Thursday, July 12, 2007

There Are No Absolutes?

While not rabid, I am a Star Wars fan. One of my favorite scenes in the whole motion picture series is one during the final epic battle between the Jedi (George Lucas' good guys) and the Sith (his evil ones) on volcanic planet where a young Obi-Wan Kenobi beats and disfigures Darth Vader in hand-to-hand combat, even after the Jedi have already lost the war.

The reason that it is my favorite scene is because in my opinion it deconstructs every distinction that Director Lucas has created between the Jedi and the Sith, good and evil. In the scene, Obi-Wan tells Darth, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." Obi-Wan's telling itself is an absolute, which by implication makes him an evil Sith. I don't know whether Lucus' intention was to open up this aporia in the movie, but once it opened, there is no closing it. The line between good and evil is vague when everyone deals in absolutes, but some refuse to see it.

In the comments section of a previous post, I am contending with a highly intelligent economist who has challenged my moral theory that human action should be judged by some categorical (that is, absolute) imperatives. First, I maintain this primarily because all of us who make value-based judgments deal in categoricals (even the claim, "we should never or rarely use categoricals," is itself applied categorically or absolutely). It was unavoidable that Obi-Wan himself had to absolutize his judgment in order to condemn Darth Vader. He was wrong in distancing himself from his own categoricals.

Second, I argue that there are some categorical imperatives, because you have to hold a categorical imperative to believe that human rights are inalienable and that human nature is inviolable at a profound level. Even if the absolute claim that there are few if any universals or absolute ideals by which to judge human behavior were true, a life that may already be "nasty, brutish, and short" would be infinitely more horrible to contemplate as it is infinitely more horrible whenever it happens.

So, even if there are no categoricals (except the categorical that there are no categoricals), I have faith that human beings have to invent them just to bar all of the extraordinary and mundane inhumanities that can be unleashed upon one another.


  1. You know, I wrote a really long response to this, but for now I've just saved it as a file. First I want to point out that in the end you justified categoricals for consequentialist reasons:

    "I have faith that human beings have to invent them just to bar all of the extraordinary and mundane inhumanities that can be unleashed upon one another."

    So aren't you in fact saying that the ends justifies the means--even if categoricals don't exist, we need them for practical reasons? I'm not saying I disagree with this sentiment, but you seemed to find this kind of argument distasteful when I made it.

  2. Yes, that was my second point, but I've not excluded consequentialism from moral deliberation. I think utilitarianism has its merits and should be one tool among many for evaluating human behavior.

    The difference that I see between you and me is that your theory is reductionistic. You want to reduce my first point to my second point. At the very least you seem to see them as mutually exclusive, which I do not.

    I don't criticize your consequentialism as much I do its imperial thrust, which eradicates any question of absolute principles on the grounds of its own absolute hypotheses. A categorical morality still makes room for--in fact, still sees the necessity of--deliberating about good and bad ends (Immanual Kant referred to striving for a moral community as a "Kingdom fo Ends"), which include simple pleasure and pain measurements, but are not reducible to them.

    I am not so strict about it that I see no exceptions to what were previously thought to be universal principles, but without categoricals we have no protection for one of the highest categoricals: respect for the dignity of all persons; that is one can never treat a person as a means while also treating them as an end in themselves.

    Consequentialism, unbalanced by its denials of categoricals, is always open to mistreating people as means to achieve good ends. That is why I brought up the question of chattel slavery. If good consequences result from enslaving a certain group of people, then the consequentialist is bound to favor it. The "deontological" person can never accept good consequences that result from the absence of duty to respect human dignity, since the latter binds the former.

  3. This post is far too long, but I don't think I can shorten it without losing some clarity. I apologize. I will repeatedly return to the Michael Moore "greed is bad" example, because I think it demonstrates my point most clearly.

    To state my argument most simply: The absolute rule doesn't hold absolutely. Applying the absolute rule leads to mistakes. So why bother to have an absolute rule?

    The "deontological" person can never accept good consequences that result from the absence of duty to respect human dignity, since the latter binds the former.

    Never? That's a strong claim. There is no example you can possibly imagine in which enslaving someone might be worth doing? In my experience, any time someone making a natural rights argument gets scratched hard enough, they come out as a consequentialist in the end. If aliens came down and said "Give us five humans to serve as chattel slaves or we'll destroy the planet; you get to pick who they are," would allowing the planet to be destroyed be the right thing to do? If not, the rule isn't really absolute. If you don't like that example, I'll take a few moments to think of another one.

    Let's think about what started this: I don't like Moore's argument that greedy insurance companies are responsible for the health care crisis. Moore doesn't go on to denounce everyone who ever pursued their own self-interest, however. He doesn't denounce every business that sells food or clothing for profit. Why not? They are just as greedy as the health insurance companies. What makes health care different? It isn't greed. His leap to a moral judgment blinds him to the real problems. As a result the quality of the health-care debate is poorer, and the policy outcome is likely to be poorer. In this case, absolutist moralistic thinking clouds the debate. This problem isn't unique to Moore, of course. In this case, an attempt to use a simple moral judgement is a bad idea. Moore misdiagnoses the problem. As a consequentialist, this bothers me--I want a good healthcare system, not a bad one. Moore is my example of why this absolutist moralistic thinking is harmful. I'm going to beat this example into the ground because it's a perfect demonstration of why this sort of moralistic argument is a bad idea, at least when it comes to most public policy issues.

    You reduce my argument to "The ends justifies the means". If in fact you subscribe to the position that "greed is bad"--if you don't like the means--then you must be very unhappy with the entire world, and your own life. Your argument (or Moore's argument) proves too much. You must hate it when the neighborhood association acts to protect or promote property values. You must hate it when you sell your labor to your employer (or your customers) for income. You must despise every business that ever did anything for anyone, no matter the result, because they did it by evil means (i.e., as part of a search for personal gain).

    That's too simple. You don't feel that way, and I don't think Moore really does (or he wouldn't if he thought about it). Following that logic to its conclusion--prohibiting people from engaging in profit-seeking or self-interested behavior--would indeed make life nasty, brutish, and short. My argument was that if we care about the ends--health care--then we should not pretend that people are not self-interested, at least when it comes to public policy. It's a recipe for disaster. Instead we should take it into account and design the system around it. If you want to say that this is "the ends justifies the means", then fine. I'll take my well-designed health-care system, with its greedy participants over a system based on "greed is bad" any day.

    I'm not sure that I'm saying that human behavior can never be judged by any categorical imperatives; I don't know enough to make such a claim with certainty. I am not a philosopher. I am saying that the rule that Moore is using--greed is bad--is a nonsensical rule that in which he can't really believe. More generally, in my experience people who approach policy problems with moral absolutes--or at least simple absolutes such as "greed is bad"--run into problems. I suppose it might be possible to create some absolutes for very narrow situations that are not contradictory, but then one is left with many special cases, rather than any broad principles. For example, a libertarian who argues "it is always wrong to initiate force, unless there is a madman on the loose with a gun, and I have to steal someone else's gun to stop him" is not very persuasive to me. How many other exceptions are there? A modern liberal who argues "people should not act out of greedy motives, except when they're doing it to produce health food for profit because that results in more health food", along with other exceptions, is not very persuasive either. In my original post I argued that the attack on greed didn't make sense; you then erroneously concluded that I think greed is virtuous--an error you wouldn't have made if you weren't trying to pin a categorical on me (Did you read my blog entry on the subject?) . Over time I've become mostly uninterested in moralizing, at least in regard to public policy. Moral arguments are seldom persuasive, and if the moral outcome ends up making everyone miserable then it doesn't tend to go over well. A just society in which everyone is miserable isn't going to continue to be just for long. (One could argue that it's not a just society if everyone is miserable, but then I think there is a pretty obvious problem with that reasoning if one doesn't want everything reduced to consequentialism.)

    I'm not sure that there is a set of rules that comprises "right" and "wrong' floating out in the ether, inalienable and inviolable, somehow discoverable. That strikes me as supernatural, untestable, magical thinking. Even if there were such rules, I don't know that humans would have the ability to work them out. How would we know we had the right absolutes? (Assuming that the consequences of rules are irrelevant to deciding whether they are good or bad--that would be consequentialism.) It's not like trying to find a universal constant in physics. What if we didn't evolve the sensory organs necessary to detect these rules? What if our sense of right and wrong is simply a result of a particular set of evolutionary circumstances giving us a particular brain structure? There is some evidence for this. If right and wrong are easily changed by tweaking some chemicals then they're not really absolute, and we're back to figuring out what are the best rules, based on the outcomes they create.

    Having said all that, am I therefore opposed to rules? As a consequentialist, no. Rules (and the consequences for breaking them) matter. I think the right to freedom of speech is a brilliant invention. I don't think freedom of speech is a natural right, preexisting and somehow discovered by intrepid political explorers, but I do think it's a good idea. So in a sense I come to agreement with you. You make a consequentialist argument in the end--we invent categoricals to prevent undesirable outcomes ("all of the extraordinary and mundane inhumanities that can be unleashed upon one another."). But since we're inventing them, let's give some thought to them. "Greed is bad" doesn't help us much, at least regarding policy matters. Acting on that categorical might prevent some inhumanities, but it creates others. "Greed is bad in health care" is almost as bad, I think, since it again doesn't suggest actions that are likely to improve anything, and it precludes some actions that might improve the system. "Do not regulate speech" is a good rule, not because all speech is always good, and not because there is some natural right to free speech, but because as a practical matter the outcome is unpleasant when the government gets to pick and choose which speech is allowed. Is that a categorical, absolute moral rule? I don't think so, but it's a good rule.

    One last comment: I'm talking about policy debates here, not personal interaction. I don't have a philsophy of why it is in the interest of people to "be good". I don't have an argument for why people shouldn't act as prudent predators, or why people should "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." My view is that of an economist acting as a mechanic. I look at the health care system as a machine that is not generating the outcome we want. We must fix the machine. Cursing the cogs of a machine for their immoral adherence to the laws of physics doesn't get us anywhere. The laws of economics are not quite as rigid as the laws of physics, but some of them are pretty close. So I suppose I am, in a sense, suggesting a generalization, although perhaps not quite an absolute: A policy designed with an understanding of economics will result in a better outcome than a policy designed without such an understanding. I see no reason to think that a poliy designed on the basis of a moral absolute such as "greed is bad" will have a good outcome.

  4. There is no example you can possibly imagine in which enslaving someone might be worth doing? In my experience, any time someone making a natural rights argument gets scratched hard enough, they come out as a consequentialist in the end. If aliens came down and said "Give us five humans to serve as chattel slaves or we'll destroy the planet; you get to pick who they are," would allowing the planet to be destroyed be the right thing to do? If not, the rule isn't really absolute. If you don't like that example, I'll take a few moments to think of another one.

    This is one of the problems I have with economics du jour: it reduces the human condition to quantifiable numbers and a calculus of net cost to net benefit based on hedonism, pain-avoidance or survival. It reduces the human condition to the lowest common denominator and then sticks it into a math formula.

    Thus, it assumes that every person in the world has this tipping point somewhere between 5 persons and 50 million persons that could be sacrificed to aliens in order to save the world. It assumes that people only make moral decisions in one way. And as I have pointed out: that is your absolute principle, whether you acknowledge it or not.

    Flights of fantasy are fun, but let's consider less fantastic scenerios that actually occurred in history, like say Nazi Germany, where many, many people sacrificed Jews, Christians, and eventually anybody else who wasn't a good brown shirt in order to save themselves (suits the consequentialist argument). There were still individual leaders (like Oscar Schindler), communities of people civically and politically involved (like the Confessing Church) and whole towns (like Le Chambon, France) that refused to turn Jews and their supporters over to the Nazis in many cases at the expense of their own well-being.

    These people put their own lives and the lives of their friends in harms way for the sake of people they didn't know and for whom they did not have to care. Some people when "scratched hard enough" won't sacrifice for the sake of hedonism, pain-avoidance, or survival (and positing some idealized level of hedonism, pain-avoidance, or survival still doesn't explain their actions, unless one buys into the absolutes of rational choice theory w/o critical question).

    The word "greed" may be thrown around too much and it can be criticized for that. Unmasking the stategic use of the word "greed" to paint a picture and cause a response is valid (and I might not blame you for criticizing Moore on those grounds). But denying "greed" or "wrath" or "slavery" or "human dignity" some place higher than its numeric position in some sort of equation is categorically hard-boiled, narrow, unhistorical, and short-sighted.

  5. It's good to see that Godwin's law still holds.

    What does it mean to "reduce the human condition to the lowest common denominator"? You're not talking about actual denominators, but surely you're not saying that the least important factor of the human condition is whether or not people are happy or suffering. Full disclosure: I hate the use of the phrase "least common denominator" to mean "something I don't like".

    I still don't think you understand the rationality assumption, as I pointed out in a prior conversation. Economists assume rationality not because it is literally true, or because they believe it is literally true. The assumption is useful. It provides rigor in creating testable hypotheses. What is remarkable is that the theory seems to do a good job describing human behavior in the settings economists are most interested in studying. Despite the fact that experiments show people do not behave in a fully rational manner in small experiments (I mentioned the Ultimatum Game in a prior conversation), in a market setting, with buyers and sellers, supply and demand curves emerge exactly as predicted. Moreover, when people choose to design policy as though people were not self-interested, problems quickly arise. Price controls result in shortages and surpluses. Technology-based fishing regulations fail to stem overfishing. Average-cost pricing regulation of monopolists results in firms that make little effort to control costs. You want to see "hard-boiled, narrow, unhistorical, and short-sighted"? Look at some of the policies designed by people who thought only about what was right, and not about how people would actually react. Naturally there are settings in which the assumption of rational self-interest doesn't work as well (intra-family interaction, for example), but the fact remains that it is usually a good assumption for policy.

    Economists are not alone in making simplifying but useful assumptions. Physicists, engineers, astronomers, climatologists, and other scientists all make simplifying assumptions. The goal is not to model the real world with perfect accuracy; that is impossible (it would require a model as complex as the real world, which would be just as difficult to study and describe as the fully complex real world). Rather, assumptions allow us to study the essence of a scientific question. When an assumption is harmful to the accuracy of the theory, the assumption must be changed. That doesn't mean all assumptions are bad.

    Economics doesn't assume anything about how people make moral decisions per se, except to suggest that the more costly an action is, the less willing people will be to undertake it. Nor does economics command that we follow make moral decisions in any particular way. I (not economics) am suggesting that economics, and other sciences, should be used as a basis for making policy decisions based on their consequences.

    People like Schindler are remarkable because of how rare they were. Yes, some people are willing to stand up for a principle at great personal cost, and in some situations this has positive outcomes for society. Yet most people submitted to the Nazi regime once it had defeated their military, and preferred to resist in ways that were low-cost and low-risk, if at all. If you're interested in the way that people actually make moral decisions, I'd guess that the high-personal-cost decision is the one made less frequently.

    Clearly people do not make moral decisions in the way that I am suggesting policy decisions be made (i.e., by trying to determine the society-wide economic efficiency of an action). It's not clear to me why that's relevant, however. Our sense of morality is a mess of biological urgesand socialization. Is the way that people actually make everyday moral decisions automatically superior to other ways of working through moral decisions? If everyone's biology told them that, say, it's bad to earn profit, or to hate people who are different, or to kick children, would that be a good set of moral rules?

    So "maybe" the word greed is thrown around too much, you say. How would one know? How much is too much? How much irrelevant moralizing should be brought to the discussion of health care reform? It contributes nothing to the debate (seriously, I'd love to hear a coherent argument of how "greed is bad" could in some sensible way be presented as relevant to the health care reform, or any other policy, for that matter); should we nonetheless give it some weight because you've made a hand-waiving non-argument that it is somehow fundamental? Perhaps you'll agree it deserves zero weight in this case--but if so, why? And why give it more weight in other cases? Your argument is so vague that it ultimately doesn't allow you to take any position. You claim I'm putting "greed is bad" at some point in a hierarchy--I suppose I am. I'm putting it at the bottom, because it's a bad argument. But you, too, must be assigning it some position. The difference is that I'm willing to do so explicitly. You prefer to mask your argument in vagueness.You want to give categoricals such as "greed is bad" "wrath is bad", "slavery is bad", and so on the highest, most important positions (i.e., you are implicitly giving them a place in a ranking)--but when presented with a case in which "greed is bad" doesn't make sense, you fudge and say maybe it's been tossed around too much. Which is it? You cannot consistently simultaneously argue that "greed is bad" is an ultimate value and that it has been thrown around too much. If it really is an absolute, then "greed is bad" is sufficient to decide the argument. If it's not sufficient to decide the argument, it's not an absolute.

  6. I confess to not being able to read much past that first zinger.

    Exactly how many degrees of separation have to lay between Hitler and another historical subject so as not to prompt the invocation of Godwin's Law?

    Of course, you contradicted your own invocation of Godwin's by continuing on with the discussion for several paragraphs, even though the debate is supposed to be at an end.