Sunday, December 30, 2007

Year-End Recap of All History, Philosophy, Politics


As this blog’s first calendar year ends (more or less), let us start from the beginning — by following up on yesterday’s promise of a Kors-influenced history of the universe that explains my political philosophy in under 500 words:

Not only matter but time and space themselves began with a Big Bang (as far as we can tell extrapolating from existing evidence), making speculation about what happened “before” the Big Bang or “caused” it quite possibly meaningless.

We can either shape our beliefs as inhabitants of the resulting universe by empirical observation — and the cautious framing of refutable hypotheses and theories — or we can sit in our armchairs engaging in metaphysical speculations about what “sounds right” or “feels intuitively plausible” to our limited brains, the latter approach quite possibly producing fanciful or at least erroneous conclusions (such as, commonly, the belief that “Someone up there must be watching out for me because it’d be sad if no one were” or, less commonly, the belief that one’s negative thoughts are caused by evil zombies living beneath the Earth’s crust, as Richard Shaver thought — making him a natural McCain supporter if he were still alive, as explained yesterday).

Left with empiricism and direct experience of pleasure and pain, we can still shape a common-sense morality (and give some measure of respect to moral codes that were not developed common-sensically but get much of the same job done) by observing the rules and patterns of behavior that tend to increase human happiness and the ones that tend to decrease human happiness.  No rational law can descend from the metaphysical skies to make one desire others’ happiness, but (a) neither are metaphysical rules such as natural law or rights or the commandments of a supposed God ever observed to descend from the cosmos and enforce themselves, (b) most people as a practical matter are made more happy when — all else being equal — they think their actions are compatible with others’ happiness, and (c) even when people flout happiness-increasing rules, we can still objectively describe such rules and label the flouting “evil” — just as we can with objectivity call an eating pattern fattening even if the chastised eater does not himself care about the consequences of his actions.  That gets us a long way in using fairly conventional moral language to productive, descriptive ends.

In morality as in empirical observation, though, we quickly encounter our epistemic limitations again: we know from direct personal experience that pleasure is (on balance, over the long term) preferable to pain, but we cannot know in detail what things will make other individuals happy or unhappy — they have over six billion different sets of diverse (and changing) preferences, and that’s without counting the non-humans.  Being a good utilitarian, then, must lead to being an individualist of some sort, since individuals tend (however stupidly, inconsistently, and imperfectly) to know their own preferences and sources of happiness better than they know their neighbors’ (and vice versa) — and a libertarian framework of strict individual property rights, rather than collectivism and big government, fosters individuals’ ability to act on their preferences rather than having them overridden by the collective.  That’s all for now.  [499 words]

(However, if you’d like to hear about one way the human race channels its pent-up, instinctive desire to use force — in this case without inflicting it on anyone who isn’t a willing participant — come hear about Ultimate Fighting from Michael Malice when he speaks at Lolita Bar [and I host], this coming Wednesday, January 2 at 8pm.)


Brain said...

how do you measure happiness, or more broadly, satisfaction? And what about when you get pleasure from other’s pain, or at least your pleasure seeking inadvertently causes others pain? And what about suffering that leads to more happiness, such as childbirth? And speaking of children, at what point are they considered autonomous beings, and why must they suffer for the sins and shortcomings of their parents?

And what happens if you eat pork? Do you go to Hell?

Ken Silber said...

Todd, your belief that we’ll never know anything about what happened before the Big bang is itself an unempirical, a priori supposition that may be wrong.

Therefore you should support McCain.

Todd Seavey said...

Precisely because we can’t accurately measure others’ utility (absent telepathy — one of many things, like time “before” the Big Bang that I say there is no evidence for, _without_ dogmatically dismissing), we ought to leave them free to act upon their own, introspectively-observed, utility functions (so long as they do not harm others, which would return us to an uncertain state where we can’t know if happiness in total is going up or down — thus the classic utilitarian/libertarian formulation of John Stuart Mill that your liberty to enjoy swinging your fist ends at my nose).

Kids, as we all know from our own experiences, need more guidance and are less likely to reliably act in their own long-term best interest (and it is the total happiness over the long term that matters, so utilitarians obviously aren’t opposed to injections or pain during childbirth). It makes sense to let parental decisions override (some) child choices, gradually deferring more to the child’s own judgment as she matures — but I don’t pretend there’s a clear cut-off for majority and responsibility (nor can any other philosophy, of course).

In other words, utility is out there, but it’s best to leave individuals as free as possible to find it, barring reducing others’.

Brain said...

Dismissing the ability to understand others’ needs and wants as dependent on telepathy is sophomoric solipsism.

We rely on others for most of our needs and wants. How we negotiate those transactions is the question of political economy, and the argument of the anarcho-capitalists is that those negotiations are best done with money and little government oversight. This is an excellent argument if you are rich. Has there ever been a prosperous modern society that did not depend on strong statist mechanisms for determining property rights and wealth distribution?

Oh, and just to channel some partisanship into the discussion: your feet are stinky and you drink red wine with fish and you frequently jaywalk after sunset. So there.