good things have to come to an end. I’ve really enjoyed reading and writing about 10 Moral Paradoxes. My thanks to Saul Smilanksy for joining the discussion here.