Sunday, May 3, 2009

A tolerant reactionary

It's hard to love Julian Baggini, but I usually find what he has to say at least acceptable. Or did. I've been reading a book of his, in which he does commentary on thought experiments, a form of book I usually enjoy, but I'm really disliking it, and him.

Why isn't easy to explain, but I think it's for two reasons. The simpler reason is that he doesn't seem to be for anything much. His writing and thought are all about what he doesn't agree with, where others are flawed. This makes a person's writing gristle rather than meat. It doesn't help that he seems often to be flatly wrong (and I'll come to one instance in a minute). The other reason is that I'm pretty sure Baggini would consider himself a liberal but his thought is on the whole reactionary, although in the English "why can't we all get along?" way. He's a reasonable, tolerant reactionary, which is probably the worst sort, because he is a fellow traveller of other reactionaries, and (probably inadvertently) gives them cover.

What has stuck in my craw is that he is far too willing to state that positions are flawed without actually giving reason for suggesting they are. For instance, he believes that human beings are not predictable because they could exercise free will at any point, whereas I would suggest that they do not have free will at all. In one of his essays, he is criticising Laplace, who believed the universe was entirely deterministic, but not because quantum theory suggests that the universe is fundamentally random (he notes that and dismisses quantum theory because he incorrectly believes it only has effects at the subatomic level -- this is simply wrong; it would be right to suggest that the single effect of a particle's quantum state is tiny, but without getting all reductionist about it, how can he not allow for everything in the world consisting of particles that are each susceptible to quantum effects -- does he just not understand that small effects are not ignorable, but build together to make greater effects? I mean, what does he think electricity is, for instance? Does he believe he can run a thousand volts through his body because after all, electrons are really tiny?)

I won't at this point discuss his positions on ontology and metaphysics, which are meh at best, but want to talk about a particular ethical standpoint he takes. My annoyance is born out of how he states it, as much as what it is, but what it is struck me as very wrong too. It's fundamental too, because our think our difference here would inform our politics and worldview in the round. I think for him his position stems out of a desire to steer clear of consequentialism in particular, and strict utilitarianism in general, but equally it can be read as a defence of individualism, which I clearly don't consider meritworthy. Here it is in paraphrase.

It's war and you are part of a group of soldiers that has caught a young woman. Your commander tells you to rape and kill her. If you don't, you know one of the other guys will do it, and they are all horrible men, who will torture her at length, giving her a drawn-out, painful death. They will also execute you. You can make it quick and painless.

Baggini says you should of course refuse. His view is that if you kill her, even for the right reasons, you will be morally responsible for her murder, and you can't have that.

Two things strike me straight away as wrong with his position. First, most importantly, he sees responsibility as something that only involves you. It's an entirely individualist concept of what responsibility is. But responsibility is surely responsibility to others. If you are morally responsible for the girl's death, you are responsible to her. Second, you are clearly responsible for the style of her dying. If you don't give her the easy death, how can you not be responsible for the hard one that she will have? And, furthermore, how can you not be responsible for your own death?

Of course, this is difficult ground. Am I saying that if someone else orders someone dead, you have no responsibility for following that order? No, I am not. But I am suggesting that responsibility is more complex than simply forbidding some things morally. Whether a thing you do is moral surely depends on what your options were. Take the position of a German in World War Two who is aware that if he signs up to the army he will be asked to kill Jews in cold blood. If your choice is to join the army and kill people or desert, surely the moral choice is to desert. But if you are honourably fighting the Russians because you believe Communism is a moral evil, and you find yourself with pistol in hand, ordered to shoot a prisoner, your moral choice is not so clear. Yes, if you shoot him, you are a murderer. But he is being murdered anyway. If you refuse, you too will be killed. Is it moral to refuse to perform an act that you cannot stop by refusing to do, when you will die yourself for the refusal? I do not know the answer to this question, but I do know that you cannot answer it with an "of course" as Baggini does.

I'm minded to consider this question undecidable. I cannot see how you can do anything good by refusing to shoot the Russian, except to keep yourself from moral responsibility. But the consequence of your action is not a living Russian. It is two corpses, one of them yours, and no net gain for anyone. Except you died morally clean. Which is nice.

Baggini wants to make "thou shalt not murder" an absolute. This is a feature of the conservative, that they want to set out standards that seem self-evident to them, that are the fixed points of a confusing universe. The liberal accept that there are no fixed points, or at least that they are not nailed in place, but are negotiable, interpretable. Of course, the desire for those fixed points is part of being human, and I think we all have it to some degree.

I'll have more to say about Baggini's thought experiments, particularly about the dualism he insinuates, but this is already long.