(non meta-) Ethics

ethicsDan Kaufman (see his webzine, the Electric Agora) and I had another of our conversations over at MeaningofLife.tv, this time on ethics, from a non-meta perspective. That is, we didn’t talk about realism or antirealism about ethical truths, or other such matters, but focused instead on the kind of ethical discourse that might (ought?) to be of interest also to people outside of the small philosophical academic community.

We started with a discussion of the difference between ancient and modern approaches to ethics: virtue ethics a la Greco-Roman on the one hand, Kantian deontology or utilitarianism on the other . We readily agreed that the ancient, more inclusive, approach was actually more useful to people, so we focused on that one.

The next question, then, concerned what a person might need in order to live what the ancients called a “eudaimonic” life style, i.e., a life of flourishing. Which somehow led to a discussion of the differences between Stoicism and Cynicism (two of the contenders among virtue ethical schools), with Dan asking me why I personally find the first one to be a compelling philosophy of life.

A particularly interesting bit came when Dan and I explored what happens when our moral intuitions conflict with our chosen moral systems: do we reject our intuitions? Do we revise our choice of moral system? Do we go on happily living with the contradiction?

By the end of the video, again talking about what makes for a eudaimonic life, we talked about the idea that one should not focus on the outcomes of one’s actions, but rather on what is under one’s control: the efforts we make.

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13 thoughts on “(non meta-) Ethics

  1. Thank you both so much for a wonderful discussion. You work well together, and Dan does a great job of teasing out information on your viewpoints, academic perspective, and–most importantly for me–your personal reflections that I find stimulating as a general reader while encouraging me to explore their implications vis a vis my personal life. Moreover, each of you in his own way seems comfortable in his own skin. (Let me add that I applaud Dan K’s choice in sweatshirts. Tennis is a favorite sports activity of mine–at least it was, before I ruptured two discs in my lower spine in the early 80’s.) With that, a few random thoughts.

    1. Moral intuition and the concept of human flourishing remain elusive for me, not so much frfrom a vantage of simple rejection of them as “useful” conceptually, but more so from the vvantage of the “gaps” that they seem to inexplicably gloss over. I think Dan K perceives ssome theoretical problems here while Massimo seems to accept that while the gaps are eevident, one arrives at some point in settling upon a practice, i.e., a stance that is workable for the individual, given the time and circumstances of his fortuitous arrival on the blue planet.
    2. Sometime back, in one of his posts on stoicism, Massimo correctly, I think, points out the weakness of characterizing Spock as a Stoic. The subtext here is, of course, the dramatic, i.e., conflicted, tension this creates in a half-human/half-vulcan. Now, my acquaintance with stoicism is largely limited to a book that a high school friend of mine urged me to buy in the mid-sixties. I can still vaguely remember its cover–something along the lines of “The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca.”
    3. At any rate, this brief aside by Massimo triggered some thoughts about the Klingons as bad guys and who might they represent. Well, the thought that came to mind was “Spartans.” This encouraged me to wonder why–until that weird hybrid of a film called “The 300” came out recently. Do the Spartans always have to be cast as the weird bad guys? What do we really know about these people? Not that this is a particularly pressing issue at this point in my life, but I did find some stuff on Wikipedia that might be of interest to other readers: Search in Wiki the word “Lycurgus” and “Laconic phrase.” I think this will add to Massimo’s discussion of virtue ethics, ethos, and moralis among the so-called ancients.
    4. The discussion is largely limited to Occidental preoccupations. I would think there is some fruitful ground regarding virtue ethics in Oriental thought that might merit some exploration.
    5. As an undergraduate I took an ethics course in philosophy and encountered Bentham. I felt then that Swift’s satirical writings, with which I was somewhat acquainted at the time, all but blew a hypothetical moral calculus into outer space, though written decades before Bentham.
    6. Key summation by Massimo at approximately 73 minutes in: “You just do your job as a human being.” Still, I’m haunted by questions regarding “human nature” and the “human condition.”

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  2. My apologies for the typos. Something to do, I suspect, with Chromebooks, which by the way I heartily recommend anyway.

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  3. Thomas,

    “Do the Spartans always have to be cast as the weird bad guys?”

    Ah, good question! As a matter of fact, the Stoics admired the Spartans, whom they saw as practicing a more moral, minimalist life style than some of the Athenians (and, later, Imperial Romans). Indeed, though I’ve never seen the parallel made by others, I would go as far as to say that Republican Romans (like the Stoic role model, Cato the Younger, enemy of Julius Caesar) were more akin to the Spartans than to the Athenians.

    “I would think there is some fruitful ground regarding virtue ethics in Oriental thought that might merit some exploration”

    Yes, I don’t venture there simply because it isn’t my territory. But I have the recently released “Greek Buddha” (about Pyrrho the Skeptic’s encounter with early Buddhism while touring Central Asia with Alexander the Great, and about the influence this had on other Hellenistic philosophies, including Stoicism) among my to-do readings, and I will report on it. I have also heard from my agent of a forthcoming book (next Spring) on comparative Eastern philosophies. Again, looking forward to it, will report my thoughts about it.

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  4. Personally I am worried about Stoicism as a form of conformism, especially when it comes to groups that are victims of systemic oppression. How are we supposed to challenge the status quo if we deem it as unjust. Seems like the stoic answer would be to tell the victims that it is the way that they react to oppression (maybe it has to do with the fact that the stoics were people in power, and also the fact that their metaphysics involved a preordained universe that they though was harmonious and we should not try to change it) ,epicureans would be in no better standing, given their refusal to engage in politics.

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  5. franciscordz,

    forgive me, but I think your comment betrays a significant misunderstanding of Stoicism:

    “Seems like the stoic answer would be to tell the victims that it is the way that they react to oppression”

    While it is true that the Stoics put an emphasis on self-reliance, and on the realization of the difference between what is and is not under our control, they were also very much involved in social and political issues. One of their four virtues is justice, and one of the fundamental three disciplines is the discipline of action, by which they meant the idea of being useful to society at large.

    “maybe it has to do with the fact that the stoics were people in power”

    Marcus Aurelius and Seneca were, but Epictetus was a slave. Stoics came from all walks of life.

    “their metaphysics involved a preordained universe that they though was harmonious and we should not try to change it”

    Modern Stoics by and large reject that metaphysical account, since contemporary science is incompatible with it. But, again, there is plenty of evidence that even the ancient Stoics didn’t just lay down and took the world as it was. Indeed, that was a major difference between them and the Epicureans.

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  6. Hi Massimo,

    I was quite convinced that I’d seen this episode before, though the review did seem pleasant enough on the freeway. When your Stoic tattoo emerged however, I realized that this one should indeed be new. We all repeat our strongest convictions I suppose, and you’ve certainly observed this of me. But given the “tattoos” which mark us so deeply, I was extremely happy with your formal assertion last time that there is nothing “sacred” for you, defined as “untouchable” or “off the table.” If I personally ever take anything “off the table,” I would hope for a public “flogging” to rid me of future transgressions!

    Though this new discussion was billed “non-meta,” in the end Dan did have you cross the line, in think, by asking what ultimately grounds your Stoicism? (Good for him!) Here I was informed that modern philosophers have developed a distaste for “teleology” — which has been strange for you as a biologist. I’m happy that your philosophy education hasn’t led you to renounce the existence of “human nature”! But as for going further, I can see why you aren’t hopeful regarding solid ideological foundations, given that so many great thinkers have failed. If not entirely “off the table” for you, the notion must surely be hanging just as precariously as Kant’s “…then to Hell with the world!” reasoning! But please do hear me out…

    I leave standard philosophy alone, though instead of looking for that which is “moral,” I look for that which is “real” regarding good/bad existence. Observe that if nature designated qualia as that which constitutes good/bad for any given subject, and if the qualic interests of different subjects do naturally conflict given that they aren’t quite the same subjects, then the realities of good/bad for different subjects should naturally be somewhat immoral when considered in general. Thus I call myself a “subjective utilitarian,” and do not pretend this to be moral.

    If you and others would rather follow roughly moral ideologies such as Stoicism, I certainly do not object. But please don’t also deny any potential merits to my own separate kind of approach which instead seeks “reality” (especially since I don’t misrepresent it as being “moral,” as standard utilitarians seem to). In my opinion philosophers can continue on as they have forever, though our mental and behavioral scientists cannot. In order for these fields to progress, I think, they will need to formally acknowledge qualia as that which constitutes good/bad for any given subject. Thus science would then develop its own parallel exploration of ethics, which should help harden up our “soft sciences.”

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  7. Eric,

    So you like my tattoo? Don’t worry, it doesn’t commit me to Stoicism any more than my other tattoo (not shown in the video) commits me to Hume (it’s a quote attributed to him). They just look cool and are interesting regardless.

    As for your quality thing, I keep not understanding it. Qualia are simply the experience of perceiving first person experiences, such as color, pain, pleasure. They are neither inherently good nor bad, that’s a judgment that we make after we have the experience. It is true that both the experience and the judgment differ from person to person, but it is entirely unclear how one would go from there to… Where, exactly?

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  8. Also, Eric, I don’t think Dan went “meta” when he asked me why Stoicism. He meant why that particular type of virtue ethical approach as opposed to another one (Cynicism, Aristotelianism, etc.). Had he asked me about the ontological state of virtue, that would have been meta…

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  9. Actually Massimo I scarcely glimpsed your tattoo, since I didn’t want to crash!

    Qualia are simply the experience of perceiving first person experiences, such as color, pain, pleasure. They are neither inherently good nor bad, that’s a judgment that we make after we have the experience.

    As I define the term in my own writings, qualia is inherently good/bad for the conscious entity (regardless of any judgement, and which side matters not). Observe that in itself, the experience of “pain” seems to provide a punishing form of qualia, though if you feel it in your toe it should provide locational information about the circumstance as well. Similarly the qualia from seeing “red” will inherently provide punishment/reward, though which side will depend upon the subject. The red might contribute to “beauty” somewhat and thus be rewarding, or it might bring a punishment of “fear” in a person who has been tortured from a red theme. But beyond the qualia, red does seem to bring sense information such as “That red sign means ‘Stop’.” So if we remove the informational component from such experiences (as in “Stop” or “Toe”), I call the remaining punishment/reward that we experience, “qualia.”

    Here’s a question which might do me some good: Can you imagine losing all experiences of qualia, but still have an existence which is not just as personally insignificant, as we presume for a standard computer? If so, I’d like to look at what you think might still be good/bad to you…

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  10. Eric,

    “As I define the term in my own writings, qualia is inherently good/bad for the conscious entity”

    But that’s nobody else’s understanding of qualia. Why redefine a widely used terms for entirely idiosyncratic reasons?

    “Observe that in itself, the experience of “pain” seems to provide a punishing form of qualia”

    Depends. The pain I feel at the gym while working out actually feels good.

    “Similarly the qualia from seeing “red” will inherently provide punishment/reward”

    I don’t see that at all. Some people like that color, others dislike it, others are indifferent to it.

    “red does seem to bring sense information such as “That red sign means ‘Stop’.”

    That’s an entirely arbitrary association, it isn’t inherent in the color or the qualia we have when we experience the sensation of the color.

    “Can you imagine losing all experiences of qualia, but still have an existence which is not just as personally insignificant, as we presume for a standard computer? If so, I’d like to look at what you think might still be good/bad to you…”

    The answer to the first question is obviously not: take sense experience away from a human being and life becomes hell. But the second is a non sequitur: the presence of qualia is a biologically inherent part of what it means to be human, but whether individual qualia are good or bad depends on a number of other factors. And at any rate one simply cannot build an ethics of qualia, short of falling into a type of idiosyncratic hedonism.

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