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.