Thursday, April 30, 2020

"No Man Is an Island"

Picking this up from Thought Criminal, and my first response is:  "At least Sartre understood he was part of humanity, part of the whole":

... There are competing things which are all good like happiness and truth.  For example, we sacrifice some happiness when we accept the truth that we're not going to have life after death.  Should we tell other people that they're not going to live after they die?   It probably will reduce their happiness on the other hand truth has a value of its own how do you balance truth and happiness there isn't any algorithm for balancing that.   I think you just have to accept that there is  no postulate that allows you to judge how much happiness you're willing to give up for how much truth.

Even people who accept all this will say, all right we're not going to agree on what is the good but at least we can agree on the fundamental principle of morality that something like Rawls original condition [I think he meant "Original Position"]  that we should not treat other people worse than we treat ourselves. Rebecca [Goldstein] was saying something like this that everyone equally deserves whatever is good, happiness or whatever it is.  That's not the way I feel either.   And I think it's probably not the way most of you feel if you think about it because. I could probably increase the total amount of happiness by making my family live on rice and beans and live in a one room apartment and just barely keep enough money to keep us alive and healthy and send all of the rest of the money to poor parts of the world where it would do to me.  I'm not going to do that I'm not going to ....  and I well, I'm not confessing immorality.  I'm saying that my moral feelings tell me I should be loyal to my family.

Similarly when my university tries to recruit a bright young star in physics I suppose I could calculate,  well,  he could do more good for some other university and the greater good would imply we shouldn't go after him let some other university go after him. I don't care, I care about my university I'm loyal to my university similarly.  So there loyalty is a value it's not an absolute value I wouldn't cause, like Edward the Third,  I wouldn't cause the hundred years war to advance the interests of my family.  But it is one of these things where we have no algorithm for balancing loyalty against distributive justice.

And I think we have to live with that.  I think we have to live with the fact that although we can reason and try to uncover what our moral feelings are.   And if we get into that I think a very good example would be arguing about abortion ...  maybe I'll come back to that in the discussion.

We can reason, the reasoning uncovers how we feel morally and perhaps allows us to identify areas of agreement so we can cooperate with each other and bring about what we want.

I think in the end we have to live with not having a moral philosophy that really works in a decisive way.  I think we have to live the unexamined life.  I think this is part of the tragedy of the human condition just like we have no absolute way of determining that Mozart is better than Led Zeppelin we feel it but it's not something that we can argue,  we can rationally show.  We have to live with the fact that...  this came up yesterday.... when we discover the fundamental laws of physics from which all in some sense follows, that all other principles follow,  we won't know why they're true.  This is something that we have to accept, that the position of human beings is tragic and part of the tragedy,  that there  is no way of deciding moral issues on the basis of - well there is no way of deciding moral postulates which should govern our actions.  And in fact we don't have moral postulates that govern our actions when we behave morally. 
Even the playground ethics of the "trolley problem," where an extreme and unworldly example is posited as if it revealed profound truths about the world (rather like Coyne's attempt to say physics somehow explains why I love my wife or would act to protect my children) is superior to this drivel.  But the worst part of it is, it posits a vacuum in which all persons act solely for their own interests, and damn the consequences or the rest of humanity (or the world; Sartre confined himself to humanity.  Judaism and Christianity start, not with being my brother's keeper, but with Genesis 1, where humankind is said to be the keeper of creation.  Cain and Abel come much later.)  What Coyne posits is a form of utilitarianism that would appal Bentham, and what he gets wrong about Rawls is, well, almost the entire book in which Rawls posits his "original position" (an attempt to turn the "Golden Rule" into something derived solely from self-interest.  Then again, the Golden Rule makes no mention of the God of Abraham, unlike Micah 6:8, which is remarkably similar.).  This is a fine display of the chop-logic of the bluntly ignorant who don't want their beautiful minds cluttered with the complications of real thought and substantive reasoning.  For all their appeals to reason, people like this don't do much of it, and aren't very good at it when they do.

Part of the real failing is Coyne's assumption that moral reasoning leads to simple "do's" and "don't's" and when it can't do that, it has failed at its central mission.  He assumes we will determine the fundamental laws of physics, from which all understanding will flow (a semi-Hellenistic assumption, although Socrates and even Aristotle were never so foolish as to advance it; Socrates, in fact, argued that we really can't ever know anything, especially about what is true).  He assumes not knowing you will live into eternity and after death diminishes happiness (a reductio ad absurdum a first-year philosophy student would look stupid espousing).  He assumes he's discovered something new, or profound, or insightful, when his only basis for such "insight" is his ignorance, which he clutches to himself like a security blanket.

No, moral postulates don't "govern" our actions when we behave morally, any more than laws govern our actions when we behave legally.  All of us understand the rules:  don't cheat, don't lie, don't take what isn't yours, don't kill people.  Some of us ignore those rules, or figure they don't apply to us; most of us accept the wisdom of them, the grace, the necessity.  Are we "governed" by these things?  The idea assumes we would rather run riot and act as selfishly as possible, given the chance.  It's the premise of post-apocalyptic movies where social order breaks down and everyone is a criminal under the skin.  It makes for Hollywood spectacle, but in real life?  The people in the SuperDome in New Orleans after Katrina didn't set up post-civilization horrors; they took care of the young and the old and each other. The people in Houston during Harvey brought out boats and water skis and rescued strangers.  We weren't "governed" by morality to do these things; we were linked by our humanity.  Some did it because they were Christians, some because it was "the right thing to do."  Being "governed" didn't enter into it.  So there's one false assumption.

There are so many in Coyne's statement they are hardly worth mentioning.  If he starved his family and gave the money to the poor that he saved, is there a morality that says he should do that?  Which one?  The Golden Rule?  Rawl's Theory of Justice?  Micah 6:8?  The teachings of the Nazarene?  Where does Coyne get that extremist nonsense?  It's the flip side of Dan Patrick imagining the deaths of the elderly will lead prompt a new Millenium of wealth and prosperity for their grandchildren, or the foolishness of thinking ideas like "the trolley problem" represent real ethical concerns.  Would that the world were so simple in its systems.  And yet Coyne takes no responsibility for those systems and what they provide him, but take from others.  "Blow you, Jack, I got mine!," is his morality, but since it's not a morality, since it can't "work in a decisive way," he bears no responsibility.  It's a selflishness that Donald Trump and mob bosses and tyrants would applaud.  And Coyne is no better than them:  they think they are right, if not good, too.

In the end Coyne wants to reduce the questions of life to postulates, and so determine how much happiness you are willing to give up for how much truth.  Is it true he loves his wife and family?  Can he prove it by a postulate?  If not, how does he prove it?  How does he know?  He wants to say he is not involved at all in humanity, and to protect that posture he declares his family simply an extension of his ego.  He cares about them in their relationship to him and not, apparently, for any other reason.

At least, not for any reason for which he can posit a moral postulate.

No comments:

Post a Comment