Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Applied monkeys

How might ethics be related to the kind of transcendental experience I talked about here? Nothing actually follows from wondering at the starry heavens above or coming across a field mouse while mowing. But experiences like this might lead to certain changes in behavior. Perhaps most obviously, if you have a kind of religious experience upon meeting a deer you might then be less inclined to hunt deer for sport. You might even become vegetarian or vegan. Or you might go in some other direction: only ever eating meat that you have killed and butchered yourself, say.

If the moon impresses you, you might support a more active space program, or oppose all space programs, as a Buddhist might be drawn to the Himalayas for religious reasons but oppose the climbing of Everest. More generally, if nature inspires you then you might support conservation more. But all of these are only responses you might have, not ones you need to have if you are to avoid inconsistency. They would be understandable, perhaps even natural, but they are not necessary. And they only go so far.

Another great mystery (source of inspiration or wonder) is life itself. You aren't likely to be struck by this the way you might be by the night sky, but I think it can happen. The children's song "Oats and beans and barley grow" gets at this, I think. The last time I googled the words they didn't come up the way I wanted, I think because some people change them so they make more obvious sense. But it's the paradoxical version that I like, in which the verses describe the process by which beans, etc, grow ("First the farmer takes the seed," and so on) but then the chorus insists that, "Not you nor I nor anyone knows how oats and beans and barley grow." We know what happens, in other words, but not how (i.e. why) it happens. Anyone who farms or gardens can wonder at this phenomenon. Nothing to do with ethics would follow from this, that I can think of, but perhaps it would reduce egoism (because the self seems less significant in the face of life itself taken as a mysterious whole, or just barley itself as a mystery).

It isn't only oats and beans that grow though. There are children too. And raising children can be a source of repeated, though not uninterrupted, amazement at the natural process of growth and the emergence of a new person. People tend to love their children, too. Something similar can happen with students if you get to know them well enough. This love might be more of an occasion for nepotism or narrowly expanded selfishness than anything obviously ethical, but the realization that everyone is someone's daughter or son could lead to more ethical behavior. Hume recommends that we try to be the sort of person we would want our child to marry. It might be better to say that we should, as far as possible, treat other people as if they were our own children, or as we would want other people to treat our children.

How useful is this, though? Obviously not very for people who don't have children. And what I have proposed is not very far from the golden rule, which makes no reference to children and does not involve any sense of wonder. It is also quite vague. But the golden rule only tells you (roughly) what to do. It says nothing about why you should do it. Implicit in it, it seems to me, is a reference to wonder. Each individual is the location of the miracles (the wonders) of life, consciousness, and will (although is will anything but life + consciousness?): act accordingly. That seems to be the idea, or one way of putting it at least. And it might be easier to remember this rule, to keep it alive in one's thinking and acting, if one's sense of wonder is still alive. It seems to need to be refreshed from time to time. Children, animals, and nature, although all have their downsides and limitations, are good for this purpose.


  1. "Nothing to do with ethics would follow from this, that I can think of, but perhaps it would reduce egoism. . ."

    Not "nothing" entirely since, as you note, such experiences may prompt us to think about things differently which will have an impact on our behaviors. But, as you rightly note, there is not a logical implication here, some claim that we should all do X derived from the experience of seeing the world around us in a which emphasizes our unity with its other elements rather than our separateness. Here I'm reminded of Wittgenstein's lecture on ethics, delivered to the Heretics Society some time in late 1929.

    What about the "Golden Rule" and why is it that we see it replicated in various formulations across so many human societies and throughout human history? And why is it that ethics seems so often to be bound up in some way with religion, with the teachings of we take as spiritual teachers or leaders?

    Perhaps we're wrong in looking for some kind of logical derivation from given facts to moral goods. Perhaps the issue is not that what we take to be morally good or right must be logically grounded in certain discoverable facts or the rules of reasoning itself. Perhaps all we're after (or should be after) is something that tells us why the "Golden Rule" makes a kind of sense, the kind that has caused it to be so ubiquitous across human experience?

    To the extent moral discourse so often seems to be about trying to get another to see things in a different way, rather than accede to a logically impeccable argument, it is perhaps enough to note that there's reason to care about others' interests in a way that raises those interests to a level at which we tend to treat our own. Such a reason need not be logically deducible but only about getting someone (or ourselves) to see something differently, to look at the world and see others' interests as they see them. If we can do that, do we also need an argument to treat their interests on a par with how we treat our own? Perhaps seeing the equivalence is enough?

    And in that case all moral "argument" would be about would be giving reasons for why we we also have a reason to treat others' interests as our own. Kant offered rationality itself as providing such a reason but does that really work? Do any of us think that way when you get down to it?

    On the other hand, moral argument is often (maybe always, in real life) about prompting others to see themselves in the other. Can we find and give a reason for why such prompting makes sense? And must that reason have a syllogistic form? Perhaps it's only about reminding others and ourselves about the way things are and then the notion that one comes to see things, the world, others in a new way makes sense. It's argument as reminder.

    But what are we reminding anyone of? Here we want to say look into the eyes of the other, into the deer's eyes or the fellow beside you, look into the vast array of existence of which we are a part. Here, perhaps, we want to say that the very fact that we are subjects implies something about what a subject is. And that implication is what moral argument works to remind us of.

    1. Thanks, Stuart.

      Perhaps all we're after (or should be after) is something that tells us why the "Golden Rule" makes a kind of sense, the kind that has caused it to be so ubiquitous across human experience?

      Maybe so. This is not a easy thing to find though. Anscombe talks about mystical perception in connection with this kind of issue (why murder is wrong, for instance). That isn't exactly helpful, but it's at least an important reminder that there really is a kind of mystery here. In other words, it might be helpful, but not in the sense that it provides a way to figure out what to do or what matters.

      If we can do that, do we also need an argument [...] ?

      Not necessarily, although the (irritating) thought that comes to mind is that we do if we need an argument. That is, if the desired kind of seeing happens and the desired kind of behavior follows from it, then good. But what if it doesn't? Or what if the desired kind of seeing and behavior isn't indisputably good? Then we might want an argument. Wanting it doesn't make it possible, though, and there are different kinds of argument, of course. But questions of justification can and do arise.

      Kant offered rationality itself as providing such a reason but does that really work?

      No, but he also equated rationality with humanity, and had the idea of treating something as an end in itself. There is something very good in those ideas, in the idea of respecting the humanity in a person and in not regarding everything simply as a means to an end. It's roughly the opposite of the idea of "human resources," which I think was intended as a compliment to people based on the presupposition that utility alone (in the crudest sense) is of value.

      But what are we reminding anyone of?

      Good question. Maybe everything, or at least what is right under their/our noses. Reminding as waking up, bringing back to conscious awareness, re-minding. But I don't want to start playing around with typography or words.

    2. Yes, it's challenging to get it right and yet we do moral valuing all the time. I think the problem, for philosophy anyway, is to see how moral valuing fits in with all the other kinds of valuing and not to resolve moral issues per se. We all do that everyday and philosophy is no real help for that.

      I suppose that's why I'm inclined to think the issue of moral decision making must be more basic to our experience, must be something we, as humans, are equipped to do. It's why I find Robert Brandom's approach so odd, because he plunks for the higher life of the mind and asserts that that's philosophy. On the face of it, he seems to be saying (though he doesn't quite say it) that the most real moral good is philosophical contemplation, thereby excluding the vast bulk of humanity. That can't be right!

      To the extent that moral valuing is a particular kind of valuing activity we humans do, I think philosophy can offer an account of it that covers the view that our moral judgments come from deep within us, that they are expressions of a certain way of seeing, of understanding the world.

      The problem then is to determine how that can jibe with the fact that moral judgments are also about giving reasons, involve argument. If they are just expressive of how we feel, the reasons we marshal for or against particular judgments can be nothing more than chimerical. So there has to be some rational element in the expressiveness of moral discourse.

      I think that lies in something like you alluded to with your example of looking into the eyes of a deer and suddenly having a kind of awakening, of seeing things differently because so much of moral argument seems to me to be about urging people (ourselves or others) to see things in a different way.

      Maybe it's an overreach to think that ethical claims are essentially attached to spiritual moments, but it seems to me that the same kind of dynamic is at work. Just as seeing the deer, or having some other instance of experience which suddenly alters our usual way of thinking about things, can move us toward religiously associated behaviors, so, I have come to think, considering the kind of creatures we are, what it is to be creatures like us, can lead us to a realizational moment which has an implication for moral judgments, i.e., which can prompt us to thinking in terms of others' interests. I think we can adduce an argument for working toward and having just such a realization (which I think is implicit in Kant's argument but which his derivation from rationality alone cannot support). Thus there can be a rational (if non-Kantian) basis for having the sort of thing we think of as a moral sensibility, even if it's not the kind of knock down/drag out result you get with syllogistic reasoning.

    3. the most real moral good is philosophical contemplation, thereby excluding the vast bulk of humanity. That can't be right!

      It isn't what I think, but I wouldn't say it can't be right. If "philosophical contemplation" means reading philosophy journals and mulling the strengths of the arguments in them then you're right. But if it is expanded to include things like prayer and meditation then it might be the highest good we are capable of. It doesn't seem so to me, but that could be my ignorance.

      Maybe it's an overreach to think that ethical claims are essentially attached to spiritual moments, but it seems to me that the same kind of dynamic is at work.

      I think I agree. I need to read the more fully developed version of your thoughts.

    4. I think we expect folks to act morally and grasp moral concerns whether or not they are of superior intellect. If the life of the mind is the highest good, and that is conceived as Brandom's seem to, as deep thoughts about significant and complex features of our existence, then how can we expect moral behavior from those who lack the capacity for such deepness? But, of course, I am drawing a distinction here between the idea that deepness consists of intellectually rigorous thinking and that it consists of some kind of "spiritual" experience. It is certainly possible to elide the two and sometimes, I suppose, we are going to find ourselves doing that.

      Alas, I have a newer longer version! I seem unable to achieve the brevity I seek.

    5. It's hard to believe that intellect is either necessary or irrelevant. I don't know Brandom's work well enough to comment more than that.

    6. Brandom sure ain't easy! It took me over a week to get through the one book of his I've read so far, Reason in Philosophy, in which he traces a pragmatic stream from Kant through Hegel to more contemporary thought. Although he only deals outright with ethical concerns in one chapter toward the end, in which he asserts that the good of creatures like ourselves is to be found in the rational life, I would expect that he'd season that with the condiment of Kantianism (or "kantianism" with a small "k" as he prefers to say). That is, he seems to be headed toward the view that the rational life, because of its inferentialist requirements (reasoning as navigating the logical space of rational implication), would consist of something like embracing a kantian categorical imperative, i.e., that we must act in accord with the rules of rational inference and that these would require us to recognize the rights and needs of other beings operating in the same logical space.

      Although he doesn't say it in that book, I'd guess, from other things he does say, that rationality, on his view, doesn't require achieving the pinnacle of intellectual brilliance per se (which he would likely acknowledge is closed to most of us, at least at this stage of human evolution!) but only operating in the right way, i.e., as rational creatures who sometimes get things wrong. That is, we don't have to be right to be rational, only play the rational game.

      But, given that, I think he must end up in a box because, if the best kind of life for mankind is one of rational contemplation and the highest form of that is philosophy, and moral virtue (he seems to be creating a synthesis of Aristotelian virtue ethics and kantian categoricalism in that book) is a function of doing the things that achieve or are conducive to achieving the best life, then clearly some human beings must be excluded from the possibility of attaining genuine moral virtue however much they might strive for it or be convinced they should be striving for it. And that really does seem wrong to me.

      But my reading of him on this is based on having read only a single book of his, with a single chapter touching on this question, and I'm sure he'd supply enough caveats, if pressed, to find a way out of the box I think his argument puts him in!

    7. Thanks for this. I was going to say that I agree with your verdict, but of course I would if I go by what you say about Brandom without reading what he has to say. So I'll reserve judgment for now.

    8. Right!

      He's got some really interesting stuff so he's worth it, I think, though he writes and speaks in some of the most remarkably complex (and, perhaps, longwinded) sentences I've ever encountered in philosophy . . . and that's saying something!

      I was especially taken with the line of thought he draws from Kant through Hegel to the American Pragmatists to Wittgenstein (and even Heidegger, though Heidegger still remains a mystery to me and eminently harder for me to read than Brandom, even). His main thesis seems to be that semantics is grounded in pragmatics (knowing that depends on knowing how) and that Kant saw this early on. What I have found intriguing is the way in which Brandom puts it all together, how he lays out a detailed account of how meaning works, not in a psychological but a logical way. Now if only he were a little less dense I'd know better if I really agreed with him or not. (On the ethics issue, perhaps he says more in some other work and my guessing as to where he is going, above, doesn't actually do his thinking justice. I guess I'll have to read some more of his stuff.)

  2. Duncan,

    Just two small comments.

    First, you say: “They would be understandable, perhaps even natural, but they are not necessary.” – I think those who are moved by the experience of the moon or the deer or the Himalayas to behave in certain ways might, or even would, say they are compelled, and to this extent, there is nevertheless a kind of necessity involved. It’s not logical necessity, but neither is it mere causal necessity.

    Second, regarding what you say about how being open to wonder may reduce egoism, I once had a similar thought, but mine had a kind of epistemological twist to it, and I don’t know if it makes much sense. My thought was that in such experiences it is as if the objects we are wondering at (the moon, the deer, the mountain, the child) is using the resources of our mind, doing the thinking in us and for us, or as if we let it “play on the keyboard of our imagination.” That is, I was inclined to describe the situation as one in which we trust something—the world—with our minds. And this way of thinking about it made me think that by doing this—by being open to wonder—we are practicing selflessness. Again, I’m not sure this makes much sense.

    Whatever it is that you are working on now, I’d like to read it.

    1. Thanks, Reshef.

      It’s not logical necessity, but neither is it mere causal necessity.

      That's right. I tried to find some way to say that but gave up. It isn't universal (not everyone reacts the same way) or physical necessity either, but it is, or can be, a kind of necessity. The kind involved when one says (and means), "I can't do it," e.g. when ordered to shoot someone.

      I like your second comment a lot, but I'm not sure that I quite get it or agree with that way of putting things. There is a kind of occupation of the mind by the object, and there is a kind of trust. But beyond this occupation I'm not sure that the object really does anything in or with the mind. Swim in it, perhaps. Carve its name. Nothing that I would call thinking or playing on the keyboard of the imagination though. There is a kind of openness and selflessness, though, I agree.

      I'm afraid all the work I'm doing at the moment is reading and then writing these blog posts about what I have read. I hope it might add up to more some time though.

  3. This may be helpful in the discussion of how moral argument is possible if moral judgments are grounded in our peculiar sensibilities:

    John H. Whittaker on the idea of moral facts -

    "An empirical finding, a piece of descriptive data, an observed result – all these are facts in a perfectly familiar sense of the word. Yet we might be so wedded to this sense of the word that we think of such empirical facts as the only facts that there are. Yet there are other senses in which we speak of facts where the context no longer involves descriptions, findings, or the reports of experiments and observations; and Lucas reminds us of these contexts. He asks us to remember that facts include anything that can be taken for granted, rather like Wittgenstein’s certainties. In this sense, facts do not contrast with values but with hypotheses, contentions, or disputable claims. Facts are secure judgements, safe in normal contexts from the critical inquiry that applies to other judgements, and this applies whether we are discussing facts in a scientific context or not. As we approach our most certain moral convictions, where we cannot help but to feel that those who disagree with us are wrong, then we find ourselves speaking easily of moral facts and moral truths, just as Gaita did in condemning racism.

    "Insofar as there are such givens in morality, then, these same givens – moral certainties, true insights, whatever one wants to call them – can be meaningfully described as facts. Thus, I take it for granted that we ought not to leave our female infants out to die. To regard this as a morally impossible option is, in effect, to say that we have no doubts about this at all; it can be accepted as the common coinage of what we take as ethical discussion. In that sense it is a fact, an obviously true judgement that can be presumed as belonging to the unquestioned presuppositions of moral discussion. For such facts as these ordinarily need not even be mentioned, for who among us, among those who know what we know about morality, would not agree? It seems clear that there must be such moral facts simply because there must be some common ground in judgements for moral thinking to proceed. . . .

    ". . . Sometimes people do challenge our moral certainties. But when this happens, the logical nature of our disagreements changes into a difficulty that can no longer be straightforwardly negotiated by reason. We might think that such disagreements should in principle be subject to some form of objective and rational determination; but the mere fact that we can imagine such disagreements does not mean that they must be subject to justification on rational grounds. The same goes for the concept of reality, which we also commonly use in connection with moral insight. Obviously, this reality does not consist in what we see empirically or of what we discover objectively or impersonally about the world around us. It consists in what we come to see as our moral vision opens up. Thus, when we speak of the realities of the moral world, we mean that moral judgements are incumbent on us as human beings, who are trying to find our way in the life that surrounds us. Here again we have to resist the temptation to think of reality solely in terms of empirical reality, as if there were no other realities to be met with in human experience. . . .

  4. SM: I've been wanting to read some of Whitaker's work since I heard him give a talk on religious language a couple years ago...thanks for the reminder.

    DR: You might want to go look at Murdoch's passage about the humbling experience of being struck by something in the natural world (she uses a kestrel as her illustration) in The Sovereignty of the Good:

    "I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but the kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care." (p. 82 in the Routledge edition)

  5. Thanks to both of you! I need to read Whittaker and Murdoch.