Saturday, March 24, 2007

Human Ethics v. Actual Ethics

In my last post, a mere 12 or so hours ago, I tried to make the point that in the sciences, or at least the hard sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology, there is an obvious distinction between human truth and actual truth. Actual truth is what really is. It may be finite, it may be infinite (I think it's infinite in the sense that it's ultimately unknowable to human). It may be dynamic and it may be static (I think that because it's infinite that distinction falls away). I don't think it's self-contradictory because I don't think that our human logic and understanding can encompass the actual truth.

In other words, given that it's beyond our understanding, we constantly observe elements of absolute truth and incorporate those observations into the human truth. When those observations seem to contradict each other, what we really mean is that they're contradicting the human model of the actual. So we readjust our model. We never, ever, readjust the actual. Because we can't. This sense of readjustment is what I refer to when I say that we're part of the actual, we interact with it and live within it, but we don't control it. Perhaps we contribute to what is and what is not, but I don't believe we have the ability to determine how that contribution works. Or, at a higher level, we can't decide how we decide how that contribution works.

Now I'd like to take a stab at applying this seemingly uncontroversial notion (I can't be the first to have articulated it, although maybe the first to articulate it this poorly!) to the efforts of philosophers. Philosophers bandy about different notions of what a good life is, and what type of ethical system we have. Our options seem to generally include two broad options. The first set of options includes those based around a single principle, unqualified or barely qualified. For example, utilitarianism holds that we ought to act in such a way that we maximize the aggregate welfare of humanity (other such consequentialist approaches might look at other results of our actions and say that we're responsible for them: some might look to the aggregate welfare of all sentient beings, others might say say that we should minimize all suffering, or aggregate suffering, etc). On the other hand, the other set includes a broad list of principles or obligations or duties that humans ought to obey. This includes deontological approaches that are often based around a list of duties that we are obligated to obey and value ethics, which holds that human beings, not their actions, should be the basis for moral judgment.

There are distinctions that can be drawn between different ethical theories based on whether they examine the essence of a human, a human's adherence to a set of obligations, or the results of human's behavior. At some point, I put forth, these all require proffering a list of requirements, or definitions, or exceptions, or caveats. Utilitarianism is often praised as 'simple' because we only have to do one thing, and that is maximize aggregate welfare. But what is welfare, how do we aggregate it, and how do we know if we're maximizing it? Trying to answer those questions can lead us down at least two paths. On the first, we analyze humanity and humans, reflecting on what makes us happy, or what pleases us, or is in our best welfare. We think back on decisions we've made, and what we would have done differently if we had known of all the consequences, and what we would do in some idealized hypothetical. Or we can take the second path, and try and determine what is best for us in some absolute sense, independently of what we ourselves would have done.

The former, I say, is just a proxy for the latter. We analyze ourselves because we have no other frame of reference for good or for bad. We're akin to the scientists, trying to understand the actual truth of the universe by modeling it with human truth. Philosophers who practice this form of reflection are doing the same -- they are seeking an absolute truth, but one that they will either never find (because the universe is infinite) or that they will be pretty damn unlikely to find (because human truth is still so far from actual truth in so many other domain, and philosophy and ethics are handicapped by observing what we might consider much more dynamic and complicated systems than chemists and physicists). Let me expand on the last bit of that parenthetical. Physical systems are so immensely complicated we call them chaotic. We know that even if we knew all the inputs into the weather, or into the wobble of a particular piece of jello, or into the development of a fetus into an embryo, we would have to know all of them to an impossible precision in order to determine what the result would be. In other words, it's not just that there are an infinite number of inputs into every aspect of the universe, it's that it is not sufficient to know roughly what the values of those inputs are -- we need to know every last infinite detail about every last infinite input. Sure, I can tell you what will happen if I clap my two hands together. I'll make a noise. I'll feel the pressure of one hand o n the other. But depending on the speed of the clap, the position of my hands when they meet each other, the size of my hands, the shape of my hands when they meet, the temperature, my altitude, and any number of other variables the noise will vary and the sensation will vary. And which cells of my left hand will flake off, and which specs of dirt will be jostled from my right hand? And which dust in the air will be moved up, and which down? Roughly, I can predict what will happen. My hands will meet and I'll hear a noise. Precisely -- I couldn't tell you what would happen until it happened. And even then, so many things will have happened that it'd be impossible to list them all.

And yet, ethicists seek a unified theory of absolute moral truth. I say there is no such thing. There may be an absolute moral truth. But it is no more susceptible to a simple human theory than the absolute physical truth. The absolute moral truth may be discernible locally, in specific instances, and from fixed contexts. But when we step back, when we good at the general truth, and when we vary our perspective, we'll find contradictions and complexity.

The best we can do is what the physical scientists have done. We can explicitly assume a particular scope, assume a particular perspective, and then define a coherent system given those restrictions. Those systems may be simple (euclidean geometry is based on 7 clear assumptions) and thus appeal to utilitarians and their fear of complication and uncertainty. Or they may be fraught with variability and caveats (I believe that much of modern physics is based on the idea of a single function that we hold to be true. But the function has many variables, all of which depend on each other and vary so as to make the function true. This could be considered analogous to an ethical system with lots of caveats and exceptions.).

No comments: