Tag Archives: moral realism

Weaponized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Realism in the Time of the Troonians

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

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

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Meta-Ethics is Easy

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

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The Discontented Future

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Broken pillars cluttered the slope. Winter had come to this. False starts, collapsing possibilities, and ruined glory lay across the span of weeks between the first snowfall and the now-inevitable warm-up. I loaded the Soloist and began to climb.
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My swing was still good. Over the preceding couple of seasons, I had passed a threshold. My technical skills no longer seemed to deteriorate over the long warm spells. My performance on ice now depended almost exclusively on psychology, and my psychology today was fueled by anger.
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Maybe this Winter was an aberration, but I suspected that it wasn’t. Things were changing; the climate was changing. I’d made a vow, back when rumors of soft and liquid Winters first circulated. When the day came that ice climbing ended, and I had no more use for my crampons, I’d clip them to my boots one more time and kick the nearest climate-change-denying Republican politician in the ass. I felt the time coming.
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The column of ice I’d chosen was forty five feet tall, and beginning to deteriorate. It was a bit of a risk, and a little silly. It was so short, and it was wet and manufactured. I could hear cars on the road down in the canyon. I had followed a tourist’s Yak-trax prints up the trail to get here. I knew that I would find a PVC pipe leaking water over the cliff band at the top of the ice. There was no wild beauty or uniqueness to be found here. The pillar’s existence was all that recommended it.
The bottom took a light touch. It was wet and brittle ice. It tolerated only one, gentle swing per placement. I weight tested each tool before committing to it. I placed the crampon points in little divots in the ice, rather than kicking the spikes into the column. I waited to place the first ice screw until I was well off the ground. I had picked the spot from below, and it turned out to be as good as I had expected.
The ice improved after the first piece of gear. Above a small roof, it took a full swing. My anger transformed, clarified in the movement. Another ice screw and a few more swings led to a different game on the thin steps of low-angle ice at the top. I grabbed a tree and stepped over the PVC pipe.
I fancied another lap then. I was done being angry. I knew that the anger arose from fear of loss, and a deeper fear of loss than the fear of losing cold seasons. It came from the fear that I might someday no longer be a climber and find myself looking at the world from the same viewpoint as those cramponned-boot-in-the-ass-deserving politicians. It was a fear that I was losing. As more days like today passed, I felt more and more certain that I would not habitually trade an ‘is’ for an ‘ought’. I would not stop paying attention. I would not find myself trading real days for fears of an imagined future and its glories at risk.
As the ice receded, I would move higher. I would take notice of the boulders that had been hidden under permanent snowfields. My tools would scratch more rock. At last, I would walk up glaciers covered with rubble, arthritic knees aching, tottering on my piolet, and feel no different than I did at the top of the little pillar today.
As I set up the rappel, words from a Howlin’ Wolf song began to run through my mind:

I have enjoyed things that kings and queens never have – things that kings and queens can’t never get. And they don’t even know about ’em.

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May be I was still a little angry. Yeah, fuck them, another lap.

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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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It’s No Good

Zhuang zi is my favorite moral anti-realist. A millennium or so later, and nobody has been able to say it better.

The invention of weights and measures makes robbery easier. Signing contracts, setting seals, makes robbery more sure. Teaching love and duty provides a fitting language with which to prove that robbery is really for the general good. A poor man must swing for a belt buckle, but if a rich man steals a whole state he is acclaimed as statesman of the year.

Hence if you want to hear the very best speeches on love, duty, justice, etc., listen to statesmen. But when the creek dries up, nothing grows in the valley. When the mound is leveled, the hollow next to it is filled. And when the statesmen and lawyers and preachers of duty disappear, there are no more robberies either and the world is at peace.

Moral: the more you pile up ethical principles and duties and obligations to bring everyone in line, the more you gather loot for a thief…By ethical argument and moral principle the greatest crimes are eventually shown to have been necessary and, in fact, a signal benefit to mankind.”

The translator, Father Merton, does not exaggerate the sarcasm in his interpretation. The use of the word ‘crimes’ , for example, is intentional, not a slip into moral terminology – moral realism leads to the definition of an act as a crime, as it leads to the facile redefinition of the same act as good when situations change.

Good isn’t an intention. It isn’t about any specific thing, at least independent of circumstance or for very long. Good isn’t a quality. To speak of it, we need to make it dependent on a subject. If we reverse that arrangement, we end up with Kantian contradictions – we must tell the axe-murderer where his quarry is hiding because telling the truth is objectively good.

Good is, as any moral notation, a place-holding modifier. These words allow us to avoid the confusion of re-explaining to ourselves what we’re about before we do anything. They are very useful, so we shouldn’t get rid of them, but we must not make the error of treating them as real things. Otherwise, the crimes pile upon crimes, until we smother.

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Bite Me

People have traditionally followed two divergent paths to righteousness, a hard and heavy path and a soft and squishy path. I mean old testament versus new testament, duty versus faith, Catholicism versus snake-handling. Most religions contain both these elements and maintain them by cognitive dissonance. Blessed are they who try to reconcile the paths. The task is impossible and it only ever turns out one way. Many, many examples of the inevitable outcome exist, from the Sufis, to the Chan, to the Kabbalists.

The relevant lot from the Christian tradition are the snake-handlers and they are the best lot of them all. Math, meditation and music do have the power to transform, but a handful of rattlesnakes is clarity itself. Like all sects that get involved in changing how members are as well as what they do, the snake-handling churches subscribe to conventional scriptural authority. Most are even literalists, and quite austere literalists at that. In typical fundamentalists, literalism makes for a dull theology, fearful and full of contradictions. For the snake-handlers however, the rules and regulations, just like the snakes, are guides to align a person’s trajectory. The target is a right way of being, not just a right way of doing. The Holy Spirit subsumes scriptural dictates. The soft and squishy way absorbs the hard and heavy one. This arrangement of the spiritual food chain is necessary, because the hard and heavy way is not real and it must go under. The ought isn’t.

Ask for a definition of Good. A clever theologian will say it is like a primary color – something we can know, but not describe. A less clever theologian will tell you it is what one is told to do. The guy on the bar stool next to you will say it is what he wants. Good is a stick. It can point. It can start a fire. It can crack a skull. Good is all of those things that the theologians and the drinker wish it to be, because moral good is an error of language. Good begins as what we want, then we want things of others, then we need to tell others how to give us what we want. We start using “good” in the first case and carry on through, watching the word transform itself from a mundane descriptor to an ethereal being.

The truth is, “good” remains a descriptor all along and as we boost it to higher and higher levels of discourse, it is the concomitant release of dopamine that makes it radiant. Used in a sentence and pursued through right actions, good’s charge is grounded, contradictions multiply, and the glow dissipates. What’s left for us is a handful of rattlesnakes, which is preferable.

Though an ‘ought’ reconciles the act with scripture, no ‘ought’ drives a believer to pick up a snake or drink poison. He is determined to do those things by his faith. His faith is made of his history, recorded in his genes by forgotten generations of ancestors and accumulated over the moments of his life. In devotion to his faith by acts, he becomes concordant with the truth of that history: he is not a discrete entity. Sounds awful squishy, but that’s what we are, squishy globs of history on a very squishy path. No wonder we like to think solid entities like good and evil might exist to make a channel for us. We must live with our inherent imprecision, though. As messy as it may be, it is still less messy than pursuing an error.

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