It’s too damn early for philosophy


Existential Comics makes an interesting point: most discussions of ethics in philosophy are about justifying what we feel are acts of goodness, like feeding the poor.

For a great many questions of practical morally, these three systems [deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics] will agree, such as “should you give your extra food to a starving man.” This would have a good consequence, be a virtuous intent, follow a good rule, and would be as God commands it. In fact, such moral values are so universal that it is hard to think of any philosophy, culture, or religion at any time who says that a rich man should walk by a starving poor man and not be obliged to give him bread.

Except one.

Not that I want to find myself on the same side of the fence as Rand, but isn’t it possible that deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and divine command philosophy are really just attempts to rationalize emotional states and empathy, just as Randian objectivism is trying to rationalize greed and selfishness, and that the philosophy is irrelevant to the humanity of good actions?

Damn. Questioning philosophy is practicing philosophy itself. There’s no way out of that trap.

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    Damn. Questioning philosophy is practicing philosophy itself. There’s no way out of that trap.

    :)

    For a great many questions of practical morally, these three systems [deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics] will agree, such as “should you give your extra food to a starving man.”

    Nah. Virtue ethics or deontology¹, depends on your one’s axioms; the other one should really be consequentialism, not utilitarianism — utilitarianism being a form of consequentialism — and then, not only does it depend on one’s axioms, it depends on one’s judgement regarding expected outcomes.

    (And, even then, there are problematic cases, such as that where giving that food to another will cause one to starve themselves)

    ¹ Panel two is a form of Divine Command, itself a form of deontology.

    Comic is playful, but hardly rigorous.

  2. John Morales says

    PS Also, it elevates Rand to philosopher status, as if she were anymore so than any other opinionated person. Bah.

  3. hemidactylus says

    At the end of the day it might all come down to Glaucon’s Ring of Gyges story (my precious). Do we act justly or morally for its own sake or for self-concern, as a means to appear proper in the eyes of others (for reputation or status)? Given the invisibility ring what would most people do (versus overt virtue signaling on the blog)? I would like to think that one would still act from conscience which may be both socially inculcated and a product of empathy and basic Other orientation that undergirds morality. Guilt would still have input sans shame. But isn’t dissonance reduction still a matter of self concern? We assuage bad feeling that stems from mirror neurons?

    Rand is a poor choice for rational egoism. Wouldn’t Rawls be better? If we are ignorant of our place in society beforehand do we support maximin? Set a safety net. Or does Nozick win? I hope not.

    I guess I just jumped Hume’s threshold. Are we innately selfish? Regardless of where Other concern may stem and dissonance reduction, can Other orientation be justified in a form of rational egoism or is that contradictory? Forget Rand. Not too keen on what I recall of Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument either.

    But getting down to brass tacks we could be innate egoists, but that doesn’t mean we should act that way given that self-knowledge. In a Huxleyian sense we should counter that tendency as far as possible, though Kant would warn that ought implies can. Empathy burnout.

  4. hemidactylus says

    I would like to add that kinship altruism is ultimately gene concerned and reciprocity is instrumental egoism and though it may bridge us to Adam Smith’s impartial spectator it is also responsible for some of the worst in humanity, such as cronyism.

    And given the problems with free will how is moral responsibility a sellable item? If we are innate egoists with no true volition are all attempts at rationalizing justice just useful fiction? Maybe a interpersonal institutional social fact? I think Dan Barker leans that way in his new book on free will. Maybe morality and responsibility are implicit agreements into which we are born.

  5. says

    I mean, yes? This is literally the point of moral philosophy: to explore and chart the motivations and thought processes that underlie morality so that we can better understand them and maybe make better, more consistent decisions. The major difference between the schools of thought is just to what they attribute the origin of moral intuition.

  6. hunter says

    On questions of morality, I find myself falling more and more back on what I can only describe as an “evolutionary” stance: we’re social animals. Therefore, the basic tenet of morality is that we work for the benefit of the group, which also benefits us as individuals — adaptive value on both sides of the coin. And, as human societies grow larger and in some cases more diverse, ideally we try to expand our definition of “us” as opposed to “them”. Sadly, we’re not always successful in that regard, and there are always those elements that actively work against that tendency, but that expansion of group identity seems to be inevitable in the long run. I hope.

  7. rpjohnston says

    I find that you can ponder philosophy all the way down and in circles and ultimately get nowhere: You’re left the fact that these are all arbitrary human constructs in a universe that is amoral and our existence less than insignificant because “significance” is itself a human construct.

    Looking for a Universal code that compels my actions and decisions, removing the responsibility from myself, is thus futile, juvenile and asinine. I am responsible for my own, and for my beliefs. So my “justification” for opposing Randianism is, essentially, “fuck you, either stop being a massive shitlicker or prepare to get your face beaten in, b****.”

    Based on this comic, though, my morality most closely mirrors Anscombe’s.

  8. rpjohnston says

    Interestingly enough, Anscombe’s portrayal of Sidgwick in this comic is pretty much part and parcel the true justification for Charity itself. Charity is famously useless for actually solving a social ill, such as poverty; it can alleviate the suffering, temporarily, of those it touches, but does nothing for structural problem that created their conditions in the first place.

    And yet, it is nearly universally regarded as a Good; those who are especially enamored of Charity often strenuously oppose Welfare or Reform; and often, it is those who are already poor who are most generous with their giving. Charity is INTENTIONALLY performative.

    The reason comes down to the Just World hypothesis, specifically that prosperity is connected to morality. “As God gives mercy to his unworthy children, so to do I give mercy to this unworthy beggar”. It is a way of showing that your are prosperous enough – morally upright enough – to have excesses resources to give. And so it is especially popular among those who have very little, since to be unable to give would mean being morally destitute.

    Welfare takes out the personal touch – the government taxes your money and uses it as needed, whether you make the decision or not – while Reform solves the underlying problem, thus both physically removing the opportunity for performance at all, while also disconnecting the consequence of Poverty from Moral Turpitude – and rendering the Giver morally equivalent to the Receiver. Thus, people who are invested in the social performance of Charity often oppose Welfare and Reform.

  9. tubewatcher92 . says

    Given that decision making has been shown to start in the emotional centers of the brain, I would say that there is a good chance that you are correct, P.Z.

  10. Akira MacKenzie says

    Damn. Questioning philosophy is practicing philosophy itself. There’s no way out of that trap.

    It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it?

  11. says

    Maybe the damn philosophers should have given the bread first and had their debate later?
    Rand is obviously committing theft and assault as the bread was not hers and she violently removes it from the hand.
    I understand that both points would have made the comic moot.

  12. says

    Philosophy is for having a set of mental tools to use, not as an end.

    A hammer and nail are tools. But, to justify anything becouse a hammer and nail exists creates that circular problem.

    Philosoply should be used to justify anything.

  13. Akira MacKenzie says

    Rand is obviously committing theft and assault as the bread was not hers and she violently removes it from the hand.

    Gasp! She’s violating the nonaggression axiom!!!

  14. willj says

    deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and divine command philosophy are really just attempts to rationalize emotional states and empathy

    Yes, I think so. Hate to sound golden rule-ish, but empathy is the key to morality. If you don’t think others feel anything, or care if they do, there’s not much point in giving a starving man food. You can study the evolution of altruism, but it doesn’t have access to those internal states.

  15. thirdmill301 says

    It seems to me that moral philosophy is less true than useful. In general, moral philosophy is circular; tell me what result you want and I’ll find a moral philosophical argument to support it. But the practical reality is that if humans did anything other than practice moral philosophy, society would implode very quickly and take most human life with it. If you spend a few minutes actually thinking through what it would be like to live in a world in which there were no ethical rules and everyone really could do as they pleased, you realize fairly quickly it wouldn’t last long and nobody would want to live there. So even if there really is no basis for morality, it’s still a useful thing to have.

  16. thirdmill301 says

    Willj, No. 14, I once knew a libertarian who argued that allowing the poor to starve and die of treatable illness was the moral thing to do because survival of the fittest and a better gene pool. And he would say no, there is no point to giving a starving man food; in fact, it’s counter-productive. The question of whether the ends justifies the means really comes down to just how much in the way of unpleasant means one is willing to accept for a desired end.
    I don’t agree with him. I’m all in favor of making humanity “fitter” but not at the cost of massive human suffering. But that’s because we have different premises, not because either one of us is incapable of taking our premises and following them through to their logical conclusion.

  17. consciousness razor says

    Not that I want to find myself on the same side of the fence as Rand, but isn’t it possible that deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and divine command philosophy are really just attempts to rationalize emotional states and empathy, just as Randian objectivism is trying to rationalize greed and selfishness, and that the philosophy is irrelevant to the humanity of good actions?

    No, those are meta-ethical theories. That’s not the same thing as normative ethics, which involves claims such as “you should give your extra food to a starving man” — a claim like that may be justified in one way or another, but not necessarily in the way that you propose.

    There are other, different, “meta-” questions to ask, about what normative claims are, how they fit into the rest of your picture of the world, and so forth. That’s the sort of thing the philosophers were discussing,* not which particular things you should do and which things you shouldn’t do. Among many other questions, one can ask about what it means to say that you should or shouldn’t do X, which isn’t something that you can appropriately treat as mysterious/unanalyzeable; and while focusing on those issues, you may put off to the side the fact that (at least in many cases) you do agree about which particular acts are good or not.

    *Then of course, Rand comes in and (predictably) acts like a complete asshole.

  18. KG says

    hemidactylus@3,4

    We are not innate egoists. We can see that people do, in fact, often appear to behave altruistically; and since there are multiple ways in which evolutionary processes plus culture could produce individuals whose top-level goals include the good of others, there is no need to look for strained explanations of this behaviour in egoistic terms.

    Kin selection is actually one of them:

    kinship altruism is ultimately gene concerned

    The fact that a parent valuing their offspring’s interests will be favoured by natural selection does not make it any the less altruistic: they can still be genuinely motivated by the interests of those offspring, and genuinely sacrifice their own comfort or even life to those interests – that’s altruism. This may be easier to see if you consider the contrary case. Suppose an individual who knows they are sterile murders all their near relatives in order to inherit their wealth. This is clearly as “genetically altruistic” (i.e. favouring the genes of unrelated others over one’s own) as possible, but no-one would consider it altruistic in the normal sense.

    However, there are certainly other mechanisms that could lead to the natural selection of altruism towards non-kin: the handicap principle, to name one: consistent altruistic behaviour is a hard-to-fake signal of high fitness, and so tends to attract conspecifics, including potential mates. Once culture comes into play, there are even more possibilities: reputational effects, and tendencies to imitate and to accept societal norms.

  19. chrislawson says

    I’m with consciousness razor and ParaLess on this one.

    It’s quite probable that deontological ethics started largely as a justification for existing norms, but both utilitarianism and virtue ethics are methods intended to help make decisions in more difficult circumstances than the obvious. For instance, a utilitarian might argue that we should not give the bread to a starving man if we could feed two children with the same serving. And a deontologist might refuse to give bread to a starving man who has been put in a pillory for religious crimes. And someone with (deranged, narcissistic) virtue ethics might refuse the bread because even though this act would be a small benevolence, it would feed the greater evil of welfare dependency.

    For all their flaws, these systems are at least attempts to grapple with the question of what is the right thing to do, albeit their greatest danger is that we can use any of them to justify horrific behaviour.

  20. DanDare says

    The Is of Ought

    We are evolved. We have a built in self care mechanism.
    That leads us to look at others as threats or supports.
    Cooperative systems with rough equality of position provide better thriving environments than antagonistic or unequal ones.
    As evolved creatures many but not all also have an inherited tendency to empathy which encourages the better social set up.
    However we have limited knowledge and we have culture which frames knowledge. That leads to less beneficial arrangements.
    As thinking beings we can think our way out of that cul de sac.

  21. methuseus says

    Is it just me, or do the majority of politicians seem to support the Ayn Rand “philosophy”? Even many Democrats are of the opinion that welfare needs to have a limit.

    I personally believe that we should provide charity, and I would call government welfare a charity since the government gives it of its own free will. Of course most people will probably disagree with me. Most things others would call charity are done for image’s sake, or for tax breaks, or for other similar reasons that make the argument of free will moot. Yes, welfare can exacerbate problems if done badly, but that doesn’t have to be the norm. It can be made efficient enough to not exacerbate as many problems as would be caused if it weren’t there.

    In any case, I don’t understand the whole idea that we shouldn’t give the average hungry person food. Whether by raising minimum wage, increasing welfare spending, or some other scheme, it shouldn’t be a question in any way.

  22. John Morales says

    methuseus:

    I personally believe that we should provide charity, and I would call government welfare a charity since the government gives it of its own free will.

    It’s not charity; it’s pragmatism. Less social unrest, less crime, more votes.

    (It’s the “bread” bit in “bread and circuses”)

  23. Owlmirror says

    Rand is obviously committing theft and assault as the bread was not hers and she violently removes it from the hand.

    The alt/title text for the comic reads:

    “This is a strawman of Ayn Rand. She would have paid Augustine a fair price for that bread before throwing it in the trash.”

  24. hemidactylus says

    @18 KG-

    Pure psychological egoism does seem problematic and I am using it as part of a two pronged attack on morality as a mental exercise to see what happens. Kinship “altruism” is problematic in not only how it reduces to gene interest but also how it translates to nepotism in practice. Sure we understand concern for family members and would tend to condemn apathy toward loved ones, but some of the worst social ills arise from preferential treatment toward family members. Kinship has a dark side as does reciprocity. Neither are impartial, a hallmark of what may be true altruistic Other orientation and morality. The rest of what you say seems to support an instrumental form of altruism (signaling and reputation) and not intrinsic altruism for its own sake, thus vulnerable to the invisible ring argument, though if closed program instinctive maybe not. The imitation thing is something to ponder. Is imitation related neurally to empathy?

    For me intuitively the textbook acts of heroism such as a soldier jumping on a grenade to save comrades seem truly altruistic and hard to approach egoistically, especially contrasted with using someone else as a shield instead. Those are disparate acts. I think of Rick Rescorla making the ultimate sacrifice getting his people out of the World Trade Center on 9-11-01. That was a heroic act in similarity to the grenade scenario. Maybe it’s a military thing, partially training or inculcation of virtues such as courage. Duty is another consideration hence deontology.

  25. John Morales says

    hemidactylus,

    For me intuitively the textbook acts of heroism such as a soldier jumping on a grenade to save comrades seem truly altruistic and hard to approach egoistically […]

    And so you jump to the very extremes of something as textbook something.

    (Textbook altruism is represented by actions in extremis!)

    PS egoism is, like utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism.

  26. John Morales says

    PS

    <

    blockquote>Maybe it’s a military thing, partially training or inculcation of virtues such as courage. Duty is another consideration hence deontology.

    Yes, maybe. Therefore, maybe not.

    (I reckon probably not)

  27. John Morales says

    hemidactylus, FWIW, the first part of your comment I thought was pretty good. No dispute there.

  28. KG says

    The rest of what you say seems to support an instrumental form of altruism (signaling and reputation) and not intrinsic altruism for its own sake – hemidactylus@24

    You still seem to me to be confusing the various possible meanings of “altruism” – unsurprisingly, because they are seldom distinguished clearly (I wrote a long review paper on these issues some years ago). Let’s distinguish “behavioural altruism” (alternatively “resource altruism”) – behaviour which objectively tends to benefit the receiver in some tangible way while costing the giver (if only by sacrificing some benefit they could otherwise enjoy); “motivational altruism”, in which the giver’s intentions are to benefit the reciever, rather than to benefit themselves in some way; and “genetic altruism”, in which the “giver’s” actions increase the genetic fitness of others relative to themselves. A given action may be “altruistic” in any combination of these ways, or of course in none at all. In order for behavioural altruism (or the capability of acquiring altruistic behaviours culturally) to survive in a population in the long term it must be, at the least, not significantly genetically altruistic – that is, it must not have been weeded out by natural selection. But it may be genetically advantageous to be both behviourally and motivationally altruistic, to non-kin as well as to kin. The individual who benefits from reputational effects or the handicap principle could be entirely pure in their motivational altruism, with never a thought for self – it is by no means necessarily instrumental. Whether their behaviour counts as behaviourally altruistic would depend on the timescale you consider: it may immediately benefit others at a cost to themselves, while in the long term, they come out ahead. Even reciprocal altruism need not be instrumental – if someone has helped you, your tendency to help them may increase just because you like them, not because you are calculating possible future benefits.

    I agree with you that kin altruism has its downside, but it’s almost certainly the evolutionary origin of altruism in general – once the behaviours and motivational states appropriate to care for offspring evolved, they could arise in other circumstances.

    Pure psychological egoism does seem problematic and I am using it as part of a two pronged attack on morality as a mental exercise to see what happens.

    Making a highly implausible assumption just “to see what happens” seems to me an odd thing to do. Neoclassical economists have in any case already adopted this assumption as an axiom and carried out this “mental exercise”, in order to justify unlimited greed on the part of the rich.

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