This short book presents a series of philosophical essays written in response to gun violence in the United States. While the matters of guns, violence and rights are often met with emotional responses, my approach has been to consider these matters from a philosophical standpoint. This does not involve looking at them without emotion. Rather, it involves considering them in a rational way and this requires considering how our emotions affect our views of these vital matters.
Tag Archives: Ethics
Until December 14, 2012, I was thinking quite hard about writing a post for Talking Philosophy on the subject of parenthood and moral luck. Or, rather, partly on parenthood and moral luck, and partly on motherhood and moral luck, since it seems to me that there are some special considerations that motherhood generates in relation to moral luck which don’t always arise in quite the same way for fatherhood.
I’ll outline part of what I thought about writing. But I also want to talk about some reflections which, on December 14, turned me away from posting as I had planned to.
In case any of you aren’t familiar with it, the term moral luck relates to those cases in which we are held to be proper objects of moral praise or blame despite the fact that the outcomes in relation to which we are being assessed depend on factors which are beyond our control. The existence of moral luck is challenging because it undermines a conception we have of morality as being an area in which we are immune from luck: for example, we tend to say that, provided someone acts with good intentions, and with proper deliberation of means and end, she is immune from blame, whatever chance outcome her actions produce. The term was introduced by Bernard Williams in his classic essay “Moral Luck,” in which, famously, he guides our thought on the subject by introducing us to the deliberations of (a somewhat fictionalised version of) the artist Paul Gauguin as he decides whether to abandon the obligations he has to his wife and children in order to travel overseas and pursue his calling as a painter. The abandonment of his obligations is a moral cost which matters to this Gauguin. Whether he will, retrospectively, come to reproach himself for his decision to leave his family depends on how his new life turns out. If it turns out well, and he produces great art, he might regard the decision as justified. If it turns out badly because he is not the great artist he thought he was (Williams calls this “intrinsic bad luck”), he might regard the decision to leave his family as lacking justification. If it turns out badly for other reasons, unconnected with his artistic talent (what Williams’ calls “extrinsic bad luck”), he might regard the decision as untested. Since there is good and bad luck involved in the success or failure of his new life, it will be a matter of luck – moral luck, in Williams’ view – whether he has cause to reproach himself for the decision he made.
I like to think hard about Mrs Gauguin (or at least a somewhat fictionalised version of her) in the story Williams tells. Many or most of us have more in common with her than we do with her husband. This is because we, like her, are likely to find that our greatest moral hazard lies wholly in our domestic lives, not in the world of art. Lacking the belief that we have the capacity to produce epoch-making art, we might think, with good reason, that the hugest decision we make in our lives, the one in which our exposure to moral luck is at its highest, is our decision to have children. The stakes here are almost limitlessly high: Will we be good parents or bad ones? Will our children suffer or enjoy their lives? Will they be good people or bad? And what of the children that our children have? The difference between producing even the greatest art and producing bad art might seem tiny in relation to these uncertainties.
As parents we are painfully exposed to moral luck. That applies of course to all parents, mothers and fathers alike, Mr and Mrs Gauguin both. But there is an element in Williams’ account that suggests the possibility that mothers (in our society) are even more exposed to moral luck in respect of parenthood than fathers are.
To see this, notice that Williams distinguishes between the justification tout court of a life-defining decision and its justification in the eyes of the agent who made it. There is, he says, no external standpoint from which the justification of a life-defining decision can be asserted , no universal currency in which to evaluate it. When we look back on our lives and uphold or refute the grounds of some pivotal decision, we do from a standpoint that has been significantly shaped by that very decision. The question arises: Are the conditions of our society such that, not all of the time by any means but more often than not, a woman’s life is more significantly shaped in her eyes by her decision to have a child than a man’s life is? Is motherhood more likely to become constitutive of a woman’s self-identity than fatherhood is to become constitutive of a man’s self-identity? If so, then a woman is more exposed to the moral luck involved in parenthood than a man is – in the sense that, if her parenthood turns out badly, it is more likely than it is for a man that she has failed at something on which (thanks to social pressures of various sorts) she has staked her self-understanding. Similarly, in the eyes of society at large she might find the assessment of her life more closely bound than a father’s might be to her success or failure as a parent.
I don’t want prejudge the answer to the question as to whether women are in fact more exposed to the moral luck of parenthood in this way, but it seems like an interesting line of thought to explore. Part of the reason I am drawn to it is that, like many women, I do find myself fighting on many battlefronts (some inside me, some outside) to find a sense of self in which “mother” does not loom tyrannously large.
But there is another source of my interest in that question – and it is the source of the reticence I felt about writing my blogpost last December. It is Lionel Shriver’s excellent novel, We Need To Talk about Kevin. This novel is a sustained and deeply perceptive fictional account of a woman’s decision to have a child, and of her prolonged and painful reflection on that decision when it turns out very badly indeed. The book is a very rich resource for exploring in detail the issues that Williams sketches briefly in his Gauguin story – deliberation under uncertainly about matters of profound moral importance and of profound importance to one’s life; failure and the analysis of failure. Most of all it revolves on the never-quite-answered question as to whether the woman’s bad moral luck was “intrinsic” or “extrinsic”: Did her life’s project of parenthood fail because it was a flawed one, one that could never have grounded value in her life because she was not the person that project required her to be? Or did it fail because of the brute, extrinsic bad luck of giving birth to a “difficult” (impossibly difficult) child?
As well as providing a source of detailed reflection on the issue of moral luck as presented by Bernard Williams, the book is also a meditation on the ways in which motherhood can have a very different significance in the life of a mother than fatherhood has in the life of a father. The story shows us a mother who finds herself much more relentlessly confined by motherhood than her partner is by fatherhood, with the result that her identity is much more comprehensively consumed than his by the failure of the project of parenthood (even though he is in fact killed by that failure).
As everyone probably knows, this novel centres on a very painful event indeed, a mass killing on school premises by a young man. At any time, this is a subject that both literature and attempts at philosophy ought to address only with great care and reticence. But in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook last December it seemed impossible to treat this subject abstractly, as a resource for philosophical reflection, impossible to encounter it in any way other than through the concrete responses of horror and shock and pity. So I abandoned my intended piece of writing. As time passes, it does seem to become possible again to write about such things, but not (it seems to me) without some preliminary thought about when and how it is acceptable to touch on matters of such great sadness in the course of doing philosophy. And perhaps we also need some preliminary thought about why it is acceptable to view matters of such great sadness through the lens of fiction.
Is philosophical reasoning too glib, too abstract, too trivialising to intrude on tragedy? It can be conducted in that way. Moral philosophy takes as its subject matter some of the most troubling features of our existence and, for the sake of clarifying our ideas, it refines this subject matter into technical terms (like “moral luck”) and setpiece thought experiments that deliberately discard as much as possible of the white noise that is the stuff of life. For some thinkers no doubt this coolness is a temporary stepping back from deep engagement with the ethical features of their lives, in order to live their lives better. But for many of us it becomes an end in itself. That isn’t wrongful: clarity is worth pursuing for itself. But there is a time and a place for it.
At its best, though, philosophy can restrain its tendency to glibness by taking seriously the Socratic point, that wisdom lies in the awareness of how little we know: rather than expertise, philosophers offer tools for the sustained interrogation of their own ignorance and everyone else’s. When philosophy is conceived in this way its reigning sentiments are bewilderment and hesitancy, amounting to a kind of intellectual pessimism, about the possibility of finding the kind of answers that ultimately satisfy. Those sentiments aren’t out of place at the scene of a tragedy, I think.
Williams avoids the artificial clarity of much analytical philosophy. His account of moral luck emphasises the limited role of rationality in our assessment of our own actions: an “entirely clear-headed agent” might, he says, discard much of the sense of responsibility that we do, in fact, feel for the outcomes of our actions. Rather than rational analysis, he offers a critique of ethical experience. He asks us to reflect carefully on our actual reactions to a range of ethically challenging situations, and to do so without the hope that philosophy will provide all of the solutions that we seek.
This emphasis on lived ethical experience makes Williams’ account not-glib, rich, and humane – the kind of philosophy that we perhaps shouldn’t be ashamed to bring out in the context of a tragedy. And his emphasis on ethical experience is also what makes literature so promising a resource for exploring moral luck. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a case study of ethical experience, offering the depth and richness of experience that is present in life itself, but presenting it with the kind of lucidity that real life rarely offers. Literature also gives us a kind of completeness that we can’t get from observing real life. In a novel people have a relatively small set of characteristics, and every one of these characteristics is present to the reader (provided that the reader reads thoughtfully enough). There is nothing hidden, so all of the relationship between a person’s deliberations, actions, reactions, and self-assessments can be made fast and clear and determinate. There is no similar completeness of revelation in life. Too many variables, too many secrets.
I think I have convinced myself that a blogpost on parenthood – especially motherhood – and moral luck written in the light of a novel about a mass killing at a school, might not be too insensitive in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, and might help a little bit as we grapple with our reactions to the event. And I’ll hope to make such a post at some point.
When I went for my run on Monday, I ran across the usually bounty of litter that people dump in the park, streets and sidewalks. I actually run litter loops in the park each day, picking up trash. On Monday someone had slung the remains of a big takeout order from a restaurant into the park-the large bag, plenty of plates, cups and so on. I also got my usual collection of discarded water bottles and other assorted debris. I also ran across some impressive vandalism.
When the park was “renovated” a few years back, they added sign posts labeling the various trails. These posts are landscaping timbers that were sunk into pre-dug holes and had spikes driven into them to make it harder for folks to pull them out. But, some local vandal-hulk was up to the task and ripped out one of the signs, bending the spikes. I spotted the hole before stepping into it (a person could easily get a foot stuck and break something) and then found the timber that had been tossed into the woods. I replaced it as best I could and then checked the others for vandalism.
Since I’m teaching ethics and had plenty of time on my run to think about this, I wondered about whether or not littering and vandalism are evil. On the face of it, I would say that they would seem to involve, at the least, a lack of virtue.
In the case of littering, there would seem to be two main contenders for the controlling vice. The first would be laziness: littering because one is too lazy to carry the trash away. This, obviously, would not account for people who throw trash from their cars, but could explain those who simply leave empty water and sport’s drink bottles littered about. The second would be a lack of respect for the environment and other people. Of course, a person might also casually litter due to lack of thought-some people treat their own living areas as trash pits, so they would no doubt see public places the same way. I would probably not consider being this way an evil thing, but is clearly a defect of character and it could be considered a vice.
Vandalism is more clearly immoral. After all, a person is damaging or destroying property with a malicious intent. Even if a person is “just playing” or “having fun”, the person is still causing damage or harm when s/he has no right to do so. There is also the obvious matter of the consequences of the vandalism. Someone will have to expend resources to repair or undo the damage. For example, I had to spend my time this morning putting that timber back in place so people would know where the trails led and, more importantly, so that someone did not get injured by stepping into the hole.
The idea that morality has its foundations in biology is enjoying considerable current popularity, although the idea is not a new one. However, the current research is certainly something to be welcomed, if only because it might give us a better understanding of our fellow animals.
Being a philosopher and a long-time pet owner, I have sometimes wondered whether my pets (and other animals) have morality. This matter was easily settled in the case of cats: they have a morality, but they are evil. My best cats have been paragons of destruction, gladly throwing the claw into lesser beings and sweeping breakable items to the floor with feline glee. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I really like cats—in part because they are so very evil in their own special ways. The matter of dogs and morality is rather more controversial. Given that all of ethics is controversial; this should hardly be a shock.
Being social animals that have been shaped and trained by humans for thousands of years, it would hardly be surprising that dogs exhibit behaviors that humans would regard as moral in nature. However, it is well known that people anthropomorphize their dogs and attribute to them qualities that they might not, in fact, possess. As such, this matter must be approached with due caution. To be fair, we also anthropomorphize each other and there is the classic philosophical problem of other minds—so it might be the case that neither dogs nor other people have morality because they lack minds. For the sake of the discussion I will set aside the extreme version of the problem of other minds and accept a lesser challenge. To be specific, I will attempt to make a plausible case for the notion that dogs have the faculties to possess morality.
While I will not commit to a specific morality here, I will note that for a creature to have morality it would seem to need certain mental faculties. These would seem to include cognitive abilities adequate for making moral choices and perhaps also emotional capabilities (if morality is more a matter of feeling than thinking).
While dogs are not as intelligent as humans (on average) and they do not use true language, they clearly have a fairly high degree of intelligence. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that they can be trained in very complex tasks and even in professions (such as serving as guide or police dogs). They also exhibit an exceptional understanding of human emotions and while they do not have language, they certainly can learn to understand verbal and gesture commands given by humans. Dogs also have an understanding of tokens and types. To be specific, they are quite good at recognizing individuals and also good at recognizing types of things. For example, a dog can distinguish its owner while also distinguishing humans from cats. As another example, my dogs have always been able to recognize any sort of automobile and seem to understand what they do—they are generally eager to jump aboard whether it is my pickup truck or someone else’s car. On the face of it, dogs seem to have the mental horsepower needed to engage in basic decision making.
When it comes to emotions, we have almost as much reason to believe that dogs feel and understand them as we do for humans having that ability. The main difference is that humans can talk (and lie) about how they feel; dogs can only observe and express emotions. Dogs clearly express anger, joy, fear and other emotions and seem to understand those emotions in other animals. This is shown by how dogs react to expression of emotion. For example, dogs seem to recognize when their owners are sad or angry and react accordingly. Thus, while dogs might lack all the emotional nuances of humans and the capacity to talk about them, they do seem to have the basic emotional capabilities that might be necessary for ethics.
Of course, showing that dogs have intelligence and emotions would not be enough to show that dogs have morality. What is needed is some reason to think that dogs use these capabilities to make moral decisions and engage in moral behavior.
Dogs are famous for possessing traits that are analogous to (or the same as) virtues such as loyalty, compassion and courage. Of course, Kant recognized these traits but still claimed that dogs could not make moral judgments. As he saw it, dogs are not rational beings and do not act in accord with the law. But, roughly put, they seem to have an ersatz sort of ethics in that they can act in ways analogous to human virtue. While Kant does make an interesting case, there do seem to be some reasons to accept that dogs can engage in basic moral judgments. Naturally, since dogs do not write treatises on moral philosophy, I can only speculate on what is occurring in their minds (or brains). As noted above, there is always the risk of projecting human qualities onto dogs and, of course, they make this very easy to do.
One area that seems to have potential for showing that dogs have morality is the matter of property. While some might think that dogs regard whatever they can grab (be it food or toys) as their property, this is not always the case. While it seems true that some dogs are Hobbesian, this is also true of humans. Dogs, based on my decades of experience with them, seem to be capable of clearly grasping property. For example, my husky Isis has a large collection of toys that are her possessions. She reliably distinguishes between her toys and very similar items (such as shoes, clothing, sporting goods and so on) that do not belong to her. While I do not know for sure what happens in her mind, I do know that when I give her a toy and go through the “toy ritual” she gets it and seems to recognize that the toy is her property now. Items that are not given to her are apparently recognized as being someone else’s property and are not chewed upon or dragged outside. In the case of Isis, this extends (amazingly enough) even to food—anything handed to her or in her bowl is her food, anything else is not. Naturally, she will ask for donations, even when she could easily take the food. While other dogs have varying degrees of understanding of property and territory, they certainly seem to grasp this. Since the distinction between mine and not mine seems rather important in ethics, this suggests that dogs have some form of basic morality—at least enough to be capitalists.
Dogs, like many other animals, also have the capacity to express a willingness to trust and will engage in reprisals against other dogs that break trust. I often refer to this as “dog park justice” to other folks who are dog people.
When dogs get together in a dog park (or other setting) they will typically want to play with each other. Being social animals, dogs have various ways of signaling intent. In the case of play, they typically engage in “bows” (slapping their front paws on the ground and lowering their front while making distinctive sounds). Since dogs cannot talk, they have to “negotiate” in this manner, but the result seems similar to how humans make agreements to interact peacefully.
Interestingly, when a dog violates the rules of play (by engaging in actual violence against a playing dog) other dogs recognize this violation of trust—just as humans recognize someone who violates trust. Dogs will typically recognize a “bad dog” when it returns to the park and will avoid it, although dogs seem to be willing to forgive after a period of good behavior. An understanding of agreements and reprisals for violating them seems to show that dogs have at least a basic system of morality.
As a final point, dogs also engage in altruistic behavior—helping out other dogs, humans and even other animals. Stories of dogs risking their lives to save others from danger are common in the media and this suggests that dogs can make decisions that put themselves at risk for the well-being of others. This clearly suggests a basic canine morality and one that makes such dogs better than ethical egoists. This is why when I am asked whether I would chose to save my dog or a stranger, I would chose my dog: I know my dog is good, but statistically speaking a random stranger has probably done some bad things. Fortunately, my dog would save the stranger.
While covering a football game the day after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and himself , Bob Costas quoted Kansas City sportswriter Jason Whitlock: “If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Kassandra Perkins would both be alive today.”
As might be imagined, there was a range of responses to this. Some agreed with Costas. Others took issue with a commentator making such a political statement during a sporting event. Some responded with considerable anger at what they regarded as an attack on guns.
While the main point of concern is obviously guns, there is also the matter of whether or not sports commentators should engage in such political commentary.
On the one hand, people watch sporting events with the expectation that the commentary will be about the sporting events and they do not expect political, social, theological or philosophical commentary. Naturally, they also expect lots of commercials. Given that the purpose of such commentary is to comment on sports, it seems reasonable for the commentators to stick to what the show is supposed to be providing to the audience. To use an analogy, if one goes to a comedy club and a person gets on stage to lecture about engineering, then one would obviously be right to expect them not to do that. After all, one goes to a comedy club with a reasonable expectation of comedy. Likewise, one watches football with a reasonable expectation that it will be free of political commentary.
On the other hand, Costas commentary did relate to an event connected to football and sports and other areas (such as religion and politics) are often mixed. Also, it is not the case that the commentators make an explicit commitment to only discuss sports and to exclude everything else.
Obviously enough, however, the main point of concern is Whitlock’s claim that the two people would still be alive if Belcher had not owned a gun. The talking point response to this is to point out that by Costas and Whitlock’s reasoning, if OJ Simpson did not have a knife, then the people who were allegedly killed by him would still be alive.
This talking point does, in sort of a mean way, make a reasonable point. After all, people are quite capable of killing without guns. Knives have, of course, been used to commit murders. Obviously, many other tools have been used in domestic violence as well, including such bizarre ones as frozen animals (or their parts). As such, getting rid of guns would not eliminate murders, suicide or domestic violence.
Guns do, of course, make killing easier. After all, they are tools specifically designed for doing the work of killing. As such, if people did not have guns, they would have to use somewhat more difficult means of killing. This might reduce the number of killings in a way somewhat like taking away cars would reduce the likelihood that a person would go someplace. After all, if a person has to work harder to accomplish a task, he is somewhat less likely to attempt that task.
Another point worth considering is that a gun also makes impulse killing easier. After all, a person can simply point the gun and pull the trigger and this allows very little time for thought. If people had to use slower means of killing, they might pause between the impulse to kill and the act of killing. Then again, this might have little impact. After all, a person can stab with a knife almost as fast as pointing and shooting.
People also note that a gun can do a lot of damage, making death more likely than with many alternative means of violence. For example, a person who is shot would tend to more badly wounded than someone who is punched or hit with a club. Of course, there are plenty of other weapons that can match guns in lethality, such as a knife.
Overall, it does make sense that getting rid of guns would cause a reduction in deaths. However, there is the question of the significance of the impact and the costs associated with eliminating guns. After all, getting rid of automobiles would cause a very significant reduction in deaths, yet most would argue that this would not be worth the cost.
A final point of consideration is the usual talking point that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This is, of course, true. After all, people do not (in general) kill simply because they have guns. Rather, they use guns to kill because they have a reason (or think they have a reason) to kill. As such, eliminating guns would not address the actual cause of violence.
In the case at hand, there has been some speculation that head injuries suffered by Belcher played a causal role in his actions. The sort of head trauma football players sustain has been linked to a variety of mental problems, including suicides and violence. As such, addressing this medical problem would seem more fruitful than pushing for the elimination of guns. After all, this would address a causal factor of violence rather than one of the tools used in violence.
Others have also noted that domestic violence is not uncommon in the United States and have expressed concerns about addressing the causes of this violence. While guns are sometimes used in domestic violence cases, people have clearly shown that they will use other tools, such as knives. As such, focusing only on guns would be a mistake. Rather, it makes more sense to address the underlying causes of such violence. While people do point to the fact that guns are used in many such cases, it must also be noted that there are millions of gun owners who never use their guns to kill other people. As such, the problem is not that people have guns. The problem is that some people are willing (or driven) to kill.
Imagine, if you will, a once noble vessel, now stricken and adrift. Many of the decks are ruined shells, filled with debris and inhabited by the lost and helpless. Other decks are nicer, but still plagued with troubles. To make matters worse, members of the crew and passengers live in rival groups and periodically slaughter each other over various matters. The situation is all the more hopeless because there are no lifeboats and virtually no chance of any outside help (although some swear to have seen lights in the sky).
Some few do try to set the ship right and get her back on course. Oddly enough some of the brightest passengers have retreated into the ship’s towers (the walls of which are lined with tiles of finely cut elephant tusks). In the towers, these bright people scribble furiously on scraps of paper in languages only they and their fellows can understand. These scraps, which deal with such dire matters as whether blue is green or green is blue, are passed from tower to tower to the delight of the inhabitants. Sometimes they gather together in bands and, behind tightly closed doors, discuss important matters such as whether they exist or not. While one might expect the crew and passengers would unite and toss such oddballs to the sharks, they do not. Instead, regular tribute is given to the tower dwellers.
Given the dire plight of the ship, it seems immoral for the tower dwellers to squander their intellects and the ship’s resources in such activities. Instead, it seems fair to expect them to help solve the problems that plague the stricken vessel, and those on board.
Not surprisingly, the stricken ship is a crudely obvious metaphor for the earth and the ‘oddballs’ in the tower are, of course, philosophers.
While the analogy might seem a bit silly, it is not all that far from the truth. After all, one has but to look at the daily paper or any news show to see just how well things are going. War, crime, disease, sexism, racism, violence, genocide and other problems abound in the ‘real’ world.
Philosophers are often regarded as being detached from the ‘real’ world. This is shown, in part, by the fact that philosophers tend to focus their research on highly abstract, often self-generated puzzles and conundrums whose solutions (if ever obtained) would seem to have no significant consequences. Further, even when philosophers attempt to address ‘real’ problems, they seem to take perverse delight in creating the most diabolically convoluted and irrelevant papers and presentations possible. Naturally, these papers and presentations are largely for the consumption of other philosophers.
While abstract philosophy has its merits, my view is that a significant portion of philosophical research should be aimed at these very serious problems. When people are on a stricken vessel, each person is expected to help out with the situation. Thus, it seems reasonable to take the current situation on earth to be remarkably like that of a stricken ship. Thus, philosophers are under an obligation to help out.
Given my view on this matter, much of my research has focused on such serious problems that have significant consequences in the world. I have written extensively on topics in ethics, technology, and politics with an approach that is both practical and philosophical.
That said, many philosophic problems are rightly regarded as very important matters and some are even regarded as eternal and essential questions. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, presented an eloquent and excellent case for the value of philosophy and philosophic questions. To blend Russell’s words with a wonderful line from the Matrix, it’s the questions that drive us to expand our imaginations, to open up new possibilities and to free ourselves from dogmatism. These things certainly seem good and worthwhile.
While Russell argued for the value of philosophy, he also recognized the importance of being involved in the problems of the ‘real’ world. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1960 when Russell told a journalist that there was no time to talk about philosophy in the face of the nuclear threat. True to his word, Russell went out and was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. Thus, it would seem that philosophers are not excused from being involved in ‘real’ world problems. Of course, such an argument from authority is relatively weak. Fortunately, another argument can be given.
If philosophers defend their pursuits by claiming that the importance of the philosophic problems obligates them to work on them, then it would seem that philosophers would be equally obligated to work on problems of similar importance. It seems reasonable that matters of life and death, the survival of the human race, and human freedom are matters which are equally important as the problem of personal identity, epistemology and whether beauty is a real quality of objects or not. Hence, it would seem that philosophers cannot be excused simply by claiming that what they do is too important to allow the ‘real’ world to interfere. This does not mean that philosophers should stop doing philosophy. Many philosophic questions overlap with and are relevant to critical ‘real’ world problems. Philosophers are actually ideally suited to deal with problems in a rational and logical manner. This view is what guides my approach to philosophical research.
Thus, philosophers should still do philosophy, but they should also become more involved in the problems of the world.
In this post, I noted some rather curious data thrown up by Morality Play, an interactive activity I developed for Philosophy Experiments. It shows that 32% of atheists respond that they are not morally obliged to help somebody in severe need in India, even though to do so wouldn’t cost them much, compared to only 22% of Christians who respond the same way (a difference that is easily statistically significant). In other words, the data shows that people who self-identify as Christians are considerably more likely to think there is a moral obligation to help somebody in severe need (in India) than people who self-identify as atheists.
I got to thinking about this again partly because of the surprising and disappointing failure of the petition in support of Indonesian (ex-?)atheist, Alexander Aan, which only attracted 8,000 signatures, well short of the 25,000 required to secure a government response. (To put this number into some sort of context, consider that Richard Dawkins alone has more than 430,000 followers on Twitter.) A possible (partial) explanation for this failure, supported by the data noted above, is that many (online) atheists don’t believe they have a strong moral obligation towards relatively anonymous or distant others, or don’t feel the pull of such an obligation even if they believe they have it (or think they believe they have it).
There is some further evidence to support this explanation in the early results from another interactive activity at Philosophy Experiments – Peter Singer and the Drowning Child. This features the following question (amongst others):
Are you morally obliged to make a relatively small donation, perhaps to the value of a new shirt or a night out at a restaurant, to an overseas aid agency such as Oxfam within the next few days (and even if you have previously made such a donation, perhaps even recently)?
To date, a few more than 3500 people have completed the activity. The data shows that only 31% of people who self-identify as atheists respond that they are morally obliged to make such a donation, compared to 36% of people who self-identify as Christian, a difference that is statistically significant at p <.05. Moreover, if we also look at people who also self-identify as Muslim and Jewish (i.e., as adherents of Judaism), then the gap between how atheists and people who self-identify as religious respond widens (31% to 38%).
A few points here.
First, yes, I know, the sample is self-selecting (albeit in a more complex way than with your usual internet poll, because the data collection aspect of these activities is not what motivates people to complete them and is largely hidden), and, therefore, one cannot reliably generalize to any particular population.
Second, it’s entirely possible there are confounding variables at work here. For example, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people who self-identify as atheist are on average younger than those people who self-identify as religious.
Third, notwithstanding these two points , this general result has now been found across two independent activities, with the question being asked in two different contexts and in two different ways. Amongst those who have completed these activities, people who self-identify as atheists seem less likely to believe they have a moral obligation to distant others than people who self-identify as religious.
Three questions are pertinent here:
a) Does this represent a real difference between atheists and religious people?
b) If so, what is its explanation (for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be surprised if (online) atheists were disproportionately attracted to ethical egoism, moral individualism, and that like)?
c) Does it matter?
In my last post I looked at some ways in which my emotional involvement when watching a sporting event on television was like my emotional involvement when reading fiction. It seemed to me that in both cases there was a similar conscious willingness to suspend my normal commitment to the truth of the matter, for the sake of a story, with suspense and a happy ending. And I thought that was interesting because it threw a bit of extra light on the so-called paradox of fiction. The paradox of fiction is that we can feel emotionally responsive to characters and situations that we know not to exist, so that our emotions seem to be freed from the normal belief-dependence that we might plausibly think them to have. I argued that when I watch sport I willingly succumb to a narrative of the event that omits some facts and prioritises others to the extent that that narrative is an artifice, aimed not at truth but at building a satisfying, story-shaped experience of the race. I knowingly base my response on a selection of data that I fully believe to be partial and distorting, and in that sense my emotional engagement with elements of the real world seems to have the kind of believe-independence that is involved in the paradox of fiction.
I ended that post by asking whether we sometimes need to allow our emotions this kind of partial autonomy from truth-tracking, not just for the purposes of catharsis, but in order to inform and motivate our truth-oriented engagement with the world. Where situations are complicated and the best outcome is unclear, we need a preliminary stance to guide us, some loyalties that can thrive even in the absence of the kind of beliefs that might warrant those loyalties. Frequently, our commitment to seeking “the truth of the matter” does not mean that we begin our researches in a state of cold, static objectivity. We begin instead in medias res, from some engaged perspective which we know is unlicensed by our knowledge of the facts of the matter but which nonetheless motivates us to care and to act, and then to question our actions, and to question the emotionally charged allegiances that prompted them. If we didn’t start from somewhere, we would never get anywhere.
I said in my earlier blog post that I had had two new experiences courtesy of the Olympic Games, and I’m coming now to the second of those two experiences – an unfamiliar twitch of patriotism. It is patriotism of some sort or another, quite frequently, that supplies us with a ready-made engaged perspective, a preliminary action-guiding source of emotional affiliation that is arguably unlicensed by relevant facts.
The term “patriotism” lacks a well-agreed meaning. It is sometimes taken to involve a set of beliefs about one’s country – that it is superior, for example, or that it has special claims that trump those of other countries, that it has some “mission” in the world, and so forth. On another account (and this is the version of patriotism I want to talk about here), patriotism is not a matter of beliefs about one’s country: it is instead an affectionate identification with one’s own country, including a propensity to take that country’s interests as an object of special concern. One might experience that affectionate identification whilst acknowledging that one does not have good reason to do so, and in that case the emotional engagement that one feels with one’s country might seem puzzling. It does seem puzzling: why, for example, should I feel elated by the fact that Britain has hosted a successful Olympic Games, or won 65 medals? I didn’t do it: I contributed nothing to the Games. Why should I throw in my lot with an ill-defined geographic-legal entity within whose jurisdiction I happen to have been born? Patriotism has it in common with the consumption of fiction that it is an arena in which our emotional engagement is not, or at the very least is not fully, warranted by relevant beliefs.
Perhaps we can go further. Perhaps we can say that patriotism is not only like the consumption of fiction: it is the consumption of fiction. My recent glimmering of patriotism was aroused by a story: the story that the Olympic opening ceremony told of Britain’s progress from rural idyll to industrial powerhouse, under the influence of a class of industrialists explicitly likened to Shakespeare’s Prospero, raising wonders on a mysterious island, relying, not on sorcery like Prospero, but on the stoic endeavours of a heroic working class. It is easy to see that that is not a fully realistic but a somewhat mythic account of British history. Over the years I have been exposed to numerous other popular histories of Britain that are similarly suffused with fiction. And when I am looking at real-world developments relating to my country – domestic politics, my country’s conduct of international affairs, and so on – I am not immune from viewing matters through the prism of such stories, so that I experience my country in a somewhat fictionalised way. I think (although there isn’t space to explore it here) that equally unrealistic myths and legends, and people’s capacity to synthesise these with their perception of real-world events, tend to be at the core of patriotisms everywhere.
A patriotic British citizen feels elated when she has no reason to (it isn’t she who has triumphed, only a part-fictional entity), because she is reading the story avidly. She feels shame and guilt in relation to Britain’s misdoings, even when she has no reason to, and apprehension at the thought of the wrongful actions Britain might yet undertake, because she is enthralled by Britain’s story.
Our patriotic engagement with a nation is like our engagement with a character in a novel. When I read Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell’s role in Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn, I feel pleasure in Cromwell’s love of his daughters, apprehension about his capacity for ruthlessness. I travel with the protagonist for the duration of the tale. I share deeply in his concerns, even though they are not mine, and even though I know that the Cromwell that Mantel writes about does not really exist, but is instead a fictional creation, only partly founded in her historical knowledge. Similarly, the character “Britain” in our patriotic stories is a fiction, but that need not stop me caring about that character and adopting its concerns as my own.
In principle, these emotional reactions to the story are capable of informing our perception of Britain and also teaching us about ourselves, just as our emotional reactions to any great novel help to inform our interpretation of the characters in it and to see ourselves more clearly. Depending of course on the quality of the patriotic stories we tell ourselves (superficial and formulaic fiction tends to leave us pretty much where we started), patriotism might not be something static. Instead it might function as the kind of preliminary perspective I spoke of above, an affiliation unmotivated by the relevant facts of the matter, which nonetheless motivates our actions, but also causes us to question those actions and refine or even overturn our loyalties.
As it is used, the term “patriotism” tends to be reserved for positive emotional engagement in one’s country – pride, joy, contentment. We perhaps lack a corresponding term for the shame and guilt and apprehension we feel about our country’s misdeeds. But since these negative emotions arise from the same sense of engagement with one’s country as the positive ones, a rounder, fuller concept of patriotism might embrace them. If patriotism did explicitly embrace such shame, guilt, and apprehension, as well as elation, pride, joy, it would more easily recognised as a source of constructive criticism of one’s country. Patriotism, like all the other story-reading we immerse ourselves in, would be a resource for learning how to act well.