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.


Anonymous Grapes 2.0 said...

I'm not sure morality can be reduced to the simple utilitarianism you suggest. It's not merely a matter of body-count. What about your responsibility to yourself? Can you live believing it's wrong to kill, and then abandon those beliefs when it becomes a matter of saving your own skin, and still consider your actions moral? Because that seems to be the calculus: the only difference between refusing to kill another and accepting is that you stay alive in the former instance. That surely can't be enough to distinguish a moral act from an immoral one.

May 4, 2009 at 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

I'm far from a simple utilitarian, although I think that leftists like me are at base utilitarians, because we believe that increasing the common good is superior to creating incentives for increasing the individual good.

My responsibility to myself? Isn't that what I'm suggesting you should look to?

In the first case, I am suggesting that the net gain is I stay alive and the woman is not grossly tortured. In the second case, I mean, wtf, Alan? On one side of the ledger is a dead person and a clean conscience for the five minutes it takes my commander to shoot me dead. On the other side, I have to take the moral responsibility for killing someone who is, in effect, dead anyway.

Like Baggini, you want to set an absolute: you believe it's wrong to kill and that's that. Well, I believe it's wrong to kill but I also believe it's wrong to sacrifice your life for dogma and wrong too to make a choice that will increase another's suffering simply to avoid doing something morally distasteful. And besides all of that, responsibility is not a matter of personal honour, or a private code, it is responsibility to others first and foremost. This is the core of my disagreement with Baggini. I think humans are members of groups, not simply individuals, and morality must be conceptualised as something to do with living in a group, rather than an abstract goal. After all, the aim is to live well here and now, not to gain points on some eternal scoreboard.

May 4, 2009 at 9:42 AM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

Zero, before you continue to make an idiot of yourself, be reminded that this is a thought experiment in which there are only two outcomes possible. You cannot convince the commander. That would be like convincing the sun not to rise. Only boots can do that, remember.

May 4, 2009 at 5:15 PM  
Anonymous $Zero said...

The choice is a false one which presupposes only two possible outcomes.

One can refuse to rape AND avoid being killed AND save the life of the woman. *

To believe otherwise is to rationalize one's laziness and to give yourself an excuse for not being brave and moral.

You act as though the commander cannot possibly be persuaded otherwise.

An interesting video:

The Paradox of ChoiceAnyway, your position on the non-existence of free will is absurd right from the getgo. To wit: your considering the idea at all.

* It's a matter of taking risks.

It's poker, Dude.

May 4, 2009 at 5:15 PM  
Anonymous $Zero said...

I deleted my first comment because the linebreak was all screwy after the link. Same thing happened when I reposted, so... whatever. I also expanded slightly the second time with the asterisk.

Anyway, part of the thought experiment includes my thoughts.

You presuppose there are only two possible outcomes of the thought experiment. I don't. Because I have free will.

Nyah, nyah!

May 4, 2009 at 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

No, a thought experiment says "this is what it is, what do you think?" To then say, I think we can say it isn't what it is isn't fun, exciting, bold, clever or any wild and wacky thing. It's profoundly dull. It's like when you're playing poker snatching the cards out of the guy next to you's hands so that you know what he's got. He is then obliged to punch you in the teeth, which is a bummer for both of you.

May 4, 2009 at 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

You just got thrown out the game. Next time, look only at your own cards, k?

May 4, 2009 at 5:39 PM  

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