Monday, 31 October 2011

My crisis

This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you got a moment, it's a twelve-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying 'This Is a Large Crisis'. A large crisis requires a large plan. Get me two pencils and a pair of underpants.

I'm currently undergoing a crisis of faith, I'm trying (to a greater or lesser extent) to embrace this fact. The crisis is the following. Over the last few months I've been slowly exposed to weird little niggling ideas that I realised I was trying too hard to force into my ethical system. So I'm going to say it now. WOOPS. Turns out my ethical system is built on a foundation of sand. This is a crisis, I need to fix it. Not being wildly and madly optimistic and looking at other's experience I dont expect this problem to be fixed before 2014. So I'm not going to be able to post more on foundational ethics for a while.

I'd like to throw some final ideas about, just to see what people feel about them.

Firstly saying what I expect to feel like at the end of this process of constructing a new ethical framework. Then how I will decide things in the meantime. Then some observations about terminal values. And a final shot on ethically motivating emotions.

First. "I expect my ethical system to be exactly the same in 2014." Has two meanings, one false, one true.

On the one hand it could mean "I anticipate no changes to have happened by 2014". This is obviously false, I anticipate totally re-writing a framework for deciding moral questions will leave the answer to many questions different. In 2014 I expect I will be appalled by some of the lazy and absurd beliefs that 2011 me had.

On the other hand it could mean "for each dimension of ethical thought the average place that I will end up is exactly where I am", this is clearly true. I dont now think it's more likely for me to end up more pro-animal rights than less so. If I thought that now, I would just skip to the end and be more pro-animal rights now. If you believe that you'll believe something in the future then unless something very odd is going on you ought to believe it now.

Second. Because of this I'm going to stick with my existing ethics in making day to day decisions. I'm still going to put my charity money into education not animal charities. I'm still going to campaign for greater internet freedom. I'm still going to vote for liberal scientists.

Why do this when I know I'm doing it based on inconsistent and unsustainable ideas? Because to do anything else is a stronger form of madness. To give more money to animal charities is to say "my ethical reasoning is flawed, thus doing something else chosen at random is better". Sorry, not true.

Third. I dont know what my terminal values will be in 2014, but it's very interesting how many common ethical notions stop being obvious if you have different terminal values.

A terminal value is something we want in-and-of-itself, not because it will bring us something else. I open my door to go to the shop and get chocolate. "Open the door" is not a terminal value. Why? Because you can change something else and it stops being a good thing. In this example if I remember the shop is closed I instantly stop wanting to open the door.

It's very interesting the number of ethical propositions that are very obvious to some people that rest on certain kinds of terminal value. Some people seem to act and argue as though they had terminal values like

  • The good of my party
  • The good of my nation
  • The good of my social class
  • The good of my Church
  • Private property
  • Physical pleasure of all human beings
  • The equality of all human beings
  • The freedom of all human beings
All of these seem to me absurd. And it's very hard to justify a lot of common ethical notions without them. I dont expect any of them to be a terminal value in 2014, but then I dont expect that expectation to be reliable.

Fourth and final point, the emotional state that drives people to ethical action. A lot of people seem to disagree with me here. A lot of religious and secular ethical systems seem to assume that love and compassion are the driving forces. That in order to do good you must love the object of your good deed. This seems odd to me. I love very few people in any real sense and find it hard to create such an emotion. But I find it reasonably easy to create a feeling of moral imperative. 

The emotion I use to power moral imperatives doesn't have a clear name. I'd have to call it something like "unendurableness". The first time I watched "Man in the Iron Mask" I realised something. The way Philippe screams "no" when the mask is being put over his face is the most powerful thing he could do. I dont need to feel love or compassion for Philippe, I know damn well I couldn't do something so trivial as to put the mask on his face. Because that "scream from his very soul" cuts to the heart of what ethics is about.

But then what do I know?

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