Friday, May 8, 2009

Adventures in Moral Nihilism and Existentialism

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]

Update: See the comments section of this post for further discussion, and Gene Callahan's post on the ThinkMarkets blog for more.

I

So I've been having a sporadically ongoing argument with a friend of mine about the plausibility of morality, and I think I've gotten to the point now where I'm happy enough with my position to warrant saying something about it here. In order to understand the argument, though, you'll need some background about my friend. So first, I will offer that background, and then explain why I think Vichy's position is reasonable in light of that background. I will then turn to my own position and attempt to show how it can function even without rejecting Vichy's position.

II

Vichy has Asperger's syndrome, which manifests in her case in a number of ways, notable among which is an apparent incapacity for a certain range of feelings (whether this incapacity is rooted in emotion or some higher cognitive process is not clear). I am no expert in psychology -- especially moral psychology -- and so I haven't been able to understand the consequences of Vichy's condition with as much depth and clarity as I might like. But through speaking with her on a number of occasions I have uncovered two things which I take to be of extreme significance: first, that she is incapable of directly experiencing sensitivity to consequences that obtain for others, and second, that she is incapable of feeling indignation. In light of these two facts about Vichy, it may be unsurprising that she is not a humanist, and that she is a moral nihilist. But some clarification may be in order here in order to establish why I think these are perfectly reasonable positions for her to take.

Humanism is the view that individuals have some sort of intrinsic value such that they deserve to be treated according to certain minimal standards simply because of the kind of thing that they are. As many people have pointed out at least since Hume, it is simply impossible to derive from the objective nature of a human being a categorical normative claim of any sort, much less an entire moral system. And hopefully, it isn't necessary to attempt to demonstrate why the idea of mind- and moral agent-independent "objective moral facts about reality" should be rejected. So, then, the modern humanist needs some other way to establish the intrinsic worth of human beings which does not depend on trying to squeeze an "ought" from an "is."

III

It seems to me that the most obvious way to do this is to appeal to introspection -- to establish humanism through some claim of intuitive self-evidence. The shortest path to this conclusion is through the phenomenon of sensitivity to others. It is a natural human propensity to experience positive or negative feelings in response to perceiving or conceiving of certain consequences obtaining for other people: if I saw someone savagely beating a child, I would find myself awash in thoroughly terrible emotion -- I would long for the abuse to stop, or even to be somehow negated. And I would not attach these emotions to my personal aesthetic preferences, my perception that the beating was doing more overall harm than good, or any view that the abuser was making a poor decision, given the alternatives available to him. Rather, I would attach the emotions to what I perceived the child to be going through.

If I were to try to give proper credit to the way that I felt, it would not do to merely say that I would prefer the child not be beaten (though surely that would be true); I would naturally appeal to what was done to the child in order to point out what I perceived to be the true source of my distress. And insofar as my psychological disposition powerfully impelled me to believe that the child ought not to be savagely beaten, and insofar as I believed that other people shared my basic psychological disposition, it could be perfectly reasonable for me to think that other people should feel the same way. David Hume captured this sort of idea when, in Chapter 9 of An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals, he wrote:
When a man denominates another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or depraved, he then speaks another language, and expresses sentiments, in which he expects all his audience are to concur with him. He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony.

If we think it true that some objects (in the grammatical sense) have the capacity to inspire these sorts of evaluative reactions across people, and that these reactions are rooted in what happens to other people, then it seems like we could find some basis for the view that we are all presuppositionally committed to the idea that there is something wrong with treating people in certain ways -- that people inherently deserve to be according some minimal amount of dignity. For someone to fail to behave this way would seem to demonstrate that they had taken "improper" account of what would happen to the child in deciding whether or not to go through with the beating, and that if they did, then they would be impelled to agree that the beating ought not to happen.

But this approach runs into serious problems when we acknowledge that some people may not feel these same kinds of impulsions. It is not literally true that there is something about what happens to the child that automatically impels all rational beings to feel like that shouldn't be happening. It is, rather, only a normal human reaction to our own capacity for sensitivity that makes us feel this way. My friend Vichy, as I mentioned earlier, lacks the capacity to have that sort of reaction. It will not, then, be coherent for us to argue that based on our psychology, she should feel a certain way about the child being beaten. She simply can't feel that way about the child. So while this approach may go some way in grounding a humanistic attitude for normally functioning humans, it will literally have no bearing on Vichy -- it simply can't.

IV

Another approach to grounding humanism is similarly grounded in our own psychology. Most people naturally think of themselves as having the sort of value required to sustain the humanistic view. This, I take it, is best illustrated by the entirely nature propensity for humans to feel indignation when others treat them with complete disregard for their interests. If someone randomly walks up to me and punches me in the face, I do not merely resent the pain that she has caused me or wonder if that was really the smartest thing for her to have done. I feel that she has treated me unfairly. As was the case in the example of the abused child, this feeling attaches to what happens to me, so that I end up thinking that the fault in the aggressor's action lies in the fact that she did not take "proper" account of what her actions would do to me in deciding whether or not to punch me.

If a person thinks of himself as having this sort of value, then the humanist needs only to point out that others are relevantly like him in order to establish her position. But once again, it should be clear that if someone doesn't feel this way about himself, then this approach will have no force. If someone's reaction to being punched in the face would truly be to merely resent the pain and to wonder about the wisdom of the other person's choice, then we will not be able to appeal to this reaction in order to ground any sort of normative view. And as I said before, Vichy is apparently incapable of feeling indignation. So again, this will make it impossible to ground a humanistic attitude this way for Vichy.

V

I find myself, therefore, out of bullets. I cannot offer Vichy any grounds for accepting humanism, and I do not find any other moral view plausible. Accordingly, I seem to reach the conclusion that for Vichy, anti-humanistic moral nihilism is not only a coherent position, but actually the only reasonable position for her to adopt. It surely isn't the case that there is objectively something about what happens to the child when beaten, or what happens to you when you are punched in the face, that makes it "improper" to take no account whatsoever of anything that does not happen to matter to Vichy for one reason or another. And there is no reason accessible to her that she should nevertheless believe that people are intrinsically valuable and that there are consequently such things as "morally improper" ways to account for people's interests.

What does this mean, then, for my own humanistic moralism? I seem to be committed to the view that it is literally false. But does that mean that I should be an anti-humanistic moral nihilist? I don't believe so. I will therefore offer an argument in defense of my moralistic humanism that could be appropriately classified as broadly existentialistic and fictionalistic.

It seems to me that the anti-humanistic moral nihilist position seems to entail a sort of egoism. If others have no intrinsic value, and there are no moral reasons for acting in any particular way, then the only thing left would seem to be to act for self-regarding reasons. I think it will be useful to think about this position as arguing that we should do whatever we think will allow us to live a life most in accordance with our own values, with no framework for evaluating the values we choose to pursue that are separate from our own value systems -- I don't know if that's a proper formulation, but hopefully it's close enough.

Where Vichy lacks a capacity for a certain range of emotions and reactions, I do not. I feel discomfort when others are treated without regard for their interests and I feel indignation when I am treated that way. If this is a natural way for my mind to work (and others' as well), then humanistic moralism will provide me with an excellent intuitive tool for knowing how these feelings are going to play out -- a sort of automatic navigation system. And because our reactive responses are attached to our conceptions of things -- my response to thinking about "a child being beaten" is different from my response to thinking about "me thinking from a humanistic moralist perspective about a child being beaten" -- I will only be able to use the humanistic moralist navigation system from within the humanistic moralist mindset.

If humanistic moralism is an effective tool in this sense, then it may be that I would live the better life if I adopted the humanistic moralist perspective. Further, it seems to me that there are other effects of adopting a humanistic moralist perspective that are quite desirable. One of the most valuable, I think, is the attitude of self-worth that comes along with it. It is quite easy to slip from "I have no worth" to "I am worthless," which is problematic for much the same reason as slipping from "The cup is empty" to "There is emptiness in that cup." It's no good to think of oneself as "worthless," and a great way to protect against feeling this way is to think of oneself as "having worth."

Another benefit of adopting the humanistic moralist perspective is the capacity to experience irrational feelings of attachment to people (i.e., in loving relationships and loyal friendships) that would be inaccessible to someone consistently and consciously adopting an egoistic mindset. Where conscious egoism would suggest the virtue of constant personal cost-benefit analysis, it seems to me that we can have better, happier, healthier relationships if we don't constantly evaluate things in this way, and if we instead allow ourselves to slip into a humanistic moralist mindset.

Also beneficial is the mindset which enables me to live in a world full of valuable individuals who are worthy of respect and love, rather than a world full of creatures who can do cool stuff. The same is true of the mindset which allows me to speak to "normal people" without having to translate back and forth between manners of speaking.

If these points are legitimate -- if there are considerable and potentially irreplacable benefits to being a humanistic moralist -- then it could be incompatible with the tenets of the anti-humanistic moral nihilist's egoism for me to adopt anti-humanistic moral nihilistic egoism. In other words, consciously adopting egoism personally would commit me to saying that "I ought to believe that I should do whatever is best for me, even if believing that I should do whatever is best for me would not be best for me." This, I think, would be clearly ridiculous. Accordingly, to the extent that I am capable of maintaining the humanistic moralist perspective, it might be reasonable for me to do so.

And luckily, I am quite capable of doing this. I am here reminded of something that Hume says in section VII of A Treatise of Human Nature:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther.

And so, after laboring to show why anti-humanistic moral nihilism is a reasonable and compelling position for Vichy, I hope to have made it equally clear why I don't believe it to be a reasonable position for me to adopt for myself. Perhaps it will frustrate some people that I am choosing to adopt such blatant fictionalism, but I defy them to come up with any reason that I shouldn't which wouldn't immediately flip around into a reason that I should.

31 comments:

XauriEL jSt'vaan Zwaan said...

I think of myself as a 'humanistic egoist'; I follow humanist principles precisely because the anguish I feel at the suffering of others impinges directly on my personal well-being.

Danny Shahar said...

If that's what works for you, then you won't hear any objections from me. I find that I'm more comfortable when my attitudes are not at odds with my emotions -- adopting that point of view would make me feel alienated from myself. But to each his own!

Gregory said...

Interesting post. In support of your position I would add that even someone like Vichy undoubtedly acts in the way you recommend to some degree. She may not be able to experience emotional empathy in the way that most people can but she most certainly understands logically that certain actions provoke certain reactions in others and that she should consider those reactions before acting herself. Even if she is not a humanist herself, to some degree she must act like a humanist in order to coexist with other humanists.

It seems though that this position potentially suffers for a chicken/egg problem. We can recommend a humanist perspective because it is beneficial, but what if it ceases to be beneficial. In war otherwise "humanistic" people are able to commit atrocities because they are easily convinced that the enemy is not part of the relevant group that deserves empathy. In most times humanism is a successful strategy because cooperation benefits all parties, but in times of extreme scarcity the moral nihilist would be much more successful. If some global tragedy occurred we could exactly reverse this argument and it would make just as much sense: yes a humanistic position is reasonable if you are one of the few who has that type of psychology, but everyone is a moral nihilist so acting similarly is generally beneficial.

All-In-All said...

My basic reply to this are:
Doxastic consistency and the impossibility of tracing out the logical consequences of a fiction if it remains a fiction; and the difficulty of maintaining the fiction if you engage in reasonable criticism of its entailments.

Likewise, I don't think it is really possible for people to make a realistic assessment of which fiction is best for them. Thus, even if you have humanistic feelings, if you adopt a humanistic fictionalism you constantly render yourself vulnerable to engaging in something which will not be beneficial and which you may not be able to detect or trace.

Also, how can you be sure that humanism actually matches you best, rather than some ideology you've never heard of? After all, you've been indoctrinated with democratic pap all your life, likewise altruistic nonsense - but the fact that the majority of people do think these are good for personal and interpersonal reasons doesn't mean that they are.

Gene Callahan said...

'And hopefully, it isn't necessary to attempt to demonstrate why the idea of mind- and moral agent-independent "objective moral facts about reality" should be rejected.'

Of course there are no "mind independent" objective moral facts, because there are no mind independent facts whatsoever. To be no part of any experience is, as Oakeshott noted, as good a definition of 'non-existence' as there is. (Or see Hilary Putnam making much the same point.)

But morality is certainly independent of 'moral agents', in the same way the '2 + 2 = 4' is independent of mathematicians.

Gene Callahan said...

"We can recommend a humanist perspective because it is beneficial, but what if it ceases to be beneficial?"

The problem is far worse than that. To judge something 'beneficial is already to make a moral judgment about it, so it is circular nonsense to recommend some moral code because it is 'beneficial'.

Gene Callahan said...

Danny, realism may sometimes appear cruel, but, in fact, it is always kinder than erecting an unreality. The fact is, your fiend has disease which renders her morally incapacitated. Her moral nihilism is of no more import than the statement of a blind man that vision is impossible. Just as it is not kind to pretend that his "view" of the visual world is just as good as that of a sighted person and thus give him the keys to a car and tell him to go driving, so it is equally cruel to pretend that your friend's moral nihilism is anything other than an incapacity: rather than pretending that she is forwarding a serious moral position, it is far kinder to point out to her that she is morally blind, and ought to accept help on moral issues from the 'morally sighted'.

All-In-All said...

"But morality is certainly independent of 'moral agents', in the same way the '2 + 2 = 4' is independent of mathematicians."
Or like magic is independent of wizards.
The problem isn't that I can't 'see' morality, the problem is that moral injunctions make no literal sense. As I've argued elsewhere, the existential personality of motivation makes morality strictly irrelevant. One of the problems with morality is that to say because something is moral (ergo you should abide by it) assumes what it is trying to prove, that morality has relevance for action. And, if it only has relevance for individuals who already accept morality then it is strictly irrelevant - since what you have a motivation to do is literally irrelevant to what others have a motivation to do.
Morality is a quasi-religious phenomena, for which we can thank group selection and human gullibility. Like government!

Danny Shahar said...

Greg, the potential for moral theories -- "maps" of our moral sensitivities -- to lead to problematic, implausible, or dangerous conclusions is why we do moral philosophy in the first place. If certain humanistic paradigms lead people to undesirable conclusions, then that's when we reject them and move to another theory. Similarly, a moral theory that insists that you adhere to certain principles regardless of the situation is almost certainly going to lead to problems -- hence the catastrophe situation can work as a critique of "Never steal," but not of "Never steal except when circumstances provide compelling reasons for doing so." That being said, Dave Schmidtz makes a good and relevant point in Elements of Justice (176): "If we find ourselves seemingly called upon to sacrifice the few for the sake of the many, justice is about finding another way."

Danny Shahar said...

Vichy, I'm not sure why you're this concerned about being unable to trace the entailments of the fiction; that's what moral philosophy is all about: tracing the entailments and seeing what we think of them. If we don't like them, then it means that the fiction was designed poorly, and we need to get back to work!

As for the possibility of evaluating fictions effectively, I don't think you need to have anything like perfect knowledge to make a choice here. If existentialism teaches us anything, it's that when presented with alternative courses, any path we take requires us to make a choice. Just as I don't know that fictionalist humanism will be better, so do I not know that it will be worse, and it sure seems a lot better, given what I know about it.

The same sort of thing applies to the idea that there may be a superior ideology that I haven't thought of. The possibility that such a thing is out there doesn't mean that I should commit myself to paralysis until I exhaust all other possibilities (i.e., forever). If someone can show me why my humanistic attitude entails conclusions that I don't like, then I'll be forced to refine or reject it. But so far, I'm happy with it. Think satisficing instead of optimizing.

Danny Shahar said...

Gene, I'm taking your third comment to be a clarification of your point in the first comment that moral truths exist independently of moral agents; if that's not right, then please let me know.

You're right that Vichy's Asperger's renders her blind to moral reasons, but the question is whether she has been blinded to the truth about morality or to the truth about moral sentiments in normally functioning humans. It seems to me that the latter captures the truth better than the former. If, however, you can demonstrate how we can have reasons for acting that are binding upon us independently of our allowing for that sort of thing, I'd love to be proven wrong about this. It just seems to me that morality has more to do with our temperment as humans than with any sort of "moral truth."

As for it being cruel to treat Vichy as if she's advancing a coherent moral position, I guess it might be if I disagreed with her more than I do. But I think she's pretty much right; her view is perfectly consistent with my own. Again, though, I'd love to be proven wrong about this: any thoughts you might be able to offer in defense of realism would be appreciated!

The other point you made is that "To judge something beneficial is already to make a moral judgment about it..." I'm not sure where you get this idea from; it seems to lie in the face of everything we know about value-free economics. I'm saying that given my ends, it would be benificial to adopt this means. That's not a moral judgment, it's a practical one. Since it wouldn't promote Vichy's ends to adopt the same means, I argued that it wouldn't be beneficial to her to do so. This has nothing to do with morality.

Neverfox said...

Danny,

This is an interesting topic. If you are looking for some other perspectives, I would suggest looking into Roderick Long's work on Wittgenstein and anti-psychologism (e.g. his lecture here directly concerns this topic). It just seems to me to represent the relevant "opposing" view. As I understand him, he has developed good reasons for rejecting anti-realism and the sentimentalist foundations of morality. I would consider contacting him with your questions.

Gene Callahan said...

Well, no doubt evolution had something to do with our ability to formulate and comprehend moral principles. But so what? Evolution also selected for our ability to both build and perceive chairs! Does it somehow follow from this that chairs are "just an illusion" foisted on us by evolution?

And your statement that 'moral injunctions make no literal sense' just is your inability to see morality.

Gene Callahan said...

'The other point you made is that "To judge something beneficial is already to make a moral judgment about it..." I'm not sure where you get this idea from...'

Thinking about reality.

'...it seems to lie in the face of everything we know about value-free economics.'

Let's not enter into the argument as to whether or not 'value free science' is really possible. It's clear that a biochemist studying, say, my metabolic state is not trying to make a moral judgment about me as a person. But so what? That doesn't say there isn't one to be made, just that she is not making it! An economist may study whether or not the Gulag was an efficient way to suppress dissent in the USSR without asking about its morality; that does not mean the Gulag had no moral dimension!

'I'm saying that given my ends, it would be beneficial to adopt this means. That's not a moral judgment, it's a practical one.'

1) Morality is a part of the practical sphere, and no practical judgment lacks a moral dimension.

2) It is the choice of ends, in this case, that is immoral. Do you really think that given, say, Hitler's end was to wipe out the Jews, there is really no moral component to the Holocaust -- "Hey, he was just working towards his ends as best he could!"

'This has nothing to do with morality.'

The above demonstrates why this is false.

Danny Shahar said...

Roman, thanks for the link; I'll check it out as soon as I get a chance!

Danny Shahar said...

Gene, the point is not that there are no moral dimensions to prudential statements, but rather that the statements themselves do not contain any moral content. The statement, "The only way to have the ball in your hand is to pick it up, so if what you want most is to have the ball in your hand, then it would be beneficial to you to pick it up," is simply a statement of fact (assuming that we don't wish to raise controversy about the identification of "beneficiality" and "bringing it about that you get what you want most").

You're right to point out that morality comes into play in critiquing the antecedent of this conditional. If there were some moral problem with having the ball in one's hand, and then we would want to object to the idea that what someone would want most is to do that. Similarly, if there were some moral problem with picking up the ball, and the agent in question knew that the only way to have the ball in her hand was to pick it up, then we would again question her desire to go through with that. But the moral implications of the factual statement offered above do not entail that the statement is itself a moral statement.

It seems to me that our disagreement may be arising, though, from my use of the word "beneficial." You write, "An economist may study whether or not the Gulag was an efficient way to suppress dissent in the USSR without asking about its morality; that does not mean the Gulag had no moral dimension!" It seems to me that if the goal is to suppress dissent, though, then it wouldn't be ridiculous to say that it would be beneficial to use a Gulag system. It's just that the end for which that choice would be beneficial would be one that we wish to critique.

All of this being said, I'm concerned that you might be unconsciously begging the question somewhere along the line. My initial point was that, from an egoistic perspective, it could make sense to adopt a non-egoistic attitude because doing so would advance my own ends -- the goal of the egoistic paradigm. Your point now seems to be that we would want to judge my choice of ends from a moral standpoint, which is fine, but not from the egoistic perspective I was working from initially. From within the attitude of humanistic moralism that I've adopted fictionalistically (which does allow us to critique ends for certain reasons), we can't attack moral nihilism because it lies outside of the universe of discourse. Moving outside of the fiction to talk about moral nihilism, we find ourselves no longer able to critique ends because they simply become factual statements about personal values. If you want to object to moral nihilism through the account I've offered, you won't be able to do so from within the moral fiction I've proposed -- it takes as a premise that moral nihilism is false even though this is literally not true. Accordingly, you'll need to offer an independent argument against moral nihilism -- otherwise you'll just end up begging the question.

Gene Callahan said...

See Pythagoras, Lao-Tse, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Isaiah, Anixamander, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Voegelin, et al. (2500 BCE - 1950 CE) "Why Moral Nihilism Is Booshit," The Journal of the Perennial Philosophy, Vol. α No. ω.

Ευγενοσ

Danny Shahar said...

I mean okay, but three things:

First, most of those guys' views about the nature of morality are incompatible. So if any of them were right, then it pretty much entails that a lot of the other guys' views were wrong. If you cited a particular school of thought as explaining why realism is correct, then I might be able to respond, but as things stand, I can just say that I think more of them were wrong than you apparently do.

Second, some of those guys defended morality in terms of religion, and it's not clear that they have much of an argument for moral realism apart from their religious views. Presumably, though, you aren't trying to advance this sort of argument. And Siddhartha was arguably a moral fictionalist himself!

And finally, I could cite the same list of philosophers to contend that libertarianism is false.

(I don't like relying just on pointing out fallacies, so hopefully those counterarguments will suffice; if not, it goes without saying that argument from authority is bad form...)

All-In-All said...

Shahar: "I can just say that I think more of them were wrong than you apparently do."

I bet you must of them would think Callahan is wrong, too.

Shahar: "And Siddhartha was arguably a moral fictionalist himself!"

Easterns in general have a much more fictionalist/Humean account of morality; I think the Absolutist Realism so common in western philosophy stems precisely from Christian commandment moralizing being rationalized by the Enlightenment. It simply could not occur to them that 'right' and 'wrong' were simply opinions, and rarely compatible ones at that. It went from the Word of God to the Rights of Man. But Man is just as much as spook as God, and does not command anyone who rejects ghosts.

Gene Callahan said...

An argument from authority is bad form only when the person you cite is not an authority in the area you cite him! But in any case, this wasn't an argument, it was a citation.

And, no, I really don't see that much disagreement between them. We even have a straight line of descent running Pythagoras-Socrates-Plato-Plotinus-Augustine that then rejoins the Aristotle-Avicenna branch with Aquinas.

Gene Callahan said...

"I bet you must of them would think Callahan is wrong, too."

You would lose.

Stan said...

Danny,
On establishing intrinsic value: shouldn't we just assume cooperative value from the start, until shown otherwise? That's what most humans do in experimental settings. Works pretty well across the board. Yes, that's very simplified, but I don't see why more than the strategy's usefulness needs to be established. A humanist wants to push it too far.

"If this is a natural way for my mind to work (and others' as well), then humanistic moralism will provide me with an excellent intuitive tool for knowing how these feelings are going to play out -- a sort of automatic navigation system."

I don't think humanistic moralism will provide you with an excellent intuitive tool, because you already have a set of them which is more intuitive.

Trust doesn't require humanistic moralism, although a dab at the start of a relationship doesn't hurt.

I'm skeptical of humanists or moral nihilists' ability to act much differently from one another in experiments with repeated games. I'm skeptical of their ability to even act consistently with what they think their perspective dictates, although I'm not so skeptical of them looking back and thinking they acted in accordance, afterward.

I think looking at actual behavioral experiments might help reveal, or at least, hint at, further possibilities for resolving these perspectives. I'd like to see what you all think of Trust and Reciprocity, edited by Elinor Ostrom and James Walker. Great collection of papers. http://books.google.com/books?id=zYo5n1mXyT8C

On the Vichy side:
Shared social norms of general, fuzzy morality "fiction" is more beneficial than shared soda preferences. Without trust and cooperation, specialization isn't feasible. A society with shared norms can more easily trust one another and cooperate, detect and sanction cheaters, and specialize to increase their quality of living.

While inflexibility makes one vulnerable to exploitation, not assuming and signaling potential worth in initial interaction is aborting the chance of mutual gain.

Cooperation is an opt-in agreement, but to be effective it requires tit-for-tat. If you reject social norms that are held as moral beliefs, and--more importantly--you're detected rejecting them, you're less trustworthy. You might even be sanctioned. You may not buy the moral narratives told in the society, but the signaling those narratives are built upon is very real and important.

All-In-All said...

Stan said: "houldn't we just assume cooperative value from the start, until shown otherwise?...A humanist wants to push it too far."
I agree, and this coincides with my general critique of Humanism. It's basically false generalizations. As Nietzsche and Schopenhauer have pointed out in regards to pity; pity does not serve me and it is a bit of a presumption towards the person receiving it. And as Bernard Williams argues, if we were to take an eye to all the suffering which proceeds in this world - a 'cosmological pity' - we would go mad. The suffering of others, when it does not directly relate to our own ends, would seem best left to itself. Because I see a sick man, must I infect myself? Let him keep his poison to himself.

"I'm skeptical of their ability to even act consistently with what they think their perspective dictates,"
I'm not sure what you think my 'position' dictates. Also, you are presuming a lot about the susceptibility of people to moralistic and humanistic leanings. Many of us have an unfeigned indifference to much of it, and many of us can learn to. And if it is useful to us, why not?
To act cooperatively towards my own ends is not a 'violation' of moral nihilism. Indeed, what could be? All it tells you is that there is nothing inherently valuable, not that there is no value to particular persons.
And given that moral nihilism is, in the nihilists view, strictly true it would be better said that it is the moralist who can not act 'according to his principles'. For all his 'principles' are only his, and the values he acts upon are purely personal and egoistic. He wants to be an idealist and is only a 'petty egoist' despite it.

"Without trust and cooperation, specialization isn't feasible."
All that demands is enforcement and convention, not delusions like 'rights' and 'wrongs'.
And what of your 'specialization'? At best, if I am concerned with it, it entails a kind of hypocrisy on my part. And if I am not concerned with it (or more likely, am irrelevant to the 'system' as a whole) then I care nothing for what damage I do.
And, of course, moral nihilism would still be true - and if it the reality will doom society, what 'right' has it to live? Indeed, is it not simply unaware that it's dead yet? Or do you think lies and delusions will persist for eternity?

You seem to be trying to convince me with arguments about a 'system' that I have already expressed indifference (or even hostility) towards, and using the ideologue's frame of reference (Mankind, Society, Economy, Property, Law etc.) Yet none of these things concerns me, at best I am concerned what use I may make of them - how I might exploit them for my gain.

Danny Shahar said...

Gene, I've written a followup post in response to your comments; see that for more discussion.

Danny Shahar said...

Stan, I'm not sure what you mean by "cooperative value." Do you mean something like "the value of cooperation"? I agree that humans are naturally disposed to seeking cooperative solutions, but that doesn't seem to have anything to do with intrinsic value (unless you wanted to argue that therefore we should value cooperation in itself).

As for the idea that an attitude should be judged only on whether the strategy it recommends is useful, I discussed other valuable elements of a humanistic attitude in my post which recommend it to me; I say that not as refutation, but simply in order to suggest that I obviously don't agree and that you haven't yet offered a counterargument.

You also seem to suggest that a predisposition to be initially trusting of people (subject to a tit-for-tat provision) is a perfectly good replacement for humanism, and again I can only point to the reasons I offered initially that this is not the case.

I'm not sure how to respond to your contention that humanists are incapable of acting consistently with their attitude...all that it would require me to do is to make an effort to take into account how my actions will affect others' interests when deciding what to do. It's really not going to end up committing me to anything crazy... Could you perhaps clarify why you think this would be difficult to do?

Stan said...

Stan said: "Shouldn't we just assume cooperative value from the start, until shown otherwise?...A humanist wants to push it too far."
I agree, and this coincides with my general critique of Humanism. It's basically false generalizations. As Nietzsche and Schopenhauer have pointed out in regards to pity; pity does not serve me and it is a bit of a presumption towards the person receiving it. And as Bernard Williams argues, if we were to take an eye to all the suffering which proceeds in this world - a 'cosmological pity' - we would go mad. The suffering of others, when it does not directly relate to our own ends, would seem best left to itself. Because I see a sick man, must I infect myself? Let him keep his poison to himself.
My critique is different, although it has similarities. I see humanism as a just-so story that results in generalizations, but those are generally useful heurisitics in day-to-day life--they can be used quickly by "system 1" in decision-making, and lead to beneficial results in the short and long term. When dealing with complex problems, if there is time to consider them, the generalizations can cause problems. A basic summary of my preferred configuration--best for cooperation and problem-solving--would be system 1 humanism and system 2 moral skepticism.* *(I'm using the "systems" as borrowed from behavioral econ, see http://neuroeconomics-summerschool.stanford.edu/pdf/KAHNEMAN1.pdf )

The suffering of others, when it does not directly relate to our own ends, would seem best left to itself.That looks like a big leap from a strategy for anonymous, one-shot games to non-anonymous, repeat real life. Now I don't really know you, but let's say you've signaled to me that you aren't likely to cooperate unless you perceive direct gain. That's extremely near-sighted, and makes you less trustworthy--clearly, humanistic cooperators should manuever to prevent exploitation, and possibly sanction or otherwise make an example of you.

No person can forsee the myriad consequences of their actions, including the possible benefits or detriments to you for reducing their suffering, and the possible societal or individual reward for doing so. We don't live in a world composed of one-shot games with strangers, so it's useful to take into account possible indirect benefits beyond present, possible direct reciprocation.

Side note, regarding Williams: there seems to be "psychic numbing" regarding suffering. See http://www.apa.org/science/psa/slovic.html This is just one example of seeming moral inconsistency--surely more shouldn't be valued as less. We have biased hardware.

"I'm not sure what you think my 'position' dictates."Nor am I, but you seem to be signalling that you leave things--like people's suffering--to themselves unless they relate directly to your own ends. Even if that's just a bluff, you're still less trustworthy. You may be honest, but that counts for far less for those assessing cooperative fitness, even if it means a lot to you.

And given that moral nihilism is, in the nihilists view, strictly true it would be better said that it is the moralist who can not act 'according to his principles'. For all his 'principles' are only his, and the values he acts upon are purely personal and egoistic. He wants to be an idealist and is only a 'petty egoist' despite it.I thought about this from several angles. I began questioning the terms, like "idealist" and "principles," to the point where I wasn't sure how to tackle it all. While I think I agree, this seems like a gotcha. An unimportant gotcha. That gives me pause. Pardon me for not tackling it further.

My original point was the difference between what a person might think their position predicted about their actions (and others' actions), and what they would actually do. There's plenty of evidence that people are not particularly accurate about what influences them, nor how much. See The dishonesty of honest people: A theory of self-concept maintenance, N Mazar, O Amir, D Ariely, 2008.

"Without trust and cooperation, specialization isn't feasible."
All that demands is enforcement and convention, not delusions like 'rights' and 'wrongs'.
Conventions and social norms are 'rights' and 'wrongs,' and a large part of the enforcement is them being "rights" and "wrongs." After all, even mild reproach is subtle enforcement. Human specialization isn't feasible without trust and cooperation because of time lag between, and uncertainty during, contribution of goods and services and use of goods and services. We see this anthropologically: small groups of people often using obligation (essentially, credit) systems internally, but using tradespersons when interfacing with other groups who are of a different culture (uncertain trustworthiness because they do not share enough conventions and social norms).

Within the harsh reality of moral nihilism, delusions are created to increase cooperation and trust between the deluded so that higher quality of life and well-being are more effectively pursued.

And what of your 'specialization'? At best, if I am concerned with it, it entails a kind of hypocrisy on my part. And if I am not concerned with it (or more likely, am irrelevant to the 'system' as a whole) then I care nothing for what damage I do.
And, of course, moral nihilism would still be true - and if it the reality will doom society, what 'right' has it to live? Indeed, is it not simply unaware that it's dead yet? Or do you think lies and delusions will persist for eternity?
I find that all pretty silly, and I'm not seeing how the reality of moral nihilism dooms society. Anyway, if you care nothing for what damage you do, then you know to expect coordinated efforts to minimize that damage. If you think you're irrelevant already, I doubt much coordination is needed--that energy is better spent elsewhere.

You seem to be trying to convince me with arguments about a 'system' that I have already expressed indifference (or even hostility) towards, and using the ideologue's frame of reference (Mankind, Society, Economy, Property, Law etc.) Yet none of these things concerns me, at best I am concerned what use I may make of them - how I might exploit them for my gain.
You made that clear, even without being this explicit. I don't expect to convince you at all, but I appreciate the chance to consider your position and respond to it. I know better than to convince through direct debate or discussion, and I can reply to you without you being the reason I reply.

All-In-All said...

Being a humanist is neither appealing, nor really possible, for me. And I don't really interact with people enough (especially people who really care what I think of morality) for it to be relevant.

And, of course, you can reply to me without my being the reason for reply.

Stan said...

Danny:
Stan, I'm not sure what you mean by "cooperative value." Do you mean something like "the value of cooperation"? I agree that humans are naturally disposed to seeking cooperative solutions, but that doesn't seem to have anything to do with intrinsic value (unless you wanted to argue that therefore we should value cooperation in itself).

Yes, it's as "intrinsic" as you'll get, in that you generally need trustworthy people to cooperate. We should value trustworthiness and cooperation.

As for the idea that an attitude should be judged only on whether the strategy it recommends is useful, I discussed other valuable elements of a humanistic attitude in my post which recommend it to me; I say that not as refutation, but simply in order to suggest that I obviously don't agree and that you haven't yet offered a counterargument.


I don't think I need to offer a counterargument, because you already seem to understand the skepticism of intrinsic-ness put forth by Vichy, and even yourself. You've explicitly tagged your moralistic humanism as "literally false."

Introspection is a search for internal narratives, not actual cause-and-effect that a (scientific) psychologist might pursue. Not saying it's worthless, but it's not where I choose to dig--when I can help it! If you want to explore the psychology of well-being and empathy, I'm all for it. I've found some of the recent lectures Daniel Kahneman gave on well-being to be valuable (http://mbb.harvard.edu/resources/kahneman08.php).

The issue I wanted to bring up was Vichy getting the basic critique right but having a near-sighted strategy. She slips her "exploit others for my gain" strategy in on the coat-tails of moral nihilism, and I don't think it reasonably follows. If she doesn't care about having an effective strategy, that's one thing, but she keeps mentioning gains, so I would think gains are important, and thus, strategies with better overall gains would be better.

And that's where she falls short, because her signaling implies untrustworthiness. She's signaling that, generally, she's going to play the nash equilibria because she's looking at exploiting for direct gains. That's tragedy of the commons material. However, those that risk cooperating can--and DO--perform better in experimental and real-world settings. Thus, my recommendation of the material on trust and reciprocity. At the very least it's interesting (I think).



You also seem to suggest that a predisposition to be initially trusting of people (subject to a tit-for-tat provision) is a perfectly good replacement for humanism, and again I can only point to the reasons I offered initially that this is not the case.
What I'm suggesting is far more nuanced, but I think that should be more clear now from what I've posted. I'm suggesting a strategy that is essentially indistinguishable from the general behavior of a humanist, making that assumed perspective the most efficient narrative for the strategy except in those cases where we have to answer questions that are fuzzy and take a lot of reasoning. It's really no different from how you end your post, except I'm arguing there is a far more reasonable and evidence-based foundation for a humanist approach than the intuition and psychology arguments you gave.

I'm not sure how to respond to your contention that humanists are incapable of acting consistently with their attitude...all that it would require me to do is to make an effort to take into account how my actions will affect others' interests when deciding what to do. It's really not going to end up committing me to anything crazy... Could you perhaps clarify why you think this would be difficult to do?
Does it have to be crazy to be inconsistent? I don't think so. I'm not worried about craziness. See my response to Vichy that mentions psychic numbing. It's just an off-the-cuff example. If you start digging deeper into the wacky world of psychology, particularly behavioral economics, you'll see how messy it all is. Another one is the dishonesty and cheating study I mentioned in the reply to Vichy: The dishonesty of honest people: A theory of self-concept maintenance, N Mazar, O Amir, D Ariely, 2008.

The point I was making is that we delude ourselves about our own consistency and motives. Even our experiencing self and remembered self are quite different. It's all pretty important, because it undermines a lot of assumptions commonly made in discussion about political economics, and we might make better progress by questioning those assumptions.

You mention "grounding humanism." To ground something, you need to actually get on the ground and do--or at least look at--the field work. Humanism can be grounded as a strategy. Is that equivocation? Maybe. A humanist that, upon careful consideration, says "yes, humanism is not strictly true," may not be a humanist. But you're calling yourself one. I'd rather not have a part of that debate; I find that sort of philosophy quite tiring. And, again, you've already resigned to your moralistic humanism being literally false, so why bother.

We need to consider the restrictions of our own meatware. We operate using optical illusions all the time, and we FEEL they're real, and yet in careful analysis we can see they're not. We can't stop experiencing them, either. That seems pretty similar to your train of thought in the post. Of course, cognitive biases are sneakier, because we think we know better, are more confident we won't make the same mistake, and yet fall for them over and over again.

Here's the nutshell. I think your argument for humanism, particularly in the context of comparing and contrasting with Vichy's perspective, was weak. I wanted to sketch an alternative, or at least, a complementary, game-theoretically-sound foundation. That sketch was also a refutation of what I saw as Vichy's justification for her implied exploitative strategy.

Gene Callahan said...

"Or do you think lies and delusions will persist for eternity?"

All-in-all, it almost seems as if you have some sort of moral objection to lies and delusions, and as if you suspect there is a rational moral order that will work to eliminate lies and delusions -- otherwise, why shouldn't they persist for eternity -- after all, per moral nihilism, they are every bit as acceptable as truths and genuine understandings.

All-In-All said...

Gen said: "moral objection to lies and delusions"
No, I think it's just not a valid long-term strategy, given that the real world exists no matter what you believe. I also have a constitutional aversion to nonsense. Whether people do adopt a more realistic view is up to them.

And you can call me Vichy, or Fournier, if you like.

scineram said...

From 6000 BC to today is not a long enough term?

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