Category: ethics

Is it possible to act selflessly?

The following is my attempt to answer a question posed to me recently.

When I look at the question, it seems to focus on the individual. So, I think the easiest way to begin this, is to start with the self. Since I’m no Derek Parfit or Bernard Williams, and the question seems to be focusing on moral sentiment and moral choice, I’m going to reduce the ‘self’ to just that part we always end up talking about, when we talk about choice: The Will. Lacking a more sophisticated understanding of consciousness, I’m going to cobble together a rudimentary theory of the conscious self from Schopenhauer (Freedom of The Will), Dennett (Freedom Evolves, Consciousness Explained), and Peter Ulric Tse (The Neural Basis of Free Will).

Schopenhauer’s basic sketch of the conscious self, while not scientifically accurate anymore, is vague and general enough not to conflict with the a simple “modular” or “functional” understanding of the mind (one theory currently being batted around in science these days). So, I’m going to take his model as read, with some technical embellishments: The conscious, motivated, active self is (for our purposes), a neurochemical process of the brain that gives rise to a sensual consciousness (awareness of the outside world), a self-consciousness (awareness of our desires and intentions), and a ‘will’ embedded within that self-consciousness, from which all intentions to act originate, and upon which all chosen intentions are acted by that self. 

Free will seems essential to this question. Schopenhauer, of course, argued against such a thing. But I don’t think his argument is conclusive. In short, if we’re looking backward in time, causal explanation chains are not necessarily evidence of causal necessity looking into the future (see Hume, on Induction). Further, it has been shown that sub-atomic indeterminacy can play a role in the way neurons function (see Tse, and Dennett). Thus, it seems there is room to suppose at a minimum, that absolute determinism is not a certainty (and, at best, that there is some sort of freedom of the underlying will that does not necessarily violate physical causation). Thus, I think we can tentatively accept the idea of an underlying will that is at least possibly free. 

But even if all that is wrong, Schopenhauer still gives us a get-out-of-jail-free card, for the purposes of the class. He defines a conventional notion of freedom at the beginning of his essay that he calls “negative” freedom; meaning, in a phrase, “I am free to do as I will” (regardless of whether the will itself is free). In short, I am unimpeded or uninhibited in the choices available to me, in the basic physical sense. Since this conception of freedom is enough to get us to the point where we have to start making choices, and value judgments about our choices, I think this might be an acceptable “plan B” for answering this question.

So, we have a conscious self that is free to choose to act or not, on the intentions presented to it by it’s will. The next question would be (restating the original question a bit) is it possible for this self to act ‘selflessly’? Here, I think we have a straightforward answer, in both the metaphysical and logical sense:

  1. The will is contained within the consciousness that corresponds to it’s identified self.
  2. The will cannot present intentions to any other self, than the one to which it corresponds.
  3. The self cannot act upon intentions not presented to it by its own will (I will expound on this point, below).
  4. Therefore, it is not possible to act selflessly. 

On premise three: Here, it might be tempting to ask, “but what about other people’s stated intentions? Can’t we act on those?”. To this, I would appeal to Schopenhauer’s conception of consciousness. If some friend is making an appeal to me (to act in some way), he would be presenting my sensual consciousness with a motive. The sensual consciousness would pass that motive to the self-consciousness, and the self-consciousness would report back the intentional desire to act from the will. At this point, I could choose to act on the impulse and respond positively, or I could deny the impulse and respond negatively to my friend. Even if I respond positively, I am still fundamentally acting from the self, because it is my will that gave rise to the impulse to act. This means (at least logically) that I could not possibly be acting selflessly. Therefore, all acts are selfish acts.

But this whole discourse from the raw metaphysical possibility seems a bit impoverished. Perhaps we mean to ask, “Is it possible to act purely from altruistic motives”? Or perhaps, “Is acting altruistically also acting selfishly”? These are much more difficult questions, I think. Mostly, because they’re intensely psychological. For the first question, I’d lean on my Schopenhauer again, and say yes it is possible to act from an ‘altruistic’ motive, because though we characterize the motive as “altruistic”, it is still fundamentally a motive experienced and intention exhibited by a self, thus it is necessarily (by definition?) acting ’selfishly’. 

The second question is more interesting, and more perplexing. It’s essentially asking how motives interact in the mind. Perhaps even, what are the basic nature of these two motives (altruism and selfishness). If these two are not mutually exclusive, what happens when they “mix” in the mind? Is it an additive mixture, or a subtractive one? However, if they are exclusive, what calculus is taking place to privilege one over the other? What circumstances or other motives might have an effect on that calculation? Is the mixture or calculus something we can reduce to a principle? If so, would that function as a moral fundamental (even if not THE moral fundamental)?

Arguing from the psychological, I would speculate that a kernel of selfish motive lies at the core of all actions, even those dominated by selfless motives. Logically speaking, this would still be an affirmative answer to your question (Yes, it is possible to act selflessly). However, perplexingly, I could also say, ‘no it’s not possible, because that kernel of selfishness is present’ — and both answers would be true, because both motives are present in my mind at the same time. But perhaps my speculation is incorrect? Perhaps only one motive can be present at a time? Somehow, I doubt that…

That’s what’s interesting about the psychological question. It’s not quite a paradox, because it’s not actually a binary. It’s like drops of black paint in a bucket of white paint. If there is a kernel of selfishness at the core of all my selfless acts, does it “pollute” my altruism? Am I being dishonest somehow if I don’t acknowledge it? Does my worry about being dishonest betray some “turtles all the way down” higher authority that I want to appeal to? Or is this more like microprocessor voltages (below 5volts of selfishness = altruism; above 5volts of selfishness = selfishness)? 

We might want to say this is where value judgments can help us out. Well, they may help us to clarify which of the two motives would dominate our intentions in some specific instance, but I’m not sure how that could get us to a universal principle (viz. Altruism Is Good, or Selfishness Is Good or Altruism is Bad or Selfishness is Bad). 

Mill, Kant, Preference and Universality

If you look closely at Mill’s arguments in Utilitarianism, he seems to be making a very strong response to Kant (perhaps against the Groundwork?). Mill accepts the notion of moral duty, just as Kant does. But he insists it derives not from any form of analytic (i.e., Kant’s notion of synthetic a priori) truth. Rather, Mill insists it derives from the apparently universal desire of mankind (individually, in aggregate) to seek its own pleasure. Aware of some of the contextual implications of this principle, Mill attacks head-on the charge of Epicureanism. But what strikes me as interesting, is the fact that, though he makes frequent reference to Kant, he never directly refutes Kant’s position, and never fully explains how the pleasure principle isn’t obviously and soundly refuted already by Kant’s explication of deontology (in the Groundwork). Mill just seems to ignore the problem of subjectivity in the hypothetical imperative, as described by Kant. Perhaps Mill is assuming that the apparently universal preference for pleasure somehow renders the hypothetical imperative a moot point? (i.e., since everyone prefers pleasure, it’s pointless to bother thinking in terms like, ‘if you seek pleasure, then you should do x’).

This idea of a universal preference is an intriguing one. Mill makes frequent appeals to preference – both implicit and explicit. What if we could actually identify a preference that is indeed universal to all human beings? I’m struggling, frankly, to think of one. Even something as intuitively obvious as “life” isn’t so obvious, when you consider the willingness of soldiers to throw themselves over the trenches, or the high rate of suicide among men in the west, today. Clearly, those folk do not have a preference for living. If something like life itself can’t be ascribed as a preference to all human beings, why should pleasure?

On the other hand, biology is notoriously fuzzy at the edges. Sometimes a horse is born with 5 legs. Is it no longer a horse? Sometimes humans are born with 3 x chromosomes, instead of an xy pair. Does that mean there’s no such thing as mammalian sexes? If we can accept these sorts of vaguenesses in distinction, then perhaps a “universal preference” could also be accepted as something slightly less than universal?

Perhaps, but when we start ascribing moral significance to such a thing as a preference, the game changes a bit. Because what are we really saying, when we say we can judge a behaviour as “right” or “wrong”? When I say something is or isn’t a preference of mine, nothing follows. I just go about my business, and you, yours. But when I take a preference of mine as a standard to judge you ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I am implying a great deal more. It implies that, at the very least, I am licensed to condemn you for not sharing the preference — and at the most extreme end, that I am licensed to kill you.

But what if the standard isn’t some particular material preference (such as ice cream favors, or even living), but rather, for behavioral reciprocity? Now, if I have a preference for vanilla, and you have a preference for chocolate, but we both share (for example) a preference for not attacking people with differing preferences, then we might be able to negotiate a peaceful existence together. What’s more, we’d then be justified in self-defense against someone who didn’t share that meta-preference.

Perhaps this is what Mill was thinking when he suggested we all ought to regard each other equally, in the decisions we make? More thought must be done on this one…

Bernard Williams, Moral Dilemmas, and Utilitarianism

It would be amazing if ethics courses would stop trying to put me into some kind of Antonio Banderas / Heath Ledger fantasy nightmare, and actually start teaching me how to work on real problems in the real world. Everyone talks of trying to do "applied" ethics, and trying to remove all the 'abstractions' and deal 'directly' with our moral intuitions. But these scenarios just seem to me to be driving us further and further away from that goal

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ISP Launch Event: Three Talks On Three Philosophers

This weekend I attended the launch event for the International School of Philosophy here in London. Three Talks on Three Philosophers was intended to showcase the kind of thought one could expect from the new school, as well as provide an opportunity for philosophical learning to the local community (greater Islington, mainly). Sam Freemantle, the founder of the new independent school, provided the first of the three lectures, in the form of an overview of his Phd thesis, “Reconstructing Rawls”. Following Sam, Adrian Brockless offered a passionate argument for a more thoughtful kind of education grounded in Socratic questioning. Lastly, Professor Ken Gemes of the University of London treated us with an extended version of his talk on Nietzsche’s Death of God.

Serendipitously, I also listened this weekend to a new reading of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (a book I read years ago). I say “serendipitously”, because it turns out to be a powerful lens through which to interpret the messages coming out of Saturday’s lectures. In particular, the lectures of Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless, which were laden with themes that could easily have been attributed to Bloom. The erosion of truth and goodness as absolute values (both in society and in the academy), the corruption of the academy to purposes other than the pursuit of the good life, the need for a renewal of these core values, the seemingly intractable challenge of re-establishing them in an educational environment so democratized and demoralized that even the hint of such an effort will raise accusations of elitism. All of these were core concerns of Allan Bloom, and his voice was clearly resonating in the words of both Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless. Though, I suspect neither of them would agree.

For Professor Gemes the worry is societal, and spans generations. He began his talk with the story of the madman from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which illustrates the central problem for Nietzsche, as Gemes sees it: absent the catalyzing mythology of christianity, why would we continue to cling to it’s core values of truth and goodness? Given that the values of honor and glory held by civilization before Christianity seem more seductive, why wouldn’t we return to these, and abandon truth and goodness, in the absence of a dogma that focused us on them? According to Professor Gemes, Nietzsche believed we were clinging to truth as a value, by way of some sort of “hangover” from Christianity, and he wanted to know why. I think Nietzsche may have been disadvantaged by his proximity to the downfall of Christianity in the west. Over a century on now, in the “post-truth” era, it appears we have indeed begun to abandon truth and goodness as ultimate values, and have indeed begun replacing them with honor and glory once again.

Nowhere is this shift more clearly and startlingly present, than in the academy. Mr. Brockless highlighted this inadvertently, I believe, in his lecture. Using the Socrates of Gorgias and The Republic as a mentor, Brockless crisply argued for a conception of higher education that differentiates itself from the contemporary academy, by focusing on the pursuit of truth through “authentic” learning that exposes students to “meaning and understanding of the human condition”, rather than on the career advancement goals and academic advantages of its students. This plea explicitly demands that truth be reseated in our minds as an absolute value, pursued for its own sake. Although Mr. Brockless’ lecture came before Professor Gemes, his is a direct response to Nietzsche, in the form of a resounding and explicit affirmation of truth and goodness, above honor and glory, at least as far as the academy is concerned. To that end, Brockless counseled a return to the ancient classics, and glowed with a reverence for the Socratic dialogues themselves, even recommending them as a starting point for students.

Interestingly, a popular new voice has also converged on this question. I’ve recently seen a lecture by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, in which he suggests that a “new schism” ought to take place in the modern university, involving the realignment of ultimate values. In his view, these divergent ultimate values are “truth” versus “justice” (actually, “social justice”, which he contends is unjust at times). But rather than pressing for the conquest of truth over social justice, Haidt advocates for an amicable divorce. Haidt centers his lecture on a vision of education very similar to Brockless, in which universities that adopt truth as a core value dedicate themselves firmly to free expression, and open dialogue and debate in which no idea is off the table. In other words, the Socratic tradition. The same tradition Brockless described during the question and answer period of his lecture.

Allan Bloom’s book was a vanguard in this discussion, I think. Some might suggest that perhaps there really is no problem, and this is all just varying degrees of predictable conservatism occasionally surfacing above the white noise. After all, these sorts of complaints have been around for almost 50 years, and yet the generations leaving university then and now don’t seem to be too much different from each other. But are they really so much the same? Bloom (and proteges like E. D. Hirsch) would point to the degradation of “dead white males” in the academy, and their gradual replacement with relativist and anti-absolutist dogmas (in addition to the impulse toward radical activism) — and the pervasive cultural ignorance and growing hostility to truth of new students — as certain indicators. I’m not sure that Haidt, Brockless, or even Gemes would necessarily agree with that. But one thing that all of these voices seem to agree on, regardless of the reasons grounding it, is the loss of truth and goodness as guiding star values in our overall culture, and most profoundly, in the academy.

The question is what, if anything, should we do about it? Brockless and Haidt have slightly divergent opinions on this. One suggests lobbying to reestablish the traditional mission of all higher education, the other recommends a more “free market” answer (if I can call it that), by bifurcating the institution into two competing organizations, one focused on truth, the other on justice. Neither of these speakers’ solutions are entirely satisfying to me. I think this problem is bigger than all of us, and may be inevitable. I wonder if Nietzsche thought so, too.

The Ought In The Machine

Our moral consciousness is at the epicenter of our sense of free will, the core of our emotional experiences, the bedrock of our individual identities, the binding chords of our relationships and social structures, and the frameworks of our political systems. Moral _psychology_ is not enough. _Evolutionary_ morality is not enough. What we need is _moral philosophy_, now more than ever.

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A Critique Of The US Declaration Of Independence

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What are these “powers of the earth”, and how was this “separate and equal station” discovered among and between men, and how do we know this entitlement was derived from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”? According to Jefferson and his collaborators, these questions need not be answered. They are axiomatic. They “hold these truths to be self-evident”. Specifically, in Jefferson’s view, for anyone who takes a moment consider the truth, it should be obvious to their common sense, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Despite it’s fame, and although it is masterful prose, the Declaration of Independence is not a particularly groundbreaking piece of writing. In practice, it was simply a polemical indictment of George III, and an open declaration of war against Britain. What the Declaration is not, is a philosophical treatise. Jefferson takes his “self-evident truths” as an ex post facto rationale, but he does nothing within the confines of the document to justify his reliance upon them for the rest of his argument, even though he was fully aware of their origins (Jefferson was a practicing lawyer, and well read in English jurisprudence and political philosophy).

The Declaration is a political statement, and it is the last link in an intellectual chain stretching back at least two centuries before it. As we’ve seen from the readings of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, ideas of “Natural Law”, “Right”, and “Equality” (at least, as it exists in a “state of nature”) feature heavily in the book. But Hobbes was not unique. These ideas have been around since the ancient Greeks and Romans, and in vague forms, are a common thread in English Common Law jurisprudence stretching back to the 13th century.

So, why are we reading this (along with Hobbes), and not reading Locke’s Second Treatise, or Rousseau’s Social Contract? Both of these works directly address the question of justifying the social goods of Liberty, Security, and Happiness much more thoroughly than the Declaration itself, and it seems to me, that’s what we’re trying to do here, yes?

In any case, what if we were to distill the Declaration down into its actual arguments? Would it still be as convincing? I’m not so sure. But let’s give it a try, and see what we can come up with:

To begin with, I’m going to discard the first paragraph, as it’s really nothing more than introduction. Charity demands that we set this aside. This leaves us with the first sentence of the second paragraph to start with, as our first proposition:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This is not so much a first proposition, as it is a list of starting assumptions. As I said before, he takes these assertions as axiomatically true. So, our starting assumptions are:

  1. There is a creator
  2. This creator has created nature, and imbued it with a set of universal “natural laws”
  3. This creator has created all members of the set ‘mankind’, as a part of nature.
  4. This creator has inculcated certain properties to those members, in equal portion
  5. Those properties are fundamental to (inseparable from) the nature of each member of the set ‘mankind’
  6. Those properties are called “rights”, and are enumerated as follows:
    • life
    • liberty
    • “pursuit of happiness” (aka property ownership)
    • consent
    • revolution

It’s a bit difficult to tell whether Jefferson intended the remainder to be considered also a part of the “self-evident truth” (that governments are instituted, that they derive their just power from the consent of the governed, etc). If I were to take the entire block of text preceding the “list of facts” as “self-evident truths”, it would require believing that Jefferson thought his entire statement was something that was as completely unassailable as the fact that the grass is green, and water is wet. This is uncharitable. So, we’ll take everything after the enumeration of basic rights to be his “arguments”.

What does that look like, exactly? Well, perhaps something like this:

  1. A justly constituted government is one in which its power is derived from “the consent of the governed
  2. The British government under “the present King of Great Britain” does not derive its power from the consent of the governed
    C1: Therefore, the British government is not justly constituted

And:

  1. (sp) All men desire to defend themselves against alienation from their inalienable rights. (from our assumptions)
  2. (sp) If government is not justly constituted, it is not an effective weapon of defense of the rights of all men.
  3. [C1] The British government is not justly constituted
    C2: Therefore, the British government is not an effective weapon of defense of the rights of all men.

And:

  1. It is the right (and/or duty) of all men to “to alter or to abolish” unjustly constituted governments.
  2. [C1] The British government is not justly constituted.
    C3: Therefore, the American colonists must “throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security

Jefferson and his collaborators were not comfortable resting on these arguments alone, however. So, they included an enormous list of particular grievances as “facts” meant to “prove” George’s “abuses and usurpations”. But if your arguments are so strong, why would you need to do this?

Well, in fact, Jefferson (and most of his collaborators) knew the arguments actually weren’t that strong. One author (Bernard Bailyn) argue that the colonists were laboring under the belief that there was a massive conspiracy at play, working to undermine the British constitution (as it was understood in 1770), and that the colonists believed they were pawns in this conspiracy. He may be right. But I take a far less extravagant view, myself.

Right from the start, George and his court lawyers would have taken issue with Premise 1 of the first argument. What’s more, they probably would have used both Locke and Hobbes themselves, in order to defend George’s right to rule. By the 1700’s, the court really didn’t need to make reference to Divine Right, in order to claim legitimacy. This much had already been settled in the dispute with Cromwell (if you actually read all of Leviathan, Hobbes is aggressively defending the right of an absolute monarch, of precisely the kind that George III imagined himself to be).

Then, there’s premise 2, of argument 1. Ah, rights. Those ineffable properties of mankind, endowed to us by our creator that are at once both inalienable, and yet alienable. It’s amazing to me, how almost three hundred years later, the concept of “rights” is almost as muddy and unjustifiable now, as it was in 1776. In some ways, the founders of America had it easier, though. They, at least, could appeal to a Supreme Creator, whose magical powers could make them a part of our “nature”. Today, secular analytical philosophy doesn’t have that luxury. It has to pretzel itself into all kinds of intellectual knots to make them seem real, let alone justifiable.

But let’s take them for granted, as Jefferson asks us to do in this polemic, and let’s assume also (as he seems to here), that they are properties that can be, by force or fraud, alienated from individuals. Let’s also take the implicit assumption from Hobbes (which Jefferson silently assumes here) that mankind is incorrigibly self-motivated. By this reasoning, no sane man would consider a government as the surest weapon of defense against the usurpation of his rights.

Why? Well, precisely because the state is a weapon. It is the weapon. A weapon of both physical force, and moral authority, that a self-interested man could use with great efficiency to his own advantage. The very thing that Jefferson and his colleagues are charging George III with, in this document. Jefferson and the signers were well read, and well aware of the perils of the institution of government. If you read the Federalist Papers, it is clear that they knew full well that you cannot create a huge weapon, enshrine it in moral armor, put it into the hands of men, and then expect them to not use it to their own advantage. Instead, they dissembled, vacillated, and rationalized into existence a Rube-Goldberg machine they believed would turn the weapon into a tool — and then further insured that they were the ones who got to use that tool. How convenient.