At heart, I’m an Emotivist. Following Ayer, I don’t believe that morals (and their brethren ethics) convey more than, “I like this, and I don’t like that.” Stevenson’s Prescriptivist extension makes sense, too: “I think this is good, and so should you.”
It seems that Hilary Lawson and I share this perspective. He makes the further point, one I’ll surely adopt, that morals and ethics are effectively ‘designed’ to shut down argument and discussion. It’s akin to the parent telling the kid, “Because I said so”—or “because it’s the right thing to do”.
I’m a moral non-cognitivist, but people have difficulty enough grasping relativism and subjectivism, so I’m only going to reference moral relativism here. As a moral relativist, right and wrong were both subjective and contextual. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. I won’t derail this with obvious examples. Once one adopts a position, they enjoy the luxury of turning off any critical thinking.
I’ll presume that morals predate religion and deities, but now that the thinking world has abandoned the notion of gods, they’ve replaced it with morals and ethics—and nature, but that’s a topic for another day. The faith-based world retains a notion of gods, but that is fraught with the same relativism of my god is right, and your god is wrong.
As Hilary notes, we’ve transferred the authority, per Nietzsche, from gods to morals in and of themselves, so it again becomes a device for the unengaged. He notes, as I do, that some absolute Truth is a fool’s errand. Echoing Donald Hoffman, what we need is fitness—what Lawson calls usefulness—, not Truth, which is inaccessible anyway—even if it did exist, which of course it doesn’t.
He cites the position Wittgenstein arrives at in his Tractatus. There is and can never be a place where language—words and symbols—intersect with ‘reality’, so the best we can do is to talk about it in a third-person sort of way.
As I consider the works of McGilchrist, it feels like Lawson is establishing moral simplicity as a left hemisphere function. Seeing beyond this is a right hemisphere activity, so that’s not promising. There seem to be few right-brain thinkers and then it comes to convincing the left-brain crowd. In a poor metaphor, the challenge is rather like trying to convey the maths of special relativity to the same crowd. They are going to tune out before they hear enough of the story. The left-brain is good at saying, ”la la la la, la la, la”.
Without getting too far off track, a major challenge is that systems of government and laws are facile left hemisphere-dominant activities. These are people in power and influential. Rhetoricians have right hemisphere dominance, but they understand that their power depends on defending the status quo that has elevated them to where they are. As Upton Sinclair said, “’It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This holds true for women and non-binary others.
In closing, Lawson asserts that apart from comic book supervillains, people tend to do what they believe to be good, and yet all goods are not created equally, nor all bads. And in the manner that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s good is another’s bad.
This moral discourse is not benign. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to steep this in contemporary politics, but this is being propagandised in things like the Ukraine conflict or the Covid response. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is divisive and creates a rift. That governments are propagating this divide is even more disconcerting, especially when they unapologetically backtrack only a few months later in the wake of people suffering economic impacts, including getting fired, for opposing a position that has turned out to be wrong and that was being asserted in the name of science and yet with little empirical support. These people are politicians and not scientists but attempting to hide behind science like a human shield, it serves to erode trust in science. Trust in science is a separate topic, so I’ll leave it there.
I recommend watching the complete video of Hilary Lawson to gain his perspective and nuance. My point is only to underscore his positions and to say that I agree. What do you think about morals? Are they a device to assert power over others, or is there something more to it than this? If not moral, then what? Leave a comment.
Why must I always worry about the voiceless and underdogs, and who cares anyway?
This White Feminism video was circulating on my professional social network, and it is relevant, but it also misses a major point. The point is entirely valid that feminism that considers all females to somehow be a monolithic cohort is bound to fail, simply because they aren’t. Not any more than all males are some united front. Of course, you could abstract some attributes to such an extent that one could argue that the vast majority of females have two feet. Of course, that’s ableist at the start and we’ve accidentally included men. Besides, now you’re being silly, you tell me, we are talking about attitudes and behaviours, not physical attributes. That’s another arena.
So what’s the deal? The problem is that even this frame is too narrow. Adding colour to the mix improves the intersectionality, but it goes nowhere near far enough. Am I allowed to say “near far”? Moving on.
These authors are focused on the experience of women of colour through a predominately American lens. More on this in a moment. Their point is that women of colour have different problems than so-called white women. And this is true. But gay women have problems unique to them, and trans-women have problems unique to them, and Latinas have problems unique to them. But there’s more.
Here’s another problem, these authors are all affluent, educated women, who view the world through this lens. Paternalism is a problematic perspective, but some parallel maternalism isn’t a step in the right direction.
And there’s a larger problem. Most so-called feminists tend to privilege Western women over non-Western women, in practice invalidating the lived experience of a majority of women in the world. They presume that the poor rural woman in Afghanistan has more in common with them than a vagina. And this is true, but it’s a privileged perspective to presume that your New York City or Islamabad perspective is even halfway valid is unadulterated hubris.
I suggest becoming familiar with Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes” and Sunera Thobani’s “White Wars: Western feminisms and the ‘War on Terror’.” These women do hail from the educated class, but they approach the situation with broader compassion and so are more inclusive of the diversity. Moreover, the referenced works are free essays that make their point. Meantime, David Guignion shares a short primer for these two. “Oh my God,” you say, You want me to listen to an educated Canadian white man school me on the plight of non-Western women? Why, yes I do. Of course, you can also read the source material on your own.
So, “why should I listen to some educated white bloke with a blog?” you ask yourself. You don’t need to. That’s on you. I’m just the messenger. Feel free to think that everything is male and female, black and white, or some admixture. Feel free to leave a comment.
As a Social Justice Warrior, I tend to favour diversity and inclusion as a principle. As such, I follow some people who share this interest. In fact, most of these people expend much more energy toward this end than I do. The challenge I am about to convey is that some people don’t read beyond the subject line, and don’t even attempt to assess the underlying claim, let alone the issue at hand.
I recently engaged in a nonsensical interaction that I am sharing and dissecting. It started with this share, an image of the border outline of Nigeria with an overlay caption that reads: “Nigeria becomes the first country to ban white and British models in all advertising”.
I’d like to point out two items in particular. Firstly, the caption is fabricated. I’ll get to the source reference presently. Secondly, the re-poster aptly corrects the caption when he shared it—”Well, all foreign models, but HELL YEAH!”
Nigeria recently passes a law that essentially assesses a tariff or levy on advertising content using non-Nigerian talent. There is no mention of ‘white’ models, though British models would fall under this umbrella. This protectionist law stems from nationalism. I’d guess that ‘white’ people comprise less than one per cent of the Nigerian national population, but I could be wrong. This is well outside my area of expertise.
My response was to say “Down with Nationalism and the Promotion of Otherism.” I may be misinterpreting myself, but it feels to me that this is denouncing racism and other forms of otherness.
Sabrina responds, ‘Why is not having white models in advertising a bad thing?” and “Isn’t the whole point of advertising [for] people to…see themselves… ?” In response, I should have pointed out that the initiative had nothing to do with skin colour. Instead, I responded to the second question: the point of advertising is to sell product. Full stop. If people see themselves with the product, then great. Clearly, this comprises a fraction of successful adverts. More common is to make a connection to what they aspire to. It’s not about making a social statement—unless, of course, that social statement will sell more product. If an ad with a white model will sell more product, a business would be derelict not to employ one; conversely, if white models result in lower sales, a business would be foolish not to switch to the more successful vector.
Sabrina really goes off the reservation with her reply, somehow conflating Nigeria with the African continent. Attention to detail is not her forte.
At this point, I feed into her laziness and send her a link to an Al-Jazeera article addressing the law.
She leaves with a parting shot, and I quote: “Have you ever thought about the harm you might cause by playing devil’s advocate and “creating an argument”?”
She’s off course and then attempts to diminish my point by calling it ‘playing devil’s advocate’ rather than admitting that she hadn’t even considered the rationale and possible ramifications. She didn’t even grasp the main point, so I suppose I should forgive her for not noticing secondary and edge cases.
At this point, Dr Perkins adds her voice. Her initial question is valid, and as I responded, the answer is “No”. The race card was introduced by some narrator who didn’t know what game he was broadcasting. But then she goes on to “applaud Nigeria for making a [decision] centering [on] Blackness”, save to say that was not what prompted the decision.
Notice, too, that other people “Liked” the other comments, a testament to the principle of least effort of the bystanders, too.
I recognise that the original post anchored the conversation off the actual topic, but it was also very easy to track down the reference and note the content discrepancy. Granted, this takes time and effort, but so does responding on a thread and then escalating commitment to a non-cause. And for one tilting at windmills to be tossing around accusations of playing devil’s advocate. It’s not a good sign.
But wait, there’s more. I commented on this post on a second thread.
In this case, Dr Anderson suggests that this is just “a country celebrating its own citizens by recognizing their beauty and knowing they can move product just as good, and probably better than white women, to which I responded that this is a testable hypothesis. It’s either true that on balance white models sell more product or black models do. Again, don’t fail to miss the point that none of this is about white versus black models.
Somehow, LinkedIn can’t seem to keep their threads in order, but Ms Rice takes my hypothesis testing point as a support for racism before precipitating to full-on troll mode.
It scares me to see that there are two academic doctors participating in this thread, neither with a trait of attention to detail nor even a fundamental pursuit of evidence.
This is why it is difficult to engage with social media. You have no idea what level a commenter is coming in on. And even when spoon-fed information, they refuse to alter their position. In fact, they tend to double down on their wrongness. Moving on…
The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a work of non-fiction by horror author Thomas Ligotti. There is an audio podcast version and a YouTube video version. Feel free to leave comments in the space below or on YouTube.
In this segment, I’ll be reviewing a book by Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, A Contrivance of Horror.
I haven’t done any book reviews, but since I tend to read a lot of books, I figure why not share my take and see how it’s received? If you like these reviews, click the like button and I’ll consider creating more.
Let’s get started.
First, I’ll be providing a little background, and then I’ll summarise some of the content and main themes. I’ll close with my review and perspective.
The author is Thomas Ligotti. He is a published writer in the horror genre in the vein of Lovecraft’s atmospheric horror. I’ve not read any of his work and haven’t read much fiction in ages.
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is Ligotti’s first work of non-fiction. The book was originally published in 2010. I read the 2018 paperback version published by Penguin Books.
Conspiracy Against the Human Race falls into the category of Ethics and Moral Philosophy in a subcategory of pessimism. The main thesis of this book is that humans ought never to have been born. Following in the footsteps of anti-natalist David Benatar, who published Better Never to Have Been Born in 2007, Ligotti doubles down on Benatar’s position on the harm of coming into existence and argues that humans should just become extinct. Moreover, we should take out life in general.
In the book, Ligotti posits that consciousness was a blunder of nature and is the root of all suffering. He argues the derived Buddhist position of dukkha, which translates as Life is suffering. He establishes that most people are aware of this fact, but that we are nonetheless wired to be biased toward optimism through delusion and what a psychoanalyst might call repressed memories. Moreover, pessimists are a cohort not tolerated by society, who don’t want their delusions shattered.
Philosophically, Ligotti is a determinist. I’ve created content on this topic, but in a nutshell, determinism is the belief that all events are caused by antecedent events, leading to a chain of causes and effects stretching back to the beginning of time and bringing us to where we are now. If we were able to rewind time and restart the process, we would necessarily end up in the same place, and all future processes will unfold in a like manner.
Ligotti likes the metaphor of puppets. He employs puppets in two manners. Firstly, being the determinist he is, he reminds us that we are meat puppets with no free will. Our strings are controlled by something that is not us. This something ends up being Schopenhauer’s Will, reminding us that one can want what we will, but we can’t will what we will. This Will is the puppeteer. Secondly, puppets are soulless, lifeless homunculi that are employed in the horror genre to create unease by means of an uncanny association. He cites the work and philosophy of Norwegian author Peter Zapffe, who also elucidates human existence as a tragedy. Humans are born with one and only one right—the right to die. And death is the only certainty. The knowledge of this causes unnecessary suffering.
“Stringently considered, then, our only natural birthright is a right to die. No other right has ever been allocated to anyone except as a fabrication, whether in modern times or days past. The divine right of kings may now be acknowledged as a fabrication, a falsified permit for prideful dementia and impulsive mayhem. The inalienable rights of certain people, on the other hand, seemingly remain current: somehow we believe they are not fabrications because hallowed documents declare they are real.”
Ligotti reminds us that consciousness is a mystery. We don’t really know what it is or what causes it other than it exists and we seem to have it, to be cursed with it. He adopts Zapffe’s position that consciousness is also responsible for the false notion of the self.
As all life is, humans are the result of an evolutionary process. Consciousness was just the result of an evolutionary blunder. He cites Zapffe and conveys that “mutations must be considered blind. They work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment.”
Whilst pessimists view consciousness as a curse, optimists such as Nicholas Humphry think of it as a marvellous endowment.
He summarises the reason humans have it worse than the rest of nature:
“For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death—and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying—and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.”
I’ll repeat that: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious.
He cites Zapffe’s four principal strategies to minimise our consciousness, isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation
Isolation is compartmentalising the dire facts of being alive. So, he argues, that a coping mechanism is to push our suffering out of sight, out of mind, shoved back into the unconscious so we don’t have to deal with it.
Anchoring is a stabilisation strategy by adopting fictions as truth. We conspire to anchor our lives in metaphysical and institutional “verities”—God, Morality, Natural Law, Country, Family—that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds.
Distraction falls into the realm of manufactured consent. People lose themselves in their television sets, their government’s foreign policy, their science projects, their careers, their place in society or the universe, et cetera. Anything not to think about the human condition.
Sublimation. This reminds me of Camus’ take on the Absurd. Just accept it. Embrace it and incorporate it into your routine. Pour it into your art or music. Ligotti invokes Camus’ directive that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, but he dismisses the quip as folly.
Ligotti underscores his thesis by referencing the works of other authors from David Benatar to William James.
Interestingly, he suggests that people who experience depression are actually in touch with reality and that psychology intervenes to mask it again with the preferred veil of delusion and delf-deception. Society can’t operate if people aren’t in tune with the masquerade. Citing David Livingstone Smith in his 2007 publication, Why We Lie: The Evolution of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, Ligotti writes: “Psychiatry even works on the assumption that the “healthy” and viable is at one with the highest in personal terms. Depression, “fear of life,” refusal of nourishment and so on are invariably taken as signs of a pathological state and treated thereafter.”
Ligotti returns to the constructed notion of the self and presents examples of how a lack of self is an effective horror trope, citing John Carpenter’s The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
He spends a good amount of time on ego-death and the illusion of self, a topic I’ve covered previously. He mentions Thomas Metzinger and his writings in several places including his Being No One, published in 2004, ostensibly reinforcing a position described as naïve realism, that things not being knowable as they really are in themselves, something every scientist and philosopher knows.
He delves into Buddhism as a gateway to near-death experiences, where people have dissociated their sense of self, illustrating the enlightenment by accident of U. G. Krishnamurti, who after some calamity “was no longer the person he once was, for now he was someone whose ego had been erased. In this state, he had all the self-awareness of a tree frog. To his good fortune, he had no problem with his new way of functioning. He did not need to accept it, since by his report he had lost all sense of having an ego that needed to accept or reject anything.” Krishnamurti had become a veritable zombie. He also cited the examples of Tem Horwitz, John Wren-Lewis, and Suzanne Segal, but I won’t elaborate here.
Russian Romantic author, Leo Tolstoy, famous for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, was another pessimist. He noticed a coping approach his associates had employed to deal with their morality.
Ignorance is the first. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. For whatever reason, these people are simply blind to the inevitability of their mortal lives. As Tolstoy said these people just did not know or understand that “life is an evil and an absurdity”.
Epicureanism comes next. The tactic here is to understand that we are all in here and no one gets out alive, so we might as well make the best of it and adopt a hedonistic lifestyle.
Following Camus’ cue, or rather Camus following Tolstoy and Schopenhauer, he suggests the approach of strength and energy, by which he means the strength and energy to suicide.
Finally, one can adopt the path of weakness. This is the category Tolstoy finds himself in, writing “People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally—to end the deception quickly and kill themselves—they seem to wait for something.”
The last section of the book feels a bit orthogonal to the rest. I won’t bother with details, but essentially he provides the reader with examples of how horror works by exploring some passages, notably Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher; Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu; and contrasting Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet.
This has been a summary of Thomas Logotti’s Conspiracy against the human race. Here’s my take. But first some background, as it might be important to understand where I am coming from.
I am a Nihilist. I feel that life has no inherent meaning, but people employ existentialist strategies to create a semblance of meaning, much akin to Zapffe’s distraction theme or perhaps anchoring. This said I feel that, similar to anarchism, people don’t understand nihilism. Technically, it’s considered to be a pessimistic philosophy because they are acculturated to expect meaning, but I find it liberating. People feel that without some constraints of meaning, that chaos will ensue as everyone will adopt Tolstoy’s Epicureanism or to fall into despair and suicide. What they don’t know is they’ve already fabricated some narrative and have adopted one of Zappfe’s first three offerings: isolation, which is to say repression); anchoring on God or country; or distracting themselves with work, sports, politics, social media, or reading horror stories.
Because of my background, I identify with Ligotti’s position. I do feel the suffering and anguish that he mentions, and perhaps I am weak and rationalising, but I don’t feel that things are so bad. I may be more sympathetic to Benatar’s anti-natalism than to advocate for a mass extinction event, though I feel that humans are already heading down that path. Perhaps this could be psychoanalysed as collective guilt, but I won’t go there.
I recommend reading this. I knocked it out in a few hours, and you could shorten this by skipping the last section altogether. If you are on the fence, I’d suggest reading David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been. Perhaps I’ll review that if there seems to be interest. If you’ve got the time, read both.
So there you have it. That’s my summary and review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race.
Before I end this, I’ll share a personal story about an ex-girlfriend of mine. Although she experienced some moments of happiness and joy, she saw life as a burden. Because she had been raised Catholic and embodied the teachings, she was afraid that committing suicide would relegate her to hell. In fact, on one occasion, she and her mum had been robbed at gunpoint, and her mum stepped between my girlfriend and the gun. They gave the gunmen what they wanted, so the situation came to an end.
My girlfriend laid into her mother that if she ever did something like that again and took a bullet that was her ticket out, she would never forgive her. As it turned out, my girlfriend died as collateral damage during the Covid debacle. She became ill, but because she was living with her elderly mum, she didn’t want to go to hospital and bring something back. One early morning, she was writhing in pain and her mum called the ambulance. She died later that morning in hospital, having waited too long.
For me, I saw the mercy in it all. She got her ticket out and didn’t have to face the hell eventuality. Not that I believe in any of that, but she was able to exit in peace. Were it not for the poison of religion, she could have exited sooner. She was not, in Tolstoy’s words, weak, so much as she had been a victim of indoctrination. I feel this indoctrination borders on child abuse, but I’ll spare you the elaboration. So, what are your thoughts on this book? Is there a conspiracy against humanity? Are optimists ruining it for the pessimists? What do you think about anti-natalism or even extinction of all conscious beings or the extreme case of all life on earth? Is Ligotti on to something or just on something?
I have agreed with this sentiment for as long as I can remember, at least stretching back to age 10 or 12 and long before I had ever heard of the likes of Proudhon. I don’t believe that Proudhon is a big focus in the United States. I never encountered him in all of my studies from kindergarten to grad school—and I was an economics major.
In the US, disparaging Marx was always in vogue, with the off-hand remark along the lines of “Communism works on paper, but because of human nature, it can’t work in practice. And by the way, look at the Soviet Union. That’s all the proof you need.” Of course, I was left thinking that at least it worked on paper, something I can’t say with a straight face for Democracy.
For those who are familiar with Proudhon, he is likely remembered for his quote, “Property is theft!” I’ve discussed this before.
But this is a different quote: “I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled.” When I was in high school, there was a saying, lead, follow, or get out of the way. As imperfect of a metaphor as it is, I just wanted out of the way. In the world of leaders and followers, I wanted to be an advisor. In a manner—given the false dichotomy of followers and leaders—, this relegated me a de facto follower. Only I am not a follower. I not only question authority and authority figures, I question the legitimacy of their power. Not a great follower, to be sure.
I feel I am the peasant in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who tells King Arthur upon encountering him, “Well, I didn’t vote for you.” Not that voting yields some source of legitimacy. What options does one have?
Philosophically speaking, there is no justification for personal bodily autonomy. Someone just made this claim, and some others agreed. Sounds good to me, but there is no real reason to support the idea save for selfish rationale.
The science fiction staple, Star Trek, famously created a Borg where autonomy was futile. Because of our acculturation, we find this idea perhaps silly or perhaps appalling or absurd, but one is not more justifiable than another except by rhetorical devices. Yet neither is right.
In the West, we tend to prefer a rather middle path, and perception doesn’t actually comply with reality. I think that people believe that they are more autonomous than they are. I’d be willing to argue that this is the same delusion underlying a sense of free will. Sartre might have argued that we each retain a sort of nuclear option as a last resort, but a choice between two options is hardly freedom. It sounds a lot like Sophie’s Choice (spoiler alert).
Not so come across like Hobbes, but I do feel that violence (subject to semantic distinction), or at least the potential for it, is inherent in any living system. With political and legal systems, violence just shifts from explicit to implicit, and so out of sight, out of mind.
In any case, I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled. I just want to advise. I’m an introvert. I want to be left alone. I value the benefits of society and I participate at the margins, and that’s where I prefer to remain. If the direction of the train I am on seems to be running off the tracks I’d presume it should be on, then I’ll get vocal. Otherwise, I’ll take the privilege to concentrate on cerebral and philosophical interests.
A woman blames another for stealing her headphones. This viral video has been circulating in circles of mental health awareness and Karen syndrome.
My attention is otherwise occupied, so I won’t take time for a longer post, but I feel this illustrates my point that people just need to blame. It’s a knee-jerk response, and target accuracy is unnecessary, as this demonstrates.
From an evolutionary perspective, this also highlights theories supporting fitness over truth—fitness beats truth, FBT. Were that a rival stealing hard-earned food, better to apprehend or remediate than gather all the facts only to allow the culprit to escape. Of course, in cases like this, one gets false positives.
In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.
To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.
I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.
Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.
To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.
To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool. But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.
Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.
Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.
Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.
As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.
So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory. In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.
I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.
But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.
All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.
I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.
So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.
Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?
Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.
Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.
Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.
So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment. Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.
Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.
I’ve experienced an epiphany of sorts. I am a moral non-cognitivist. Most would consider me to be a moral subjectivist or relativist. There’s a distinction, but to the public at large, it doesn’t much matter. In fact, we are all at the mercy of the cognitive deficits of the societies we find ourselves in, each culture having its own deficits. I find it difficult not to come across as an elitist in the space, especially as uninformed and otherwise misinformed most are in this space.
It’s one thing to have an academic disagreement. It’s quite another to have an academic argument with kindergartners—armchair spectators in highchairs and booster seats. Anyway, enough of the ad hominem. I’ve had my say and my fill.
All morality is constructed. Full stop. The basis is the survival and propagation of the society, though societies are dynamic organisms with different goals and purposes, so these foundations may differ. In some cases, they are strikingly similar.
It makes sense that most have an element of ‘thou shalt not kill’ with an exception for ‘unless they undermine the culture’. This also allows for ‘killing in order to defend the culture’, even if the people defended aren’t all in sync as to what they are defending.
So where does relative pitch come into play? you ask yourself.
Sound, hence musical tones, manifests as frequency (and amplitude, which I’ll ignore). It is common to establish an A pitch as 440 Hz (440 cycles per second), also known as A440 or A4. Whilst there have been and are other standard pitches, A440 is considered to be the standard concert tone for Western music and has been adopted in other regions. I won’t bore the listener with nuance around A332 and A442 centres, as it’s unimportant to the focus.
Whatever the centre, some people have perfect pitch and others have absolute pitch. Some people are tone deaf, and I suppose that to be a perfect metaphor for some people in society, but that’s also an analogy for another day.
A person with perfect pitch not only has the vocabulary of music stored in memory, but they can retrieve it on a whim. I’ve encountered several people with perfect pitch, and it seems inevitable to engage in parlour games. With piano at hand, it’s easy to play unseen chords and have the absolutist bark back F#min6/9 or some such. Even more amusing is the result of tossing a shoe at an object to hear what note the clang might correlate with. That stool was a B-flat.
Whilst a person with absolute pitch can pick notes out of the air, a person with relative pitch doesn’t have an anchor. In either case, a listener can tell you that the interval between an A4 and an E4 is a perfect fifth, the person with relative pitch can’t name the notes without guidance. Of course, once the listener is clued in that the first note is an A4, relative maths does the rest of the heavy lifting, so they, then be able to tell you that the note a perfect fifth above is an E4.
It’s important to know the vocabulary are rules as well. For example, many of us can recognise the interval at the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—da-da-da-DA…! We can hear it in our heads as we consider it. But we don’t know that the first three shorter notes are G and that the longer final note is E♭.
Thanks for the music lesson, but you’re asking, ‘How does this connect to morality?’
Unlike music, morality has nothing analogous to absolute pitch. Moreover, different cultures have different reference pitches. And some cultures with the same reference pitch are playing in different keys. The challenge is that whether or not the dominant culture has absolute pitch, it still presumes it is the tonal centre. And if it’s tuned to A432, you’d better be too; otherwise, there will be dissonance.
Referencing the Venn diagram, one can see the primary culture, C0 occupying the most space and acting as a centre of gravity. There are subcultures, some with more and less in common with the primary culture.
C1 has much in common with C0, but the majority of ideals are not shared. It remains to be seen whether these differences are material. For example, the difference may be preferences about food or clothing, perhaps which holy days to recognise to whether to recognise any at all. In practice, these cultures could very well coexist with little conflict.
Similarly, C2, may be able to coexist with either of both with little friction. Of course, the difference may be significant. Perhaps, one difference is their view on abortion or female circumcision. Clearly, these are dancing to a different tune.
Perhaps, C3 is some indigenous society. C3 has nothing in common with C0 or C2, only sharing some ideals with C1. I don’t feel this would be possible in reality because I can’t imagine a culture having opposing perspectives, even if only on the position of not killing other ‘innocent’ humans without cause. The range of causes may differ, but the core value would still be shared.
My point is that the primary culture will assume that its position is absolute, even if just from having enough mass to force the matter. And this is the difference. It doesn’t matter whether their morality is absolute. If you don’t comply—especially in matters they consider to be morally important—, you will be punished. In the case of C3, C1 may tolerate whatever the two are in common, but if C3 attempts to interact with C0, this tolerance is unlikely.
Perhaps, C3 clubs baby seals, eats dogs, or some other such hot-button activity. In their native territory, this may go unnoticed, but if they relocate to the territory of the primary culture, this will not likely go unchallenged.
If you are someone like me who feels that all morality is fabricated out of thin air—even the morality I happen to agree with in principle and in practice—, there is still friction just to suggest that their morality is a constructed social fiction. It seems that many if not most people want to believe in the notion of ‘inalienable rights’ and God-given morality or some sense of cosmic moral order. People like Jordan Peterson believe this as do his followers. This creates contention with others, like myself, who fundamentally disagree and who ask for just a modicum of evidence of their claim. You will comply or you will be chided and marginalised.
Of course, I could be wrong. I thought I was wrong once before, but I was mistaken.
Morality is a social construct, but so are notions of identity and self. Upon reflection, psychology, a discipline I already hold in the lowest regard, is only the minutest subset of sociology. Without society, psychology would have nothing to study.
Sociology is more focused on structure and interrelationships whilst psychology concerns itself with the individual agent’s psyche. Sigmund Freud did recognise this by the taxonomy of id, ego and superego. It seems that by Freud’s reckoning, the id is a stand-in for volition, rather unconscious reactions, whereby the ego is more reflexive and tempered by the external world. Employing this model, in at least one way of thinking, the id represents the bare and authentic self whilst the ego is the accumulation of inputs.
Put in causa sui terms, the id is the result of inherited genetic temperament and the ego is the result of societal forces as interpreted by the id and any antecedent ego.
Remember, one function of the brain is as a Bayesian prediction engine that evaluates new inputs and forms a new sense of perceptual reality and fitness to operate in this universe.
Freud’s superego is ostensibly a part of the ego gone underground—, most of it operating beneath the surface. It’s what I’ll consider being the Nancy Reagan of the psyche—just say no*. It’s Jiminy Cricket. Apologies for not having more contemporary conscience references. I suppose my age is showing.
According to Freud, most of who we are is a social construct, save for the kernel of the id, the proto-self. The ego is the part almost—but not all—above the surface, manifest in consciousness. Conversely, the superego has the reverse configuration, existing almost entirely below the surface. One might even be tempted to argue that the portion of the superego above the surface has actually already been assimilated into the ego.
So, we’re animated sausages, skins stuffed with social cues. Some of these social cues are also moral codes, but many moral codes are inherently unstable and vary by context. And there are local and global morality sources. For example, most religious doctrine is local, so a text authored by a venerated leader in one area may not be venerated outside of that context. In some cases, the directive contains no moral content—don’t eat pork or shellfish or take Saturdays off—whilst others do—love thy neighbour as thyself. Still, they are all social constructs.
If one has no interactions with the other culture, these societies can coexist without challenge, but when a ‘take off on Saturday’ group intersects with a ‘take off Sunday group’, there may be friction, each chiding the other for their nonsensical belief in the manner of Dr Seuss’ Sneetches.
Given this, when discussing morality, we are forced into a structure built on shifting sand. The challenge is that some people believe this ground is bedrock, and power structures insist it is in order to leverage a more solid foundation to maintain power and control.
If we are in some milieu, we are then forced to comply with their norms and morés or be cast out or marginalised, perhaps even scapegoated as Girard might suggest.
Meantime, just take morality with a grain of salt and remember that as will all things human, there are flaws in the logic and outcomes. Also understand that even if these outcomes are flawed and you need to participate in that society, you probably need to remain under the radar—easier for some than others—, conform, play the eccentric, or perish.
* Apparently, Nancy could say no to just about anything except for giving blowjobs. Perhaps this is what saved Ron from the same fate as Bill Clinton, but who am I to say? No shame in that is my position.
I’ve finally returned to the second author of Four Views on Free Will. The first author was Robert Kane. Here, I was introduced to John Martin Fischer, who wrote a section on Compatibilism. I’ve never read anything by Fischer. Indeed, I have no familiarity with him or his work. Allow me to start by saying that I was not impressed. Before diving into the content, let’s just say that he was extremely repetitive and circumlocutive. I found myself questioning whether the book was assembled with duplicate pages. Hadn’t I just read that? I’ll spare the reader the examples.
I repeat myself when under stress
I repeat myself when under stress
I repeat myself when under stress
I repeat myself when under stress
— King Crimson, Indiscipline
The topic was 44 pages on compatibilism. The first 30 pages were compatibilism before he changed to his brainchild, semi-compatibilism. Full disclosure: I am not a compatibilist. My recollection is that the majority of contemporary philosophers are compatibilists. Joining Fischer are Dan Dennett, Frithjof Bergmann, Gary Watson, Susan R. Wolf, P. F. Strawson, and R. Jay Wallace. Historically, this cadre are joined by Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Mill. This motley crew has been opposed by Peter van Inwagen and historical figures, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, and Immanuel Kant.
At a meta-level, Fischer repeatedly—I’ll discontinue using this term as, like Fischer, it will become very, very repetitive—invoked law and common sense. Law is not a moral structure in search of truth. It’s a power structure employed to retain the status quo. And, as Voltaire quipped, ‘common sense is not so common.’ This is an argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) fallacy. It also relies on belief and perception. I suppose he’s not familiar with Descartes’ Meditations. It seems he is trying to forge Compatibilism into a cast of soft determinism with hopes that no one notices the switcheroo.
Fischer targets some quotes buy Kant, James, Wallace Matson, and Nietzsche with the general critique that they are expecting too much of an agent by expecting it to be the cause of its own actions. Nevermind, that he is guilty of just this in attempting to parse passive and active agents—passive being insentient dominos and active being conscious entities.
I’m not convinced that maths is a strong point. He sets up a hypothetical scenario where physics has proven that causal determinism is true, so 100 per cent of everything in the universe can be known with certainty. But then he does two things.
First, he exempts human agency—cuz reasons. Second, he creates a parallel scenario where 100 per cent might be 99 or 99.9 per cent.
Second, he claims that because he feels free, he must be free.
Similarly, it is natural and extraordinarily “basic” for human beings to think of ourselves as (sometimes at least) morally accountable for our choices and behavior. Typically, we think of ourselves as morally responsible precisely in virtue of exercising a distinctive kind of freedom or control; this freedom is traditionally thought to involve exactly the sort of “selection” from among genuinely available alternative possibilities alluded to above. When an agent is morally responsible for his behavior, we typically suppose that he could have (at least at some relevant time) done otherwise.
— Fischer, p. 46
Nothing is such that thinking doesn’t make it so.
It seems that when watching a movie for the third time, the victim who gets killed in the cellar won’t descend the stairs this time. Fisher must get perplexed when she does every time. Of course, he’d argue without evidence that an active agent would be able to make a different decision—even under identical circumstances. He insists that the agent possesses this free will.
Whilst sidestepping physicalism and materialism, he simply posits that consciousness is just different and not subject to other causal chain relationships—and that these cannot be deterministic even if everything else is.
I’m going to digress on his next point—that the person who knows not to cheat on taxes, and who does so anyway, is responsible as any normal person would be. Perhaps the person feels that the taxes are being used for illegal or immoral purposes and is taking the moral high ground by depriving the institution of these proceeds.
Around 2007 or so, I paid my taxes due minus about $5,000, which was the calculated amount of the per capita cost of the illegal and immoral Iraq invasion by the United States and its cadre of war criminals in charge. I attached a note outlining my opposition and rationale.
Some months later, the Internal Revenue department sent a legal request to my employer for the withheld sum. Payroll summoned me and conveyed that they were required to comply with the request. I told them my perspective and said if they could sleep with that on their conscience, then they were in their power. And so no nights of sleep were lost.
The point of this anecdote is to say that morals are social constructs. Clearly, Fischer is just an old-fashioned conformist. I suspect he thinks of Valjean as a bad person.
Like many if not most people, he employs a compos mentis approach, exempting persons of reduced cognitive capacity and those under duress or coercion, but he is not a proponent of the causa sui defence.
He has an entire subsection devoted to the libertarian notion of freedom. To recapitulate, he simply regurgitated all of the standard arguments and exempts the aforementioned agents and adds people under hypnosis, the brainwashed, and so on. Nothing to write home about—not here either.
In the next subsection, his focus is on consequences. He calls out Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument.
Similarly, the skeptical argument about our freedom employs ordinary ideas about the fixity of the past and the fi xity of the natural laws (putatively) to generate the intuitively jarring result that we are not ever free, if causal determinism turns out to be true (something we can’t rule out apriori). If this skeptical argument is sound, it calls into question any compatibilist analysis of freedom (that is, freedom of the sort under consideration – involving the capacity for selection among open alternatives). If the argument is sound, then not only both the simple and refined conditional analysis, but any compatibilist analysis (of the relevant sort of freedom) must be rejected.
Fischer p. 53
He leans on Borges’ garden of forking paths and claims (without support) that although the past might be fixed, freedom is the ability to add to the future, citing Carl Ginet as the source of this notion. He misses the point that that’s what the future is, tautologically. It adds now to the past and generates a future. Choice is not necessary for this function to operate, but he continues to insist on invoking it.
Standard Frankfort examples are referenced as well as Locke. Here he wants to point out regulative control—but he skirts the question of where the volition comes from by saying ‘for his own reasons‘, as if these reasons are somehow meaningful. In the end, he recites the scenarios, performs some hand-waving, and summons his accord with Robert Kane’s “dual voluntariness” constraint on moral responsibility.
He leaves us with the thought that if the Consequence Argument were true, it would be compatibilism’s death knell, but it’s not true (in his mind), so all is well in Whoville. Crisis averted.
Source incompatibilism is next. His focus here is on the “elbow room” necessary to exercise free will.
Elbow Room is the title of a book by Daniel Dennett originally published in 1984 and republished in 2015. I’ve recently read this on holiday, but I haven’t had time to review it. Please stand by.
His approach in this subsection is to attack opposing perspectives as reductionist. Of course, he’s right, but they are no more reductionist than anything he’s suggested thus far. Besides, simply injecting favoured concepts to add to a model to make it compatible with one’s hypothesis doesn’t make it less reductionist. It just makes the model more convoluted.
Here he attempts to elevate consciousness into a special category in order to shield it from the physics of the universe. We can’t say for sure what consciousness is, but you can bet it’s a magical place where practically anything can happen. OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole.
He uses the metaphor of trying to assess how a television works by only studying the components. Of course, if that is all one did, one would be left with questions. But that is not where one stops. To be fair, neuroscience has come a long way since this was published in 2007. Neuroscientists are asking questions beyond the hardware.
He sets up a strawman by labelling total control as a chimaera as if anyone is arguing that if a theory doesn’t allow for total control, it will not be accepted. He does allow that…
We do not exist in a protective bubble of control. Rather, we are thoroughly and pervasively subject to luck: actual causal factors entirely out of our control are such that, if they were not to occur, things at least might be very different.
— Fischer, p. 68
We agree on this point, but I feel that he underestimates the remaining degrees of freedom after all of this is accounted for.
He attempts to create a mental model with vertical and horizontal lines. At least he admits that he does “not suppose [to] have offered a knockdown argument” because he doesn’t.
Finally, he wraps up this subsection by invoking Nietzsche’s famous Munchausen Causa Sui statement in Twilight of the Idols. He attacks this rationale as being “both ludicrous and part of commonsense.” He loves his commonsense.
Next, he wants to convince us, Why Be a Semicompatibilist? Semicompatibilism just needs enough elbow room to assert freedom. I suppose that’s the ‘semi‘ part. It feels to me an exercise in self-delusion.
The main idea behind semicompatibilism is to shrink the target size of compatibility and focus centrally on moral responsibility and agent control rather than the larger realm of free will.
Fischer makes what might be considered to be a religious argument. We should adopt this perspective because it feels better and is in our best interest. He cites Gary Watson’s view of using indeterminism to undermine determinism, but he feels that rather etiolates control rather than strengthening it because it “becomes unclear that our choices and actions are really ours.”
In the next subsection, he leads with the argument “that moral responsibility does not require regulative control, but only guidance control, and further that it is plausible that guidance control is compatible with causal determinism.” At least, this is the story he’s sticking to.
In Fischer’s “approach to guidance control, there are two chief elements: the mechanism that issues in action must be the “agent’s own,” and it must be appropriately “reasons-responsive.””
As for the “agent’s own” constraint, he simply notes that counterclaims exist, but he asserts that he doesn’t accept them.
In the final subsection, he writes about the Lure of Semicompatibilism. I do feel he is lured by the concept and makes light of the label. He advances the notion that “Kant believed that compatibility and incompatibilism are consistent“. Say what? But he takes a weaker position on this claim, using the Kant name-drop for cover.
As I said at the start, I don’t know anything about Fischer, but he is obsessed with legal theory as if it has any bearing on philosophical standing. Perhaps I’ll include a summary from a quick internet perusal. After I’ve wrapped this up. He mentions moral desert, which is a concept employed in matters of restorative and retributive justice.
The section concludes with a list of publications by him and others. Perhaps I’ll list them here in future as an addendum. For now, I’ll pop outside of this edit window and see what I can find on John Martin Fischer.
John Martin Fischer (born December 26, 1952) is an American philosopher. He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside and a leading contributor to the philosophy of free will and moral responsibility.