Good and Bad Behavior From a Perspectivist Perspective

And God said: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering.”

A few days later: “They came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an alter there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the alter upon the wood…And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”

But God presented Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead!

Now, some people think God would never have let Isaac be sacrificed. God does not or cannot do bad things. Other people think God could have let the sacrifice proceed. In that case, depending on who you ask, Abraham should have killed Isaac, because that was God’s will, or he shouldn’t have, because it would have been immoral (and maybe God was hoping Abraham would spare Isaac anyway, just like the tricky aliens in Star Trek often test the humans). Then there are people like me who think these verses from Genesis are nothing but a provocative story.

What makes the story provocative, of course, is that it sets up a supposed conflict between God’s commands and morality. On one hand, disobeying a direct order from God might be a very big mistake, not just because of the lighting bolt thing, but because the Supreme Being presumably knows what’s best for all of us. On the other hand, morality is often thought to be the ultimate perspective from which to evaluate behavior, whether human or divine. The ethical thing to do is always the right thing to do. 

So what should Abraham have done? It’s relatively easy for the non-religious or anti-supernatural among us, comfortably moralizing in 2015, to say Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac. But from a religious perspective, one can easily conclude the opposite. From that perspective, our fundamental responsibility is to obey God’s commandments, whether they’re truly ethical or not. The theologians who argue that God can’t do anything immoral seem to be trying to glorify God, rationalizing like those of us who do bad things but want to believe our actions are ethically justified. If the religious perspective is different from the ethical perspective, perhaps the ethical perspective isn’t supreme after all. Not for everyone anyway.

If you don’t think a religious perspective could ever trump the ethical one, consider a perspective we might call the “relational”. In 1793, William Godwin asked his readers to consider which of two people they would rescue from a fire: a great humanitarian who would serve mankind for years to come or a lowly chambermaid who would never rise above her station. Godwin thought it was obvious from an ethical perspective that the humanitarian should be saved first, risking the life of the chambermaid, since that would have the best consequences for the most people. You might agree, but what if the chambermaid was your mother? 

It could be argued that saving your mother would be the ethical choice because of your special relationship. What kind of unfeeling, disloyal child would let his or her mother burn to death instead of some stranger, even a world-famous humanitarian? But giving special consideration to the members of one’s family is questionable from an ethical perspective. We can try to explain how favoritism can be ethical but that’s simply more rationalization.

Kant, for example, took morality so seriously that he once claimed we should never tell a lie, not even to “a murderer who asks us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house”. If there is an absolute ethical prohibition against telling a lie, and the ethical perspective is the supreme guide to life, so much the worse for your relatives hiding in the basement when the Nazis show up. Or consider the ethical argument for donating much of your income to help refugees in Africa or the Middle East. Is it ethical to pay for music lessons for your children when you could use that money to make a Somali child’s life more bearable? Perhaps favoritism should trump morality sometimes (where the “should” isn’t meant in the ethical sense). We know it often does.

Of course, I’m not saying that the ethical perspective is unimportant. Society could hardly exist without it. But I think there are other perspectives that are also important. They come into play whenever we make a decision or evaluate behavior. In fact, the only way to justify ethical behavior as a whole is by appealing to non-ethical perspectives (just as you cannot justify being practical from a practical perspective or viewing the world scientifically from a scientific perspective). 

Why should we concern ourselves with morality at all? Historically, it’s often been justified from a religious perspective (God commands us to behave ethically) or from a practical perspective (society couldn’t function without it; you’ll get into trouble if you’re unethical) or from a personal perspective (I want to act like a virtuous person). Another justification that’s been popular among philosophers is from a rational or logical perspective (we should treat all people equally since there are no relevant differences between us).

I think it’s important to understand the various perspectives from which we view the world and try to live in it, as well as the relationships between those perspectives. Admitting that we don’t always behave as if the ethical perspective is paramount is a good first step. We might then do a better job figuring out how to balance our many perspectives, such as the ethical, religious, “relational”, practical and scientific; as well as my perspective, your perspective and the perspectives of other living things. After all, even when it comes to morality, the fundamental rule we first learned is to evaluate behavior from other people’s perspectives as well as our own.

What’s It All About, Woody?

In Woody Allen’s latest movie, Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a moody philosophy professor, while Emma Stone plays Jill, a cheerful undergraduate, who etc. etc. etc.

New York Times critic Manhola Dargis describes Jill as “an eager A student who’s attracted to Abe because that’s how she was written”. That’s very nicely put, but our topic isn’t cinema or gender. Our topic is whether life is meaningless.

From the Times review of Irrational Man:

In Woody Allen’s 1987 drama “September,” a writer and a physicist walk into a room … when the writer asks the physicist, “Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?” The physicist, sunk deep in gloomy shadow, answers, “Yeah, the knowledge that it doesn’t matter one way or the other — that it’s all random, radiating aimlessly out of nothing and eventually vanishing forever.” The physicist says that he’s not talking about the world. “I’m talking about the universe,” adding, “all space, all time, just a temporary convulsion.”

The exchange is in keeping with Mr. Allen’s oft-repeated insistence, on-screen and off, that life is meaningless, which may be true even if he seems feverishly bent on refuting it with his prodigious cinematic output.

Nobody has ever accused me of always, or even generally, looking on the bright side of things, but I don’t see any connection at all between the end of the universe and the meaning of life. So maybe Woody Allen, who is rather intelligent and can be relatively funny, is having a bit of fun when he suggests that life is meaningless because, meaningless because, in the distant future, the whole shebang will come to nothing.

Apparently not. It was easy to find videos in which Allen, speaking as himself, not through one of his characters, expresses an extremely bleak view of our situation. In one video, for example, when asked to comment on Macbeth’s complaint that life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, Allen offers this:  

You die and eventually the sun burns out … eventually all the planets and all the stars … the entire universe goes, disappears, and nothing is left at all … and you think to yourself, it is a lot of noise and sound and fury and where is it going? It’s not going anyplace.

He then imagines a cycle in which all of humanity is replaced every 100 years. Each time, people take their lives very seriously, yet “it seems like a big meaningless thing”. Strangely, however, he concludes that “even knowing the worst … it’s still worthwhile …it’s still important to go on”. Further, it’s the artist’s job to help the rest of us understand why this is so.

Not that it makes any difference, but physicists aren’t really sure how the universe will end. Will there be a Big Freeze? Big Rip? Big Crunch? Big Bounce? One reason they’re not sure is that they don’t know enough about dark energy, the strange force that seems to be making the universe expand more quickly. But however it ends, the universe should keep going for billions of years. Its ultimate destination may be nowhere at all, but in the meantime, a whole lot of stuff, including us, will be traveling every which way.

Citing events like the end of the universe or the explosion of the sun as reasons for the meaninglessness of life could be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard a public figure say. It’s like saying that traveling around the world or visiting the Moon is pointless because you’re going to end up back in your own bed and, besides, you’re not going to live forever. 

Life has meaning for anyone who finds it meaningful. None of our experiences, memories, expectations, accomplishments or relationships are inherently meaningful – meaningful in themselves – but they are often meaningful to us and other people. That’s why we say things like “that really meant a lot to me” or (as I heard in a movie this week) “you mean nothing to me”.

To be meaningful in this sense is to be significant. It’s true that we sometimes perceive significance where there really isn’t any, but we don’t always get it wrong. Was it meaningful to you when you finished that task, visited that place, played that song, met that person? Well, no it wasn’t, because billions of years from now, there won’t be anything in the universe except black holes, and they’ll eventually disappear too! Making this supposed connection explicit – “life can only have meaning if the universe lasts forever” – shows what an absurd, lazy idea it is.

To be fair to Woody Allen, however, he might have another idea in mind. When people say life is meaningless, they sometimes mean that life has no ultimate purpose. Our individual purposes (putting food on the table, learning how to surf, becoming a banker) don’t seem important enough in the grand scheme of things. Isn’t there a bigger purpose to all of this?

Perhaps we’re here to propagate the species (until there’s no room on Earth for one more person?). Or help the universe or the Absolute become aware of itself (good one, Hegel). Or to fulfill a divine plan, like glorifying the supreme being forever and ever (the ego!). Or maybe we humans are only here as unwitting contestants in a vast competition run by the rulers of the galaxy to see which planet can produce the best muffins? That’s a possibility.

In addition to the difficulty of identifying which particular cosmic purpose we’re here to serve, there’s another big problem with this idea. Whatever purpose we’re serving, it most likely isn’t ours (especially if we don’t know what it is). Living in order to serve someone or something else’s higher purpose means that we are being treated as a means, not an end. That’s the opposite of what Kant argued is the basis of morality: to treat people as ends in themselves, not as means to achieving something else. Unless we can correctly identify a higher purpose and then adopt it as our own, the desire to serve a higher purpose is the desire to be used. 

In a similar context, Nietzsche criticized what he called “the ascetic ideal”, a way of thinking that helps the less psychologically advanced among us (the “herd”) avoid “suicidal nihilism”. The ascetic ideal, as embodied by Christian morality, requires that:

there is nothing on earth of any power which does not first have to receive a meaning, a right to existence, a value from it, as a tool to its work, as a way and means to its goal [On the Genealogy of Morality, III, 23).

Knowing that we were being used to serve an overriding purpose in the way Nietzsche describes service to the ascetic ideal would certainly add meaning to our lives. That’s true. But whether it would be a desirable meaning is another question.

The world in which we find ourselves should make us wonder what higher purpose would justify or explain what goes on around here. Nature is red in tooth and claw for most living beings. We humans do have Beethoven and Michelangelo, as Woody Allen often says, and surprisingly many people around the world are fairly satisfied with their lives, but consider all the horrendous crap we have to deal with (often at the hands of other humans).

Finding out that all of humanity’s pain and suffering happens for a reason would be adding insult to injury. The world is like this on purpose? It’s more agreeable and understandable that it just worked out this way. If I learned that this whole enterprise was set in motion by some higher-ups (or -up), I’d be very surprised, but also very disappointed. Couldn’t they do a better job? Are we living in a beta version?

They better damn well enjoy our muffins.

Postscript of 7/27/15:

From the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne: “Life should be an aim unto itself; a purpose unto itself” (Essays, III, 12).

It May Not Be Absolutely Good, But It’s Pretty Darn Neat

Philosophers disagree (as usual) on whether there is anything in the world that is absolutely good. By that, I mean “good, period” or “just plain good” or “not good for any reason other than its very nature”. For example, some philosophers have argued that pleasure, knowledge, beauty, virtue, friendship or human life are absolutely good.

Immanuel Kant thought that the only thing that is absolutely good, with no qualification at all, is a “good will”. Not a “will” in the legal sense, of course, but in the sense in which a person can will to behave in a good way. That sounds circular, since one might reasonably ask: “Aren’t you defining a good will in terms of wanting to do good things?” Kant’s answer, however plausible or not, is that a good will is one that conforms to the “Moral Law”, which can be expressed this way: 

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

According to Kant, following that rule will guarantee that you have a good will, and having a good will is the very best thing in the whole world. 

Now, I’m only bringing this up because I bumped into something a few days ago that impressed me so much that my almost immediate thought was: “That is such a good thing that maybe it qualifies as absolutely good.”

Unfortunately, my less than immediate thought was “No, it’s not really the kind of thing that could be absolutely good, but it’s still awfully damn wonderful”. That is, it’s only good in the sense that a hammer or a bag of popcorn can be good – it’s a terrifically good thing of its kind because it serves its purpose really well.

And here it is:

It’s called Departure Vision. Our local commuter railway, New Jersey Transit, now has a simple webpage that allows you to see the very same departure screen that in years gone by you could only see right in the train station! That means you don’t have to pull out a big folded paper schedule or use your phone to peruse the full online schedule when you want to see when the next train is. You simply bring up this Departure Vision page, select the station you’re traveling from, and there it is:

NJT-Secaucus-Upper-Lvl-Departures-big

My semi-sincere apologies to anyone who thinks this really good thing is extremely disappointing or anti-climactic. Clearly, you don’t know how often I and thousands of other people have wanted to know if we had enough time to catch the next train. 

Much more seriously, writing this post about a really nice, relatively simple thing some unknown people did has allowed me to avoid thinking about Ukraine, the Gaza Strip, the House of Representatives or other bothersome subjects for a fairly substantial period of time. Maybe reading it (and visiting the Departure Vision page) has had a similar benefit for you. I hope so. That wouldn’t be absolutely good, and it clearly wouldn’t be as good as Departure Vision itself, but it would still be pretty good in a small kind of way.

new_dv

God and Modern Moral Philosophy

I’m halfway through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. “Modern” in this case doesn’t mean “contemporary”. Philosophers generally consider Rene Descartes to be the founder of modern philosophy and he died in 1650. Schneewind’s book concludes with Immanuel Kant, who died in 1804. (Philosophy isn’t one of those disciplines that leaves the past behind.)

Moral philosophy hasn’t stood still since Kant, but he’s still a very important figure. Kant argued that in order to act ethically, we must subject ourselves to a moral principle (the Categorical Imperative) that we freely and rationally adopt. We must be autonomous agents, not someone else’s followers.

However, as Schneewind tells the story in the first half of The Invention of Autonomy, moral philosophers in the early modern period were deeply concerned with an issue that wasn’t modern at all. Plato presented the problem in one of his early dialogues, Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”. Or, in modern form, “Is the morally good commanded by God because it’s morally good, or is it morally good because it’s commanded by God?”.

Not surprisingly, there were a variety of answers to this question. Some philosophers and theologians argued in favor of “intellectualism”: God commands what is morally good because God recognizes the principles of morality. It isn’t in God’s power or nature to prefer the immoral to the moral. Richard Cumblerland, for example, argued that morality is rational and God is supremely rational. Hence, God’s commands must be the right ones. God cannot make mistakes.

But if God couldn’t have issued different commands, doesn’t that limit God’s power? And doesn’t it mean that morality somehow stands apart from God? It would seem that God might not even be necessary for morality. Concerns like that convinced some to argue for “voluntarism”: God’s commands define morality. God voluntarily chose the morality we have, so what is moral or immoral would have been different if God had chosen differently. Descartes was an extreme voluntarist, for example. Schneewind notes that, according to Descartes,

Eternal verities must depend on God’s will, as a king’s laws do in his country. There are eternal truths, such as that the whole is greater than the part; but they would not be true unless God had willed them to be so [184].

Maybe it made sense for the early modern philosophers to spend so much time trying to figure out what God was thinking, and whether God could have chosen differently, and how morality and God are related. Living in a world subject to the idiosyncratic decisions of kings and queens, it must have been natural to view morality in terms of divine commands.

Eventually, however, the intellectualist side prevailed (to the extent that God remained in the picture at all). It became clear that morality and religion aren’t necessarily connected. All that speculating and arguing about the relationship between God and morality was an enormous waste of time. If you don’t believe me, read the first half of The Invention of Autonomy.

Republicans and Liberty, Part 1

It’s one of those enduring questions: why are there Republicans?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve been thinking about the existence of one kind of Republican lately: the Libertarian. The principal libertarian Republican in the news these days is a Senator from Kentucky whose initials are RP. Some of the people who spend their time on Earth guessing about such things think RP is the front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination (even though the primaries and caucuses are still two years away). 

I started thinking about RP and other Republican libertarians when this question popped into my head: do Republican libertarians support the American Civil Liberties Union? The ACLU famously devotes itself to protecting various rights and liberties, especially those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Shouldn’t Republican libertarians be in favor of their work? Yet that seemed unlikely, since the ACLU is a well-known “liberal” organization and we all know how Republicans feel about liberals.

A little bit of research suggests that Republican libertarians support some of the ACLU’s work, but definitely not all of it. The reason for this mixed attitude is that Republican libertarians are generally “economic” libertarians, while the libertarians at the ACLU are (as you might suppose) “civil” libertarians.

Economic libertarians believe the individual is supremely important, especially when it comes to private property and the fruits of one’s labor.They hold that government’s principal purpose is to protect the rest of us from criminals and foreign aggressors, not to provide for the general welfare. They believe we should all be allowed to do what we want so long as we don’t infringe on other people’s rights.

Hence, economic libertarians favor laissez-faire, the principle that private parties should be allowed to engage in economic activity with minimal government interference, involvement or assistance. The government should only tax, regulate or subsidize economic activity in order to insure the existence of a free market, in which all of us, being responsible for our own success or failure, can fairly compete.

The basic argument for economic libertarianism was strongly stated by the philosopher Robert Nozick (who borrowed some of it from Immanuel Kant) in his classic book Anarchy, State and Utopia: all human beings should be treated as ends, not means, so it’s wrong to take from one person to help another. Basically, my tax dollars should not benefit you without my consent. Otherwise I’ve been made a kind of slave.

To sum up, in the words of one self-described libertarian: “Real libertarians understand that freedom of speech and other civil liberties depend on the sanctity of private property – not its violation by anti-discrimination laws and other forms of government intervention.”

So, economic libertarians endorse some of the ACLU’s work, such as supporting freedom of speech and the right of assembly, but oppose a lot of it, such as the ACLU’s support for anti-discrimination laws (because an employer should be able to discriminate against potential employees on the basis of race or gender) and the supposed right of all children to an equal public education at taxpayer expense. 

Economic libertarians appear to disagree among themselves on other issues. One troublesome example is abortion rights, which the ACLU obviously supports. Economic libertarians would presumably support abortion rights too (it’s my body) but not if they think a fetus is already a person (in which case, the fetus already has rights that need to be protected). Voting rights is another interesting case. The ACLU strongly favors voting rights for all Americans, including ex-prisoners, but some economic libertarians think that committing a felony means you’ve forfeited your right to vote.

To test my understanding of the difference between economic and civil libertarians, and to see what that famous libertarian Republican has to say, I spent some time on Senator LP’s website. More about that tomorrow, as well as some thoughts on economic libertarianism in general.

Something They Don’t Tell You About Retirement

They didn’t tell me anyway.

After years of meeting or trying to meet deadlines, you suddenly have very few reasons to do anything at any particular time. No more “status reports are due by 3 pm” or “performance reviews must be submitted by November 15”. No more “close of business on Friday”.

Not that anybody ever dies by failing to meet a deadline, but when you’re retired, almost everything can wait. The most onerous deadline I have these days is getting a book back to the library on time (and they make it so easy to renew – they probably feel as silly asking for ten or twenty cents as you do paying it).

Of course, on the assumption that having a deadline can lead to beneficial activity, you can give yourself deadlines. That sounds funny at first, like the all-powerful Queen who makes a law she supposedly has to obey. But some serious people, Immanuel Kant, for example, have argued that freedom and autonomy don’t “consist in being bound by no law, but by laws that are in some sense of one’s own making” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 

You figure out what’s right and then you do it for that reason. You use one of those great calendar applications to set your deadline, pick a nice color and set up an appropriate reminder. I haven’t done this much yet, but it sounds like a really good way to add some urgency to retired life.

Plus, when it looks like you won’t meet your deadline, you can simply drag it to some future, more agreeable date. That’s freedom and autonomy in spades!

Which reminds me of what the comedian Rita Rudner once said, something like:

“It’s great being single. There’s so much freedom. If you want, you can buy a chocolate cake, eat a big slice of it for dinner and then throw the rest in the trash. Then, the next morning, you can take something out of the trash and have it for breakfast.”