Category Archives: Moral Anti-Realism

It Is Always Wrong to Eat a Baby

(unless the Lord commands it)

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built

.This is the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the horse and the hound and the horn

That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

Okay, maybe that’s a little much. How about: “Martin Luther founded Protestantism on October 31, 1517, when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.”

This story about Martin Luther is not entirely satisfying though. Even if we build it out like the story of Jack’s house, it would not help us pick Martin Luther out of a lineup. We need a different sort of detail for that task: Empiric details.

There seem to be two basic categories: empiric and historic. The former pertains to the contents of our sensorium – our “facts”. The latter pertains to our activities – a sort of behavioral narrative.

On one sort of historic account, Martin Luther is a particular arrangement of quantum probability fields. However, it is important to keep in mind that one name, be it “Martin Luther” or “specific arrangement of quantum probability fields X”, for the one overall phenomenon is the same as the other. Both have the same contents. It is easy to favor the basic physics account as the “real” account of the phenomenon, because “Martin Luther” is reducible to “a particular arrangement of quantum probability fields”. The reduction in question though, is dependent upon bridge laws, which are definitions upon the two terms. Martin Luther is a biological organism, and a biological organism is describable by the rules of biochemistry which is describable by the rules of organic chemistry, which is describable by the rules of classical physics, which is describable by the rules of quantum physics. In this reduction, the the terms of one description of the same phenomenon are rendered to the terms of a broader, finer grained description. Because subsequent descriptions are finer grained and broader, it is easy to attribute priority to them, but scale is not equivalent to priority, and the bridging definitions, as all definitions, are dependent on both terms in the equation.

But there’s another kind of reduction possible – an empiric reduction. If we look at the carbon atom at the farthest left edge of Martin Luther’s right thumbnail, we find the carbon atom at the farthest left edge of Martin Luther’s right thumbnail and nothing else, because the reductions of the terms in that description, even if taken through the first sort of reduction for each, finally depend on everything else. This second sort of reduction, a mapping sort of reduction, is all that explains the particular carbon atom.

The sort of reduction available for the historical Martin Luther is a flavor of theoretical/historical reduction. He is the man who nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church because he was offended by the sale of indulgences by the church and had come through his studies to see the sale of indulgences as symptomatic of a deeper stagnation and corruption of the institution. The reduction in question is not the same as the explanatory reduction possible with the carbon atom. It does not “map”.

If we were able to magically create a map which captured perfect detail at any scale, and centered the map on the carbon atom, when we turn the dial to its maximum gain, we would expect to see the map merge with our empirical reality so that they were indistinguishable. If we tried to apply the same mapping technology to the historical Martin Luther, we would simply get a thicker and thicker biography of Martin Luther, like the tale of Jack’s house. The historical account of Martin Luther is self referential in a way that the empiric, explanatory account of Martin Luther is not. In unravelling the historical Martin Luther, we get an ever-expanding shell of reports, like an unending set of nesting dolls composed of Martin Luther scandal sheets.

Since Heraclitus, we have known that explanatory reductions are instantaneous. What we have not acknowledged with any frequency, is that historical explanations are timeless. Historical identities are fixed fictions, so that actions can be represented in a useful way. The distortion that fixed identity imparts on historical accounts often proves inconsequential. If I say, from a historical standpoint, that Martin Luther’s hammer hand was driven by offense against indulgences, my analysis is right enough to ground an understanding of Protestantism.

Yet we know that when Martin Luther woke that morning and gathered his hammer, nails, and paper, he probably did not have Protestantism in mind. In fact, he probably went through several psychological transformations on the way to the church which are only vaguely represented and summarized in our historical account.

For the record, Martin Luther nailing his theses to the Wittenberg church door represents the beginning of Protestantism. Reference to fixed identities in that statement (Martin Luther, nails, script on paper) is necessary. It is the price of constructing a narrative. In the case of Protestantism, we encounter little difficulty in maintaining the useful fiction that nails, papers, and Martin Luther are the beginning of Protestantism. We understand that the named phenomena play a role in our narrative.

Though we may place then under glass in reverence, we do not expect to find nascent Protestantism in the nails, papers, or even in Martin Luther. Protestantism is constructed from activities associated with the named phenomena; in fact it is a record of activities associated with those phenomena.

In light of the above, is it always wrong to eat a baby? The statement, “it is always wrong to eat a baby”, is at least consistent. It is a record of psychological activities on the subject. It isn’t the kind of thing that “maps” like the carbon atom in Martin Luther’s fingernail. It is a historic, theoretical statement.

Like all such statements, our moral theories are reducible, via bridge laws, to other theories regarding (in the case of baby eating) genetics, cultural heritage, and the criteria for life itself. And like all such statements, the expansions and contractions from broader, finer grained characterizations to narrower, coarser ones are infinite. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we never “get to the bottom of” moral statements. There simply is no bottom. The best that we can do is recognize them for what they are, a record of activities, and not the activities themselves. We will then feel a little more comfortable with what we already do: prefer different theoretical magnifications in different situations.

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A Bucket of Wings and a Pitcher of PBR with the Baby Jesus

The first time that the Baby Jesus talked to me was at YMCA Summer camp. I heard him on assignment, lying on my bunk in a group cabin while the cicadas droned outside. Us campers had been sent back to our quarters after an evening devotional to listen for a message from God. Around the campfire, our counselors had had admonished us to listen with humility. We had to silence all our selfish desires if we hoped to perceive a divine whisper. We even had to relinquish our hope to hear a whisper from the Lord, if we hoped to hear a whisper from the Lord.

As I lay with my eyes open in the darkness, I was having more trouble tuning out the insects than the cacophony of my selfish desires. The cicadas’ ballad seemed to come from the darkness itself. I had long practice ignoring the undulating buzz, having grown up in the South with no central air and therefore reliant upon open windows for enough cool to allow Summer sleep. With no clamor in my head, the bug song rose from the suppressed depths of my consciousness to make a noise again. I tried to block it out while not trying to block it out, or trying to try to block it out, and so on, until my attention became exhausted and let go of the sound.

Just then, something happened. A voice, or maybe just a feeling, told me not to worry. The speaker was there. Everything was going perfectly according to plan. I felt great. Maybe I even let go a few tears of joy that night. In any case, I soon fell asleep and when I woke the next morning, the world seemed to have a fresh scent, like it had been sprinkled with the lavender water of permeating divinity. The divine freshness lingered for a couple years, but from the moment of spritzing, it was doomed to fade. It could not be reconciled with events on the road to camp.

Our family had set out with a very aggressive vacationing agenda that year. We had left home two weeks prior on a mission to visit my grandmother and Disney World, both a day’s drive away. We would then loop back up to drop me at Summer camp, while my brother would go on to baseball camp, leaving my parents with a week of real vacation for themselves. The schedule was tight, and my father was not pleased when we pulled up behind a row of parked cars on a two lane road in the flatlands of North Florida. When we stepped out of the car, we could see an object blocking both lanes in the distance. Other people were getting out of their cars too, and it was quiet. We walked forward with all the rest.

On the opposite side of the road, about 30 yards up, a distraught elderly couple sat on the ground by their car. The car had a dent in the hood and its windshield was caved in. A few yards beyond lay a mangled bicycle. It was nice, or it had been. I had wanted a BMX bike like that for a couple of years, and I would have done with it what I imagined its rider was doing when the old folks hit him: jumping the banks on either side of the elevated roadway. The boy lay a dozen yards beyond his wrecked bike, diagonally across the lane lines. He was on his side with no apparent injury, from a distance, but with a puddle of blood around his upper body.

Standing over the boy, one could see that the blood was coming from his ears. His gaze fixed on something impossibly distant and his breaths came halting and deep. We circled around him as he died. Someone remarked that an ambulance was on its way, A nurse in the crowd screamed at the rest not to just stand there, but to run and get a blanket. She was upset to a degree beyond what the collective paralysis of the bystanders merited. She may have been wondering how Baby Jesus could allow such a thing. As a child, I knew that adults had their reasons and that those reasons were sometimes unfathomable. I just assumed that the same was true of the Baby Jesus.

I saw no injustice, but I saw his stare. Surely, the distant thing upon which the boy’s gaze fixed was his own death. Yet he would never get to that far place. If he just snuffed out, then he just snuffed out, like when the dentist gave me anesthesia to remove my wisdom teeth and asked me to count to ten as the drug took effect. I didn’t even fail to count to eight. I counted to seven and that was it; there was no experience of looking back on an unsuccessful effort to count to eight, only a memory of seven, then nothing. Likewise, if he saw a light at the end of a tunnel or rose into the ether to look down on his inert body, then he experienced a metamorphosis. He got yanked away from those final moments of physiologic cessation just like the anesthetic yanked me away from counting to eight.

If I had asked any of my fellow onlookers gathered around the body that day, I’m sure they would have spoken of death as a thing which might bear a scythe and a cowl. They would have named it an independent reality. But after that day on the road, I slowly came to see that they were wrong. I fantasized about what would happen if the boy could tell us about leaving his body. Jesus’ disciples were said to have had that very experience, when Jesus returned from the dead to speak to his inner circle. Yet they were only twelve meeting The One. I imagined a world where meetings with the dead were common. I imagined ghosts at first, but engaging in spectrology proved an unnecessary complication. The situation was the same if what happened to Jesus happened to everybody. Your bodily functions stopped. You went up into the clouds. You got a bit of a rebuild. You came back down.

If universal resurrection came to pass, the first generation affected might continue to speak of the Grim Reaper. But as the reportage of the pierced, crushed and disintegrated became commonplace, no one would refer to Death as a thing in itself. There would be misadventures and resurrections, and all would be properly seen as aspects of our total experience. Eventually, no one would even talk about Life anymore.

Though I did not appreciate it at the time, the considerations which began on that roadway in the Southern plains generated a frictional heat, which would finally evaporate the lavender water of permeating divinity. Over years, it dawned on me that Eau Divine had already transcended itself if we could put a name to it, even if we just spoke metaphorically. Like life and death, the scent arose from a great continuity of experience, which we could never look back upon from a discontinuous beyond. It was a slow drying out, and I did not even miss the scent until the next time Jesus spoke to me. That final time, I was sitting in a bar at lunch, far from Christian Summer camp, when the voice of the Lord came to me from a bucket of wings.

I don’t know why I ordered the wings. I was at a crossroads career-wise, so maybe I felt a little unstable and subject to whimsy. As I stared into the jumble of battered and fried appendages however, I recalled why I had become a de facto vegetarian. I felt sick as I imagined all the capabilities which those little wings had possessed in life, reduced to the mess before me on the plastic table cloth. But it was too late by then. I understood my place in the supply chain (having ordered) and besides, I could not leave food uneaten in my financial circumstances. Luckily, there was cheap beer on tap. I asked the bartender to bring me a pitcher.

I took a solid gulp of the rice-brew swill before having a second look at the wings. That’s when the voice, or maybe it was more like a feeling, came to me out of the bucket. It told me not to worry. Life had been given for life. It was all going according to plan. I could eat those chicken wings with a clear conscience, because that’s how it was meant to be. The essence of life got passed on, said the voice, and carried on from the poor little chickens to me. I stared at the crusty wings, and was not reassured. Those bits of bone and muscle that had been, could be taken for almost anything now. But they could not be taken out of circumstance or consequence, anymore than that boy on the road, Life and Death, plans both mortal and divine, or the voice of the Baby Jesus, coming, as it did, from the bucket, or the ether, or any other relatively distinguishable source.

I downed the remainder of the swill and pushed back from the table. Somebody else got the wings, and that was the last I heard from the Baby Jesus.

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Good Snake, Bad Snake

One bright Spring morning, Karen opens her front door and steps onto the porch to take the morning rays. She lives on a cul-de-sac, and in the middle of the traffic circle just beyond her front yard, she sees a large rattlesnake. No one else is around, but she knows that the neighbor kids will soon be out to play in the street. She must do something. Karen likes snakes (she considers them beautiful, graceful creatures) so she shoos the animal into the underbrush well off the travelled way, posts a homemade, “Danger Snake” sign on the path to the underbrush, and knocks on her neighbors’ door to warn them of the danger to their kids.

The following morning, Karen sleeps in, but her other neighbor, Kate, is up early and out to her porch. Once again, the rattlesnake sits in the traffic circle. Kate does not like snakes, so she promptly chops its head off and disposes of the body in the underbrush. Not long after, Karen appears, having heard some commotion. They stand together, regarding a small bloodstain on the pavement.

Unbeknownst to Kate and Karen, Marsha, the nosey insomniac who lives 2 doors down, has been observing the events of the last two mornings. Marsha feels moved to acknowledge the noble actions of her neighbors, so she promptly goes out to present each of them with a card of appreciation which reads, “Thank you for your good work in your good works.”

It is pretty clear what Marsha means by the first “good”. She thinks that each of her neighbors, given their purposes, acted in a manner to most effectively realize the ends of those purposes. The first “good” is instrumental; it describes the effectiveness of a means to an end. It may be tempting to say that the second good is just the same. For instance, one could propose an argument from evolutionary psychology: We seek to bring about good circumstances and avoid bad ones because such efforts improve our odds of survival. Assuming the viability of an evolutionary account. we are still left with an elephant in the room. We have no explanation of our valuation of life. It is easy to claim it as a logical tautology: Living things live because that’s what makes them living things. But living is an activity. To live is to strive to survive, so to speak. The motivation to carry on this activity is intrinsic to the activity and if living is self explanatory, then so is the life-motive.

Closely examined, all motive looks this way.* When I reach for a beer, for instance, certain neurons have responded to environmental cues. The activity of those neurons causes in me the notion that I want to have a beer, which turns on other circuits in the prefrontal cortex, spinal cord, neuromuscular junction, etc. At the end of it all, I have a beer and an exhaustive explanation. The story of my obtaining beer is a story, still. It is representational. The story exists as the result of a desire to tell stories, and the desire to tell stories has its own, exhaustive reduction. But all the branching stories of motives are fixed by an active orientation, which I also indicate when I say that I want a beer.

And as Hume, among others, observed, when we talk about moral goodness, we don’t just tell a story containing an end and its means, we do also refer to a motive directly. Good, if it is something, is something which we ought to do. Even when we speak of evil acts, we don’t simply mean acts which are ignorant or negligent, we mean acts which somehow fail in their motivations. Marsha’s two ‘goods’ do mean two different things. The first meaning is instrumental. The second is something – else.

To get at what else a moral value may be, it may be instructive to examine how Karen evaluates the snake. For her, the snake elicits a sense of beauty which weights her moral calculus. She has a moral obligation to the neighbor kids, and aesthetic obligation(?) to the snake. Nor do those values seem bound to the snake; they seem to be bound to the beholder. Kate certainly does not attribute the same value to the snake. We must look to the motivation of the evaluator to account for the snake’s aesthetic value.

We can attempt a functional account of the discrepancy in snake esteem. The snake has symmetry, color contrast, impressive venom, etc. which the human brain finds attractive, and which Karen has the proper sort of history regarding snakes (a history which Kate lacks) to allow an appreciation of snakes on the above grounds. The reduction can give us an instrumental evaluation of the snake’s aesthetic value. For instance, we will have a pretty good idea of where Karen’s line is when it comes to snake rescue – will she risk her life to save one, or just suffer a little inconvenience. We will not have a good account of why the line is where it is.

George Moore refers to the analogous moral problem with his open question. He noted that we can identify an act as good, but we cannot find an attribute inherent in the act itself which makes it good. When we say something is morally good, we don’t seem to be able to go on and say that it is constitutive of good, so that any morally good thing contributes to our knowledge of good. We speak as though we already know it, even when we have changed our minds about what is or is not good! It is the same with the line demarcating the limits of snake-appreciation for Karen; we start behind it and cannot pick apart a final source of its position in the facts we have about the line. The value attribution seems to come from within the person making it, and their motive.

Moore postulated a moral intuition to explain the whole moral mess. We have a faculty which responds to events by arousing Good and Bad sentiments in us. With a moral sense, it all occurs in the heart, which is only stimulated by events past and current.

Aesthetic sentiments also occur ‘in the heart’. A urinal in the bus station moves very few, while the same urinal in a gallery moves many – and beyond its representation. In fact, part of what the gallery urinal represents is the significance of aesthetic disagreement. The difference, the urinal reminds us, occurs in the heart and its appreciation of white porcelain curves, beyond any differential understanding of context and symbol – the instrumental aspects of art.

So it is with morality, as well. Aesthetic evaluations and moral evaluations prove difficult to distinguish, because they share a structure. But aesthetics are appreciated, not by the stimulation of a mysterious, aesthetic faculty, but by an operational method. When we consider the urinal in the gallery, we take in its given structure and attempt to align the proper elements of that structure in terms of our given motive. The sense of appreciation that we enjoy after the act of appreciation may be mistaken for the appreciation itself, but the sense is merely a tale of reminiscence.

The appreciation of the child/snake situation occurs in the moment, too. When we look back on it, we can analyze the process, but the analysis is not the process. It leaves facts in its wake, but the facts are not the act, and the act is what we wish to indicate when we speak in moral terms. We feel comfortable with this sort of arrangement in similar cases of activity, like painting or juggling. We understand that instruction in painting or juggling does not effectively capture the act, and we do not expect that a manual detailing the performance of the activity, even if the manual were complete in every detail, would enable us to paint or juggle the first time, every time or even any time.

The intuitionists got it right regarding our moral situation. Moralizing occurs within the speaker, and the speaker’s report inevitably misses a key element of morality when the report attributes moral properties or refers to moral facts. But what seems to be going on is not the inscrutable machination of a non-natural moral sense. Instead, it looks like the enactment of a method.

______________________________________________________________________________* I think that is because all motive devolves to a single motive – der Wille zur Macht.

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He Baked a Cake with Duty in It

Duties never truly conflict. Unless they are truly categorical. But if they are not categorical, are they truly duties? 

You know what, I gotta take a walk. Forget all that stuff I said before.

– Immanuel Kant (astral form) as related to me, 0300 June 8, 2018

 

Every act is a political act.

-Cain, to whoever would listen.

A baker in Colorado claims to have managed the feat. He said that the totally gay-free contents of his cake fulfilled his obligation to show love for the Baby Jesus. Because, as everybody knows, the Baby Jesus don’t like the gays. Wait. Strike that. The Baby Jesus loves everybody, so he just don’t like the gayness.

Anyway, this baker loved the Baby Jesus. He refused to bake any cake with any gayness in it, and in doing so, baked into each cake his duty to abide by the wishes of the Baby Jesus.

Some might ask how the baker’s achievement were possible. Cakes are made of flour, sugar, mixing and heat. You will never find respect for the Baby Jesus between the crumbs or under the frosting. But that assessment is not fair.

The folks who ask to see the duty in the cake (God bless their simple hearts) are the same ones who, when told that green experiences reside in the brain, ask to open up a skull to see the green inside. They like to hold the notion of supervenience  upside down, because it seems easier to grasp that way.

But it isn’t so much that neurons and photons and retinal pigments add up to green; the point is that green experiences break down in certain, common ways. Admittedly, the difference is a little tricky to apprehend. It has eluded smarter folks than the poor bastards delving for green things in a pile of brains. Mistakes about the difference have led some very smart people to propose that we can get rid of green, and everything else. Instead of saying “green”, we can just hold up a balance sheet with all the retinal pigments, neurons and photons on it. But then we’ll need a balance sheet for the neurons, photons and retinal pigments, and so on and so on. You can’t get away without primarily localizing things somehow, and you always end up reaching for the balance sheet labeled “green” when you want to indicate “green”, and then you  might as well just say “green” in the first place.

The same mistake about supervenience gives rise to the notion of emergence. Emergence is the balance-sheet scheme for those who just can’t let go of Aristotle (and a very uncharitable reading of Aristotle at that). The only thing on the balance sheet, in the emergent case, is something like a metaphysical time-share: property theoretically without exclusive ownership, but available for occupancy by a variety of occupants in turn. For green, the pigments, neurons and photons tally up to a certain critical point and then begin acting with ‘greenity’, which subsequently begins to explain everything else directly related to green. In the case of the cake, flour, sugar, water, heat, and so on tally up to a certain point and suddenly – cakeity. Ask the obvious question – where does the cakeity or the greenity begin – and the whole thing unravels, just like the more detailed balance-sheet scheme. You circle back to simply saying ‘cake’ and ‘green’, and ‘cake’ and ‘green’ then break down in certain, common ways. Each cake and each green perception has its own, unique identity, without a homogenizing property reaching down to bring it into the categorical fold.

Now we can get around to duty in the cake. Not only will we fail to find specks of duty among the crumbs, but we can’t expect it to pop out of the baking process, or even to be the sum of baking, Bible verses, and love of the Baby Jesus. That’s OK, though. So far, duty fares no worse than green, or cake itself. But it is worse for duty, because duty does not break down in any reliable way. It doesn’t even break down in any definitive way.

The baker baked a cake without any gayness in it, because he loved the Baby Jesus. He told the world, but he would have felt that he was true to the Baby Jesus, even if the baker himself was the only one who knew that there was no gayness in the cake. So then, the duty can’t break down to any relationship between ideas or even attitudes. Maybe it breaks down to just the baker’s attitude toward the Baby Jesus. But then you don’t have an account of the compelling part of the perceived duty, especially regarding gay-free cake.

Loving the Baby Jesus is just loving the Baby Jesus. In itself, the attitude does not contain any obligation. You can’t break down moral obligations (or any other moral “properties”) to a supervenience base. Therefore, we also lack reliable generalizations regarding moral obligations and moral representations.

You can’t even make a cakeity (emergent) case for duties, because duties don’t arguably emerge at some compositionally determined phase. Duties can pop up anywhere along the way, from turning on the lights in the bakery to accepting money for the cake.

The inevitable response to the above observation is an argument from incredulity which refers to the holocaust or infanticide. You can always say that it is morally wrong to throw a baby on the campfire, bake a gay cake, or exterminate a certain group of people, but such statements are always after the fact and are supported by historical fixation of the facts in the acrylic of moral terminology.

After all, moral arguments have been made in favor of all the above activities. And, the moral advocates have not differed with moral opponents of those actions on the factual contents of the actions; they have merely assigned different moral properties to the things and events which can, like a cake or a fire, be said to have a supervenience base, and about which effective theories are possible. In other words, moral ‘properties’ are merely attitudinal ephemera, pinned to the facts of the matter, whatever the matter may be.

 

 

 

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Is Sugar Sweet?

Yes – let’s get that out of the way from the start. When presented with two piles of white granules a person can tell the salt pile from the sugar pile because the sugar pile is sweet. So much for the easy questions; on to the tougher ones.

What is sweet? Sweet is certainly not sugar, or stevia, or aspartame. It isn’t even a particular configuration of atoms and bonds in sweet molecules. Sweet is a personal experience upon which specific molecules, receptors, neurons, white granules, blueberries, and so on, can be mapped. Likewise, sweet is not sweet in and of itself, despite the fact that it is an entirely private matter. It maps onto other people’s experience, because those other people supervene upon certain, specific molecules, receptors and neurons in the vicinity of one’s own, and therefore in the vicinity of one’s own sweet experiences.

The great mass of interlocking phenomena realizes sweet, as much as anything gets realized.

Not everything in our linguistic pantheon is so lucky.

For instance, instances and their incidentals do not seem to realize moral properties.

We could sweep all the sweet experiences, with their related bits, into a neat pile and happily proclaim, “There is sweet.”

We could not do the same with moral good. There is stuff that won’t go into the dustpan, because moral terms are not simply rooted in our experience, like sweetness. Moral terms have a peculiar, sticky normativity to them which ‘sweetness’, and even terms quite similar to moral terms, such as ‘beautiful’, lack. Really, moralizing resembles sweeping together a pile of definitions for properties much less than it resembles curling.

Curling is a game played with a heavy stone equipped with a handle, a couple of brooms and a large sheet of ice. Teams of several players compete against one another. For each team, one player gives the stone a push across the ice sheet, while two other players frantically sweep the ice to speed or slow the stone’s progress. To win the game, a team’s stone must stop closest to a target painted on the ice.

The above is a description of curling, but it is not curling. Nor is the contents of the International Curling Hall Of Fame*, curling, Nor is the official curling rulebook. What the three intrepid curlers are doing out there on the ice – that is curling. When we say “curling” in reference to the structure of the rules, the stories of all the previous curling games, or a peculiar Canadian tradition, we speak in error.

Likewise with morality, which is not a set of stuff, a structure, or even a category of behavior. It is our most popular game, though according to Hemmingway it might really be a sport, since we play it to the death with alarming frequency. The rules are simple: align intention (as in the ‘aboutness’ of your attention ), truth (the bare contents of your intentional object) and motive (and of course there is but one motive).

When we think, “helping others is good”, the objects of our consideration are not specific actions, consequences, or even values. We can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, but then we are browsing the Hall of Fame and telling ourselves that it contains the activity. In the Hall, we have the glass case of desired outcomes (good things). There is a spot on the shelf for reciprocal attitudes (the basis of helping). Yet the cases of items are merely tokens of success and failure.

When we set out to help someone, we have a perception of that person in a context with a certain shape and extent. A motive fixes our attention to the perception. Then, we act to reconcile the bare contents of our motive with the bare contents of the related perception. The activity is what we mean by ‘morality’.

For example, I am at the coliseum for some good, clean fun. The lions are just about to do their thing, and I spy little Claudius down front, crying. He is too short to see over the wall. If I am a simple man, disturbed by the child’s distress, I will boost him up to make him happy. If I am a more subtle sort, I will give him some instruction on how to find a better vantage point, so that he never needs another boost. If I am truly enlightened, I will take him out of the coliseum for a snack, because encouraging him to watch lions tearing prisoners apart as entertainment would contradict my impulse to help Claudius in the first place, since such impulses spring from an empathetic instinct.

Each helper can see the efforts of the other helpers as helping. Each sort of help is morally good. But the deeds, outcomes, and judgements are all secondary. The primary thing is an underlying psychological activity. And that is not a thing at all, just like curling.


*I do not know if this place exists, but it should.

 

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Aimlessness

Purpose gives life value. Most people would agree with that (false) statement without being able to properly explain what it means.  To be fair, when its morally authoritative proponents speak of purpose in an existential  context, they may mean one of two things. The intertwining intents make for a confusing narrative, so some untangling is in order.

The first, predominant meaning, is the common usage of ‘purpose’: instrumental to an extrinsic end. A good example this sort of purpose is the purpose of a humble noun.

“Cat” has an instrumental purpose. All it does is represent a certain class of lazy, mammalian parasites (who we love anyway). We could name the same category with a different phoneme and nothing would change. The sound and spelling derive their purpose from their use toward an end outside themselves.

The second, less commonly expounded thing to which moral leaders refer when they speak of existential purpose, is something more like ‘content’. The word then gestures at the richness of a personal story. On this account, Immanuel Kant and Idi Amin led purposeful lives.

Of course, lay-speakers often intend both meanings at once and also equivocate freely between the notions ‘instrumental’ and ‘full-of-content’. And lay-speakers cannot be blamed for the muddle. It is intentional.

We are all told, explicitly and implicitly, morning to night, from birth to death, that content comes of instrumental purpose, and one justifies the other. Our religions tell us this. Our politicians tell us this. Our employers and professions tell us this. And they all tell us that this mechanism gives value to existence.

The pervasive message of human civilization is: instrumental  purpose makes purposeful content, makes value. But that is not how we work. Acting as an instrument may serve as a means of expression, but expression of motive (will to power) actually produces the value of our personal stories.

The endpoint itself makes no difference.

Nor does the report of our lives’ content capture their value. A slave may live a wild adventure from crib to deathbed and still, rightfully feel cheated. To think that the endpoint. and content generated in pursuit of that endpoint, themselves yield value, is itself a moral failure

It is all in the doing.

 

 

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The Moral Dimension of Fear

On a certain level, my life’s career has been an in-depth study of fear. It has had a hold on my imagination since my first nightmare.

That dream was a standard horror. I was running from something invisible behind me through a dark, tangled wood. I tripped, and recovered, but I could tell that the missed step had cost me my chance to escape. Just before my pursuer caught me, I woke up.

Instead of going back to sleep  or crawling into bed with my parents, I lay awake wondering exactly what was chasing me and why I feared it.

In retrospect, those first questions about my nightmare led to a decades-long exploration of emotional aversion. From fights, to speed, to height, I fixated on the subject. It was an unconscious enterprise at first, but eventually I began to reflect on what I was doing. Through reflection and reading, I learned something about fear beyond instinctive familiarity and mere control.

In summary, fear is nothing more than emotional aversion. It is the feeling of motive turning aside, and as riders on motive, fears present themselves to us as motivations present themselves to us. To borrow Nietzsche’s formulation, they come to us unbidden.  I no more choose to be afraid of being hit than I choose to start paying attention to time’s passage when I wake up in the morning.

In a certain sense therefore, we may be exonerated for our fears. They happen to us. However, what happens to us, makes us, and we accrue responsibility by and for our constitution. That is the vey nature of moral responsibility, as opposed to the sort of responsibility we take on when we park our car in a handicap spot, for example.

To follow this example down the line, parking in the reserved spot may carry  a whole, separate load of moral implications, of course. Fellow citizens may hold us in moral contempt for the act of parking selfishly. Some of our neighbors will even find a statement of intent to park in the reserved space as morally offensive as the act itself. The city cop doesn’t care about motives. His concern – the law’s concern – is functional.

The act of steering your car into the slot suffices for the law, no matter how the officer may feel about it, or your intent. You get the ticket, even if you have suffered a stroke the day before and are handicapped, but lack the proper permit – a situation which absolves you of moral responsibility in the eyes of most people.

The point is: morality is not a set of laws like the municipal codes. If I do not want a ticket, I ought to avoid parking in a handicap space, if I don’t have a placard. Not parking in the handicap spot, definitively makes me a non-violator. However, no such action will make me good.

Morality is not a set of facts in the world. I can’t look at the handicap spot and say that it is 25 square meters, blue, bright and benevolent.

Morality is not a set of sentiments. I can feel sad about having to bypass the handicap spot and park in the boondocks. But, I will also feel sad about actually parking in the spot, if I am good.

Moral responsibility resides in global action, not circumstance.

In the latter sense, we may not be exonerated for our fears. Our emotions are inseparable from the motives which birth them.  So all of our emotions have a latent moral dimension, because the moral nature of our actions depends essentially upon our motives. Morality appears to be the process of reconciling motives, the psychological conditions which evoke those motives, and the truth.

And if morality is a class of activity, rather than a formula or a set of real properties in the world, then fear carries the greatest moral weight of any of our emotions.

All other emotions follow from their associated motives, but fear has an echo. Within the individual, anger does not evoke anger and admiration does not evoke admiration (except perhaps in a really committed narcissist). However, fear evokes fear.

Our impulse is to turn away from our aversion, resulting in a spiral which orbits farther and farther from the truth.

 

 

 

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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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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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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