Ethics and Philosophical Musings


DennettBrace yourself, because the next sentence could get ugly. On the website of the Edge foundation, Daniel Dennett responds to Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker’s response to accusations of “scientism” (which, the reader will doubtless be overjoyed to hear, I responded to). He has no time for the claim that scientists who venture beyond their fields are guilty of trespassing on other peoples’ land. Indeed, he demands more respect from the humanities…

A philosopher in the sub-discipline of aesthetics who held forth on the topic of beauty in music but who couldn’t read music or play an instrument, and who was unfamiliar with many of the varieties of music in the world, would not deserve attention. Nor would an ethicist opining on what we ought to do in Syria who was ignorant of the history, culture, politics and geography of Syria. Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences.

I have no particular objections to this, but merely ask that scientists who opine on philosophical, ethical or historical matters acquaint themselves with the bodies of thought in those fields. Richard Dawkins, for example, could have been saved the embarrassment of equating the potential effects of Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing on religion to that of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had he realised that the “nothing” of which Krauss wrote was very different to that of classical theologians.

Even philosophers who champion science could benefit from being more studious when voyaging beyond the grounds of their expertise. Daniel Dennett, for example, in Breaking the Spell, defined the cosmological argument as that which maintains that “since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely God”. His refutation of this claim, by asking for the cause of God, was undermined by the fact that the cosmological argument really states that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. That is why the causeless deity enters the picture. Dennett, Armin Geertz sighed, “knows very little about religion”.

I do not think scientists must stay in their place. Indeed, I think that they have much to offer other disciplines, in terms of data and of methodologies. What is annoying is the presumptuousness with which they stride into fields and assume that they have grasped the lie of the land; assume, indeed, that such fields are so bare that they can understand their nature without contemplation, and without consulting people who have long studied them. It is this behaviour that is liable to provoke hostility towards outsiders.

NeanderthalLike most critics of the charge of “scientism”, Steven Pinker affirms its value even as he tries to dismiss it. Unlike some of them, however, he makes sound arguments against its overuse. He is, then, as people will insist on being in an imperfectible world, both right and wrong. He is right because students of the humanities often exclude science the resolution of inquiries that demand its use and he is wrong because students of science often deny the need for and, indeed, existence of other other methodologies in resolving different questions.

Students of the humanities, and the social sciences, are often on uneasy terms with data and the scientific method because they can act like rivers, roads and rocks obstructing fondly planned excursions. Science illuminates our potential and also its limitations: those of our cognitive aptitude, our emotional traits, our social habits and our maladaptive environments. The map of the world that the natural sciences offer us can seem more bounded and less colourful than those of our creation. It is, on the other hand, far more reliable.

Pinker is also right to note that science can aid us in resolving questions even when they must be answered by other means. Answers to normative questions, for example, are often based on empirical premises. One could not make a scientific case for animal welfare but if one cleaved to a ethical system that valued the individual experience one could draw on the wealth of research into animal cognition.

Beyond the purer forms of science, and the somewhat less pure institutions they are practiced in, students of other fields could take influence from empiricist methodologies in analysing the data that is relevant to them. How often could an awkward historical reference in a work of political philosophy have been improved had its author controlled for variables, or an elegant theory from anthropological research been exposed had its author considered its refutability. In Enlightenment’s Wake, John Gray writes of how thinkers are prone to behaving like dwellers of the illusory world of Tlön (a creation of one of Borges’s short stories): creating systems of thought that are divorced from the material realities around them. In dealing with data, science should be an ally and a friend.

While Pinker has made this argument as well as anyone, he fails to grasp the magnitude of the questions from which science has to depart and leave us seeking comrades. He writes that science has shown us that “all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken”. The Darwins of this world have blown holes in religious narratives, that is undeniable, but theological arguments transcend the realm of science and lurk in those of metaphysics. These are areas in which questions of existence relate to more than that which we observe and examine. One can no more approach Thomism with the tools of science than one can a brain tumour with a pair of pliers.

Pinker grants that scientific facts “do not by themselves dictate values” but he seems to think that if they were footballers they would have taken the ball up to the goalmouth and laid it off for it to be slipped into an open net. He writes…

…in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.

I’m not sure that Pinker realises the immensity of the challenges that this humble sentence has to face. What does it even mean to “flourish”? Seriously. I’m not sure. And even if one agreed that flourishing should be our goal, which humans should be allowed to flourish, never mind which creatures? The fact that we value our own welfare is not proof that we should value that of other beings, and, indeed, our respect for the welfare of other beings can inhibit our own chances of flourishing. There is nothing in Pinker’s “unexceptionable convictions” that tells me I should not butcher a dog and take its fur if I fancy a nice new coat to stave off the Autumn winds; or, indeed, that a society should not let its oldest, weakest members die to save energy. Systems of moral thought are immensely complex and justifying them on grounds that even approximate objectivity is, well – hard. Science is not the most helpful of friends in this endeavor.

It disturbs me that people of such intelligence are so blithe about questions of meaning and goodness. It is as if they feel that they are easily answered, and if the history of science has taught us one thing it is that when humans are dangerous in presumption. For all that science has brought us, it has also delivered unprecedentedly consequential means of obliterating, toxifying, torturing and exhausting. We need other ways to think about how to respond to this.

Seems like every day a stand-up guy is shown to be corrupt. Joe Paterno, the much-loved f00tball coach at Penn State, was revealed to have made little effort to ensure that the paedophilic assaults of his colleague was exposed. Lance Armstrong, that most inspirational of sportsmen, has been found to have been at the centre of a massive doping ring. Jimmy Savile, national treasure, has been exposed as a serial child abuser.

The deeds of such men are not, of course, comparable. What unites them is the refusal of their admirers to believe that they’d been immoral. They had been observing their laudable behaviour for years and found this hard to square with the idea that they’d done wrong. Such reactions can be understood but can’t be justified. Good men can do bad things for the simple reason that they fail to apply their standards consistently. Joe Paterno never meant to do harm, for example, but was thoughtless enough not to engage his mind and heart as he seems to have done elsewhere.

People who behave with extreme immorality are also capable of doing a lot of good for others. Some might have self-interested reasons for this. Thieves and abusers, for example, often seek to establish themselves as pillars of their community as it ensures that they’re well-placed to seize objects of their desires and liable to be trusted even if word of their crimes leaks out. They needn’t be selfish in their efforts to do good, however. Vyacheslav Molotov was a devoted husband and Nikolai Yezhov was good to his adopted daughter. Such men are capable of approaching different situations with different faces and different hearts. They might have a formidable talent for compartmentalising different facets of their personality or there might be a more twisted explanation. Extraordinary benevolence, for example, might help them to rationalise their extraordinary callousness.

I suppose this raises the question of whether acts of virtue should actually make us feel suspicious. Even I’m not such a cynic. Corrupt men leave more of an impression on our consciousness than those who struggle through their lives attempting to virtuous but the latter, I fondly think, have numbers on their side. One needn’t – and, indeed, shouldn’t – assume that people are doing evil on the sly but one should be prepared to believe it if evidence cimes to light. Their potential for harm should not be at the forefront of one’s consciousness but the knowledge of it should be held in reserve. It’s not a pleasant thought but, then, such cases have shown us that the desire to see the world as being more pleasant than it is can blind one to foulness that might otherwise have been arrested.

It would be remiss of me not to clamber aboard a hobby horse and point out that the cases of Armstrong and Savile are further evidence of the potential for conspiracies to take place and be hidden. The former, especially. It’s kind of amusing to read an official US body speak of a “conspiracy…professionally designed to groom and pressure [people] to [commit wrongdoing]…evade detection [and] ensure its secrecy”. And a bit disturbing.

The physicist Lawrence Krauss was interviewed in this month’s Atlantic magazine and had some harsh words for the study of philosophy…

[It's] a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.”

Krauss later admitted that he was “being provocative, as [he] tend[s] to [be] every now and then in order to get people’s attention” and went so far as to apologise. Elsewhere in the interview, however, he’d suggested that if you’re writing for the public “the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you”. Really? Well – with this in mind it’s worth questioning his scorn.

Here’s a question I’d put to scientists who disdain philosophy: demonstrate that science is good. One might, of course, just point at light bulbs and say, “Look! Good!” This, however, is to elide goodness with wellbeing – a contentious maneuver – and doesn’t even account for areas of science that aren’t of real consequence to the general public. No, the answer this problems demands is that one concerns ethics and such scientists find such questions awkward because they can’t justify themselves with reference to empirical data alone. In a 1995 interview, Richard Dawkins admitted as much…

If I say something is wrong, like killing people, I don’t find that nearly such a defensible statement as ‘I am a distant cousin of an orang utan’.

The second of those statements is true, I can tell you why it’s true, I can bore you to death telling you why it’s true. It’s definitely true. The statement ‘killing people is wrong’, to me, is not of that character. I would be quite open to persuasion that killing people is right in some circumstances.

Why, it’s almost as if we need a discipline that involves analysing and prescribing concepts of right or wrong. We could call it “moral…”, er – “moral philosophy”!

Scientists may find themselves unable to avoid the relevance of philosophy even closer to the lab. Krauss’ latest tome, A Universe from Nothing, is an attempt to explain how “something” can be produced from “nothing” and argues that particles may have arisen from the laws of quantum theory. Dawkins greeted it by saying…

Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.

Right. Yes. Except that as Edward Feser responds, the laws of quantum theory are not “nothing”. Krauss is aware of this, of course, but if he knows this means it’s not the “nothing” theologians have been pondering he never told Dawkins. The question of how matter could be produced from the void is a fascinating one and Krauss might answer it superbly but it isn’t that question. As galling as it is for some  scientists there are problems that cannot be solved with recourse to their justly acclaimed method and philosophy is useful in approaching them. As well as refining such concepts so we don’t have to make these tedious misunderstandings.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the universe scientists detail for us seems, in many ways, a hideously bleak one. It arose, they tell us, thanks to unconscious quantum mechanisms and will linger in futile existence for millenia before breaking apart; ending the life of our bewildered, standardised species if hasn’t already expired. Whether that’s a fair account of our existential story is a matter for debate but as it’s a fair representation of the scientific view it shows why our perspective needs more than science. Some people get by without philosophies, sure – avoid worry and, to resurrect a phrase, enjoy their lives – but others of us need a more systematic defence of getting out of bed.

This is not a broad defence of what goes on within the study of philosophy. There are, perhaps, no fields of research that emit more bollocks. (And that includes creative writing.) Yet scientists do themselves no favours by acting so haughtily. Their studies have the advantage of being more evidently justifiable, yes, with a clearer path of progress, but they’re also limited in their scope: in terms of what they can achieve evidentially and offer emotionally. Whatever disciplines might claim to have monopolised the field of human inquiry, their rightful colonies will always be restricted. This is not to denigrate any of them, it’s just that they have different tools with which to harvest from different parts.

Here’s another quote from Haidt…

The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.

Much of my cerebral life – I know, I know, but it’s better than “intellectual life” – consists of challenging such motivated ignorance: my own at least as often as other peoples’. In fact, working with this image, I’d add that if you find yourself trying to consider ideas and events that are unfamiliar to you and find yourself colliding with a wall of incredulity, automatic disapproval and impulsive rationalisation you might be held captive by your own motivated ignorance and, at the risk of stretching this allegory beyond its limits, your values might be less well-founded than you’d believed.

I will say, though, that I’ve got against nothing against ignorance in certain contexts. If enjoying a happy life is central to the motivation behind one’s existence, for example, closing oneself off from the horrors of the world is necessary. There’s got to be a reason we’ve come to think this way, after all.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes for the New Yorker on, among other things, antinatalism – that is, the idea that it’s immoral to bear children. I first took an interest in the concept as it appealed to my juvenile attraction to the transgressive but it really does trouble me. That is not say that I have accepted it: I think that life, while often painful and bewildering, can also be extremely beautiful, fulfilling and, well, worth it, and while I might not have a sophisticated philosophical justification for this view it’s too important to be junked for the sake of logical rigour. The idea does pose a challenge to contemporary nonbelievers, though, and one I feel should be confronted: to establish and explain the significance of life in an unfeeling universe. “Why are we here” or, at least, “why do we stay here” is a question that’s too important to be evaded with dim “work it out for yourselves”’. (As a curious agnostic, though, it’s one that I might yet avoid.)

One thing that seems to trouble Kolbert, though, is the environmental impact of new lives. I don’t think this is an issue that need concern anyone it’s likely to concern. Overpopulation, for example, is a feature of deprived societies in Africa and America – few of which are liable to contain a lot of people who are educated or introspective enough to give this ideas the vaguest consideration. The first world societies people it might occur to dwell in are, in fact, experiencing an extraordinary decline in birth rates. English women who are considering motherhood, let alone the daughters of the e’er ageing societies of Japan or Taiwan, needn’t reach for An Essay on the Principle of Population, then. Fears that one’s spawn will contribute to climate change, peak oil and such purported threats to human life also seem unfounded. If those who are concerned about environmental matters refuse to bear children they’ll render their kind extinct! If they’re smart and conscientious enough to think like this they’re liable to bring forth and nurture smart, conscientious kids who may do things like invent helpful devices and programmes; organise campaigns; write books and generally do enough for the planet that the good they do negates the incidental harms of their consumption. (On the other hand, that’s not an argument for having kids. If a poor child was raised as a political project I suspect they’d be screwed up.)

A minor controversy has been incited by the publication of an essay in the Journal of Medical Ethics. I’m no stranger to far-out philosophies but I’ll admit its title made me wince: “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” Infanticide has won qualified support before, of course: from Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and others. Yet it’s still discomfiting to hear it stated in blunt terms…

If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.

Why is it discomfiting? For the obvious reason, sure – that the idea of killing newborn babies is repugnant to us – but I think there’s another reason: that I can’t deny they’ve got a point. Not, to be clear, that they’re right to say that killing newborns would be justified but that they aren’t wrong to suggest that if you’re okay with abortion it’s strange to find “after-birth abortion” disgusting. One could make an argument that the former and not the latter is allowable by drawing on rights theory, perhaps, but the difference between the capabilities of a foetus and a baby in the first days of its life are minimal enough that it’s hard to find grounds on which to say that one, but not the other, is of moral consequence.

Few people have acknowledged the significance of rejecting the premises of Christian ethics. For example, there has been no universal acknowledgement of the idea that postnatal humans have the right to life: the Greeks left babies out to die; the Japanese used to smother them and in some parts of Asia and Africa the practice of infanticide continues. Most citizens of the West would find the notion disgusting on the face of it but without ideas to enforce them these emotions, in time, could fade. Me? I think that killing newborns must be wrong. I don’t have rock-solid theoretical grounds on which to say so but just as I couldn’t give a thorough refutation of antinatalism yet remain convinced that life is valuable I’m not going renounce such a strong and fundamental conviction ‘til I’ve searched high and low and found nothing to sustain it. Still, ideas like Minerva and Guibilini’s should force us out from the ruins of doctrines we’ve philosophies or let crumble but remained in – like squatters in others’ weltanschauungen. If we can’t erect a firmer structure of values or, indeed, restore a well-founded design we’ve unfairly neglected we’re doomed to an moral wilderness, and subject to the murky whims of fashion and fancy.

The reporting of the paper in media outlets has meant the authors have endured a storm of abuse. Julian Savulescu defends them at Practical Ethics…

What the response to this article reveals, through the microscope of the web, is the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favour of infanticide, but the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.

I deplore threats against and abuse of the authors. The notion that ethical theory can remain an idyll of “reasoned engagement”, however, is futile. Let’s say I authored a paper titled “Inconvenient theories: why should ethicists live?” Their fear and disgust at the notion that philosophers could be eliminated for proposing bothersome ideas would, unless I’m much mistaken, preclude civil discourse. And I wouldn’t blame them! Ethics will always be tangled up with our fiercest emotions – it’s what motivates us to uphold the good and thwart the bad. (Whatever they might be.)

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