Thursday, January 31

Can God justify morality ?

Let’s examine the two most common ways of using God to justify moral imperatives: a) some form of philosophical realism about divine commands b) the idea that reality as a whole is itself moral.

Regarding the first point, we throw plausibility to the wind and grant that there exist absolute facts about morality. The question still is: Why should a perfectly self-interested agent care about anything these commands propose ?
No one today seriously believes that God the irascible will jump ex machina and smite those you violate his law. In their honest moments, few theists believe in heaven, hell, or Pascal’s wager.
It is, in other words, heroically difficult to expect that these commandments are actually going to be enforced by God. The absence of a credible enforcement mechanism then makes it precisely costless to ignore them. So why should a self-interested agent care in the least ?
This argument is, by the way, equally destructive to secular formulations: Lacking an enforcement mechanism, Plato’s moral truths are left as irrelevant as God’s commandments.
Now the only reason why a self-interested agent should care about divine commandments is this: That she has to share her living space with people who in the course of talking a lot about ‘God’ make it their business to enforce these supposedly divine commandments. With that, however, we have left the realm of the divine. We are back on earth to the usual game pitting various tribes against each other: Each tribe trying to enforce its own preferred set of values, some with rhetorical appeals to the divine, some – mercifully – without.
It is not surprising when people believe their own preferred set of values to be endorsed by their own preferred deity. What is surprising is when they believe that this should convince anybody else. For anyone not already part of the same small religious subtribe as the speaker, for anyone who does not already share the speaker's exact set of values, ritual invocations of the clan's ancestral deity must be as meaningless as a dance around a tribal totem.
The only part of morality that dies when God dies is a certain form of hollow rhetoric. If there is a rational basis for fear, it is the fear of those addicted to the rhetoric of facing the world without it.

The second route of justification claims that Being, the universe as a whole, is somehow morally constituted. God, in his role as creator, is said to have arranged it so that moral behaviour is “in line” with the structure of the universe. This is fine as far as it goes. It is able to explain how the facts of morality are not just inert - and easily ignored - transcendental entities, but self-enforcing: The penalty for values that ignore reality is failure. While effective, the God in this argument is only a superfluous label. Letting reality stand as reality, without the 'God' label, would achieve the same result, more easily.
If human reality really were structured to favour moral behaviour, a self-interested agent would be motivated to behave morally in order to buy himself success in a world that demands it. As a matter of broad averages, it may even be correct to say that generous strategies outperform strategies of playing stingy and nasty. As a matter of broad averages you may indeed have to behave morally in order to get along in this world. There is, however, one glaring problem: It is frighteningly easy to think of cases where virtue is obviously not rewarded in this life. Frighteningly easy to think of scenarios where the virtuous choice is costly, and the alternatives are easy, riskless, and without any visible drawbacks. The obvious strategy for a self-interested agent is then this: Give the appearance of moral behaviour in the large majority of situations where is pays, and turn your back on moral behaviour as soon as it doesn’t. We may even grant that an interest in giving the appearance of moral behaviour would likely lead to more than just the appearance. The most effective way of faking sincerity may indeed be sincerely trying to be sincere. Over time, performance could become (indistinguishable from) identity. The glaring exceptions, however, won’t go away; we still haven’t been given any reason whatsoever for a perfectly self-interested agent to play nice in certain extreme situations.
So it turns out that when God tried to see to it that the universe would be moral, he wasn’t very thorough. He left an awful lot of loose ends for us to tie up.

The next section is going to be about one of these loose ends – what game theorists call riskless defections, and what I, more colourfully, like to call The Perfect Crime.
Game theorists strip out the ambiguities of real life in order to present us with choices in their starkest possible form. These scenarios are highly artificial, but instructive nonetheless.
The scenario we want to examine here is this: the opportunity presented to a person of getting away with an undetectable crime.
Let’s look at some reasons for not committing a prefect crime that could convince a perfectly self-interested agent. Strictly speaking, no such reason exists. However, there are still ways in which a perfectly self-interested agent could come not to commit a riskless defection without having violated the imperative of self-interest maximisation.

Prudence: In real life, it is virtually impossible to obtain guarantees of non-detection. There can always be unannounced observers. There always remains a residual risk of screw-ups. If there is a physical reward to the crime, it could become traceable. If there are partners in the crime, they could talk, or turn on me. How low the risk has to go for it to become stupid not to commit a crime is something self-interest maximisers can disagree about.

These prudential concerns leave an obvious gap: A scenario where the risk is genuinely (close to) zero.

Character: It is not in anyone’s interest to become the sort of person who would be perpetually on the outlook for opportunities for riskless defections. Those who aren’t actively looking are much less likely to find. And it is, plausibly, not in my interest to be constantly looking. Others are likely to pick up on it; and for myself it is a misallocation of resources, wasting attentions on pennies while forgetting about pounds. There are better things to do in life.

The obvious gap left by these character concerns is this: When I stumble across the opportunity, without having spent resources looking for it.

Virtue: It is, plausibly, not in my interest to cultivate a calculating mindset. So when I get presented with the opportunity for a perfect crime it might just not occur to me to commit it. My self-interest might take a hit in this instance, but in the overall calculus one could still argue, plausibly, that the cost of missing such opportunities is worth the benefit of a generous mindset to my quality of life.
In other words, I could have an interest in cultivating generous habits even when they sometimes carry me too far, to a point without any plausibly self-interested rationale. As long as these overshoots are minor or rare, the case for cultivating the habits still stands.

The gap left here is that awareness of the situation, the riskless opportunity it presents, might sneak up on me anyway. I might simply fail to be carried by habit.

Community: It is, plausibly, not in anyone’s interest to live under social conditions where the extreme game-theoretic scenarios are most likely to arise – conditions of anomie and social isolation. When there is frequent contact among people, there are ties of community and even love, the perfect crime scenario is effectively ruled out. People would most likely not want to, or be able to, get away with a defection.

The gap is this: Opportunities for a “deep” cheater, who invests heavily in camouflage, exists even in a community setting.

Guilt: An agent believed to suffer from involuntary attacks of guilt when breaking norms of fair dealing stands out as a safer, more desirable counterparty for others. A reputation for guilt can therefore be useful to cultivate, and the decision to undergo guilt training can count as a rational investment. Once agents know themselves to be prone to guilt they are to some extent deterred from committing otherwise riskless crimes.

The gap here applies to people who generally do not feel guilt, or are able to control unwanted guilt, or able to fake it.

The examples were meant to show how it is possible to hem in the perfect crime scenario, narrow the range of cases in which the scenario has practical relevance. What should also have become clear, however, is that all these approaches are approximate only, and have holes in them. They leave a gap at the point of the stylised riskless defection.

That a perfectly self-interested agent would have no reason not to commit the perfect crime doesn’t mean he would not have a reason for saying he would not commit the crime. On the contrary.
Whatever people may say about their intentions in a perfect crime scenario is, by definition, unverifiable. It is, as far as their opposites are concerned, an uncallable bluff.
Four types of responses to the prefect crime challenge are conceivable:

1) The innocent – inculcated with conventional habits, says unthinkingly: No, it would be wrong. I would not do it.
2) The disarming sophisticate – Aware of the philosophical issues declines to answer. Not wishing to signal ‘nasty’ while knowing that signalling ‘nice’ would not be credible leaves no other option than the refusal to comment.
3) The bastard – Openly proclaim their intention and right to commit the crime
4) The manipulator – Pretends to be 1), but does it with manipulative intent

As outsiders on the receiving end of their choices, we should probably prefer 1) to 2) to 3) to 4), in the order they are already listed.

Type 1 is likely to be carried by their habits and dispositions.
Type 2 is as honest as one can be given the situation.
Type 3 is dangerous, but at least clearly marked, flying the Jolly Roger.
Type 4 is extremely dangerous. Treacherous.

The trouble is, of course, that we would have no fully reliable way of distinguishing Type 1 from Type 4. The more dangerous the manipulators are, i.e. the better they are at deception, the harder to detect they get.
And if we have no way of distinguishing Type 1 from Type 4, then Type 2 may after all be the safest bet. (Type 2 behaviour could itself be a cover for Type 3, but this would not be a serious deception. Where Type 3 is a full warning, Type 2 signals half a warning. The real cost – renouncing the safety of Type 1 – has been paid, either way.)
Saying that Type 2 reactions are best is the equivalent of rejecting the usefulness of any absolutist moral prescriptions. What could be the use to you of getting me to mouth “I would not commit the perfect crime” ? Would a firm answer, returned without hesitation or other subconscious signals, be unfakeable ? Would it tell you anything ?
There does remain one way for the innocents to fight back, besides charm: Making their talk less cheap. Doing nice things to prove they really mean to be nice. Yet however many good works you perform, no amount is going to be a fool-proof signal to separate Type 1 from Type 4. Provided then both Type 1 and Type 2 perform equal amounts of good works, we are back to preferring Type 2 (for fear of falling for a Type 4 masquerading as a Type 1).
The upshot of all of this is that we should stop talking about transcendent moral facts or purposes, and encourage others to stop talking about them, too.

Just get on with the good works, all of you.

Next week: If God is not the answer to the question Why be moral, what is ?

Fallibilism – A different kind of faith

There are two types of religious practice. First there is religion as neurosis, a desperate clinging to false certainties. And then there is religion as faith that gives people the strength to let go of false certainties, to unwrap their eyes, and plunge into reality. Fallibilism is a non-religious faith of the second kind.

One way of drawing the distinction between what I will be calling ‘fallibilism’ and ‘infallibilism’ is this: Infallibilism believes that every worldview must rest on a foundation of certainty; fallibilism believes that every worldview floats on top of irresolvable uncertainty. Infallibilism believes in assent because of certainty; fallibilism believes in assent in spite of uncertainty.

I would claim that the first is spiritually deadening; and the second spiritually liberating.

While fallibilism admits to being just one faith among others, it also makes it clear that not all faiths are born equal: Where bad faiths are full of crap, good faiths are credible. Good faiths rely on evidence wherever they can grab it, and fall back on grudging trust only for the big remaining uncertainties. Fallibilism, though a “faith” in that it acknowledges its bottomless nature, is therefore something that even the most tough-minded sceptic can subscribe to. In some ways it simply is the most brutally honest scepticism.

Fallibilism is not the same as ideological atheism; it is all about avoiding an ideological mindset. So while organised religion may be a target of harsh treatment, it is not alone – doctrinaire positivism and Platonism in mathematics, to name only two other targets, can expect to be treated equally harshly. True, there is a strong natural affinity between atheism and fallibilism. However, while maintaining religious belief may be an uphill struggle for a fallibilist, it is not logically impossible. (For a recent example of someone trying to reconcile fallibilism – or something very close to it – with Christianity look at Andrew Sullivan’s ‘The conservative soul’. His take on Catholicism does not ultimately succeed, I believe, but his effort shows that no logical impossibility prevents one from trying. Theologies reaching in the direction of fallibilism are in fact a historical constant, with each age generating its own remodelled version.)

There are ways of fudging the issue with at least certain streams of religion: With religious liberals, with pomo conservatives (“emergents”), and – perhaps surprisingly – with some ultraorthodox/├╝berreactionaries the cracks can be papered over without any need for a deep enmity. They are already temperamentally quite close to fallibilism in their actual practices. The engagement could even generate a certain creative friction that is mutually appreciated.

When it comes to what might be called the mainstream of religious conservatism – where people are unambiguously committed to versions of what I call infallibilism – there is not much point in attempting to hide the realities. So I will not mince my words.

What the New Atheists Dawkins, Harris, et al serve up is science garnished with some fragments of disappointingly bad philosophy. It doesn’t even come close to covering the same space as a religious worldview. Fallibilism, on the other hand, admits to being an alternative faith, and does cover the whole space: It provides a complete philosophy of truth and value and more. So while Dawkins, Harris, et al only manage to nip the shoulder, fallibilism is the philosophical equivalent of going for the jugular – a full-frontal, deadly attack on the underpinnings of everything that is most dear to religious conservatives. Let’s just say I’m not expecting much love, or interest.

One way of couching fallibilism in familiar religious language is to call it a universalised prohibition on idolatry. The Protestant doctrine of inerrancy for scripture makes an idol out of a book. The Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility makes an idol out of an office. The positivist doctrine of verificationism makes an idol out of data.

Fallibilism can also be expressed by using the metaphor of original sin. Yet there are important differences from the Christian concept: For fallibilism, original sin is a matter of degrees; it is possible to reduce it at the margin. But it can never be cured or gotten out of, so people touting a cure – Salvation through Jesus; Progress through Science – are, from a fallibilist perspective, selling snake oil.

Fallibility is the natural state of evolved beings. Calling the natural state sinful or bad implies the attainability of a superior, non-fallen state. But there is no such state outside of fallibility, no religious or scientific or other short-cut.