Archive for February, 2011

More on universal morality

February 18, 2011

Again, if the question for moral universalism were, “where do all peoples agree on values” we’d have an empirical answer, but still not a philosophical answer. In any case, the empirical answer would still be forthcoming. All peoples do recognize certain principles of fairness, among other notions that motivate them. Most (all?) global religions hold to principles that stand in stark contrast to purely selfish interests. Morality is universal and is universally of a kind, even when it isn’t exactly alike.

Overall, notions of both morality and mores contrast pure self interest, which is odd, since our species nature includes both selfishness and altruism. Yet mores and morality do not try to contradict altruism. The basic notion of morality seems always and everywhere a negotiation with selfish interest where self interests might lead to conflict.

One way to define morality is that contrast: morality is not just a consideration of agent action, but consists of precepts beyond the natural, instinctive desires of self-interest. Agentive actions motivated by self interest need no precepts; they take care of themselves. Morality — and mores — concern the agent beyond the agent’s own natural compulsion.

That’s why morality always seems so anti-Nietzschean and anti-power. But Nietzsche misperceived and exaggerated. No doubt morals will appeal to the slavish spirit, but they do not originate from it. It is the nature of morality to promote something else besides natural inclinations, because a) natural inclinations need no such promotion and b) altruistic inclinations don’t conflict with other interests directly. That leaves the self-interests that do conflict with others’.

Here’s an empirical test: strip away all the mores and see what’s left in morality. I think you’ll find that there is still a variety of notions that might be described as moral. There’d be the sentiment expressed, for example, in “You did x, so why shouldn’t I?” (“Everybody does it, why shouldn’t I?”) There’d be a notion of fairness deriving from our species ability to see ourselves in others’ situation — empathy, a basic character of humans. There’d be a bunch of general precepts beyond mores: haste makes waste, bird in hand’s better than two nearby…all sorts of modulations and tempering of immediate selfishness.

That’s the stuff of morality. That’s where it begins. While it’s true that there is no universal agreement on a complete and consistent set of moral precepts, it’s also true that wherever you look, peoples, religions, cultures, laws, all regard this tempering morality as fundamental.

There’s no question that morality is universal, empirically. You can see it in the exception that ‘proves the rule’, the sociopath. The sociopath is identified as abnormal and psychologically exceptional primarily on account of not having a moral sense at all. Sociopathy defines the normal human as moral — moral and not just following local mores. Sociopaths follow the local mores. They dress well, talk well, behave better than well — they are notably expert at sociableness. The sociopath is the most beguiling person at a party, and will charm your pants off. They’re not defective in mores. It’s their moral character that is distinctive. It’s missing, and apparently not by choice, but by some strange character of their minds. (I’ve known at least two well, and they are the most fascinating people — exciting because they will do all the things you and I won’t.)


Herodotus at Reed

February 18, 2011

A friend expresses his enthusiasm for Herodotus, which he read at Reed College. In the same breath he elucidates the familiar themes of Greek tragedy: the gods punish us out of jealousy; huvris is tempting fate. “Moderation in all things” was inscribed at Delphos.

I’d always wanted to read Herodotus, and now, intrigued, I did. To my surprise, nothing of the ethic of the tragedies played in his history. It’s a secular document. Secular values are everywhere in his stories.  And not just secular, but typically liberal values, almost modern liberal values. Maybe that’s why he’s survived and is still read, or, at least, read in liberal places like Reed.

Herodotus writes about rulers at length and always assesses them according to the simplest liberal standard: a king who treats his subjects well is laudable and will rule successfully. Kings who brutalize their subjects are deplorable, don’t rule well and eventually get their uppance from some revenge or mismanagement. Huvris does not cause their fall; it’s just that Herodotus expresses his satisfaction in their fall. Far from huvris as a cause of a fall, even a good ruler, one of Herodotus’ favorites, has to endure the vicissitudes of fortune. His reward is not the material reward of the gifts of the gods, which are the rewards of a fable. His reward is the historian’s reward: praise and honor in the telling of his record. A historian knows that goodness is not always rewarded. It’s not a morality tale, but a history. Selfish disregard for human justice and human sensitivity is deplored, but it is not a cause of a fall. In some ways it might seem a fine distinction, but in his stories, it’s pretty clear.

It’s true that the Delphic oracle plays a constant role in his stories. It’s his favorite irony: some king or people apply to Delphos, follow the oracle, and through some misinterpretation, get screwed or screw themselves. It’s so frequent in his book, so regular, that as soon as you read that the oracle has been consulted, you know what the punchline will eventually be. You get the impression that Delphos, and believing oracles, must have been a running joke among the Greeks.

And I suspect that that was so. Consider the other inscription at the oracle, “gnothi seauton” — ‘know yourself.’ You go to Delphos for an oracle. There before you stands, “gnothi seauton.” Get the joke?

Years ago in college, we read Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead in Attic Greek — simple but fascinating text (what a surprise to read Marlowe’s most famous lines in Faustus were stolen verbatim from it). In it Diogenes runs around Hades’ house (the underworld) mocking everyone with the refrain, “gnothi seauton, gnothi seauton,” the adult Greek’s equivalent of  “nya-nya, told you so” except it means more like, “you should’a’ known, ya should’a’ known!”

Also liberal is Herodotus’ open-minded curious towards the mores of other cultures. That’s of course the essence of his character. Travelers don’t wander all over the known (and to his contemporaries’ unknown) world just to deplore other cultures. It may not be excessively biased to suppose that curiosity is by nature liberal, zenophobia, a more conservative inclination.

Herodotus could have praised brutal despots for their ability to keep order or provide direction and leadership, much as conservatives quickly supported Mubarak as having provided security and stability (as well as being a “friend” to the U.S.). And experience shows, over and again, that rebellion and revolution are followed by unrest and instability. There are plenty of reasons to support a despot. But Herodotus doesn’t see it that way. Morals come first for him. I have no doubt that he would have sided with the protesters, unhesitatingly. That’s the beauty of reading it: it’s all so transparent to him. He biases all his stories towards kind rulers and against the imperious.

But he would have warned the protesters not to follow any oracles. If that is itself an oracle to avoid, he would have repeated the favorite Greek advice: “gnothi seauton!”

Post post: My favorite story in the Histories is wonderfully ambivalent. A brutal despot, Astyages, tries to avoid the the oracle’s prediction that his son will destroy him. The story proceeds just like the Oedipus myth, and when Astyages discovers that his servant Harpagus failed to kill his infant son, he serves Harpagus’ own son to him at a feast, just like the myth of Atreides, the ugliest of all the houses, so you can’t miss that this Astyages deserves to fall. He gets it by Harpagus who, to obtain his revenge, sells out the enemy in battle. Astyages loses his kingdom but isn’t killed (so you know that the point of this story is not done). Harpagus comes to prison to see the man he’s destroyed, but the conversation is quite surprising: Astyages berates Harpagus, telling him that Harpagus will never be more than a servant to the enemy he appealed to, and for his personal revenge he has sold out all of his own people. The story bears many resemblances to Racine’s Athalie, the most sublime and beautiful thing I know and most ambivalent and tragic.

Post post post: in full disclosure, when I got halfway through the Histories, I decided to finish it in Greek, which is going to take me the next year at least, even if I consult a translation along the way. So those observations will no doubt require amending.

Jesse Prinz article at Philosophy Now

February 18, 2011

I see Jesse Prinz regularly at the Grad Center colloquia where he always asks interesting and articulate questions. So I read a recent article of his on moral relativism “Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response.” It begins with an exposition exemplifying the variety of human moral values, and asking how there could be such variety if morality is universal.

Odd question. Moral theory is not and never has been an empirical science. It’s prescriptive, not descriptive. Kant wasn’t trying figure out a way to describe morality. He wanted to find a rational basis for action. That his conclusion was consonant with much (though not all) of his local cultural mores, might be a reason to suspect his objectivity, but not enough to stand as an argument against his rational program.

Seems to me the JP’s question mistakes mores for morals. Does any universalist care what strange rites and social conventions hold across the world? If there’s a universal moral law, and they don’t follow it, the worse for them. They ought to get with it and shape up. That’s the essence of universalism, after all. No more clitorectomies! No more hanging queers! No more sex slaves! JP’s question is a sort of question-begging. The answer to “Is there a universal morality that all people should follow” can’t be “No, because not all people follow the same mores.”

JP promotes ‘experimental philosophy’, something I, as an empirical linguist, support thoroughly…in matters of fact, but not in matters of value. He wants to claim that humans show a variety of mores, and that variety is incorrigible, so leave them be.  But that’s not yet an argument for justifying those mores against universal morality. It’s just repeating the fact that there is variety that may be inconsistent with universal morality. One answer is his — let ’em. Another is, convince them they are wrong. JP hasn’t yet argued for the former or against the latter except maybe to indicate that the former is easy, the latter, hard.

He, like all those who distrust the modernist program, point out just how hard it is: we “enlightened” modernists have exploded nuclear bombs on civilian targets, we’ve polluted our environment maybe permanently — there’s a long, long list of our shocking behaviors that fail our own moral bar.

But how does that impugn our moral bar? What difference does it matter to a universalist whether we follow our own moral precepts. She’s there to tell us just how wrong we are. Jesse is careful to describe our failings as viewed from other people’s, the past and the future. But in fact, those are viewed as failings to his audience and to him himself. There’s a hint there towards a universalist, modern morality. And he finds it is his final conclusion.

But first he notes that mores are inculcated in youth as part of our developmental process. Again, that’s just to say that if universal morality conflicts with mores, do not expect humans everywhere to conform. But the constant, harping of the universalist is the exhortation to give over sin and be moral, stop behaving like a selfish beast and be a mensch, stop persecuting others and see that, but for luck, you’d be the victim; get over your developmental blindness and open your eyes. If everywhere everyone behaved alike and in ways that made everyone alike happy, moral theory would have no more interest that whether humans breathe. The question of morality is “How should we behave” not “How do we behave.”

At the end JP reassures the universalist that relativism is not the end of the world. We’ve all got to get along together, so we all behave in ways that get along together, no matter how relative and different we are.

But that is universalist morality.

To me there’s an even stronger claim of universalism, and I think everyone recognizes it. Everyone, regardless of mores, develops in childhood the ability to recognize the notion of fairness. We don’t often apply fairness against our mores. No surprise. We fail to apply our notion of fairness all the time. That doesn’t mean we don’t recognize it.

The argument for universal morality is not that everyone behaves morally, but that everyone can recognize some one notion of how to behave, even if they don’t follow it or object that it conflicts with their mores.

I find that there are several notion of morality. ‘Treat others as they treat you’ is one. It leads often to brutishness. ‘Treat others as you would have them treat you’ is another. It leads usually to kindness and thoughtfulness. The question for universalism is, which is more compelling?

Believers often argue against secular morality on the grounds that our modern world has seen shocking violence. Our morality has not succeeded. Weird claim. Religion succeeded? Of course, if every believer in a kind deity followed kind precepts of the religion, many people would be kind, even sacrificing themselves for others (who in turn would sacrifice themselves for each other). But most members of most religions don’t. So I don’t see a contest here.

The real contest is academic: if people would follow their precepts, would non believers seek justice or mere selfish ‘getting along to get along’? In my experience, some are more brutish than others, some want money, some want fame, some just want to write philosophy, some want to be smart, some want to be considered smart, some just want to get laid. None of them are so stupid as not to understand fairness.

Just don’t expect them to be fair. Either they want something from you, or they don’t care about you. At best, you can win any argument with a claim of fairness. Usually when you win an argument, the beaten is resentful. So morality is not always a winning game.