MacIntyre on Protest

Protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

From After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre

Action and Intent

Why should one be generous?

That was the question we started with today. One of us had run across an argument that ran something like this: one should be generous because it gives you a self-satisfaction that nothing else can give you. But then, the question is, isn’t that then not really generosity but selfishness? And what happens after an act of generosity that is ineffective or poorly received? (“They totally didn’t appreciate what I did for them–my generous effort was wasted!”)

So, if the reason behind being generous can’t be only because it makes you feel good (although, happily, that is often a side-effect), why be generous? Why is generosity good?

As is the case with all of the ethical questions we discuss, we reached an impasse, but having discussed ethics so much, we reached it rather quickly. Either generosity is, of itself, inherently good (and there is no way to prove that), or it is good because it is dependent upon something else–a chain of reasoning, or a dictum from God.

We discussed the problems with morality from “God says so.” While this is actually a way to solve the ethics problem, people bristle at it. It’s a conversation-stopper, and it seems overly simple. Shouldn’t there be a chain of apparent reasoning in addition, if in fact morality comes from God?

There’s much to say on this issue, but our conversation instead turned to the analysis of moral actions themselves: specifically centering around the question of action vs. intent. Can someone commit an evil action with a good intent?

For the sake of argument, we all agreed that Hitler’s actions of genocide were evil. But his intent was to promote human flourishing. At first, it appears that it is possible to have a good intention but to go about it in an evil way that actually prevents it from being achieved.

But, I argued, Hitler’s vision of human flourishing is quite different from ours–one that involves racial purity. So, it’s not enough to say that Hitler’s goal was “human flourishing” and dismiss it at that. We have a different conception of human flourishing that does not involve racial purity, therefore we would never have need of genocide in going about achieving it. The goal, at least in part, dictates the action.

Thus, it may be that since the action is dependent in no small way on the intent, the separation of the two is artificial. The intent is embedded in the action. Again: is it possible to commit an evil act with a good intention, or does the evil present in the act indicate evil intent?

We explored this a little bit with the example of Robin Hood. Robin Hood’s crime of robbery might be evil, committed for the greater good of redistributing wealth and caring for the poor. But, would it not be possible to say that Robin Hood’s act of robbery, while a crime under law, was actually the breaking of an unjust law (which stipulated that the wealthy should maintain their wealth while the poor should suffer), and therefore actually a just/good action?

What if Robin Hood killed someone during his act of robbery? Would that still be achieving a good end through evil means? Well, partly this depends on the circumstances of the killing, but we concluded that the act of killing is separate from the act of robbery, and therefore its intent could (should?) be considered separately. If Robin Hood kills someone out of fear of being killed himself–a preemptive, defensive killing–then he is doing so with the intent of preserving his mission, supported by an unjustifiable prediction of the future: how does he know that no one will continue his mission if he is killed? However, if his intention is different–to commit a virtuous robbery without harming anyone unless necessary (whatever that might mean)–the killing will not happen. The intent dictates the action.

Even in the case of the US capture of Osama Bin Laden, the civilian casualties indicate something about the goal. The vision included the potential for civilian casualties. If the intent were for a more righteous capture of Osama Bin Laden, the actions would not have been the same–we might have waited for a more opportune time, or gone about it in a less destructive (although perhaps potentially less effective) manner.

We concluded that actions, being highly dependent upon intent, actually include intent as an embedded aspect. The two are inseparable.

Our conversation drifted to various topics: transgenderism, feminism, gender, the idea of rights in general. An interesting question was, if gender is only a societal construct, can there be any justification for gender reassignment surgery on the basis of someone “knowing” they are a certain way?

The arguments for certain of these positions seemed pretty poor, and it appears that many people choose their positions based on their feelings rather than any sort of rational or critical thought process. I recalled a passage from Alasdair MacIntyre about how the shrill “protest” that we see in marches and rallies comes from the subconscious knowledge of the protesters that they can’t actually win their case in rational argument, so they must put on a display of emotion as a means of persuasion instead.
After having discussed many hot-button issues calmly and in the space of about ten minutes, we lamented how easily people are swept up emotionally and hang on to certain positions even though they are clearly not tenable. An acquaintance of mine told me recently that he decides his beliefs based on interpreting the facts of his life objectively–but what manner of interpretation is objective? (Doesn’t objectivity rule out any sort of interpretation by definition?) And what constitutes “facts,” especially when it comes to one’s own life or experience? After a certain point, knowing about philosophy is, in a way, like knowing that the emperor has no clothes. We get in arguments with people forgetting that they still think the emperor has clothes on. It’s no wonder these arguments are frustrating and go nowhere–many people are not aware of the philosophical assumptions they hold, or if they are, they take them as “givens.”

Preservation of the unfit, survivalism, and conforming to nonconformity

It’s been a while since Philosophy Club convened, and even longer since I’ve kept track of the minutes.

We began throwing out some different topics: Aristotle’s idea of the highest good (is it called eudaimonia?) was the first, by way of moral relativism and my devastating critique of it. (There is still some discontent regarding that post, but the relativists are in retreat for now.)

Serious discussion began around this hypothetical question: If human beings were created/grown for the purpose of transplanting the consciousness of the elderly (in order to allow people to live longer), would that be ethical? The human beings grown would be fully-formed human beings, with consciousnesses of their own.

It seemed to us at first that it would be unethical, since the transplantation of consciousness would erase the “original” consciousness of the body. Even if the bodies are grown for this purpose, they are still human beings. We noted that a human being is more than the sum of his parts–growing an ear on a lab rat and then removing it is of little consequence, but growing an entire human being and then erasing his consciousness (in effect, killing him, although not bodily) is a different matter.

Then we discussed the euthanasia and assisted suicide question. At what point is someone’s suffering “enough” to merit his decision to kill himself, or the doctors’ decision to kill him if he is not conscious? Is it subjective? Some people find reason to complain even though they live in luxury. “My internet connection is slow!” Suffering? Whereas, some people whose situations and circumstances would seem to indicate great suffering can find contentment even so. A person can feel suicidal, like life is not worth living, at the breakup of a relationship–but someone who has lost loved ones, or worse, can still think that life is a blessing.

In the case of euthanasia, we observed that the predictive powers of doctors is limited. No matter how low the chances of recovery, there is always the chance. Does this chance for recovery not justify keeping the person alive? Euthanasia is, paradoxically, an act of both arrogance and hopelessness.

The next question was asked in the context of Darwinism and survival of the fittest. In providing cesarean sections for pregnant women who are having difficulty in labor, and providing life support to infants who need it, are we preserving people unfit for survival? The answer seems to be yes. If “nature” were left to its own course, many people now living would have died during childbirth (mothers and babies), and others would not have been born (the mothers having died previously in childbirth). What are the potential consequences of this? Are we breeding a race of people radically unfit for survival in this universe? Will we eventually turn into a race of weaklings who will need more and more forms of life support as we preserve those who are unable to survive on their own, and always have been since birth?

Someone postulated that ethics comes from man’s instinct to survive. Survival is the ultimate goal of all ethics–right and wrong is decided by what will preserve the species best. I objected to this with a few different ethical scenarios.

The first is, of course, eugenics and genocide. If we want the race to survive, shouldn’t we exterminate people who are less fit, who would weaken the human race and make it less likely or able to survive–or at least work to breed people who are stronger and more fit? Many people would say that both of these projects are ethically wrong. That it is even a question seems to indicate that ethics is not merely about survival.

Second, I posed the example of a woman who is infertile. Somehow, we know that she is infertile (perhaps she has had her ovaries removed). At this point, she is simply consuming resources. Should she not be exterminated, to preserve the resources for people who are actually aiding the survival of the race (by reproduction)? There were a couple of objections to this. First of all, people who are infertile can still make contributions to society. But then we run into the problem of deciding what constitutes a contribution. What, beyond existence, constitutes a contribution?

Third, I asked, what about acts of sacrifice? A man standing by a river, and seeing a drowning child, should not jump in to save the child if survival is the ultimate priority. It would not even be a question. Refraining from attempting to save the child would guarantee his own survival of the situation 100%, whereas jumping in would significantly lower his chance of survival, even if it might raise the child’s chance of survival a little bit. Further, a child stupid enough to fall in the river should be allowed to perish and not reproduce, since clearly this child is less fit than children who do not fall in rivers. This clearly runs against the vast majority of morality throughout human history, which values acts of sacrifice and courage. Survivalism values cowardice.

None of this says that survivalism isn’t correct as an ethical system, but it seems to dismantle the idea that as human beings we got ethics from our instinct to survive.

We discussed conformity and nonconformity. What exactly is non-conformity; is it even possible? If you are a nonconformist, aren’t you really conforming to a certain idea about what nonconformity is? At the very least, nonconformity indicates that there is, at the outset, something to conform to, and there may be a wide range of possibilities, but there is still a limit to them. There is a framework to conform to: at the very least it excludes whatever falls under “conformity.” I mentioned Thoreau’s apparent difficulty with holding nonconformity as an ultimate ideal–after two years at Walden pond, he felt frustrated at having conformed to the path he had laid out for himself. But what did he think was going to happen?! With every choice we make, we only choose what it is that we are going to conform to, or how. There is really no such thing as pure nonconformity. This might also be why Nietzsche had a hard time developing a “new ethics”–he was vehemently anti-Christian, and wrote that the Ubermensch would be the man free from all morality. But at the very least, wouldn’t this mean acting contrary to Christian values, and wouldn’t this be limiting?

I posited that all “nonconformity” is actually to conformity to something outside of what’s been called “conformity” in the situation. For example, an activist might refuse to conform to an unjust law–but only because he is conforming to a higher ethical framework, one that declares that the law is unjust.

Lastly, we discussed argument itself, and how too often people engage in argument to win, not to learn (ourselves included). I mentioned Rogerian argument as an ideal alternative, in which one argues by convincing the opponent that it is in her benefit to adopt his position, necessitating that he begins by finding common ground, a place of solidarity.