Sunday, June 11, 2017

Debate with a Utilitarian, revived again!

Sean:  Disclaimer - this was written at 3am, so coherency is not guaranteed.
Well, then, we've reached an impasse.  I hold morality to be constructed, not discovered, and only useful when applied as a strict system.  You seem to believe it to be something external to the human which our systems attempt to describe.

To which I ask again: show me an atom of justice; a molecule of mercy. 

There is no moral fabric to the universe.  This "fundamental, deeply embedded sense of right and wrong which for most people serves as the litmus test for resolving ethical questions" you describe is biochemistry.  It's emotions by another name. Human intuition evolved to help us survive in small hunter-gatherer groups in Africa, not pierce some hidden ethical truth of the universe.  Under your belief "this is wrong" and "this feels bad" are the same statement.

Debate with your system is reduced mere emotional manipulation.  Fragments of logic and cherry-picked empirical evidence are used to justify a pre-established emotion-fueled position.  This is why study after study shows people rarely change their minds when presented with new facts - facts were never the key driver in the first place.  To convince you of a position I must make you feel good about it. 

Ethical systems are frames which shape our understanding of the world.  They help sort information and direct our efforts towards a clear goal.  They allow us to escape the prison of emotional bias.

The scientific equivalent is the frame "The universe is governed by cause and effect, and all phenomena can be explained as arising from consistent laws".  All scientific theories are subservient to this system and must be consistent with its implications.  Competing systems like, say, divine intervention, are incompatible and cannot be used simultaneously to frame our thought.  I cannot believe in a causal universe but also believe Poseidon's wrath sank my boat.  Can one create an internally consistent system in which the God(s) cause all phenomena?  Of course: the enlightenment philosophy of Occasionalism holds God is the source of all causal relationships - that when I strike a billiard ball, God intervenes to impart motion to the ball.  It is absurd, however, to say "well, some events are caused by God, and some are caused by physical laws, and humans have a deep intuitive understanding of which is which."  The frames are incompatible.  There can be disagreements within a frame (quantum physics and general relativity), but those disagreements must adhere to the axioms of the frame.  And, debate between theories of two different systems is impossible - what empirical evidence can I provide to disprove Poseidon's wrath?

Or, to get more abstract, picking and choosing which parts of each ethical system is like picking and choosing bits of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry to solve single problem.  The two systems are fundamentally incompatible - they rely on different axioms.

Look, without a consistent ethical frame all we're doing is talking about our feelings.  I feel good about X, you feel bad about X, and we discuss emotions until we both have the same feelings about X.  And in a different context I'm all for that.  But it's not a debate - it's mutual emotional manipulation.  It's storytelling, and the winner is the one with the most emotionally compelling narrative.

After all, how can two umpires decide if the runner is safe if they're not using the same rulebook?  Give inspiring speeches to the crowd?  Logos, ethos, and pathos them for 10 minutes apiece?  No.  Pick a consistent rulebook and operate within its bounds.  The rulebook itself doesn't reveal any deeper meaning, and combing elements of baseball, soccer, basketball, and football doesn't produce some superior sport.  The rules do is help us define and interpret what is happening on the field.  Anything else is a variation on "Well, who do you feel should win?"

Unless you can demonstrate how morality/ethics are real.  That they are something other than a human invention to organize information in a coherent manner.

 Me:  The BLUF of my response here is “yes, all morality originates with how human beings feel – including strictly applied utilitarianism.”
You write: “I hold morality to be constructed, not discovered, and only useful when applied as a strict system.  You seem to believe it to be something external to the human which our systems attempt to describe.”

Not quite; I think it’s both internal to the human AND something our systems attempt to describe.  We agree that morality has no material existence outside the human body, but that doesn’t mean it is solely a construction of the rational brain that can be modified on a whim.   “It comes from our biochemistry” is more or less true, but this suggests a degree of permanence which our rational brains cannot really construct, and might well need to “discover” about ourselves.
I like your analogy about sports rules, so let’s continue it.  In baseball, it is against the rules to rub tar on the baseball before it’s pitched.  In wrestling, it is illegal to gouge the eyes.  These rules were constructed rationally, and may be applied strictly and objectively: either the tar was applied, or it was not.  Cameras can confirm this and no passionate speeches to the crowd are required.  BUT, the reason these rules must exist in the first place is not objective at all!  They were created based on feelings: because they reflect some innate sense of fair play and sportsmanship shared by almost everyone who plays these two sports.  And if we were to create a new sport, and set about the task of devising a set of rules that would guarantee fair play, we would again have to consult these inner feelings to determine which rules were and were not fair.
So it is with morality.  You say morality is “constructed,” not “discovered,” but the above analogy shows it’s a little of both.  The term I’d use is “logically expressed.”  Morality is articulated.  It is biochemical convictions, translated into rational rules.

You ask, “After all, how can two umpires decide if the runner is safe if they're not using the same rulebook?  Give inspiring speeches to the crowd?  Logos, ethos, and pathos them for 10 minutes apiece?  No.  Pick a consistent rulebook and operate within its bounds.”

But we have not yet arrived at the business of calling the runner safe or out; we are still at the business of writing the rule book.  Once we settle on a consistent rulebook (which we won’t agree on, but supposing we did) I’d be happy to rigidly operate within its bounds.  But there are no bounds yet, and until there are, we might well settle the matter of what the rules of our sport *ought* to be via inspiring speeches to a crowd!  How different combinations of rules would make us FEEL as human beings, and how they would jive with such amorphous human emotions as fairness and sportsmanship, would be highly germane to that discussion.
Inversely, there is no way to scientifically prove what the rules of a sport SHOULD be.  If Roger Goodell is deciding which endzone celebrations are or are not appropriate, science has no place in that discussion – irrespective of its ability to technically describe the mechanics which cause spiked footballs to bounce.  Yes, those mechanics are objectively true; and yes, no opinion on what endzone celebrations are/are not acceptable can claim such demonstrable truth.  But it doesn’t matter.  Physics still misses the bigger picture entirely.
You lament that “under your belief ‘this is wrong’ and ‘this feels bad’ are the same statement.” This is true to an extent, but only for the most fundamental moral precepts, which are then the building blocks from which we can rationally construct more complex philosophical systems.  Like the rules of baseball, morality is rooted in shared feelings, but not adjudicated by emotion. Emotions are complex, and we often mischaracterize just what it is exactly that makes us feel a certain way.  Consequently, our moral feelings warrant rational scrutiny, especially when it comes to testy subjects.
For example, sweatshops make people feel badly: we can tell something immoral is going on when we see people trapped in them.  But in my opinion, when you ask enough questions, and drill it down to the core thing which people find so offensive about them, what we’re really objecting to is poverty, suffering, hardship, etc.  We are outraged not by the offer of strenuous employment itself, but by the circumstances which make it possible: that anyone on earth can live in such squalor as to deem those dismal working conditions their best option.  Rectifying that moral outrage can only be achieved by improving the quality of life for those poor workers, not by banning sweatshop labor outright.  Our feelings about how to apply moral codes in practice are more fickle and alterable than the universal intuitions I’m relying on to build the foundation.
That said, I grant that universal human feelings are foundational to my moral system.  They are also, most assuredly and without question, foundational to your system. That’s what morality is.  You’re fooling yourself to think otherwise.
You challenged me to show you an atom of justice; I can’t.  My challenge to you is this: show me an objective moral starting point.  Show me an ethical frame which is not, at its root belief, dependent on a feeling.
Which moral fact is empirically demonstrable in the same way gravity or friction are demonstrable?  “Utility is good?” “Death is bad?” “Happiness is good?” “We ought to minimize suffering?” “We ought to maximize human flourishing?” Pick your poison, and I will just keep asking “why?” until eventually you resort to emotional appeal.  The mass extinction of the human species would bring the universe no tears.  It would violate no scientific laws. It’s only bad because you feel it’s bad.
Maybe there’s a provable moral truth out there I haven’t considered, and if so I’d be fascinated to hear it.  But if you cannot think of one either, how can you pontificate that YOUR sort ethical systems “allow us to escape the prison of emotional bias?”  No they don’t!  They may well “organize human action towards a clear goal,” but that goal is chosen based on how it makes somebody feel.  You are no less driven by emotion than I am.
The sentence “this is right” and “this is wrong” are inherently subjective.  They defy empiricism by definition.  We can debate morality logically within the context of a given prompt, but only after certain shared starting points or tenets are established (each of which are necessarily based on value judgments).
This does not make philosophy base.  It does not reduce it to a lower, less dignified source of knowledge than science or math.  It does not reduce all philosophical dispute to “emotional manipulation” or “storytelling,” nor render it impossible for us to change our minds about moral questions.  You patronize all of biochemsitry as “emotions by another name.”  Emotions are certainly biochemistry – but so is logic!  So is the sum of all human thought. Everything we’ve written here is the product of human brain cells doing their thing.  Embrace it!

Your moral starting points are no less rooted in feeling/emotion than mine, so let’s get on with the necessary task of devising systems of rules for human conduct that best represent those core feelings we share.  I’ve laid out the rules I prefer: my three criteria for when actions which fundamentally strike most people as wrong in the abstract may be justified by circumstance.  They are internally consistent.  To be sure, they are open for different interpretations in application; but, so are yours, and so are the rules of many sports for that matter.  I am still proposing “a consistent ethical frame” and I’ve spelled it out quite clearly, it’s just not one of the two options you’ve pidgeon-holed me into.

Or, if you’re tired of going in circles on this, I’ll become consequentialist for a week and we can move on with the discussion.

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