Sunday, February 3

Why be moral ?

In the last post I have tried to lay out how, from a fallibilist perspective, God is worse than useless when it comes to justifying morality.

So if God is not the answer, what is the answer to the question: Why be moral, why be nice ?

The bad news first (Well, it’s hardly news, and reality as such can’t be bad): If we could have metaphysically certain knowledge of our self-interest, then the concept of morality would be empty. The concept of morality would reduce, without residue, to the concept of self-interest maximisation. There would be no reason for anyone to care about a big word called ‘morality’. If we could know our own self-interest with metaphysical certainty, then only one imperative remains: Do your utmost to achieve this interest, and care about nothing else. (You may still want to pretend to care about other goals, but you should not actually want to care.) Doing anything less would effectively mean harming yourself, and would certainly not be in your interest.
If we could have metaphysically certain knowledge of our self-interest, we could end this essay right here. The answer to the question Why be moral ? would be: Morality doesn’t mean anything worth caring about, there is no rational reason to be moral. The concept of morality would stand for a lie told by strangers in order to trick you into sacrificing yourself for their interests. If so, no sincere and honest person should want to be involved with “morality”.

Let’s get to the evangelium, the good news: Such infallibility about self-interest isn’t plausible at all. For morality to mean something, our knowledge of what our self-interests consist of must not only be fallible, but radically fallible. And it looks like it is.
Fallibility is the breach through which morality reenters a disenchanted world.

The economists’ favourite model – the egoism of rational choice theory – is implicitly infallibilist, assuming true knowledge of the right preferences, beyond sceptical reproach. What has the instrumentally rational agent got to say in answer to the sceptical challenge: You seem to think and act on the assumption that X is in your best interest, but how can you be so sure ? Is the way you are pursuing what you are pursuing – happiness or whatever else it may be – all things considered the best for you ? Are you really able to describe the ‘it’ you are after ?
There are many words people use to describe their best, highest, or maximally possible self-interest – “happiness”, “fullness of life”, “self-actualisation”, “salvation”, “enlightenment”, etc. What all these stated purposes have in common is that they are not easy to define, and even harder to achieve.
Knowing what would “genuinely” be in one’s self-interest is not a trivial task. Catching something as elusive as happiness (or some other ultimate purpose), cannot be easy when already profiling it – knowing what it would take to be happy (or to reach some other ultimate purpose) – is far from an easy art. If it were so simple, we should see more “happy” people achieving their ultimate purpose.
Rationality transcends the instrumental, becomes “reason”, inasmuch as it recognises the fallibility of its own choosing of ends – what economists nowadays call preferences. Once you accept that you could be radically mistaken in some of your preferences or even most, naïve self-interest maximisation is no longer possible.
To cure yourself of a religiously strong belief in self-interest maximisation imagine that in your life you arrived at an existential turn, where what mattered before ceases to matter, or begins to matter in a completely different way. Confront the possibility of coming to admit to yourself that basic assumptions according to which you have lived your life were wrong-headed. That you could see the need for a “conversion” – a turnaround in personal priorities of close to 180 degrees. That the supposedly rational choices you made were crap.
This is the breaking point of egoism, it takes only a little sceptical imagination to make it collapse. Egoism fails because it fails epistemically. And kills by distortion people’s capacity for outgrowing themselves.
Fallibilism leads to personalism: Only by acknowledging the radical nature of our own fallibility are we able to recognise in the other person we meet an equal, someone we ourselves could become after we changed our beliefs and practices to be like theirs. Nothing human is foreign to a fallibilist, no belief ruled out with metaphysical arrogance. To a fallibilist, moreover, no political enemy is a transcendental enemy. We may fight our political enemies for all our lives, and not relent for a second, but still forgive them their trespasses in a transcendental perspective. To errors as bad as theirs, there, but for the grace of God, go we.

Human definitions of life interests – their answer to: What matters ? – vary enormously, and quite independently of levels of income at that. Apart from the very few screamingly out of their minds, I am inclined to think that they all have a point. The endless variety substantiates fallibility by making it seem highly unlikely that a definition of self-interest as some sort of objectifiable fact could be given. Self-interest is not a fact of nature. Nothing about it is certain in the requisite metaphysical sense: There simply exist no transculturally self-evident, no historically or even biographically stable definitions of self-interest. Biographical revolutions happen even to rational choice theorists.
Fallible self-interest and fallible morality thus become one, which only expresses that I have a responsibility for myself as well as for others. Neither of these responsibilities can claim to be the representation of an objectifiably true self-interest or an objectifiably true moral duty. And so neither of these two has a superior claim in the a priori, considered apart from situations and experience. As the tradition has it – Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
There will still be myriads of dilemmas between a narrower and a more generous course, but no big, fundamental question of Why be moral rather than simply self-interested ? Morality could not be reduced to self-interest because the reducing concept would have no more substance than it.
What is conventionally called a self-interest need not accord with a deeper sense of self-interest, nor need it disagree with morality; what is conventionally called moral need not accord with a deeper sense of morality, nor need it disagree with self-interest.
Words like ‘selfish’ and ‘altruistic’ can be misleading because they deliver description and evaluation rolled into one. The connection is nowhere near as simple as they suggest by equating self-directedness with moral wrong, other-directness with moral right.
I am not denying that selfishness can be beastly. But altruism alone does no more guarantee a desirable outcome than good intentions do.
Nor do I want to deny that altruism is often moral in the sense of praiseworthy. The most exalted form of altruism – moral heroism – is, by definition, supererogatory. Shared sacrifice, distributed according to a fair formula, is just an ordinary duty; supererogatory are voluntary sacrifices offered without offsetting commitments from others. While people can choose to define meaning for their life in terms that risk leading to a hero’s death, we have no basis on which to demand similar heroism of anyone. Asking others for unreciprocated sacrifice would simply be shameless.

I have lost so many words over self-interest because Kant was not alone among moral philosophers in the Christian tradition in having a hang-up about self; he was rather typical.
In Kant’s time, during the enlightenment, morality was beginning to get squeezed: Claims to absolute knowledge of self-interest were squeezing morality out of the personal world, claims to absolute knowledge of scientific laws out of the natural world. Running scared, moralists were scrambling to find something equally absolute with which to oppose the infallibilist squeeze. So altruism, for instance, could not be left to mean what it is pragmatically taken to mean, but had to become a metaphysical caricature of itself. Being considerate, being generous was no longer enough, to qualify the motives of an action had to be proven to be absolutely devoid of self, had to be certified as saintly, as godly even. The notorious adverb – ‘absolutely’ – gives away the infallibilist preoccupations.
And so Kant wrote gushing paeans to a sense of duty so preternaturally pure that it defies belief. The altogether fictional character of this sense of duty is apparent, to have a chance of coming close would require the seamless internalisation of commandments willed by a supernatural being.
In this confusion, self-mortification could be proffered as proof of ethical stature, could the kind of altruism that results in martyrs harming themselves draw rapturous applause, irrespective of the cause, the aim, the purpose.
While the honesty with which contrite Christians scrutinise their self-explanations is to be commended, their obsession with self still causes them to miss the point. Actions are not morally right because they are in some recondite sense selfless, but because they make sense.
It is wholly irrelevant for ethics whether or not the altruism of human action is ever absolutely unimpeachable. The surface altruisms people display day in day out are quite sufficient. Whether these actions can, or cannot, in all cases be traced to some ultimately selfish motive must be one of the deadest dead ends of the ethics debate; it is simply uninteresting.
To impress me with your moral standards, do not try to convince me that you are being unselfish. Your protestations will meet only cynicism. (Not literally boundless cynicism, but stronger candidates than you have failed to plump the boundary.) Convince me instead that want you are about – doing or planning to do – makes eminent sense. For you, for me, for the people affected. Then I might praise and perhaps one day support you.
As concerns altruism generally, I might very well want to do something for you, but I do not like to be badgered into it, and I especially do not like being exploited under the banner of some supposed moral obligation.
What matters is not the spurious opposition between some ultimate morality and ultimate self-interest, but whether the interests pursued, which may or may not involve other people, are meaningful.

It is time, then, for a new imperative that puts the creation of meaning at its heart.
The reality we find ourselves in is that of a world awash with assumptions and people in the middle trying to keep afloat. There is no metaphysical fixity anywhere. Humans are restricted to fallible assumptions about what, ultimately, is in their self-interest, is morally right, is factually correct. The task of life is to face the uncertainty, and juggle well.
To juggle well is to stabilise the juggling, minimise the times a ball is dropped on stage (which may well mean dropping it a lot of times during practice). One way not to minimise the uncertainty of juggling is to go stiff with idolising certainty.
We cannot hope for a logical deduction, only a metaphor. Restating what we’ve already said with only somewhat greater formality we arrive at the meaning rule (‘meaning’ as in ‘the meaning of life’), a paramount rule of action positionally equivalent to the Judeo-Christian first commandment or Kant’s categorical imperative:
Meaning rule: Minimise your exposure to assumptions.
Minimising exposure would only rarely be the same as minimising the total number of assumptions. Counting assumptions is silly anyway. The relevant measure is total exposure, conceived as a kind of weighted sum.
Minimising total exposure is not necessarily the same as avoiding assumptions which carry high exposure. The imperative of minimisation is not to caution against staking a great deal on individual assumptions, as long as concentrating exposure on a few bold assumptions would help to reduce exposure overall. When the conditions are right, risk taking is strongly encouraged.
Minimisation is not concerned with attaining zero. A certain amount of exposure is inevitable, living without assumptions impossible. So although we want to push exposure as low as possible, to be exposed is natural and not bad. It would be pointless to decry the inevitable. There is necessity in having to take on assumptions, freedom in the choice of which.
While one cannot get out of being exposed, it is not a burden to be borne passively. Exposure to assumptions, in contrast to traditional religious concepts such as original sin, is not a fixed quantity – the lower bound is not eternally fixed, but historically moveable. Its boundary has to be tested.
Hence define moral progress as a lowering of the dependency on assumptions. Progress here carries no presumption of convergence towards a transhistorical telos. Lowering dependency on assumptions might entail switching to a very different set of beliefs, and possibly switching back on an earlier switch. The underlying development from which we abstract the continuous quantity of exposure could be very ragged indeed.
A measure of exposure to an assumption might be by how much the course of your life would have to change if you came to the conclusion that the assumption was wrong. To minimise exposure to an assumption is thus to take action in advance to minimise the regret you might experience for falsely relying on it. Behave in such a way that even if you were wrong your actions would lose as little of their meaning as possible. Preserve meaning in the sense that you could carry on believing in your choice under the curse of hindsight. I doubt that anything more precise can be said. It would certainly be too optimistic to expect right living to be easily measurable. What you come to after you have run through all the options, found them unsatisfactory and been driven to exclaim “But I have to believe in something”, that is likely to be the exposure minimising path.
To give a practical example: In order to minimise its exposure a system of criminal justice would have to be constructed in such a way that even when innocents are wrongfully convicted there is nothing that any rule-abiding participant should want to have done differently. Treat suspects in such a way that if they were the opposite of what you believe them to be – innocent when believed guilty, guilty when believed innocent –, you would still not have any misgivings about the treatment they received. Ideally, find procedures that would not be too aggressive for the innocent, not too lenient for the guilty, without knowing who is which. Never getting it wrong is not a human option. What is possible is to ensure that our actions remain forgivable when we do get it wrong.
The minimising of exposure is wryly sardonic where the maximising of utility was overenthusiastic. Infallibilism demanded maximisation. If infallibly true descriptions of good could be known, it would only be right to realise them to the fullest possible extent. Fallibilism largely eschews substantive conceptions of good, arguing that since wrong tends to be easier identified than right, we can go a long way towards doing good by not doing anything stupid. Negative utilitarianism – as this bit of common sense is known – is a fitting example of how something that was once marginal can now become paradigmatic. Utility maximisation caps the world of experience, minimising exposure leaves it open to the sky.

At first sight, not much may seem to separate the enlightened egoism the best infallibilists are capable of and the fallibilistic pursuit of life interests. But there is all the difference in the world between a friendly merger and a hostile takeover. Under the fallibilist epistemology, morality is not annihilated through reduction to self-interest; morality lives on and even pervades self-interest. Maybe the merged entity should have a hyphenated name. Can I introduce you to Mr&Ms Morality-Selfinterest ? They are a spirited couple, forever fighting, but divorce would drive them both to suicide.
Once we apply the same sceptical scrutiny to the ideological bases of the rational choice theorists that they have brought to bear on the bases of traditional morality, it turns out that, despite the economists’ imperialistic bravado, it is they who are everything they always accuse moralists of: soft-minded, short-sighted, and naïve. Rational choice theory is an acceptably close approximation only for the simplest cases, and a complete failure as a model of both actual and normatively rational behaviour for all cases beyond. The game is not self-interest maximisation, it’s exposure minimisation. To be rational and moral is to act in full awareness of the (epistemological) difficulties of being self-interested. Morality is for those who want to be really tough-minded.


Anonymous said...

Good evening

Awesome post, just want to say thanks for the share

Bruce Thomson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Thomson said...

You might enjoy this video on YouTube, which was a comfort to me when my strong faith in the Christian god evaporated in 1969 for forty years, but I invented a logically reasonable concept of god recently that helps me delight in the universe. Bruce Thomson in New Zealand.