Category Archives: moral realism

I Ought to Be Climbing

Today was a climbing day, and I woke up tired. This happens with some regularity, and I have learned not to put too much stock in feelings of early morning fatigue. Like delayed-onset muscle soreness, tiredness is part of life’s Muzak.

I have learned to just get up, move around a bit, and turn off the thought process until the first 8 oz. of coffee get into the moving parts. Then, I can take a breath and figure out what I ought to do. Sometimes, I figure I ought to go climbing, less frequently, I figure I ought not.

I did not go today. There were traffic issues, household chores, homework for the kids, and an empty fridge, all weighing on me. But I could ignore those trivialities if the day looked promising from a climbing standpoint. If I had a good day out, I would return with motivation to spare for shopping, vacuuming, and glaring at a teenager while he did everything in his power to avoid completing an English research project on time.

However, today did not look promising. When I thought about the plan, I could not get my motivation to gel around the climbing which lay in store. Of course, a sort of meta-motivation was there, driving the self-assessment process.

Meta-motivation is part of the Muzak too, and is the explanation for why I actually get up when the alarm goes off, instead of following my tiredness back to sleep.

I can climb on the meta-motivation. I have climbed on the meta-motivation. It depletes itself, though. It relies on ambitions and creates them – getting to the next level of difficulty, getting payback on the route that thwarted me, keeping up or catching up with partners. Leaning on the meta-motives fails to reconcile the day’s motives with their sources in one’s emotional state, severity of muscle fatigue, metabolic state, etc. It works for a while, but the sources will not be ignored forever, and come back around to bite in the form of injuries and burn-out, neither of which can be overcome by ambition.

The day’s motive is the real thing, not the desire to realize plans and ambitions. Too bad it is so slippery. It can be reconciled with its sources in principle, but understanding the depth and relevance of the various sources is tricky.

The climbing-day ritual, in which motives get explored and reconciled with current affairs, is a moral endeavor, of sorts. Through it, I learn what I ought to do, and in a way which cannot be attributed to a calculation of debits and credits, or simple puzzle-solving, in which I just match up pieces of motive and facts at hand.

I think maybe that’s the way it is with all moral endeavors. They aren’t problem-solving with moral facts. All moral evaluations seem to suffer from the troubles of theodicy, if they are factual. The explanation for the existence of evil in a world ruled absolutely by a good God eventually defaults to the relevance of evil in light of God’s (infinite) magnitude. But all things go to zero along that asymptote. So it is with the determination of moral facts. One moral fact may always supersede the next, looking forward, and the qualifications proliferate endlessly in retrospect.

If that’s the case with the pursuit of moral fact, then pursuing moral fact is much like climbing on meta-motivation. The chase will lead to diminishing returns and, finally, to contradictions.




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On Hating to Hate Hating on The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight is a Western movie by Quentin Tarantino. The title is a reference, if not an homage, to the famous Western, The Magnificent Seven, which is an American take on Kurosawa’s film, Seven Samurai.

Though this post will examine the plot and characters in The Hateful Eight, there is no need for a spoiler alert. Representations of art cannot spoil the experience of art. That is because true art is not didactic. It is about what it depicts  rather than being a diagram, so experiencing the art is everything, and knowing things about how a work of art is put together can never substitute for the experience.

Whether you think The Hateful Eight is good art or bad, it meets the criterion above. The film does not document the Western landscape, rugged individualism, or violence; it is about the Western landscape, rugged individualism and violence. I happen to think it is pretty good art, but I hate it anyway. Let me explain.

In the first part of the movie, we learn about the characters, who are all forthright, tough individualists. They have come West after the Civil War. They have come to be free to be themselves. They have come to be free of their pasts. They have come to get away from the hell of other people.

On  a long stagecoach ride, the rugged individualists recount all the ways in which they have stuck to their principles, no matter the cost. They have been heroes in war and agents of justice afterwards, no matter which side they championed. What matters is that they have championed something, and have served blind justice.

But then, the stagecoach stops at a lonely outpost. The conversation moves indoors. Other people become involved. And in a ugly crescendo, we are shown the consequences of unyielding principle, and an ethic which extolls championing one’s principles as a virtue in itself. The result is scorched earth, and an endless cycle of vengeance chasing death, all sustained by the moral satisfaction which comes of living a principled life.

As the cycle plays out, the Hateful Eight sacrifice others and finally even themselves, a piece at a time, in the name of family bonds, racial justice, legal justice, and cultural allegiance. If the first part of the film invites the audience to share a draught of moral satisfaction with the characters, the second part challenges us to keep on drinking as it all turns to blood.

Because, the narrative doesn’t change as events on screen descend into an orgy of violence. The action is cartoonish, but the actors do not play it tongue in cheek. They do their best to keep it real. Their efforts seem pathetic at first, then sickening, as each side in turn slakes its thirst for justice on the suffering of the other.

At some point, the film invites the viewer to turn away from the escalating grotequerie, and when the viewer does turn away, that’s when the film really becomes art. Because, veering off in disgust is a hypocritical act. The audience hasn’t earned the right to look away. We were just admiring the characters for the very traits which generate the revolting atrocities in the second part of the film.

And haven’t we engaged in the same hypocrisy in real life, whenever we’ve bought into the Western-spirit myth of self reliance, toughness and self- righteousness without acknowledging that that same spirit has just as often  manifested as selfishness, callousness and zealotry? We love Lewis and Clark; we choose to forget Wounded Knee. We admire Custer’s bravery at the Little Bighorn while we stubbornly ignore the intentions which led him to that spot. We buy into the nasty Western contradiction every time we choose to watch a Western movie.

Yet the film’s indictment is flawed. We do turn away, so we can make the distinction between, for instance, Bill Hickok and Emil Reuter. In illustrative contrast, the original film in The Hateful Eight’s family tree recognizes the schism between our moral ideals and our emotional reflexes.

The young samurai who idolizes the leader of the Seven Samurai expects glory and honor from defending innocent villager from a gang of bandits. What he gets, in the course of achieving his victory, is one bitter loss after the next. He finally turns away too, and although he achieves some peace in understanding that the choice to fight is merely one grim option among many, he must also accept that there can be no moral equation which resolves those choices. The last scene questions whether his own choice really is worth it – and if he could even know anymore, having made the choice.

Tarantino’s film points an accusing finger to the same end, but aiming the finger sustains the cycle of judgement and reduction. Sure, it brings us in and makes us feel what it’s really like inside, but it is an oversimplification. It dodges the hard questions which arise in arguments about just wars or the enforcement of human rights. It leaves open the possibility of moral equations.

So, though I hate to say it, I do hate The Hateful Eight. And I hate that that is my inevitable conclusion.



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Poorly Shod

My twin and I share two pair of identical running shoes. One pair is green, the other, gray. The shoes are otherwise indistinguishable. I wear the green shoes exclusively. I have won many races with them, and I consider them lucky.

My twin wears either pair. He cannot tell the difference between the two sets because he is color blind. He runs just as well while wearing the green shoes as he does while wearing the gray shoes.

I flounder in the gray shoes. He can beat me every time if we trade colors, because the duller pair does not recall soaring victories. The gray shoes mean nothing to me.

Though the difference between the shoes is entirely subjective, it is nonetheless real and it is true that the greenness of the shoes means something, even if no one knows it but me.

Now, you can say that I am silly for evaluating the shoes by color. You can say that I’m doing it wrong (if you have a solid alternative to present). But you can’t say that a subjective evaluation, with attendant meaning and minimal truth (and really, what else is there?) inherently fails and is not real necessarily.

Well, I guess you can persist in insisting that subjective evaluations are not real, if you want to branch off into a dispute about what makes something real…

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There is an interesting post here about jargon. It explores one of the useful aspects of jargon, and as a consumer – indeed a purveyor – of jargon in the medical field, I completely agree. Technical terms give us simple clarity, and simple clarity is one of the most useful things around.

The post focuses on the utility of jargon within its natural environs – dialog between professionals, where it is quite useful as shorthand. As an example from my world, when I say ‘appendicitis’ to someone in the medical field, a fairly specific array of physiologic and anatomic processes comes to mind, along with their likely manifestations, consequences, implications for diagnostic testing and treatment, associated research studies, etc.

The conversation can move right along. Plus by way of its scope, the use of technical terms can serve as a check point in the dialog. If there is a malapropism, it is apparent.

When a colleague says, “The negative ultrasound ruled out appendicitis..”, the conversation must stop. We must clarify why he thinks that the ultrasound ruled out appendicitis, because it is commonly accepted that ultrasound does not, in and of itself, rule out appendicitis. The term ‘appendicitis’ as jargon, contains the understanding of its diagnostic criteria for those in the know.

The situation is different when a patient says, “I think I have appendicitis.”

Typically, the lay person who makes that statement knows little to nothing about appendicitis. The word refers to little if any of the content it carries when I mention it to a surgeon. However, the same process flows from its use, or rather misuse.

The lay person’s usage brings up the question, “Why do you think that you have appendicitis?”

In other words, technical terms provide some solid surfaces in an otherwise squishy conversational world. If we can’t alight upon them, then at least we may bounce off of them in some direction, rather than landing splat in misunderstanding or mere conflict.

The common complaint that jargon is obfuscation doesn’t hold up when we consider the honest usage of technical terms, even outside of their professional environment. There is, however, a dishonest way of deploying jargon.

The current poster-child for such corrupted terminology is ‘mindfulness’. In its original sense, the word referred to a non-reflective state. The idea was: your mind stays fully engaged with what is happening in its scope of awareness, without reaction or abstraction. It was the kind of thing which dart players, test-takers and athletes sought.

Now, though it still gets used to mean engagement with the present, it may also stand for a state of detached self-awareness, in which one is monitoring and regulating one’s responses to one’s present situation. Clearly, the latter meaning is at odds with the former, if only because the latter refers to an essentially reflective activity.  Dishonest users of the term shift back and forth between the meanings depending on the goals of the user’s discourse. If the occasion is a corporate retreat aimed at promoting harmony in the workplace, the second meaning is used. If the speaker wishes to convince the listener that chronic back pain does not require morphine if one simply ceases to reflect upon said pain, then the first meaning of mindfulness is implied.

Clearly, the sort of shenanigans at work when people bat around ‘mindfulness’ are what give jargon a bad name. Mindfulness started out its career innocently enough, as something which Zen practitioners and coaches discussed. But along the way, it picked something up. As something useful, it came to possess an air of desirability. As something desirable, it acquired the reputation of being something good, and then, of being good in itself.

Once imbued with moral character, the technical meaning of mindfulness, along with all associated contents relating to its use, became subsidiary. Being mindful became less important than being a mindful person, and when a moral role presents itself, it is open for definition. The corporate lecturer can tell us what a mindful person does at work. The pain specialist can tell us how a mindful patient takes medicine. The roles make the meaning henceforth.

The situation seems at least a minor victory for the moral expressivists – those who claim that our moral claims are not claims at all but expressions of sentiments like approval and disapproval. It would be a victory too, if the abusers of technical terms were actually making moral statements. But they are not.

When people utilize a bit of jargon with moral character, they are using it as a means to an end. They are weaponizing it. The listener doesn’t receive a sentimental expression from the speaker; the listener is invited to fill in the sentiment. The audience at the corporate retreat must make the connection: a weekly post on the suggestion board means I am mindful, which means I am good. That line of thinking isn’t really moral reasoning; it is a facilitated rationalization.

Jargon as a technical tool is not the problem. Yet, we are right to be wary of jargon. Its use should put us on the lookout for manipulation. But we should not be afraid to use it either.  We must just take care to use it mindfully, by which I mean being critically aware of one’s attitude toward the current subject, which was once known as being an adult. Oops…

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Let’s Do a Thought Crime

One more time, plus a  little more…

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.

Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.

Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car?

Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian?

If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?

Imagine that none of this actually happened, but that Andy and Brian each dreamed the same dream, in which they behaved as they behaved. Each wakes with a sense of satisfaction about his own behavior in the dream, and goes on to live an impeccable life thereafter, never harming a fly. Is there still a moral distinction to be drawn between the two men?

When we speak of morality, are we describing a fact with inherent causal efficacy – like a runaway Coupe DeVille – or are we describing an attitude (or the formation of an attitude)?

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The Harder Problem

I have a purple shirt, or maybe it is royal blue. I was never in doubt about the color until my wife called it blue one day. Up until that point, I never even contemplated calling the shirt blue, or that there might be a difference between my perception of the shirt’s color and her’s.

Maybe there still is not a difference. Maybe our perceptions are the same and the words we use differ unnecessarily. If I look hard, though, I can see how she would call the shirt blue.

Her and my perceptions are almost certainly not the same, nor are anyone’s. The alternative – that people disagree about colors, and so much more, because our language is massively mistaken – seems too incredible. Shouldn’t we have ferreted out even the most minor issues by now? After all, we do so well at finding agreeable words for so many things, even in the realm of aesthetics.

Plus, there is a good explanation for the source of disagreement between me and my wife on my shirt’s color. If one tracks back how each of us learned to classify blue and purple experiences, there are substantial differences. And, those differences do not only effect our use of words; those differences also condition our purple and blue perceptions .

Yet there is another problem lurking. Even if I could magically take a snapshot of my brain at the moment in which I saw the shirt as purple, and show it to my wife, not as a map or photo, but as exactly the same state of affairs imposed upon her neurons, she could still differentiate it upon reflection. The brain state in question would always be her experience of my experience, rather than simply her experience. My experience of the shirt’s color cannot be captured, as mine, by means of physical reproduction.

One might ask, who cares? The upshot of our limitations is tolerable. Big truths may be a little counterfeit by implication, but we are accustomed to working with flawed notions already, and do fine by it. For example, Newtonian mechanics serves us beautifully, even if it is not ‘really true’.

Yet, we do not tolerate our flawed notions. An optimist would say that we are not satisfied with lesser things, and are constantly trying to improve our understanding. Our behavior suggests otherwise, however. We want big truths in principle, and the certainty, the reality, that comes along with them. In physics, we don’t just want quantum mechanics and relativity, we want a theory of everything. In ethics, we want good and evil, and duties to serve.

So, the hard problem does matter, because it is motivating. And, it moves us to a harder problem. We want things to be true which are not merely false, but which are incapable of being true or false. The idea of a concept not being truth-apt is slippery, so an illustration is in order.

Consider the case of Baby K. Baby K was born over two decades ago without a brain. Not only was she(?) born, she pulled off a feat which few anencephalics manage; she lived more than briefly. Or, she maintained a metabolism more than briefly, because her status as a living thing, much less a living human infant, was in question. She would never see a purple shirt, or a blue shirt, or have any experience at all. And since our personal experience is what we value above anything (what choice do we have, after all?) some people felt that a creature without experience and incapable of it was not truly alive, much less human.

Baby K’s mother disagreed. She felt that K was born of a human, exhibited some behaviors, had a heartbeat, and therefore fit into the human peg-hole, albeit imperfectly. K’s remarkable persistence owes to her mother’s insistence on aggressive medical interventions for K, based on K’s status as a human baby. For K’s mother, the rules of classification were categorical. There are Forms in the world, according to this school of thought, and the Forms suck their creatures in, even the most flawed copies.

When Baby K had trouble breathing, her mother took her to the ER and demanded that Baby K be saved, put on a ventilator, and nursed back to health in the ICU. But was health one of K’s capabilities? She needed saving, but for what, and from what? We could not ask K about any of this, ever, even in principle. As her physiology counted down to its end, what was there to distinguish this tick from the following tock, and so provide a basis for valuing more of the physiological process?

When K came in to the ER, the professionals on duty did not want to treat her. Since she was incapable of experience, she had nothing to value (there wasn’t even anyone there to value anything). Efforts to ‘help’ K were therefore empty. There was nothing to help with and no one to accept the helpful gesture.

Remarkably, some argued that further medical interventions merely prolonged K’s suffering. Perhaps they meant to say that further interventions caused the staff to suffer. More properly, futile actions degraded the integrity of the medical professions. We become what we practice, and if the medical professionals practiced service to the beating heart, then they rightfully feared that they would become servants to the beating heart.

The hospital also expressed concerns about the resources that K consumed. This argument was a utilitarian argument and failed in the usual fashion. If K did not occupy the ICU bed, the bed would not move to an under-served area, nor would the unexpended cost of K’s breathing tubes and procedures be converted into mosquito nets for children in malaria-afflicted territories. Values are not generally translatable, any more than their costs are portable.

But the missing cipher in the professionals’ calculation was K’s value to her mother. Someone did experience K’s physiology after all. To waive K’s value on that account was just as degrading as crass service to the beating heart. If the medical professions seek to serve health, and health is function, then the milieu is everything. It was a mistake to consider K’s value on the basis of K’s intrinsic capacity for experience, just as much as it was a mistake to think that the ventilator was saving K herself from or for anything. However mistaken she was about Forms and their efficacy, K’s mother valued K’s beating heart in a consistent way. Harm would come to the mother from K’s heart stopping. It would be the same sort of harm – loss of experience and the possibility of experience – to which the professionals referred in their assessment of K’s lack of value.

All along, the players in the Baby K saga evaluated her with standards that did not apply – that were not truth-apt. It was never the case that Baby K was human or not, alive or not. Her case nicely demonstrates the nature of the harder problem. Our standards – good, evil, human, matter, energy, mine, yours, blue, purple – are not stand-alone things. They are made of their circumstances (our circumstances). Without a doubt, the standards serve us well, since our circumstances are necessarily shared. If the standards refer to the specifics, and the specifics are near enough alike, it’s just good fudging to defer to the standards. It is easy to forget that the standards defer to their instances. And we are motivated to forget, because we value our experience and we value our standards, and we are prone to equate the two.




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Realism in the Time of the Troonians

My son pointed at the massive dwelling crouched on the mountainside below us.
“Just one mortar round…,” he said, “Wouldn’t you like to see it?”
He was having some trouble adjusting to our move from rural Wyoming to the swanky part of the Southwest desert. He took little comfort in my assurances that all the car washes and golf courses would soon (in geologic terms) suck the metropolis dry and leave its snotty, effete denizens to perish on the parched dust like beached fish gasping for water. Even the fact that we were hastening the demise of this false oasis by our presence, did not satisfy him.
I, on the other hand, felt a certain degree of fulfillment from participating in the great blooming and dying-back.
But, I had to admit, I would like to see the house explode.
It was offensive to me, for a number of reasons.
The house was part of a cluster of housing developments and country clubs which had sprouted below a small range of granite crags north of Scottsdale. All were emblems of wretched excess, with the concomitant nomenclature: “The Estates at Xanadu”, “Regent Manors”, and the like. I had taken to lumping the lot under the oddest of their labels – “Troon”.
It wasn’t just a funny name; it designated a private golf course and a gated community, so it represented the entire syndrome nicely. The homes all cost millions, and they sprawled. The square footage stood for the worst aesthetic arrangement which our society had to offer, which was the joy of possession over the joy of experience.
Worse, though, was the history of the Troons relative to the surrounding crags. They had posed a serious risk to climbing access.
Most of the problems had been resolved with the creation of Pinnacle Peak Park. However, it was the idea behind the threat to climbing access that was offensive. The threat implied an equivalence, at least, between the Troonians’ appreciation for the crags, and my own.
Clearly, that was not the case. For them, the rock constituted part of a lifestyle badge. It was kind of nice to look at, and living beneath it gave the Troonian status. He could feel a little removed, and above it all, like the proud peak in his backyard. He didn’t want climbers ruining the image of the rock, much less disturbing his sense of splendid isolation otherwise by yelling ‘off belay’ during his afternoon tea.
I understood the beauty of distant peaks, too. But I also knew the beauty of the rock close up, under finger and foot. It was something more, and forever unavailable to the Troonian. He had no right to impinge on my more complete and superior aesthetic.
But how could one convince a Philistine that he was a Philistine? The problem was intractable. He would always have some rejoinder about a set of related values which justified his being a rotten little twerp. In this case, it would be property, the rights of exchange which came with hard- earned (hah!) wealth, and liberty. Forget the fact that he could not own the rock in any meaningful way. He had to either bring it down or squat below it. Forget the fact that his array of goods for purchase was already limited by the aesthetics of his society, which found it distasteful, for instance, for him to buy humans for any purpose. Forget the fact that he had already sacrificed the greater portion of his liberty in the process of becoming a Troonian (the chances of one of those poor, business-softened bastards even scrambling up the Pinnacle Peak approach trail, were practically nil).
The Troonian’s frame of reference could not encompass my own. He would never be able to appreciate the inferiority of his aesthetic relative to mine, and so he would continue to hold his own values precious by mistake. If ethics boiled down to the reconciliation of intentionality and motivation with truth, there could be no ethical resolution between myself and the Troonian. There was no commonly held truth between us.
Traditionally, that class of differences has been settled with mortar shells. The Trooninan’s annihilation would be a consensual truth. But it would be a superimposed truth, and an impolite way of changing the subject. It missed the intention, since it was no longer about me and the Troonian and our aesthetic differences, but about the prejudicial elimination of those differences. And it was discordant with my motive, which was to appreciate the climbing experience.
The relevant truth was that the Trooinian and I valued something about the peaks, and generally valued our valuations in a similar way. That last bit was the truth that our difference was about, and it was not the truth to which my impulse to see his house explode and to hack him to death with a machete as he stumbled, flaming, from the wreckage, appealed. It did not feel as good, acting on this second-order stuff – the valuation of values – as would a good hacking which made its own truth. I could see how one would come to think that feeling anything about a moral decision was a red herring. And from there, I could see how one would come to think that moral decisions had a real and objective life of their own.
I looked back at my son.
“Hmmm,” I answered, “I’d rather climb the Y-crack.”
And I would. I would rather climb, keep my voice down, leave the crag before dark and choose to see the little McMansion at our feet as a quaint feature of the landscape. Hell, who knew? Maybe the squishy critter in the cage below us was really an old dirt bag who’d hit it big in the lottery and looked up at us with a sense of appreciation and nostalgia.
Maybe, but I doubted it.

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

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The Whole of the Law

“…and life itself told me this secret: ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I am that which must always overcome itself.’
– Nietzsche
“Love, and what you will, do.”
– Augustine
“Become what thou art.”
– Nietzsche

The hole in his head was large and within it, something pulsed. At long intervals, he took great, gasping breaths, as if the deeper parts his brain were expressing their shock. The thinking parts had abandoned the rest, and all the little cells remaining, dependent upon the whole, would soon follow. It was the most shocking thing possible.
We would delay the full consequence of the cortex’s betrayal. His intent was to donate his tissues and organs. It was an admirable act, but one which made the pulsing wound more jarring. I covered it with gauze and did not look at it again as we prepared him for delivery to the surgeons.
According to the social worker, there would be no family to inform. That was good. Families wanted an explanation from the medical professionals, but the condition of the patient spoke for itself. I could add nothing.
Besides, the central message was, “You can’t understand.”
The gasping stopped as we paralyzed him with medications and took control of his breath. The sense of shock persisted. The leader of the transport team looked at the floor and shook his head as he guided the gurney out.
I went home. I tried to start forgetting such cases immediately. Of course, it was impossible. The only effective defense against the impact was to abandon all defenses. I drifted.
“You can’t understand”: perhaps it was a horrible mistake; perhaps it was a horrible truth.
If it were true, did we owe it anything for being true?
One of the dogs met me at the door. He sniffed me all over. I had washed my hands thoroughly and there was no visible blood on my clothing, but he could tell.
He looked up at me and wagged his tail. The behavior meant to get something from me. His bowl was empty.
I turned up a bag of food to fill it.
The dog took a few perfunctory bites from the pile of brown nuggets, then came back to look up at me again. When I didn’t respond, he put his head back down and leaned against my leg. I scratched between his ears. His tail thumped a calming rhythm on the adjacent wall.
“You can’t understand.” It implied that you ought to understand.
I paused and looked down at the dog. He noticed that I had stopped scratching his head, and he looked up at me.
“I can owe you though, can’t I?,” I asked him.
He folded his ears back and wagged a bit harder. He did not know what I was saying, nor did I know what he was thinking or what really motivated him to wag harder. But, I barely had better insight into my own motivations.
We could anticipate each other, at least. That was enough, apparently, to build a relationship between our species which had lasted tens of thousands of years. We could owe that relationship, and know by it what we ought to do about each other.
So, there were two ‘oughts’. Like all value judgments, each sought reconciliation with truth.
I stared into the dog’s eyes.
“Are you lying to me? Is it all a big lie?”
He made a grumbling noise deep in his throat and wagged even harder. I couldn’t make out the details of his response.
It was possible that he was an automaton, as Descartes proposed. It was possible that he was a cold manipulator, in it for the food-for-love quid pro quo.
But possibilities were good for nothing, except to keep me speculating consistently. To discover any truth in possibilities, meant transcending my place and time – an impossibility. If I wanted to stick to the truth, I was stuck where I was.
On the other hand, perhaps I could transcend my point of view. It seemed like I ought to be able to transcend my point of view. I was not a dog; I was a man and I could see into the future. I could discern the possibilities and necessities of this world or any other.
No, such aspirations were doomed. The logical means by which I hoped to rise were not themselves, real. Allegories of truth, they relied upon circumstantial roles assigned to players in their tragedies.
Following the tales too far afield, obligating oneself to their lyrical potentials and certainties, led to fatal contradictions. I could only purchase a simulacrum of truth with understanding, and understanding was not substantial enough to invoke obligations to itself.
His head-scratch having ended several minutes ago, the dog lay down on my feet, no longer concerned with the smell of blood on me.
I doubted that he had forgotten the smell; he was simply reconciled to it. Truthfully, it was what he ought to do.
My only real option was to follow his example.

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Meta-Ethics is Easy

I’m about to go on about a certain position within moral realism. Like everything that appears in this space, it is mostly rumination. You were warned.
I have my doubts about moral realism generally. I think it turns out not to be the case, at least in any traditional way. But I’m not certain of that judgment in general.
There is a particular brand of moral realism however, which is a dead duck. That variety is the one which claims that moral realism is an analytic truth, a truth like the statement, “all bachelors are unmarried”. I want to be specific about the position in question. It is not simply one which claims that certain values are analytic truths, but one which claims that realism itself is such a truth. It is the position that valuation is impossible without “truths by definition” as the result is otherwise unstable and necessarily without meaning.
The in-principle complaint is easily answered. J.L. Mackie does so in Ethics: “We can then offer a general definition of ‘good’: such as to satisfy requirements (etc.) of the kind in question.” Valuation occurs within the bounds of a subject, however large or small those bounds may be. To borrow further from Mackie, the universe doesn’t demand the existence of a knife, but that doesn’t stop us from distinguishing a good knife from a bad one. The fact that the qualities of a good knife don’t help us pick out a good spoon, doesn’t render our knife-judgments meaningless either.
But what about the pragmatic objection? It is the main argument in favor of the absolutist’s stance. The possibility of a subjective value system notwithstanding, it will fail in its application. Yet monetary systems work by the very means in question, and have proven effective and durable.
Theoretically, money stands in for valuable goods and services – for the variety of labor. But in practice, people value the money itself. They value its utility. The value of money withstands disassociation from an objective standard. The dollar needn’t be redeemable for a certain quantity of rare metal to retain its value. And the value of money can collapse. It isn’t valuable necessarily. Yet even when its value collapses, money doesn’t disappear. People value its utility even when its meaning is shown to be entirely relative.
So it is with meta-ethics. There is no essential supervenience of moral valuation on physical fact. There may be an explanatory supervenience of moral valuation on physical fact, and the necessity of that relationship is a legitimate point of contention. There is no theoretical relationship in the absolutist’s sense.
To illustrate the relationship between value and physical fact, think about murder. The word bears a negative value, but to what does it really refer? Is it a person’s death which necessarily bears the negative evaluation? We certainly evaluate some deaths as neutral or even noble. Is it a violent action of one person on another? Such actions are evaluated as neutral or at least justified in war or self-defense. Is it the pain of the victim or the victim’s loved ones? We sometimes view physical pain as necessary or even good, as it allows us to avoid debilitating injury. The pain of loss comes with love and it can be evaluated as a neutral adjunct of the latter. Is it the killer’s anger? Is it the killer’s functionalization of the victim’s life? Again, that is how people are treated in just wars, and it is the mechanism employed in the soldier’s decision to throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades. ‘Functionalization’ is the actual, ethical problem with what the murderer has done, rather than some meta-ethical fact isolated in principle. Value is not redeemable on any isolated fact. It comes with the whole circumstance, multifariously and specifically.
Again, none of this precludes realism. Maybe we do have an inborn moral sense, and some attendant, necessary evaluation of specific circumstances, just as we have red and green photoreceptors and so see grass like this and blood like that. It only means that realism is not a requirement, any more than red and green photoreceptors are.
The understanding that simplistic realism – where there is a fixed, gold-standard, theoretical, fact/value relationship – is false, has important ethical consequences. Returning to the murderer for a moment, the trouble with his act is an ethical issue, and not a meta-ethical issue. He may value his victim’s life, his own emotional comfort, his victim’s emotional comfort, his own life – and still get it wrong. He does so by functionalizing one value in terms of another.
In that case, the murderer’s ethical error is the same as the one which Solomon exposes when he offers to divide the halves of the baby between the two claimant mothers. The biological mother values the baby on its own terms. Her opponent values equity and is willing to interpret the value of the baby’s life – whose value she recognizes – in terms of equity. As Solomon did, we recognize in her interpretation, a usage error. However one thinks it is assigned, the circumstances upon which the baby’s value supervenes do not encompass social equity between the two women. In the second woman’s treatment of it, the meaning of the baby’s value has been surreptitiously changed.
It is no accident that we have Solomon’s example emphasized in a religious tradition. The stark moral realism associated with most religion offers an easy path to the ethical usage error, as it does to the mistaken notion that moral realism is an absolute necessity. Absolute values feel like they ought to be redeemable across circumstances. Absolute and universal are too easily confused, especially when proper usage is often inconvenient and always a little uncomfortable.
Solomon’s example is cautionary regarding the temptation to ethical short cuts and their usage errors. But, it is cautionary more broadly as well. His good judgment was necessary because meta-ethics is not easy. Whether or not there is finally a moral fact-of-the-matter, our moral valuations are specific and circumstantial, and they do not bear incautious usage. Saying otherwise is simply acquiescence to the lure of temporary emotional comfort, at the price of a flawed ethic. The position of “realism regarding realism” has no other justification.

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Can You Keep It Real?

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.
Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.
Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car? Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian? If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?
To take things a little further, suppose Suzy doesn’t die. After the car launches her through the air, she manages to stick a perfect landing in the grassy median, apparently uninjured. But Suzy’s parents soon notice that something is amiss. When they ask her, “Did you enjoy your dinner dear?” she replies, “The meal was such that it would produce an enjoyable sensation in a person so disposed.”
When they ask her, “Are you comfortable dear?” she answers, “My condition is such that a person capable of it would feel cold.” Suzy appears completely impassive throughout. She eats, sleeps, and goes to school just like she did before the accident. A full medical workup turns up nothing. Gradually, Suzy’s parents stop feeding her anything fancy. She does not complain. They dress her in a burlap shift every day. She’s apparently fine with it. They turn off the heat in her room and only crank the thermostat back up if she begins shivering. They say they still love Suzy; the extras just don’t matter anymore.
Are Suzy’s parents behaving immorally? What is Suzy’s moral status and why?
Let’s go one step further. Suppose Suzy lands in a heap, but survives. She is apparently comatose. Her doctors think that they can help though. They begin an infusion of medication that will awaken her. As the medication flows into her vein, she bolts upright with a look of horror.
“What have you done?” she demands, “Put me back. I’ve been grown for years, I have children of my own and they need me.”
What should Suzy’s parents do? Does Suzy’s inner world have any value? If so, why? If not, why?

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