Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"On What Matters"


Here is a review in The New Republic of Oxford Philosopher Derek Parfitt's huge new book on ethics, On What Matters: Volume I. I doubt I am going to get round to reading the book in the foreseeable future, but I enjoyed the review by a Columbia professor, Phillip Kitcher. 


Parfitt, he says, wants to find mechanical principles, a "triple theory" that will effectively unite consequentialism, Kantianism and contractualism.


Owing to his fondness for thinking of ethical theory as analogous to theories in areas of the sciences, Parfit often writes as if the goal of the enterprise is to produce a collection of principles that could be more or less mechanically applied to ethical decision-making


The reviewer questions one can derive a supreme ethical principle by looking at artificially constructed "puzzle cases." Real life seldom involves judgements on whether to throw a fat person from a bridge in order to save the lives of five people bound to railroad tracks below (one of Parfitt's puzzle cases). Instead, says Kitcher,

 The great ethical theorists ... are those who supply resources for human decisions—collective human decisions—directed at problem-solving.


 So, he says, the aim of Parfitt's work is misguided.


 Its diligence and its honesty command respect. Perhaps these real virtues will set standards for very different ventures in academic ethics, Naturalist or otherwise—for a return to the tradition of attempts to understand and improve everyday judgment, and to provide resources for people and policymakers everywhere. In the end, that is what matters.

John Gray versus Pinker


Oxford political scientist John Gray disagrees with Pinker here.

Pinker’s attempt to ground the hope of peace in science is profoundly instructive, for it testifies to our enduring need for faith. We don’t need science to tell us that humans are violent animals. History and contemporary experience provide more than sufficient evidence. For liberal humanists, the role of science is, in effect, to explain away this evidence. They look to science to show that, over the long run, violence will decline—hence the panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts. The result is no more credible than the efforts of Marxists to show the scientific necessity of socialism, or free-market economists to demonstrate the permanence of what was until quite recently hailed as the Long Boom. The Long Peace is another such delusion, and just as ephemeral.

    The Decline of Violence and Moral Psychology

    I finished off Steven Pinker's vast book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declinedon the plane to our vacation a week ago. 

    It is dazzlingly comprehensive, endlessly interesting and provocative, and it has taken me a week just to let it sink in and turn over in my mind. The book has a constellation of interesting observations about its central theme -  the decline of violence over time, contrary to many pessimistic jeremiads.

    I just hope he had the help of a dozen Harvard research assistants. Otherwise it seems just too much ground for any one person to cover, especially outside his immediate field, without superhuman ability. 

    I think he proves his overall case, namely that violence on most levels has declined over the course of human history. Pinker produces dozens of graphs and statistical surveys, and illuminates the dry statistics with bloodcurdling examples of cruelty from past ages which shock modern expectations and sensibilities. 

    He argues the decline in violence has come about in response to the invention of the state, "gentle commerce" and a wider perspective and sympathy for others since the enlightenment. 

    Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world

    If there is one major weakness in his argument, it is he dismisses the counter -examples of the "hemoclasms" of the twentieth century a little too quickly. They were comparable or, indeed less bad than many past events like the Mongol Conquests, he says, in terms of proportion of the population killed, if not in absolute numbers. And they were a product of the unfortunate appearance of three murderous indivduals, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, rather than a reversal of a broader tendency towards non-violence.

    From the vantage point of almost seven decades after the world wars and genocides of the first half of the 20th century, we see that they were not harbingers of worse to come, nor a new normal to which the world would grow inured, but a local high from which it would bumpily descend. 


    Still, he does put forward persuasive evidence that argues permanent progressive change is indeed possible in human affairs. This runs contrary to those who, in International Relations for example, argue little has changed since the 'Melian Dialogue' in Thucydides'  History of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens intimidated the small island of Melos. "The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must." 

    Pinker ruefully concedes how previous predictions of pacification, like Norman Angell's The Great Illusion, turned out to be wrong. (In Angell's case, the First World War broke out soon after.)And Pinker notes there is no scientific reason why the process may not go into reverse. 

    But he persuasively argues the overall trend has been remarkably pacific. Hunter-gatherer societies were brutal, medieval murder rates could be ten to a hundred times worse than today, and people used to accept cruelties such as torture or slavery without question. That has changed. 

    The Escalator of Reason

    I am going to look at just two aspects of this huge work. The first is the idea of the escalator of reason, as distinct from a broadening of perspective.  As Pinker explains it, reason naturally has a momentum, once you concede that there is no universal reason to distinguish between people. 

    I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it. 

    Nor can reason distinguish between Mike and Dave, or Lisa and Amy, or any other set of individuals, because as far as logic is concerned, they’re just a bunch of x’s and y’s. So as soon as you try to persuade someone to avoid harming you by appealing to reasons why he shouldn’t, you’re sucked into a commitment to the avoidance of harm as a general goal. And to the extent that you pride yourself on the quality of your reason, work to apply it far and wide, and use it to persuade others, you will be forced to deploy that reason in pursuit of universal interests, including an avoidance of violence.


    Pinker discusses the argument orginally advanced by Peter Singer. 

     For Singer, it is hardheaded reason more than softhearted empathy that expands the ethical circle ever outward: Beginning to reason is like stepping onto an escalator that leads upward and out of sight. Once we take the first step, the distance to be traveled is independent of our will and we cannot know in advance where we shall end.... If we do not understand what an escalator is, we might get on it intending to go a few meters, only to find that once we are on, it is difficult to avoid going all the way to the end. Similarly, once reasoning has got started it is hard to tell where it will stop. The idea of a disinterested defense of one’s conduct emerges because of the social nature of human beings and the requirements of group living, but in the thought of reasoning beings, it takes on a logic of its own which leads to its extension beyond the bounds of the group.

    I think this is highly naive and dangerous. As others have pointed out, the enlightenment did not just produce Kant and Hume and Beethoven and later John Stuart Mill. It also produced the Jacobins and Napoleon and Marx and the dictatorship of the proletariat and Leninism. 

    Indeed, I'm reminded of the French Revolutionaries turning Notre Dame into a "Temple of Reason" for several years. Europe drowned in blood in the following decades, as war swept across the continent. 

    There is no sense of proportion or restraint to the escalator. Reasoning within a particular framework can lead to some very dark places. 

    And the argument is just wrong. It does not defy reason to argue, for example, that the American government should disproportionately favor American citizens. Indeed, it is almost required for a viable democracy. The argument simply ignores membership and group dynamics. 

    The downside to morality

    Indeed, Pinker effectively concedes the downside of an overdeveloped moral sense without restraints. Most murders, for example, he says are committed not for immediate advantage but out of misplaced outrage at perceived injury. The human moral sense can go seriously awry, particularly when it is turbocharged by a utopian ideology. 

    The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

    Moral Psychology versus Ethics

    Pinker also has very interesting discussions about the evolution of cooperation. 

    However, I found the penultimate chapter the most fascinating of all. It has the best discussion I have yet read about the psychology of morality.  

    The starting point is to distinguish morality per se, a topic in philosophy (in particular, normative ethics), from the human moral sense, a topic in psychology. 

    This is something I've been very interested in before, such as in discussion of Jonathan Haidt's studies of moral intutions. 

    Pinker discusses Haidt at length, but also covers other researchers as well that I had not come across. 

     For all their differences in lumping and splitting, the theories of Shweder, Haidt, and Fiske agree on how the moral sense works. No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative. Instead, morality consists in respecting or violating one of the relational models (or ethics or foundations): betraying, exploiting, or subverting a coalition; contaminating oneself or one’s community; defying or insulting a legitimate authority; harming someone without provocation; taking a benefit without paying the cost; peculating funds or abusing prerogatives. The point of these taxonomies is not to pigeonhole entire societies but to provide a grammar for social norms.

    I've ordered Fiske's book and will tackle it soon. 

    As I said, I find these relational model perspectives very interesting, as they give a great deal of insight into why different people perceive the world and politcal choices so differently.  They seem to have somewhat different mental toolkits. 

    It explains much of the difference between conservatives and liberals, for one thing. Haidt finds liberals tend to perceive a narrower scope for moral imperatives, seeing just two moral dimensions instead of five.  

    Pinker notes other researchers like Fiske find the same thing. 

    In judging the importance of moral concerns, recall, social liberals place little weight on In-group Loyalty and Purity/Sanctity (which Fiske lumps under Communal Sharing), and they place little weight on Authority/Respect. Instead they invest all their moral concern in Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. Social conservatives spread their moral portfolio over all five.

    Changes in Moral Intutions

    One way Pinker extends the discussion is he argues that the reliance on different moral senses is actually changing in a liberal direction, with steadily less emphasis on community, authority or sacred models and more on depersonalized automomy and exchange. 

     The direction of the change in prevailing models is clear enough. “Over the last three centuries throughout the world,” Fiske and Tetlock observe, “there has been a rapidly accelerating tendency of social systems as a whole to move from Communal Sharing to Authority Ranking to Equality Matching to Market Pricing.”

    Europe and the coastal US and Canada are most pronounced in this tendency, with the interior and southern US, Japan and other developed countries lagging behind  - and little evidence of it at all in most of the developing world.


     What exogenous causes are shifting the allocation of moral intuitions away from community, authority, and purity and toward fairness, autonomy, and rationality? .. the  micro-geography of liberalism suggests that the moral trend away from community, authority, and purity is indeed an effect of mobility and cosmopolitanism.

    Cosmopolitan perspective and the escalator of reason are more likely to apply in the great advanced cosmopolitan centers than more traditional nationalist places. But even more traditional societies are likely to see a shift in moraliy.  

    Another subverter of community, authority, and purity is the objective study of history. The mindset of Communality, Fiske notes, conceives of the group as eternal: the group is held together by an immutable essence, and its traditions stretch back to the dawn of time.

    That is increasingly less likely to apply, as the whole world shrinks to the size of a jet schedule or an app update. 

    The sources of authority and legitimacy are also under attack.

    Authority Rankings too are naturally portrayed as everlasting. They were ordained by the gods, or are inherent in a great chain of being that organizes the universe. And both models boast an abiding nobility and purity as part of their essential nature. In this tissue of rationalizations, a real historian is about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party. 

    The problem is that the state needs legitimacy. In fact, another fascinating history I read a few years ago, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History by Phillip Bobitt, explains the outbreak of major wars by the breakdown of one kind of state legitimacy (such as monarchical succession) with another (such as the "state-nation" or later "nation-state"). The decline of a particular form of legitimacy tends to lead to epochal wars. 

    So in fact the shrinking of the grounds of legitimacy may yet arguably undermine the decline in violence Pinker identifies. Most of the language of the postwar UN settlement is virtually unintelligible now - such as national sovereignty, self-determination, decolonization, international human rights.  Market exchange can be too thin a basis for legitimacy. Nobody puts their life on the line to defend NASDAQ or the Nikkei. 

    These issues of moral psychology are simply fasincating, however, and I will have to return to this issue many times. 

    Monday, January 16, 2012

    Change of Pace Photo


     Saints and church fathers on the door of Notre Dame, Paris. Abelard helped to reintroduce Aristotle to the western world at the University of Paris in the twelfth century. 


    It has been a little while since I posted a photo, since the link to flickr in the blogging platform was broken for a few months. But it is now fixed, and I love having a visual change of pace - especially when it often comes inbetween more involved blogs on books. 

    Aristotle and the Nicomachean Ethics

    I just finished reading Aristotle's The Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics), stimulated by reading After Virtue a few weeks ago. For a treatise two and a half thousand years old, it reads well. It is often wry and perceptive about human nature.

    On the one hand, a lot of it seems strangely familiar, which must be put down to the fact it had such a huge impact on classical and medieval thinking and behavior. It has had very deep influence on more traditional views of ethics, including gentlemanly behavior, restraint, and particularized versions of the common law. 

    On the  other hand it is profoundly strange - a different approach to ethics than the one we are used to in our broad post-enlightenment tradition. There is no talk of rights or consequentialism and very little talk about fairness. Equality is an incidental consideration. 

    Above all, it is about virtue and the cultivation of character and judgment, rather than deriving universal rational laws that all people must assent to.  It is about context and perception and judgment, not rules or rights which apply neutrally to everyone. 

    Happiness and the good for man

    Aristotle's system has a teleology. Man is for something. Man has a purpose, an end:
    Just as we see eye and hand and foot and every one of our members have some function, should we not assume that in like manner a human being has a function over and above these particular functions? (p15)

    Happiness is the end for man, he says, because we seek it for itself, rather than for the sake of some more ultimate objective. It is the good for man. 
    And so what is happiness? It has to be more than those functions or ends we share with plants or animals, he says. It must be more than just nutrition, growth or sentient existence. It must involve reason. Therefore,  

    ..the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind. (p16)
    Importantly, it is an activity, and not a state. And by soul he means mind, rather than our conception of soul as a religious essence. 

    The good life also requires some resources, and stretches over a lifetime. 
    We are now in a position to define the happy man as 'one who is active in accordance with complete virtue, and who is adequately furnished with external goods , and that not for some unspecified period but throughout a complete life. (p24)


    So if virtues are so important, what is virtue? He approaches the issue gradually. First,  virtues are dispositions, not feelings. And they are not theoretical. They are acquired, like craftmanship, through learning by doing. "Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it." (p32) Otherwise it is like "invalids who listen carefully to their doctor, but carry out none of his instructions." We must be habituated to do the right thing.

    Virtue involves arete, or excellence. 
    ..any kind of excellence renders that of which it is the excellence good, and makes it perform its function well. .. then human excellence will be the disposition that makes one a good man and causes him to perform his function well. p40

    Aiming for the mean

    That leads to one of the central parts of his system, the doctrine of the mean. 

    By virtue I mean moral virtue, since it is this which is concerned with feelings and actions, and these involve excess, deficiency and a mean. It is possible, for example, to feel fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity and pleasure and pain generally, too much and too little, and both of these are wrong. But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate , that is, to the best degree; and this is the mark of virtue. (p41)

    But it is not easy to do this, nor is it easy to sum it up in rules, as it depends on particular cases. It involves deliberation to decide the right course. 

    What does all this mean in concrete terms? He sets out his own ancient greek account of the virtues: courage, which is the mean between rashness and cowardice; temperance (ie self control), which is the mean between licentiousness and insensibility; wit, which is the mean between buffoonery and boorishness, and so on. Some of them would not resonate with us now, such as magnificence, the mean between vulgarity and pettiness. 

    Justice and (lack of) equality

    Justice, he says, is a "sort of proportion." It is when one share is larger than one deserves, or too small. This is one of the biggest differences between Aristotle and contemporary views. There is little regard for equality, or indeed the equal importance of each individual in his system. 

    Incidentally, Bernard Russell  amusingly calls Aristotle's Ethics "repulsive" in his A History of Western Philosophy, largely for this reason. It is not consistent with our comtemporary ethical sense, Russell says, particularly our greater interest in equality. It is ethics for the aristocratic few.

    Prudence and practical ability

    Acting in accordance with virtue requires prudence, Aristotle continues, which is the ability to "deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous for himself."(p150).  This quality of practical reason and calculation,  phronesis in the original Greek, is a fundamental part of his system. 
    That practical nous and savoir-faire is related to wisdom, which is a knowledge of what is good for what is beneficial for a particular species as a matter of permanent, necessary truths. 
    ..wisdom is scientific and intuitive knowledge of what is by nature most precious. (p153). 

    But sometimes the wise are not very practical.

    Aristotle is also very concerned with willpower, or continence. People often do the wrong thing through impetuousity or weakness, even when they realize it is the wrong thing. "Some people deliberate and then under the influence of their feelings fail to abide by their decision; others are carried away by their feelings because they have failed to deliberate. " (p185.)

    So much of it echoes in aristocratic attitudes through the ages, a sense of what is appropriate or what fits of being at ease in social circles and doing the right thing. And indeed Aristotle is very much an aristocrat in many of his attitudes:
    The utter servility of the masses comes out in their preference for a bovine existence. (p8)

    Finally, the contemplative life is the highest form of life and happiness (conveniently enough for philosophers). 
    The virtue of a thing is related to its proper function. (p146)
    if happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable to assume that it is in accordance with the highest virtuee, and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. .. contemplation would seem to be the only activity that is appreciated for its own sake; because nothing is gained from it except the act of contemplation.(p270)

    Why care about the book?

    Surely Greek ethics, from an age where slavery was accepted as a matter of fact and ferocious warfare with "barbarians" was a way of life has little to teach us? Certainly, the older Aristotelian tradition disappeared from view for two centuries. 

    But it has come roaring back in the last two decades, at least in quads and some philosophy seminars. While reading the book I was idly reading the wikipedia entry on virtue ethics, and I've ordered several books as a result. So I will have more to say about this approach in due course. 

    Perhaps the Greek notion of arete is just not compatible with contemporary views of equality. And it is not consistent with contemporary relativism or equal respect for different ways of life or cultures. Aristotle is always insistent that some people are better than others, and indeed some virtues are better than others. 

     But the fundamental reason I find it interesting is it intimately relates morality to purpose, to a sense of human flourishing, which is something I have  identified in a number of places as essential to move discussion about the economy forward.

    I increasingly think we have reached a dead end in the economy because we do no thave an accepted sense of what people want or need. Reaching back to the roots of western ethical philosophy is one way to examine how to get out of our trap.

    Does the mind work by focusing on deviation from its expectations?

    This is a very interesting article in the NYT. It argues the brain works by predicting outcomes and then focusing on deviations from what was expected. This conserves neural "bandwidth", in much the same way that a JPEG file gets compressed by predicting the states of pixels in a region and only recording the deviations.

    All this, if true, has much more than merely engineering significance. For it suggests that perception may best be seen as what has sometimes been described as a process of “controlled hallucination” (Ramesh Jain) in which we (or rather, various parts of our brains) try to predict what is out there, using the incoming signal more as a means of tuning and nuancing the predictions rather than as a rich (and bandwidth-costly) encoding of the state of the world. This in turn underlines the surprising extent to which the structure of our expectations (both conscious and non-conscious) may quite literally be determining much of what we see, hear and feel.