About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Comet McNaught

One of my life's disappointments was back in 1986 - after growing up looking forward to the return of Halley's Comet that year, I was saddened (like many other people) when the comet was basically invisible to the naked eye, at least in light-polluted cities. My friends and I tried to sight it, and we may have kidded ourselves that we saw something ... but we really, couldn't make out a goddamn thing that night 20-odd years ago.

The discovery of Comet McNaught makes up a bit for that disappointment way back in the past. When we observed it from the beach a few nights ago, it was faint - but clear enough once you found it, a nice discernible smudge in the night sky. If I don't last long enough for the next return of Halley's Comet in 55 years or so, at least I've managed to see one comet with my own eyes, viewing it without any instruments so I could get the impression of it in the whole sky: a smudgy-but-glinting anomaly that would once have struck sky-watchers as a strange, unaccountable portent.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Kids, clones, and rights.

I'm currently reading Beyond Bioethics, the extensive report on proposed regulation of reproductive technologies, prepared by Francis Fukuyama and Franco Furger and published late last year. I lost patience on about page 64, when I reached its exposition of the moral principles on which it relies.

The first of their principles might at first seem uncontroversial - it's the widely accepted principle of regard for the health and welfare of children. Who could object to this? No one wants to see children abused or neglected, or even held back from developing their theoretical potential. At the same time, society does not insist that every possible effort be made by parents to develop or enhance their kids' natural talents. If Adrian and Belinda encourage young Cassie to aim at a relatively undemanding and low-paid career, when she may have the innate talent to be a nuclear physicist, society as a whole does not criticise this in any serious way.

Perhaps we actually should hold parents to a more exacting standard. It saddens me when children are held back in developing their talents or their knowledge of the world. It is especially galling to see kids being taught that the world is only 6000 years old, or that it is under the control of a powerful being who detests homosexuals, or any of the other kinds of implausible and destructive claims with which kids are frequently indoctrinated. It's difficult to make teaching these things a crime - what with the issues of freedom of religion - but educated people can recognise it as harmful and reprehensible, and be a lot more forthright in condemning it.

At the other extreme, we don't want developing the talents of children to become a tyrannical, all-consuming regime - either for the parents or for the children themselves. In practice, we tend to adopt a rather lenient standard: children should be nurtured, treated kindly, and brought up to be good, well-adjusted citizens who can play a productive, non-violent role in society. And that's about it. Parents are given extensive discretion within those broad boundaries. We want them to provide for their kids' health, to meet basic standards for cooperating, and assisting, with their kids' education - standards that have gradually been raised over time, no doubt - and to teach the social skills that are essential for their kids to become ... well, socialised and civilised.

If parents manage to do just this much, we are more or less content. If they do more than this, they are praised; but we seem to regard it as an example of supererogatory virtue rather than as a matter of meeting essential obligations. In other words, we don't demand that every child be given the optimal environment for the development of her talent, well-being, and possible success in life. It's just that the more parents actually provide this - especially against the financial odds - the more we tend to praise them. Thus, in the near future, some kinds of genetic enhancement of children might justifiably be looked on as praiseworthy, but the failure to use them might not disadvantage kids so gravely as to amount to the breach of an obligation in the strict sense. If, at a date farther in the future, the use of genetic enhancements became more easy and widespread, it might then make sense for it to be regarded as obligatory; that would depend on the circumstances.

Fukuyama and Furger reason in a very different manner. They point to the undoubted value we place on children's psychological welfare - and immediately draw the wild conclusion that every child has a "right" to a biological mother and father. Putting it another way, if Belinda (say) gives birth to a child who does not have a biological father, then the child's "right" has been violated. This could be a text-book example of how talk about moral rights quickly becomes absurd - as Jeremy Bentham realised long ago. Once we start using rights talk, we tend to lose the plot.

There are two kinds of moral rights that actually make sense, though I'm not sure that talking about them as "rights" is very productive. First, there are things that societies have good reason not to prevent their citizens doing (even if preventing them might have good overall consequences), because those things are so important and personal to individuals. These could be classed as negative rights. There are also some social resources that are required by any individual, in order to lead a decent life in her society (as judged by standards that make sense within the society concerned). We typically expect our societies - particularly wealthy Western ones - to ensure that at least a basic level of resources is available to each citizen. Hence, we can talk about positive rights.

But keep in mind the whole purpose of ascribing rights of these kinds. It is impossible for a child to have either a negative right or a positive right to two biological parents. If a child is born without having both a biological mother and a biological father, it simply makes no sense to say that her "right" has been violated, since the course of conduct that would have allowed the right not to be violated would inevitably have involved that particular child not being born at all! Putting it another way, you can't protect Cassie the Clone's exercise of personal freedoms, or her interest in leading a minimally decent life, by ensuring that she never comes into existence in the first place. It makes no sense.

What I take it that sensible people really want is for their society to pursue a reasonable, and rather modest, policy objective. We want to ensure that all children are born in circumstances where they have good prospects of being nurtured and socialised, at least to a certain acceptable level. For example, we want to ensure that children are not born facing inevitable poverty and hardship - though the humane way of accomplishing this is by making economic redistributions to impoverished parents, not by making it a crime for poor people to satisfy the urge to have children.

Imagine that there's a prospect that a child who will not have two biological parents of the usual kind might be brought into the world (e.g. little Cassie, who was born by an advanced method of reproductive cloning). The question for society to consider is not whether some supposed right of the child has been violated in bringing about her very existence. It is simply whether or not whoever rears the child is in a position to nurture her according to society's relatively forgiving standards: e.g., is there a good prospect that Cassie will be treated kindly and grow up to be a well-adjusted, productive, non-violent adult? If "Yes," that is the end of the matter; society as a whole has no good reason to interfere. In practice, the adults concerned will usually be best able to make the required judgment.

Fukuyama and Furger are correct to identify the importance we assign to the welfare of children, but they are wrong to analyse the issue using the rhetorically charged, yet intellectually misleading, language of moral rights. The idea that you have a right to be biologically related to certain kinds of people in certain ways - even if your very existence would thereby be in violation of the "right" - is intellectually incoherent. It is inconsistent with the original point of talking about rights, which is to protect people's freedoms and to ensure they have a safety net of basic resources. Nonsense, I say. Nonsense on stilts.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fenton to Habermas and biocons: Human nature is not fixed

The November-December 2006 issue of The Hastings Center Report contains an important article by Elizabeth Fenton, entitled "Liberal Eugenics and Human Nature: Against Habermas", the thrust of which is to attack - and demolish - the distinction made by Habermas and other bioconconservative thinkers between the natural and the artificial.

While Fenton also makes reference to the views of George Annas and Francis Fukuyama, she concentrates on those of Jurgen Habermas, who has presented what she describes as a "subtle and complex" argument for the prohibition of so-called liberal eugenics.

In the context of this debate, liberal eugenics is the practice of parents selecting some of the genetic characteristics of their own children, within some limits. The usual limits that are proposed relate to the avoidance of harm to the children, though some philosophers and bioethicists also discuss other possible constraints that cannot easily be brought under that heading. For example, Nicholas Agar, who has defended liberal eugenics, opposes the (hypothetical) use of genetic technology to select the sexuality of children, not because this would be harmful to the children themselves but because of the possible social ramifications (e.g. for the position in society of homosexuals).

In any event, liberal eugenics would allow parents considerable scope to select their childrens' genetic potentialities. It stands in contrast to authoritarian eugenics: historical attempts by the state to control the distributions of genetic traits across an entire population.

As Fenton reconstructs Habermas' argument, it relies on the assumption that there is a fixed, and morally normative, human nature, which would be disrupted if parents could choose (some of) their children's genetic traits. In response, Fenton makes several telling points, that at the least require some more sophisticated reply from biocons like Habermas:

  • First, we cannot look on human nature as something fixed and stable - it is open to modification, and possibly even to improvement. We cannot be sure that any set of identifiable core characteristics of humanity merits protection from change.
  • Habermas is wrong to ground a concept of "human dignity" in the current concept of what it is to be human.
  • The claim, made by Habermas, that liberal eugenics would fundamentally alter the relationship between parents and children is "overblown": on the one hand, there is an inherent inquality between parents and children in any event; and on the other - provided that they possess subjectivity similar to that of other human beings - genetically modified humans will be as well placed as the rest of us to claim political equality in their moral communities.
  • It is difficult to draw a line between the natural and the artificial, and wherever the line is drawn it is not of moral significance. Something else needs to be relied on to make distinctions of good and bad.
  • The concept of a fixed and normative human nature is at odds with liberal conceptions of autonomous agency and the value of individual freedoms.
  • There is a contradiction in the claims by Habermas and other bioconservatives that liberal eugenics is intrinsically morally wrong, while at the same time they want its regulation or acceptance to be determined by a democratic process. The latter claim appears to undermine the former. (I add that if the criterion is harm rather than inherent moral wrongness, as any Millian liberal should argue, precisely the same problem arises: it is either harmful enough to require prohibition, or it isn't.)

Fenton does not attempt to argue that liberal eugenics is morally acceptable. She confines herself to the more modest point that, if it is morally wrong, its wrongness must consist in something other than its supposed unnaturalness. Even that, however, is an important point which can never be made, and given intellectual support, too often. Fenton is someone who gets it.

She concludes that there may be shared characteristics which separate human beings from our environment at a point in time, and that these may define us uniquely at the time ... and may be of moral significance. But there is no imperative to preserve them - they should not be granted intrinsic value or be protected from change. "For whatever they are," Fenton says, "they are open to change and improvement; to deny this is to deny humanity its most cherished freedom - the freedom to evolve."

Something a bit lighter

Over summer, I'm trying to get back into shape - instead of just complaining about being out of shape. Having bloated out to almost 190 pounds (sorry to those folks who think in kilograms), I've now managed to drop down to less than 180.
Fifteen years ago, my best weight was about 170 pounds, as in this pic - but I'm just not that heavily muscled now that I'm in my middle age (dammit) and not up to the sort of training I was then.
Grrrr, I probably need to get down to something more like a slim 165. Wish me luck people; that still doesn't sound easy. Maybe I need a sponsor or something.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The genetic fallacy fallacy

Richard Garner, in his interesting book Beyond Morality, discusses what he calls the genetic fallacy fallacy.

We all know the genetic fallacy, of course: the idea that a belief is not proved to be false simply because it was formed by a method that is unreliable. Thus, I may come to the conclusion that God exists and loves me, based on my wish that this were so and because I would be comforted by having a heavenly father to give me love for as long as I need it - and in all the circumstances of my life. Love from such a being might seem of far greater value to me than love from the merely mortal (and perhaps sometimes fickle) beings whom I encounter here on Earth. Perhaps, when things are going well for me, it does seem as if I am blessed with the love of such a powerful and benevolent being.

That is hardly a reliable way to reach any conclusions about the existence of a deity, much less about that deity's attitude to me. Yet, the fact that I may have reached my conclusions in such an unreliable way does not demonstrate that they are actually wrong. My beliefs might just happen to be true. They might even have some independent compelling justification ... perhaps something I'm not even aware of.

But that does not mean that the historical source of a belief is never relevant to whether we should accept it. In the absence of some independent evidence and argument in favour of a belief, surely we have less reason to accept it if we can give a debunking explanation of how someone came to adopt it. As Garner says, if someone's ability to form reliable beliefs on the subject concerned was impeded - e.g. "by drugs, madness, fear, or ignorance" - knowledge of the fact is going to affect the reliability of the person's testimony.

Much of the commonsense wisdom passed down through the centuries and millennia is, at least, the product of ignorance, and often of wishful thinking, or of our attraction to ideas that simply sound noble or "catchy" in some way. When we encounter ideas that are widely held, but with no evidentiary justification in sight and plenty of psychological explanation as to why the world might have looked the way it did to the people concerned, then we have every reason to be sceptical.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

AJOB article on personhood

My article, "Differing Vulnerabilities: The Moral Significance of Lockean Personhood", has now appeared in the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB - Neuroscience), as one of several responses to a major new article on neuroscience and personhood that appears in this issue of AJOB. My article is a (slightly qualified) defence of Locke's concept of personhood and its deployment in much contemporary work in practical ethics - as in the writings of Peter Singer, for example. By "Lockean personhood", I mean a cluster of related psychological properties that includes rationality, self-consciousness, and awareness of oneself in time (as a being with a past and a future).

I argue that what makes this cluster of properties so important is its relationship to certain kinds of vulnerability that we respond to sympathetically. Creatures that are sentient, but are not persons, cannot be vulnerable in these particular ways - e.g. they cannot experience having their hopes for the future shattered by misfortune, because they are unable to form such hopes. (Entities that are not even sentient most definitely cannot be vulnerable in such ways.)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Old folks' sex party - a lesson about prejudice and intolerance

Just received: a tabloid news story about a group of nine people - aged in their 70s, 80s, and 90s - who were booted out of a London nursing home for organising a wild, nude party (described by the paper as a sex party) in the home's recreation room. Apparently they were sprung by security staff at an early stage of the party, when the staff heard the sounds of rumba music. The party had only been going for about twenty minutes, but the participants were already naked and oiled.

A spokesperson for the nursing home is quoted in the story as saying that the incident might sound harmless or amusing, but that the home has strict standards and cannot tolerate such behaviour. Well, yes, it certainly does sound harmless - to me, at least - and merely amusing. And why, exactly, can such behaviour not be tolerated when it involves people in their late years?

More offensive than the spokesperson's words, though perhaps no less concerning, are the quoted remarks of an anonymous staffer who was involved in breaking up the party. This person is quoted as saying, "... they were all naked. Believe me, it was the scariest thing I've seen in my life." I doubt that this was what was meant: what, after all, is so scary about a bunch of old people with no clothes on? I doubt that they appeared especially frightening to the (presumably much younger and able-bodied) staffer. What the staffer felt was not fear, I expect, but some kind of repugnance or disgust.

Let's not mince words: what was intended was not "scary" but "ugly". Naked people of the age described are not menacing in any way, but younger people are likely to be repulsed by the sight. Or, come to think of it, maybe there is at least an itty bitty element of fear - the fear that old people are somehow not keeping in their place, but are acting just like adults in their more robust and vigorous years. How dare they? "Don't they understand", so the thought might go, "that their time has passed and that they are now merely tolerated by the rest of us?" Yes, something like that nasty thought may be involved. Uppity old people ...

The journalist's own language is packed with condescending language - "codgers", "geezers", and so on - that makes clear his scorn for these people, and that he confidently expects his readers to share it, and have a good laugh.

Before I go on, I should concede that I, too, may have found the sight ugly if I had been exposed to it. Like most men, I am "programmed" (by genes, by socialisation, whatever) to be sexually attracted to the radiance of youth, energy, and health, not to the wrinkled skin and sagging flesh that goes with old age. I'm not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise. This blog entry is not going to be a forlorn plea that we alter our standards of sexual beauty.

No, but what about when I reach the sort of age that these nine people evidently are? Well, frankly, if I am still interested in sexual activities to the extent that they showed, and can take an interest in the bodies of other people of my own generation, I'll be very pleased. I feel happy for this gang of nine that they were still able to get a kick out of arranging some kind of naughty party among themselves. Yes, the sight might not have been aesthetically pleasing to me, but why the hell should that be the issue? What makes it okay for people, such as the anonymous staffer and the journalist writing it all up, to pour scorn on these individuals?

The fact is that the folks at the party were not hurting anybody. They weren't even inflicting the sight of their age-damaged bodies on the delicate aesthetic sensibilities of anyone younger. Instead, they were carrying on among themselves in a harmless way that was evidently giving them pleasure. Nothing bad need have come of it, but for the intolerant "standards" of the nursing home and the investigation by the security staff. If a group of young, or even middle-aged, adults had done something similar in one of their own homes, no one would have considered it worth reporting (we can be confident that it happens all the time - but so what?). Why does the fact that many of us would have found the sight unappealing suddenly open up a legitimate public space for moral outrage, or for mockery? Actually, it doesn't.

At the end of the day, I think this is just prejudice against old people, who are expected to know their (subservient) place in society, and perhaps to be thankful that we put up with them at all. When you think about it, that attitude is pretty ugly, in its own way. As far as I can see, the nine people concerned have nothing at all to be ashamed of: good for them that they were still up for some excitement. Those younger people who think it is okay to infantilise them, and jeer at them, are the ones who have plenty to be ashamed of. If many of us feel those ugly impulses to jeer and mock, I suggest we disown them; they are not worthy of us. It would be unreasonable to ask my readers to change their standards of sexual beauty - I've admitted to mine - but we don't have to let considerations of what we find sexually attractive drive us into prejudice and intolerance.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Meta-ethics and the human future

In my recent series of posts in which I've attacked the idea that morality is objective, I have not sought to deny that morality of some kind is inevitable for human societies. I think it is . I also think that much of its actual content is inevitable for us ... i.e., for human beings or any species much like us. In a sense, then, we might want to say that some of the basic content of morality is objectively justified, after all, because we would not want to do without it.

In that very weak sense, I could call myself an objectivist, though this is not how the words "objective" and so on tend to be used in meta-ethical debates. (Then again, much of the terminology in meta-ethics is not used with total consistently ... to say the least.)

It would be a weak sense of "objective", as Blake Stacey said in a response to my previous post on this site. On this picture, the justification for morality is a kind of pragmatic one, based on human needs, values, interests, etc. It is also a subjective justification - not in some extreme, nihilistic sense (it's not a matter of "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"), but just in the sense that justifications of morality are not independent of our needs, values, interests, etc.

Still, if someone wants to claim to be a moral objectivist, or a moral realist, meaning no more than all the above, then I have no substantive quarrel with them. The trouble is that a sense that morality is much more strongly objective seems to be assumed in (much) commonsense meta-ethical thinking, and of course naive religious meta-ethics typically claims that there is a grounding for morality in the will of a deity, which creates absolute standards of right and wrong. It is a trite observation that people with this naive divine-command theory often wield great political power.

I think that there are at least two sets of practical issues that arise out of all this, and affect how we might imagine the human, or post-human, future.

First, it seems that "our" needs, values, interests, etc., are somewhat indeterminate and contested, and this leads me to conclude that the detailed content of morality - as opposed to the broad outlines - will always be both (1) underdetermined by naturalistic facts about the universe (there may be no one perfect way to meet "our" needs, etc.) and (2) pluralistic (there is no single overriding value that morality gives expression to, but rather a range of values that human beings actually tend to have). I think that this recognition could have many practical implications. E.g., no one cultural system of moral norms may do a perfect job of meeting human needs, etc., but many may do some sort of reasonable job, judged against the contested - but largely agreed - values that we want to apply.

This seems to justify a certain kind of sophisticated moral relativism: we should not be too quick to condemn the moral codes of other cultures, which might be functioning reasonably well, however bizarre they look. At the same time, it allows that some moral systems may do a better job than others, when judged by standards with much inter-cultural acceptance. Thus, it refutes the naive relativism which insists that all cultures are equal.

More generally, a pragmatic and pluralistic approach to morality might lead to considerable revision of our traditional moral norms, and might guide us in what norms should be retained, invented, or rejected. Is this norm (we might ask) actually promoting our more fundamental values? If not, pitch it into the flames. Many inherited moral norms may not withstand scrutiny, once it is asked whether they are actually performing such functions as creating happiness and minimising suffering (I take it that these, at least, are widely-agreed values).

Here, I agree with Joshua Greene, who has written much in this area (including a PhD thesis that is expected to be published in 2008). Greene argues that the kind of meta-ethical approach I'm describing, and which he defends eloquently, will push us somewhat in the direction of utilitarianism. I don't think it pushes us quite as far in that direction as Greene thinks it does, but I certainly agree that it has practical implications for how we live our lives and what policies we support.

Phew, that's one set of issues.

Secondly, there's a question of what do we do about it, once we come to believe that morality is not as it seems.

It appears (at least to me) that naive thinking about morality typically involves an illusion: the illusion that, in a strongly objective sense which transcends human interests, there is right and wrong built into the framework of reality. Once we see through this illusion, how should we act (given whatever values, etc., we share)?

Should we try to revise our moral language, as Greene argues? How do we bring up kids - do we use the old, simpler language, or some new kind of language? Are we better off if most people continue to live under the illusion that morality is strongly objective? How easy or difficult is it to shake them free of it? (Perhaps, as Richard Joyce has argued, we evolved to have this illusion, which may have had some survival advantage; perhaps it takes a very special kind of abstract thinking to break the spell, even temporarily.)

It also hasn't escaped me that these questions are analogous to questions about the belief that one or more powerful supernatural beings are taking an interest in us. If this is a deeply-entrenched mistake, how urgent is the need to say so? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

My own bias is toward dispelling illusions, and to expecting that the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages. If we could live, and set policy, without illusions, I believe it would help us lead better lives (judged by values that are largely shared). For example, if we all saw things more clearly, much irrational rejection of biomedical technology might dissipate like the mist. However, I grant that it's not straightforward. There are huge issues here about the future of morality (and religion) - and about the future in general, if we try to plan it in accordance with our actual values, rather than in the thrall of ancient illusions.

I've just mapped out a research program for myself for years to come. Who wants to join me?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Nagel has this wrong - on moral objectivism

In his 1997 book, The Last Word, Thomas Nagel attempted to put a succinct case for the objectivist view of morality and value. This summarises, and attempts to reinforce, the position he had been developing since The Possibility of Altruism - back in the 1960s. Early on in the discussion, he concedes that "There is no moral analogue of the external world—a universe of moral facts that impinge on us causally."[i] But he wants to be able to support the claim that "while 'passions' are the source of some reasons, other passions or desires are themselves motivated and/or justified by reaaons that do not depend on still more basic desires."[ii] He wants to find objective support for moral claims (and not just in the sense that they are objectively the claims of such and such a moral system).

The core of his argument is as follows. First, there is a generality about practical judgments, in the sense that, if A has a reason to do something in circumstances C, then B has a reason to do the same thing in precisely the same salient (internal and external) circumstances. It does, indeed, seem to me that this is follows from any plausible account of what it is to have a reason. It would even follow from a Humean account (in which reasons are based on desires) that Nagel would reject: if A has the same desires, means, and beliefs as B, then A and B seem to have the same reasons to undertake the same actions.

Second, we have to choose whether or not to "transfer" to an impersonal standpoint the values that concern us from the personal standpoint. I.e. we might have a system of values from our own perspective, while recognising that everyone else does, too, in which case all of our reasons derive from our individual interests, desires, and atachments (call this an agent-relative perspective) . Alternatively, we might each assign our own life and everyone else's an impersonal, objective value (an agent-neutral perspective).

Thirdly, the agent-relative perspective amounts to, or entails, the claim that we are objectively worthless, and that in a sense it doesn’t matter what happens to us ... except to ourselves (and, I add, whoever is actually motivated to care about us; this is a point that Nagel glosses over, but which probably does not affect his argument's logic, as opposed to its rhetoric). However, fourth, such a judgment is (according to Nagel) highly unreasonable and implausible.

The conclusion, therefore, is that persons and their interests have some kind of objective worth. It then becomes a matter of building an ethical system that best gives expression to this (supposed) insight.[iv]

It looks like all this could be packaged as a formally valid argument, although I've been finding that it's not a trivial task. Still, the idea is clear enough. If I get out of the way of a truck because I want to save my life, someone like me will do the same thing in the same circumstances. If I justify my action by saying that my life is objectively valuable, it will be very difficult for me to deny that the other person's life is also objectively valuable. If I recognise that, then I have an objective foundation for an ethical system. Recognising that other people's lives are objectively valuable - not just valuable to them - I then have a good reason not only to understand why they get out of the way of trucks, but also to help them do so, to refrain from driving trucks at them ... and so on.

There's an obvious problem here, though: normally, if I see a truck coming at me, I simply react out of fear. I don't stop to wonder whether my life is of some kind of objective worth. Our evolutionary ancestors, when confronted with the equivalent of a truck (perhaps a charging Brontotherium) doubtless reacted similarly. In situations such as this, creatures like us don't rely on deliberation about objective worth; we just scamper for cover. To adapt a memorable phrase from Bernard Williams, thinking about whether my life is of sufficient objective worth to merit saving is one thought too many. It's true, no doubt, that moral systems typically enjoin us to treat other people as having some sort of worth that is to be respected, but we are talking here about whether anything like that already exists outside of moral systems and somehow provides a foundation for them. We are talking about objective worth in a very strong, pre-moral sense. (I can think of all sorts of reasons why a workable moral system might tell us to treat each other as if we all had some inherent value to be preserved, but that is entirely beside the point.)

To get the argument to work, Nagel has to support a claim to this effect: It is not true that I and my interests are objectively of no value. To derive the conclusion he wants, he has to feed this in as a premise, but it needs some support of its own because it is exactly the sort of thing that his opponents (like me, for example) are likely to deny.

So, how does he support the claim? Simply by saying how unreasonable the claim being negated sounds, and appealing to our intuitions. But clearly that won't work. Speaking from inside a moral system into which he has been socialised, Nagel may well feel uncomfortable with the thought that human lives are of no objective moral value, but this debate is not about what sort of value or "worth" is somehow assigned to us by a moral system that we already accept. We are trying to see whether our value is somehow built into objective reality, logically prior to moral systems, and giving them support. Once we get as far as making that impoprtant distinction, there seems to be no reason at all to think that any of us have that kind of objective value or worth. Indeed, it is difficult to give the idea any coherent meaning.

Far from seeming unreasonable, the claim that Nagel wants to deny appears to be self-evidently true.

Even if an omnipotent deity placed a value on my life, it would not help Nagel's argument. To help Nagel along, we would have to be able to show that this divine being would actually be making an error - and not just proving less than all-benevolent or something like that - if it failed to do so. That, in turn, would require showing that my life has some metaphysically-grounded value, independently of whether or not the deity actually valued it! Invoking supernatural beings does not advance things at all, not that the atheistic Nagel makes any attempt to do so.

The fact is that we do not normally even think about the question of whether our lives have objective value, or worth, in the strong sense under discussion. We may sometimes speak about people having "moral worth", if we have internalised a moral system that uses such terminology, but once we step outside of all moral systems and ask what this "worth" really amounts to, then it is dificult to see that it refers to anything that actually exists independently of our invention.

None of this is to deny that we can find some sort of basis for morality, but it will have to use the contingent facts of our nature (including our social nature) and our experience. It may be a far less solid basis than Nagel would like, and what it actually supports in the way of a normative system might be more pluralistic, contradictory, and ramshackle than we ordinarily expect morality to be. I welcome this, because it seems like an intellectual strength if we can account for morality's complications and discontents, as well as its existence. It may mean that some of the ways people tend to think about morality - as something objective, consistent, and absolute - are wrong, but so be it. Indeed, that explains a great deal; it's another welcome result.

[i] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997): 101.
[ii] Nagel, The Last Word: 102.
[iii] Nagel, The Last Word: 106-122.
[iv] Nagel, The Last Word: 121-22.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

All you lurkers ...

According to various sources, this is National Delurking Week. I assume that the "national" here refers to the United States, but the internet knows no national borders, so we'll ignore that bit.

I have no idea how many people ever actually read this blog, but I'm sure some of you are out there somewhere. Feel free - and encouraged - to put up your hand and say "hello" if you seldom or never post, and you're actually reading this. (I sure hope someone will respond, or I'll be feeling very lonely.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Evolution in action

I was looking at some pics I'd taken in Second Life over time. It's remarkable how my avatar has gradually become more realistic-looking by incremental progression since a few months ago.
Whether either of the SL pics bears any resemblance to the real me, in the middle for comparison with the old one underneath and the new one on top, is another question entirely. In that respect, I've cheerfully progressed from cruelly recognisable self-caricature to (perhaps less recognisable) super-optimistic idealisation.

Monday, January 08, 2007

I'm bored with the anti-Dawkins backlash

Since the publication last year of Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, I've been aware of a mounting backlash against Dawkins, whose views have not merely been challenged on their merits (which of course is open to anyone to do in a free society), but typically dismissed for showing a lack of arcane theological knowledge that is really of little relevance to debates about either the truth or the social usefulness of religion. Worse, many attacks on Dawkins have become quite personal, reading his words in distorted, uncharitable ways to make him out to be, for example, a totalitarian monster who wants to prohibit parents teaching their religious beliefs to children, a philistine devotee of "scientism" (a word that has acquired so much baggage that its use in argument is now a signal that the person using it is some kind of irrationalist), or even the sort of mad scientist who would favour coercive experiments on human beings.

I've read most of Dawkins' work and I have a good enough sense of it to conclude with confidence that he is none of these things. Moreover, he is a lot more subtle than the clumsy readers who are currently attacking him.

What is especially annoying is watching other secular thinkers seeming to trip over each other in a terrified scramble to dissociate themselves from Dawkins.

I'm getting bored with this. Folks, a strong dose of hard-nosed rationalism is actually good for us all, so Dawkins deserves thanks for providing it. It's okay to criticise religion, even trenchantly. What's more, you can review a book that does so without running the risk of becoming an enemy of the people unless you condemn it.

Dawkins' books are best-sellers because he communicates brilliantly on topics that thinking people care about. The God Delusion is no exception. When the smoke clears, it will be apparent that this is an important book - sure, it may not make a terribly significant contribution to academic philosophy of religion (though I do not consider it negligible, even in that regard), but it has made a strong, clear, and thoughful contribution to public debate on immensely important issues to do with how religion should now be viewed, and what its future ought to be.

Its key message - that there is something horribly wrong, even creepy, about labeling a young child as, say, "Christian" or "Muslim" - is surely correct. Young children are in no better position to understand, and agree to, bodies of religious doctrine than to understand economic or political doctrine, but no one would point to some three year old and say, "Hey, look at that little libertarian girl" or "... at that Keynesian boy" or "... that Marxist kid."

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The burden of global misery - let's actually do something

One of the most obscene things about the burden of global misery - the extremes of poverty and disease we see in the developing countries - is that the money is actually there to relieve it. All that we need is the political will. Every rational calculation shows that the resources available to richer nations could be put to work with truly massive impact in improving the plight of the world's poorest people, and with no real harm to the lifestyles of any well-to-do Westerners.

In a new article, Peter Singer has produced a set of calculations that show how much money would be available just from the upper echelons of the wealthy in the US, without taxation at a level that would force any of them into a significantly less luxurious way of life. When you add in other wealthy Western countries, it becomes apparent how conservative UN goals for tackling poverty and related problems really are. They could easily be financed many times over.

Readers of this blog will know that I am not a radical egalitarian. I don't believe that wealth differentials need to be justified all the way down into some kind of metaphysical bedrock. If some people are fortunate enough to be born with talent and social support that provide them with a greater than average chance of success in life, I think that is something to be accepted - I'm not going to argue for state action to equalise everybody. But that is not the practical issue which confronts us when we look out at the world. We don't actually have to adopt any radical political philosophy to realise just how horrific the situation is at the moment in much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia (and other places, too), and how easy it would be for the West to do something effective about it. We don't even have to make any significant sacrifice, just show a determination to tackle the problem with the resources that are readily available to us.

My heart sinks whenever I hear good-willed people complaining that we spend too much on foreign aid. The misunderstandings are so common, and so total, that it is difficult to know where to begin in setting the record straight. It would take someone far more articulate and far more patient than I ever manage to be in such situations.

We actually spend far too little, though it's true that much of what we actually spend is misdirected in an attempt to shore up supposedly friendly regimes, rather than to change the lives of the world's poorest people. But what I can't help wondering is how so much misinformation has got "out there" into the community, creating a completely wrong impression of how much is actually spent by wealthy nations such as the United States and Australia - and making it unnecessarily difficult for those of us who do have some understanding of the situation to get past first base in explaining it. Who sees a benefit in obscuring the truth about an issue of this kind, involving death and misery on a huge scale that it is in our power to avert for no significant sacrifice? Perhaps I am naive, but this aspect of the puzzle leaves me feeling frustrated and almost despairing.

Sometimes, when I contemplate this, I feel a moderate degree of shame that the causes I devote most of my intellectual energy to - such as defending stem-cell research - pale into insignificance beside the problem of how to help the millions of people in absolute poverty. Not everyone can be immersed in every issue, of course, and we all have our pet topics that fascinate us. What is so galling about the stem-cell research issue is that it shouldn't even be controversial. It takes a totally irrational mentality to be concerned about "harm" to tiny, insentient blobs of protoplasm. This does need to pointed out again and again and again. But there is an even more harmful irrationalism in refusing to face the facts about global poverty and disease, and our moral complicity in its persistence.

Given my meta-ethical views, I can't say that someone who frankly tells me that they don't care about other people's misery is making an intellectual mistake. Even psychopaths are not making an intellectual mistake in showing a lack of empathy for their victims. That's fine. If anyone wants to take the hard line of admitting to be a psychopath or a total psychological egoist, I'll accept that there is nothing I can say to you to prove you wrong - the philosophical quest to do so is understandable but futile, in my opinion. Of course, I'd rather not live in a society with too many people like that.

I'm confident, though, that most of us are not like that. For most of us, the salient fact is that there is a terrible burden of human misery in the world in which we find ourselves, but we have the resources to address it on a grand scale with no real harm to our own lifestyles. What are we going to do about it?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Rational relativism, vulgar relativism, and the naturalistic worldview

In some of my recent posts, I have been defending the rationality of certain moderate kinds of moral relativism, while making the usual sorts of points that philosophers love about the incoherence of vulgar moral relativism. I've also been trying to convey some idea of why I don't like to wear the moral relativist tag, myself - even though I'd be in good company with Gilbert Harman (for example).

One reason why an intelligent person might become a rational moral relativist is that she might come to see the moralities of various societies as different ways of ensuring a degree of social coordination (which involves gaining certain benefits from social interaction and avoiding certain things going badly wrong, etc.). If one looks at morality in this way, it may come to seem largely conventional, and therefore open to revision. However, this approach also involves placing a deeper value on actually gaining the desired degree of social coordination. That value will not be seen as merely conventional, and whichever moral norms seem especially vital to it will not be so easily revisable.

This does not entail that values relating to social coordination must be seen as "objective" in the strong sense that any rational being who rejects them is making an intellectual error. But there is a middle ground between something's being merely conventional, and hence readily open to revision, and the "something"'s being objective in much the same sense as the laws of physics. The middle ground relates to those things that it is in our nature to value or fear, and which objectively have a power to affect human beings - inter-subjectively and cross-culturally. It seems to me that we have very good (if ultimately species-specific) reasons to build institutions and societies on the recognition of those things, without considering them to be either merely conventional or involving objective value (or disvalue) in the sense that Martians or psychopaths would be compelled, on pain of irrationality, to value/disvalue them.

Since there are various things that beings like us are naturally inclined to value (or to fear), it looks like there will be a plurality of sources for a rational morality for human beings. This, I think, must lead to a degree of pluralism in any workable normative system. Furthermore, some things may be valued/feared by human beings only in certain environments, but they might provide sources for moral norms whenever those environments actually obtain. An example might be the exercise of certain sophisticated kinds of personal autonomy that (arguably) would be incomprehensible in some kinds of societies but are typically highly valued once they develop.

To whatever extent it is true that commonsense moral thinking assumes morality is more objective than this, an error theory of commonsense moral thinking (or metaethical scepticism) is correct. That does not, however, entail that we lack good reasons for acting in accordance with at least some moral norms. Beings like us have reason to act in accordance with whatever moral norms are most important for human societies' obtaining some of the things that human beings rationally value and providing some protection against those things that human beings rationally fear. Note that this provides us with a test of actual or proposed moral norms. We can distinguish between core norms, which might be almost unrevisable, and more peripheral norms that might be long overdue for revision. By contrast, a vulgar relativist will advocate slavish acceptance of whatever norms actually prevail within her society (with all the problems this raises). At best, a vulgar relativist can act like an Old Testament prophet calling on her society to honour its own professed morality.

By this point, the theory of morality that I am developing (and which I elaborate in a slightly different way in my "Stem-cell research on other worlds" article in The Journal of Medical Ethics) does not bear much resemblance to vulgar moral relativism, though it is consistent with the idea that even the most vulgar of moral relativists are onto something.

In the end, that "something" is just that we need a morality which uses only cranes, no skyhooks. It should be able to be grounded in the naturalistic account of the universe developed by modern science over the past 400 years. We should not have to rely on anything spooky like the will of a supernatural being, or the presence of objectively prescriptive non-natural moral properties, to have a well-grounded and workable morality with practical implications for the situations in which we find ourselves.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Walker on moral relativism

Over on the IEET site, Mark Walker takes issue with my recent sympathetic discussion of sophisticated theories of moral relativism, such as those advanced by Gilbert Harman, David Wong, and Neil Levy (who prefers to call himself a moral pluralist, but thinks that his position is a moderate kind of relativism).

Before I go on, I should reiterate that I never refer to myself as a "moral relativist" because this expression tends to connote a vulgar and indefensible theory that has often been debunked, perhaps most famously by Bernard Williams. Indeed, I am more likely to be found elaborating on the views of Williams by delivering searching critiques of the vulgar relativist position. In my teaching this year, I haven't had much chance to fit in detailed argument about the issue, but whenever I've had time I've been known to inflict the full critique on my long-suffering students. I do, however, point out that this does not necessarily mean that more sophisticated relativist theories are false, and I now think that this point needs more emphasis.

In my experience, philosophers can be too impatient with the fairly naive ideas that are in the zeitgeist, and get picked up by students, without stopping to think that more sophisticated versions of those ideas may have something going for them - the likes of Harman, Wong, and Levy are not fools - and whether students might not have picked up ideas that are a lot worse.

Walker's response to my previous posts begins by saying that Mussolini purported to be a moral relativist, and used moral relativism to justify attempts to create our own ideologies and enforce them with all the power at our disposal. This, of course, is hardly a tolerant attitude, and it makes the well-known point (which Bernard Williams also makes, and which I make to my students) that relativism does not always entail tolerance. Whether or not it does so depends on what else goes with it.

The vulgar argument is that if morality is relative to culture we should be tolerant of other cultures with their own moralities. As Walker hints, this is a non sequitur. If we are working with a naive form of moral relativism that claims we are all morally obliged to follow the moral norms of our respective cultures, then what moral norms we follow will (of course!) depend on what norms our cultures actually have. If we live in a culture where toleration is an ideal with normative status, then we are required to be tolerant; if we live in a culture where intolerance and war are held in high moral regard, however, we are required to be intolerant and warlike. Thus vulgar moral relativism does not entail tolerance. It demands tolerance only of those who already live in tolerant societies.

Nor, however, would naive moral relativism of the usual kind support Mussolini. It would not entail that Mussolini is entitled to make up his own peronal system and then use violence to support it. It would merely entail that he was required to obey the norms of his own culture, the Italy of the 1920s and 1930s, say. Whether the generally-accepted morality of the time really supported the actions of the fascist regime is not at all clear, though obviously the regime garnered enough popular support to survive.

More generally, the theory that Mussolini seems to have sketched is itself a vulgar one: that the fact that there are no moral absolutes entails a moral right to impose one's own values by violence. But of course, that "right" could not be absolute, either. The most that could be said is that such acts of violence would not be open to criticism from some "absolute" perspective, which still leaves wide open what might be said from various less-than-absolute perspectives. From those perspectives, it seems to me that the rest of us can find plenty of reasons for condemning a fascist thug such as Mussolini. We don't have to claim that our condemnation is transcendentally underwritten.

Levy's book, Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction, which I praised so highly a couple of weeks ago, contains a careful exploration of whether moral relativism leads to toleration. Levy makes the usual points about how it does not logically entail toleration, and the practical effect of vulgar relativisms depends on what else you believe, or what norms are found in your culture. However, he does not end up dismissing the full range of arguments that moral relativism does at least psychologically encourage toleration, at least in some circumstances. He seems to find the arguments on both sides rather inconclusive, and raises questions about whether toleration is really what we want from a moral theory anyway, as opposed to something stronger, such as mutual respect. I can't go into the intricacies of the argument here: I must ask people to read Levy's book for themselves.

Partly, the psychological implications of relativism depend on why one is a relativist. If one motivation for Abigail's becoming a moral relativist is that she comes to see codes of moral norms as essentially solutions to problems of social coordination, rather than as bodies of transcendentally underwritten truth, then, as a matter of psychology rather than strict logic, she is likely to see these codes, including that of her own society, as conventional. In that case, she is likely to see them as open to rational improvement and, in particular, to be prepared to revise those norms that she sees as the more peripheral ones. Furthermore, she will not embrace the vulgar relativist idea that she just is under a duty to obey the norms of her own cultures. Rather, she will tend to respect them (since they have an important job to do), but she will probably come to perceive some as more central than others. The most central ones, she might decide, are those which severely restrict the acceptability of violence to pursue our plans.

If Abigail reaches this point, she is likely to see the efforts of other cultures as acceptable attempts to solve coordination problems. She will not withhold severe condemnation when seemingly "barbaric" norms shock her sympathies - nothing in her understanding will preclude her from thinking that certain societies will have developed practices that merit condemnation from various human viewpoints. But she will allow other cultures considerable leeway in how they solve coordination problems, as well as being open to the idea that her own culture's moral norms are not set in stone, but are open to piecemeal revision.

In other words, she is likely to adopt a stance whereby she sees no norms as transcendentally guaranteed, but sees some core norms as very important from a less-than-transcendental viewpoint. She will see others as more open to revision. In all cases, she will see the justification for moral norms as ultimately lying in the needs and interests of human beings, as social animals with an evolved psychology, rather than in something like the will of a deity or the existence of spooky objectively prescriptive moral properties. She will not expect that every rational creature in the universe would adopt the moral norms, irrespective of its nature and evolutionary history. She won't even expect every human society to do so, though she'll expect to see considerable commonality within the norms of just one species on just one planet.

There is a lot more to be said here, of course, but it looks to me as if people who espouse some sort of relativist position of a rather vulgar kind might nonetheless show a degree of good sense in practice. Their theory might not have the resources to explain this, but it is likely that at some level they sense the more sophisticated points that Abigail has identified. I.e., they sense that human beings need some core moral values, for non-transcendental reasons, so not just everything is up for grabs. They also sense that there is a conventional element in the moral systems of their own cultures, so it is not a matter of slavishly obeying their own cultures' moralities - as vulgar relativism would imply when its logic is teased out. Rather, they sense that there is a moral core that can be defended on the basis of important human interests, but they also sense that the precise way this is elaborated in different societies is conventional, as is much else that can be found in systems of morality. They will agree with our more sophisticated friend, Abigail, that at no point is morality based on spooky objective moral facts.

I can't find any other way of explaining how moral relativists of the more vulgar variety think ... at least not without being uncharitable to them. There may be a contradiction in their thinking, but I don't believe that it is necessarily incurable.

In the above, I have sketched what a reasonably sophisticated relativism might look like. Once we start spelling it out like this, it begins to resemble a contractarian theory of morality - though the human interests it relies on do not have to be limited to those that would be recognised by egoistic Hobbesian contractors - and less like the vulgar theory that Bernard Williams demolishes so effectively. If anything like this form of sophisticated relativism is true, it entails that platonist meta-ethical theories are false. To whatever extent platonism is part of our naive meta-ethics, any sophisticated form of moral relativism also entails an error theory about naive meta-ethics, but that is not a point against it. Quite the opposite. I think that the only interesting issue here is how far naive meta-ethics really is committed to meta-ethical platonism. If it is so committed, it needs to be revised (like most of our pre-scientific commonsense picture of the world).

Walker's critique of relativism concludes by suggesting a sort of Pascalian wager in which we bet on objectivism being true, because nothing is lost if it really is true; conversely if I bet the other way, and objectivism is true after all, then I have lost the opportunity to solve differences by reason rather than by force.

However, this is making some huge assumptions, notably that those of us who reject meta-ethical platonism (or some other kind of objectivism at the meta-ethical level) are inclined to agree with Mussolini. I.e., we are inclined to think it is legitimate to use force, rather than persuasion. However, I see no evidence that moral relativists tend to think like that. Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary. Modern university systems are full of people (staff and students) who, under the sway of anthropology and the other social sciences, have embraced some kind of (often rather naive) moral relativism. Those people do not seem to be more inclined to using force than the rest of the population. Nor should they be - there are very good human-level reasons to try to resolve conflicts peacefully.

In practice, people who base their moral positions on a theory of human needs and interests, rather than on a transcendental guarantee, are usually open to exploring their commonalities with other human beings, including those from other cultures, and to negotiating mutually-acceptable solutions. Mussolini notwithstanding, it tends to be people who believe that they are acting in accordance with some kind of transcendental mandate who take rigid, mutually opposed positions, and are prepared to resort to force to back them up. Just have a look at the ongoing catastrophe in the Middle East.

I remain convinced that something like the sophisticated relativism of Gilbert Harman (though perhaps not Harman's exact elaboration of the idea) is not only true but does well at catering for human needs and finding a place for values that many of us share, such as those of peace and tolerance. Such values are not transcendentally guaranteed, as meta-ethical platonists believe, but they serve us well as human beings (and they will continue to serve us if we ever go posthuman in our capacities).

If commonsense meta-ethics includes a large dose of meta-ethical platonism, as J.L. Mackie believed, then commonsense meta-ethics requires revision. So be it. I doubt that this revision will lead to violence or the end of civilisation, because we will still find plenty of human-level justifications for our central moral norms. If some of our moral norms cannot survive, once they lose the claim that they have a transcendental guarantee ... well, I suggest that those norms are probably doing more harm than good in any event.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Dawkins blogosphere kerfuffle

Over the past two days, the blogosphere has been in an uproar over the revelation that Richard Dawkins had signed an on-line petition that called for an end to religious indoctrination and classification of children in the UK. I've expressed that in a way designed to bring out the ambiguity - was the petition merely talking about reforms to the British school system (such as the abolition of religious instruction classes) or did it intend the criminalisation of all efforts by parents to teach their religious beliefs to their children?

Dawkins himself was contacted, saw the problem, clarified several points, including the fact that he'd not intended to support any coercive actions against parents, and withdrew his name from the petition. Since then, he has further clarified his position here at The Panda's Thumb, where you can find an excellent summary of the whole thing.

Considering the uncharitable interpretations being placed on his motives by some detractors, Dawkins has displayed remarkable grace and dignity, and has emerged reasonably well out of the whole kerfuffle. Indeed, objective onlookers should conclude that his willingness to admit a mistake has added to his stature. It does, however, show how careful you have to be when in the public eye for promoting highly controversial views. At one point Dawkins himself notes ruefully that he can see why lawyers and diplomats need special training - and it's clear that he looked at what he was signing in a spirit of generosity, not while taking the cramped defensive posture of a lawyer. That is hardly a criticism - such defensiveness is not what we want from our leading public intellectuals.

Still, it all shows how careful you have to be these days if you are prominent in public debate over large, symbolically important issues. From this incident and others, I have a sense that Dawkins, in particular, is now in a position where his every move will be narrowly scrutinised in real time; every effort wil be made to discredit him, if there is the slightest opportunity. Even much lesser intellectual lights could find themselves in a situation where they come under a potentially destructive level of scrutiny if they achieve some success in popularising unpopular ideas. This environment is not especially healthy for public deliberation and debate, but it is the unavoidable downside of the wired-up world that we now find ourselves in. Somehow, we all have to adapt.