Guest post: only an a-rational compassion


Guest post by Eamon Knight, originally a comment on Why should I?

On meta-ethics, I lean toward Error Theory (this week, anyway), and regard skepticism as a primarily epistemic stance. My usual approach to justifying moral behaviour is to note that it is in my rational self-interest to live in a society where I will receive cooperation from others, fair treatment, and some assistance when I stumble.

But as you note, this only gets us so far. My self-interest is conditioned by my middle-class status in society. For example: since I believe my chances of winding up as a mentally ill, drug-addicted street person are small, I might, if I’m being strictly rational, be reluctant to contribute (whether through private charity or the public purse)  to rescue and rehab services for such people. It’s a net negative to my personal utility. It’s only an a-rational compassion that makes me want those services to be available.

Similarly, if some very powerful person decides to screw me over to their own advantage (even if it’s just for sadistic jollies), I can’t really appeal to their self-interest — I have nothing they need. The best I can do is to band together with other less-powerful people and say: Try that shit on any of us, and we collectively will kick your ass (when institutionalized, this is known as Human Rights and the Rule Of Law). But that’s really only modifying the powerful person’s self-interest-calculus by introducing a threat. It doesn’t fall out logically from the premises.

Comments

  1. says

    Damn, second within a week! My head is going to get swollen….
    (Since it’s been promoted to prominence, would you mind fixing the typo in “this is known as Human Rights”?)

  2. Omar Puhleez says

    I hope nobody minds if I state the obvious. It is collectively easier and cheaper for us all to contribute to (at least) minimal social services that rescue and assist the drug addicted, mentally ill and otherwise dysfunctional

  3. Omar Puhleez says

    members of society than to do it the more expensive and less humane way via massive investment in prisons, police forces and all the rest of it.

    Altruism actually pays. A society based on a war of all against all (and anthropology knows a few) is invariably not conducive to happiness, or the greatest good for the greatest number.

  4. says

    The best I can do is to band together with other less-powerful people and say: Try that shit on any of us, and we collectively will kick your ass (when institutionalized, this is know as Human Rights and the Rule Of Law).

    How do you determine when ass-kicking is justified?

    If you get a utilitarian and a Kantian in a room they’re frequently going to come to different conclusions about the best (or “most ethical” or “most moral” or however you choose to frame it) course of action in response to any particular set of social circumstances. But you can’t immediately discard one or the other philosophy as “crazy”, since they’re both grounded (at least in some variants) on intuitively appealing premises. So what’s a civilized person to do?

    This is the problem of “reasonable pluralism” (I think Rawls originally coined the phrase): How do we get along with people we disagree with in the case that we can’t prove that they’re wrong? I’m personally a fan of the work that Gerald Gauss has done in the area, especially The Order of Public Reason, one of the takeaways of which is that in a pluralistic society the sort of unilateral ass-kicking which you endorse is very hard to justify.

  5. alqpr says

    I agree with Omar that it *is* in our self-interest to support services for people who might, without those services, be even more annoying to us than they already are. But the idea of universal compassion goes well beyond that – to caring for those whose continued suffering can do us no harm and whose present state we believe ourselves to have no chance of ever falling into.

    However, such universal compassion is not “a-rational”. We all have some chance of eventually suffering from something (perhaps, in fact probably, something only suffered by a small fraction of the population), and a society that practices *universal* compassion is more likely to provide us with comfort when that happens.

    The answer to “why should I care?” is because if you don’t care then you will eventually slip up and defect from the social convention. While this may cause you some gain for a couple of rounds (or generations), eventually the population will notice and will try to eliminate you from the gene pool – and we know that it will succeed more often than it fails because otherwise the convention that you “should” care would never have become established. (So if you really don’t care then the best bet for your genes is to pretend you do and breed with someone who does – or who is even better than you at pretending to)

  6. says

    @5: While this may cause you some gain for a couple of rounds (or generations), eventually the population will notice and will try to eliminate you from the gene pool – and we know that it will succeed more often than it fails because otherwise the convention that you “should” care would never have become established.

    ….and yet sociopaths persist as a single-digit percentage of the population. And I don’t think empathy is as genetically determined as you suggest. Somewhat, certainly — but it’s heavily modulated by social conditioning as well.

    And if caring for street people in one’s own downtown is too closely tied to one’s own utility to make a good example, then how about people in some city on the far side of the world? I’m pretty sure I will never be personally inconvenienced by the plight of some kid in Uganda. But I’ll still give to Oxfam (or whomever).

  7. atheist says

    @Omar Puhleez – October 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm (UTC -7)

    It is collectively easier and cheaper for us all to contribute to (at least) minimal social services that rescue and assist the drug addicted, mentally ill and otherwise dysfunctional

    But suppose what I want isn’t inexpensive, easy living? Suppose what I really want is *power* over my fellow humans? If I value having power over having ease, then rationally it makes perfect sense for me to support policies which tend to increase the gulf between me and my fellows. Even if this makes my life a bit harder, I still don’t care, because remember I’m willing to accept that so long as I end up with power.

  8. atheist says

    @alqpr – October 15, 2013 at 2:01 pm (UTC -7)

    The answer to “why should I care?” is because if you don’t care then you will eventually slip up and defect from the social convention. While this may cause you some gain for a couple of rounds (or generations), eventually the population will notice and will try to eliminate you from the gene pool – and we know that it will succeed more often than it fails because otherwise the convention that you “should” care would never have become established. (So if you really don’t care then the best bet for your genes is to pretend you do and breed with someone who does – or who is even better than you at pretending to)

    Your view seems too optimistic when compared with actual history. In the US at least, wealthy families tend to remain wealthy irregardless of the rest of the economy. There is little evidence that they ever end up “defecting from the social convention”, despite the fact that many of the family members act in quite antisocial ways.

    Your assertion that the pro-sociality is a successful meme because it leads to success for the people who have it, seems dubious to me. What if pro-sociality is successful not because it leads to personal success but because it is adaptive for the overall species?

  9. Scote says

    “My usual approach to justifying moral behaviour is to note that it is in my rational self-interest to live in a society where I will receive cooperation from others, fair treatment, and some assistance when I stumble.”

    Agreed, however, I’d say our primary morality isn’t about rationality at all. Or morality comes from our social instincts and empathy as mediated by our upbringing and culture. To try to make morality all about rational decision making may be a valid approach, but I hope it is not one that tries to case morality as something that is primarily rational. It isn’t. Why should the life of someone 10 miles away from me mean more than the life of a person 10,000 miles away. That isn’t rationality. That is human psychology. And yet I don’t suppose that any person who purports to make a morality based on rationality will propose that we should immediately stop paying for all expensive surgery in the US in favor of paying for more cost effective basic (and life saving) health care in the 3d world?

  10. maudell says

    I think this statement presupposes that compassions is rooted in individual self-interest. I don’t know whether we are, but I think there are other plausible possibilities. Now, ‘self-interest’ can be extended to be tautological to all performed action (in a rational actor type of logic). That is where the argument that all forms of help is based on self-interest, since we get a burst of serotonin (or similar). I think this point of view is stretching the concept quite a lot, to a point where it is completely circular. What people do is self interest, because self-interest is what people do.

    I think we can also plausibly say that humans, as a social species, have evolved to have more than self-interest, but in-group interest. I get a sense that there might be different levels to this sense of belonging, family is different than community is different than state is different than nation is different than human race is different than living thing. I am using the word ‘different’ instead if ‘greater than’, because I don’t think the relationship is necessarily going from small group to large group (for example, many people feel more sense of belonging to their nation than to their town).

    I bought a live crab last week. I love crab, it’s my favourite food. Yet, I still get worked up about killing it. Because it is a living thing, and we have a sense of connection with living things. But what about the utility! I get huge utility from eating crab! Of course, the discomfort is higher with mammals, and so on. I have no problem killing an ant. I think this goes beyond a utilitarian calculus.

    In my opinion, there are varying levels of interests, not all relating to us as individuals. Most atheists don’t believe in an afterlife. We don’t believe we are judged after death. Why would I care if the Earth is destroyed in 200 years in exchange for a royal lifestyle? Now that would be the ultimate self-interested trade-off.

    Yet I do care. I think most people care if the Earth blows up in 200 years. Why? It seems to me that a sense of group interest beyond our own is plausible (i.e. wanting my species to stay alive after my death for no other reason than belonging). I think it is worth considering.

  11. alqpr says

    @atheist: I never said pro-sociality leads to “success for the people who have it”! But if pro-sociality is adaptive for the overall species, then it is also adaptive for the overall species to have a mechanism for limiting the likelihood of anti-social behaviour. The obvious (and most common) way to do this is by attaching a cost to anti-social behaviour by including in the genome tendencies to punish it and to eliminate it from the gene pool. This punishment may not be apparent to the individual and may be deferred for several generations, but eventually if things get out of hand then something like the French Revolution will happen.

  12. says

    @10: Oh, I absolutely agree. If you want to know why morality exists as natural phenomenon, then look first to the necessary psychology of intelligent social animals, and note that it’s primarily mediated by emotion. But the emotional intuitions aren’t consistent from individual to individual, or even with the same individual in different situations. Since we’re also rational, and need frameworks for societies larger than a typical foraging band, we ask moral philosophy to sort out the mess and try to come up with a grounding schema, perhaps even an axiomatic one. I don’t know that any proposed system has been successful in this endeavour, though I can’t claim any deep knowledge of the field (hence my provisional status as error theorist).

    Also: tnx Ophelia for fixing the typo.

  13. alqpr says

    Ideas may go in and out among the fashionistas but among those who really think they just get re-organized.
    I took @atheist’s reference to “adaptive for the species” as meaning adaptive for the gene-in-context. The genes (or gene complexes) which encode altruistic behaviour (and its enforcement) succeed because they encourage the reproduction of their peers in other individuals who may or may not be directly related to their own host – often, in the ultimate exemplification of the “selfish gene”, at the expense of their chrosomatic neighbours in “bad” offspring of that same host.

  14. Omar Puhleez says

    If our altruistic behaviour was pre-programmed and in our genes,we would not have to learn it. Yet we do.
    Though a good part of a teacher’s role in a day nursery is heading off and/or sorting out squabbles amongst the pupils, the kids generally learn.

    Parents and teachers often encourage kids to put themselves in the other kid’s shoes and to empathise. It often comes naturally. Those without the ability to empathise are often shunned; often through no ‘fault’ of their own.

    On the face of it, the best formulation of the Christian ‘Golden Rule’ came from its earliest known source (ie known to me). Confucius (551?-479? BCE) is quoted as having said “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others;”

    Most of us in the West learn the traditional Christian formulation: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” For fairly obvious reasons, Confucius’ has to be the better formulation.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>