Category Archives: Moral Anti-Realism

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.

 

 

 

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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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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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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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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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Men, Mores and Mimbos: The Strange Case of Moral Fact

In the era surrounding the second World War, in England, there lived a brilliant man who happened to be a homosexual. Unfortunately, this man had a weakness for at least one mimbo – a younger man who seemed at best cute and clueless and at worst shallow and self-involved. Unfortunately, because in the course of their relationship, our genius had his apartment burgled by some acquaintances of the younger man (allegedly). Besides being a wet blanket on the love affair, the turn of events presented a peculiar legal problem for the crime’s victim. In providing evidence to the police, he would have to admit the nature of his relationship with the other man. Our protagonist was not particularly ashamed of his sexual orientation, and his friends and family would not shun him if the information became public. But the admission would run him afoul of a “buggery law” – an appropriately nasty name for a class of regulation which forbade homosexual behavior under the same criminal statute as child molestation.
The technical offense in question is moral turpitude. The term refers to acts of depravity and appears to turn on something like Kant’s admonition not to use people solely as means. Gay sex can’t result in progeny so it must be undertaken for gratification alone, which would place homosexuals squarely in the category of users of other people. Anyway, this is the charge which was successfully prosecuted in the case of our man, Alan Turing. The sentence was ablation of Turing’s libido by high dose injection of estrogen. Any hormone which acts on the central nervous system can produce mood disturbances at pharmacologic doses, and the injections likely contributed to Turing’s death by poisoned apple two years after his conviction.
It’s likely others shared a similar fate under the same law, but Turing’s ordeal is remembered because he is justifiably regarded as an exceptional fellow. He was fascinated with mathematics and logic and achieved great things in those fields. His name identifies the Universal Turing Machine and the Turing Test. The latter has enduring currency. Turing would probably be pleased, because he seemed to be particularly invested in how we might know about and model our own mental processes. His test is an elegant statement on the subject.
He called it the Imitation Game. A computer and a person are sequestered in a room, each with a connection to an interrogator on the other side of the wall. The interrogator then fires questions at the man and the machine, trying to sort out, based on their responses, which is which. If the interrogator cannot make the distinction, then we must admit that the computer appears to think. If we deny that conclusion, then what are we to say of the other fellow?
Now, it’s understandable that modern lawmakers began to regret their predecessors’ having destroyed a man of such capability in the name of stamping out buggery. Eventually, some proposed a pardon. However, the justice minister, a certain Lord McNally, objected. Read in whole, Lord McNally’s statement of opposition is quite sympathetic. His objection does not rest on Turing’s having gotten what he deserved or a nihilistic contention that the times were different and the law was right for them. Per McNally, Turing must not be pardoned because The Law must be upheld. In other words, Law and therefore any individual law, means something in and of itself.
The viewpoint espoused in the objection to pardoning Turing sees laws operating on two levels. There is a functional level, as in the laws which enforce contracts. If a contract has no guarantee of enforcement, it is no longer functional as a contract and no one will have a use for it. Then, there is a prescriptive level. On this level the Law pursues a state of affairs which we think ought to prevail in society. We have in mind a model of a preferred set of relationships when we construct laws with prescriptive intent and the laws represent the principles of those relationships. People should not simply use other people, so law should prohibit purely selfish sex acts.
Law has always been tangled up with morality and here is the point of entanglement. Law apes morality on the prescriptive level. Moral assessments are not merely descriptive, they are also prescriptive by definition. There is a difference in saying something is in good working order and saying that something is good. The difference is summarized in a saying which has come to be called Hume’s Law: You can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, or more precisely you can’t derive an ought exclusively from an is. Facts in the world can’t, by themselves, tell us what we ought to do; we need valuations as well, and those are intrinsic to the evaluator. Yet values refer to facts. When a person says that they value kindness or abhor violence, they mean kindness toward feeling entities or violent relations with the same, not kindness toward clothing or violent relations with baseballs. Values are properties of relationships between the evaluator and the facts. Our moral prescriptions are the theories or models of those properties. Even when we say something so vague as, “Be kind to others.”, we imagine the listener maneuvering their way in the world with the purpose of establishing a certain quality of relationship with others. Note that the source of these properties is irrelevant. The values may attach to our relationships developmentally, as brute fact, or by the stamp of God. Like all properties, we will be concerned with how they are rather than where they come from.
Prescriptions need facts and relational properties among those facts to get going. The statement, “I ought to keep my promises” represents a model of the world which favors a specific set of relationships exhibiting the quality of respect (to be preferred because the Lord loves respect, respect is a preferable quality – period, or respectful relations have a salutary effect such that nature has selected a respect-preference in us; it doesn’t matter). The prescription is not the value itself. The value isn’t a thing at all, it is a property of the promise keeping. Whatever I say I ought to do, I must still keep my specific promise to my wife to be home on Tuesday. Furthermore, to employ the prescription properly in that case, I must live up to the expectation of exemplifying respect in my promise keeping. I’m violating the prescription if I “lawyer up” by rolling through the door at 11:59 PM on Tuesday night, throwing my dirty gear on the floor and flopping into bed.
An understanding of moral statements, and their prescriptive component in particular, as representations makes Turing’s conviction and McNally’s subsequent objection to Turing’s pardon, ironic. Turing’s Imitation Game plays on just what we can make of our representations. At the conclusion, if the computer can’t be distinguished from the human correspondent, we are not forced to admit that the computer thinks; we are forced to admit that it appears to think. In the process, we are forced to admit that, though computing may or may not be an complete model of our mental processes, it may be the best that we can do because we couldn’t know if we’d done better. In a compound irony, the full implications of Turing’s test, in principle and for his treatment under the law, were developed in response to an over-interpretation of his test.
As computing progressed from the rudimentary technology of Turing’s day to a period of exponential growth, researchers in the field began to think that they might be able to construct a computer that thought and know it. They either proposed or implied that a version of Turing’s Imitation Game might give them proof of success when it came. The response came from the philosopher John Searle, who devised a thought experiment which has become one of the most famous of all time: the Chinese Room.
We are asked to imagine a man sequestered in a room, much like the participants in the Imitation Game, with a detailed set of ‘if-then’ instructions. On one side of the room, is a letter-box through which questions written in Chinese characters come into the room. On the other side, is another letter-box for the man to pass out the answer, which he constructs based on the appearance and order of the characters on the papers passed in to him, with reference to the detailed instructions in his book. The task is feasible, even if the man has never seen a Chinese character before in his life.
In the course of the experiment the man does not learn to understand Chinese. The point being, representations serve their meanings, they do not make meaning themselves. This holds for our moral representations as well. Lord McNally made a well-intentioned mistake. The law serves the properties of relations – our values. The Law does not make values it represents them. It is the same mistake made in the original conviction. The law could, by itself, determine nothing about the properties of Turing’s “buggery”. Perhaps those who make such laws view them as a sort of Imitation Game, where the behaviors in question look like behaviors which necessarily exemplify certain properties to be valued or condemned. If so, they make the mistake, in strictly legislating for or against the behaviors, which the Chinese Room illustrates.
The case is no different in moral law than in statutory law. Objective moral systems make the same mistake. By taking values as things rather than properties and prescriptive models as real, values are unmoored from their subjects and become scribbled papers moving through the moral system. We have goodness, not as a category containing all those preferable properties of relations, but a thing which seems to alight hither and yon in sweetness, pleasure, or promise-keeping. It is no wonder when we open our hands, thinking we have goodness, we find only sweetness, pleasure or respect.
The converse landed on Alan Turing. In a reversal of fortune characteristic of moral realism, he was treated for homosexuality and a representation of Kant’s dictum not to treat people solely as means, taken as real, made an instrument of a man. To realize the statutory representation of a moral prescription, Turing was altered to fit the purported fact: homosexual activity is bad and one ought not do it. This is a pathology characteristic of moral realism. In the same way, when a blasphemer is stoned to death, a representation of personal integrity, taken as real, demands the disintegration of a person. The alternative is a morality which is seen to be about its subjects rather than about itself. Not a moral nihilism which claims that good and bad are nonsense, but a moral subjectivism which reminds us that good and bad are adjectives – properties not facts. As it turns out then, a pardon for Turing was in order, but not a pardon by way of apology. Lord McNally was right about that. Instead, Turing deserved a pardon by way of admission of a mistake, for he was the victim of an improper conviction – the conviction that there are moral facts which need reconciled. However, the required pardon may still be beyond a legislature’s power, for the mistake in question is a much bigger, broader flub than an error of prosecution.

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Chaos Theory

The last several centuries have seen the rise of a perverse vision of morality. Going by various aliases this modern moral concept tells us that moral terms refer to something other than good and evil. Instead, the adherents of this viewpoint would ask us to believe that good and evil are mere descriptions, applicable to fashion choices as much as acts of benevolence or depravity. But the modern viewpoint is a lie. Descriptions have no power. They cannot motivate us to do anything. Of course, one suspects that the agenda driving our modern metamorphosis aims at a world where morality is not motivating. With moral focus dimmed, people can be motivated by those things which bring them pleasure and worldly profit. However, the agenda merely trades upon the normalizing effect of objective morality. We could not live as we do by following the path of moral relativism in real life.
Without objective moral terms, chaos would ensue. We do not have chaos, because moral terms refer to real things. Consider the alternative. If good and bad only operate within local frames of reference, we have a cascade of conflicting claims. Sometimes an act is good, sometimes bad. Sometimes an arrangement between individuals is evil, sometimes it is not. We cannot know which is which on the face of it. The authority of moral adjectives saves us from this fate. We need that authority to explain ourselves, and without it, we haven’t the motive power and clarity demanded by the moral challenges we face.
For example, walking among us is a small class of persons without remorse. They have no aversion to murder, and so require a reason outside themselves to condemn killing other people for any reason at all. Without objective moral terms, we have little to tell the psychopath. We can waffle about relationships and ties that bind, hoping to lash the psychopath to us with weak logic referring to dependencies. But what’s to stop him from replying in our own terms, like a serial-killing Popeye, “I am what I am and that’s right for me.”?
With objective moral terms at our disposal, we may respond with authority. “Murder is evil,” we may say, “and evil must be opposed.” A good moral concept is not just explanatory. A good moral concept tells us that we ought to do something, not just why we should think something is preferable. A good moral concept is solid, not riddled with re-words to the point of hollowness.
The moral troubles of the world require something with heft. Consider an even more difficult problem than individuals prone to violence: organized violence. Sadly, war is a fact of life. Our morality must confront it with an obligation powerful enough to justify such a monstrous activity . We can’t reasonably bomb the citizens of Dresden or Hiroshima and say to them or ourselves, “It is inconsistent with your identity as a human being that your group destroy other humans – the very source of that identity. Therefore you must die.”
We must provide a proper justification. We must say, “You have proven yourselves a proper medium for the perpetuation of evil. That is what we are bombing. Your deaths are regrettable, but that’s the best we can do and we are obligated to do our best when it comes to opposing evil.”
We cannot escape the reality of our moral terms, nor should we try. They are bound to catch us, because they do carry the obligations which we see at work in a just war. Nothing demonstrates our situation in that regard better than the way we deal with animals which kill humans.
If a bear kills a child, we execute the bear. We don’t kill the bear for any qualities relative to its bearishness, i.e. being a carnivore, needing to fatten up for hibernation, having an instinct to protect its young. We don’t care about the bear’s reasons; we care about the act. It has destroyed something invaluable. It has shown itself a creature with evil in its nature, and so must die. We are not angry at the bear. This is not revenge. This is justice.
Objective moral entities will finally allow no re-words at all. No relative merits, relations, revenge or reconsideration apply. Nor does scale. Absolutes do not mind scale. Evil is evil, and must be expurgated. What differentiates big evils from little ones is the ease with which they may be expurgated, not the strength of their demand on us.
The analysis at hand extends even to the smallest evils. Every year, 11,000 invaluable human lives are lost to infection with the bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus. We execute these tiny monsters with antibiotics. For the microbes which succumb, that’s the end of it, they have proven themselves minor evils and our obligation has been concomitant. But some do not succumb. Some of the bacteria are resistant to our antibiotics. In the case of the resistant bacteria, our duties are more complicated.
The bacteria in question, the resistant and the susceptible, live in people’s noses. The carriers of these bacteria are therefore complicit in the mediation of the evil which Staph. Aureus perpetrates. We may start by treating the carriers’ complicity as a minor evil and employ appropriate methods. We inform the carriers of their status and offer them the chance to eradicate the evil in their noses. History tells us that some of them will be unsuccessful. In those cases, a greater evil confronts us. The bacteria are persistent because they are resistant and so are better able to kill. As accomplices, we may treat the sub-group of carriers more leniently, though we are obligated to deal with the associated evil. These people have the choice of exile or suicide. These options neatly close the circle of obligation, but that’s not the important thing. What matters is that we have answered to our obligation. We have successfully solved the moral calculus and maximized human thriving. We can answer the carriers as we can answer the citizens of Dresden or Hiroshima. Your excision is regrettable, but that’s the best we can do, and we are obliged to do our best when it comes to opposing evil.

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Jesus Christ: Error Theorist

A moral error theory is one form of moral anti-realism; it combines cognitivism with a failure theory, the belief that moral claims, despite their being truth-valued, are none of them true – Richard Garner

Two questions have always puzzled me: How and why was Jesus born? I don’t mean birthed by Mary, I think I understand how that happened (at least the last bit). I mean divided from the father. Something must have prompted this ultimate schizoid break; Jesus is clearly depicted as the son of god, and physically or metaphorically, the single defining characteristic of a child relative to a parent is coming after. The impetus had to come from outside of the father, as events, such as procreation, must occur in time and not strictly within the timeless deity. It is impossible to be sure, but I believe I may finally have the solution to this mystery. I believe Jesus was born of god in response to a human error concerning morality. Jesus was then born to woman to correct that error – man’s moral realism.
Morality was subjective from the start in the Christian narrative. I don’t see how god could coexist with objective moral entities. When we speak of objective moral terms, we do so in terms of obligations, whether those are obligations to carry out certain moral acts or to bring about certain morally right conditions. In other words, “good” and “evil” are real entities and morality is the set of conformist obligations which the existence of good and evil entails. I don’t see how god could be beholden to something external, if he is eternal and universal. Even if we say he created these principles, I don’t see how he could be obligated to them. As humans, our creations may demand things of us, but they do so on the basis of our identifying limitations and the relations which those limits entail. For instance, I’m obligated to be a good parent by, at minimum, the history I share with my children, my parents, my culture and my species. Good parenting is something I can learn about, and something for which I am responsible only after I have children, even if I have some nascent moral sense demanding that I be a good parent. The obligation is circumstantial. An eternal, universal entity can have no such obligatory relationships. There is no venue in which to have them. There can be no history of an eternal, universal god; he is it.
If we want to preserve objective moral terms then, we must place them within the deity. But now the situation is indistinguishable from moral subjectivity, with god being the singular subject of moral terms. By moral subjectivity, I mean the situation in which moral terms operate only in reference to a subject. To use J. L. Mackie’s language, moral terms operate “within the institution” of a subject’s identity, “such as to satisfy the requirements (etc.) of the kind in question”. In the light of moral subjectivity (with god as the singular subject), the biblical narrative begins to come together in a more coherent fashion, beginning with the Fall.
The tree had to be, if it represented the differentiation between what is, for the created, and what may be “within the institution” of god. When Adam and Eve ate the tree’s fruit, they did not learn the details of good and evil things which had surrounded them in the garden all along. They learned of the possibility of distinction, deficiency and failure. They were exposed to their own inadequacies, and were thereby exiled. The remainder of the old testament can be seen as a divine project of re-education, and a human project of reconciliation, aimed at herding the descendants of the first couple into the institution of man which apple-eating had created.
The initial formula had two elements: external focus (obedience) and right action (rules). The institution was defined. Even in the remedial program, god was pushing his followers toward an understanding of moral subjectivity. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, for instance, Isaac was spared from sacrifice. The lesson was obedience in principle, not simply reconciliation with good through right acts. If it were the latter, Isaac should have died. Instead, god delivers the message that sacrifices and the right actions which they represent will not avail Abraham, only devotion will. In taking his son off the alter, Abraham relinquished any hope of goodness through right actions, of conformity to an objective set of obligations to goodness. He began to act according to the requirements of personhood, fulfilling the requirements of personhood rather than those of the singular subject, albeit under direct supervision.
Despite all the talk of rules and obedience, the primary lesson of the rules-and-obedience program was that of devotion. Devotion focused the mind on one’s own business – the propriety of one’s own relationships and actions relative to those relationships. That was the point, and one which needed making before people could make the next step toward reconciliation. However, a project based on rules and obedience is easily corrupted. Rules invite arbiters and before you know it, a food chain of authority develops, as it did in the biblical narrative.
In the Christian story, the food chain was a preparatory element as much as was the devotional lesson, in the rules-and-obedience regime. Jesus would have had a much harder time making his point without the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and all the other arbiters of duty-binding rules. The arbiters were used to represent a “do as I say, not as I do” vision of morality. This is in contrast to Jesus, who sought to lead by example. His entire project was aimed at demonstrating the principles of goodness within the institution of personhood. Here was the reason for the man/god chimera. The chimera was a means whose rationale lay in an understanding of morality as subjective, pertaining to individual subjects and their circumstances. To explain such a system, as opposed to one grounded in some objective moral terms, god couldn’t simply hand down edicts by way of instruction; he had to provide an example. But beyond bringing god’s followers around to a subjective system of morality, Jesus presented a moral error theory.
There is no “good”, there is only god. How else are we to interpret Jesus’ message of salvation through him and him alone (assuming his divine half is the one doing the saving)? When we speak of good within personhood as a ‘kind’, we actually refer to all those individual activities within their circumstances which satisfy the requirements (etc.) of, not divinity or creation, but personhood, which Jesus was supposed to exemplify. So when we make claims about ‘good’ simpliciter, none of those claims are true, as they refer to nothing in particular.
In the old days, disruption of the food chain by proposing this sort of error theory could get you killed. It still can get you killed (or at least marginalized) by the same lot who would have done the killing in the old days. For that reason alone, the story merits attention, from those who consider it allegory and from those who consider it fact, but especially from those who consider it fact. They are natural parts of the food chain and so are most at risk of being persuaded by the arbiters of morality that objective good exists. If they don’t get the message, they may be the soldiers in future pogroms, crusades and inquisitions carried out as obligations to good ends.

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