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Sunday, 25 November 2007

The Raft

When I was ten, I believed in Absolute Morality, derived from reason and incontrovertible. My mother, she of the part-time philosophy degree, subscribed not so surprisingly to the idea that morality should come from and be subject to reason and, childlike, I took the notion to extremes. I wasn't quite sure of the whole rationale, but I was jolly well going to learn more about philosophy and then I'd be able to understand exactly how to pinpoint morality perfectly. In the mean time, I was going to be consistent. There were to be no logical contradictions in my viewpoint!

Morality had been a concern of mine for a while if I remember correctly; a practical concern rather than a theoretical one. I applied myself to the problem of playground bullying. Standing by while somebody else was being bullied was unacceptable; so was even the mildest form of unkindness to those who seemed outcast. This latter principle had me patiently listening to the class geek quite regularly, although I confess I mostly tuned out his Star Wars trivia and then tried to pretend I'd been listening (he grew up to be quite hot, actually, but he was a year ahead of me so we never spoke much in high school and I doubt he remembered the girl who used to say 'Mm-hm' to him in primary school).

The fact that I considered myself required to intervene when anyone else was in trouble was actually less problematic than you might think. I know that in movies, the way it goes is that the cute little girl stands up for the little boy, who then defiantly rejects her in an attempt to regain his manly pride from the ignominy of having needed defence. However, I stood up for other people so regularly that, at least as far as I can remember, it seemed to be a generally accepted occurrence. I also never waited for thanks. I wasn't in it for thanks, I was in it for the joy of the argument -- which, regretfully, never lasted long. I used to plant my feet slightly wider than my shoulders (second position in ballet, if you must know), glare at my offending classmate and shout "How dare you? What reason did you have to do that? Go on, argue! What's your reason?" Usually by the time I got that far, they'd have given up. Satisfying though it was to hear 'Don't argue with [Lynet]' as a generally accepted maxim, I often used to wish they'd put up more of a fight.

When I was eleven, I read Sophie's World. Thus, over a year or so, as things sank in and I re-read the technical parts I had skipped the first time around, I became acquainted with a rough outline of the ideas of history's great philosophers. I knew what utilitarianism was and had a go at understanding Immanuel Kant. I knew of Hume's dictum that 'ought' cannot follow from 'is', and his notion that morality was purely emotional. At the same time, I was dealing with some major snags in my anti-bullying crusade, to wit:

(a) As kids get older, they're less likely to be intimidated by mere shouting.

(b) As kids get older, their bullying gets more subtle, and their relationships with each other start to change. My peers were entering the "groups" phase (I skipped that one at the time because it seemed ludicrous to me to blindly follow the crowd, and had to go back and learn the necessary lessons when I was older). All of a sudden, I had to deal with the fact that most of the people I might have defended were more interested in becoming accepted as part of the group than in avoiding being bullied -- in fact, they'd take all kinds of crap as long as they were still even slightly "in".

There was no way for me to properly defend people. I wasn't really needed any more.

I was also really, really lonely. Rejecting the idea of the group can do that to you.

Somewhere towards the end of the year I was twelve, I had two quiet crises. One involved me realising that I was going to have to compromise my ideals, my reason, my personality in order to get the basic human interaction I needed in order to stop me from going insane. Here, however, I'd like to talk about the other change.

My standpoint on morality had been shifting slowly, the more I learned, and it was with sincere regret that I came to the conclusion that reason alone was not enough. Indeed, at twelve years old, with too much time alone to reflect, I didn't really have a definite position on morality at all. It was at around this time that I realised that I might have to allow some of my principles to be inconsistent with each other, taking my worldview as a work in progress rather than something that had to have finished perfection at all times. That was an important step. I also decided I rather liked the idea of a sort of dialogue between logic and moral intuition, starting with intuitions, then attempting to generalise in a consistent fashion, then going back to moral intuition as a way of seeing how the generalisation might need to be modified (I forget which philosopher I got that from -- it was ten years ago, after all -- but I know I didn't come up with it myself). Still, on some inner level, I had to concede that I was sidestepping the point. Why trust moral intuition at all? Is there any 'real' morality?

I confess freely that the idea that morality wasn't built into the universe really frightened me. Indeed, when I finally allowed myself to reason and let my thoughts go as they would, I came up with this:

Well, okay, so maybe there's no morality. But if there's no morality, then it isn't morally wrong for me to pretend there is morality. So I'm just going to act like there is morality anyway. Can I stop thinking about this now?

I was aware at the time of the parallels between such thinking and religious faith as held by many people. As an illustration, consider this comment:

To me, it either is all true and He is God and totally in control [. . .] or He isn't - and if He isn't, none of this really would matter, would it?

Obviously there's a slight flaw in the assumption that nothing would matter without God, and yes, we could construct an argument that favours a secular humanist view over a theist one with exactly that flaw in mind, contending that it does matter, and that in view of the things that matter (truth, human happiness and so forth), atheism is the better position. Oh, but I have given the end of the story away! Now, where was I?

Oh, yes. If I was disturbed by the notion that there might be no absolute morality, I was almost equally disturbed to find myself engaging in such faith-type reasoning. Was I as bad as Christians after all? In the end, I found my starting point by answering no to the question 'Can I stop thinking about this now?' No, you cannot stop thinking. If your reasoning is shaky, you must face the fact. By the moral principles which you defiantly continue to use, the truth matters, so stick as close to it as possible.

If the swamp where there were no rules lay just beneath my feet, and the platform above it on which I had stood was breaking apart, then I determined to myself to build no more than a raft. Dangerous as it might be, I determined to build no edifices of dubious foundation, no vast opaque temples to block out the sight of the unsteady ground. No catechism, no false authority of tradition, no pretense that there might be epistemological safety in numbers. Only a raft.

In the Sophie's World digested version of Sartre, I found the notion that human beings, having faced the terror of meaninglessness, are free to give their own meaning to their existence. I liked it and absorbed it, but it was many a year before I learned that the ideas I was groping towards had a name and a history already in their own right, and came to realise that I was quite simply and precisely a humanist. Indeed, meaning isn't hard to find in this universe; there is meaning as long as somebody means it. Morality is harder. I wanted it to be fundamental to the universe as a whole; I had to accept that it was confined perhaps to a single species on this tiny Earth. Good and evil only exist in our minds. But I care about them anyway.

16 comments:

The Exterminator said...

An existentialist humanist mathematical poet. Well, now I've got you classified for a four-dimensional Venn diagram.

the chaplain said...

You were a pretty deep thinker as a kid, weren't you? You've obviously retained the habit.

Alon Levy said...

The thing about reason-based morality is, you have nobody to check that your reason is correct. It's immune to public opinion, or even to challenges from other thinkers. Thus it's very easy to make some crucial mistake somewhere, or to believe that using some simple tools you can unambiguously resolve every moral question.

L.L. Barkat said...

At first I was confused by your link. I could not remember saying that (not that I might not say it, mind you). Then I realized you were linking to one of my commenters.

Mostly, I like your last statement. I find it intriguing to consider that good and evil exist only in the mind, but that you care about them anyway. I'm going to take that with me when I run tonight. And maybe you can tell me more, too.

John Evo said...

Lynet, you certainly were/are a bright young woman. When I was 10, I was playing soldier or spy and probably taking my fair share of bully-abuse. I just figured all of the "grand questions" had been answered by others more intellectual than me. It is very impressive that you were already questioning those "answers". Even at 54 years old, I have trouble keeping up with you!

Lynet said...

Well, Ext, I look forward to seeing if I can make your Venn diagram even bigger at some stage in the future, but four will do for now :-)

I was a rather strange kid. When I was a teenager, my usual summary of the typical adult reaction was a glumly sarcastic "Everybody come and look: [Lynet]'s got a funny mind."

Oh, wait, that's a Penelope moment. You wanted an example, LL? Well, I used to be oddly proud of the way everyone thought I was special, and at the same time I hated it. On the one hand, I'd be pleased that people (read: adults) thought well of me, and on the other hand I used to hate the way I sometimes felt as if I was playing to their script. I wouldn't know if I'd said something because it was clever or because I'd meant it. And if I did mean it, then somehow the fact that it was clever would grow large and obscure its reality. So I was playing with full scintillating intellect into a pattern that was crushing me to some extent. Which is something I've done a lot of times, in a lot of ways (I can't resist a competition, sometimes, and I could give a couple more 'Penelope moments' based on that). But I feel bad distilling 'Penelope' into "playing with full scintillating intellect into a pattern that was crushing me to some extent" -- I'm sure it loses a lot in translation and I wish you'd take the real version.

I think there are parts of me that I didn't know were real until I went to [insert name of fairly impressive university], where cleverness wasn't a major factor and I suddenly realised how much of myself I'd been missing.

'Penelope' is also a much, much better version of 'Daughter's Sestina' (look under 'July' in the sidebar if you haven't seen that one and want to) -- it's wiser, deeper, more accurate, and more broadly applicable both to me and to others.

I'd better cross-post this to the 'Penelope' post, hadn't I?

Oh, and I'm sorry about the confusing link to your post, LL -- I was trying to get it to jump straight to that comment but it doesn't seem to have worked.

Alon, I think you need to define 'reason-based morality'! I presume you mean setting up some system of rules for morality and then deriving morality by reason from that -- in which case the flaws you describe presumably arise because of the initial setup being unquestionable and unalterable?

John Evo, my mother was always big on getting me to question, so I had a little help, there. And I used to play castles, mostly. I was an archer, so as not to have to imagine the blood and guts up close. Hence, in part, the liking for King Arthur that led to my choice of pseudonym. (Hey, I wasn't all precociousness! Hooray! I'm not even sure if I've spelled 'precociousness' correctly!)

John Evo said...

Of course you did :(

I thought you were wrong...

L.L. Barkat said...

Actually, I liked your translation very much. And I like the poem too, on its own merits, for what it uniquely offers as a piece of art.

L.L. Barkat said...

Oops. I forgot to add...

About that good and evil only existing in the mind thing... I'm really wanting to hear more on it.

Lynet said...

You're going to have to help me here, LL. What precisely do you want to hear about?

We're here. We're here and we're conscious and we have hopes and hurts and part of the deal with being here is that we care about other people. We're social. Our societies have rules. The rules aren't built into the universe but they are -- partially -- built into us.

Of course, the rules change depending on what society you're in, and, notwithstanding that, I still do think that there is something approximating the 'real' rules, the rules that make most sense (at least, they do if you use a version of 'sense' that is implicitly loaded towards my own view of things). Morality is, I think, by us and for us and it should be for all of us -- so rule one is that it should be fair and not arbitrarily privilege a particular group. Already I'm pulling things out of thin air that not everyone agrees with; I can't seem to help it. And no, I'm not precisely sure of the definition of 'us' -- it includes all human beings back to a very early age, but does it include animals? I'm damn sure it doesn't include zygotes and probably not embryos either, but there's an awkward grey area before you get to the stage where you can be fairly sure you're dealing with a conscious human baby.

I can tell you my opinions on morality, LL, but the above post already notes the limitations on the sort of justifications I can give. So what are you asking for?

Alon Levy said...

Alon, I think you need to define 'reason-based morality'! I presume you mean setting up some system of rules for morality and then deriving morality by reason from that -- in which case the flaws you describe presumably arise because of the initial setup being unquestionable and unalterable?

I'm just using it to describe the absolute morality you say you used to adhere to. What I understand you to mean by it is that yes, you set up a system of rules and then derive morality from them. If the initial rules are unchangeable then it's a problem, but even if they're not, there's the deeper problem of lack of feedback.

You very rarely learn just by thinking to yourself. Especially when it comes to social things, such as morality, you have to get immense amounts of feedback from other people. When your starting point is a set of rules, it causes you to sever the feedback from people who'd contest those rules, and so morality simply becomes a contest of which set of axioms looks prettier. Unlike in math, those axioms aren't terribly important, and real-world data is far more influential than you'd expect it to be.

Stentor said...

I also decided I rather liked the idea of a sort of dialogue between logic and moral intuition, starting with intuitions, then attempting to generalise in a consistent fashion, then going back to moral intuition as a way of seeing how the generalisation might need to be modified (I forget which philosopher I got that from -- it was ten years ago, after all -- but I know I didn't come up with it myself).

John Rawls famously described this as "reflective equilibrium," but something like this has been used implicitly by most philosophers.

Lynet said...

Ah! Thank you, Stentor.

Alon: Unlike in math, those axioms aren't terribly important, and real-world data is far more influential than you'd expect it to be.

I agree, I guess. It think it's interesting to consider what that says about the things we base our moral judgements on, though.

L.L. Barkat said...

Hey there. I'm sorry if it seemed like I was asking for something you already said, or if it seemed like I was pushing you for something you didn't want to give. It's just... I wonder about good and evil only existing in the mind. I think it opens up sticky issues like, if evil is just a construct, then what's to stop me from choosing evil ways (because if it exists in the mind only, then I get to define it)... or what's to make me listen to someone who feels I've worked evil against her (because if evil only exists in her mind, then she is defining it and I can disagree with the definition and be done with it).

And here's the other thing... as a person who has experienced the deep evil wrought by others (during my childhood), it is hard for me to let them off the hook with a thought of... well, it was, after all, only in my mind.

Just my thoughts here on a complicated subject.

Lynet said...

That's OK, LL. I've actually thought of a few ways I can expand on that since I last posted. I'll see if I can work them into a convenient post.

Lynet said...

Oh, and thanks for explaining exactly what it was you were wondering about, because that gives me a much better idea of what you're driving at. To you, those objections may seem obvious; to me, those aspects of the game are just one thing in a whole string of related subjects, within which it's hard to know where to start.