The trolley problem and the complexities of history

This was originally a response to a discussion concerning the so-called trolley problem – a supposed ethical dilemma involving a choice to allow a trolley to speed toward five innocent people; or hit a switch that may re-direct it toward another innocent person on another track; or simply throw a person in front of the train in order to save the lives of the other five. Basically, a choice between de-ontological or utilitarian ethics. I can’t remember whether it was devised by psychologists but is used by some philosophers as a thought experiment, or the other way around. It is, from my perspective, utterly useless.

Ethics can get very complicated. Or actually, it always is complicated, but when we make our actual decisions, we do so by focusing on specific details in the context in which the decisions are made.

Do we begin an understanding of ethics in Germany, by studying the behavior of the Germans and the Nazis in the ’30s and ’40s? Of course, but how could it be otherwise? And in such study our purpose is not to justify that behavior, but to understand it, and to derive principles, both positive and negative, according to which we have greater purchase over our own behavior in the future.

Having written a study on Hitler, I had to confront a wide range of behaviors in Germany in that era. In that confrontation, I had to ask some painful questions. What made highly intelligent and otherwise ethical doctors engage in crude and cruel ‘experiments’? Why did supposedly decent truck drivers willingly deliver Zylon B to the death camps, knowing what they were intended for? If one asked a young soldier whether it was right to beat an infant to death, he would not only have rejected that suggestion, he would have been appalled. Yet the next day he would then beat an infant to death, persuaded that the infant’s Jewish descent, or the presumed wisdom of the officer ordering him to do this, effectively excused him from responsibility.

After ordering the police to form what were death squads, to ‘clean up’ Jewish villages in Poland in the wake of the invasion, Himmler decided it was his duty to witness one of these mass executions. He came, he saw, he promptly threw up, disgusted with horror. Then he just as promptly reassured the men involved that they were engaging in terrible acts for the greater glory of Germany, and they would be well remembered for their ‘moral’ sacrifice. (By the way, the notion that these special police had to follow orders in performing mass murders happens to be a lie. If any of them felt they could not in good conscience participate, they were re-assigned to desk jobs back in Germany. Partly for this reason they were replaced by the more dedicated SS.)

It is little known, but the Supreme Court of Germany, at least up to the time of my study, had not ruled Hitler’s dictatorship or the laws made by him as illegitimate, but that they were completely constitutional for their time, but only superseded by the post-war constitution? That should give us pause.

Other odd facts raising troubling questions: Himmler was a school teacher who believed stars were ice crystals. But the Nazis condemned contemporary physics as “Jewish science;’ except of course when it could be used to build weapons. Goebbels had a doctorate in engineering – along with some 40,000 Nazis holding graduate degrees in various fields, including half the medical doctors in Germany.

A right-wing influence on the young in the ’20s and ’30s was a major folk music revival. One of the most popular poets in this era was Walt Whitman in translation. Germany was peppered with pagan-revival religious cults, a movement dating back a century previous. The concentration camps were modeled in part on relocation camps for American Indians in the previous century.

Although homosexuals were oppressed and sent to camps in the later ’30s, the leadership of the Nazi SA (Brownshirts) were notorious for their homosexual orgies (which led the General Chiefs of Staff to demand their execution, carried out in the Night of the Long Knives).

The Marxists in the Reichstag voted for Hitler’s chancellorship, thinking that would position them to better negotiate with the Nazis.

Sociological analysis indicates that a third of Germany’s population actively supported Hitler, another third decided to go along with him, because what the heck, what did they have to lose? The final third were opposed to Hitler, but after all, they were Germans, and respected his legitimate election. Given the brutal totalitarianism of the Nazis, by the time they thought to resist, they were stuck.

Hitler himself was a vegetarian, something of an ascetic who only indulged by pouring sugar in his wine; he ended up addicted to pain pills. He banned modern artists, but in his youth had hoped to become one. He was fond of Mickey Mouse cartoons. Once the war started he found himself losing interest in Wagner’s operas. He told his architect Spear that he wanted buildings that would make ‘beautiful ruins.’ He refused to marry his lover Eva Braun until the moment he determined that they both needed to die. In the bunker he admitted bitterly that Schopenhauer had been right that the way of ‘Will’ was an exercise in futility, and that the Germans had proven the weaker race after all.

Historical facts like these present a wide array of ethical and political problems that aren’t going to be solved by simplistic reduction to binary choices, readily determined by psychologists or moral absolutists.

What next, the ‘five-year old Hitler dilemma’? – ‘if you could go back in time and shoot Hitler at age five, would you do so?’ Yes; double tap – and always put one in the brain.

Who are those five people the trolley is racing towards? Answer that question and the problem might be easier to solve.

 

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Violence and identity

“I wouldn’t have it any other way”

The Wild Bunch is a 1969 film directed by Sam Peckinpah (written by Peckinpah and Walon Green) [1]. Nominally a Western, it tells the story of a gang of aging outlaws in the days leading up to their last gun battle.

After a failed payroll robbery, in which more innocents are killed than combatants, five surviving outlaws make their way into Mexico, broke and dispirited. The lead outlaw, Pike Bishop, remarks to his colleague Dutch that he wants to make one last big haul and then “back off.” “Back off to what?” Dutch asks, for which there is no answer. Finally Dutch reminds Bishop “they’ll be waiting for us,” and Bishop, the eternal adventurer, replies “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

In Mexico, the Bunch, including the two Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector, and Sykes, an old man who rides with them, visit the home town of their youngest member, Angel, which has recently suffered a visit by Federal troops under General Mapache, during which anti-Huerta rebel sympathizers were rooted out and murdered. The Bunch forms an odd bond with the townsfolk, but they’re outlaws and they’re broke. Eventually they make a deal with Mapache (who is advised by Germans, eager to see Mexico allied with them in the impending war in Europe) to rob a US arms train across the border. This robbery is successful, and they return to Mexico with the stolen arms (including a machine gun) pursued, however, by a group of bounty hunters led by Deke Thorton, a former outlaw that Bishop once abandoned during a police raid on a bordello. Later ,the bounty hunters will wound Sykes, whom the Bunch will abandon to his fate.

Along the trail, Angel, a rebel sympathizer himself, has some Indian friends carry away a case of guns and another of ammunition. Angel, however, has been betrayed by the mother of a young woman he killed in a fit of anger for having run off to join Mapache’s camp followers. The outlaws complete their deal with Mapache, but surrender Angel over to Mapache.  Deciding to let Mapache deal with the bounty hunters, they return to the Army headquarters in the ruins of an old winery. However, their betrayal of Angel haunts them. After a brief period of whoring and drinking, they decide to confront Mapache and demand the return of their colleague. Mapache cuts Angel’s throat, and without hesitation Pike and Dutch shoot him down. At this point, the Bunch probably could take hostages and back off, but to what? Instead they throw themselves gleefully into a gun battle with some 200 Federales, and by taking control of the machine gun do quite a bit of damage. Eventually, however, the inevitable happens, and they end up dead, Pike shot by a young boy with a rifle.

As the surviving Federales limp out from the Army HQ, Thorton shows up. From there, he sends the bounty hunters home with the outlaws’ bodies, but remains to mourn the loss of his former friends. Sykes rides up with the rebel Indians who have saved him, and suggests Thorton join them. “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” Laughing in the face of fate, they ride off to join the revolution.

The thematic power of the film hinges on two apposite recognitions. The first is that the outlaws are bad men. They rob, they cheat, they lie, they kill without compunction. They seem to hold nothing sacred and have no respect for any ethical code.

The second recognition is that this judgment is not entirely complete or correct. They have a sense of humor and an undeniable intelligence. They are able to sympathize with the oppressed villagers in Mexico. They have a sense of being bound together, and this is what leads them to their final gun battle.

The Bunch have lived largely wretched lives. As professional outlaws, they are dedicated to acquiring wealth by criminal means, but throughout the film, it is clear that wealth offered only two things for them: prostitutes and liquor. Although Pike was once in love and thinking of settling down, and (the asexual) Dutch speaks wistfully of buying a small ranch, they are just as committed to the outlaw lifestyle as the unrepentant Gorches; they just would rather believe otherwise.

This is because they are committed to a life of violence, to the thrills of dangerous heists, of chases across the landscape of the Southwest, and of gun fights. They rob largely to support that lifestyle, not the other way around.

The finale of the film has two major points of decision, the first determining the second. The first is when Pike, dressing after sex with a prostitute, sits on the bed finishing off a bottle of tequila.  That’s his life; and with the wealth gotten from the Mapache deal, he could continue it indefinitely. In the next room, the Gorch brothers, also drunk, argue with another prostitute over the price of her services. That’s their life, too. Meanwhile, Angel is getting tortured to death for being an outlaw with a conscience. Pike slams the empty bottle to the floor, and the march into battle begins.

The second point of decision has already been remarked on.  The moment after shooting Mapache, when they might have escaped, the Bunch choose to fight instead. Why do they do it? It’s not for the money, the drinking or the prostitutes.  Is it for revenge?  No, it’s because they live for the violence, and they do so as a team, and they have reached the moment at which they can live it to its logical conclusion.

Peckinpah remarked that, for that moment to carry any weight, the outlaws needed to be humanized to the extent that the audience could sympathize with them. He was, I think largely successful. But the film has been controversial, not only because of its portrayal of violence, but because in the climactic battle Peckinpah pushes our sympathies for the Bunch beyond mere recognition of their humanity.  They become heroic, larger than life, almost epic figures, challenging fate itself, in order to realize themselves, like Achilles on the field before Troy. And oddly, while not really acting heroically, they become heroes nonetheless, remembered by the revolutionaries who benefit from their sacrifice.

As a side remark, let’s note that Peckinpah was raised in a conservative Calvinist, Presbyterian household. But, like Herman Melville a century before, he was a Calvinist who could not believe in God.  In such a universe, some are damned, but no one is saved. We only realize our destiny by not having any. The Bunch destroy any future for themselves and thus, paradoxically, achieve their destiny. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

A Soldier’s Story

The Wild Bunch is set in the last months of the Huerte dictatorship (Spring of 1914), a phase of the series of rebellions, coups d’état, and civil wars known collectively as the Mexican Revolution. [2] Officially, this revolution began with the fall of the Diaz regime and ended with the success of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but rebellions and bloodshed had already permeated the Diaz regime and continued a few years after the PRI came to power. In the official period of the revolution, casualties numbered approximately 1,000,000. When one discovers that the Federal Army only had about 200,000 men at any time, and that rebel armies counted their soldiers in the hundreds, one realizes that the majority of these casualties had to be non-combatants. Not surprisingly; the Federal Army, and some of the rebels, pursued a policy (advocated by our current US president) of family reprisal – once a rebel or a terrorist is identified, but cannot be captured or killed, his family is wiped out instead. Whole villages were massacred. Dozens of bodies would be tossed into a ditch and left to rot.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve nothing against thought-experiments that raise ethical questions, only those that limit the possible answers unjustifiably. So let us now imagine ourselves in the mind of a young Federal soldier, whose commandant has ordered him to shoot a family composed of a grandmother, a sister, a brother – the latter having atrophied legs due to polio – and the sister’s six-year-old daughter. The relevant question here is not whether or not he will do this. He will. The question is why.

This is a kind of question that rarely, if ever, appears in ethical philosophy in the Analytic tradition. It is, however, taken quite seriously in Continental philosophy. There’s a good, if uncomfortable, reason for this. Continental thinkers write in a Europe that survived the devastation of World War II and live among both the survivors of the Holocaust and the perpetrators of it. Analytic philosophers decided not to bother raising too many questions concerning Nazism or the Holocaust. Indeed, in the US, the general academic approach to events in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s has been that they constituted an aberration. Thus, even in studies of social psychology, the Nazi participants in the Holocaust are treated as examples of some sort of abnormality or test cases in extremities of assumed psychological, social, or moral norms.  This is utter nonsense. If it was true, then such slaughters would have been confined to Europe. And yet, very similar things went on in the Pacific Theater: during the Japanese invasion of China, the number of causalities is estimated as being into the tens of millions.

There were a million casualties resulting from the Turkish mass killing of the Armenians, long before the Holocaust.  There were several million victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, decades after the Holocaust.  Far from being some pscyho-social aberration, human beings  have a facility for organized cruelty and mass slaughter.

At any rate, assuming that our young Mexican soldier is not suffering from some abnormal psychology, what normative thoughts might be going through his mind as he is about to pull the trigger on the family lined up before him?

For the sake of argument, we’ll allow that he has moral intuitions, however he got them, that tell him that killing innocent people is simply wrong. But some process of thought leads him to judge otherwise; to act despite his intuition. Note that we are not engaging in psychology here and need not reflect on motivations beyond the ethical explanations he gives for his own behavior.

While not a complete listing, here are some probable thoughts he might be able to relay to us in such an explanation:

For the good of the country I joined the Army, and must obey the orders of my commanding officer.

I would be broke without the Army, and they pay me to obey such orders.

These people are Yaqui Indians, and as such are sub-human, so strictures against killing innocents do not apply.

I enjoy killing, and the current insurrection gives me a chance to do so legally.

So far, all that is explained is why the soldier either thinks personal circumstances impel him to commit the massacre or believes doing so is allowable within the context. But here are some judgments that make the matter a bit more complicated:

This is the family of a rebel, who must be taught a lesson.

Anyone contemplating rebellion must be shown where it will lead.

This family could become rebels later on. They must be stopped before that can happen.

All enemies of General Huerta/ the State/ Mexico (etc.) must be killed.

Must, must, must. One of the ethical problems of violence is that there exist a great many reasons for it, within certain circumstances, although precisely which circumstances differ considerably from culture to culture, social group to social group, and generation to generation. In fact, there has never been a politically developed society for which this has not been the case. Most obviously, we find discussions among Christians and the inheritors of Christian culture, concerning what would constitute a “just war” (which translates into “jihad” in Islamic cultures). But we need not get into the specifics of that. All states, regardless of religion, hold to two basic principles concerning the use of violence in the interests of the State: First, obviously, the right to maintain the State against external opposition; but also, secondly, the right of the State to use lethal force against perceived internal threats to the peace and stability of the community. We would like to believe that our liberal heritage has reduced our eliminated adherence to the latter principle, but we are lying to ourselves. Capital punishment is legal in the United States, and 31 states still employ it. The basic theory underlying it is quite clear: Forget revenge or protection of the community or questions of the convicted person’s responsibility – the State reserves the right to end a life deemed too troublesome to continue.

But any conception of necessary violence seriously complicates ethical consideration of violence per se. Because such conceptions are found in every culture and permeate every society – by way of teaching, the arts, laws, political debates, propaganda during wartime, etc. – it is likely that each of us has, somewhere in the back of our minds, some idea, some species of reasoning, some set of acceptable responses, cued to the notion that some circumstance somewhere, at some time, justify the use of force, even lethal force. Indeed, even committed pacifists have to undertake a great deal of soul-searching and study to recognize these reasons and uproot them, but they are unlikely ever to get them all.

Many more simply will never bother to make the effort. They are either persuaded by the arguments for necessary force, or they have been so indoctrinated into such an idea that they simply take it for granted.

Because there are several and diverse conceptions and principles of necessary violence floating around in different cultures, one can expect that this indoctrination occurs to various degrees and by various means. One problem this creates is that regardless of its origin, a given conception or principle can be extended by any given individual. So today I might believe violence is only necessary when someone attempts to rape my spouse, but tomorrow I might think it necessary if someone looks at my spouse the wrong way.

The wide variance in possible indoctrination also means a wide variety in the way such a principle can be recognized or articulated. This is especially problematic given differences in education among those of differing social classes. So among some, the indoctrination occurs largely through friends and families, and may be articulated only in the crude assertion of right – “I just had to beat her!” “I couldn’t let him disrespect me!” – while those who go through schools may express this indoctrination through well thought-out, one might say philosophical, reasoning: “Of a just war, Aquinas says…” or “Nietzsche remarks of the Ubermensch…” and so on. But we need to avoid letting such expressions, either crude or sophisticated, distract us from what is really going on here. The idea that some violence is necessary has become part of the thought process of the individual. Consequently, when the relevant presumed – and prepared-for – circumstances arise, not only will violence be enacted, but the perpetrator will have no sense of transgression in doing so. As far as he is concerned, he is not doing anything wrong, even should the violent act appear to contradict some other moral interdiction. The necessary violence has become a moral intuition and overrides other concerns. “I shouldn’t kill an innocent, but in this case, I must.”

Again, this is not psychology. After more than a century of pacifist rhetoric and institutionalized efforts to find non-violent means of “conflict resolution,” we want to say that we can take this soldier and “cure” of his violent instincts.  But, what general wants us to do that? What prosecutor, seeking the death penalty, wishes that of a juror?

The rhetoric of pacifism and the institutionalization of reasoning for non-violence is a good thing, don’t misunderstand me. But don’t let it lead us to misunderstand ourselves. There is nothing psychologically aberrant in the reasoning that leads people to justify violence, and in all societies such reasoning is inevitable. It’s part of our cultural identity.  Strangely enough, it actually strengthens our social ties, as yet another deep point of agreement between us.

Being Violent

I’m certain that, given the present intellectual climate, some readers will insist that what we have been discussing is psychology; that Evolutionary Psychology or genetics can explain this; that neuroscience can pin-point the exact location in the brain for it; that some form of psychiatry can cure us. All of which may be true (assuming that our current culture holds values closer to “the truth” than other cultures, which I doubt), but is nonetheless irrelevant. It should be clear that I’m trying to engage in a form of social ontology or what might be called historically-contingent ontology. And ethics really begins in ontology, as Aristotle understood.  We are social animals, not simply by some ethnological observation, but in the very core of our being. We just have a difficult time getting along with each other.

It’s possible to change. Beating other people up is just another way to bang our own heads against the wall; this can be recognized, and changed, so the situation isn’t hopeless. As a Buddhist, I accept the violence of my nature, but have certain means of reducing it, limiting it, and letting it go. There are other paths to that. But they can only be followed by individuals. And only individuals can effect change in their communities.

This means we have to accept the possibility that human ontology is not an a-temporal absolute, and I know there is a long bias against that, but if we are stuck with what we have always been, we are doomed.

Nonetheless, the struggle to change a society takes many years, even generations, and it is never complete. Humans are an indefinitely diverse species, with a remarkable capacity to find excuses for the most execrable and self-destructive behavior. There may come a time that humans no longer have or seek justifications for killing each other; but historically, the only universal claim we can make about violence is that we are violent by virtue of being human, and because we live in human society.

Notes

  1. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065214/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Revolution

Reprinted from:https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/11/violence-and-identity/

Problems with Utilitarianism

Reading about Utilitarianism recently, I first asked myself what I knew about it. It is now recognizably a form of moral realism, positing a standard of moral conduct separable from personal experience or belief – the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s been many decades since I’ve read Bentham, but I seemed to recall there was at least a suggestion, at the beginning of Utilitarianism, that its basic principles were already implicit in actual practice, and that Utilitarianism merely promised clarification and perfection by application of ‘scientific’ methodology. If so, then originally Utilitarianism would not be a moral realism but a scientistic justification for, and institutionalization of, existing practices. However, such a Utilitarianism would be unsustainable due to objections from any number of positions taken by those who felt the then current practices somehow disenfranchised them, or injured them, or oppressed them. (Malthus’ argument that the poor should be allowed to die off is this kind of Utilitarianism, and one can imagine the poor and their advocates not being too happy with it.) If I were remembering the matter aright, it should be clear why Utilitarianism would mutate into a claim of a ‘good’ as an identifiable value separate from what any one individual or group would wish it to be.

In America, most political arguments are in fact Utilitarian in one sense or another – and really can’t be otherwise. A politician is always arguing that he or she represents the most important interests of the greater number of the electorate – how could they not?

My general point is that it’s easy to see why understanding Utilitarianism might be somewhat difficult for some (including myself). I don’t say that to defend it, but because I find it somewhat confused, with a checkered history, even though politically inevitable in a diverse population with democratic aspirations.

I was never very impressed with the philosophy of Utilitarianism, so I didn’t keep up with it much. Kant’s deontology may be just as wrong, but it is far more interesting, because it raises the question of just how far we can extend rationality into the realm of morals before we bump into the fundamental problem of any moral realism, (or meta-ethical analysis, for that matter), cultural differences.

At any rate, reviewing some background material today, I find that I was wrong about Bentham (he was in fact attempting reformation of existing practices), but right about the essentially confused nature of Utilitarianism. Higher level utilitarian arguments can be convincing (and the crude utilitarianism we find in politics can be persuasive); but the ground is very shaky.

Here is an interpretation of Bentham‘s general premise, from The SEP: “We are to promote pleasure and act to reduce pain. When called upon to make a moral decision one measures an action’s value with respect to pleasure and pain according to the following: intensity (how strong the pleasure or pain is), duration (how long it lasts), certainty (how likely the pleasure or pain is to be the result of the action), proximity (how close the sensation will be to performance of the action), fecundity (how likely it is to lead to further pleasures or pains), purity (how much intermixture there is with the other sensation). One also considers extent — the number of people affected by the action.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/)

Assuming “we are to promote” – that is, we are obligated to promote – “pleasure and act to produce pain,” is committing ourselves to a standard separable from any particular instance of pleasure and pain. And this makes absolutely no sense. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism, that life is suffering, was derived – and remains derivable – from personal experience. (And if one hasn’t experienced it, then the way of the Buddha offers no solution.) But apparently Bentham distrusted experience as a guide, since it tends to generate morals based on personal prejudice; so where is this obligation to promote happiness coming from?

Secondly, Benthem is suggesting a calculus of pleasure and pain, when such are without any essential measure. Psychologists have tried for years to provide such measurement, with success limited to purely physical stimulation. But how much pain is experienced by a parent upon the loss of a child? How much pleasure in a wedding ceremony? What kind of pleasure do I feel when I learn a hated enemy is dead, such that I can measure it? What kind of sorrow and anger am I feeling in support of the African American community’s response to the alarming number of police shootings of unarmed men and women? On what scale should I rate it?

So, how generalizable is this presumed promotion of pleasure and pain? The last paragraph of my previous comment raises the inevitable cultural problem – pleasure and pain are not reducible to physical sensations, but, indeed, physical sensations are frequently responses to social events. But different cultures realize socialization in many different ways. Recently, I’ve read someone remarking that god hates homosexuals. While I have heard Protestant ministers make this claim, but Catholic clergy have ever followed the principle ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner,’ presuming this to be true of god. We know the ancient Greeks and Romans were quite tolerant of homosexuality; and the cultures of ancient India and Japan had ornate rules for ‘proper’ satisfaction of homosexual desires.

The SEP article quotes Bentham’s rejection of laws against homosexuality as an unnecessary impingement of personal sentiment on the general welfare thus:

“The circumstances from which this antipathy may have taken its rise may be worth enquiring to…. One is the physical antipathy to the offence…. The act is to the highest degree odious and disgusting, that is, not to the man who does it, for he does it only because it gives him pleasure, but to one who thinks [?] of it. Be it so, but what is that to him?”

One can sympathize with Bentham and still see that he has somewhat missed the point. People often feel greater security and greater pleasure in socialization when they have a sense that the culture they live in is homogeneous enough that they share values with the greater number of their fellow community members. The cultural differences concerning homosexuality indicate much wider cultural assumptions about the shared values of the differing communities – and not just about homosexuality, but about to what degree individual behavior may vary from community norms, about the appropriate means of tolerating such variance, about the ground and harshness of sanction concerning unacceptable variance. Once we begin studying cultural difference along such general lines, we begin to see in the details just how different cultures can get. Utilitarianism soon stands revealed as a set of assumptions and arguments within a *given* culture, and can no longer be universalized on a founding principle to which we all agree.

Beyond Bentham we come to the classical Utilitarian identification of ‘pleasure’ with ‘happiness,’ and this is not sustainable. It is a torture of reason to suggest that ascetics must be feeling some physical pleasure in their denial of physical pleasure; yet they may certainly be very happy. And yes, they may be feeling a psychological pleasure, but this may yet not be the source of their happiness, so much as their self-identification with their ascetic ideal, to which their psychological pleasure is mere response.

Which of course raises the apparently long-recognized critique of Utilitarianism’s insistence that ‘happiness’ is the ultimate goal of our moral decisions (whether we wish to admit it or not) – namely that it is simply not at all clear that all moral or ethical choices do in some sense, and ought to, move in the direction of increasing happiness. It is demonstrable that many ethical decisions we make do not lead to the greater happiness of one’s self or one’s community. My loss of faith did not bring happiness to me nor to the Catholic community in which I was raised. Commitment to civil rights in the 1960s meant recognizing that years of contention and further reformation and occasional strife would follow, as efforts to redress discrimination and increase acceptance of all races as fellow humans would need to continue indefinitely.

As I’ve noted before, where general ethics within a diverse community are concerned, I tend to think eclectically. There are some issues I would argue along deontological lines, others I think are better address with achieving personal virtuousness (virtue ethics); on other issues I can be a ruthlessly legalistic pragmatist or Hobbsean contract theorist; so of course there are issues I wouldn’t hesitate to address on Utilitarian grounds, especially in political matters.

But as a complete normative theory of ethical behavior, Utilitarianism still seems confused – and, frankly, an artifact of a given culture at a given time, which has largely passed into history.

A problem with eugenics

According to Wikipedia, “Eugenics (/juːˈdʒɛnɪks/; from Greek εὐγενής eugenes “well-born” from εὖ eu, “good, well” and γένος genos, “race, stock, kin”) is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.” *

 

Here’s the problem with eugenics: it is built on an assumption that is grounded a presumption, concerning the values of the researchers involved.

The assumption is that the human species needs to be improved genetically; but this is grounded on the presumption that such improvement can be determined according to values upon which we should all agree. In fact of course, all such values are culturally bound – completely and inextricably. Thus the ‘improvment’ offered will always imply hopes and prejudices of a given group within a given culture. There is no way to realize eugenics that is not inherently ethno-centric or ethno-phobic.

I’m sure some here hope that eugenics can be used to discover and eliminate genetic predispositions to religious belief; but surely, a religious eugenicist has every right to hope that such can be done to eliminate predispositions toward atheism. After all, technology plays no favorites.

Further, the very assumption that the human species needs to be improved in this matter is itself highly questionable, since it implies the de-valuation of the species just as it is – it implies that there is something wrong about being human, that humans are inherently flawed – a residue of Abrahamic ‘fallen man’ mythology.

As an illuminating side-topic, consider: practioners of ‘bio-criminology’ (which I would argue is a pseudo-science) target genetic study of criminal populations that are overwhelmingly African in descent. They seem to hope that genetics will reveal genetic disposition to ‘violent’ behavior, such as, say, mugging. And the argument for targeting more African Americans than European Americans would be, that there just are more African Americans incarcerated for such behavior. The argument is clearly flawed since it completely disregards sociological knowledge about the conditions with which African Americans must deal in various communities in which crime rates are fairly high.

But consider: The practices of vulture capitalists playing the stock market, or collapsing viable companies into bankruptcy have clearly devasted far more lives than all the muggers in America. Yet there is never any suggestion from ‘bio-criminologists’ that geneticists should find the genes responsible for predispostions toward greed and callousness, dishonesty on the stock exchange or ruthless exploitation of employees. And there never will be, because white collar criminals contribute to college funds, establish foundations that offer grants, hire bio-criminologists into right-wing think tanks, etc.

Personally, I won’t consider any arguments for eugenics until I get a promise that we will target the behaviors of the real criminals in this society – like the ones who work on Wall Street.

—–

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics

As we read through the Wiki article, we find that there is a recent trend among some geneticists to use the term ‘eugenics’ to apply to any effort to use genetics to address ertain health conditions, such as inheritable diseases like Huntingtons, or to provide parents with the opportunity to decide whether to abort a fetus with such diseases. This is just a mistake. First, no one opposed to classical eugenics has ever argued that we shouldn’t use genetics to address ill health conditions or diseases – because we can do this without attempting to improve the species genetically, which is the ultimate goal of eugenics. Secondly, ressurrecting the term eugenics for what is pretty standard genetics, seems to bury history, or at least confuse our understanding of it. Third, the choice of whether to have a child or not given potential for heritable diseases, has long been available through understanding family histories – and it has not dissuaded a large number of people from having children despite family histories of such illnesses, because the choice to have a child or not is rarely restricted by purely rational consideration. Perhaps it should be, but it’s not. For such restrictions to have a large enough impact on the population to affect genetic improvement of it, they would have to be impelled from outside the family, perhaps by law, and then we would find ourselves directly in the arguments concerning classical eugenics, like the one I make above.

Finally, there’s the question of whther we really want to use genetics to improve the species at all, since it’s quite possible that naturally occuring reproduction actually contributes to the survival of the species, since we don’t know what environmental challenges the species will face in the future, and what may appear to be a weakness now, may prove to be a strength in another era.

I would say, let’s stop calling any serious genetics a form of eugenics, and let’s stop pretending that we are wise enouve to direct the course of human evolution.

The dead end of moral relativism

I confess that I would find it very difficult to go to the families of the victims in Orlando, and explain that ethical prohibitions against murder are simply a question of taste; that their suffering is a matter of complete indifference, philosophically; and that the deaths of their loved ones are of little importance because these were somehow predestined by random physical acts at the Big Bang; or because, being gay, they weren’t expected to pass on their genes.

If evolution has gotten us to that point – it wasn’t worth it.

There are certainly those suggesting such a perspective – by logical implication and extension – that there is no ‘wrong’ to it. Don’t we even have those proudly declaiming that they are happy making no judgment concerning Hitler?

Come on – let’s get real. Ethics is not about theory (and certainly not about meta-theory), it’s about behavior – those behaviors we enact, and those of others we live with.

I find the denial of ethics to be inhumane, arrogant, and egotistical. It’s really a way of saying, ‘ethical standards do not apply to me (or only when I want them to).’

The squirrelly, weaseled language defending such a vacuous, self-centered, anti-social antipathy toward all the social bindings that make living human difficult, painful, and sometimes joyous is *at best* evidence of a lack of tact and rhetorical skill; at worst… well, something far worse.

How can people who claim that ethics is entirely a matter of feelings, be so insensitive to the feelings of others, so as not to recognize that our discussions of ethics, both in the Academy and in the wider community, are part of the process that brings people together, that forms the community, that generates our laws and our sense of decency.

I should note that conventionalism, ala Hume and Darwin, is in itself an ethic (not a meta-ethic) that the Logical Positivists relied on in their effort to curtail discussion of ethics in philosophy. This is almost never discussed as such in philosophy, because its faults are plain: projected out from a given society, it spirals down the rabbit hole of relativism. (‘We don’t like murder of girl infants in Europe; but if they practice that in the backwoods of China, who are we to say it’s wrong?’) Consequently it is usually defended as a consequentialism. But consequentialism, just as such, is fundamentally simplistic, and blurs into psychological anxieties involving such issues as peer pressure and legal sanction. Someone who’s gay can still be fired for this some states. The self-loathing bisexual in Orlando, no longer able to tolerate the multiple threats to his own sense of identity, produced a consequence he apparently hoped would meet approval from at least one group of self-serving religious fanatics – and he accomplished this consequence. He wanted to die doing that – and he did.

Ethics must be complex, complicated, sociologically rich and psychologically layered, in addressing human needs, fears, hopes, because it is about maintaining a stable society with as little potential for harming others as possible.

We all behave according to ‘oughts;’ whether derived from utility, or religion, or deontologically; virtue, or convention or consequence. The question is *how we share these with others*. Because when we don’t, the only ‘oughts’ an individual may comply with are psychological drives, some of which lead to destruction or self-destruction.

Again, this iss the logical implication of what is said, extended into the practicalities of real life – and not empty and undisciplined ‘theorizing.’

Ideas have consequences. We live with them. That is why study, sharing, caution and care, are so important.

I didn’t lose anybody in Orlando. But I did on 9/11/01. Gesticulations about ‘utilizations’ for maximum ‘good/bad’ in some empty theory insult me in times like this.

I don’t care to discuss such matters with those who even won’t pass judgment on Hitler; half the family of my first girlfriend (whose memory I still cherish) was wiped out in Dachau.

Such people keep saying its all about emotions, likes and dislikes; but they don’t care about any of this, any of the real feelings of the people they address – even on their own terms, why the hell should we care about them?

I’m sorry; I won’t talk to any of them about such matters anymore – they don’t have anything to say that I would find interesting in any way. If I found myself on a bus with them, I would get off and hitch-hike. Then maybe I’d get a ride from someone with something interesting to say about politics and ethics. It might not be ‘philosophical,’ in the professional sense (and certainly not ‘theoretical’) – but at least it would be the meat and potatoes of real people talking about real things.

The moral relativists should explain how their positions properly ground condemnation of the Orlando murders. All of them, really. Or let them keep their disgusting egoism to themselves, because I won’t be paying attention anymore… .


Note added next day:

I’ve realized that I need to clarify to what or whom I am referring to as “moral relativists” –  especially since I am to some extent a relativist of a kind, in that I think weighing the differing behaviors of peoples from different cultures must always be undertaken carefully and with charitable tolerance for behaviors that may be useful and conducive to greater well-being within the given culture.  No, what I am referring to here are those who gleefully proclaim their independence from ethics all together, who would even argue that we should have no discussion of ethics, particularly in philosophy or politics.  This makes no sense at all. We do not have any guidance of behavior that is somehow free of the necessity for public articulation or public argument; and as long as this is the case, there must also be a corresponding philosophic discussion of the general principles of such articulation and argument.  And the inevitable response to this seems to be, that we don’t need any guidance of behavior at all, and this is clearly false, for reasons I suggested above.  We will have such guidance; the question is whether it will be reasonable and social, or whether it will be egocentric or psychologically driven.  I believe the former is more conducive to the possibility of stability and greater flourishing.  The latter creates monsters and generates violence.  And we just don’t need that anymore- we ought not to have it anymore – we cannot survive together like that anymore.

Human sciences as probabilistic explanation

The thrust of this article is very simple: the explanations we find in the human sciences are nothing like the claims of causal certainty we frequently find in the natural sciences.

‘Sue hit Joe,’ the story goes, ‘because he insulted her.’

If the audience to this sentence knows both Sue and Joe, that may be the end of it, since their personalities are presumed to be understood. Yet greater explanation may be desirable, especially if there are aspects to the personalities of Sue or Joe of which those who know them are unaware.

Let’s enrich our narrative, with different scenarios.

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her an ugly bitch.’ (Two variations in background: the general consensus is that Sue’s not attractive, or the general consensus is that she is.)

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her a feminist dyke’ (including evident variations in background).

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her a cockteaser.’ Let’s pause here, because the background variations to this rely less on general consensus or social fact concerning the two, and more on their internal motivations and personal boundaries. Joe might have said what he did because he’s contemptuous of Sue; or because he’s sexually frustrated in his longings for her. But Sue may be lashing out because she has unadmitted desires for Joe. She may also have personal gestures that are not flirtational, but may be seen as such by others, and strong personal boundaries; and she is motivated in lashing out to protect those boundaries.

But let’s go back to the ‘feminist dyke’ example. Joe’s insult hinges on the pejorative nature of the word ‘dyke;’ but there are social and personal facts the insult references: either Sue is a feminist or she is not; either she is a lesbian, or she is not. That seems cut and dried. But now the context demands to be opened up. In what situation did Joe insult Sue? Are they students at the prom? Are they in a barroom after a few drinks? Are they at a feminist political rally? Are they at a gay-lesbian rights rally? If so, are there camera’s recording them (enlarging their audience and providing them with a public stage)? Now they need not be presumed to know each other. They might be engaged in differing political signifying practices – Sue isn’t simply lashing out, she is making a statement.

A court would determine whether Joe’s provocative speech warranted physical assault in response. However, possible explanations of the event are now beginning to multiply, possibly beyond our powers to merge them into a single narrative. Was Joe drunk when he decided to attend a rally concerning a cause he was hostile to? Was Sue? did either of them recently break up with a loved one? Had either suffered a death in the family; the loss of a job? What if one or both of them happen to be in the military?

Remember: if we’re talking about a political rally, especially one attended by the media, we’re talking about a possibly national social context, getting interpreted by millions of people with differing political, social, cultural motivations. (Perhaps even economic: Newspaper editor: ‘Did Joe bleed?’ Reporter: ‘No.’ Editor: ‘Then it goes to page 2.’)

But let’s stretch out the time-line of our narrative and see how the explanations fares. One act does not follow immediately after another. that gives the participants time to think over their responses; time enough to doubt the impulse of those responses:

‘Joe said something about feminist lesbians; later, Sue hit him.’

Now we have the narrative, but it’s explanatory force is considerably weakened – it all depends on how we interpret ‘later.’ If ‘moment later,’ then Sue’s response is almost immediate; if four day’s later, then Sue has probably been simmering in her anger and might be expected to have reconsidered her response; if four days later, perhaps Sue’s thinking has become pathological, since she hasn’t used any of that time to reconsider different possible responses.

But let’s go back to the original narrative, and change its presuppositions:

‘Sue hit Joe, because she was drunk.’ Now we no longer bother with Joe’s behavior, but decide to explain Sue’s in the light of her possible drinking habits (and if the court sends her to rehab, that’s exactly the explanation the therapist will be concerned with).

I start here because it’s important to recognize that the way a social science discusses any behavior has to do with the focus of attention the science presumes. Psychologists researching alcoholic behaviors, or sociologists studying the increasing likelihood of violence from people who are inebriated, aren’t really going to be that interested in any presumed provocation for the behavior – which is not to say that they will be uninterested: for instance assume, for the moment, that Sue and Joe are related, in a family with a history of alcoholism and/or abuse. Then the provocation will take on increased importance – especially when brought before the legal system.

We should consider, then, that different social sciences having differently focused interests will develop different explanations for the same behavior. A researcher in political science may note whether at a rally, either Joe or Sue had been drinking, but only as an aside. The study will concern the volatile nature of personal confrontations over political issues, and the implications of the media broadcast of these conflicts for the coming election. A sociologist might be more concerned with the ways in which Sue and Joe identify with their different social groups, and why these groups come into conflict. And so on.

This ‘same behavior, different explanations’ phenomenon we find in the social sciences actually enriches the value these sciences have for us. Human behavior is extraordinarily complex, and understanding it cannot be reduced to ‘unified theory of everything,’ without doing injustice to the individuals and groups involved.

But therein lies the weakness of the social sciences, because, as sciences, they need to come up with generalized explanations, even within their specialized focus. Usually this takes the form of statistical analysis and probability predictions derived from these: ‘60% of women named Sue will behave violently, when a man named Joe utters words perceived as insulting, under conditions X, Y, Z.’ The problem with this is, what about the other 40% of women named Sue? Are they now to be held under suspicion, that meetings with any Joe might lead to violence? (The danger of any human science, as predictive of behavior – injustice to the individual. We are not all of a stamp. Otherwise there would have been no change throughout history.)

Unlike the natural sciences – where, at least at macro-levels, event B follows event A with complete regularity, as long as all subjects remain of the exact same class under exactly the same conditions – the social sciences can, at best, give us ‘rules of thumb.’ But these have importance, insofar as such ‘rules of thumb’ inform the intuitions that guide our judgments, and can provide us with a picture of ourselves -almost as broad, as deep, as variable and complex, as we humans actually are.

Our potential for violence: same as it ever was.

It’s a profound mistake to think that human nature has undergone gross improvement over the centuries. Biological evolution doesn’t work that way – why should we think social evolution (whatever that might be) does?

No one denies that progress occurs – in some fields within certain cultures, in given historical periods; but not without continuing potential for regress. When I was young, capital punishment seemed on its way to becoming a thing of the past; now the arguments against it are barely heard in public. Sometimes it is 2 steps forward, 1 step back; unfortunately, it can just as well prove the other way around.

I want to discuss an article by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, which I found alternately amusing and irritating: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/11/news-isis-syria-headlines-violence-steven-pinker

Pinker’s claim is that statistical evidence of declining incidence of wars and violent crimes, indicates that human nature has been changing for the better, that we are becoming more tolerant, and less likely to resort to violence in our relationships, both personal and political. “As modernity widens our circle of cooperation, we come to recognise the futility of violence and apply our collective ingenuity to reducing it.”

Pinker’s article is the most ridiculously skewed, narrowly focused argument I’ve read in a long time. But it’s quite in keeping with the painfully artificial optimism of academic progressivists – from Marxists still prophesying a global revolution to robotics experts promising ever greater ‘leisure’ for humanity (read: unemployment and poverty). Undoubtedly, the worst delusion fostered by Modernity is that social evolution (technological, cultural, psychological) can somehow hasten biological evolution – if we can’t somehow realize the full potential of our species, why, transhumanists will create another species that will inherit that potential and improve upon it.

Pinker only picks the ripest cherries for his argument. No talk at all about state surveillance and other oppressive measures used to keep the masses in line in many countries. No discussion of the exigencies of global capitalism, which has produced some pressure to avoid military confrontation, but which has also generated cultures of vicious competition and inhumane disinterest in the spread of poverty. Further, Pinker is pretending to offer an argument concerning statistics over history – but surely this is a profoundly truncated history we are given!

“From a high in the second world war of almost 300 battle deaths per 100,000 people per year, the rate rollercoasted downward, cresting at 22 during the Korean war, nine during Vietnam and five during the Iran-Iraq war before bobbing along the floor at fewer than 0.5 between 2001 and 2011.”

The Second World War was only 70 years ago; the potential for another such war remains problematic. One dirty bomb in the wrong city would shift these numbers somewhat, I should think.

But this is an odd way to count the dead, anyway. We’re not looking at some bugs under a microscope. The victims of ISIS would hardly breathe relief reading this article, ‘ah, well, but over all the species is doing better!’ Nor can this reckoning account for how WWII happened to begin with. The 19th century had its fair share of pacifist savants and progressivists promising the dawn of new eras of enlightenment and camaraderie. Yet WWII saw the violent death of more than 100 million globally in less than 10 years (if we see Spain, Manchuria, and Ethiopia as part of that war, as i think we should). What happened to all that pacifism, how did the new era of enlightenment meet such a bloody finale?

Pinker can’t even consider such a question, yet it’s the question that can’t be avoided when trying to make sense of his argument. The fact remains that neither political movements nor statistical trends can fully explain, or prophecy, what current social configurations will produce tomorrow or exactly how. How could the tragedy of 9/11 really lead to America launching an aggressive war of conquest against an uninvolved nation, leading to the chaos in the mid-east with which we deal today? Pinker reads this as just a spike on a graph – how impoverished an ‘explanation’ is that?

Do we really want to suppose that human nature leaves us less prone to violence now because the Soviet Union lost 10% in WWII but the US only lost less than .2% of its population in Vietnam – and even a smaller percentage in the current Mid-East entanglements? Outside of the weird statistical parameters needed to make that suggestion, the kind of argument going on, if we carry that suggestion to term, not only begs the question of what ‘more or less violence’ would actually mean (supposedly indicative of evolving empathy, charity, and tolerance, as we might define ‘niceness), but would actually beggar it by reducing it to a matter of the most obvious instances of egregious transgression.

Now, I don’t question the statistics Pinker is using, but the narrow selection of categories measured, and the kind of argument Pinker seems to be making, which, IMO, is facile and specious.

I’m reminded of the efficiency expert who needed to account for the contentment of the workers in a given factory, and whose sole criteria for this were the number of complaints workers made (in a company where any complaint would lead to immediate termination). Statistic: 0 complaints; conclusion: happy workers.

The measure is true; but there is something wrong with the choice of what’s to be measured. And the structure and style of the argument seems divorced from actual experience, because lacking any depth or breadth of consideration of context.

One long standing argument for capital punishment has been that it cannot be inhumane (which would violate the Constitutional interdict against inhumane punishment), because there are humane means of killing the sentenced person. So presumably, if one kills another ‘humanely,’ with legal authority, then no violence is involved, and everyone remains ‘nice’ and innocent? There is a line of reasoning that goes down that path, and it shows up whenever the SCOTUS has to decide cases involving methodology of execution. But the stronger, more basic argument for capital punishment is that the state reserves the right to violence against individuals and groups that threaten the interests of government or of the people as a whole.

That reservation (and I know of no national government that has foresworn it) tells us that, although global capitalism has for now largely re-channeled violence into forms of financial competition, the future of warfare has not been settled.

And that is what rebels, terrorists, fanatics and the occasional war-mongering dictator (and police and military responses to these) remind us – not that we are more violent than we have been in the past, but that potential for great violence remains within us pretty much the same as it ever was.

 

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From comments made at the Electric Agora.