Friday, June 26, 2009

To Inspire and Convince

What do you want from a moral theory?

A member of the studio wrote to say:

I would want it to inspire me, to convince me to change my ways. I want it to go towards guiding my life . . . . That’s why we study moral theories, to become better people, to do better.

The inspire and convince standard of moral theories strikes me as being somewhat problematic.

If we look at the things in human history that have had the power to ‘inspire and convince’, they have not had a particularly stellar track records.

The 9/11 hijackers were inspired and convinced. So were a great many followers of Hitler. Stalin did an excellent job of inspiring and convincing people and religious wars in Europe at one time inspired and convinced people to lock up whole villages of people in the town church and set it on fire.

Many of the proponents of Proposition 8 in California acted on a deep sense of inspiration and were convinced beyond all possible doubt that they were the 'better people' and were 'doing better'. It is also true of the members of Operation Rescue and those who are trying intently to get intelligent design taught as a scientific theory. These people are as inspired and convinced as it is possible for person to become.

I am not saying that people who seek to be inspired and convinced in this sense are necessarily going to take part in these types of atrocities. What I am saying that the capacity of an idea to inspire and convince people is not a reliable measure of its quality. The search for something to inspire and convince us is not necessarily the same as the search for something to help us actually become better people and to do better.

Not only is it the case that people seeking to be inspired and convinced often get caught up in movements that perform the most horrendous evils, many well-supported truths lack the capacity to inspire and convince.

Look at the huge numbers of people who are exposed to the theory of evolution, and yet fail to be inspired and convinced by it. In fact, they are more strongly inspired by and convinced of ideas that deny evolution than they are by evolution itself. Clearly, the value of the theory of evolution is not be found in its capacity to inspire and convince. It is found in its ability to predict and explain.

When I went looking for a moral theory, I did not take that journey with an eye to measuring theories according to a desire to be inspired and convinced. I went looking for a theory that followed the basic principles of reason.

I went looking for a theory without exotic entities. Whenever a theory started talking about God, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, a natural moral law, social contracts, impartial observers, decision-makers behind a veil of ignorance, my first question was, "Is it real?" If the answer was, "No," then my next move was, "Throw it out."

This got me into trouble when I ran into the so-called is-ought distinction; the idea that there are two realms of being, an is realm and an ought realm, that are independent of each other with the power to interact. If this is what ought requires then I am ready to toss it out as well. I will stick solely with what is.

Yet, even doing this, the phenomenon of pain, the desire for sex and to eat, an interest in having a room at a comfortable temperature, my interest in my wife’s happiness and my desire to say or do something that will make the world better than it would have been if I had not existed – all of those things clearly exist in the world of is.

There is no sense to the idea that we would have none of those things unless a separate realm of ought exists to infuse the world of is with value. Things have value because of the way the world is, or they have no value at all.

None of these goods requires a search for that which has the capacity to inspire and convince. We could speak in a sense, I suppose, of the power of fire to inspire and convince me to keep my hands out of a hot flame. Of course, this happens in the same way that a sight of a homosexual couple might inspire and convince somebody to contribute great amounts of effort to a Constitutional amendment to allow gay marriage.

The only thing that has the power to inspire and convince us in this sense are things that we personally like and dislike. Which is why the standard of inspire and convince so often ends up inspiring and convincing people to do horrendous evil.

Ultimately, this is what the inspire and convince crowd is looking for. They wish to discover a set of ideas that tickle the pleasure centers of the brain in the right way – something that, like a narcotic, makes them feel good.

Unfortunately, one of the things that tends to make humans feel good is membership in a tribe or a gang who adopts the attitude, "We are the only people who truly matter – and all others are beneath us." This is a message with a huge capacity to inspire and convince - with a historic track record of inspiring and convincing people to do horrendous things to those deemed beneath us.

This explains why the standard of inspire and convince has been associated with so much evil in the past, predicts that it will put us at risk of so much evil in the future, and gives us practical-ought reason to promote an aversion to this particular standard.


Martin Freedman said...

Excellent Post!

I am glad that Yair came here to carry on the debate with you. Apart from him defining morality as subjective which is, of course, question begging, this still leads, in his case - compared to other subjectivists - to some interesting, if misplaced challenges to DU.

These are certainly inspiring some great ripostes by you. Whether these will convince him or not....

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 6/27/2009, at The Unreligious Right

יאיר רזק said...

You are creating a false dichotomy.

The theory of evolution by natural selection had, of course, both inspired and convinced scientists. To say otherwise is folly.

Of course the theory has to be rational, true, and so on. But in addition it needs to actually convince and inspire to take certain actions, explicitly. I gave a criteria to identify a moral theory (especially in contrast with a theory on social dynamics), not an exhaustive definition of a moral theory.

You yourself are clearly convinced and inspired by your theory to make these posts. Why deny this to others? Why deny that this is a defining aspect of a moral theory?

P.S, I share your ontology, and your aversion to the permissive ones. I can sign on to most of what you just said - just not to the part implying that moral theories should be unconvincing, or should not inspire any action.

Richard of Norway said...

Um.. Isn't the comment above mine cleverly disguised SPAM???

Great article. Thanks as always!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Richard of Norway:

You were correct. The comment that was formerly above yours has now been removed.

Eneasz said...

Hello! (Yair?)
Of course the theory has to be rational, true, and so on. But in addition it needs to actually convince and inspire to take certain actions, explicitly.

I find myself at a loss. It sounds like you are asking for something that only you can deliver. No one can make you feel inspired by what is. I am reminded of my (christian) exwife, who commented during a beautiful thunderstorm that "you think all this made itself", implying that she saw a wonder and majesty that I could not appreciate.

I believe the truth to be the opposite. When you understand the natural forces at work, the interplay of particles and properties, the way reality is shaped, it fills you with MORE wonder and awe than those who don't know of such things can grasp. It is more beautiful than anything a human storyteller can dream up, and more complicated than any single mind can contain. This is why the truth is so inspiring - because the truth is always much more breath-taking than the stories we can make up.

You seem to be un-inspired by the reality around you, a small portion of which is described by DU. It reminds me of Eliezer's post where he said:

If we cannot take joy in things that are merely real, our lives will always be empty.