Monday, April 30, 2007

Leaps of faith and self-belief

Stephen Law reports on a religious debate he took part in with (among others) Brian Smith, the Bishop of Edinburgh:

“In our quietest moments, he said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is... Jesus.”

His response is based on the well-documented malleable credulity that our species often displays. The Barefoot Bum offers another reply:

“Smith's position is fine, up until the very last word, which should be omitted and replaced with a question mark: ‘This something is...?’ What is this ‘light’? What is this awareness? I have my suspicions, but I don't know. Maybe it's trivial, maybe it's important. But if it really is important, we shouldn't just guess, we should know.”

And if, at the moment, we can’t know, then we should be cautiously sceptical.

This touches on something that I think is a significant part of any firmly held faith (some people’s faith, of course, is more modest and self-doubting).

The leap of faith from “This something is” to “Jesus” is really nothing more than a guess. A Buddhist monk might have a different view. So might a rabbi, an imam or a shaman. So might a neurologist or a psychologist. Some of these views might be supported in one way or another; others, less so.

To leap from a feeling – or even from an introspective reflection upon a feeling – to a theory of life, the universe and everything is completely unwarranted. It’s a guess, and an unnecessary one at that when the option of provisionally suspending belief is so readily available. But to take a leap of faith is to lose rational control over where one will land.

Is it so indisputably Jesus? Couldn’t it be a demon ingeniously disguised as Jesus? Or a moment of Bodhi? Or an idle tingling of the temporal lobe?

And what if one knows that there might be other explanations – some of which are guesses informed by some breed of received wisdom and others more open-minded attempts to investigate – but one still sticks firmly with one’s own guess? That’s when we get to the significant part of unshakeable faith.

Somebody who grows up in Italy to be a Catholic will interpret such a feeling differently from somebody who grows up in Iran to be a Shi’ite. It is to the credit or detriment of neither that they have happen to have acquired these ready-made narratives for labelling feelings. It is blind luck. And that’s what strong, undoubting faith is really in: not in this god or that one, but in oneself. The core article of such faith is that one’s own guess is right.

Novel word

Julian Gough, in a great essay on the modern novel, uses a cracking word I’ve not seen before.

He’s lamenting the way that university creative writing courses actually kill creativity by institutionalising it, and how graduates of these courses tend to focus their writing on the banality of their own academic lives. And he says this:

“Much of their fiction contains not so much tragedy as mere anxiety. Pushed to look for tragedy in lives that contain none, to generate suffering in order to be proper writers, they force themselves to frown rather than smile; and their work fills with a self-indulgent anxiety that could perhaps best be called ‘wangst.’”

Friday, April 27, 2007

On not sleeping alone

Haven’t really blogged much this week. Oh well. Try this:

A recent study by Oxford researchers published in the journal Sleep (yes, really) found that while the insomnia rate in the UK is an internationally high 22%, people tend not to seek medical treatment for it. Why not?

“The most commonly endorsed reasons for not seeking treatment were the perception of insomnia as benign, trivial, or a problem that one should be able to cope with alone.” The paper argues for “programs of public health awareness designed to reduce the perception of insomnia as trivial”.

Quite right too. Insomniacs of Britain, are you tired of suffering alone? Well, it’s time to wake up!

If you’ve been dreaming of a way to close this yawning gap in your life, then you need no longer be caught napping. If we join together, we can put this problem to bed.

We will not rest until everyone’s eyes have been opened.

(Plus other tired puns…)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

‘Ask not what my policies are…’

Yesterday David Cameron gave a speech on ‘social responsibility’.

His line is that when government tries directly to make society better, not only does it usually fail but also it erodes the space in which ordinary people can act themselves to make society better; so, government should pull back and allow people to take more of this responsibility for themselves. In many ways it’s a presentational revamp of the ‘cut red tape/shrink the nanny state/support marriage’ outlook, phrased much more nicely than Peter Lilley ever put it.

He wants politicians to resist the (media-driven) urge to “do something” – which can be a very fair point. But at the same time as he’s trying to promote a more minimalist state, he can’t help reaching for state solutions here and there.

For instance, in terms of raising children, he argues that parents must understand “that it is their responsibility, not the school's responsibility, to bring their kids up with the right values”. He also criticises the previous Tory government for “the over-prescription of the national curriculum”. But he goes on to say that he is developing “plans for a national programme for all sixteen year-olds that helps teach them the responsibilities of adulthood”.

And on law and order, he complains about ASBOs but refuses to scrap them. He ridicules the idea of putting “a policeman on every bus” but says that the police should have less paperwork so they can spend more time “engag[ing] directly with the community they serve” and stopping people in the street.

Indeed, the logic of his argument, if taken seriously, points towards the position that any state enforcement of laws distorts people’s incentives, changing their behaviour from mutual civility into punishment-avoidance. But of course he doesn’t take it that far; there is, even though he doesn’t say so, a trade-off to be made. And because he keeps this quiet, he can claim on any given count that his approach is simply about “trusting people”.

The reason Cameron’s analysis fails (depsite several fair points dotted around the speech) can be seen here:

“What builds society, what encourages civility, is people taking responsibility. Putting each other before themselves.”

There’s a vast lacuna between the first and second sentences. Yes, putting each other first will encourage social civility. But “taking responsibility” isn’t the same as doing that. “Taking responsibility” doesn’t in itself mean anything without specifying what it is you’re responsible for (but the phrase sounds good, and it works as cover to justify any amount of state-shrinkage).

But what he seems to be saying is that society will be nicer if people take it upon themselves to be nicer. The thing is, though: being able to decide to be nice is not the same as being nice. And giving people more control over how nice they can be isn’t the same as getting people to be nicer.

As an example, he wants businesspeople to understand “that it is their responsibility, not just the government's responsibility, to think about the social and environmental consequences of what they do”. Which, at face value, means that working standards and environmental protection would best be advanced if the government resorted to gentle cajolery and hope rather than statutory compulsion.

At one stage he kicks away the apparent optimism that his vision stands on:

“I believe that government has a vital role to play in changing social behaviour. Not by trying to control it directly through initiative, regulation and law. But by creating a framework of incentives that encourages people and organisations to behave responsibly.”

Now, if incentives for responsible behaviour have to be created by government, then the faith that he likes to place in human nature would seem misguided. But whether this is true or not, he ignores (when it suits him) his own guidance on the insidious effects of state involvement in people’s personal lives.

He identifies the most important institution in society as the “strong family”, deserving of state financial support. (His concept of family strength – two married parents – remains wilfully simplistic.) But if he wants to subside marriage, that risks skewing incentives to get married away from love and towards money.

One of his early starting-points is that “target[ing] specific instances of bad behaviour with specific state interventions… is just treating the symptoms, not the cause”. But in bribing people down the altar, regardless of their personal qualities, he clumsily targets a specific instance of supposedly good behaviour – a symptom of responsibility – without making anyone more responsible.

(One final quibble. At one point, he cites the recent Unicef report [PDF] on children’s lives: “the only measure where we didn't come at or near the bottom was health and safety. We have miserable, badly behaved, badly educated children – but we keep them safe from cuts and bruises.”

It’s a cheap shot, and if he or his speech-writers had spent two minutes online, they’d know that the indicators the report used to create the “health and safety” rankings were: “number of infants dying before age 1 per 1,000 births; percentage of infants born with low birth weight (<2500g.); percentage of children age 12 to 23 months immunized against measles, DPT, and polio; deaths from accidents and injuries per 100,000 aged 0–19”. Are any of those things really worth the sneers?)

Friday, April 20, 2007

War and other people’s best interests

Tom Miller remarks that “progressive interventionism needs to be different to neoconservatism, which I despise. Democracy is a bottom up phenomenon, a flower that needs watering and weedkiller...”

I incline to agree (with the caveat that those two isms can be filled out in different ways). There’s a distinction (lost to the knee-jerk anti-West, anti-war crowd) worth maintaining between what Norm Geras has characterised as military action taken on ‘remedial’ grounds (to end a murderous tyranny) and that taken on ‘utopian’ grounds (to create a flourishing democracy).

This difference is why I signed the Euston Manifesto but don’t support the Henry Jackson Society.

The HJS campaigns for the spread of modern liberal democracy. While that’s a great and important principle, it seems to me that the HJS may be too uncritically single-minded in its pursuit of it. It supports:

“a ‘forward strategy’ to assist those countries that are not yet liberal and democratic to become so. This would involve the full spectrum of our ‘carrot’ capacities, be they diplomatic, economic, cultural or political, but also, when necessary, those ‘sticks’ of the military domain.”

It’s that “when necessary” that worries me. I can’t agree with the suggestion that any undemocratic regime should be deposed by force if peaceful methods fail. There are plenty of autocracies whose human rights records can hardly be called tyrannical. The idea of bombing Singapore, say, as a prelude to replacing its sham elections with genuine liberal democracy, is ridiculous, even if all other means of reform had failed. War is dangerous, and not all non-democracies are equally vile (just ask the North Koreans trying to flee to China).

Whether you call this ‘neoconservatism’ or not, it seems to be a step away from standing up for the downtrodden and towards pursuing an ideology (yes, based on a good ideal) for its own sake.

The EM is more selective about when force should be used:

“If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a ‘responsibility to protect’.”

While I’m on the subject, there’s a symposium in the new issue of Dissent on exporting democracy and lessons learned from Iraq. There seems to be a rough consensus that, as Thomas Cushman puts it, “war is not the best way to achieve democratization, although this does not mean that no value has come of this war”.

And Paul Berman argues that:

“democracy is not just a system of procedures and a matter of institutions. Democracy is, in addition, a worldview, and this worldview needs to be expounded: a worldview based on rationality, criticism, respect for individual rights, and so forth. Democracy, in short, requires liberalism, and liberalism is, after all, an ism, and isms need to be presented, clarified, popularized, and defended.”

Forcible democratisation is practically, conceptually and ethically fraught. Using force to stop mass brutality is less so.

Normblog profile

Norm Geras has posted a profile of me, if you’re interested.

(Incidentally, it was Norm who gave me my first break in the world of online ranting, so thanks twice.)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Shag doubt

“Students who took part in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, according to a study ordered by Congress.”

Shocker. (Hat tip to Andrew.)

Yes, it’s true that not having sex is a pretty failsafe way of avoiding STIs or unwanted pregnancies. But government programmes to persuade teenagers not to have sex are not a good way to stop teenagers having sex.

The only reason for ignoring this distinction (other than wanting an excuse to moralise) would be a faith in the marvellous efficiency of the state. Which would be a pretty odd attitude for a bunch of conservatives to take.

Dirty politics

David Cameron’s latest ‘green’ photo-op has gone slightly wrong.

After being photographed cleaning up some rubbish in Kent, he was accused of “breaking election rules by posing with council workers and there were allegations that the Tories had deliberately placed the rubbish on the site for a publicity stunt”.

“Jeremy Kite, the [Tory] leader of the council, vigorously denied the suggestion that the rubbish had been planted, but admitted that council workers had collected rubbish from a 20m radius on the same site and piled it in a heap before Mr Cameron’s arrival. ‘But I can tell you 100 per cent that the rubbish was on that site and was not brought in,’ he said. ‘In fact, we left it there a day longer than it should have been because we knew Cameron was coming.’”

So, proper council work – cleaning up a fly-tipping site – was delayed for the benefit of a party stunt. That’s a defence?

The end of morality

Menzies Campbell surpassed himself on the Today programme this morning. John Humphrys broke with tradition and gave him a couple of critical questions on Iraq.

Humphrys: But we can’t cut and run because we’re losing soldiers, can we?

Campbell: … I think you have to be careful, if I may say so, about words like ‘cut and run’, because they are incredibly emotive. … It’s four years since the military action ceased, and in that time we have committed a lot of money, we’ve committed a lot of fine young men and women and we’ve lost more than 140 of them. There is a point at which we can no longer justify that degree of commitment.

Humphrys: But surely that point is not when the country is in the kind of chaos it is in.

Campbell: Well, just examine the logic of that proposition. Does that mean that so long as there is any threat or anxiety about disorder then we will continue to stay there?

Humphrys: You could argue yes, if it was our – I emphasise if it was our responsibility, what is happening there now, then yes we should stay. You could argue that, and it is argued.

Campbell: Well, I accepted, although I was someone wholly opposed to this, I accepted a moral obligation. But that moral obligation can’t be open-ended. And we have a moral obligation to our own young men and women.

There is an argument sometimes made that the US/UK presence in Iraq is doing more harm than good – that our troops’ presence serves to inspire sectarian violence and prevent a political accommodation based on the domestic balance of power.

But Campbell isn’t making that argument. He’s not urging withdrawal based on a judgement of what’s in the best interests of Iraqis. He’s saying that even though we did take on a moral responsibility for the security of Iraq, now that the going has got tough, we should do the expedient thing and quit.

Waste of space.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Life on Earth

If you liked Gene Hunt from Life on Mars, you’ll love this. Nice one, Paul.

News about Brown

The Tory attempt to embarrass Gordon Brown over his “pension theft” (a charge of debatable merit) seems to have failed. In fact, Brown had a far better day politically than on his Budget.

The Tories made two tactical blunders: (1) if you’re trying to paint someone as sneaky and stealthy, don’t give him a big public platform from which to make his case; (2) if you’re trying to damn someone for a policy decision, have something prepared other than empty wriggling when asked whether you’d reverse it.

Anyway. At the same time, David Miliband seems to be backing off from the possibility of standing against Brown for the leadership. I like Miliband, and I do think there’d be benefits to a contest both for Labour and for Brown, but I’m unconvinced that he’s PM material yet.

He has a lot of virtues, but the most salient one appears to be that the music happens to be stopping while he’s holding the small, battered ‘anti-Gordon candidate’ parcel – it having been passed round Blunkett, Milburn, Clarke, Reid, Johnson, Hutton and others.

Also yesterday: the biggest economic crisis of the Brown decade: inflation at 3.1%. Really puts two recessions and 3 million unemployed into perspective, eh?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Enslaving your own intellect

Scott Adams has a nice post about cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort that comes from holding conflicting thoughts, particularly when they relate to one’s self-image, such as ‘I’m a good husband’ and ‘I just cheated my wife’.

The mind tries hard to avoid dissonance and to avoid having illusions shattered, and so awkward facts can get rationalised away: ‘I was drunk, and I didn’t make the first move, so it doesn’t show what I’m really like’, ‘It was a mistake and won’t happen again’, ‘She’s been neglecting me lately so it’s hardly surprising’, ‘It was just sex and doesn’t mean anything’, ‘Woe is me; but my token guilt proves how much I love her really’, ‘I must keep this a secret to protect her from hurt’, etc.

To any reasonably impartial third party, such manoeuvres are pretty transparent. But from the inside, from the perspective of the person whose mind has quietly smoothed over the cracks, they’ll make perfect sense.

Scott says:

“The fascinating thing about cognitive dissonance is that it’s immune to intelligence. No matter how smart you are, you can’t think your way out of it. Once your actions and your self image get out of sync, the result is an absurd rationalization.”

It’s not just that this process is immune to intelligence – it actually feeds off it. The smarter you are, the more ingenious your rationalisations can be. When challenged by rogue mental states, a mindset or belief system will use whatever intellectual resources it can get its dendrites on to survive and maintain its integrity.

People are, in very many ways, not at all good at thinking logically. If you’re aware of the kind of biases you’re prone to, then you stand a chance of catching some of them (cognitive behavioural therapy basically trains people to beat their dysfunctional assumptions over the head with logic). But intelligence on its own won’t cut it, because its natural role is to keep the show on the road – which often means sacrificing accuracy to coherence.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fortunes to hostages

I agree with pretty much everybody else, for pretty much the standard reasons, that the sailors and marines held by the Iranians shouldn’t have been allowed to sell their stories. But I see it as an minor, stupid misjudgement that warrants a couple of slapped wrists and red faces – it’s not a national scandal that merits all this shrieking about public inquiries and resignations.

Almost any policy can lead to controversy, and there’s always easy mileage in throwing around outraged blame. The media are a storm in search of a teacup.

I wonder what would have happened if the 15 had been prevented from going public…

Gagged By Iran, Then Gagged By The MoD
By our reporter Frank Blunt

What has this government got against our servicemen and women? First it sends them to the Middle East on a Texan fool’s errand – arming them with rifles that jam every other shot and forcing them to fork out for their own boots. Then it protects them so feebly that a bunch of third world fanatics can seize 15 of them without any comeback.

And now it refuses to let them tell their side of the story.

Sure, they can sit at a Ministry of Defence press conference, under the watchful eye of the government spin-masters, and accept the blame for themselves while they parrot the party line. But they’re not allowed to speak out freely.

Tory defence spokesman Hubert Blatherton is spot on when he asks what Labour has to hide: “We know some of the blunders that led to this public humiliation at the hands of Iran. But why does the government insist on keeping from us the full story? They should known by now that there’s a time to stop spinning and let the truth out.”

We’re told the sky would fall in if the freed hostages earned a few quid to add to their modest wages. But all the while, well-fed ministers – including the ones responsible for the state of our armed forces – are signing six-figure deals to dish the dirt in their memoirs.

As Faye Turney’s mother tells us in her exclusive interview (see pages 7–12), “My girl spent all that time in isolation, being forced to put her name to propaganda and lies. Now she’s back home, we can’t understand why she’s still not allowed to speak for herself.”

The continued gagging of these young men and woman, who risked their lives for their country (on the orders of Tony Blair), sends a terrible message to the world about Britain’s contempt for its service personnel. This air of secrecy and off-the-record briefings stands in stark contrast to the smiling images of President Ahmadinejad openly shaking hands and chatting with the 15.

Once again, Britain has been shamed by Blair’s control-freakery and obsession with spin. The sooner he’s out of a job, the better – and let’s lose the gormless, gutless Des Browne while we’re at it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Oxfam and bombing reputations

Oxfam has published an interesting report (plus an article by director Barbara Stocking) on international human rights protection post-Iraq. The report argues:

“The danger is that, after Iraq, UK foreign policy could lurch to a much more cautious approach, turning away from trying to solve the world’s worst crises, with potentially catastrophic consequences for people in them.”

It suggests that Iraq may already have compromised the UK Government’s ability to act:

“In November 2006, Sudan’s president was able to deflect criticism, and denounce the plans for a UN force to protect civilians in Darfur, a proposal strongly backed by the UK. ‘The impact’, he said, ‘[would] be the same as what is happening in Iraq.’”

It’s certainly true that world opinion of the UK and US governments has fallen because of what’s happened in Iraq. But there are a few issues that are worth untangling here.

First, there is an inescapable point not made explicit: just because a military action is unpopular, that doesn’t make it wrong. The negative reaction to Iraq may well make future humanitarian intervention with major US-UK involvement a very hard sell. But this doesn’t mean it would be wrong. Unpopularity (of whatever origin) shouldn’t be a barrier to stopping genocide.

Second, nor should legality be a barrier. Security Council resolutions represent confluences of national interests, and the lack of one endorsing the bombing of Yugoslavia did not make that action wrong. To say, as the report rather comically does, that “The UN probably would have authorised NATO’s campaign, had it not been for Russia and China’s ability to veto such a resolution” is to miss any number of points.

Third, international relations have less to do with moral authority than we might like. The fact that the Security Council has been so lacklustre in dealing with Sudan owes more to Chinese (and Russian) economic interests there than reputational damage to George Bush and Tony Blair; it owes very little indeed to Omar al-Bashir’s ability to engage in moral posturing about potential casualties, which everyone knows to be rank hypocrisy.

If indeed it’s true that forcible UN intervention in Sudan would lead to chaos even bloodier than the current situation, then that’s a reason for finding other options – regardless of whether al-Bashir can effectively taunt the would-be interventionists, regardless of what’s happened in Iraq, and regardless of anyone’s opinion about Iraq.

But these are mostly points of emphasis. It’s a decent report, thinking seriously about how to deal with trouble spots in the changed international atmosphere, and resisting the temptation to crowd-please by subordinating every issue to a loathing of the Iraq war.

A clear focus on outcomes (and yes, that includes changes in world opinion, but not overwhelmingly so) is vital.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A parody of ‘A parody of democracy’

(With apologies – of debatable sincerity – to Oliver Kamm. If you’ve not read his piece, what follows will be pretty meaningless to you.)

Political voting has come of age. At least, that is the idea behind the UK’s forthcoming elections to local councils and devolved administrations. The supporters of these elections argue that voters provide more acute and independent political decisions than traditional autocracy, owing to the absence of a dictator detached from the concerns of ordinary people’s lives.

The BBC and other news outlets have screened a number of reports featuring these voters, many of whom deserve continual correction on points of fact. They thereby illustrate voting’s central characteristic danger. It is a democratic medium, allowing anyone to participate in political decision-making without an intermediary, at little or no cost. But it is a direct and not deliberative form of appointing national leaders. You need no competence to join in.

To some, that is a virtue. Democrats invoke the notion of the wisdom of crowds: rulers emerge in a collaborative process rather than seizing power themselves. But voters are not the required type of crowd. They are, by definition, a self-selecting group of the politically motivated who have time on their hands.

Elections are providers not of laws but of legislators. This would be a good thing if voting extended the range of available talent in the public sphere. But it does not; paradoxically, it narrows it. This happens because elections typically do not add to the available stock of expertise and opinion: they are purely parasitic on the names and faces of the traditional elite. If, say, Tony Blair or David Cameron did not exist, a significant part of the electorate (a grimly pretentious neologism) would have no purpose and nothing to react to.

The great innovation of public election campaigns is that voters may select minutely the party literature and broadcasts they read and watch. The corollary is that they may filter out views they find uncongenial. This is a problem for a healthy democracy, which depends on a forum for competing views.

In its paucity of knowledge and predictability of prejudices, the electorate provides a parody of democratic deliberation. But it gets worse. Politics, wrote the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, is a conversation, not an argument. The conversation candidates have with their target voters is more like an echo chamber, in which conclusions are pre-specified and targets selected. The outcome is horrifying. The intention of drawing voters into the conversation by means of a facility for expressing their opinion results in an immense volume of abusive material directed at public figures.

Electoral democracy, in short, is a reliable vehicle for the coagulation of opinion and the poisoning of debate. It is a fact of civic life that is changing how politics is conducted – overwhelmingly for the worse, and with no one accountable for the decline.

(Less sarcastic responses to Kamm can be found here and here, and another slightly sarcastic one here.)

Friday, April 06, 2007

The problem of good

If you fancy a (long-ish) witty and inventive read, Stephen Law reports on a debate between theologians on the planet Eth:

BOOBLEFRIP: What a bizarre suggestion. It’s obvious our creator is very clearly evil! Take a look around you! Witness the horrendous suffering he inflicts upon us. The floods. The ethquakes. Cancer. The vile, rotting stench of God’s creation is overwhelming!
GIZIMOTH: Yes, our creator may do some evil. But it’s not clear he’s all-evil, is it? It’s certainly not obvious that his wickedness is infinite, that his malice and cruelty know no bounds. You’re deliberately ignoring a famous argument against the existence of God – the problem of good.

From the characters’ names, I suspect that Stephen is a Douglas Adams fan. He also has a brain the size of a planet (which one, I’m not sure…) But seriously: if you only read one extraterrestrial dialogue satirising the theistic responses to the problem of evil this week, make it this one!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The moral pragmatist’s wager

I don’t write about meta-ethical epistemology often enough. Time to remedy that.

Something occurred to me as I was reading Jonathan Jong’s blog a few weeks ago. Jonathan said: “Most people want to be moral realists, to believe that there are such things as moral facts beyond our social conventions.”

I think that’s pretty much right. A lot of people do believe that there really is, objectively, right and wrong, and that this isn’t just a matter of following social conventions – and nor is morality merely a matter of conforming to our biological nature, nor satisfying personal preferences, nor complying with a set of laws, nor (as many would argue, given the preceding two points) obeying divine commands.

For morality to truly be morality, it would have to be something quite distinct from all these things – although that’s not to deny that conventions, preferences, scriptures and the rest can shape our thinking about what’s right and wrong. As well as being a notable school of thought in ethical theory (‘non-naturalism’), this view does in rough outline have appeal for a lot of people whose heads haven’t been saturated with academic philosophy.

And yet… if morality is to be something wholly standalone, then what exactly is it? What sort of things are moral principles? And, more practically, how can we come to grasp them? It seems that empirical observation and logical reasoning aren’t up to the job of delivering knowledge of these peculiar facts, so are we left to rely on some special sort of intuition? But that, too, is an obscure idea.

We want to be moral realists – because we want to be able to be moral people – but we’re not at all sure how to justify belief in objective moral truths (although this doesn’t prove that there are no such truths). So, are we stuck with a puzzled agnosticism that will paralyse us when we face up to it or awkwardly nag at us when we try to ignore it?

I think we may be able to do a bit better.

Pascal’s wager

In the same blog post, Jonathan also wrote, a few sentences earlier: “Perhaps there are good prudential or pragmatic reasons for assuming that God does exist, even if this assumption is not ‘belief’ in the proper sense. It's less, ‘I hold it to be true that God exists’ than, ‘I live as though it is true.’ Perhaps.”

And, although he was talking about Kant, this put me in mind of that more famous pragmatic religious argument, Pascal’s wager. This is not an attempt to prove god’s existence but a cost-benefit analysis to recommend the rationality of believing in god. It’s aimed at people who tend to like the idea of god but just don’t find themselves convinced that he exists.

Briefly: you can either believe in god or not. If you don’t believe in god and he doesn’t exist, then you lead an ordinary finite life. But if you don’t believe in him and he does exist, then you go to hell for eternity, which is the most awful thing that could happen to you. Your other option is to believe in god: if you do, and he doesn’t exist, then you’ve wasted some time and effort and perhaps money in your involvement with church activities, which is a loss, but only a modest one (you may also gain a sense of fulfilment, but the wager can assume that this is outweighed by the losses here). But if you believe in him and he does exist, then you’ve hit the infinite jackpot of heaven.

So the outcomes for you if you don’t believe are either unremarkable or utterly disastrous; if you do believe, your outcomes are either modest inconvenience or eternal bliss. Assuming you don’t rule out god’s existence completely, then even if you judge there to be only a slim chance of it, the average expected outcome of belief is immeasurably better than that of disbelief. So it’s in your interests to believe.

There are plenty of objections to Pascal’s wager. Here are some:

  1. It assumes voluntarism about beliefs. But we can’t simply decide to believe in the truth of something by an act of conscious will. How many emails did I receive yesterday? You don’t know, but try, now, sincerely to believe that I got 15. That may sound like a plausible number, but you really have no information. Can you firmly believe it, rather than merely entertaining the idea? No. You could freely choose to act as if you believed this, but belief itself isn’t like that. Something has to convince you.

  2. Even setting the above aside, it’s an abdication of rational judgement. While it does trade on rationality, this is of a calculating self-interested kind rather than the epistemic kind that judges propositions to be true, false or uncertain based on the available evidence. If the logic of the wager were extended across other walks of life, we would find that wishful thinking got in the way of our ability to judge true from false.

  3. It subverts whatever virtue there may be in belief in god. We might accept that believing in god is something that he would esteem as morally praiseworthy, but given the psychology of the wager – self-interested calculation to maximise personal advantage – it’s hard to see any virtue in this at all.

  4. It assumes the only relevant options are this god in particular (Pascal was a Catholic) or not. But the same argument could be made about the benefits of adhering to a number of different religious views. Accepting one means rejecting all the others, and if it’s equally rational to adopt belief in any one, then the wager’s logic could push you in many contradictory directions with equal force. Which means that it can’t justifiably push you towards any of them.

What does such a bad argument about religion have to do with wanting to believe in objective morality but not being sure how to get a handle on the idea? I think the structure of Pascal’s wager can be adapted, in a way that avoids equivalent objections, for people who’d like to be able to ‘do the right thing’ but don’t know how to justify the view that there really is a ‘right thing’ to do.

Betting on moral pragmatism

You can live you life either on the basis that there are moral truths (beyond conventions, preferences, etc.) or not on that basis. (a) If you disregard morality and indeed there is none, then you live in a way consistent with your non-moral desires, many of which you may satisfy, and it doesn’t morally matter. (b) But if you live in such a way and there is an objective morality, then while satisfying those personal desires, you will likely lead a morally bad life.

Your other option is to live with the working supposition that there are objective moral truths. (c) If you do, and there aren’t, then you sacrifice some of your personal desires and achieve nothing of moral value (although you may gain a sense of moral fulfilment, but let’s assume that this is outweighed by the losses here). (d) But if you live in such a way and there are moral truths, then you can adhere to these and achieve some good.

So the outcomes for you if you don’t live as though there are objective moral truths are a (potentially) materially satisfying life that is either morally neutral or positively immoral. If you do live as though moral realism is true, then your outcomes are either inconvenience or moral goodness. These different types of factor are harder to weigh than the purely personal costs and benefits of Pascal’s wager.

If we could assume moral realism, then it would be easy: moral considerations trump material ones. From the initial doubtful position, all we can say is that if there are any moral considerations, then they trump material ones. Two of the four outcomes do specify moral realism, so these will count as (b) very bad and (d) very good. The nihilistic other outcomes are morally neutral and either (a) materially satisfying or (c) materially unsatisfying.

Someone who’d like to be a moral realist and is considering this wager would agree that morality, if it is real, is by definition more important than personal advantage. This then requires the judgement that the moral badness and goodness of (b) and (d) respectively is greater not just in degree but in kind than the material goodness and badness of (a) and (c). Which means that acting as if there are moral truths leads to the best expected average outcome, as long as you don’t rule out moral realism completely.

So you may not be able to prove that morality is real, beyond conventions and preferences and the like, but the only way to have even the possibility of adhering to it is to act as if it is real. That’s the moral pragmatist’s wager.

Do similar objections to those that scupper Pascal apply here? Let’s go through them:

  1. Voluntarism about beliefs isn’t relevant. The moral pragmatist’s wager isn’t about choosing to believe in moral realism even though you’re unconvinced; it’s about choosing to act as if moral realism is true.

  2. Because it’s not about belief, it can’t be an abdication of rational judgement. But might it be an abdication of moral judgement, given your uncertainty about whether the moral principles you act on are really real? No. Because even if you’re uncertain about whether there are objective moral truths, acting as though there are is the only way you even stand a chance of doing the right thing and being a moral person. The driving motive in taking the wager is that you want these moral goods, and choosing to go the other way would guarantee that you won’t get them.

  3. It can’t subvert whatever virtue there may be in belief in moral realism, because it doesn’t mandate such belief. But perhaps acting on the basis of a moral belief that you don’t actually hold might somehow negate whatever moral value such actions have? It’s hard to see how this might be, though. To the extent that morality involves consequences of actions, these are unaffected; to the extent that it involves intentions or personal virtues, the wager is based on the intention to be as moral as possible, and this is liable to cultivate a virtuous character; to the extent that it involves rules or duties, these can be adhered to equally well on a pragmatic basis. Also, given that our beliefs aren’t voluntary, there can’t be anything reprehensible about not fully believing in something of which you’re genuinely unsure.

  4. Does it assumes the only relevant options are morality or none? What about different moral viewpoints? It’s true that there are such varied views, which might seem to pose a problem. But, as I said in the very first sentence, this argument is about meta-ethics. It’s about the very general nature of moral truth and moral knowledge at all. The fact that it doesn’t tell us which particular moral theory to favour, or how to resolve any given dilemma, is no criticism. The moral pragmatist’s wager simply tells us that, if moral realism is appealing but not proven, it can still make sense to treat it as a working assumption and to keep thinking morally about more specific issues.

So, there it is. Having only thought of this very recently, I can hardly claim that this line of thinking is what shapes my moral outlook. But it does seem to me (and I add the caveat that this isn’t my field) that the argument more or less hangs together. Maybe not, though; maybe it’s an old idea that’s long been dismissed. Maybe this is just an amateur’s light mental workout, or maybe it’s a striking new piece of moral philosophy.

Wanna bet?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Timing intervention

Ian Williams writes on humanitarian intervention, and makes some fair criticisms of “the anti-Samaritans of the so-called left” who oppose any Western use of force for any reason.

But he also makes a real howler:

“It was probably Blair's abuse of the concept in Iraq that led to the international commission set up by the Canadian government to rename it ‘the responsibility to protect’, which was adopted by the UN in 2005.”

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s Responsibility to Protect report was published in December 2001. So what Blair did from 2003 onwards probably wasn’t all that relevant.

Too much Doctor Who?

The most important thing of all

Despite Tom Hamilton’s complaint a few days ago, the Guardian continues its run of headlines skewed towards the perspective of Westminster ups and downs. Today we have: “Blow to Blair as western aid falls for first time in 10 years”.

Yes, the important angle on that story is that it’s a blow to Blair. Never mind that it might also be a bit of a bummer for someone in Zambia who can’t afford antimalarial drugs. Good priorities, guys.

Monday, April 02, 2007

British stand-off

The idea of a ‘Mexican stand-off’ is pretty well-known: two (or more) people have guns pointed at each other and cannot back down for fear of being shot, nor can they fire for fear of being shot. It’s not a concept that reflects too well on Mexico, I have to say.

Over here, we’re a bit more genteel about such battles of will.

To get the meeting room I was going to this morning, I had to go through door A and then door B in quick succession – they’re in walls at right angles to each other, both next to the same corner.

As I opened door A, another guy coming in the opposite direction opened door B. We stepped most of the way through our respective doors and then held them open.

“After you.”
“No, after you.”
“No, no, I insist.”

A tumbleweed blew along the corridor. A low, sinister, harmonica phrase carried on the wind from who knew where. My eyes narrowed. He darted a glance at the arm I was using to hold open my door, judging his reach against mine.

I knew that the only way to get out of this alive was to play it smart, so I turned my opponent’s strength against him:

“That’s very kind of you; if you want me to go first, I’ll be happy to oblige.”

He seemed pleased. We passed, and it was only as both doors were swinging closed behind us that he realised I’d gained the upper hand by converting his polite offer into a personal desire that needed a generous favour from me. But by then it was too late, as his blood seeped into the dusty office carpet tiles. The first vultures started circling. Soon, de rigueur mortis would set in.

I was the better man. And it felt awfully nice.