Tagged: ethics

Build Up That Wall

No, I’m not endorsing the construction of additional walls between the United States and Mexico. There are plenty of those and they may be of questionable value. Instead, it is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and I’m quoting from Christopher Hitchens (who shared his birthday with Jefferson) in repurposing and inverting Reagan’s famous request of Gorbachev. Hitch promoted the Jeffersonian ideal of separating out the civic from the religious:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

from Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

A rather remarkable continuation of Enlightenment concepts that derive, typically, from a notion of “natural rights” and, even in the Virginia Statue, from religious concepts: “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free.” With the following paragraphs noting that human rulers are fallible and have tended to create false religions down through time, apparently regardless of God’s wishes.

Natural rights are an interesting idea that re-occurs in the Declaration of Independence and were also championed by George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The notion that natural rights did not extend to slaves was something that Jefferson was conflicted about, according to Hitchens, until the end of his life, with the issue of state’s rights a pragmatic basis for opposition to an institution that he both profited from and found morally repugnant.

Natural rights might also be derivable from something like Rawl’s  “veil of ignorance,” which, in this capacity, just reiterates what might be more simply considered a method for minimizing the interference of people in the behavior and thoughts of other people. This concedes that evolving perspectives on interference may reduce the universality of any claim concerning those rights. But an interference model only accounts for specific categories of rights.  The right to schooling provided via taxation would not be covered, nor would the right for equality in dealings in the civic space. In fairness, Rawls’ argument about rights is greater than this minimal fragment, but both show how jettisoning a deontological approach to ethics yields testable hypotheses.

Michael Boylan’s “Are there natural human rights?” in the Stone Reader covers the controversy in some detail, describing the agency and capability theories, as well as objections from Chinese and Islamic sources. The latter rise to the level of problematic, for if the individuals within a society complain that outside perspectives on natural rights are not their own, is there any sense of universality in natural rights? Oppressing women is Allah’s will, after all, and is therefore “natural.”

And so, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, I have to commemorate one of the greatest contributions to our modern world: a secular state with definable rights of conscience and radical freedoms, regardless of how natural that might be.

Non-Cognitivist Trajectories in Moral Subjectivism

imageWhen I say that “greed is not good” the everyday mind creates a series of images and references, from Gordon Gekko’s inverse proposition to general feelings about inequality and our complex motivations as people. There is a network of feelings and, perhaps, some facts that might be recalled or searched for to justify the position. As a moral claim, though, it might most easily be considered connotative rather than cognitive in that it suggests a collection of secondary emotional expressions and networks of ideas that support or deny it.

I mention this (and the theories that are consonant with this kind of reasoning are called non-cognitivist and, variously, emotive and expressive), because there is a very real tendency to reduce moral ideas to objective versus subjective, especially in atheist-theist debates. I recently watched one such debate between Matt Dillahunty and an orthodox priest where the standard litany revolved around claims about objectivity versus subjectivity of truth. Objectivity of truth is often portrayed as something like, “without God there is no basis for morality. God provides moral absolutes. Therefore atheists are immoral.” The atheists inevitably reply that the scriptural God is a horrific demon who slaughters His creation and condones slavery and other ideas that are morally repugnant to the modern mind. And then the religious descend into what might be called “advanced apologetics” that try to diminish, contextualize, or dismiss such objections.

But we are fairly certain regardless of the tradition that there are inevitable nuances to any kind of moral structure. Thou shalt not kill gets revised to thou shalt not murder. So we have to parse manslaughter in pursuit of a greater good against any rules-based approach to such a simplistic commandment. Not eating shellfish during a famine has less human expansiveness but nevertheless caries similar objective antipathy,

I want to avoid invoking the Euthyphro dilemma here and instead focus on the notion that there might be an inevitability to certain moral proscriptions and even virtues given an evolutionary milleu. This was somewhat the floorplan of Sam Harris, but I’ll try to project the broader implications of species-level fitness functions to a more local theory, specifically Gibbard’s fact-prac worlds where the trajectories of normative, non-cognitive statements like “greed is not good” align with sets of perceptions of the world and options for implementing activities that strengthen the engagement with the moral assertion. The assertion is purely subjective but it derives out of a correspondence with incidental phenomena and a coherence with other ideations and aspirations. It is mostly non-cognitive in this sense that it expresses emotional primitives rather than simple truth propositions. It has a number of interesting properties, however, most notably that the fact-prac set of constraints that surround these trajectories are movable, resulting in the kinds of plasticity and moral “evolution” that we see around us, like “slavery is bad” and “gay folks should not be discriminated against.” So as an investigative tool, we can see some value that gives such a theory important verificational value. As presented by Gibbard, however, these collections of constraints that guide the trajectories of moral approaches to simple moral commandments, admonishments, or statements, need further strengthening to meet the moral landscape “ethical naturalism” that asserts that certain moral attitudes result in improved species outcomes and are therefore axiomatically possible and sensibly rendered as objective.

And it does this without considering moral propositions at all.

In Like Flynn

The exceptionally interesting James Flynn explains the cognitive history of the past century and what it means in terms of human intelligence in this TED talk:

What does the future hold? While we might decry the “twitch” generation and their inundation by social media, gaming stimulation, and instant interpersonal engagement, the slowing observed in the Flynn Effect might be getting ready for another ramp-up over the next 100 years.

Perhaps most intriguing is the discussion of the ability to think in terms of hypotheticals as a a core component of ethical reasoning. Ethics is about gaming outcomes and also about empathizing with others. The influence of media as a delivery mechanism for narratives about others emerged just as those changes in cognitive capabilities were beginning to mature in the 20th Century. Widespread media had a compounding effect on the core abstract thinking capacity, and with the expansion of smartphones and informational flow, we may only have a few generations to go before the necessary ingredients for good ethical reasoning are widespread even in hard-to-reach areas of the world.

Moral Adaptive Bridges

The reviews of Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind, have begun in earnest. William Saletan raises the implicit question embedded in Haidt’s objective stance: is reasoned consideration of moral questions an improvement over traditionalism? That is, even if we accept that moral intuitions are emotional and reactive, are we not better when we transcend those intuitions and rely instead on a rational calculus that carefully weighs the pros and cons of personal decisions and social policies?

A clear example is the changing perspective in America towards gay marriage. The issue serves as a proxy for the general acceptance of gays and lesbians in society. And, critically, it is at odds with Haidt’s dimensional characterization of the conservative mind as focusing on the sacrosanct while the liberal mind is focused on fairness and reason. Why is it at odds? Because public opinion has moved steadfastly towards acceptance over time. The influence of tradition and the sacrosanct appears to wane.  We see this again and again in America; racism falls before the onslaught of reason, religious bigotry and anti-semitism dissolve into the background noise. What once was a source of moral revulsion is now justified as a source of moral standing.

How does change occur? We can invoke Sam Harris’ notion of The Moral Landscape to help understand the character of drift. Harris’ landscape is an abstraction of the notion of an adaptive landscape. In evolutionary change over multi-variate topographies, the primary problem that occurs is that of “local minima” (or, alternatively “local maxima”). That is, as species change in response to environmental signals, they become specialized in a very narrow niche. An alternative set of traits would yield better outcomes but, because they are well adapted to the local environment, they never jump out and discover the better set of traits.

One way of overcoming a kind of moral lock-in is through randomness. Trial and error variations move systems from one valley to another, deeper one. But with moral calculations applied to policy, there are deterministic mechanisms at work. Moreover, the gradualism that we see where public opinion changes in increments suggests that there are smooth bridges from one valley to another.

Moral Feelings and Reactions

Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times rounds up the exceptional work of Jonathan Haidt and others in his opinion piece, here. In reading it, I was reminded of the complicated reactions I encountered to an opinion piece I authored in the local paper about five years ago.

I wrote the piece, titled “Scouts and the Constitution,” following helping neighbors develop a rousing audio-visual tribute to their son’s achievement of Eagle Scout status in the Boy Scouts of America. His journey was not without complications: the parents had misrepresented through omission certain moral failings of the boy, and the boy had, himself, some misgivings about the requirements that were involved in becoming an Eagle. Yet, they had all persevered through steadfast inertia and asked me to help put together a short video. It was not difficult, though I tried to point out that Steve Miller’s  Fly Like an Eagle probably sends the wrong message on closer analysis (more on that in a moment).

We attended his Eagle event at a local church and I got to witness my video being used as part of the activities. The scout leader spent some time describing the number of local scouts who had moved on to military careers and how scouting prepared them for national service.  But then he let slip that it was the conjunction of their religious commitment and scouting that made them especially suited to defend the US Constitution. I felt oddly hollowed out by that comment, though I myself have sworn that oath as part of joining the US Peace Corps several decades ago.

The problem that led to my editorial is that the US Constitution specifically calls out that there shall be no religious test for any elected position in the United States.  That seems wildly at odds with an organization that requires its members to swear allegiance to God, though allowing polytheists in while excluding Buddhists.  I suggested rather calmly that I thought that Eagle Scouts should lead the charge to make scouting less controversially patriotic and more American.

And the reactions began, in online forums and among my neighbors. To sum up, those who considered the Boy Scouts to be sacrosanct simply considered me to be an ass and a liberal one at that for even bringing up the idea that there was something unpatriotic about the policies of scouting. But, amazingly, I never heard a single complaint that I was factually wrong or misrepresented the Constitution or the policies of the Boy Scouts. In fact, like Jonathan Haidt’s studies, the people were simple offended at the violation of their feelings about the institution of scouting.  I, despite having been a Boy Scout for several years, had no such feelings; the institution was subject to scrutiny based on its merits like any other institution.  Quoting Kristof, I violated the “loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity” portions of the landscape of their moral feelings.  Moreover, Steve Miller’s song about a revolution to feed the poor probably doesn’t work for most of them, either, although the Boy Scouts are otherwise strong in the charitable-giving department: revolutions just don’t respect authority.

My takeaway, like Kristof’s, is that reason is secondary to the ethical calculus that is at play in social and political reasoning. Still, it leaves us with the quandary as to how one’s upbringing determines what valences are attached to the different dimensions of moral reasoning. There is some evidence, for instance, that authoritarian parents instill conservative values to their children, while liberals transmit reason-driven considerations of fairness. Kristoff distances himself from that work through a few rhetorical efforts to soften and diffuse the role of reason in moral decision-making.

China and the Origin of Rights

Eric X. Li in The New York Times argues that:

America and China view their political systems in fundamentally different ways: whereas America sees democratic government as an end in itself, China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends.

The implication developed further is that:

The West seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift.

Li’s argument develops the idea that the repression of the Tiananmen movement in China was a strategic move that resulted in the underlying political stability for the current economic growth wave in China!

It’s hindsight bias, though, that builds on a kind of utilitarianism that asserts that there are political and social values that outweigh the rights of individuals (and that are predictable in their output). Indeed, Li asserts as much with:

The fundamental difference between Washington’s view and Beijing’s is whether political rights are considered God-given and therefore absolute or whether they should be seen as privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation.

God is, of course, unnecessary in this equation. What is more relevant is whether an individual’s rights to freedom–whether of conscience or property–should be considered to supersede the desires of the state or collective. This was expressed as endowed by the Creator in the Declaration of Independence, but there was no particular justification provided in the Constitution. Rights are simply agreeably good in the US Constitution, subject to the same floor-plan as the rights and limitations of the Judiciary or the Legislative Branch, and even limited in some cases where just compensation for property seizures is allowable.

Critically, protecting the individual through negative rights, when contrasted with asserting political power to achieve uncertain future goals, is less likely to harm anyone and shows the inherent weaknesses of proactive utilitarian ethics. Eric Li should take this to heart.

Puritanical Warfare

The LA Times sheds additional light on the complex question of America’s founding and the religious ideals of historical figures in this piece.  Author John M. Barry described Roger Williams breaking away from the Massachusetts Pilgrims to found Rhode Island, quoting his view of religious liberty:

[even] “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships” [should be allowed to pray or not pray]

“forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Williams is notable because he stands in stark contrast to John Winthrop who is the source of the “city upon a hill” that is a common reference point in presidential aspirational speeches:

For we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us

Yet, for all that shiny exceptionalism, Puritans believed slavery was justified by the Old Testament, harassed and executed Quakers, reviled one another as heretics, and believed that God had killed Native Americans using smallpox to give the land to the Puritans:

But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection.

The goal of a GOP candidate using the “hill” quote is to invoke the ghost of Reagan. Sadly, the important historical lessons about tolerance and the evolutionary seeds of our modern understanding of the ethics of freedom get lost when it becomes jingoistic.