Exciting Ideas in Normative Ethics #3 : I Kant Stop

18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (pronounced Kahnt) is the Charles Darwin of Western Philosophy: virtually all analytic and continental philosophy is in dialogue to Kant’s legacy. This is not to say Kant “Got it all right,” rather, he made a number of very important contributions establishing the style, scope, and direction of Western philosophy for the next 300 years. Kant is perhaps best known for his theory of deontological ethics, which attempts to derive objective, normative morality out of the notion of duty.

Kant begins his quest by a few key premises: first, he asserts that we have free will, because, in his words, “Ought implies can.” This is actually a pretty controversial move, and I have to admit, as a compatabilist on free will (that is, I believe in both a deterministic universe and the existence of moral responsibility), I don’t find it exhaustive, but let’s grant Kant this point: we are moral agents, and we are answerable to our actions.

Second, Kant argues that we are rational creatures. By this, he means that we are motivated by reasons, and self-reflection will allow us to parse through ideas, and produce reasons for actions. This is why, in Kant’s eyes, we do not regard animals or the mentally ill as moral agents. Once again, I would challenge that position, but I’ll grant Kant the premise for the argument.

Third, Kant says we cannot prove or confirm the existence of God or any sort of higher power (he was a Christian his whole life, but he thought philosophy could not, in principle, confirm theology), thus our moral sense must originate from something we do have access to, our own moral reasoning. We are capable of willing laws for ourselves, and these moral laws are bound by the laws of logic, most importantly, the law of non-contradiction. As a free, rational agent, interacting with other free, rational agents, I must consider impartiality and universality for my willing of moral judgements as to not lead to a contradiction.

From this, the normativity of ethical reasoning, its “binding force,” must arise from our own wills, and the only thing that can be said to be purely good, is a good will.
So what does this moral reasoning look like? Kant produces a heuristic called “The Categorical Imperative,” which he believes highlights what a consistent moral decision would need to consider.

1. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” I cannot justify stealing, for example, because if everybody stole whatever they wanted, than society wouldn’t really work. There is a contradiction. Of course, perhaps the current economic system is exploitative, and thus a contradiction, too. This leads us to the next formulation,

2. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Others’ standing as rational agents prohibits you from treating them as merely instruments for your own goals. Both of these seem like good “Side-Restraints” for ethics, but what about an actual prescription, would should we do rather than simply not do? Kant gives us,

3. “Act according to maxims of a universally legislating member of a merely possible kingdom of ends.” Kant can’t tell us exactly what our individual lives should look like, because we all have different circumstances. But wherever we are in life, we can, and must, consider how our actions uphold or work toward a hypothetical society in which all people are treated as ends, and not as means.

Philosophers since Kant have argued as to whether we really are rational creatures, if different sorts of partiality are necessary, if Kant really justifies the existence of ethics strongly enough, or more pressingly, how to prioritize our commitments or went to break promises, I do find Kant’s project comforting. His is a very complicated way of telling us that the Golden Rule really is a sophisticated, elaborate moral system worth living into.

Exciting Ideas in Normative Ethics #2

Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer is perhaps the best-known ethicist of the post-WWII era, and like many great writers, the central thesis of his career can be found in a short essay he wrote in 1971 entitled, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Within the piece, Singer creates a simple thought experiment: Imagine purchasing a new pair of shoes. While walking home, you see a child drowning in a pool of water. You know that if you trudge into the water to save the child, your new shoes will be ruined. Do you believe you are morally required to sacrifice your shoes for this child’s life?

As most of our intuitions would say, yes, of course I should rescue the child, Singer immediately asks, how is it we can justify spending on luxuries when that marginal amount of money can save lives all over the world?

Singer uses the case of Bengal famine of the early 70s, and how as little as a $5 donation from every person in the developed world would have been enough to secure food and medicine for all those suffering during this massive geopolitical conflict. If a small donation is all it would take to purchase a mosquito net, or a vaccination, or a toothbrush for a child caught in a geopolitical mess, how our we possibly justified in our purchase of luxuries?

Singer is easily the best-known Utilitarian in the world of contemporary ethics. Unlike people like John Rawls in the previous post, who look at contracts and rights as the primary method of ethics, utilitarians believe that the consequences of actions are what matters, and (very briefly) good actions are ones that cause pleasure or happiness, and bad actions are ones that cause pain.

Critics of Singer will highlight the seemingly unsatisfiable nature of Utilitarianism, one can never seem to “Do enough” to sufficiently fill one’s duty in a Utilitarian system of ethics. Much like a scene from the film “Schindler’s List,” where the title character laments how he could have saved a few more people had he sold some of his belongings, Singer highlights how almost any pleasure directed at ourselves could be seen as taken-away from a more needy party. As a Utilitarian myself, I would answer this objection by questioning why ethics needs to be satisfiable in the first place. This seems to me a category error to think of ethical requirements as only a set of side-constraints on the actions you were already planning to do.

Unlike much of ethical theory, this essay has had direct influence in the world as an inspiration for the Effective Altruism movement. Seeking the most demonstrably successful charities in the world, EA advocates practices such as Earning-to-Give (working in high-pay fields such as computer science or finance, while donating all but a modest allowance to oneself), in depth charity evaluation, and prioritizing alleviation of global suffering over domestic or less-immediate suffering.

Within the literature, Singer’s great accomplishment with “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” is both in recognizing the life-or-death reality of ethical judgement, and recognizing how our common intuitions on moral requirement compel us to consider the suffering of those outside our social network. Singer’s ethic is simple, and yet of extraordinary consequence, making for an immediate classic in the canon.

Exciting Ideas in Normative Ethics #1

Harvard political philosopher John Rawls released his difficult-to-read tome “A Theory of Justice” 45 years ago, containing a sustained defense of a model of justice reliant on a democratic society.

The most memorable idea is a method for doing ethics called, “The Veil of Ignorance:” This is, how would you have or arrange a society if you personally did not know how you would be born into it? Race, class, sex, gender, nationality, health, and age must all be taken into account as you conceive of a just set of laws, norms, and procedures for your society.

This line of reason is inspired by the Titan of Enlightenment philosophy, Immanuel Kant. The Prussian professor argued that morality is derived from the autonomous will of a rational being: as we create prescriptions or laws for ourselves or others, we must consider that these prescriptions could be universalized, and that they do not create a contradiction when applied (i.e. if I think it’s OK to cheat on my taxes, then I must consider if EVERYBODY cheated on their taxes. Since that outcome would create a contradiction, I cannot, as a rational party, will to cheat on my taxes).

Rawls expands on this to consider how we politically create an unfair, partial system in regards to different identities, and how this contradicts our autonomous will’s desire for a universal, impartial justice.

So ask yourself, would you re-enter the lottery of birth? And if not, what are those systematic inequalities that need to be addressed?

Scientific Theology

Is Theology, the systematic study of God and the Church, a science? The intuitive answer to this question for most people, even the pious, is an abrupt “NO!” To this I ask, why is theology not a science? Many would respond that science is the study of the natural world, observable phenomena, not the supernatural, which seems to be the realm God occupies, assuming God exists. Fair, but I wonder about science fields that don’t study the natural world, such as data science or computer science, or fields of scientific research that have no empirical observation, like String Theory, or a good deal of conjuncture, like evolutionary psychology, or have an enormous amount of disagreement despite decades of research, like prescriptive nutrition.

Despite my skepticism of Scientism or Scientific Triumphalism, I still believe that the work of publicly-funded, methodologically-sound science is more trustworthy than just about any other source available. I trust physical therapists any day over chiropractors, and I immediately am drawn to skepticism whenever somebody informs me that a particular substance with a long name causes cancer.

Having drawn this boundary, I tend to view science and religion as being two different “Language Games,” as Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein termed it, two different languages with different references, expectations, rhetorical traditions, syntaxes, and so forth. To take the claims of a religious tradition, especially in its stories of the miraculous or claims of values and assumptions about the universe, and plop them in a scientific discourse, one will completely miss the point. While many science educators will make note about how poor science literacy is in the United States, and how religious traditions are used in the place of science’s narratives (albeit more empirically backed up narratives, but narratives none-the-less), I believe this attitude is dangerous when used to recklessly criticize the religious beliefs, narratives, traditions, and languages of marginalized groups. This too often is a thinly-disguised cultural colonialism, and is an especially unwelcome position in a pluralistic society.

(Note: this is not to say that all cultural practices must be accepted as good or legal. I, for one, oppose the consumption of meat in almost all circumstances, but I recognize it is not my place as a white person to be challenging Inuit people over seal hunting. Instead, I might support the reformers already in place within that community, paying special attention to their needs and perspectives. In short, nobody ever said living in a pluralistic society was easy or without ideological conflict.)

Perhaps the greatest difference between theology and science is how theology is a language of normative claims, that is to say, theology makes claims about what you ought to believe and ought to do. Science generally exclusively makes positive claims, claims of “It is the case that …” or more often, “The experiment produced this result, which suggests …” Positive claims appear to be objective statements about the world, but they lack the sort of moral or civic or cultural “Push” that normative claims give us. Along these lines, I do not believe morality can be reduced to positive statements, and I suspect some scientific fields, like nutrition or clinical psychology, can never fully divorce themselves from the language and work of unscientific normative claims.

There is much, much more to be said about the spectrum between normative and positive claims, but for this piece, I am interested in how the theologian could take a scientific approach to her work. Many German theologians in particular spent a great deal of energy investigating the historical Jesus of Nazareth in the 19th and early 20th century, hoping to find meaningful insights. Unfortunately, very little extra-biblical evidence of Jesus’ life could be found, and the general sense became that notions of the Historical Jesus need to be set aside to focus on the discourse and the community of the early church. Many contemporary theologians have began to re-read the Letters of Paul with a bit more background knowledge of local politics, and the era’s Judaism, giving a reading of Paul that sounds much more contiguous with Jewish tradition, and with less of an individual-salvation focus. Enhanced studies in comparative literature have confirmed very definitively that Isaiah has at least two authors, the Pastoral Epistles of Paul were almost certainly not written by Paul, and the Revelation of St. John was not written by the same author of The Gospel of John, or the Johanne Epistles. Of course, even with this positive knowledge, our theology can go in many different directions. Some theologians became much more heterodox, taking a very non-supernatural reading to the text. A lot of contemporary seminaries have largely ditched metaphysical approaches to God, and now take more of a post-structuralist/Social Justice Oriented approach to the text.

I wonder what could be learned if the theologian took the positive study of God & Church one step further by attempting to document a cohesive theology by simply interview people of their religious beliefs. That is to say, not of the official dogma or doctrine or transcribed liturgy, but an objective collection of people’s beliefs. Even atheists can participate in this survey, as questions about civic duties, moral duties, rights, values, views on money, views on family, general perspectives on the human condition, and so forth are often too normative of claims to be meaningfully confirmed in a scientific discourse. For example, an Atheist follower of Ayn Rand, and an atheist Trotskyite, an atheist (but still spiritual) yoga-hippie person, and an atheist men’s rights activist are bound to have markedly distinct fundamental values and narratives of the world, even if they do not hold a belief in the existence of a deity.

To more of a Christian turn, it seems to me that the notion of Hell has virtually vanished from mainline protestant denominations’ discourse, along with any notion that the Jewish People need to convert to Christianity, or the notion that God is gendered. Regardless of the official doctrine, the theology of the people (or of the Spirit, if you are incline to believe), has re-focused the Church.

The classic line remains, “Man must bow to God, not God to Man,” and while I recognize the emotional sincerity and urgency in this sentiment, I would remain cautious of the notion that the will of God can be definitively known through language, but yet is independent of the discourse inherent in language. For this reason, I advocate for assuming the first source of a good theology is the practice of the people, and then the work of the scholars.

Why I believe Black Lives Matter

An estimated 20 million people were taken from Africa to the New World as slaves. Historians agree that Black slavery was objectively more dehumanizing and violent than any previous iteration, especially with a level of sexual abuse that often gets ignored in our public consciousness. After every European Country banned the slave trade, the United States kept plugging along for two more generations.
There is solid evidence that the economic success of the United States was predicated on the trillions of dollars of free labor extracted from Black slaves, enabling especially the textile industry in the north.

After the Civil War, Blacks were still restricted from actual freedom by an oppressive system of sharecropping, bogus vagrancy laws (which turned arrested men into de facto slave labor), racial terror, and a lack of opportunities to vote or organize.

After WWII, practices like Block Busting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockbusting) & Redlining (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redlining) & the very poor decisions of the US Highway System (http://www.timwise.org/…/progress-and-the-eye-of-the-behol…/), among many other factors, helped insure that Black people would not secure more than a fraction of the wealth Whites received during the prosperity following the war.

Since the 1970s, the War on Drugs and the expansion of the Prison system has turned the United States into, proportionally, the most incarcerated nation on Earth. The United States currently arrests and imprisons more Black men than South Africa at the height of Apartheid (http://www.politifact.com/…/kristof-us-imprisons-blacks-ra…/). White Americans hold an enormous amount of wealth compared to Black Americans (http://www.forbes.com/…/the-racial-wealth-gap-why-a-typic…/…).

This is not “Natural,” this is not because of Hip-Hop music videos, this is not because “The Black Family broke down” (symptom and not a cause), there is a very serious inequality at hand, 400 years in the making.

I’m not the best ally. I get things wrong, I say the wrong things, I demonstrate my privilege daily. But I know there is an objective injustice in the world, and I will listen and support those who speak and work against it.

This is why I believe Black Lives Matter.