Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Victor Hugo on the Ingratitude of Nature

Just finished Les Miserables (the book, not the musical). Lots of interesting reflections in there (and a great tale, too). In the final chapter the novel's hero, the Christ-like ex-convict Jean Valjean, after bringing about the happy marriage between his adopted daughter Cosette, whom he had saved from a miserable life and whom he has taken care of for the last ten years, and Marius, the man she loves and whose life he saved not long ago, allows himself to be cast aside, suddenly no longer needed and wanted when he tells Marius about his past. There are some misunderstandings, and Marius doesn't know that Jean has saved his life, while Cosette doesn't really understand what is going on, but given all that Jean has done for them, their behaviour still amounts to gross ingratitude. In the end they learn the whole truth, realise just how ungrateful they have been and try to make up for it, but before that happens, Victor Hugo, or his narrator, reflects on how grave the moral failure of the two ungrateful lovers actually is. And rather surprisingly he finds their behaviour, and generally that of young people, who tend to forget the benefits they have received from the old, not only excusable, but almost justified:

"what is sometimes over-severely described as the ingratitude of the young is not always so reprehensible as one may suppose. It is the ingratitude of Nature herself. Nature (...) always 'looks ahead'; she divides living creatures into those who are arriving and those who are leaving. Those leaving look towards darkness, and those arriving look towards light. Hence the gulf between them, fateful to the old, involuntary on the part of the young. The gulf, at first imperceptibly, grows gradually wider, like the spreading branches of a tree. It is not the fault of the branches that, without detaching themselves from the trunk, they grow remote from it. Youth goes in search of joy and festitivity, bright light and love. Age moves towards the end. They do not lose sight of one another, but there is no longer any closeness between them. Young folk feel the cooling of life; old people feel the chill of the grave. Let us not be too hard on the young."

So in other words, it is not only natural for the young to forget the good that they have received from the old, but it is also, for this very reason, right. It is exactly as it should be.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Best about Two Chairs

A contemporary German philosopher (I forget who) once said that the best about two chairs is that you can sit between them. Right now this is the comfortable position that I happen to find myself in. In a critique of an article published earlier this year in the Journal of Medical Ethics (Giubilini and Minerva on "after-birth abortion") I claimed that morality was fundamentally irrational in the sense that there is no moral belief that is, as Don Marquis put it, "utterly compelling to any rational person". Moral convictions can always be contested, and it is never unreasonable to do so. Moral beliefs are not the results of rational reflection, but rather starting points. They are more like axioms upon which we build our world: foundational bricks in the house that constitutes the way we look at, think about, and relate to ourselves and the people and things around us. To believe, for instance, that it is wrong to torture people, is neither rational nor irrational. We may, of course, be able to explain why we think it is wrong, but nothing that we can say by way of an explanation is such that no rational person can deny its moral relevance. In that particular article, however, my main point was that the appearance of rational compellingness that many bioethicsts (especially those with roots in the analytic tradition) attempt to lend to their personal views is just that: mere appearance. It is a rhetorical device that is often used to trick the reader into accepting conclusions that intuitively they are inclined to reject.

Anyway, voicing this view - that morality is, ultimately, irrational - has now landed me in trouble. Readers of the Hasting Center Report, in which my critique was published, strongly reprimanded me for making such an obviously unreasonable claim. How could I! It was the academic equivalent of hate mail. The funny thing, however, is that this strong response came from both people who are convinced that abortion is morally wrong (and just as wrong as the murder of an adult human being) and people who are equally convinced of the exact opposite, namely that abortion is perfectly all right, as is infanticide. So the two opposing parties both believe that the reasons for holding their respective views are, or should be, "utterly compelling to any rational person", without realising that the very fact that they disagree so much about the moral permissibility of abortion shows clearly enough that their arguments simply cannot be as compelling as they think they are. I find it rather bizarre how anti-abortionists and pro-abortionists suddenly stand side by side, united against the common enemy: the ethical, or rather metaethical, non-cognitivist.

This of course raises the deeper question why it is so important to people to be able to see their moral views as rational. It is almost as if we feared that we might have to give up our moral convictions if they turned out to lack a rational foundation. We seem to need or want some assurance that we are right and those who don't agree with us are wrong. We want our moral convictions to be true, and the idea that they might not be is disquieting. Makes it more difficult to stand up for one's views, to feel righteous about them and to fight those who oppose them.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Royal Hoax - Cruel of Funny?

Two Australian DJs have been harshly criticised for the hoax they played on the staff of a London hospital where the pregnant Kate Middleton was treated for severe morning sickness. They called, pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles, asked to be put through to Middleton's room, and recorded everything. The nurse did what they asked and later, when the hoax made the news, killed herself. Why exactly no one knows, but it is reasonable to assume that her suicide had something to do with the hoax and her failure to see through it. At the time, the DJs thought their hoax was very funny; the hospital, after the nurse's death, condemned their behaviour as "cruel" and "truly appalling". But was it really? After all, the DJs had no idea that their hoax would result in the death of a person. Could they have foreseen it? No. Nobody could have foreseen it. One would not think that a one-time failure to realise that someone is not who they pretend to be is a sufficient reason to kill themselves for anyone. And perhaps it wasn't. Perhaps there were other, additional circumstances about which we don't know anything yet. But be that as it may, there can hardly be any doubt that if the nurse had not killed herself, the vast majority of people would find the whole thing simply hilarious. What a great prank, we would say. We may even wish we had done it ourselves. What a cheek!

And taken by itself, there was nothing cruel about it. It was intended as a harmless joke, and unlike many other TV and radio stunts that we are supposed to laugh about, the object was not even to make fun of someone. The goal was not, as it is so often, humiliation and public embarrassment. The nurse was not the target. She wasn't meant to make a fool of herself. And she didn't. Nonetheless she killed herself. The question is, can that fact retrospectively turn a harmless prank into a cruel and appalling action? I don't think so. Sometimes things we do can be harmless or even very funny and still lead to terrible consequences. And we are very unlucky if it happens to us. But the thing is that it can happen to any of us. We can not always predict the consequences of our actions. Good intentions cannot fully protect us. You make a joke at the expense of one of your colleagues, fully expecting them to laugh it off, but instead they jump off a bridge. You don't love someone back and reject their advances; they take an overdose of sleeping pills. You drive to the supermarket, well within the speed limit, and a child runs in front of your car, too late for you to stop. The child is dead.

Are we, in all these cases, not to blame then? Do we not carry any responsibility for what happens as a result of our actions if we couldn't foresee them? Actually, I think we do. There is such a thing as causal responsibility. We are responsible simply because we caused something to happen, even though we may not have intended it and even though it may have been impossible for us to prevent it. It's still us who did it. Moral luck, bad luck in these cases. And we cannot undo it. We caused a person's death. And that is the knowledge which those two unfortunate DJs have to live with for the rest of their lives. We shouldn't blame them. We should feel sorry for them.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Wrong, Wronger, Wrongest: the Presumed Binary Logic of Morality

I often wonder why moral philosophers and ethicists are so obsessed with trying to determine "what is right" and "what is wrong", "morally permissible" and "morally impermissible" and whether that obsession is not a huge mistake. It seems that many ethical arguments focus on the question whether a certain action or practice is right or wrong. And usually those who participate in the argument tend to assume that if the action or practice in question is not right (i.e. not permissible), then it must be wrong, and if it is not wrong, then it is right. There are no other options. Is abortion right or wrong? Some are for, others against it. For some it is murder, for others a morally neutral medical operation. You need to decide which side you are on. Is lying always wrong or sometimes permissible? Kant believed it was always wrong; most people would say that often lying is okay. Murdering someone? Yes, definitely. But then again, not all killing qualifies as murder. So is killing someone morally wrong? Very often, but not always. Where it is not, it is justified. It is permissible.

However, here's the problem: even if we accept that things really can be right or wrong (and can be determined to be so), which is far from obvious to me, it seems that merely distinguishing "right" from "wrong" is an almost ludicrously inadequate response to the complexity of the moral world. Lying is wrong. Not paying for your bus ticket is wrong. Stealing a CD from the music store is wrong. Raping someone is wrong. Torturing a small child to death is wrong. Well, maybe. But shouldn't we attempt to say more about how wrong exactly it is? Isn't that what we really want to know? Do we seriously think that stealing a CD is as wrong as raping someone? No, actually we don't. So obviously some actions are more wrong than others. But moral philosophers and ethicists do not talk much about that. We are too busy finding out what is right and what is wrong, and it doesn't really occur to us that even when we are successful in our endeavour we have at best brought a very crude form of order to the moral world. It is as if we were bewitched by the binary logic of the words, for both the word "wrong" and the word "right" have no comparitive. Actions are not "righter" or "wronger" than others, and it even sounds odd to say that an action was "more right" or "more wrong" than another. The very grammar of those words thus strongly suggests that things are either wrong or right, and that there is nothing in-between. There is no scale that reaches from the very wrong or "wrongest" to the very right or "rightest". But isn't that exactly what we would need to do justice to the diversity of actions, situation, and circumstances that we have to deal with, and to our moral intuitions regarding them?