Sunday, October 17, 2010

No, I'm Sorry, Doing Moral Philosophy Is Not Like Falling Off A Log

Call it the Wikipedification of ideas.  The slogan is "Well, how hard can it be?"

I got nothing against Wikipedia, which I use all the time.  Using Wikipedia doesn't have to lead to the Wikipedification of ideas.  But some of the basic elements of Wikipedia ... well, let's just say that some people seem to get a little overly enthusiastic about them.  Like the idea that everyone has equally good "information" about a topic, that it's pointless to think we need "experts," that complex expressions of ideas are just obfuscation, that every question has either an uncontroversial answer or, at worst, an uncontroversial set of plausible answers.

This just isn't true.  Especially when it comes to abstract ideas and ideals.  Like thinking about right and wrong.  I work some in this area -- on moral philosophy -- and I can tell you:  it's hard.  How should we trade off the ending of one life against the preservation of others?  How do you know when inequalities are unfair?  How do you reason with people whose judgments are very different from your own?  Are moral judgments objective or are they just fancy kinds of emotions and tastes?  It's a difficult subject.

So it's infuriating to have it presented as if moral philosophy is actually easy.  Like, "Gee whiz, if everyone would just calm down and be nice -- and stop listening to those obfuscating philosophers! -- we'd be all set."

In the New York Times today Robert Frank talks about income inequality.  I'm roughly in agreement with his broad conclusion -- that income inequality is bad.  But the way he goes about explaining it is frustrating.

Focusing on fairness, as moral philosophers have done, he says, isn't getting us anywhere, because there's too much disagreement on how fairness should be understood and what it comes to in this context.

That's right:  moral philosophers don't agree about fairness and inequality.  One reason for that is that the issues are complex, there are several ways of seeing things all of which seem somewhat reasonable, and even the question of how to decide among competing views is a vexed one.

Frank says that instead of trying to sort these issues out, we can look at a cost-benefit analysis.  Like, we know high income inequality has costs, and we don't see any offsetting benefits, so clearly it's bad.

But there are reasons we don't just apply cost-benefit analysis to figure out the answers to complex problems.  The reasons are familiar from the known difficulties with "utilitarian" reasoning in moral thinking.

Utilitarianism says that you should do the thing that brings about the best consequences for all, where everyone counts for the same amount.  It sounds promising, but it leads to some surprising results.  Suppose five people are in need of five different organs to live -- one guy needs a liver, another a heart, and so on.  Should we kill one person and distribute his organs?  Save five lives, end one, cost-benefit-wise, sounds like the right thing to do.

But obviously no one thinks this is the right thing to do.  And the reason it's not the right thing to do has nothing to do with how high or low the "costs" are.  Imagine the guy you kill is really unhappy.  Imagine he has no friends.  The "cost" of killing him is now low.  Does that make it better?  No.  Plausibly, it makes it worse.

You can argue -- as moral philosophers do! -- about what the right explanation is.  One plausible answer goes something like this:  what's wrong with killing the guy has to do with something outside of costs and benefits, and has instead to do with his rights, his freedoms, his autonomy to live his life as he wants, even if it's an unhappy one.

At one point Frank says that the increased wealth of the rich hasn't made them very happy.  But as we've just seen, the happiness of the person isn't the only thing you have to think about.  People have the right to the pursuit of unhappiness as well as the pursuit of happiness.

The point is that even when the costs are low and the benefits high, you're don't have a simple answer about what to do.  There are other things to consider.  Because, well, moral philosophy is complicated and not simple.

The same problem arises in the new fad for explaining morals with science.  The new neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, want to tell us that science can tell us about morality, because science can tell us what makes us flourish and feel happy and what doesn't.

As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah points out in this excellent review, knowing what will increase well-being tells you little about what to do.  How should you weigh one person's well-being against another?  Is it average well-being or total well-being that matters?  What about the problems with cost-benefit analysis, already mentioned?

Furthermore, is it only conscious well-being that matters?  Does that mean that if your spouse is cheating on you it would be better not to know?  And if you know the truth will hurt someone or make them feel bad, should you lie?  Neuroscience can plausibly tell you how much less happy you'll be when you find out the truth about things, but I don't see how knowing the answer to that question is ever going to help you figure out what to do in life. Even if the truth sucks, even if it reduces your well-being and leaves you in tears, don't you sometimes want to know it anyway?

I guess when the philosophy departments all disappear because of funding cuts to the humanities, no one will have to worry about these problems any more.  We can just kill the guy, distribute the organs, and lie about it after.  Questions?  I hear the Wikipedia entry on "cost-benefit analysis" is excellent.


AskWhy! Blogger said...

Your pleading sounds a bit special to me ;-) . Being human is hard in itself, but you make it sound much harder than it is, and leaves me wondering what you have to lose by greater fairness. Try reading Honderich's Principle of Humanity. One does not need elaborate formulae to work out that it is unfair when, as Frank says, "the share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners, which stood at 8.9 percent in 1976, rose to 23.5 percent by 2007, but during the same period, the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent." Science shows us that morality has its basis in human society, and it follows that when society is no longer fair, there is no point in supporting it. The US, and many of the world's top nations are in danger of revolution. People who have nothing to live for are not afraid to give their lives, as the Islamist suicide bombers prove.

Patricia said...

Hi AskWhy!,
Thanks for the comment. I agree that "it is unfair" when "the share of the total income ..." -- indeed, part of my complaint is that Frank makes it sound like we don't need to talk about fairness to make the point, but can rely simply on CBA. We do need fairness.

Whether we need it in a simple or a complex way -- you're right that this seems a more difficult question to me than it does to you. My point is partly that philosophical thinking about it is necessary and valuable.

I'm sure science can tell us certain very basic things, like "we're social animals." But how to deal with complex situations when our norms -- of, e. g., fairness and respect for autonomy -- conflict, I don't think science will help us there. That's where we need moral thinking.

Anyway, I guess I'm with you about fairness being important, but not about applying it being a simple matter.

AskWhy! Blogger said...

Patricia, I wonder whether the target of your criticisms, these people who think moral philosophy is easy, are actually concerned that academic philosophers like yourself are justifying continuing to fiddle while Rome burns. Unless we are ready to see the city burnt to the ground, we have to start doing something to stop it, whether we are agreed totally about what to do or not. Marx said it: at some stage we have to stop interpreting the world and start changing it.

This present crisis is universally agreed to be a financial one, caused by the greed of bankers and finaciers who have too much money and therefore power, while most of the rest of us have too little money and no power. The diagnosis is clear but the patient refuses the treatment -- the money needs to be more fairly distributed, and the financiers and bankers need to be regulated so as to be the servants of society not its masters.

I have not read S Harris's book, and do not understand what he means by well being, and Frank is right that happiness is far too ephemeral to be a criterion of fairness. Unhappiness however might be the better measure, but it has to be judged by whether the better off are willing to endure the conditions that make the unhappy unhappy! That was surely Rawls's point ion introducing his "Veil of Ignorance" in his thought experiment whereby the social contract was drawn up.

When people know their situation in society, they will legislate to favour people in their position, but that is most likely going to be unfair. Everyone therefore must draw up the rules without knowing where in society they will end up. Then they will be careful to ensure that being unemployed or ill does not mean abject poverty, squalor, misery and an early death. They will be only too glad to permit themselves an insurance against such misery if their lot was to be disabled, or whatever. Yet it does not happen in the mightiest country the world has known, just over the lake from where you are, and that is what is wrong and dangerous for the rest of us.

I am sure you will have studied Honderich -- he was born in Canada, and studied at the University of Toronto -- but if not you should. Though he is controversial, he tries to get round some of the problems of Utilitarianism, and Rawlsianism by putting the emphasis on everyone's right to a satisfactory life. To deprive anyone of an adequate life by any one of several forms of harm is unfair and a moral society will not allow. And it is society that controls these factors, which are:

1. existence for the maximum possible time,
2. the quality of the existence ought not to be what anyone would consider intolerable if they were to be in it,
3. freedom from coercion and enough power to guarantee it,
4. freedom to relate with whoever we choose and however we choose,
5. the right to be respected and to be allowed self respect, and lastly,
6. to pursue the culture we prefer.

So, Honderich suggests how we might redistribute some wealth and power to get a fairer society. He tries to get away from hard to imagine abstracts like fairness, justice, happiness, and aims for ascertainable conditions that we can each think about and judge whether they would be tolerable to us. If not, then they ought not to be permitted for others.

Sorry to be so verbose. I expect no glib reply, but you might in the future write a blog supporting one or other of these approaches... or not! :-)

Daniel said...

I admit that I haven't read Robert Frank's thing in the NY Times. I've been wondering about this attention to income inequality, and especially the alarm over the fact that it is growing. Is it the 'inequality' itself that upsets people? What if the lower end of the spectrum - the poor people - had much more than the poor people, say a century ago (or any other length of time) - that there was food, &c. I'm not saying that I know that this is true. I'm just wondering if in that case, would the 'inequality' itself see be what is unjust? It seems to me that the nature of the bottom itself would be important. Any thoughts? Please excuse me if Robert Frank already answered this question.

Daniel said...

Okay, just read Frank's piece which doesn't convincingly tell me why income equality is bad, except for some associations (hardly causal, at least not in his piece) with people desiring to spend outside of their income level, and with bad infrastructure. Due, I guess, to cascading something or other. Huh? Anyway, my point is that he doesn't really seem to address my question about the location of the bottom in inequality and whether it ameliorates or affects at all the problem of inequality. Although cascades probably would occur regardless.

Patricia said...

AskWhy!, I do think we should try to get it right when we can. Surely it's possible to have activism *and* an attentiveness to ideas co-existing. I certainly wasn't advocating inaction.

Daniel, the question you raise is at the center of Rawlsian theories of justice. He says inequalities are justified in terms of the expectations for the way they make worse off people better off than they would have been otherwise.

The issue of why get upset about it is beyond a blog comment ... misery, unfairness, threat to democratic ideals, threat to democratic way of life, stuff like that.

Daniel said...

Thanks, I'll look up the Rawlsian stuff. I have heard a number of smart people talk about "growing inequality" or the "growing gap between rich and poor" and wondered how and why this came to be the important measure as opposed to, say, something measurable about the quality of life of the poor.