Comments on “Finding Our Sea-Legs”

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mtraven 2010-02-21

Hi David, I found Will Buckingham’s blog thanks to your citing of mine there. I like it a lot, so thanks.

I find myself dealing with the problem of a lack of foundations for ethics by being obsessed with the most obvious examples of evil, such as the Nazi regime or our own government’s efforts in torture. I can’t say this provides any sort of rigorous foundation but it at least helps calibrate my judgement. We may not know what is ethical, but at least we have very good models for what isn’t. But such techniques don’t exactly lead to the light heart of a Bodhisattva.

Did you know that Gary Drescher wrote a book that includes, among other things, a strictly mechanistic derivation of ethics? I wrote some reactions to it on my blog.

Ethics, eternalism, and nihilism

David Chapman 2010-02-21

Hi, mtraven,

Great to see you here. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, which has consistently interesting material on all sorts of topics; I plan to start commenting on it occasionally.

I don’t think we need a foundation for ethics to say that genocide or torture is wrong. There are two things a foundation would give us. One is that we could be personally certain; we would not have to ask “might I be mistaken?”. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t give us that luxury. I regularly give money to Amnesty International, particularly because of their work on torture. However, I am not absolutely certain that there aren’t some cases in which torture would be justified. That’s uncomfortable; but life just is uncomfortable. (That’s called “The First Noble Truth” in Buddhism.) The second use of a foundation would be to smack wrong-headed people with. We have the fantasy that if somehow we could get a completely indisputable proof, we could take it to the bad guys and make them stop. But there aren’t any indisputable proofs (outside mathematics). And even if there were one, the bad guys probably wouldn’t care.

It seems to me that there are two forms of meta-ethical confusion that we keep falling into. One is the fantasy of foundations, certainty, or absolute rules. (“Thou shalt never torture”.) The other is the fear that ethics are completely meaningless or relative or totally subjective or impossible to discuss rationally. (“Different cultures have different standards; China’s supposed ‘human-rights violations’ are perfectly legitimate in terms of their values, and Western objections are just cultural imperialism.”) These two confusions relate closely to “eternalism” and “nihilism” in Buddhist philosophy.

Once we clearly recognize that both of these positions are untenable extremes, we are in the uncomfortable middle. This is so uncomfortable that very few thinkers have tackled the problem seriously, as far as I have been able to find. Will Buckingham’s book is one fine example. I’d also recommend offhand Robert Ellis’s work, and this essay by Namit Arora. Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics Of Ambiguity<img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> is worth a look, although it seems to me to fall into the usual existentialist errors concerning “authenticity”.

It seems to me that the alternative to ethical eternalism and nihilism is a kind of pragmatism. I might say even that an engineering attitude is called for, rather than a philosophical one. The useful work of ethics is finding solutions that work in practice, not elegant theories. (This is “pragmatism” in an everyday sense; the danger in using that word in an ethical context is that it could be reified into an eternalistic theory, which would presumably be utilitarian. I take it that utilitarianism is mistaken as a general theory.)

I’ve been working for years on a book on eternalism and nihilism, which I’m planning to turn into a web site sometime later this year. I expect to write quite a lot more about non-eternalist non-nihilist ethics there.

Thank you very much for the pointer to Gary Drescher’s book. I remember he was working on this twenty years ago. I’m very glad to see that it has now been published (by MIT Press, no less). Gary is brilliant and I’m personally very fond of him. I lived with him for a year once, and he was one of the kindest, most decent people I’ve ever met.

That said, I never found his ethical theory plausible. It depends on non-standard interpretations of quantum mechanics, causality, induction, and other philosophically fraught subjects. It seems to depend on the conjunction of these interpretations, so that if any step in the argument were mistaken, the whole thing would fall apart. And, even if everything in it were right as an abstract theory, it doesn’t seem that it would give practical guidance in cases of everyday ethical uncertainty. (Note, though, that I haven’t read his book, and this paragraph is based on my understanding of his thinking twenty years ago. Presumably it has developed in various ways.)


Ethics is messy

mtraven 2010-02-22

I don’t actually spend a lot of time worrying about the lack of foundations to ethics. It’s never seemed that important to me – right action is determined by a combination of biologically innate instincts and social rules, and that’s just the way things are. Human rights are whatever we say they are, where “we” is humanity and our political institutions. I don’t think I’ve ever expected there to be more to it than that. Maybe I’ve always been a pragmatist.

One side-effect of this view is that morality is inextricably coupled to politics. That can be messy and nasty, but I don’t think it can be helped.

On the other hand, some ethical meta-rules have an algebraic quality to them that makes it seem like they could be baked into the structure of the universe – like the golden rule or the categorical imperative. But reducing them to practice is always going to be a conditional, localized, and messy process.

The references you mentioned sound interesting, thanks! I’ve also got Marc Hauser’s book on my list of morality stuff – he has some notion of a vaguely Chomskyan moral grammar.

I mostly agree with you about Gary’s book, although it’s so closely argued I feel like I’d need to read it through another couple of times to make sure, and who has the time? As I said on my blog somewhere, it seems to provide a god’s-eye view of reality – useful if you are a god, perhaps, but not very practical for us embedded creatures.

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