Posts tagged Nick Manley

Wednesday Lazy Linking

Dialogue.

  • Libertarians Against Property Rights and Freedom of Association. (Cont’d.) Vin Suprynowicz Vs. Rad Geek on so-called illegal immigration. In which I argue keep your borders off my property and Suprynowicz argues that a libertarian community ought to have the government constitutionally policing people’s political views. Democracy, you know.

News and Comment.

Arts.

Communications.

Philosophical phree-phor-all on reason, morality and happiness

There have been a lot of long, interesting threads of conversation going on in the comments of some of this week’s posts. The purpose of this post is to disentangle one of those threads ot make the conversation more easily followed.

Branching off of a conversation which began (several turns of the conversation before) with a discussion of the recent May Day immigration freedom March in Las Vegas, Aster raised some questions about the relationship between reason, morality and happiness:

I’m with the morally ambiguous side of the Force….

I think integrity and spiritual independence are neccesary to make life worth living. I think controlling people is a terrible way to live, and that friendship is one of life’s deepest pleasures. I think learning to give others a chance to show their best is essential in the eternal search for that most rare treasure of the intelligent mind. I think we need to carefully set up a society which lets people live according to what can most move them. I think we need social codes which set the rules slightly more sternly than the way we ourselves would find it worthwhile to act. and I think that living with passion and seriousness can add immense depth to existence.

But ultimately I do not believe in the respectable sort of morality. I see no evidence. Ayn Rand claimed that you can be be both passionately self-interested and classically moral, but I don’t believe she was that innocent, and all my evidence suggests that she was offering something a bit too neatly good to be true. Roderick Long and Charles Johnson both seem to believe in a perfect correspondence of reason and happiness. I don’t see it, not in human society’s bloody world. I feel that Roderick’s strength in happiness is connected with something that feels more like rigorous kindness than rigorous morality, Charles offers a pure model of perfect morality which tends to drive out his warmth of happiness. My experience tells me that we will find that love can make us selfishly selfless and that pain can make us degraded monsters at the whim of society and circumstance, and that one’s energy is better spent trying to be true to thine own self than in worrying about whether one is good. But I am curious: if morality and happiness really do perfectly correlate, I would really like to know, as it would make the math much easier.

— Aster, 6 May 2009 8:23pm

Roderick replied:

Aster,

Roderick Long and Charles Johnson both seem to believe in a perfect correspondence of reason and happiness.

I think my own view would be best described as saying that reason and morality are necessary for happiness but not sufficient for it. Dammit, Jim, I’m an Aristotelean, not a Stoic!

— Roderick T. Long, 6 May 2009 9:26pm

Me:

Like Roderick, my view is that reason and morality are necessary but not sufficient for happiness. (Also, specifically, that they’re necessary conditions because they are constituent factors of happiness, not just because they are instrumental to attaining or sustaining it.)

I feel that Roderick’s strength in happiness is connected with something that feels more like rigorous kindness than rigorous morality,

I’m not sure I understand the contrast. Isn’t kindness a moral virtue? Aren’t its opposites — cruelty or callousness — moral vices?

— Rad Geek, 6 May 2009 10:15pm

Roderick:

Ditto on constitutive as opposed to instrumental.

— Roderick T. Long, 6 May 2009 11:04pm

Clarissa the Vampire intervened:

Feasting on the soul of a truly happy person makes me happy. It is better than chocolate. Would I be happier without this?

— Clarissa the Vampire, 7 May 2009 7:55am

Me:

Well, depends on how you conceive of happiness, I suppose. If you think of happiness as being constituted by some sort of psychological state — momentary pleasure, or habitual pleasure, or some sort of overarching feeling of satisfaction or contentment, or… — then, who knows? Maybe vampires have happy lives. But I don’t think that happiness is constituted only by psychological states. At least, not in the sense of happiness that Roderick and I are using (which is, roughly, the Aristotelian conception of eudaimonia, and which has to do with leading a happy life rather than just with feeling happy).

On my view, psychological states are part of happiness but not all of it, so that (among other things) the exercise of intelligence, ethical living, the extent to which one’s psychological states are based on truth, and the nature of the enjoyments that one takes pleasure in, are all relevant. So, for example, someone who is pleased or satisfied all the time, but based on a lie, is to that extent not living a happy life, even though she may feel like she is (suppose she believes she has a happy marriage, when in fact her wife is actually a duplicitous creep, who constantly lies to her, cheats on her, destroys little things just of hers just for the pleasure of it, and talks shit about her behind her back; suppose also that her wife is very good at deceiving, so she never finds out about any of this as long as she lives; I don’t think that qualifies as a happy life). Similarly, someone who gets their pleasures by hurting or disrespecting or degrading other people (say the wife we just discussed; or a man like Trujillo or Mobutu Sese-Seko or Beria; or your average garden-variety rapist) is thereby living a miserable life, even if, at the time, they do not realize that it is miserable; even if, at the time (as was the case for, say, Trujillo) they feel perfectly pleased with themselves and feel quite content with living that kind of life. The fact that they enjoy the kind of life that they lead, in fact, makes the whole thing more miserable, not less.

So, to answer the question, I do not think that enjoying the destruction or damnation of others makes a vampire happy, even though the vampire may believe that it does. It may please the vampire, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t know whether or not the life of the vampire would be happier without destroying or damning others (I’m sure it depends on the details; different vampires seem to have different relationships with their condition), but if it turns out that the vampire could not live a happy life without destroying or damning others, then I’d say that the vampire cannot live a happy life at all, and would be better off accepting death than continuing to live under such conditions.

— Rad Geek, 7 May 2009, 8:24am

Or, in a related note:

People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.

—James Baldwin

— Rad Geek, 7 May 2009 8:41am

Roderick:

Here’s a piece I wrote that gives some background on the Aristotelean conception of happiness.

— Roderick T. Long, 7 May 2009, 8:40am

Nick Manley:

[quoting Rad Geek] “I’m not sure I understand the contrast. Isn’t kindness a moral virtue? Aren’t its opposites — cruelty or callousness — moral vices?”

Kindness is underrated by too many people. I admit I’ve been kind with people whose views totally repulse me. Anyone whose met me in person knows how soft/traditionally “femme” I am. Nonetheless, I don’t think we can posit kindness as an instrinic good. Like every other principle: it has to be applied contextually. Can a Jew be genuinely kind to an active Nazi stormtrooper? Imagine the emotional denial involved in that. Then again: Roderick may have the right answer here — being angry at someone without hating them. I’d be curious to hear him expound upon this further.

I guess I am personally closer to Aster in behavior…I am no saint in thought or deed — although; I don’t mind living my life according to the principle of non-aggression. I’ve found no conflict between this and my own happiness. There’s no necessity to work for the IRS or the DEA — thank goodness!!! I am not sure I could stomach it.

Nonetheless, I always loved how Rand forged a link between self-interest and “societal interest” — for lack of a better way of stating it. It really does inspire me! It speaks to the desire within me to remake the world — dwindling admist the realities of activistism. The idea that no one has to be sacrificed for the good to occur is revolutionary. Most people I encounter hold the opposite view. It’s at the root of a leveling sense of equality — the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth/value and one has to give up one’s share to allow others to flourish.

[quoting Aster] “and yes- one can find touching friendship with those who do evil and find the deepest kind of happiness.”

Do you mind elaborating on this?

— Nick Manley, 7 May 2009, 9:11am

Marja Erwin:

Roderick:

I think your argument equivocates between two senses of happiness, and collapses what should motivate us into what does motivate us.

In particular, the arguments regarding life insurance are less than convincing. An individual may not trust the hypothetical pill - it an unnerving situation - or may fear the short-term unhappiness of choosing the false belief over the long-term happiness of falsely believing he has purchased life insurance.

Aster has noted that kittens are never happier than when they (the kittens, not Aster) are torturing smaller animals. A rational cat’s sense of happiness might well offend our sense of the good life. A moral theory which ignores our nature as biological creatures, adapted to certain niches and behaviors, has little power to motivate us without alienating us from ourselves. A moral theory which ignores our nature as rational creatures has little power to correct our mistakes and prevent injustice. I fear that a moral theory which equivocates between the two will combine the problems of each.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 2:05pm

Roderick:

Marja,

I think your argument equivocates between two senses of happiness, and collapses what should motivate us into what does motivate us.

How so? At what point(s) do I make this equivocation?

In particular, the arguments regarding life insurance are less than convincing. An individual may not trust the hypothetical pill - it an unnerving situation - or may fear the short-term unhappiness of choosing the false belief over the long-term happiness of falsely believing he has purchased life insurance.

OK, but that’s changing the hypothetical situation. What I’m claiming is that even in the case as I described it, when people do trust the pill etc., they still wouldn’t prefer it. And for this I simply appeal to the reader’s self-knowledge.

I fear that a moral theory which equivocates between the two will combine the problems of each.

Again, OK, but how and where, precisely, do you think mine equivocates between the two?

Marja:

Roderick:

We may be deluding ourselves about the pill. The idea that we would prefer the false memory to life insurance is justifiably disturbing. If the false memory is unreliable, then it is not worth the money. If the false memory is reliable, that implies exceeding vulnerability in other matters. Our fear and queeziness will bias our responses to the thought-experiment. I don’t think either of us knows how we would respond without that fear.

Furthermore, if the false memory is absolutely reliable, so that we might research some other topic, discover that our insurance account is missing, discover that our pill-taking appointment took place, etc. and still believe we bought the insurance, the example challenges our ability to know anything at all.

On the other issue, I think you need to show why MaxPref necessarily includes agent-neutral considerations.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009 3:39pm

Roderick:

We may be deluding ourselves about the pill.

I can’t imagine why we would be; at any rate, the burden of proof seems to lie with those who say we are.

I think you need to show why MaxPref necessarily includes agent-neutral considerations.

So what do you think is wrong with the argument I gave?

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 4:51pm

Marja:

Roderick:

[Quoting from Roderick’s paper, linked above. —R.G.]

The point is not that agent-neutral ethical norms can somehow be derived from agent-neutral linguistic norms; the point is rather that once such a thing as agent-neutral value is so much as recognised, it must forthwith be integrated into one’s MaxPref. Thus, although happiness is in some sense an agent-relative value, it turns out to include agent-neutral value as a necessary component.

Since you concede neither the survival-based argument nor the language-based argument justifies this assertion, it seems unclear, as if you are begging the question.

I can’t imagine why we would be; at any rate, the burden of proof seems to lie with those who say we are.

I don’t believe in burden of proof. Anyway, although we come to the same decision in the thought experiment, I’m wondering if we come to the same decision for the reasons you describe, or others which do not support your argument. I would like to see a version which removes these issues, but I’m not sure there can be one.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 6:08pm

Roderick:

Marja,

Since you concede neither the survival-based argument nor the language-based argument justifies this assertion, it seems unclear, as if you are begging the question.

No, they’re two different assertions. My claim was that these other arguments fail to derive agent-neutral from agent-relative value. In other words, there is (so far as I can tell) no argumentative path that starts from purely agent-relative value with no agent-neutral dimension and somehow gets from there to agent-neutral value. It’s the attempts to provide arguments like that that I’m rejecting. But what I was trying to show is that we “always already” start with agent-neutral value indispensably woven into our perspective.

By analogy: there’s no way to get from inside the event horizon of a black hole to the outside. (Aside: at least that’s the science I was taught as a young’un; I gather that theory is in flux now, but let’s assume it for the sake of the example.) But it doesn’t follow that there’s no way to be outside the event horizon; there is a way, but it involves already being outside to begin with. And if I claim that we’re already outside the event horizon, that doesn’t mean that I’m claiming to have found a new way to get out of the event horizon.

I don’t believe in burden of proof.

Can you explain what you mean?

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 7:24pm

Marja:

In my understanding, burdens of proof are methods for choosing one position, when there is no compelling argument or evidence for any of two or more alternatives.

If there is a compelling argument, then there is no need to fall back on a burden of proof.

If there are multiple compelling arguments, then we may choose one working hypothesis, or multiple working hypotheses, on various grounds (elegance, explanatory completeness, etc.).

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 8:00 pm

Roderick:

In my understanding, burdens of proof are methods for choosing one position, when there is no compelling argument or evidence for any of two or more alternatives.

Oh, that’s not how I understand it. I think that if there’s strong evidence for p, that shifts the burden of proof to the deniers of p, but it doesn’t make the concept of “burden of proof” inapplicable.

I also think, though, that if it seems to be the case that p, that by itself shifts the burden of proof to the deniers of p, even if there’s no evidence for p beyond its seeming so. (In other words, seemings count as evidence — in the broad sense, not an inferential sense) So although we could conceivably be mistaken about our motivations in the life insurance case, if it seems to us that out motivation is such and such, we’re entitled to treat it as so until shown good reason otherwise. That’s what I meant in saying that the burden of proof lies with the denier. But I don’t take the life insurance case to be one in which the initial evidence is equally balanced.

Maybe I should make clear that I’m relying on a coherentist rather than a foundationalist (at least in the usual sense of “foundationalist”) approach to epistemic justification; see here.

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 8:35pm – 8:38pm.

Marja:

Mine has been shaped by an awareness of my own and other people’s bad reasoning habits. I used to be a system-builder; now I try to be a system-breaker. I probably ought to re-read Sextus Empiricus, I think I’d appreciate him more now than before,

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 9:32pm

Roderick:

Marja,

Problem is, if you start with the default assumption of your own and everyone else’s bad reasoning habits, you run the risk of undermining your very ability to identify bad reasoning — because how do you know that your argument for such-and-such’s being bad reasoning isn’t itself bad reasoning? Sextus thinks this will lead to a salutary suspension of judgment about everything, but it seems to me more likely to lead to people just picking whatever belief feels good to them, because hey, it’s no more problematic than everything else.

— Roderick T. Long, 9 May 2009, 9:42am

Aster:

[Replying to an anecdote from Roderick about college Randians and Kant.]

I think that Kant was intellectually dishonest in some aspects off his project- I think he did wish to force philosophy to re-establish the essentials of Christianity. The postulates are embarassingly lame.

Then again, how can you read ‘What is Enlightenment’ or ‘Perpetual Peace’ and totally hate the guy? He may have kicked out some crucial philosophical precondition for the open society, but he was also the first to formulate certain absolutely priority one crucial planks of its program.

. . .

— Aster, 10 May 2009 1:23am

Roderick:

I think he did wish to force philosophy to re-establish the essentials of Christianity.

I agree; and I think his argument for the necessity of religious belief is embarrassingly bad. But I don’t think his major moves were motivated primarily by that. What’s most important to me in Kant is his anti-psychologism; but I think in both his metaphysics and his ethics he tripped himself up.

In metaphysics he correctly (from my point of view) saw that there are conceptual constraints on what kind of world we can make sense of — but then he slid into thinking that these constraints were imposed on the world by the logical structure of our minds, and so got what Strawson calls the “austere” and “transcendental” sides of his thesis entangled.

In ethics he correctly (again from my point of view, of course) saw that ethics needed to be grounded in the conceptual structure of agency itself and not just in appetites and sentiments. But because he had a fairly crude conception of happiness and left it to the domain of appetites and sentiments, his rescue operation on morality resulted in widening rather than narrowing the gulf between morality and self-interest; whereas I’d have preferred him to follow the Greeks in grounding both in the structure of agency and so keeping them together.

— Roderick T. Long, 10 May 2009 7:49am

Setting aside my editor hat, and putting my contributor hat back on, here’s some remarks on the discussion so far.

First, I certainly agree with Marja that there is more than one sense of the word happiness out there; and it may well be that, in one sense of that word — the sense of the word in which happiness names some kind of psychological condition of sustained pleasure or satisfaction or contentment — it will be the case that a vampire can live a happy life by destroying or damning innocent victims, and that, in general, there’s no philosophical guarantee that human happiness requires, or is even promoted by, either reason or morality. But if happiness is being used in the sense of the condition that is the object of self-interest for intelligent beings, then things get much more complicated. It’s tempting to think that you already understand perfectly well what happiness is, just intuitively, pre-philosophically, without needing to refer to knowledge or reason or moral virtue; that it must be something simple and obvious from casual inspection, and that the thing to do is to grasp that understanding of happiness in hand and then see if it links up in any important ways with knowledge or reason or moral virtue. But I think that that is already to take a wrong step — that it involves a false confidence that cannot hold up under Socratic reflection. Because if happiness (as we’re using the term) is the object of self-interest, then to understand what happiness is, you have to understand what self-interest is, and, while many people very confidently believe that they have a simple account of that (that self-interest is felt pleasure, or the satisfaction of desires, or metabolic survival, or having beautiful things), any serious understanding of self-interest will be intimately connected with knowing something about the nature of the self that has the interest — understanding something about what sort of being you are, and also understanding something about the form of life that sort of being enjoys. In the case of the human being, that very quickly leads you into a discussion of reason, creativity, knowledge, and rational conduct — not just as tools that we wield to get some further good, but also as part and parcel of who and what we are, and as essential to understanding how we dwell on this earth. To get clear on what makes us happy we must slow down and think it through; to think it through well, we must also think through some things about ourselves, and I think that clarity on that necessarily complicates any conception of happiness away from simple psychologistic accounts, and towards accounts that treat knowledge of the truth, rationality, moral virtue, and so on as constituent aspects of a truly happy life.

In reply to Marja on kittens, I do not know whether or not kittens are never happier than when they’re torturing smaller creatures. But if it’s true, it’s precisely because kittens are not the sort of creature that participates in the sort of rationality that human beings do; it should be no surprise that what’s good for a kitten is not always the same as what’s good for a human being, and making a distinction on the basis of human beings’ natural capacities for rational deliberation, creativity, and sympathetic understanding hardly involves ignoring our nature as biological creatures! It’s precisely because of the special faculties we are born with that human creatures have a different standard to live up to.

In reply to Marja on life insurance and the Pill, I think that feeling queasiness about choosing the delusion-pill over real life insurance tends to support Roderick’s point, not to undermine it. If the prospect of choosing a delusion-pill (in order to save money) is, as Marja claims, justifiable, then it seems like the queasiness is an indication of the fact that there is something defective about taking the pill over the life-insurance. (If the pill really does serve my interests just as well or better than the life-insurance, then the queasiness would be irrational, not justifiable.) Or, to take things from the other end, think of what you would say about somebody acting without that fear, who felt no queasiness and so boldly chose the delusion-pill over the life-insurance — what you would say, specifically, about his attitudes towards his family. It seems like this would be a paradigm case of someone who has hardened himself against any kind of concern for other people, to the point of callousness or even cruelty. But I don’t see why, in this case, compassion is being counted as a bias in the thought-experimenter and callousness is not; I think that there’s a lot more merit in arguing that the compassion-motivated queasiness Marja describes is, just as such, more reasonable than callousness, and that the callous deliberator would be the one choosing under a bias against perceiving all the relevant factors in the thought-experiment. Emotional sensitivity does not always distort; emotions can and do reveal relevant aspects of reality, and it is often emotional deadness that would make for a bias in responding to a hypothetical moral dilemma. (For what it’s worth, I discuss the topic of bringing this sort of second-order reflection to bear on thought-experiments, or a topic that’s at least tangentially related to that, in Intuition-Pumping for Fun and Profit.)

In reply to Nick on kindness, I think that it has been underrated because most of the conversation about morality through most of recorded history has been dominated by men’s voices and men’s concerns, and there are specific reasons why patriarchal discussions of morality have centered on virtues like courage (especially martial courage) and justice (especially legalistic or retributive or revolutionary conceptions of justice), while shoving kindness and other forms of caring out to the margins of morality, or out of morality entirely into the realm of etiquette or niceness. I also agree with you that morality doesn’t demand that a Jew be kind to an SA stormtrooper; but there are lots of virtues we’re not always called on to exercise (e.g. gratitude is a virtue, but virtue doesn’t require that I be grateful to anyone and everyone). And I think it’s important to see the difference between saying that the virtue of kindness makes no demands on a Jew with regard to a stormtrooper, and the quite different claim that a Jew would be justified in exercising the opposite vice, by being cruel to a stormtrooper. My position is not that it would be immoral not to be kind in that context, but rather that it would be immoral to be actively cruel, which is something different from just not being kind. The difference is indeed closely related to the difference between anger and hatred.

What do y’all think? Fire when ready in the comments.