Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Problem with Teaching Ethics

Ray Penning at Cardus Blog asks the question, "Can ethics be taught?" The answer, of course, is yes and no. Ethics, as the study of the rules that philosophers have prescribed to govern our moral behavior, can certainly be taught, but, although thousands of books have been written about this, I doubt that any of them have changed anyone's actual behavior. Part of the reason is that, as Penning observes:
Ethics courses that leave students with a bunch of “you shoulds” or “you should nots” are not effective. There are deeper questions that proceed from our understanding of what human nature is about and what we see as the purpose of our life together.
This is true as far as it goes, but the reason teaching such rules is not effective is that focusing on the rules fails to address the metaethical question of why we should follow any of those rules in the first place. What answer can be given to the question why one should not just be selfish, or adopt a might-makes-right ethic? At bottom secular philosophy has no convincing answer. Philosophers simply utter platitudes like "we wouldn't want others to treat us selfishly, so we shouldn't treat them selfishly," which, of course, is completely unhelpful unless one is talking to children.

The reply misfires when aimed at adult students because students will quickly, if only intuitively, discern that it asserts simply that we shouldn't be selfish because it's selfish to be selfish. The question, though, is why, exactly, is it wrong to do to others something we wouldn't done to us? What is it about selfishness that makes selfishness wrong?

Moreover, this sort of answer simply glosses over the problem of what it means to say that something is in fact "wrong" in the first place. Does "wrong" merely mean something one shouldn't do? If so, we might ask why one shouldn't do it, which likely elicits the reply that one shouldn't do it because it's wrong. The circularity of this is obvious.

The only way to break out of the circle, the only way we can make sense of propositions like "X is wrong," is to posit the existence of a transcendent moral authority, a personal being, who serves as the objective foundation for all our moral judgments. If there is no such being then neither are there any objective moral values or duties to which we must, or even should, adhere, and each of us is like an astronaut floating in space trying to decide which direction is up.

This lack of any real meaning to the word "wrong" is a major consequence of the secularization of our culture, and it's one of the major themes of my novels In the Absence of God and Bridging the Abyss (see links at the top of this page), both of which I heartily recommend to readers of Viewpoint.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Bad Options

Why does our politics always seem to present us with two very unsavory alternatives between which we either must choose or effectively opt out of the political process?

In the last presidential election we were offered, on the one hand, a corrupt, deceitful, mean-spirited, reckless and feckless liberal progressive, and, on the other, an odious, deceitful, politically reckless, emotionally immature businessman who boasted publicly of vile behavior towards women.

Next month the citizens of Alabama are offered a choice between, on one side, Roy Moore, a man who has been accused of imposing himself upon underage girls 38 years ago when he was 32, as well as stalking and assaulting older girls, and, on the other, Doug Jones who supports a legal right to kill babies up until the time they're being born.

Those who believe Moore's accusers but who also believe in redemption, might be inclined to extend him the benefit of that belief after the lapse of almost 40 years were it not for the fact that they believe he's lying about his innocence today. Whether he is or he isn't, I don't know, but many commentators are assuming that he is, and I have to say that at least some of his accusers sound credible.

Nevertheless, among those who are expressing disgust and moral outrage at the reports of sexual abuse of women, whether it's perpetrated by the host of Hollywood sleazes led by Harvey Weinstein or politicians like Roy Moore or Senator Al Franken, there's one group of people who have no credibility whatsoever on the issue - the group comprised of anyone who supported Bill Clinton in the 1990s when the allegations against him were as thick as mosquitoes in a swamp.

These weren't just allegations of youthful indiscretions, they weren't just one or two unsubstantiated or ambiguous charges that could've been misunderstandings, they were numerous, consistent and included a very credible accusation of rape.

Moreover, no one who supported Hillary in the last election has any ground upon which to stand when condemning any of the current crop of abusers for Hillary was herself instrumental in discrediting whomever among her husband's victims had the audacity to came forward to accuse him. Indeed, she led the effort to smear them.

When MSNBC host Mika Brezinski now declares twenty years after the fact, and after genuflecting toward Hillary throughout the 2016 campaign, that Bill Clinton was indeed a predator and that she's done with tip-toeing around the fact, one can only think that, as John Sexton at Hot Air points out, had Hillary actually won a year ago Mika and everyone else at MSNBC would've continued to fawn over the Clintons as much as ever.

One further point: Among the allegations that've been leveled against Senator Robert Menendez in recent years was that he has patronized under-age prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, yet liberals still seem much more eager to hammer senatorial candidate Roy Moore for his sins of 40 years ago than to pursue the relatively recent claims made against Menendez who is a sitting senator.

Why? Because Menendez is a Democrat and Moore is a Republican?

If that's the reason then how sincere are their declamations of outrage over the degrading treatment of women in our society? Apparently not very.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Naturalism, Utilitarianism and Egoism

Peter Singer is a philosopher at Princeton who has gained substantial notoriety for invoking his utilitarian ethical principles to justify infanticide and animal rights. In a piece at The Journal of Practical Ethics the editors interview Singer and question whether utilitarians can, or do, live consistently with their own ethical philosophy.

Here's part of the interview:
Editors: Frances Kamm once said...that utilitarians who believe in very demanding duties to aid and that not aiding is the same as harming, but nevertheless don’t live up to these demands, don’t really believe their own arguments....She concludes that ‘either something is wrong with that theory, or there is something wrong with its proponents’. What do you think about this argument? Why haven’t you given a kidney to someone who needs it now? You have two and you only need one. They have none that are working – it would make a huge difference to their life at very little cost to you.

Peter Singer: I’m not sure that the cost to me of donating a kidney would be “very little” but I agree that it would harm me much less than it would benefit someone who is on dialysis. I also agree that for that reason my failure to donate a kidney is not ethically defensible.... Donating a kidney does involve a small risk of serious complications. Zell Kravinsky suggests that the risk is 1 in 4000. I don’t think I’m weak-willed, but I do give greater weight to my own interests, and to those of my family and others close to me, than I should. Most people do that, in fact they do it to a greater extent than I do (because they do not give as much money to good causes as I do). That fact makes me feel less bad about my failure to give a kidney than I otherwise would. But I know that I am not doing what I ought to do.
This response raises several questions, but I'll focus on just one. Singer believes it's wrong not to give the kidney and he feels bad, he feels guilty, about not doing so, yet why should he? In what sense is his violation of utilitarian principles morally wrong? Indeed, why is utilitarianism morally superior to the egoism to which he admits to succumbing?

To put it differently, if Singer chooses to be a utilitarian and donate the kidney while someone else chooses to be an egoist and keep his kidneys, why is either one right or wrong? Given Singer's naturalism, what does it even mean to say that someone is morally wrong anyway? On naturalism there's no moral authority except one's own convictions and no accountability, so in what way is keeping one's kidneys an offense to morality?

Elsewhere in the interview, Singer notes that his ethical thinking is based on the work of the great 19th century ethicist and utilitarian Henry Sidgwick and mentions that,
Sidgwick himself remained deeply troubled by his inability to demonstrate that egoism is irrational. That led him to speak of a “dualism of practical reason” — two opposing viewpoints, utilitarianism and egoism, seemed both to be rational.
In other words, the choice between them is an arbitrary exercise of personal preference, although Singer doesn't agree with this because he believes evolution affords grounds for rejecting egoism. It's hard to see how this could be the case, however, since blind impersonal processes cannot impose moral duties. Nor is it easy to see how acting against the trend of those processes can be morally wrong. How is one doing anything wrong if he chooses to act contrary to the way mutation and natural selection have shaped the human species. Why should he accept the ethical results of evolutionary history any more than we accept the physical limitations imposed on us by gravity when we go aloft in an airplane or hot air balloon?

The only reason we have for not putting our own interests ahead of the interests of others - as in the example of the kidney - and the only rational reason we would have for feeling guilt over our failure to consider the needs of others is if we believe that such failures are a transgression of an obligation imposed upon us by a transcendent personal moral authority. Singer lacks such a belief and can thus give no compelling explanation for his feelings of guilt nor any reason why one should be a utilitarian rather than an egoist.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Future Shocks

In a sobering column at The Federalist Robert Tracinski reminds us of ten crises that Americans, and indeed the world, will likely be facing over the next few months and years.

Here's his first five with a brief explanation:
The National Debt
Above everything else there is the specter of the national debt and the unsustainable long-term cost of middle-class entitlements.

Our entire political status quo, in terms of the balance between free markets and the welfare state, is financed with massive amounts of debt, and at some point we won’t be able to keep borrowing our way out of the problem. There will be a reckoning, and when it comes it will be all the more traumatic because we have put it off so long.

The Wreckage of Obamacare
I have recently encountered a number of businesses and non-profit organizations that are reeling from the effects of rising health insurance costs, which are forcing them to raise their prices or lay off workers. Obamacare upended the entire health system on the promise that it was going to solve this problem. Instead, it made it worse. Health-care costs are spiraling out of control because of a program that didn’t work but that nobody can manage to get rid of.

Slow Growth
No wonder this is an era of slow economic growth. America’s post-World War II growth averaged between 2 and 3 percent. For the past 15 years, it has been under 1 percent. This is a crisis because slow growth breeds stagnation and hopelessness. A return to 4 percent growth, or more, would provide a vibrant economy full of opportunities and allow us to grow our way out of our massive debt. But it would take radical change to get us there.

The Revival of Fascism and Communism
If these crises are going to force us to seek out new political solutions, what are we being offered? Some who claim to be on the Right, if only the “alt-right,” are trying to revive white nationalism and fascism, both in our own back yards and in Europe. Just to keep the horror balanced, some on the Left are attempting to revive Communism under the banner of a violent, intolerant “anti-fascism.”

Campus Totalitarianism
All of this starts in the very institution that ought to be stamping out intolerance and authoritarianism: higher education. Instead, universities are leading the way toward a regime of totalitarian groupthink led by fanatical student mobs.
His last five include North Korean nukes and terrorism. He doesn't mention Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the consequences that will entail, but he does discuss regional conflict in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. You can read more about what Tracinski says about all of this at the link.

He concludes his column with these words:
...we could and probably will find ourselves someday facing difficult and costly wars and violent internal conflict while mired in a debt crisis that we’re not able to grow our way out of. If all of these crises do not hit at once, at least some of them will. When that happens, what are we going to need above all else? We’re going to need to draw upon and reinforce the values and norms that make it possible to solve these problems, and to keep from killing each other in the process....

Above all, we need to focus on the importance of ideas, values, and norms as bulwarks against the forces that are about to drive us to chaos. When the chips are really down—and it can get far, far worse from here—it might not be much of a comfort to know that the grandstanding creep in the Senate (or the White House) has your party’s initial after his name....

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Altruism and Psychological Egoism

Here's a question for your Thursday rumination: Does genuine altruism exist in human beings? By this I mean, do human beings, or better, can human beings, act for the benefit of others if there's no benefit in the act for the doer? Do we do what we do for others only because we believe, if even subconsciously, that there's some benefit in the act for us?

Before you answer you should read a brief essay written some years ago by Georgetown philosophy professor Judith Lichtenberg on just this question.

Lichtenberg notes that psychological egoism (PE), the view that all our actions - including those ostensibly done for others - are really done for self-benefit, is impossible to falsify. This means that one cannot imagine a circumstance which, if it obtained, would show PE to be wrong. The inability to think of such a circumstance means that the theory can't be tested, and this is, in fact, a detriment. Immunity to testing is a weakness in a theory, not a strength.

Lichtenberg might have also mentioned that PE is ultimately based upon circular reasoning. To see this consider the case of Wesley Autrey which she discusses in the beginning of her piece. Autrey risked his life in 2007 to rescue a man who had fallen onto the subway tracks in New York City as a train bore down upon him.

To the question, what was in it for Autrey? the PE might reply that Autrey hoped for a reward, either monetary, psychological or perhaps even eternal, for his act of heroism. Suppose, though, that upon being interviewed Autrey denied that any of those considerations ever entered his mind. He didn't have time to think, he attests. He saw the man fall, he saw the train approach, and he reacted.

The PE might then resort to this fallback position: "There must have been some self-benefit in saving the man that Autrey felt, if only subliminally." If asked why there must be such a motive, the PE can only answer, "because saving the man is what he did, and everything people do they do in their own self-interest."

In other words,

  1. We always act for our own benefit
  2. Cases where people seem to act genuinely for others only seem to be altruistic. There's always a self-beneficial purpose buried somewhere in the person's motivations.
  3. We know there must be a self-beneficial motive driving the person's act because we always act for our own self-benefit.
This is a circular argument and circular arguments are logically invalid. Thus, although PE may seem formidable, it's ultimately based on fallacious reasoning, and if PE is fallacious then perhaps altruism is not the illusion that some philosophers have claimed it is.

Anyway, read Lichtenberg's column and see what you think.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Astonishing Hypothesis

Naturalism is the view that everything about us, our bodies and our thoughts, our brains and our mental sensations, can all be explained by, or reduced to, physics and matter. Nobel-prize winning biologist Francis Crick, in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, describes the view this way:
‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’
Nobel-Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg describes the implications of his naturalism as follows:
...the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature ... we even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years.

And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
The twentieth century mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell pretty much agrees with Weinberg:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home.

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
Note that both Weinberg and Russell see clearly that their view leads either to the Scylla of nihilism or the Charybdis of despair. The only way to avoid these bleak consequences is through "wishful thinking," by which is presumably meant the belief that naturalism is wrong. Why that belief is "wishful thinking," though, is hard to understand since there are very good reasons for thinking that naturalism is indeed wrong.

In any case, naturalism is itself not a product of scientific analysis. There's no preponderance of evidence in its favor. It's simply a metaphysical preference embraced by those who can't abide the notion that theism might be true. Nevertheless, that aversion to theism is so strong that it beguiles brilliant people like Crick, Weinberg and Russell into wrapping their arms around a view of life that drains it of all hope, meaning, and moral significance.

When centuries from now historians look back at this period in our cultural story, I wonder if they won't think how odd it is that anyone would have preferred that naturalism be true rather than that it be false.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Interesting Financial Facts

Here are a few interesting facts about our economy passed along to me by a financial advisor of my acquaintance:
  • 2017 has had a Republican in the White House and Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate. Over the last 80 years, the S&P 500 has gained +10.7% per year (total return) when the White House and Congress were controlled by the same political party. With only 7 trading weeks remaining in 2017, the S&P 500 is up +17.3% YTD (total return). (source: BTN Research).
  • Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States on 11/08/16. In the 12 months since the 2016 election, i.e., 11/08/16 to 11/08/17, the S&P 500 gained +23.7% (total return), more than twice the average annual +10.2% gain that the index has achieved over the last half century, i.e., 1967-2016 (source: BTN Research).
  • University of Pennsylvania finance professor Jeremy Siegel said he “wouldn’t be surprised to see a 1,000 point drop on the Dow” following Donald Trump’s victory on 11/08/16. The Dow however gained +5,231 points in the 1 year since the election through the close of trading on 11/08/17 (source: BTN Research).
  • Individual income taxes paid by American taxpayers would have to increase by +42% in order to eliminate our $666 billion deficit from fiscal year 2017 (source: Treasury Department).
  • The jobless rate in the United States was 5.0% in October 2005, then doubled to 10.0% by October 2009, and now has come full circle to 4.1% in October 2017. The last time we had an unemployment rate lower than 4.1% was in December 2000 almost 17 years ago (source: Department of Labor).
  • As of the end of October 2016, the USA was domestically producing 8.5 million barrels of crude oil per day while we were importing 9.0 million barrels. As of the end of October 2017, the USA was domestically producing 9.6 million barrels of crude oil per day while we were importing 7.6 million barrels. Thus, in the last year, our nation’s production of crude oil has increased +1.1 million barrels a day while our importing of crude oil has declined by 1.4 million barrels a day (source: Department of Energy).
  • American exports of natural gas will exceed its imports of natural gas in 2017, the first year in which that has happened since 1958 or 59 years ago (source: Energy Information Administration).
  • The House’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” retains the deductibility of property taxes up to a maximum of $10,000 per year. Of the 10 states with the highest average property taxes, President Trump carried none of them in the 2016 presidential election (source: Internal Revenue Service).
  • China’s economy is the 2nd largest in the world behind the United States, but China’s “GDP per person” is only $9,377 while the USA’s “GDP per person” is $61,687 (source: IMF).
Whatever one thinks of President Trump's manner and personality, it's hard to gainsay the claim that the economy is doing better under his presidency than it has done in a very long time.