How alien is objective physical reality compared (a) to its perceptual appearance and (b) to our own consciousness? As to (a), it seems to lack secondary qualities like color; in which case, what makes it capabable of occupying space? As to (b), unless we go in for panpsychism it seems very remote from the nature of experience. So it must be quite alien to the things we know about most directly. Is it SO alien that we couldn’t represent it in our experience in principle? We’re accustomed to the strangeness of matter from contemporary physics, but is it so far removed from what we are familiar with that we have no hope of adequately representing it? Is it as remote from our understanding as a bat’s experience? Or is it remoter, because at least a bat has experience, which we also do–while matter sits at an opposite ontological extreme? Is the entire universe an alien form of life–though completely dead?
The odd thing about utilitarianism is that what makes it most attractive is also what makes it most implausible. It seems good to require impartiality, so that no one is treated as privileged in making a moral decision–hence U doesn’t discriminate with respect to whose happiness is maximized. But this very feature of the theory is what leads to its hyperbolic demandingness–as when it obliges us to give away all our money to charity and neglect our own children in order to benefit remote individuals. The altruistic aspect of U comports well with the intuitive content of morality, but the slide into excessive altruism is immediate. To prevent this, we have to insist on partiality, but then we are back discriminating against certain people. Stressing special relationships quickly leads to favoring our own tribe at the expense of others. It’s either demandingness or discrimination.
I just finished re-reading Kingsley Amis’s first novel. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is the most anti-literary literary tour de force ever. The language is flawless while flaunting its “inelegance”. It reminds me of J.L.Austin’s style: challenging you to find a mistake, while grammatically impeccable. It is designed to intimidate and amuse. Yet the Amis novel manages to find, amidst the pseuds and bastards, the liars and creeps, a vein of morality that is completely authentic and totally unselfadvertising. Jim is no one’s idea of a saint, but he’s a better specimen of humanity than those deemed his betters. Notably, Gore-Urquhart, the richest and poshest of the lot, is the most discerning and decent man in the book–and has the most in common with the “common” Jim. Kingsley is off to the side, stoically amused, pulling faces of his own, laying down those sentences that don’t seem to care whether they end elegantly but always do.
For the last couple of classes we’ve been discussing utilitarianism (U). U is a consequentialist doctrine, like ethical egoism, though it evaluates actions by the general good, not merely that of the agent. An action is right if and only if it leads to more happiness and less suffering than any other action that could be performed in the circumstances, with respect to everyone affected by the action. That is, we are obliged to do what leads to the most happiness for the most people (and animals, on some versions). Clearly, then, U is altruistic in form, since it requires us to sacrifice some of our own happiness if that will lead to greater happiness all round. The view is universalist, egalitarian, secular, monistic–and obviously onto something. Surely the goal of morality, at least in part, is to promote the general welfare, it might be thought, and that’s what U prescribes. It comes as a surprise then that the theory encounters serious and principled problems, mainly revolving around questions of justice–but also concerning whether it is too morally demanding. Such criticisms are the topics for next week’s class.
Roger won. But it wasn’t his best tennis. Or was it? He managed to fight off seven set points against Novak. He was having an off day, but still he won the crucial points. Everyone has a bad day in tennis, but some people seem to be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. As I was playing the other day, it struck me that (a) tennis is an incredibly difficult game to master and (b) if you do anything even slightly wrong you won’t hit the ball well. It has to be exact. Every shot has to be executed to perfection. There’s no margin for error. In philosophy, too, there’s no use in getting it a bit right. Any error, any sloppiness, and things go very wrong. Technique is all.
The topic this week was ethical egoism. What a terrible theory it is! An action is right if and only if it’s in your own self interest. That means that helping others, with no benefit to self, is immoral. Rubbish. Particularly pathetic is the argument that apparently atruistic actions are really egoistic, since you get pleasure from doing good. This just conflates the object of a want with its consequences. You might as well argue that economic actions, like buying a television, are really altruistic, because someone else benefits, namely the people you buy it from. Motives are of several kinds: egoistic, altruistic, malicious, and self-destructive.
So far this term I’ve dispatched the three most popular ethical theories in America today–relativism, divine command theory, and egoism. It wasn’t difficult work. So people go through their lives with ethical ideas that are patently erroneous. A few classes in high school would suffice to put them right, but somehow it never happens. You aren’t supposed to criticize people’s ethical opinions. That’s sad.
In my seminar we discussed a paper by Galen Strawson, “Real Materialism”. It’s a stimulating paper that contends that experiences should be declared “physical” just as such, without benefit of reduction. We don’t know enough about matter to rule out their being aspects of it–so why not call them “physical”? I appreciate Galen’s premisses but I resist the conclusion. I quite agree that our conception of matter is sketchy at best; as John Foster puts it, matter is “inscrutable”. I even see some force in the thesis that experiences constitute the intrinsic nature of matter (though I don’t in the end agree with it); but I see no point in calling this aspect “physical”. However, Galen gives a nice account of the Russellian thesis about the limitations of our knowledge of material reality. It’s a rather Kantian thesis–with the underlying reality of matter noumenal and our knowledge only capturing its appearance to us.
My ontology seminar dealt with a paper by Chomsky about physics. He argues that since Newton the mechanical philosophy had to be abandoned, because of the remote operation of gravity, and that physics presents us with mysteries that mark our cognitive limits. As Hume observed, Newton drew the veil on some of nature’s mysteries only to reveal the deeper mysteries of nature. I find this view very congenial: not only is free will a mystery, or consciousness, but also a physical force like gravity. I think myself that mass, electricity and magnetism are pretty mysterious—we know only their manifestations. Physics tells us only the dispositional and structural properties of matter, not its intrinsic nature—as Russell long ago argued. Mysteries lurk everywhere, even in our “hardest” science. Since I regard consciousness as a form of matter, it isn’t surprising that it should be mysterious—since matter in general is mysterious. (This isn’t to say that the science isn’t perfectly ok, so far as it goes.)
In my ethics class divine command theory went the way of ethical relativism. There was some squirming from the students as God was removed from the grounds of ethics. Actually, I respect DC theory more than relativism, despite my atheism, because at least it’s a theory with some philosophically interesting aspects, and not simply a confusion of the descriptive and the normative. The problem with it is that you cannot base moral principles on a stipulation, no matter who the stipulating authority might be. That would make morality entirely arbitrary—as if it were like driving on the right rather than the left. God commands us to keep our promises because it is right to do so; it’s not that it’s right because he commands it (would it be right to break our promises on God’s say-so?). Socrates’ “Euthyphro argument”, that the gods love the holy because it’s holy and not because they love it—or that God commands the good because it is the good and not because he commands it—is one of the best arguments ever produced. It shows the power of clear analytical thought. What is amazing is that after over two thousand years his incontrovertible point hasn’t yet sunk in to everyone’s mind—with so many people still thinking that morality results from God’s naked will. God doesn’t create the good; herecognizes it (assuming he exists).
My review of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought just appeared in the New York Review of Books. There has been a three year hiatus since I last wrote for them, owing to the fact that the editors and I were at loggerheads over the philosophical content of a (positive) review I wrote of a book by Vincent Descombes on cognitive science and philosophy. The review was never published. The Pinker book is not very philosophical, so we haven’t had that kind of trouble this time. People do find pure philosophy very difficult, and writing about it for the general public is always a challenge. Anyway, the book is vintage Pinker—though I do have some reservations about the substance of some of the chapters. Check out the chapters on verbs and obscenity, in particular.
The US Open has given us some amazing tennis, with Roger Federer in his all-black tux outfit delivering his usual display of athletic and aesthetic brilliance. (I love that guy.) Novak Djokovic (I call him No-Joke) gave a marvelous impression of Sharapova and Nadal serving last night: she with her prissy jig and high bounces, he with his swerving sprint and the fussing with socks and shorts (needlessly plucking them from his crack before every serve). He’s a bloody good player, too, the young Serb—but also quite the comedian. My prediction: Fed and Djok in the final—the former wins. I find that watching tennis improves my game, by motor osmosis I guess. Yesterday I unleashed a distinctly Federerian backhand—at least that’s what it felt like.
Thanks to people for their comments. I agree that Soros’ success in predicting the markets sits ill with his Popperian suspicion of inductive knowledge of the future. I think we need to distinguish context-sensitivity in ethics from ethical relativism: in some contexts it may be right to break a promise, say, though not in others; but this has no tendency to show that what is right varies with what cultures take to be right (on this see any introductory ethics text, e.g. Julia Driver’s Ethics: The Fundamentals). As to my views on consciousness and the brain, I refer you to my many publications on that subject—no need to repeat old stuff here. Walking on water: I’ve always liked that story (“I believe”). Maybe Jesus was wearing some especially buoyant sandals at the time of the feat. A proto-paddle-boarder, I like to think. I saw a picture of my old friend Jennifer Anniston the other day, looking lovely, upright on a paddleboard—so even the stars are doing it.