The Ethics of “Sweet Illusions and Darling Lies”

Are we morally responsible for what we believe? To some extent, we are. The acceptance of lies and bizarre conspiracy theories by so many of our fellow citizens makes the issue extremely relevant. The philosopher Regina Rini discusses the ethics of belief for the Times Literary Supplement:  

On January 6, the US Capitol building was stormed by a mob, motivated by beliefs that were almost entirely false, absurd and nonsensical: the QAnon conspiracy; the President’s [lies] about massive voter fraud, and the various conspiracy theories that he and his lawyers peddled in support of overturning the election results.

In 1877, the English philosopher William Clifford published a now famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief”, setting out the view that we can be morally faulted for shoddy thinking. Clifford imagines a ship-owner who smothers his doubts about the seaworthiness of a creaky vessel, and adopts the sincere but unjustified belief that it is safe to send passengers across the Atlantic. The ship then sinks. Clifford (himself a shipwreck survivor) asks: don’t we agree that the ship-owner was “verily guilty” of the passengers’ deaths, and that he “must be held responsible for it”? If we agree to this, Clifford continues, then we must also agree that the ship-owner would deserve blame even if the ship hadn’t sunk. It is epistemic carelessness that makes the ship-owner guilty, even if catastrophe is luckily avoided. “The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief … not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.”

Clifford’s views went out of favour among philosophers for most of a century. Moral evaluation, it was thought, should stop at the mind’s edge. After all, we cannot directly control our beliefs in the way we control our fists. I can’t just decide, here and now, to stop believing that Charles I had a pointy beard . . . And if I can’t control my beliefs, how can I be held accountable for them?

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Yet in recent decades, many philosophers have become less impressed by this objection (sometimes called the problem of “doxastic voluntarism”). After all, I can control how I acquire and maintain beliefs by shaping my informational environment. Suppose I do really want to change my beliefs about Charles I’s grooming. I could join a renegade historical society and surround myself with dissenting portraiture. Slowly, indirectly, I can retrain my thoughts and I can be held accountable for choosing to do so.

More to the point, I can also fail to take action to shape my beliefs in healthy ways. The social media era has made this point especially acute, as we can each now curate our own information environment, following sources that challenge our beliefs, or flatter our preconceptions, as we please. Digital epistemic communities are then made up of people who amplify one another’s virtues or vices. Credulously accepting conspiracy stories that vilify my partisan enemies not only dulls my own wits, but encourages my friends to dull theirs. Clifford himself was quite sharp on this point: “Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me … It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive”.

So far, then, Clifford’s 150-year-old diagnosis seems precisely to explain the epistemic culpability of those who stormed the Capitol on a wave of delusion and lies. But there is a wrinkle here. Clifford thought that credulity – insufficient scepticism toward the claims of others – was the most troubling intellectual vice. But the epistemic shambles of QAnon show a more subtle problem. After all, if there’s anything conspiracy fanatics possess, it is scepticism. They are sceptical of what government officials say, sceptical of what vaccine scientists say, sceptical even of what astronauts say about the shape of the Earth. If anything, they show that critical thinking is a bit like cell division; valuable in proportion, but at risk of harmful metastasis. In the eyes of QAnon devotees, we are the “sheeple” who fail to “do the research” of tumbling down every hyperlinked rabbit-hole.

Conspiracy aficionados are all too willing to think for themselves – that is how they end up believing that Democrats are Satan-worshippers or that 5G phone towers cause Covid-19. And that’s where Clifford’s moralizing – “No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe” – goes wrong. The ethics of belief should not be a Calvinistic demand for hard epistemic labour. Conspiracists work at least as hard as the rest of us, pinning notes and photos to their bulletin boards late into the night. Hard epistemic labour is just as prone to amplifying epistemic mistakes as overcoming them.

In fact, we should not be focused on individual intellectual virtue at all. The epistemic practices that justify our beliefs are fundamentally interpersonal. Most of our knowledge of the world depends essentially on the say-so of others. Consider: how do you know that I live in Toronto? Well, it says so right at the bottom of this column. But that’s not the same as going to Toronto and seeing me there with your own eyes. So even this simple belief requires trusting the say-so of me or the [Times Literary Supplement].

Perhaps you want to be an uncompromising epistemic individualist, refusing to believe until you’ve verified it yourself? Well, you’ll need to come to Toronto to check. But how will you find Toronto? You can’t use Google Maps (that’s just more say-so from others). Maybe you’ll set out with a compass and enterprising disposition. But how do you know what that compass is pointing to? How do you know where the North Pole is, or how magnetism works? Have you been to the North Pole? Have you done all the magnetism experiments yourself? The list goes on.

No one lives like that. We are all deeply, ineradicably dependent on the say-so of others for nearly all our beliefs about the world. It’s only through a massive division of cognitive labour that we’ve come to know so much. So genuine epistemic responsibility isn’t a matter of doubting all that can be doubted, or only believing what you’ve proven for yourself. It’s a matter of trusting the right other people. That takes wisdom.

Not everyone in the Capitol mob was a QAnon believer. Some were white supremacists aiming to violently uphold a president who refused to condemn their hate. Others were merely insurrection tourists. Still, many do seem to have genuinely believed they were fighting a monstrous regime of Satanic child-harmers. Those beliefs did not appear in a vacuum. A Bellingcat investigation of the social media history of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot by police while attempting to storm the House of Representatives, suggests that she held relatively mainstream political views until about a year ago, when she veered off into deep QAnon obsession. She put her trust in the wrong people, and all her epistemic labour only made things worse.

That is the most delicate and important lesson to draw from last week’s horror show. QAnon believers are culpable for their bad judgment. But that culpability extends far beyond them, through to everyone whose actions fed their dangerous beliefs. It’s not enough to insist that responsibility falls entirely on the believer, because we are all dependent on others for our knowledge, and we must all trust someone. That mutual reliance means we are all our neighbour’s epistemic keeper.

Most obviously the blame for last week’s catastrophe extends to politicians who cynically courted and channelled [lies] to support their false allegations of election fraud. Donald Trump spoke to the mob moments before their assault, declaring “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong”, and ordered them to march against the Capitol. That evening, after Congress regained control of its chambers, senators such as Josh Hawley continued to flog “objections and concerns” about the presidential election which had been dismissed by numerous courts and Trump’s own Justice Department.

But manipulative politicians are not the only ones to blame. The culture of the internet played a big role as well. An investigation of QAnon’s origins by the podcast Reply All found that the conspiracy began life as a joke on the ultra-ironic website 4chan. In 2017, “Q” was one of only several fake government source characters being played, tongue-in-cheek, by forum participants who all understood it was a game. Gradually the Q persona became the most popular, and then outsiders – who didn’t get the joke – stumbled onto Q’s tantalizing nonsense. Within a year, thousands of people looking for anything to fill the gap left by their scepticism toward authority developed a sincere belief in Q. Behind the scenes, someone, with cynical political or commercial motives, was happy to oblige.

Unquote. 

Prof. Rini’s analysis sounds right. The next question, of course, is: how should we respond? Millions of people are being immoral with regard to what they believe. Is there anything to be done about it? We have laws against some immoral behavior, like theft and assault. Although we can’t have laws that control what people believe, we can have limited government regulation of the companies that distribute those lies (such as Facebook, Fox News and your local cable TV company). The public can also exert pressure on companies, TV networks, for instance, that give certain politicians and pundits repeated opportunities to lie in public. And in our personal lives, when we hear somebody say something that’s simply not true, we can speak up, even though it’s easier to stay quiet.

Beyond Moral Judgment by Alice Crary

Sometimes you (I mean me) finish a book and decide you shouldn’t have bothered. I’m not sure about this one.

It began with an interview. Richard Marshall spoke with philosophy professor Alice Crary as part of his End Times series. This is part of what she said (or wrote, since the conversations are at least partly via email):

“Moral realism” is a label that I deliberately don’t use in describing my image of ethics. Not that . . . the term is obviously ill-suited to capture things I believe. It is, for instance, a conviction of mine that that there are morally salient aspects of the world that . . . lend themselves to empirical discovery. A case could easily be made for speaking of moral realism in this connection. But that would likely generate confusion. When I claim that, say, humans and animals have moral qualities that are as such observable, I work with an understanding of what the world is like, and of what is involved in knowing it, that is foreign to familiar discussions of moral realism. These discussions are often structured by the assumption that objectivity excludes anything [related to] human subjectivity. Moral realism is frequently envisioned as an improbable position on which moral values are objective in this subjectivity-extruding sense while still somehow having a direct bearing on action and choice. . . .

A great deal of my work has been devoted to investigating the grip on the contemporary philosophical imagination of conceptions of objectivity—of the sorts operative in these conversations about moral realism—that take the expulsion of everything subjective as their hallmarks. I have repeatedly argued that restrictions these conceptions impose on what kinds of things count as objective are not justified . . . I have tried to show not only that we should reject the restrictions but also that doing so is urgent because necessary for getting morally and politically salient aspects of our lives into view. . . .

 I favor a “wider” conception of objectivity. I mean a conception loose or wide enough to encompass, inter alia, ethical values. . . .

I attack the view—which I describe as narrowly rational—that it is in theory possible to grasp any real connection of thought from an abstract, ethically neutral vantage point. I do so to show that there are ethically decisive considerations that this view leaves us unequipped to recognize, and I take an interest in work in the different humanities, as well as in literature and the other arts, because such work affords resources for uncovering things inaccessible to an abstract gaze. . . .

The upshot is that [for many philosophers, or most] there appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics. Within my ethical writings, alongside showing that this contraction is philosophically unjustifiable, I bring out how it is morally disastrous—among other things, by identifying harms to human beings and animals that it leaves us incapable of registering.

So I bought and read her book.

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To sum it up, if I can, Prof. Crary says that being ethical and understanding ethics both require us to pay more attention to our feelings or “sensitivity”, what might be called our human reactions to what we experience as we go about our lives, and less attention to strictly ethical propositions, concepts and rules. She discusses cases in which people’s pre-existing ethical views (for example, that ethical people must follow certain rules) make it impossible for them to properly appreciate and evaluate people’s behavior, including their own. 

I’m not sure if her views are controversial among philosophers. The idea that feelings underlie ethics has a very long philosophical history, going as far back as ancient Greece (or consider, for instance, the title of Adam Smith’s 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments). That’s one reason I’m not sure I should have read her book.

Another reason is that the book isn’t well-written. It’s repetitious, with lots of descriptions of what she has already argued and what she’s going to argue next. Her sentences also tend to go on and on, requiring frequent backtracking to see how the various clauses relate. I kept reading party because I expected her to show how her approach to ethics yields different ethical views. But the chapters that primarily provide examples amount to saying that various characters in literature deserve more understanding than they get from other characters (works by Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Henry James portray people who are too “moralistic”) and that feminism requires awareness of the social, cultural and economic contexts of women’s lives.

But Prof. Crary may have the (edited) last word (almost):

The idea is that, if the person’s thinking . . . expresses her moral outlook, then, even where it deals with what we are inclined to think of as a “non-moral” topic, it is rightly brought under the heading of moral thinking. . . [Being indifferent] to subject matter . . . allows [moral thought] to range over . . . any topic (e.g. the ways in which humans live and work with animals, the role of luck in human life, the role of . . . games in the cognitive development of children, the manner in which sibling rivalries . . . affect major life choices, etc.) . . . I submit that once we remove ourselves from the artificial atmosphere of academic moral philosophy , where a preoccupation with moral judgments is generally granted the status of a disciplinary requirement, this broad understanding of moral though will strike us as entirely natural . . .

Within contemporary moral philosophy, it is generally assumed that moral differences take the form either of disagreements about whether to apply a moral concept or of disagreements about whether some moral concept . . . is one we ought to operate with in the first place. In contrast, . . . moral differences may exist between people who inherit and develop different ways of thinking and talking about the world even where there is no question of a disagreement of either of these types. . . . 

Once we acknowledge the possibility of these additional kinds of moral differences, we are obliged . . . to consider not only individuals’ moral judgments but also mode of thought and speech that do not employ moral concepts, and the sensibilities that inform these additional modes of thought and speech. What becomes apparent is that proper respect for . . . moral conversation involves concern with . . . individuals’ entire personalities, the whole complicated weave of their lives [44-45].

I don’t disagree.

Why Indeed?

Another in what has turned into a series of selections from Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems (1976):

A set of unifying beliefs that assert the virtues of the fundamentals of social organization will be found in any stable society. . . . In the market-oriented polyarchies [where there is “rule by the many”], the beliefs show a distinctive character. They are greatly influenced by inequality of wealth and by the existence of a dual set of leaders who enjoy a privileged position in politico-economic organization [that is, government leaders and business leaders]. Many of the unifying beliefs of the society are those beliefs communicated by a favored class to all other classes, with enormous advantage in a grossly unequal competition of ideas.

. . . Deep-seated beliefs and attitudes that persist over time, some people will say, have to be understood as the product of random “spontaneous” social forces. What does that mean? It cannot mean that they arise without cause. Perhaps, then, it means that they arise without deliberate intent. No person or group or government plans them. They are unintended consequences of mutual influences of persons on each other.

Granted. Yet we know that, although people do indeed influence each other’s attitudes in countless unintended ways, they also intend a great deal of control over attitudes, beliefs and volitions. Parents and teachers, for example, teach children — explicitly and through their own behavior as example — the virtues of obedience to authority. In most societies, they also teach children that improvement in their position in life will and ought to depend on their own personal qualities (rather than on an alteration in social structure).

Moreover, many of the unintended influences of people on each other reinforce the intended indoctrinations, as when someone who repeatedly challenges authority makes his friends so uncomfortable that they gradually drop [them]. Much unintended mutual influence among persons is therefore patterned control rather than random, because it reflects a pattern in intended influence, which is itself not random.

Why the particular pattern of intentions that we perceive? Why the emphasis on such a theme as obedience to authority (rather than a skeptical, only conditional, and selective acceptance of it)? Why deference toward the wealthy (that does not even discriminate between earned and inherited wealth)? Why individual responsibility for improvement in the quality of life (rather than social cooperation to improve polity and economy)? Why genialized privilege for the wealthy and powerful (rather than offsetting constraints and responsibilities to balance their advantages in wealth or power)? Why so profound a respect for property as to lead many people to think it immoral to steal a loaf of bread to save one’s family from hunger?

These are not random themes. They confer advantages on persons in the favored social class. How do they come to be “spontaneous”? How do they come to be near universally taught? They have been endlessly communicated to the population — explicitly and through behavior as example — through the church, the media, the schools, the family and the pronouncements of business and government leaders. Since they have been in this way communicated for centuries, they have passed into folklore and common morality, with the result that almost everyone joins in the intended and unintended or “spontaneous” processes by which they are passed on to the young and reinforced for the old [230-231].

Unquote.

Maybe there’s more skepticism about our common beliefs than there was in 1976. If so, such skepticism hasn’t translated into very many progressive government policies. In the US, at least, with a few exceptions, it’s been the reverse. But as skepticism justifiably grows, will our politics lean toward the alternatives Lindblom put in parentheses? I sure hope so.

(A giant blue wave 40 days from now would help.)

Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale

After reading Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite!, I wanted to read something from the philosopher himself. I hadn’t read anything of his since On the Genealogy of Morality — or Moralsseven years ago. I wanted to understand better what was bothering the poor man. And how he thought people should live.

Beyond Good and Evil has nine parts. Each part is composed of aphorisms or sections, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a single paragraph. Overall, it was rough going. I often had no idea what he was complaining about (he mostly complains). There were also passages like this, the meaning of which seems clear at first:

Today, … when the herd animal alone obtains and bestows honours in Europe, when “equality of rights” could all too easily change into equality of wrongdoing: I mean into a general war on everything rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, creative fullness of power and mastery — today, being noble, wanting to be by oneself, the ability to be different, independence and the need for self-responsibility pertains to the concept “greatness”; and the philosopher will betray something of his ideal when he asserts: “He shall be the greatest who can be the most solitary, the most concealed, the most divergent, the man beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, the superabundant of will; this shall be called greatness…. [sec. 212].

Nietzsche’s fundamental idea is that the most important fact about human beings is their will to power — their desire to control and create. He was convinced that Christian morality, the morality of “the herd”, with its ideas like “turning the other cheek” and “the meek shall inherit the Earth”, interferes with humanity’s will to power. In particular, it interferes with the will to power of those blessed with genius, the greatest among us. He was well aware of Goethe, Beethoven, Napoleon and Wagner, all towering figures in his opinion, but he apparently believed there would be more such tremendously accomplished figures if only everyday morality didn’t hold them back. In order to achieve greatness, a person must go beyond the standard ideas of good and evil. If one is to achieve greatness, the transvaluation (or reconsideration) of all values is necessary.

But what values should a genius live by? Is it necessary to ignore the Golden Rule? Sacrifice everything else to one’s art or projects? Ignore common courtesy? Trample other people however and whenever it feels right? After reading Nietzsche’s biography, two of his books and several summaries of his ideas, I still don’t know. I also don’t understand why he was so bothered by everyday morality. He seems to have taken the existence of common beliefs about good and evil as a personal affront.

He offers a clue when discussing what “a born, unavoidable psychologist and reader of souls” is confronted by:

The corruption, the ruination of higher human beings, of more strangely constituted souls is the rule: it is dreadful to always have such a rule before one’s eyes [sec. 269].

If anyone has ever been one, Nietzsche was a born psychologist. Perhaps he was speaking for himself in this passage. He must have viewed himself as “strangely constituted”. After he lost his mind, he suffered from extraordinary delusions of grandeur, describing his frequent contacts with the leading statesmen of Europe and sometimes referring to himself as God.

Scholars have determined that Nietzsche was not a German nationalist or an anti-semite. Some say the notion of the Übermensch was not central to his philosophy. So it was surprising to read some of his strongly-worded views. For example:

… that what is right for one cannot … by any means be right for another, that the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men, in short that there exists an order of rank between man and man, consequently also between morality and morality [sec. 228].

Every elevation of the type man has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society — and so it will always be: a society which believes in … orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other [257].

The noble caste was always in the beginning the barbarian caste: … they were more complete human beings (which, on every level, also means … “more complete beasts”) [257].

The essential thing in a good and healthy aristocracy is [that it] accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of innumerable men who for its sake have to be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men, to slaves and instruments. Its fundamental faith must be that society should not exist for the sake of society but only as a foundation and scaffolding upon which a select species of being is able to raise itself .. to a higher existence [258].

One has to … resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation… Exploitation … pertains to the essence of the living thing … it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power [259].

There is master morality and slave morality … The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges “what harms me is harmful in itself”, he knows himself to be that which … accords honour to things, he creates values [260].

A morality of the rulers [says] that one has duties only toward one’s equals; that towards beings of a lower rank, towards everything alien, one may act as one wishes or “as the heart dictates” and in any case “beyond good and evil” [260].

The grander, more manifold, more comprehensive life lives beyond the old morality; the “individual” stands there, reduced to his own law-giving, to his own arts and stratagems for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption [262].

Egoism pertains to the essence of the noble soul, I mean the immovable faith that to a being such as “we are” other beings have to be subordinate by their nature, and sacrifice themselves to us … “it is justice itself” [265].

Nietzsche’s ethical theory might be called “aristocratic egoism” — self-centered behavior for the natural aristocrats among us (not the aristocrats with hereditary titles); a reasonable amount of respect for other aristocrats; and everybody else knowing their place. Who knows how many impressionable readers have taken these ideas seriously enough to have acted on them? The man wasn’t joking when he wrote: “I am dynamite!”

In conclusion, the best thing I can say about Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is that I no longer feel the need to understand its author.

My Country, ‘Tis of Thee

I was thinking about writing a post based on recent statements by Sen. Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah) and Sen. Charles Grassley (Republican, Iowa), but an actual writer beat me to it.

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

With Republicans well on their way to passing a dramatic overhaul of the tax code, they have presented to the public a sweeping, comprehensive vision not just of what taxes should look like, but of what government is there for, what our obligations are to one another, and even how each of us should think about our value as human beings. This is a moment of uncommon clarity.

…. Let’s start with Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who made this comment on the estate tax:

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

Right now, the first $5.5 million of any estate is not subject to the tax. Because of that, fewer than one in 500 estates owes any tax at all. So Grassley is saying that 99.8 percent of Americans lead contemptible lives of waste and folly, while only that remaining sliver of the extra-wealthy have shown the virtue that should win their heirs the ability not to pay taxes on the fortunes bequeathed to them. The Senate bill would double the tax’s exemption, while the House bill would eliminate the tax entirely; depending on how the final version turns out, Eric Trump may finally be free of the fear that he’ll have to pay taxes on his inheritance.

Now let’s turn to Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who explained why, despite his support of a bill offering trillions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, we absolutely must start slashing the social safety net immediately:

“I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything.”

… There isn’t much political advantage in saying that if you die with less than $5.5 million in assets, like nearly all Americans do, that means you were lazy and self-indulgent, while only the wealthy have proven their moral worth by the size of their bank accounts. So when someone says something like that, you can be pretty sure he’s expressing his actual beliefs….

Those are value judgments, rooted in how Republicans tend to view the worth of different people. They operate on the presumption that the economic system is fair, and the results of that system provide a measure of different people’s virtue. If you’re rich — even if you got rich by choosing the right parents — they presume that you deserve to be taxed as lightly as possible, while if you’re in need of the kinds of help we offer low-income people, then it reflects a moral failing. If we give you any help at all, it should be as grudging as possible, accompanied by stern lectures and even rituals of humiliation like drug tests.

Their tax bill, and their upcoming assault on the safety net, will weave these principles more deeply into our laws. And these principles are their real rationale; ignore all the practical claims they make about the explosion of economic growth these tax cuts will supposedly produce, and how the benefits will trickle down to everyone, and how it will all pay for itself. Those arguments are transparently bogus. A recent survey of 38 prominent economists found that only one said the tax bill would significantly increase growth…

Confronted with this comprehensive debunking of their practical claims, Republicans are undeterred and undaunted. That’s because they’re driven by a moral imperative, one that says that no matter what effect cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations might have on the economy, it’s just the right thing to do. It rewards the virtuous, and you can tell who the virtuous are by how much money they have. If you’re asking why they wrote the bill the way they did, that’s just about all you need to know.

Meanwhile, our law-and-order president (sexual predator D. Trump) has endorsed former judge Roy Moore, who will probably join Grassley and Hatch in the Senate later this month:

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My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing….