My Morals and Your Morals

The last two posts have explained the changeableness in ethics as a result of the nature of the moral object, and as a result of evolution and human nature in the concrete. Still a third kind of flexibility results from individual differences.

Aristotle, as we saw, affirms that happiness and virtue consist in performing well the function of man. So insofar as people have human nature in common, their happiness and virtue will be the same. One might suppose that it follows that human happiness and virtue must be entirely the same in all, but this is a mistake. For the nature of virtue in the concrete follows not only from an abstract idea of a “rational animal,” but from the condition of the human animal taken much more concretely. This follows from the last post, where we saw that moral principles, even ones which we currently understand to be universal principles, could have been otherwise, had the circumstances of the human race been otherwise.

One might respond that this makes no difference, since all of us are members of the human race in the concrete, and consequently we must share the same concrete virtue and happiness. This does follow to some extent, just as does the general argument that all humans possess human nature. But it does not follow perfectly.

It does not follow perfectly, that is, it does not follow that our virtue and happiness is the same in every respect. If ethics were simply a logical deduction from an abstract idea like that of “rational animal,” then one might reasonably suppose that virtue and happiness would be entirely the same in all. But in fact ethics also results from facts that are intrinsically changeable, namely facts about what promotes the flourishing of the human race.

Although these facts are intrinsically changeable, one will not expect them to change from person to person in a random manner. It is not that for some, killing the innocent is harmful for human flourishing, while in others, it is beneficial. Instead, it is harmful for all.

But the fact that we are speaking of intrinsically changeable things does mean that we will have a certain amount of variation from one individual to another. There are facts about human beings that result in moral norms. But these “facts about human beings” may vary, e.g. in degree, from one human to another. Alexander Pruss, discussing the origin of Bayesian priors, makes this remark:

Let me try to soften you up in favor of anthropocentrism about priors with an ethics analogy. If sharks developed rationality, we wouldn’t expect their flourishing to involve quite as much friendship as our flourishing does. Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension, and we would expect different species to resolve that tension differently based on the different ways that they are characteristically adapted to their environment. This is, indeed, an argument for a significant Natural Law component in ethics: even if values are kind-independent, the appropriate resolution of tensions between them is something that may well be relative to a kind.

But just as sharks would have less need for friendship than human beings have, so one human being might have less need for friendship than another.

Aristotle discusses virtue as consisting as a mean between opposed vices:

Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said. Now, that we must act according to the right rule is a common principle and must be assumed-it will be discussed later, i.e. both what the right rule is, and how it is related to the other virtues. But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely, as we said at the very beginning that the accounts we demand must be in accordance with the subject-matter; matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health. The general account being of this nature, the account of particular cases is yet more lacking in exactness; for they do not fall under any art or precept but the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.

But though our present account is of this nature we must give what help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

But not only are the sources and causes of their origination and growth the same as those of their destruction, but also the sphere of their actualization will be the same; for this is also true of the things which are more evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is produced by taking much food and undergoing much exertion, and it is the strong man that will be most able to do these things. So too is it with the virtues; by abstaining from pleasures we become temperate, and it is when we have become so that we are most able to abstain from them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.

Aristotle may be making more or less the same point as this post (and the previous two) when he says that “matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health,” and likewise when he says that “the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion.” Virtue consists in a mean, not too much of something and not too little. But where exactly this mean falls will differ from one individual to another. The case of friendship mentioned above is an example. As Pruss says, “Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension,” and since those values will affect different people differently, we can expect differently people rightly to resolve that tension in different ways, just as Pruss says we could expect different species to resolve it differently. Naturally, we might expect the difference between species to be greater than the difference between individuals. But there will be differences in each case.

So in order to arrive at the mean of truth, there are two opposite errors to be avoided here. One is the Equality Dogma. The other would be the supposition that the differences between individuals might be more or less the same as differences between species. Ian Morris, in his book Why the West Rules–for Now, remarks,

This technical debate over classifying prehistoric skeletons has potentially alarming implications. Racists are often eager to pounce on such details to justify prejudice, violence, and even genocide. You might feel that taking the time to talk about a theory of this kind merely dignifies bigotry; perhaps we should just ignore it. But that, I think, would be a mistake. Pronouncing racist theories contemptible is not enough. If we really want to reject them, and to conclude that people (in large groups) really are all much the same, it must be because racist theories are wrong, not just because most of us today do not like them.

One of the arguments of the book (best understood by reading the book) is that “people (in large groups) really are all much the same,” and that the causes of the differences between West and East were not primarily differences between peoples, but differences of other kinds such as differences of geography.


Using Arguments to Arrive at Understanding

As I suggested in the previous post, we come to understand something better through a number of arguments rather than through a single argument.

Suppose you prove your position through a single argument that seems strong to you. In this case there is a second-order consideration which significantly weakens your argument. Namely, if you already suspected or held a position, or if you wanted it to be true or to believe it, how likely is it that you would manage to find at least one argument in favor of that position which seemed strong to you, given that the position was false? It is probably not much less likely than the same thing given that the position is true, and so the strong argument should not increase your belief in that position by very much. This of course does not imply that you should ignore the content of the argument, but it does mean that you should take it with a bit of caution. Approaching the matter with many arguments weakens this second-order consideration and gives you more reason to accept the implications of the arguments.

Using a number of arguments also helps you to refine your view, making it more precise, giving you a better ability to resolve objections, and so on. This is certainly one of Aristotle’s reasons for proposing the use of dialectic in coming to understand, and a reason for the use of many arguments in disputed questions, as I said in the previous post.

On the other hand, even if you come up with multiple arguments for your position, this may not be very helpful if you ignore opposing evidence, and so it is necessary to construct arguments against your position as well. This is the reason that a disputed question has arguments on both sides.

If you manage to construct a large number of arguments on both sides of a position, this will often give you a very strong basis for judging the truth of the position. It is difficult to assign numerical probabilities, and consequently to determine the exact strength of the evidence or of an argument for a position. But it is often comparatively easy to see the relative strength of two pieces of opposing evidence, or two opposing arguments. Consequently once such a list of opposing arguments has been constructed, it is possible to look at one side and see how the arguments compare to those for the other side.

As I have said earlier, there is evidence for any position, whether it is true or not. However, the evidence for a false position generally tends to be weaker than the evidence for a true position. So for example if nearly all the arguments for one side of a position are fairly weak, while many of the arguments for the other side seem significantly stronger, we can get a pretty good sense of which position is true and which is not.

On another note, there is a good post against the Equality Dogma here.

Politically Incorrect Algorithms

More and more often one sees complaints such as this one from the Washington Post:

Fresh off the revelation that Google image searches for “CEO” only turn up pictures of white men, there’s new evidence that algorithmic bias is, alas, at it again. In a paper published in April, a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University claim Google displays far fewer ads for high-paying executive jobs…

… if you’re a woman.

“I think our findings suggest that there are parts of the ad ecosystem where kinds of discrimination are beginning to emerge and there is a lack of transparency,” Carnegie Mellon professor Annupam Datta told Technology Review. “This is concerning from a societal standpoint.”

The Washington Post attempts to explain:

The interesting thing about the fake users in the Ad Fisher study, however, is that they had entirely fresh search histories: In fact, the accounts used were more or less identical, except for their listed gender identity. That would seem to indicate either that advertisers are requesting that high-paying job ads only display to men (and that Google is honoring that request) or that some type of bias has been programmed, if inadvertently, into Google’s ad-personalization system.

Both of these are certainly possible in principle, and only Google can know for sure. But there is a much simpler explanation. It is possible that men simply click on this kind of ad more often than women do. If so, the ads will be shown to men more often. That is what the algorithm does, and what it is meant to do. It shows ads to the people who are most likely to click on them.

Modern liberalism has a dogma: “Men and women are equal.” This is to be understood literally. They are actually equal in every respect. There is no difference between them except that we happen to use different names, for no particular reason.

This dogma of course is evidently false, more obviously so than the dogmas of Scientology. Men and women are different. They have different properties. They differ on average in basically every respect, since the null hypothesis is always false. The more we use unbiased algorithms, the more the real world will come into conflict with the false dogma of liberalism, much as geology and biology constantly come into conflict with Young Earth Creationism.