Saturday, July 21, 2007

Why Worry about Morality?

I was thinking about taking the day off, when olvlzl provided me with this comment:

One thing I am absolutely certain of, if someone lives in a situation, a country, region, etc. where their basic rights are violated up to and including the right to life all of this analysis would not only not be necessary, it would be rejected as absurd…. Reality is real.

It is a comment that precisely fit my mood at the time.

It is also true that a corpse has no need of the science of medicine. All of this effort that goes into keeping people alive is of no value to one who had already died. Yet, it does not follow from this that medicine is of no value. Similarly, all of the work done in the realm of fire prevention – building codes, materials research, smoke detectors, and fire departments – are irrelevant to the person walking through the ashes of what was once her home. Yet, this does not imply that these studies are worthless.

We can think of morality as a type of ‘wrongdoing prevention’, in the same way that much of medicine deals with ‘disease prevention’ and building codes, materials research, smoke detectors, and fire departments as elements of ‘fire prevention’. It is quite true that these institutions have failed whenever we find evil, disease, or fires. Yet, it is still the case that evil prevention, disease prevention, and fire prevention are good ideas.

Evil prevention takes the form of using social tools to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. To the degree that we are successful, then to that degree we have created a society in which actions are motivated by a desire for things that tend to benefit others and an aversion to that which causes harm to others.

If you raise a group of people with an aversion to responding to words with violence – even the violence of law – then you will not need to live in fear of what will happen if you should state an opinion that is unpopular. You can, for example, write a blog in which you are heavily critical of the President of the United States and his administration, knowing that the society-wide aversion to responding to words with violence will keep you safe.

If you are raised among a group of people who have an aversion to slavery – who are repulsed by the idea of slavery in the same way that one might be repulsed by the idea of drinking urine, then you can rest assured that you can live your life without becoming a slave.

This is where all of this analysis acquires its necessity.

If we raise a generation with an attitude of indifference towards the violence that one person may do to another when that violence is justified by appeal to a religion, then we create a society where people need to worry about becoming victims of religious violence. If we want our children or grand children to be free of those particular fears, we do so by teaching an aversion to violence even when the agent appeals to religion to justify it.

On this subject, I hasten to remind my readers that the religious fundamentalist who flies a passenger jet into a sky scraper is an impotent little gnat compared to the religious fundamentalist who flies legislation into people’s life. Those who pass legislation against stem-cell research, early abortion, homosexuality, who promote ignorance in our school system and raise children on a diet of distinguishing “we – patriotic Americans” from “they – un-American” on the basis of ‘trust in God’ or being ‘under God’ – do far more violence to their neighbors than suicide bombers.

All of this analysis tells us that if we want our children and grandchildren to grow up surrounded by less religion-based violence than we do, then we must replace the current attitude of ‘acceptance’ of violence (including the violence of legislation) when backed by religious beliefs, to an active ‘aversion’ to those who appeal to religion to justify harms done to their neighbors.

A significant failures of the current generation towards those that will follow us come from the large numbers of us who are teaching our children an indifference towards warrantless government spying, extraordinary rendition, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, habeas corpus, cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners, wars of aggression, government secrecy and deceptive manipulation, destroying the system of checks and balances in the federal government. We have had a chance to teach an aversion to these things to the next generation. Yet, with our own indifference, we teach then to shrug off these concerns and go back to whatever form of entertainment is on their ipod.

As a result, we can expect a future in which governments will be far more likely to inflict these pains on citizens and non-citizens alike. We are creating a future society in which our children and their children will more likely be victims of these ills, since we are creating a generation that passively accepts those who inflict these ills on others.

I am not talking merely within national borders when I make this statement. Bush’s support of such things as arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, abuse of prisoners, repeal of habeas corpus, warrantless wiretaps, and unchecked executive power will serve as precedent around the world. Bush has effectively given every political leader around the world permission to do all of the things he has been caught doing. They will maintain that permission unless or until we take steps to deny that permission.

However, I do not see those steps being taken. Even the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate is not taking action against these abuses. I worry that it is because the Democratic political leaders are wringing their hands thinking to themselves, “Imagine what I can do when I become president with all of these powers at my disposal.”

Refusing to inoculate future societies from these diseases is like refusing to inoculate one’s children from disease. It is equally irresponsible, because sick societies have done as much if not more harm to people than bacteria and viruses.

At this point, I will quickly add the principle that I have defended before. That unless we want society to descend into a chaos like we find today in Baghdad, that one of the principles we need to promote is the principle that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign, and that good people have and promote an aversion to responding to these things with violence.

It means getting angry, letting that anger be known, letting those who contribute to these problems know what type of people they are, and always asking oneself who and what one will support with their words and private actions.

As a weapon of evil prevention, these points are far from unnecessary and absurd.


Calvin said...

You're absolutely correct that cultivating aversions to destructive tendencies is a vital investment if we want to enjoy freedom from those tendencies. But is reaping pragmatic future rewards the extent of society's interest in morality? Or is there another component?

Let's say you have someone with total indifference to the fulfillment of others' desires. Let's say that he only regards others' desires to the extent that he's directly rewarded in some way. As for his indifference's detrimental effect on society, he's willing to take some near-future inconvenience, and he's confident the more serious deterioration that would be problematic to him won't go into effect until after he's dead.

What does morality say to/about such a man? Why should he care about the betterment of the world around him?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

You will find a great deal of the answer to your question in a post I wrote called, The Hateful Craig Problem.

Calvin said...

Thanks; I'll check it out.

Calvin said...

So in effect, then, desire utilitarianism is simply an explanation of human nature, rather than a system of morality.

That said, would you say any person has an obligation to do good, and not do evil, contrary to his desires? And if so, how is our definition more valid than his?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well, I hold that desire utilitarianism (or any moral theory) must be consistent with the descriptive facts of human nature. Anything that stands in violation of real-world facts, and in particular anything that obligates a person to act in ways that violate the laws of nature, has no merit.

So, desire utilitarianism is a system of morality that is intimately tied to an explanation of . . .

Well, 'human nature' does not actually work here. It is consistent with the facts about intentional action, but intentional action is not a distinctly human phenomena.

Now, I deny the implied exclusive 'or' in your question, that desire utilitarianism must be either a set of descriptive facts or a system of morality. Here, I hold that desire utilitarianism is a set of descriptive facts AND a system of morality.

Some would argue that this violates certain 'is/ought' distinctions and commits 'naturalistic fallacies'. Yet, I argue that an 'is/ought' distinction requires a highly implisible assumption of dualism, and the 'naturalistic fallacy' is built on an invalid assumption - a logical fallacy of its own called the Masked Man Fallacy. So, neither of these objections have any merit.

To say that a person has an obligation to do X (where X is good) is to say that people generally have reason to promote those desires that will cause people to do X, using its social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If the latter is true, the former is true.

However, when it comes to definitions, no definition is 'more valid' than any other definition. Look at what the astronomers have done with the definition of 'planet'. Imagine one astronomer asking another astronomer, 'What makes your definition of planet more valid than any other?'

The concept of a valid definition actually makes no sense.

Yet, this does not imply that all of astronomy is subjective, or that astronomers must somehow come up with some sort argument to show that their definition of 'planet' is the one right and true definition.

Understanding how astronomy can be an objective science even though all of its definitions are quite arbitrary and subjective goes a long way to understanding how morality can be objective even though its definitions are arbitrary and subjective.

Calvin said...

To be honest, in this answer I only see semantic quibbles that are really unrelated to my question. So I’ll try again.

“To say that a person has an obligation to do X (where X is good) is to say that people generally have reason to promote those desires that will cause people to do X, using its social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If the latter is true, the former is true.”

The former & latter are compatible, yes, but they’re not synonymous. If I conclude that I want to promote X, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Person B is objectively wrong to refuse to do X.

I’m just looking for a clarification: does desire utilitarianism hold that somebody is objectively right or wrong to do or not do any given action, irrespective of the material effects to him personally?