As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.
£1 ≠ £1
The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.
I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.
Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):
Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.
Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.
Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a., gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.
This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.
Of those who do not require meaning, I don’t have much to say, and anything I do have to say about this will be obvious in reflection to the people who do.
Some people—perhaps even the majority or super-majority of them—require meaning. Of these, some accept the doctrines offered by religion or society whilst others will construct meaning. Even those who don’t patently need meaning may still construct one anyway, whether employment, family, country, or duty.
People who require meaning feel that the world will devolve into chaos if no meaning were inherent, that people would become selfish anarchists, hooligans, and ne’er-do-wells. Most of these people (convincingly) convince themselves that there is some source of objective morality and that that reality is known. Insomuch as, in this case, perception is reality, it doesn’t matter whether it is or isn’t.
Pinker’s possible objections in The Blank Slate notwithstanding—there may be some genetic component driving this delusion—, this reality is a social construct.
I guess the point is that some people are incapable of accepting a world with no meaning. Unfortunately, politicians, and Randian Objectivists (perhaps a large overlap in some circles) can prey on these gullible masses, and they can vilify others who are not so lucky in masking their motives.
I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.
Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.
All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.
Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawls‘ veil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.
In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.
As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris
In the video, Lewis knocks down a weak strawman argument about subjectivism. He starts with a backstory about biological evolution. In his setup, he conflates empirical tautological truth with moral truth and paints them as equivalent.
Lewis introduces right and wrong and good and evil in order to provoke an emotional to realists and cognitivists, and attempts to underscore it with an appeal to tradition wrapped in an appeal to authority and positive ad hominem that ‘until modern times, no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgments of value were rational judgments‘ [in situ].
Lewis notes that if one believes that morals are socially conditioned, then we could as soon have been conditioned differently, but he’s just trying to set up his next strawman, which is to say that some subjectivist, say, an educator or reformer, may ask us to improve our morality, and leads into his punchline, that subjectivism will surely ‘be the disease that will certainly end our species‘ [in situ]. I’ll ignore his eternal damnation quip as quaint.
He points out that some indignation toward the Third Reich (Godwin’s Law) is groundless, but what he continues to ignore is that this claim cannot be made on moral grounds. In fact, from the vantage of a Nazi at the time, they were doing the moral thing. Furthermore, had the Nazis won the war, this would be the prevailing morality.
Here Lewis tries to conjure an is from an ought by claiming that without ‘objective standards of good‘, then any ideology is as good as the next, and so he is simply tilting at windmills and arguing with this gossamer strawman. From this condition, he complains that one cannot measure better without an objective measure, so, therefore, there needs to be an objective measure. This, of course, is wishful thinking, like my complaining that I cannot win the lottery without winning the lottery, therefore, I must have won the lottery. (I accept payment by cash, cheque, or Bitcoin.)
In essence, the argument attempts to make a claim that a subjectivist wanting to make a moral claim of ‘better’ or ‘progress’ cannot because there is no ‘better’ or ‘progress’, these terms being subjective. The strawman here is that a subjectivist would make this claim on the basis of moral argumentation. As even Lewis notes, subjectivists claim value judgments as sentiments or complexes, so preferences. This is true; so the claim would be based on a preference rather than on a moral one.
He proclaims that the question ‘why should we preserve the [human] species?’ is somehow profound. It’s a valid question, but, again, it can be answered outside of the realm of morality—constructed or otherwise. Then he goes down some instincts rabbit hole based on this faulty premise but tries to circle back to his standby old universal moral law.
From the rabbit hole down a slippery slope down a rat hole, he rambles anecdotally. Tailing the vid with some supposed objective prescriptions, it mercifully ends.
Philip Goff presents a strong argument published on Aeon as to why taxation is not theft, primarily because it is based on false assumptions about the morality of property ownership.
I have written a lot of short pieces addressing this question (the answer is always no). But this piece for Aeon magazine is the most extensive thing I’ve written so far, and goes into much more detail about the nature of ownership. I’m always amazed at how much this stuff angers people. I’ve been enjoying […]
Listening to the Robert Wright’s audiobook, Moral Animal, it’s become even more apparent that ethics and morality are the results of a later stage of an evolutionary strategy. Not that he’s saying that.
After cognitive abilities came language and then, presumably, ethics then moral proto-structures. Subsequently, gods and God came into fashion.
That morality is the result of evolutionary progression is not particularly controversial, but sociobiologists seem to view the evolutionary development of morals as a parallel to Chomsky’s theory of innate language and universal grammar. My modification is that morality (as distinct from mores, customs, and such) necessarily requires language and cannot exist independent of language.
Given the evolutionary perspective, it is obvious that this concept will not be popular for those who do not support this base position, but it should not much of a stretch for those who do.
Many people are pragmatists, so when I submit that there is no objective morality, the response is that this is unworkable, so I need to find another system. It’s akin to running out of petrol in the desert, and your travel partner responds similarly:
“There has to be petrol; otherwise, we can’t get to where we need to go.”
Hat tip to Captain Obvious, but unlike ethics and morality, one can’t just conjure fuel. This is why we have created normative ethics—the operative being normative.
“How can anyone work with a system without objective morality?”
I get this reaction often when I broach the topic of ethical subjectivism.
“Ethical subjectivism [or moral subjectivism] is a philosophical theory that suggests moral truths are determined on an individual level. It holds that there are no objective moral properties and that ethical statements are illogical because they do not express immutable truths.”
For me, as a moral anti-realist (vacillating at times toward non-cognitive emotivism, if not outright moral nihilism), it’s been relatively easy to hold this subjective meta-ethical position whilst simultaneously adopting a pragmatic ethical theory, though I have always found the prevailing frameworks to be lacking—whether consequentialism, deontology, or virtue ethics. In fact, this is why I decided to go deeper into philosophy, to see what others had to say about the matter. Fortunately, David Hume had trodden this ground before in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Subjectivism allows one to have a preference for a given moral framework, it just simultaneously claims that one cannot objectively be judged as better.
This is about where people’s Hitler and rape fantasies are introduced into the argument, and always with an air of checkmate, so let’s explore this. We’ll take historical, evil, bad person, Adolf Hitler and his ill-treatment of Jews in the years leading up to and through World War II.
The reasoning usually follows these lines: Of course there is good and evil, right and wrong. Don’t (won’t) you agree that what he did was immoral? Sidestepping, that personally, in my opinion, Hitler was not cool, it doesn’t answer to the morality. In the subjectivist domain, there is no good and evil, but I tend to reserve that response, as it falls on deaf ears.
Instead, let’s follow through and reflect on the speculative outcome represented by Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In this world, the Nazis won the war and conquered the free world, but in the vein of “history is written by the victors”, society found a new equilibrium. That’s what people do. Sure, there are always dissenters, as there are today in any government, but this evil moniker is applied by the glorious and victorious Allied Forces over the Axis (of Evil). Had the Nazi’s prevailed, it would have been but a footnote in history—if that. Morality is just perspective. From a societal perspective, it may take the form of ethnocentrism. But in the end, morality and ethics distil down to an individual vantage, even if the individual adopts a package off the rack, as most do in the form of religions and community guidelines.
Nietzsche’s Nihilism captured this in his subjective authenticity, which is being true to one’s self. In this view, it is irrelevant what moral systems others impose upon you. If you resolve to go to the gym at least once a week yet don’t, you are not being authentic.
Camus noted in his Myth of Sisyphus that one has the option upon realising the Absurd, that there is no inherent meaning to life. Aside from suicide and acceptance, one could adopt a worldview, whether religious or spiritual to Capitalism, Socialism (his preference), or Pastafarian, essentially denying the Absurd.
Ignorance is Bliss™
In a way, the religiously devout have it simpler. They are indoctrinated with a pre-packaged belief system, and they don’t really question it. But other people have political and jurisprudence systems prêt-à-porter, and they are willing to defend them, seemingly to the death.
“Ethical Relativism has implications such as moral infallibility and moral equivalence. It does not offer a way for parties engaged in ethical debate to resolve their disagreements because each side is required to acknowledge that the opinion of their opponent is equally as factual as their own. Individuals can never have a moral disagreement if both sides are morally ideal. As well, blame cannot be placed in a conflict if moral truths are always objective [sic].”
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
no way for parties engaged in an ethical debate to resolve their disagreements
True. If you can’t turn a screw with a sledgehammer, perhaps you need to question whether you’re are using the appropriate tool instead of cursing the sledgehammer for not being a screwdriver. If a tool isn’t suitable for a task, perhaps you are using the wrong tool.
one can’t have a moral disagreement if both sides are morally ideal
True. Again, perhaps you need a different instrument.
Blame cannot be placed in a conflict if moral truths are always subjective
True. I’ll sidestep the question of why blame is necessary, but yet again, this may not be the right instrument.
On balance, people seem to need pragmatism, so they seek a workable moral framework. Assuaging cognitive dissonance is as natural as breathing. Ah, the joy of delusion. Humans fabricate moral systems in an attempt to address issues such as these, but all of these systems are, in fact, human constructs, and none are objectively better than another. Subjectively, one may prefer one over another.
I have long been interested in notions of social justice and equality, but somehow it all felt a bit loosey-goosey and amorphic. To be honest, I feel this way about the entire composition of government, politics, and jurisprudence, and other power structures, but those are topics for some other days. Also, I won’t endeavour to speak to the artificial income-market construct, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll take this as given, as anachronistic and quaint as it might otherwise be. Nor will I discuss whether the system itself, apart from the equality question, is optimal or even makes any sense from a broader vantage, or whether competition has a role in an otherwise coöperative society.
Along with empty virtue notions as freedom, liberty, and justice, (topics for another day) equality is a post-Enlightenment Age catchphrase. As with its counterparts, it sounds nice; it has a nice ring to it, but it is just as specious. These are words invoked to raise emotions, but as with a pointillist’s painting, if you attempt to scrutinise them too closely, they become unintelligible.
Aside from maths, equality is an issue for sociology as well as political philosophy. In maths, the concept is tautological.
“In sociology, the study of the causes and consequences of inequality in its various forms – class, race, gender, power, status, knowledge, wealth, income – is one of the most pervasive themes of the discipline. In philosophy, theories of justice and rights are centrally concerned with the problem of justifying and criticising different kinds of inequality.” 
Sociologist, Bryan Turner, identified four flavours of equality:
Equality of Condition
Equality of Opportunity
Equality of Outcome
Political Philosophy is more concerned with accepting the sociological definition as given and discussing it in the negative sense of inequality.
In maths, we have likely been made accustomed with equalities since grade school. In fact, that’s what makes the other notions so compelling. It all appears to be so tidy and scientific.
1 = 1
2 = 2
1 + 1 = 2
Amazing, right? Two values balanced on either side of an equals sign. The problem is that these equations—these equalities—are logical tautologies. They are equal because this is in fact how they are defined, defined in the same manner as we define a red lorry as red. Equal in this context is not useful for us, save as a familiar reference.
The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America employs ontological equality, where ontological is defined as “relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being”.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Aside from an unsubstantiable claim that these so-called “truths” are somehow “self-evident”, this weakest form of equality is a claim “that all men (read: people) are created equal” at birth because “their Creator” (read: God, an obvious metaphysical nod) “endowed” them with this aspect.
Translating this into common parlance, this states that we are all equal in the eyes of God [sic]. In essence, to commence a racing metaphor, this means that we all get to participate in the race, and that sounds good, right?
The problem with ontological equality is that it outright ignores existing inequalities, so whilst you may be equal in God’s eyes, that’s where it ends. Essentially, you get an empty promise. If you’ve got something to say about, say a prayer; God’s got operators standing by. At least you get to play the game.
Equality of Condition
Where ontological equality leaves off, equality of condition steps up. Beyond the metaphysical promise, it claims that all people get to start at the same position, that we each get to start at the same starting line. That sounds fair, right?
The problem with equality of condition is that whilst you may get a place at the starting line, you still face any systematic or structural adversity in play, whether that be discrimination, wealth disparities, access to quality education or other public services, and so on, at least you get to play the start at the same place.
Equality of Opportunity
My Libertarian associates seem to love this one. In fact, in their world, the only conversation is about equality of opportunity (also known as formal equality of opportunity) versus opportunity of outcome. It’s a cage match to the death, and opportunity is their champion.
This flavour of equality doesn’t claim that a person has the right to start in the same place—only that the rules will be the same.
The problem with equality of opportunity is that it makes a specious claim. Besides ignoring the condition and situation and any past infractions—letting bygones be bygones (especially when they have given you the advantage that you wish to retain).
A parallel would be to allow a steroid-pumping athlete to compete by rationalising that, well, the race has started, so let’s just keep playing. Afterall, we’re playing by the same rules, so that makes it fair. Forgive and forget, right?.
The privileged live in better neighbourhoods, have access to better schools, can afford tutors and summer programmes. Many live in more stable family environments growing up, and they have access to networking benefits. This is further reinforced in university, and, like compound interest, the earlier one starts, the greater the effects of compounding.
Again, equality of opportunity might sound good on the surface, but, yet again, it disintegrates on scrutiny. Its main purpose is a feel-good head fake to keep one’s eyes off the prize.
Substantive Equality of Opportunity
A subset of equality of opportunity is substantive equality or fair equality of opportunity. Under this model, additional remediation is asserted to the disadvantaged person. This might be a familiar concept to golfers, who have handicaps. The goal is to—whilst also enforcing a similar rule set—accomodate those with some head start advantage. In the everyday context, it could be providing additional funding or resources to underprivileged children.
The problem with substantive equality of opportunity is that the deficiencies are multifaceted, the system itself is too complex to account for all material dimensions and measures, and most assessments are normative in nature.
Equality of Outcome
Equality of outcome is particularly pernicious. It claims that in the end, everybody wins, and everyone gets the same prizes.
This is a potential result of Communism, that is if the definition is taken to the absurd. This is a common criticism by some when every participant receives a participation prize—a manifestation of the notion that everybody is special.
The problem with equality of outcome is that, among other things, not everybody wants the same thing, so this logic basically boils down to I want what I want if what you have is what I want as long as everyone else who also wants what I want has it, too. Of course, we could reduce this down from actual equality—apples for apples and oranges for oranges—into value equality, where everyone has access to some comparably equivalent value (whatever that might mean, especially insomuch as different people assign different values to the same goods and services).
Kurt Vonnegut depicted this in his short story, Harrison Bergeron (PDF), where, not being able to raise certain persons, people were instead reduced to the lowest common denominator, so rather than elevate the cognitive ability of low IQ people, the solution was to diminish the capacity of higher IQ people, so as to produce the same—albeit lower—results.
In the end, ontological equality is nothing more than vapour; equality of condition fails to account for material differences among people and their situations; equality of opportunity also fails to account for disparities of condition; and equality of outcome is an unrealistic pipe dream that would be too complicated and complex to implement.
In order to further communication, if that is indeed even the purpose (rather than obfuscation, which I feel may be the prime motive), we need to use different concepts, to find new terminology.