Archive for Philosophy

Salvation By Works

Now, a cute kid story.

My daughter asked me why some people used to wear hair shirts and the like. I tried to explain about mortification of the flesh as a way to improve the spirit, how people tried to ignore their physical body to pursue a closer relationship with God. This naturally led to a discussion of the difference between salvation by faith and salvation by works. I’ve been reading a world history book to her (A Little History of the World, by E. H. Gombrich). We recently covered the Reformation and the associated religious wars. I explained that one of the key doctrinal differences between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church was the idea that faith is what matters, not good deeds.

My daughter said that she felt that God would favor good deeds rather than faith, so I asked why. I thought she would say something about how it’s good to make other people happy, but what she actually said was that if you only focus on faith you will serve as an inspiration to other people to only focus on faith, and that that will lead people to using the aforementioned hair shirts, and that God would surely not want you to encourage other people to hurt themselves. I’m not sure this entirely holds up, philosophically speaking, but it was a very interesting idea for me because I would never have thought of it myself.

While I am often surprised by what other people think, I have after all spoken with my daughter almost every day of her life. While I often don’t know what she is going to do, this is probably the first time she has surprised me with a truly new thought, one that I would not have thought myself. It’s a strange feeling.

Later, in discussing the way that Martin Luther advocated removing the priesthood as an intermediary between people and God, she said that evidently Luther was the inventor of the phrase “Oh My God!”


Natural Law

In the past I’ve argued that it may be possible to build a basic system of ethics by looking to our evolutionary background to discover what sort of behaviour is natural for humans. This is a natural law approach which looks to our evolutionary heritage to discover the essential nature of humans.

Robert George’s work is an example of how far this approach can go wrong. Robert George is a Christian philosopher, but he argues that his approach to ethics is based on what is natural for humans without relying on any specifically Christian notions. He has a complex argument in this mode for why homosexual marriage is unethical. I can not do justice to his argument, but the essential points are that the reproductive-type behaviour is what we are designed to seek, that it leads to a natural unification of male and female which is desirable, that this behaviour is good even if no reproduction can result due to infertility, that other types of sex are not natural, and that the law must teach people to have natural sex.

I don’t agree with this argument but I’m not going to try to pick it apart, especially since I’m not presenting it completely. What it shows, though, is the inherent difficulty with any natural law approach, which is similar to the inherent difficulty with any argument based on sociobiology or evolutionary psychology: there is a very strong tendency to first pick the result that you want, and then develop an argument which supports it. In other words, I don’t think George is acting as a I think a natural law philosopher should: drawing conclusions from data, rather than developing data to support a conclusion.

Fortunately I don’t think this has to be a fatal problem with the overall approach. I think it is possible in principle to avoid this typical error, and to examine human behaviour and evolutionary heritage without preconceptions. This means approaching the problem the way an ideal scientist does. Unfortunately it is impossible, or at any rate unethical, to conduct direct experiments on human behaviour. However, it is possible to conduct indirect experiments by studying different human societies. For example, there have been a number of societies which tolerated and even encouraged homosexuality, and John Boswell has argued that even the early Christian church had formalized relationships between male couples.

It remains open to question whether we can get anything really useful from this approach. The main use of ethics is to guide us in ambiguous situations. Any argument based on evolution is inherently messy and contingent, rather than based on simple principles which can be built into complex predicates. Our evolutionary past gives us no guidance on questions like the proper use of state surveillance.

I’m still attracted to the idea in part because I can’t think of anything else. I don’t believe that pure moral relativism is psychologically coherent. I think that human societies must have some ethical system in order to function. I don’t think we can develop an ethical system based on pure reason, or, rather, I believe we can develop many such systems, but I don’t see how to make any particular one more convincing than any other. So I’m left with trying to base a system on our nature, and that comes from evolution.

On the other hand, it’s possible to argue in principle that some form of utilitarianism can serve as the basis of an ethical system. That troubles me in a couple of ways. Firstly, we have to decide how to measure utility. It is typically defined in terms of happiness, but that assumes that we can know what that is, and we need some way to distinguish between the pleasure of the moment and longer term satisfaction. At some point we come back to trying to figure out what people really want.

Secondly, utilitarianism makes it easy to support actions which violate the rights of the few in favor of the utility (however measured) of the many. You can try to work against this by including specific rights in your utility measure, but there is no obvious way to determine what those should be, and it makes the utilitarian arguments more ambiguous and thus less useful. While historical human societies obviously present no good argument for equal treatment for all humans, I think they do present a good argument that every person has certain rights and expectations within their own sphere, and those rights are only abrogated in extreme circumstances, circumstances exceeding those of mere utility maximization. (Of course this argument only holds for people considered to be part of the tribe, not for people considered to be less human; these days I think most of us consider all of humanity to be members of our tribe.) What this argument suggests to me is that this failing of utilitarianism is a real failing when it comes to applying it to human society.

Getting back to natural law, what I’m suggesting is that ethical philosophers, and indeed all of us, need to look to our past to determine the guidelines for moral behaviour. In other words, anthropologists should be the new ethicists.

Comments (4)

Changing Minds

I’ve long felt that most people do not change their minds about things that are important to them, including areas like religion and politics. I think most people seem to pick a set of beliefs sometime in early adulthood or before and stick to them. It’s not that people are necessarily close-minded as such. It’s just that there are major aspects of life for which no argument can be sufficiently convincing in practice.

This has always just been a pet belief of mine. I’ve rarely managed to convince people that it is correct, which of course just reinforces my belief. Oddly, however, there was recently some scientific research which somewhat supports it. The theory is, essentially, that people disregard facts that disagree with their beliefs in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. The research was based on facts seen in news reports, so one interpretation of it is that people don’t believe the news, and that it doesn’t say anything about personal conversations. Still, I find it interesting, and of course, if true, it has implications for the ideal of an informed voting population.

Here is a Google Docs link to the study. Here is a Boston Globe article. I don’t expect you to be convinced, unless of course you already are.

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Libertarian Civil Rights

The recent clamor over Rand Paul’s comments on the Civil Rights Act were a useful indicator of one of the problems with the libertarian approach to society. Paul was clear, in retrospect, that he supported the Civil Rights Act, but he was also clear that he was concerned about its effect on business owners.

Any society is a balancing of rights among all its members. All societies agree that people have different rights in different roles. The complex cases for societies are deciding what to do when those rights conflict. The libertarian point of view tends to emphasize one particular right over all others: the right to private property. But that is not the only right in our society, and cases like segregated lunch counters give that a nice clarity. If a business is open to the public, then if we are a member of the public, we have the right to expect it to be open for us. There are a number of ways which society permits business to discriminate; most obviously, businesses may discriminate against people without money. But society does not permit businesses to discriminate against people on the basis of skin color. This is not a grey area.

If you focus only on the right to private property, then the ability of businesses to discriminate against customers is a troubling case. That is how Paul got into trouble and had a hard time giving a clear answer to a relatively simple question. If you consider this issue as a balancing of rights, then there is no difficulty.

There are certainly hard cases in rights balancing; this just isn’t one of them. A hard case is how much accommodation a small business must provide a disabled customer. E.g., we all agree that the business must serve someone in a wheelchair, but is a business required to make it possible for that person to get to all parts of the store?

If Paul wants to get elected and be an effective senator, he must not only learn to answer simple questions in a straightforward way. He must also learn that the role of the politicians is to balance rights, not to promote one specific right over all others.

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E.O. Wilson’s notion of biophilia, which is slightly different from closely related to the newer idea of evolutionary psychology, posits that humans can not be healthy without some access to the natural world. The argument basically amounts to saying that we have evolved in a world which is not completely under human control, and we are not happy unless we are, at least to some extent, in such a world today.

I think the basic argument is likely true for most people. There was an interesting experiment which seemed to show that people next to a window onto an outside nature scene were under less stress than people next to a television screen showing the same image (I can’t find a link, but Journal of Evolutionary Psychology by PH Kahn). I think that many of us look for something to exist outside ourselves, and nature can play that role.

Some people use that as an argument for preserving the environment: we should preserve the environment to keep ourselves healthy (this is in some ways a variant on the idea that we should save the rainforest because we can find new pharmaceutical drugs there). Unfortunately, while I’m definitely in favor of preserving the environment, I think this argument fails. I think that technology can provide us the health benefits of access to the natural world, by hiding the sources of the technology. I think that a sophisticated robot dog can provide all the psychological benefits of a real dog, and more. With a good design we can get the unpredictability, the sense of a different mind and a different world operating. I think those are the things we need. I don’t think they have to actually come from nature.


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