Playing With Solipsism II: Ethics

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Very crudely put, solipsism is the philosophical view that only I exist. I played around a bit with it in an earlier post, and I thought I’d do so a bit more before putting it back in the attic.

One interesting way to object to solipsism is on moral grounds. After all, if I believe that only I exist, this belief could result in me behaving badly. Assuming that the world exists, people commonly endeavor to lower the moral status of beings they wish to make the targets of their misdeeds. For example, men who want to mistreat women often work hard to cast them as inferior. As another example, people who want to mistreat animals typically convince themselves that animals are inferior beings and hence can be mistreated. Solipsism would seem to present the ultimate reduction: everything other than me is nothing, which is presumably as “low” as it goes (unless there is some sort of negative or anti-existence). If I were to truly believe that other people and animals merely “exist” in my mind, then my treatment of them would seem to not matter at all. Since no one else exists, I cannot commit murder. Since the world is mine, I cannot commit theft. As might be imagined, such believes could open the door to wicked behavior.

One obvious reply is that if solipsism is true, then this would not be a problem. After all, acting badly towards others is only a problem if there are, in fact, others to act badly towards. If solipsism is true, what I do in the “real” world would seem to have no more moral significance than what I do in dreams or in video games. As such, it can be contended that the moral problem is only a problem if one believes that solipsism is false.

However, it can also be contended that the possibility that solipsism is wrong should be taken into account. That is, while I cannot disprove solipsism, I also cannot prove it. As such, the people I encounter might, in fact, be people. As such, the possibility that they are actually people should be enough to require that I act as if they are people in terms of how I treat them. As such, my skepticism about my solipsism would seem to lead me to act morally, even though it is possible that there is no one else to act morally towards. This, obviously enough, is analogous in some ways to concerns about the treatment of certain animals as well as the ethical matter of abortion. If I accept a principle that entities that might be people should be treated as people, this would seem to have some interesting implications. Of course, it could be argued that the possible people need to show the qualities that actual people would have if they existed as people.

It can also be contended that even if solipsism were true, my actions would still have moral significance. That is, I could still act in right or wrong ways.  One way to consider ethics in the context of solipsism is to consider ethics in the case of video games. Some years back I wrote “Saving Dogmeat” which addresses a similar concern, namely whether or not one can be good or bad in regards to video game characters. One way to look at solipsism is that the world is a video game that has one player, namely me.

One obvious way to develop this would be to develop a variant of Kantian ethics. While there would be no other rational beings, the Kantian view that only the good will is good would seem to allow for ethics in solipsism. While my willing could have no consequences for other beings (since there are none) I could presumably still will the good. Another way to do this is by using a modified version of virtue theory. While there would be no right or wrong targets of my feelings and actions (other than myself), there would still seem to be a way to discuss excess and deficiency. There are, of course, numerous other theories that could be modified for a world that is me. For example, utilitarianism would still work, although the only morally relevant being would be me. However, my actions could make me unhappy or happy even though they are directed “towards” the contents of my own mind. For example, engaging in “kindness” could make me happier than engaging in “cruelty.” Of course, this might be better seen as a form of ethical egoism in the purest possible sense (being the only being, I would seem to be the only being that matters-assuming any being matters).

While this might seem a bit silly, solipsism does seem to provide an interesting context in which to discuss ethics. But, time to put solipsism back in the attic.

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18 Comments.

  1. The computer game example is a good one. The free roam where you can be a good guy or a bad guy in a game like Grand Theft Auto, originates from Ian Bell and David Braben, who wrote the game Elite in the 80s.

    Ian Bell feels guilty about creating the feature. He believes it was corrupting to society, and he can’t stand the games created these days as being too violent.

    A thing about beliefs is people tend to be marvelously inconsistent. Though they may believe their beliefs to be coherent they’re only coherent within local coordinates of given situations.

    Most people would have no trouble in visiting a restaurant and having the lamb. However, if on ordering the lamb the chef invited them to the kitchen, and asked them to assist him in killing the lamb, they would be horrified, they would even see it as cruel. But the process is essentially how the lamb gets to a plate. People even consider the suggestion of assisting the chef in butchering the lamb to be a strange and horrific idea, but nothing seems weird, strange, and cruel to them about eating lamb in the first place.

    In the Third Man, when Martins asks Harry Lime if he had ever seen any of his victims. Lime replies “You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.”

    You may be a perfectly well adjusted person, kind to animals and small children. But, if you can believe people are dots and not people, there’s no end to what you can do them.

    Does Bell have a serious concern. The video tape released by Wikileaks; Collateral Murder, of an American helicopter gun crew shooting civilians in Iraq. The young men operating the guns can be heard to laugh and joke as they kill. They’re like teenagers playing Grand Theft Auto, reveling in the killing as if it’s consequenceless video game violence, as if the people are not real. As if they’re dots; pixels on video game screen.

  2. Doris Wrench Eisler

    The trouble with solipsism as I see it is, nothing exists, but I exist doesn’t make sense: what do I mean by “exist” if I am the only one that does? When you oppose the real to the unreal you claim some objective standard for it, this this and this are real, but this isn’t, because… You can’t have a standard based on a category of one. Not in the sense of the ordinary meaning of things anyway. Maybe we’re all everybody in some sense we know nothing about. But we can’t talk very seriously about that, can we?

  3. Doris Wrench Eisler,

    “The trouble with solipsism as I see it is, nothing exists, but I exist doesn’t make sense: what do I mean by “exist” if I am the only one that does?”

    This is a question that has been bothering philosophers for a while. The experience of the subject is subjective. Can there be any possibility of objectivity, or is subjectivity so flawed there is no absolute possibility of subjectivity either.

    “When you oppose the real to the unreal you claim some objective standard for it, this this and this are real, but this isn’t, because… You can’t have a standard based on a category of one. ”

    Or the other possibility is to reject all reality as impossible. The experience exists, but the reality is uncertain – even impossible. This seems absurd, but you take something like the experience of colour – colour does not exist in nature. Just photons of different energies. The human brain interprets these different energies as colours, but beyond the human subject the colours do not exist. Even to interpret the colours in external reality as being black and white is incorrect. Had our brains developed differently black could have been experienced as white and vice versa. But even that is incorrect. Without the human eye and brain there is no colour whatsoever. We only have external reality through a subjective interpretation – and since it’s subjective, it’s in fact an internal reality, and not external. External reality is impossible. Even inter-subjectivity escapes any true reality. (which is a reason we have so many problems in the world – that obstinately refuse solution by any “rational” means). So many facets of the anthropocentric experience of reality that seem so concrete – on closer examination their solidity is an illusion. The experience of the passage of time, is a pure illusion.

    This is also a reason we cannot escape religion. Dawkins and his followers talk a good talk of “science”, but it’s just self deception. They want a salvatory holy revelation. They can’t accept the old fables, so they create new ones they can believe in.

    “Not in the sense of the ordinary meaning of things anyway.”

    Ordinary in your subjective experience.

    “Maybe we’re all everybody in some sense we know nothing about.”

    In terms of inter-subjectivity. Since the external subjects only exist within the subject as ghostly interpretations, and nowhere else. Then the subject is everybody – and there is no possibility of the existence of external subjects.

    “But we can’t talk very seriously about that, can we?”

    We may have to. And this is the nightmare of the Cogito – Descartes may have felt comfortable and satisfied in its’ formulation. But the Cogito is that boundary of our reality – beyond which there is no reality. Or that our experience of reality is not the true reality, true reality existing beyond the Cogito. And worse; it is impossible for us to traverse that boundary. We’re trapped.

  4. Doris Wrench Eisler,

    While I could be wrong, it seems to make as much sense to say “I exist” whether I am the only thing or one of many things. That is, the concept of existence does not seem to entail that many things must exist.

    It would certainly be a good thing if existence did require a multiplicity-if so, pantheism, solipsism and a chunk of skepticism would be soundly defeated.

  5. “This is a question that has been bothering philosophers for a while.”

    The first known case of OCD?

  6. I can’t help but smile. Isn’t a discussion of solipsism one of the great jokes the universe could play on the philosophical mind?

    JMRC, your discussion above in response to Doris Eisler so closely mirrors the crises of thought of my early twenties reading it felt like looking in a mirror. You have described almost perfectly why I could not sustain a philosophically consistent atheism. My side of the court is not all there is. However dimly I may perceive it something is on the other side of the net.

    Since my twenties my own thought has concentrated on the nature of the interface between that which I perceive as “me” and that which I perceive as “the other”. JMRC, you have described much of the foundation of that thought in your discussion of the nature of perception. Starting with the inherent organic subjectivity you describe it becomes clear that I also must accept that most of my conceptual constructs are just as subjective. Am I really an individual, one being, or am I a world-space conceptually cobbled (or bundled) together because the linearity of language contrives a narrow mythological tube of consciousness?

    Where, really, is the interface between “me” and “the other”? Is it always in the same place, or can, do I, I redraw the boundary of “me”? Do I sometimes place that boundary at my skin and at other times either at the fringes of my social structure? Do I sometimes pull the boundary back to see some portion of my own mind as though it were alien and peculiar to me?

    I love solipsism’s necessary impossibility.

  7. The dead fly at the bottom of solipsism’s (i.e. self-alone) bottle of rancid perfume was once alive with hope of satisfaction. As a morality, solipsism operates on style points: If I am beautiful and good in thought, word and deed, I will sojourn on the Isles of the Blest. Would that there be a game to practice this morality.

    But there is. Golf is just such a game in which the player scores him- or her-self against a set of obstacles ‘in concreto’. But whoever played a perfect game? Not even one motley foolish fly. Hope is the frenemy of the self alone.

  8. Steve Merrick

    Lee Jamison: nice post. Thank you. :smile: The location of the boundary between you and the rest of the universe is arbitrary, and moves without notice. And thanks for the phrase “solipsism’s necessary impossibility”. :grin:

  9. Steve Merrick,
    Thank you. I’ll try to actually edit what I say before I post it in the future…

    It is well to re-emphasize the point about atheism because solipsism and atheism are conceptually linked. The vast majority of expressions of atheism, for example those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, essentially claim that a phenomenon as defined by mankind does not exist and therefore all possible similarly transcendent phenomena must not exist. When it is stated in this way the logical flaw is obvious, as is the the difficulty of establishing a falsifiable concept with which to replace the existing concepts.

    Solipsism starts with two similar conundrums. First, consideration of the organic subjectivity JMRC discusses above calls into question all the cultural assumptions that are embedded in our concepts about reality and “the other”. As a culture we have what amounts to religious precepts about these elements of common experience. Careful examination of these precepts shows them to be questionable, if not obviously false, and reveals that our inherently subjective experience cannot ultimately be universally verified.

    Second, any serious examination of a field of study requires a thorough understanding of the instrument with which the exploration is undertaken. Hence the discussion of the “interface” between “me” and “the other”, above. Human beings, philosophers included, are loathe to deny their own existence. But after decades of trying to define myself as an instrument with which to explore the universe I have found “me” to be a mercurial as God. I am clearly not a wholly unified mind. There clearly is not a definite boundary to “me”. My sense of significance/self clearly is dependent on my capacity to receive feedback from a larger social context. In short, the unitary “me” is a false construct.

    The key to all this, then, is the phrase “as defined by mankind”. If I assert the other does not exist because it is not as defined by mankind it is not hard to go a few steps down the road and disprove my own existence as well.

  10. Re: Solipsism II: Ethics

    Solipsism’s approach to skepticism was rigorous. That approach is continued today in science where only inference from observation and from calculation is a fact, all else is suspect. Picasso said: everything you can imagine is real, and it has also been said: that anything a human can imagine is possible. If we were omniscient, the experience of the other and of nature would be known, what Walt Whitman referred to, as the greater myself, and we would automatically be ethical, not wanting to hurt ourselves.

    Today ethics is more abstract and less embodied than in previous times when humanity was more embedded in the cosmos and myth dealt with cosmic forces. Then literalism took over and myth became a lie and everything became more abstract. Previously ethics involved balance; a balance between positive and negative forces. These forces in myth were represented as the father, representing the god or reason, and the mother representing the goddess, nature or community. To kill the father resulted in blindness, to kill the mother resulted in being lashed by the furies and banished by society until rehabilitated. Today, with God declared dead and nature on life support, is the punishment for killing the god metaphysical blindness? Is being lashed by the macro elements on all continents the equivalent of Orestes being lashed by the furies? If Solipsism is correct that man is the measure of all things, maybe the measuring should be done more carefully to maintain balance.

    Relativism may or may not be valid. It depends on the understanding, knowledge, and ethics of the individual. Plato felt that some sophists were engaging in empty rhetoric not related to truth. Relativity, on the other hand, has an uncontested relationship with ethics. It is the case that in the world of relativity there are no absolutes; everything being relative in the world of man and Nature. Humanity has to deal with positive and negative forces. It is difficult to come up with an ethical system without focusing on cosmic principles or absolutes that transcend the painful dualities and contradictions of relativity.

    As things become more abstract, understanding what is elemental to reality will be necessary in order to make ethical decisions. If ethics is based on abstractions it could be meaningless or do more harm than good. On the other hand, the naturalists believe ethics is a given and some neuroscientists believe there is no mind. An ethics based on biology would be a return to a goddess culture and would deny the necessary balance between opposites.

  11. Lee Jamison,

    “The vast majority of expressions of atheism, for example those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, essentially claim that a phenomenon as defined by mankind does not exist and therefore all possible similarly transcendent phenomena must not exist.

    When it is stated in this way the logical flaw is obvious, as is the the difficulty of establishing a falsifiable concept with which to replace the existing concepts.”

    This is the funny thing and the dangerous thing. They don’t see the logical flaw. They dispose of theism as it’s become impossible for them to cope with the uncertainty. They replace it with “science” – because they believe “science” is more concrete. This is driven by an existential dread of uncertainty, which drives them to something they experience as a religious salvation – their belief in science. Or “science” in inverted commas, most of the people finding solace in Dawkins are not scientists, do not know that much about science, they’re just taking the holy man’s word for it. And Dawkins has fallen for this too, in that if you listen long enough to him, he comes across as an old style revivalist preacher.

    And the danger is in the certainty. In Christianity, Judaism, and I believe, in Islam, there are deliberate niggling uncertainties. Dawkins did not invent militant atheism. It’s last time out was during the 30s, and 40s. The problem with something that offers a salvation of absolute certainty – which “science” seems to, especially to people who only understand “science” mediated through a holy man like Dawkins, is folk dreads, and existential fears can be wrapped up and offered final solutions too, through this certainty.

    I may sound like a religious conservative in that statement, but the religious conservatives have become strangely infected by the same crisis. I’ve heard strange interviews with Catholic priests over the last few years, where they don’t really understand what, or why, they’re doing what they’re doing anymore. They want the certainties of the prophet Dawkins too. It’s possible that they see Dawkins as the ultimate truth – and their own roles, as providers of theatre. Sacramental theatre.

  12. Steve Merrick

    JMRC wrote “And the danger is in the certainty.”

    My point exactly. We pretend certainty and who knows what we miss as a result? I don’t. :wink:

  13. I think Lee, that there is a way of cutting the Gordian knot of ‘self’ and ‘other’ that whilst intellectually satisfying, is pragmatically useless.

    And that is to say that the idea of self and other, as a binary pair each of whose existence is contingent on the other, is whilst never either falsifiable or provably true, nevertheless useful.

    Hilary Lawson outlines these issues well in his book ‘closure’ in which he more or less says that the development of a notion of an external world is necessary in order for interactions between the self and the other, to take place at all.

    My own thinking leads me to believe (sic!) that arguing the truth content of metaphysical propositions is ultimately valueless. They are all imperfect constructions and the likes of Kant, Schopenhauer and Lawson and in my very small way, I, would argue that what matters in a construction is its utility. Not its unrealisable truth content.

    In short, to believe in solipsism as a fact, rather than a single position in a large map of possible definitions of self and other, is not a particularly useful or satisfying way to proceed.

    I also view mankind’s greatest achievement as the development of the metaphysic which we might call ‘common understanding of reality’. True or not, it has tremendous utility allowing us monumental scope to experience the world, and in the end, looking back down a long life, really that is all that seems to matter, the fact that one has in fact experienced a world, (of ones own, or someone else’s making, or whatever).

    That one can modify the self, and thereby enter subjectively into new realms of experience, is undeniable, but it opens up choices for which no rational criteria exist to aid in the selection.

    In the end its like a suit of clothes, one’s personal metaphysical choices. They should suit one’s self, in every sense of the word, and be comfortable easy to wear and familiar.

    I am always reminded of Castaneda’s protagonist, when he talks about ‘the path with heart’

    “How can a man know when he has chosen the path with heart?”

    “Any fool would know that, the trouble is, no one asks the question!”

    :mrgreen:

  14. Leo Smith,

    I like the utility argument myself very much. The reason I play with solipsism as much as I do, though, is that “utility” runs more than one way. This gets to the heart of the “Ethics” part of the title above. Let us say I live in a society that defines me and people very similar to me as a form of chattel. Both legal and social pressure would be applied to me in a manner intended to be supportive of that societal definition. In fact it would be difficult in a society in which such a conceptual system was well established for folk of all classes to envision viable alternatives to that conceptual environment.

    Solipsism is a kind of intellectual game that asks the question “If I pretend it is possible to reject reality as it seems to be, based on the witness of beings in what appears to be my environment that seem to be ‘like’ me, what alternatives to that reality are possible?” To accept the social utility of an imposed reality also imposes a certain set of intellectual chains that may lead to a kind of slavery. Besides, the conceptual freedom to embrace subjective alternatives to the communal reality can also lead to experiences unattainable (short of the use of mind-altering drugs) from that narrow vantage point.

  15. Lee Jamison,

    “Let us say I live in a society that defines me and people very similar to me as a form of chattel. Both legal and social pressure would be applied to me in a manner intended to be supportive of that societal definition.”

    Let us say, this isn’t a hypothetical situation. I don’t think I need to enumerate the local situations throughout the world (and they exist in every part – from the most developed and “enlightened”, to the least). Races, genders, social classes, etc, even in our present age, where we have laser beams in the jungles, suffer oppressive existences. I define an oppressive existence as being forced to live for the benefit of others – with little concern for their own benefit.

    I’ve heard reports that even conservative Islamic women in Egypt (veil wearing), were out protesting against Morsi. They may be conservative, but what Morsi had in mind for them was a little more conservative than they really wanted.

    With oppression, for all those who are being oppressed, there is generally an oppressor benefiting from the arrangement.

    There is a political argument (though one you will not hear voiced in direct terms) that societies cannot function without exploitative oppression. That the lives of a section of any society must be sacrificed so another section can live happy and fulfilling lives. (In other words; a group needs to be forced to clean the toilets, and all the other dirty work, without quibble – so another group can play golf all day).

    “In fact it would be difficult in a society in which such a conceptual system was well established for folk of all classes to envision viable alternatives to that conceptual environment.”

    Plato couldn’t envisage a society without oppression. His idea, essentially boils down to keeping everyone stupid. Granting people sashes at birth; gold, silver, and iron or bronze. Convince the slaves of some mythology, that made their slavery more bearable to them, and other mythologies for the classes who dominated and exploited them – so they wouldn’t feel bad about what they were doing. (This is actually an idea that had a some traction with corporate blowhards in the last decade – one company I worked for introduced the coloured sash system for employees – without explaining the significance. Though I keep an eye corporate bullshit, so I knew what the ideological aim was. Did it make me a more contented beaver? No.)

    Plato’s ideas are not abstract in the sense they’ve been tried. But the mythologies require total belief. I immediately feel sickened when I hear an argument like, “Oh the Indians weren’t using their land properly, so it was good that the we came along and took it from them. We gave them Christianity in return, so it was a win-win situation”, or variations of this argument – as the Great Powers in their parliaments voiced for the justification of their cruel exploitation of the peoples of lands they had taken through military/criminal force.

    To freeze history, you’d need absolute totalitarianism. What would you do with the slave who saw through the tricks, and ran the danger of infecting the minds of the other slaves; who are appropriately contented for their required role in society. This isn’t hypothetical either – throughout history the treatment of slaves whose minds have malfunctioned (malfunctioned from the perspective of the slave master) have met with brutal and cruel fates.

    As for envisaging viable alternatives:

    Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible

  16. JMRC,

    Of course, I knew everyone reading the comment above would jump immediately to the idea of formal slavery. But I was also thinking of much sneakier forms of what functions like slavery, areas for which our society may not have formed an adequate conceptual framework. In the long-running debate over the recent health care law, for example, it was obvious to me that those advocating for the law saw the individual as a kind of purposable asset of the body politic. A key aspect of that law is the demand that all persons be included in an artificially defined market. Your purpose as a person is not your own to decide. It is mandated for you involuntarily.

    Now, tell me, if someone or some group can mandate your purpose within a given context what are the significant differences between that state and slavery? One answer might be that you could not be sold. But is that true? Recall that the concept of formal property established “title” which connected all ownership through the authority of the state (hence “real”, meaning “royal”, estate). Titles to slaves followed this bit of mythological narrative as well. The authority to purpose a person without their consent flowed from the state. So if the contract that involuntarily purposes me to the support of one medical contractor to the state is transferred to a different medical contractor of the state I, and all those in my cohort, have effectively been “sold”.

    Thinking like this demands that the individual be able to step outside of the common conceptual framework in which we accept the definitions imposed by our social context. You say, above-

    I immediately feel sickened when I hear an argument like, “Oh the Indians weren’t using their land properly, so it was good that the we came along and took it from them. We gave them Christianity in return, so it was a win-win situation”, or variations of this argument – as the Great Powers in their parliaments voiced for the justification of their cruel exploitation of the peoples of lands they had taken through military/criminal force.

    The reasoning used in your example is directly analogous to that used in assertions of Eminent Domain and, frankly, in the health care example above, but we would not know that if we accepted without question the imposed definitions- the modern mythology- of our social context.

    And all of these examples also relate to where we draw the line between “me” and “the other”.

  17. We are willing slaves the moment we decide to join the human race.

    The trick is to remember we once had a choice, and exercise it again.

  18. Steve Merrick

    Leo Smith, the sun did not decide to shine, you did not decide to have two arms, and you did not decide to join the human race. What you are is a gift, and a given, not the result of your own choice(s).

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