Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Moral Order and Immanent Justice

Let's say the world is morally ordered if good things come to those who act morally well and bad things come to those who act morally badly.

Moral order admits of degrees. We might say that the world is perfectly morally ordered if everyone gets exactly what they morally deserve, perfectly immorally ordered if everyone gets the opposite of what they morally deserve, and has no moral order if there's no relationship between what one deserves and what one gets.

Moral order might vary by subgroup of individuals considered. Perhaps the world is better morally ordered in 21st century Sweden than it was in 1930s Russia. Perhaps the world is better morally ordered among some ethnicities or social classes than among others. Class differences highlight the different ways in which moral order can fail: Moral order can fail among the privileged if they do not suffer for acting badly, can fail among the disadvantaged if they do not benefit from acting well.

Moral order might vary by action type. Sexual immorality might more regularly invite disaster than financial immorality, or vice versa. Kindness to those you know well might precipitate deserved benefits or undeserved losses more dependably than kindness to strangers.

Moral order can be immanent or transcendent. Transcendent moral order is ensured by an afterlife. Immanent moral order eschews the afterlife and is either magical (mystical attraction of good or bad fortune) or natural.

Some possible natural mechanisms of immanent moral order:

* A just society. Obviously.

* A natural attraction to morality of the sort Mencius finds in us. Our hearts are delighted, Mencius says, when we see people do what's plainly good and revolted when we see people do what's plainly wrong. Even if this impulse is weak, it might create a constant pressure to reward people for doing the right and revile them for doing the wrong; and it might add pleasure to one's own personal choices of the right over the wrong.

* The Dostoyevskian and Shakespearian psychological reactions to crime. Crime might generate fear of punishment or exposure, including exaggerated fear; it might lead to a loss of intimacy with others if one must hide one's criminal side from them; and it might encourage further crimes, accumulating risk.

* Shaping our preferences toward noncompetitive goods over competitive ones. If you aim to be richer than your neighbors, or more famous, or triumphant in physical, intellectual, or social battle, then you put your happiness at competitive risk. The competition might encourage morally bad choices; and maybe success in such aims is poorly morally ordered or even negatively morally ordered. Desires for non-competitive goods -- the pleasures of shared friendship and a good book -- seem less of a threat to the moral order (though books and leisure time are not free, and so subject to some competitive pressures). And if it's the case that we can find as much or more happiness in easily obtainable non-competitive goods, then even if wealth goes to the jerks, the world might be better morally ordered than it at first seems.

How morally ordered is the world? Do we live in a world where the knaves flourish while the sweethearts are crushed underfoot? Or do people's moral choices tend to come back around to them in the long run? No question, I think, is more central to one's general vision of the world, that is, to one's philosophy in the broad and and proper sense of "philosophy". All thoughtful people have at least implicit opinions about the matter, I think -- probably explicit opinions, too.

Yet few contemporary philosophers address the issue in print. We seem happy to leave the question to writers of fiction.

34 comments:

Brandon said...

Reminds me very much of Joseph Butler (Analogy of Religion, Part I, esp. chapter III)! It does seem that the question deserves a great deal of attention that it doesn't get.

One of the things that I think Butler makes clear is that there needs to be some kind of time-element involved in answering the question -- receiving what one deserves may be a matter of the short-term or the long-term.

John Schwenkler said...

One place in contemporary philosophy where there is some discussion of this is the (small) literature on "moral faith". It's also relevant to the problem of evil, of course. And there has been considerable discussion in recent moral theory of whether virtue always brings happiness -- though that is only a small part of what moral order would require.

My favorite classical text on the subject is Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, both for the solution it tries to develop and for the extremely forceful statement of the problem in Book I.

Eric Steinhart said...

I'll say the world is perfectly morally ordered, but that this order is transcendent. But I'll derive this result from axiarchists like Leslie and Rescher, rather than theism (since I take theism to be false, and, in fact, not entirely relevant).

Unknown said...

Assuming that moral order is a kind of order (and what else would it be a kind of?) then the second law thermodynamics seems thoroughly on the opposing side of it. And if things aren't morally disordered now, just wait.

chinaphil said...

Are you sure it doesn't get much attention? Isn't this what political philosophy is? It seems to me that Rawls is all about precisely this problem: he first asserts that there are certain things which all people deserve, then tries to design his society in order to ensure that they get them. That's a specific kind of moral desert, not the most general version you're getting at here, but I think it counts. Human rights work follows the same model.

And all the recent discussion about paternalism has been very germane. I don't know how much it's been reflected in the technical philosophy literature, but the debate around the Sunstein nudge thing is all about to what extent it's legitimate for some authority to institute the kind of desert systems you're talking about.

The work on open borders seems to be explicitly about this as well.

What I really wanted to say, though, is that there seems to me to be a big problem with linking morality and desert. If you do something because it's good, then why do you deserve a reward on top? And if you do good because it's rewarded, aren't we going to get stuck in a circular definition of the good as rewarded because it's good because it's rewarded?

Maybe this topic has not featured in philosophy in quite the way you hope for because it is inherently empirical. I just translated a Chinese philosophy book which argued for the fairness of the Chinese imperial examinations because they were open to all, and those who were successful in the examinations tended to be successful politicians (this is more about intellectual merit than moral merit, but morality certainly factored in). This was philosophy/historiography, but all of the writer's sources were empirical history texts. So perhaps the empirical demands of the question tend to shut philosophers out of the debate.

Sam Clark said...

Like chinaphil, I immediately thought of Rawls. I fairly frequently teach undergraduates Rawls's argument for the irrelevance of desert to justice. I often pair it with a sketch of empirical material on the just world illusion.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks!

Brandon: Cool, now I have an excuse to go read more Butler!

John: Yes, clearly related to the problem of evil. Don't know the literature on "moral faith" though. I see Robert Adams has a 1995 article of that title that looks interesting. Boethius's *Consolations* is underappreciated.

Eric: Yes, I see how that might be a natural direction to go with "digital afterlives".

Pete: You forget that perfect chaos is just perfect order standing on its head.

Chinaphil: Right, I mean it as an empirical question. Of course, there's plenty of work in political philosophy on what a more just society would look like, which is one piece of a morally ordered world. I agree that there's a semi-paradox that moral order creates: If one does good *because* it will get you benefit (e.g., of Heaven) then you're just acting self-interestedly, it seems, and maybe not deserving of high praise. However, I think it is possible to pull apart such self-interested motivations from other-regarding motivations in moral choice, at least in principle.

Sam: That's a nice mix. The "just world" illusion is a really cool meta-level concern about the moral order picture.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

On Google+, Daniel Estrada posted this comment, which I thought was so interesting that I'd repost it here (with his permission):

One of my conceptual hobby horses is to distinguish between order and organization. (see +Jon Lawhead sec. 2.2 for a more careful discussion: http://goo.gl/9wpnHR)

Ordered systems are arranged to exhibit a certain kind of regularity. For instance, a set of numbers is ordered if it is arranged so that each element is greater than or equal to the previous element. The natural and real numbers can be ordered in this way, but the complex numbers cannot be. That means a system can have highly intricate structure without being ordered.

Organized systems exhibit structure without necessarily being ordered in any straightforward way. For instance, you can't put your body's organ systems in order; the demand doesn't make sense. Nevertheless, these systems fit together into an integrated system. As Hooker says (quoted in Lawhead above), organization is "a process where dynamical form is no longer invariant across dynamical states but is rather a (mathematical) function of them"

I claim that our moral commitments compose a web of relations that are organized but not ordered as described above. If this is the case, then it would call into question your claim that "moral order admits of degrees".

If you're right and the moral order admits of degrees, we should be able to take any collection of moral relations and evaluate them against any other to determine an ordering, that one is "better" than the other by the standards we've decided.

But if I'm right and there is no such ordering relation among our moral commitments, then our ability to conduct such an evaluation will inevitably fail. Just as we can't order the complex numbers, we can't order our moral commitments either-- not because of some inherent subjectivity of the topic, but rather because the application of order is in some sense a category mistake.

We can use "health" as a relatively neutral example of organized norms that admit of no ordering. Of two healthy people, which is healthier than the other? I don't know that this question has a sensible answer in the general case. Even if we admit a clear distinction between healthy and unhealthy, there seems to be little grounds on which to rank the health of two people relative to each other. Say A and B are of comparable health, but A exercises for 20 minutes more per week, and B gets 20 minutes more sleep per week. Surely these activities make a difference for their health, but even knowing lots of data like this won't suffice for ranking the two.

It isn't just the specific activities A and B engage in, it's really a matter of how their dynamical form changes across their dynamical states. Two different people acting in wildly different ways (and thus crossing through different states) may nevertheless exhibit a dynamical form that we can identify as "healthy", even though we can't say which is more healthy than the other.

If, like health, moral commitments don't admit of degrees, that doesn't mean we should stop reasoning about the structure of our moral commitments. But it does limit substantially the positive moral claims we might expect these efforts to yield. For instance, if we're hoping these efforts yield answers for what we "ought" to do, we're not likely to find much help.

A moral ought implies an orientation in the moral landscape, and that logically implies some privileged ordering of that field. If the moral landscape is not ordered but organized then there is no such orientation or privileged moral compass.As Nietzsche and Dostoevsky realized long ago, this fact itself has left an impact on the moral landscape.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

My reply: Daniel, that is really interesting! You could still have a "moral order" in something like my intended sense even if there weren't an "ordering" in your sense. For example, sexual immorality might lead to certain types of bad outcomes and fiscal immorality might lead to other types of bad outcomes even if there is no overall ordering between sexual and fiscal obligations. Yes?

[See Google+ for our continuing discussion.]

Callan S. said...


As a random internet philosopher (saying so as to avoid claiming any more credability than that), I think the phrase 'Justice or just us?' is trite, yet apt.

* Shaping our preferences toward noncompetitive goods over competitive ones.

And if it's the case that we can find as much or more happiness in easily obtainable non-competitive goods, then even if wealth goes to the jerks, the world might be better morally ordered than it at first seems.

The thing is, the jerks use their wealth to undermine the structure by which you even get non-competative goods (ie, reading a book under a tree on a sunny day, maybe a glass of wine).

It's like a boardgame where when someone wins it, they can actually set the other players starting positions in a new game to less than they started at in the previous session of the game, while the winner keeps their starting position or can actually modify their starting position to a better one than in previous sessions of the game.

Anyone would think that's an obscene and frankly shit boardgame and would avoid it like the plague.

But when it comes to real life, it seems to have been normalised for some weird reason?

I think people have trouble percieving the broken ends of procedure in the structure, that allow a winner to control starting positions for the next generation/game session.

That's what I'd really like to get into, but as an internet random you're dealt only so many credibility coins - which aren't nearly enough to just demand discussion goes in a certain way! So I spend them on the smaller subjects that become available and I can afford. :)



Chinaphil,

If you do something because it's good, then why do you deserve a reward on top?

Maybe it's how you, looking at them getting a reward, forget you're part of the equation?

Because otherwise it's you expecting this person to do good without you paying anything for it. How is that good of you? They don't get a reward so as to reward, they get it as part of your humility?

chinaphil said...

I'm with Eric on Daniel Estrada's comment. I don't see why the fact that there isn't a single ordering of this complex phenomenon means there can't be any ordering at all.

Callan: If I reward good-doers as a result of my humility, is their reward still a result of their moral goodness? I see two options here: (1) moral realism, where there is good out there in the world and you either do it or you don't; in that case, the social rewards either align with morality or they don't; if they don't, then they tend to pervert; if they do, they are at best otiose (since real morality demands our compliance regardless of reward), and at worst perverting (because they turn the urge to do good into the urge to get a reward. (2) non-realism, where morality is just a personal or social construct; in this case isn't morality just whatever society rewards? It's hard to see how more reward systems could change that one way or another.

But having argued all that, I'm not sure I believe it. For example, a society which punishes crimes against its most privileged more harshly than crimes against its least privileged (like ours!) seems to me to be disordered, and more moral order could be imposed by changing the way the justice system operates. But I think this work is being done - just recently slatestarcodex posted a big review on all the research into racial bias in the justice system. There is plenty of this literature out there, though perhaps Eric's right that it hasn't been effectively tied together and synthesised by philosophers.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: "The thing is, the jerks use their wealth to undermine the structure by which you even get non-competative goods (ie, reading a book under a tree on a sunny day, maybe a glass of wine)." Maybe so. Then the world might be immorally ordered.

Chinaphil: Yes, I agree with that.

Callan S. said...

Chinaphil, as I said above, it's not their reward - it's your humility.

Callan S. said...

Eric,

I'm not sure 'immorally ordered' is apt - it'd suggest some force is ordering it that way.

I'd pitch the model of simply a lack of a force setting things in what one might call a moral order. Entropy, I guess.

chinaphil said...

Callan - there are a few problems with that.
1) Problem of causality. Eric asked about a society where good things come to those who act well, but if the cause of the rewarding is someone else's humility, then we haven't established that the rewards will go to the good. You need at least two more conditions: am I able to recognise the good; am I able to reward the good?
2) Problem of institutions. Eric was talking about whether "society" rewards morality or not. The distribution of rewards is overwhelmingly done through institutions, not by individuals. I might be humble, but it's not clear how that would translate into an institutional arrangement.
3) Problem of knowledge. I might be morally humble and inclined to give such rewards as I can to the good, but there's a sense in which I have to be arrogant to do so: I have to assume that I am competent to judge who is good and who is not. If I don't think I can make that judgment myself, then I put my trust in institutions to make it for me, and we're back to the original question.

chinaphil said...

Oh, one more thing:
Callan:
"Anyone would think that's an obscene and frankly shit boardgame and would avoid it like the plague."
And yet that's pretty much how drinking games work. What does that tell you about real life?!

Callan S. said...

Chinaphil,

You asked if someone does good, why do they deserve a reward. This is like asking how Frodo got past the giant spider.

I gave an answer in the context, but to say 'how do you identify good?' is just to pull the rug from under the whole thing: 'Frodo is just made up!'. I think you have to acknowledge Frodo using the glowy thing he got from Galadriel is a pretty good answer, within the context. As is 'it's not their reward, it's your humility' a pretty good answer, within the context.

I think 'what is good' is too easy a way out. Too easy a card to play for good sport. Surely it opens up play to too big a subject - one which demands literal, scientifically objective 'good' to be identified, as well?


And yet that's pretty much how drinking games work. What does that tell you about real life?!

The various rich jerks are somehow getting us plastered?

Surely not? But at the same time actually I wonder that sometimes - whether we allow big rich jerks to exist, simply to have an instinctive satisfying enemy to face rather than to face existential angst. The 'instinctive enemy' is the booze. It's a bit like Lovecraft's thing about running from the light and rushing back into a dark age - except simply avoiding having left a dark age to begin with, in this case.

chinaphil said...

That's not quite what I was doing. I'm not demanding that you identify the good, I'm just pointing out that what you propose isn't a complete solution. The question was "Why do the good get rewards? (And implicitly the bad get no rewards/punishment)" The idea that the humble give rewards is fine, but you need to fill in the extra step between the urge of the humble to give rewards and actually achieving it. Not that you have to specify now what the good is, but that you have to show in principle how a link between humility and goodness could work. Because it's not obvious that a humble person wouldn't just spray rewards around indiscriminately.

As to the drunken thing, I think you're making the error of over-attribution. It's not that "we" have chosen anything. There are just a load of uncontrolled, naturally arising feedback loops which tend to give more to those who have more. No conspiracy or subconscious sabotage, just chance plus consequence.

Having thought about it some more, I think that I disagree with the importance of moral orderliness as Eric has it here. One way of thinking about it is in terms of money. Because money is a general unit of exchange most of life's rewards can be mediated through it. But do I really want to live in a world where more money goes to the morally good? That's just not something that jumps to mind when I think about what would make the world a better place. It doesn't seem relevant, somehow. On the other hand, if the Rawlsian fundamental goods - basically human rights - could be guaranteed for everyone, that would be a massive step in the right direction. So in fact I'm interested less in rewarding excellence than I am in completely severing and cauterising the link between rights and any form of measurement or reward. I.e. ending the ability of the rich to twist the system in their own favour.

Certain goods like democracy and justice don't seem to admit of degrees: I don't want more democracy for the rich or more justice for the good. By their nature they demand equality. And as I said, linking money to morality doesn't seem urgent.

If monetary rewards are not linked to goodness, but awarded through some other, amoral system, then you could easily get frustration and jealousy, and you might need systems to mitigate that problem. But I don't think that constitutes cause to try to set up a general linkage. Rather it requires piecemeal action against situations where perverse incentives exist.

Thank you, Eric, for your writing and kind engagement all this year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year if you celebrate such things, generalised seasonal cheer if you don't!

Callan S. said...

Chinaphil,

Your original question was

If you do something because it's good, then why do you deserve a reward on top?

By using 'good' without any question marks, you've set it as the frame. I don't have to explain a frame you've already affirmed yourself! If you want to bring it into question, don't affirm by using it without question! You'll have to pitch a new question.

That or maybe you want me to somehow have a grasp on 'good' to share with you? That's maybe why my semantic lawyering above will seem cheap and mean spirited ;) That I'm bah-ing at the bugs in your hum!

As to the drunken thing, I think you're making the error of over-attribution. It's not that "we" have chosen anything. There are just a load of uncontrolled, naturally arising feedback loops which tend to give more to those who have more. No conspiracy or subconscious sabotage, just chance plus consequence.

I think that's learned helplessness.

It's like saying if you go out in the sun and get sunburned, you didn't make a choice. Just chance plus consequences.

Wear a hat! Wear sunscreen (granted, that's a question of money - you can atleast craft a hat)! This is why I say it seems learned helplessness - because there are things you can do. But its easier to say you didn't have a choice and it's 'just how things are'.

I think this is actually worth a scientific study - I seem to regularly run into this pattern of how the system is excused - mostly by a form of apathy 'oh, they're all just shit!'. Plus mixing up enviromental and man made effects - treating man made effects as if they were like the wheather - as in how one treats the weather as something one can't do anything about and it's just chance plus consequence. Which in regard to the weather is an apt observation.

In regard to man made events, it's passing on responsibility.

So in fact I'm interested less in rewarding excellence than I am in completely severing and cauterising the link between rights and any form of measurement or reward. I.e. ending the ability of the rich to twist the system in their own favour.

That sounds like it favours the rich, actually, given they don't provide excellence - they use money to get more money. That's nothing to do with excellence. Except the Mr Burns type 'Excellent!'. I think the rich would like what you're saying.

chinaphil said...

Callan:

Yes, you're right about the phrasing of the question. In my phrasing I did assume goodness, so in tightly answering my question, you can do the same. As I say, that wouldn't be sufficient to make your answer a good response to Eric's question about moral orderliness, so I guess I was asking slightly the wrong question, or going off on a tangent.

On the apathy thing: this just seems to be an area on which reasonable people can disagree. Clearly the reality is that some factors which cause inequality are natural (accidents like place of birth or random disease); some are man-made and intentional (like policies insulating bankers from the consequences of their actions); some are man-made unintended consequences (like high house prices around good schools). Some are a mixture. I wouldn't even know how to go about measuring how much of each of these types of factors contributes to inequality. My feeling is that the sheer complexity of the world makes it very difficult to eliminate all inequality, and so it is best to think of inequality as an inevitable, natural phenomenon. I have evidence for this: political systems have been set up in a sincere attempt to end inequality, and they have created massive inequality themselves. I live in China - one striking thing about the heyday of communism here is not just how it failed to make everyone rich, it failed to make everyone equal. Everyone had the same amount of money, but power differentials were sharply accentuated.

On whether Rawlsianism is just a defence of the status quo: sure, that's an argument that has been made many times. To some extent, I would cop to it. If the rich really want more money that badly, frankly I would be inclined to let them have it, on condition that we get good democracy and equal justice in return.

In practice, that's not the way I vote: I'm left wing because I think money always perverts the political and justice systems, so we do need to rein in economic inequality. But in theory, if we could ensure equal distribution of fundamental goods, I wouldn't care much about the distribution of secondary goods, and I certainly wouldn't think it necessary to link them to morality. (For example, it might be better for humanity to have the economy organised purely on the principle of efficiency, so that we get as good a lifestyle as possible, rather than try to reward morality with money.)

Callan S. said...

Chinaphil,

As I say, that wouldn't be sufficient to make your answer a good response to Eric's question about moral orderliness, so I guess I was asking slightly the wrong question, or going off on a tangent.

Oh well, we gave it a shot atleast!

Clearly the reality is that some factors which cause inequality are natural (accidents like place of birth or random disease); some are man-made and intentional (like policies insulating bankers from the consequences of their actions); some are man-made unintended consequences (like high house prices around good schools).

On desease I agree partially, but still largely disagree because of modern medicine. With medical power comes responsibility - it's not just 'that's nature!'.

And on the rest, I just disagree they are natural. Where you are born can be adjusted for by other humans. Land prices around high schools can be changed.

It's simply relabeling the 'hard basket' as the 'natural basket'

My feeling is that the sheer complexity of the world makes it very difficult to eliminate all inequality, and so it is best to think of inequality as an inevitable, natural phenomenon.

My feeling is we should admit the point at which we are too weak to do anything about a problem.

Just calling it inevitable and natural phenomonen is like a drunk at AA avoiding admitting he's an alchoholic and instead saying the drinking is inevitable and natural. In a way he is absolutely correct. It is, however, really just a sleight of hand of our weak insight into ourselves - of course without a corrective process in the brain along with everything else, the boozing is inevitable and natural. Inequality being natural and innevitable is as correct as the drunks claim in the same way. When you don't admit your weakness, it all seems perfectly natural (because without that admittance process, it technically is correct)

But in theory, if we could ensure equal distribution of fundamental goods, I wouldn't care much about the distribution of secondary goods, and I certainly wouldn't think it necessary to link them to morality.

Looking past the singular useage of the word 'morality' for the moment, doesn't morality have to end at some physical result at some point? To paraphase the indian, after he's been saintly or how pious, the white man will realise he can't eat morality.

If morality has to exit to the physical at some point, are you not still talking of morality (some kind of it) in your talk of fundamental goods distribution?

chinaphil said...

Sorry, long comment split in two below.

When I say "inequality is natural/inevitable", I think you're reading it as "so no point trying to change specific inequality X". What I actually mean is: it seems to be impossible to totally eliminate inequality, so while we should be continually engaged in mitigating specific inequalities, we shouldn't be worrying too much about the fact that inequality exists.

(In part I think this is a psychological phenomenon: it is literally impossible for the human mind to judge things in an absolute way. The way we work is by understanding things in terms of contrasts. So even among the very rich, e.g. middle class Americans, we are constantly seeking difference, contrast, inequality.)

I gave the example of house prices around schools, and you said they can be changed. Sure, they can. But there are consequences to intervening to change those prices. We should be constantly weighing up the costs/benefits of intervening on this specific issue. When the cost of those high prices becomes so great (poor people priced out of good education) that it outweighs the costs of intervening, we should act. But there's no point imagining that our intervention will be consequence-free. Bussing kids has a cost; intervening in the markets has a cost; someone will bear those costs, and new inequalities will be created. That's what I mean by natural: not that this specific inequality is natural, but that inequality in general can't be escaped.

"are you not still talking of morality (some kind of it) in your talk of fundamental goods distribution?"

Not entirely sure what this means. There are at lest three places that "morality" can be attached, and it's worth separating them out.

1) What Eric was talking about: the personal qualities of the recipients of social rewards.
2) The actions of people in giving rewards.
3) Institutions. And when we talk about institutions, there are a number of different ways in which they can be moral, immoral or amoral. Eric proposes "moral orderliness" whereby an institution would be morally orderly if it rewards those who are moral. I'm interested in institutions of equality (like a fair justice system or democracy) which at least in some respects make no distinctions between moral and immoral people. (That sounds odd for the justice system, I know: it should punish bad people, not good people. But on the other hand it makes no distinction between good and bad victims of crime.) Most importantly, institutions are deeply affected by non-moral factors: organisational efficiency, decision structure, motivational factors. An institution's ability to be moral is a combination of whether it tries to do moral things, and whether it is set up well enough to succeed at achieving its goals.

As I said above, most of society's rewards are doled out through institutions, not through individual action or individual humility. So my ability to do moral good in the world depends much more (I think) on my participation in good systems than it does on my personal morality.

chinaphil said...

My judgment is that good systems tend to be those which impose equality rather than those which reward morality. So I would want to support, participate in and maintain systems like democracy and the UK justice system, rather than, for example, China's system of government and justice system.

Having made my choice to pay UK taxes and vote in the UK, I don't think my individual actions (paying taxes) are particularly moral. So I think I can *do* moral good (through the system) without *being* morally good.

So in that sense, I think there is a disconnect between personal morality and moral ordering. Good moral social order is linked neither with the morality of the recipients (because the best institutions are impartial) nor with the morality of the actors (because the people who make up the institution are just doing their jobs, not being particularly heroic).

Of course there are lots of things we do which are not mediated by institutions, and here we can judge morality more directly. Giving to charity is morally good, and has good effects. But for the vast majority of people, their extra-institutional actions will never do as much good in the world as their actions within pre-existing roles: being a good son, good husband, good father, good voter, good manager.

It's a bit like domestic power saving to stop global warming: complete rubbish. It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference how diligent I am about turning the lights off every time I leave the room. CO2 emissions don't depend on that. They depend on the system in which I am embedded. I find attempts to push the responsibility for global warming onto us (by saying "always turn out the lights" as if that could make a difference) a bit offensive. Similarly, it's just wrong to tell people they can change the world through their personal moral efforts. They can change the world through their institutional efforts, which may not be particularly moral at all. Campaigning for voting reform at the UN hardly makes you a saint, does it? And yet that might be the thing that makes the world a better place for a billion people.

Callan S. said...

What I actually mean is: it seems to be impossible to totally eliminate inequality, so while we should be continually engaged in mitigating specific inequalities, we shouldn't be worrying too much about the fact that inequality exists.

I don't know. That sounds like both not worrying about looking both ways before crossing the street and along with it, not looking both ways before crossing the street.

I grant habitual looking can occur without having to also worrying.

But you're suggesting not worrying and suggesting it without any habitual habit to forfil the worry.


I gave the example of house prices around schools, and you said they can be changed. Sure, they can. But there are consequences to intervening to change those prices. We should be constantly weighing up the costs/benefits of intervening on this specific issue. When the cost of those high prices becomes so great (poor people priced out of good education) that it outweighs the costs of intervening, we should act. But there's no point imagining that our intervention will be consequence-free. Bussing kids has a cost; intervening in the markets has a cost; someone will bear those costs, and new inequalities will be created. That's what I mean by natural: not that this specific inequality is natural, but that inequality in general can't be escaped.


Your examples of intervening are like messing with the car radio when someone else is at the wheel.

It appears your idea of 'having to happen' inequalities is simply a result of your scale of changing the system being only a small part of the system. Then the greater, unchanged parts of that system seem to be 'how it is'.

Again, if, when actually working at large scale and replacing all of it with whatever model, you do not think you are strong enough (in whatever strength might be described as needed) to eliminate all inequalities - just say so. If so, fair enough.

But this 'look, busing kids costs money' stuff is just more a way of accepting the status quo, which itself is just a way of avoiding admitting any inability to generate a model without inequality.

Saying the inequality is natural when really it's a result of incapacity on ones own part is - calling something natural when it's man made. And perhaps even approving it.

"are you not still talking of morality (some kind of it) in your talk of fundamental goods distribution?"

Not entirely sure what this means.


But surely the connection is clear - none of this morality talk matters if no one gets any food. We all die of starvation.

Either morality is tied to fundimental goods distribution (and so your talk of fundimental goods distribution is tied to morality), or morality is a pie in the sky concept that in its practice could leave everyone to starve. Actually there may be historical examples of that...

Callan S. said...

So my ability to do moral good in the world depends much more (I think) on my participation in good systems than it does on my personal morality.
This is easily just a way of avoiding the things you don't want to do, because of the claim that it's the system...and the system is natural (because we do things by system, as you say, therefore there's no other way, therefore natural).

Choose a system that does bad things that profit you, but then claim piety because we have to use systems so what else could you do? It's just a kind of 'responsibility laundering'. Just shift responsibility through a few systems and then it's relatively untraceable to you as an individual. So I guess that's another service rich jerks provide and why we might keep them around.

So I think I can *do* moral good (through the system) without *being* morally good.

I don't really understand the parsing. You're forced to pay taxes, as you seem to imply - but then you say you *do* moral good? Like you chose to? Then you use an absolute - just flat out *being* morally good. Yes, I agree, by paying some taxes you wouldn't be a saint. But surely there's a gradient here, not a binary?

There are some semantic twists and turns in there (and to me it appears just plain old goal post shifts) that doesn't make that convincing to me. You're forced to pay taxes, but that's also an example of you willfully doing moral good? But actually it's an example of a system doing good? Because it's not your will?

chinaphil said...

"if...you do not think you are strong enough (in whatever strength might be described as needed) to eliminate all inequalities - just say so."

I did say so: "the sheer complexity of the world makes it very difficult to eliminate all inequality"

I don't see it as an issue of strength, as I explained, but if you're particularly attached to that word, I'll use it. I'm not strong enough to end inequality (and nor is anyone else, so far as I know). Things are unequal in my home, my community, my country, my adopted country. I can't stop it.

You seem to desire some absolute binary choice: if I'm saying I can't stop inequality then I'm throwing my hands up and saying I can't do anything to make the world a better place. That's wrong. We can do some things - and in general, doing things to make the world more equal is good. But no-one can do everything. That's not a reason to stop trying.

"replacing all of it with whatever model"

I'm not into replacing all of it. Revolution? Nup. Moral disaster.

"Either morality is tied to fundimental goods distribution (and so your talk of fundimental goods distribution is tied to morality), or morality is a pie in the sky concept that in its practice could leave everyone to starve"

Morality is not economy. Economics is the study of the distribution of goods in society. Morality is a different thing. Perhaps pie in the sky, but definitely not economics.

"So I think I can *do* moral good (through the system) without *being* morally good.

I don't really understand the parsing."

I thought it was pretty clear, but I can make it more explicit. There are two major ways of thinking about morality: one is consequentialism, in which the moral value of an act depends on its consequences; the other is deontology, in which some property of the acts themselves (e.g. the intention which motivates them) determines the morality of the act. I'm saying that participation in good moral systems creates a gap between these two perspectives. When I act as a good father for instance, I don't do so with particularly positive motivations. I love my kids selfishly; I do my duties changing nappies sullenly; I sometimes yell at them even when they don't deserve it. Deontologically, I'm not a particularly moral father. But consequentially, I suspect that the fathering I do is one of the biggest ways in which I make the world a better place.

Or taxes: I pay taxes without much good grace. As you say, I'm forced to - it's not even a voluntary act. And yet that money goes to maintaining a state which protects its citizens very effectively from the worst indignities of the world. It's another one of the biggest impacts I have on the world.

"This is easily just a way of avoiding the things you don't want to do, because of the claim that it's the system"

Yes, that is the constant worry. Not giving yourself excuses is important. That doesn't alter the fact that systems/structures much larger than individual human beings make a difference in the world. We have to constantly be aware of how individual efforts and systemic forces interact, and do our best to work them the way we want. But we don't always succeed. As I said, I live in China, and the communist revolution here (and elsewhere) is a constant reminder of how being strong and changing things for more equality doesn't always make the world a better place.

Callan S. said...

You seem to desire some absolute binary choice: if I'm saying I can't stop inequality then I'm throwing my hands up and saying I can't do anything to make the world a better place. That's wrong. We can do some things - and in general, doing things to make the world more equal is good. But no-one can do everything. That's not a reason to stop trying.

I'm not saying you'd be throwing your hands up in the air and giving up.

I just think in regards to the following

It's not that "we" have chosen anything. There are just a load of uncontrolled, naturally arising feedback loops which tend to give more to those who have more. No conspiracy or subconscious sabotage, just chance plus consequence.

...that bringing ones own strength/capacity into the equation (instead of just looking at 'naturally arising feedback loops') will aid in that trying.

I'm not into replacing all of it. Revolution? Nup. Moral disaster.

Dude! Look at various societies and how they are very different from past societies (like various models of democracy around - though I guess that's not showing up much in China). Clearly a bunch of societies have changed in some way and it wasn't traditional revolution.

What's wrong with thinking of the whole model changed without assuming revolution is the only means to achieve that and dismissing it on such grounds? Let's just dream up as much model change as we want and skip thinking how we'd get to that, for the time being!

Morality is not economy. Economics is the study of the distribution of goods in society. Morality is a different thing. Perhaps pie in the sky, but definitely not economics.

Well, that's interesting! Do you have a name for your position? I guess I don't have one for mine, so fair enough. But I'd really want to argue this one and if it had a name I'd less risk accidentally strawmanning on the matter.

There are two major ways of thinking about morality: one is consequentialism, in which the moral value of an act depends on its consequences; the other is deontology, in which some property of the acts themselves (e.g. the intention which motivates them) determines the morality of the act. I'm saying that participation in good moral systems creates a gap between these two perspectives.

I can't say I understand. It makes me think instead it's an example of how the modern worlds structure eludes the emotional grasp of stone age minds (mines stone age as well! No microsoft updates for quite some time!). Our emotional range just flounders at a certain point and...that gap is the floundering. Where a system springs up, you pay your taxes because you're forced and say the system probably does some good though even though you're not even though you're paying, etc. Were based around small tribes of 200 people or so - and I think we instinctively start to treat massive systems as if they were nature, simply because they are just outside our natural range in facing off with such large things (a bit like a may fly might think a tree it alights on is dead). And also given our brutal history, the only means to change that instinctively comes to mind is bloody revolution. And if that instinct gets closed off - then how do with deal with the mega systems?

Or is that how we end up at Eric's concious USA? No one controls it, so eventually it starts controlling itself?

chinaphil said...

These seem a bit contradictory:

"bringing ones own strength/capacity into the equation...will aid in that trying."
"Let's just dream up as much model change as we want and skip thinking how we'd get to that, for the time being!"

I think you have to decide on which way you want to think: either think about what we can do to change the situation for the better now (non-ideal theory) or about what the perfect world would be like (ideal theory). It seems a bit much to be criticising me in one breath for not doing one, and in the next breath for not doing the other!

Personally, I won't do ideal theory. I have no idea what the ideal society would be like, because I have no idea what human nature is really like. I can't see any basis for making claims about what the perfect or even the good society would be. So all I'm interested in talking about is what might improve society now.

On that subject, as I said above, I think I disagree with Eric's post: it doesn't seem to me that what the UK lacks at this moment is rewards for the moral. What it lacks is equality.

On the morality/economics thing: I dunno, I mean, this is just the meanings of the words to me.

If you're a utilitarian (consequentialist), the moral value of each act is precisely the good it does to other people. Then the question of how much of that good redounds to you is actually an economic question - the question of externalities. So for utilitarians, Eric's immanent moral ordering reduces to economics.

The distinction is easy to draw with religious morality, isn't it? If Yahweh tells Isaac to kill his own son, he has to do it, even though no-one benefits.

"...modern worlds structure...stone age minds...small tribes of 200 people or so..."

That's a complicating factor, but I was actually just getting at something simpler: the gap between intentions and consequences. Eric's post assumes that morality can be measured in some way. He imagines rewards flowing to a person in proportion to her goodness. But I'm arguing that there is not much link between the two major ways of thinking about goodness (deontological/consequential, who you are/what you do). I talked above about how I can do good without being good. Of course the opposite is true as well: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and all that. You help an old lady across the street and she turns out to be a suicide bomber. So I'd say there can't be a single measure of the two things we commonly group together under the name morality.

"...massive systems as if they were nature...how do with deal with the mega systems?"

That's what political science is, I think. We deal with them through other systems. You legislate on trade unions through Congress, and you get your union to lobby Congress. Can't escape the cycle, but you can work from within it.

Callan S. said...

I think you have to decide on which way you want to think: either think about what we can do to change the situation for the better now (non-ideal theory) or about what the perfect world would be like (ideal theory). It seems a bit much to be criticising me in one breath for not doing one, and in the next breath for not doing the other!

The issue was treating certain structures as if they were natural and simply as uncontrolable and here to stay as the weather.

Bringing in strength to the equation was only for the purpose of making clear the structure could be changed by you. Forgetting about your strength when figuring the destination doesn't matter when it was just there to introduce the idea of personally enacting change.

Maybe there was a better way of putting it, I don't know.

Personally, I won't do ideal theory. I have no idea what the ideal society would be like, because I have no idea what human nature is really like. I can't see any basis for making claims about what the perfect or even the good society would be. So all I'm interested in talking about is what might improve society now.

I don't know how the latter is a seperate subject from the former? If you change anything now, then you're heading things toward some ideal (even if its someone elses ideal!). All change will head you toward some ideal or another.

It seems to be a way of saying 'Certain things are a given, so we wont talk about them changing. Just the stuff that might improve society right now'?

Besides, it sounds like you're refering to ideal as being some very precise thing. Democracy is a system and yet who is in charge varies quite alot - you can have an overall rigid structure, while the contents can be flexible and changed by the people of the day. Figuring the future doesn't have to involve figuring everything involved. You don't have to decide the perfect society - just a less crap one and room for the people of the day to figure the details that actually fit them, themselves.

If you're a utilitarian (consequentialist), the moral value of each act is precisely the good it does to other people. Then the question of how much of that good redounds to you is actually an economic question - the question of externalities. So for utilitarians, Eric's immanent moral ordering reduces to economics.

The distinction is easy to draw with religious morality, isn't it? If Yahweh tells Isaac to kill his own son, he has to do it, even though no-one benefits.


Why does he have to kill his son?

I get what you're saying, but it really lacks a distinction for me still because...why would such an example be convincing for me? It seems to be people are there for the benefit of gods, rather than gods there for the benefit of people.

As I asked upthread, it seems a morality that doesn't care if you starve. Like if your god tells you to burn all your crops, you do it. Is that the kind of morality you are talking about (and is Eric?)?

I talked above about how I can do good without being good.

I don't understand that still - it still seems to be your 'They put a gun to my head to make me do the act that turned out to be good - so I can do good without being good' example. Ie, you being forced to pay taxes.

chinaphil said...

"Bringing in strength to the equation was only for the purpose of making clear the structure could be changed by you."
Some can, some can't. And sometimes, as I suggested with my example of the communist revolution, you can change the system but fail to achieve the end you want. There's no point in making general claims about what we can do, it's almost always situational.


"If you change anything now, then you're heading things toward some ideal (even if its someone elses ideal!). All change will head you toward some ideal or another."
No, I dispute that. Think of something like inequality. Let us suppose that there is in fact an ideal Gini coefficient; but at present no-one knows what it is. It is still reasonable to say that the UK should be more equal, even though I don't know what the ideal is that we are moving towards. I know the ideal level more equal than the present; but I also know it's not zero inequality. And my motivation for trying to make the UK a more equal place does *not* depend on anyone knowing what the ideal is.


"Why does he have to kill his son?"
No point asking me, I'm not religious, but there's no point denying it, either. It says so right there in a book that a lot of people think defines what morality is. If you don't believe in religious morality, that's fine (neither do I). But you can't pretend that the word morality does not or cannot include these possibilities. Your particular flavour of morality is not the only one. If you only want to argue in the context of your particular morality, that's fine, but you'll have to define it so that the rest of us know what you're talking about.

"a morality that doesn't care if you starve."
There are a lot of varieties of morality which think that a human life is not the most important thing. In Christianity, martyrdom is a big theme. In utilitarianism, sacrificing yourself for the greater good would be appropriate. In many heroic codes it is glorious to die in battle.
And morality concerns itself with many other things than material prosperity: some moralities incorporate concepts like truth, love, honor, purity... You might not agree with these, or you might think they are secondary to prosperity, but you have to argue it. Not everyone agrees.

"'I talked above about how I can do good without being good'...I don't understand that still"
Not sure what I can do to make it clearer. Look, there are unexpected consequences to every act, aren't there? I just think that the unexpected consequences of any act tend over time to far outweigh the intended consequences.

Perhaps it would be easier to achieve clarity if you tried to explain some of your views. Are you a utilitarian? Do you think that an act is good if it helps people, and bad if it harms people? What would you think of an act which goes wrong? Here's a real life example: on my son's sixth birthday I was clowning around with his cake, pretending to pie my wife in the face. My hand slipped, and I really did pie her in the face. Was that act (a) good because my intentions were good or (b) bad because it made both her and him very upset? In Schwitzgebel morally-ordered universe, would I receive reward or punishment for this? (Pro tip: in the real world, you get punishment.)

Callan S. said...

chinaphil,

And sometimes, as I suggested with my example of the communist revolution, you can change the system but fail to achieve the end you want.

But look at it from my perspective - you're saying "Might fail - therefore, don't try"


There's no point in making general claims about what we can do, it's almost always situational.

I don't understand - it's not 'almost always' - it's always situational!

And you can either accept people have taken their always situational condition and changed things, or I guess you can deny it's possible and it's always just a matter of what cards the word deals everyone.

No, I dispute that. Think of something like inequality. Let us suppose that there is in fact an ideal Gini coefficient; but at present no-one knows what it is. It is still reasonable to say that the UK should be more equal, even though I don't know what the ideal is that we are moving towards. I know the ideal level more equal than the present; but I also know it's not zero inequality. And my motivation for trying to make the UK a more equal place does *not* depend on anyone knowing what the ideal is.

I think you may have talked past me. I've refered to 'some ideal or other', but you seem to have refered to a singular ideal.

It's sounds like you're saying there's only one equality ideal? And you think that any effort towards some kind of equality must be heading toward that one, singular equality ideal?

No point asking me, I'm not religious, but there's no point denying it, either. It says so right there in a book that a lot of people think defines what morality is. If you don't believe in religious morality, that's fine (neither do I). But you can't pretend that the word morality does not or cannot include these possibilities.

I've asked the type of morality you're talking about (the one which is not part of economics, as I understand you when you say 'Morality is not economy'). Is it the type of morality that doesn't care if you starve - if it tells you to burn all your crops, you just do it? Is it that type you are talking about?

That genuinely shouldn't be an uncomfortable question at all.

What would you think of an act which goes wrong? Here's a real life example: on my son's sixth birthday I was clowning around with his cake, pretending to pie my wife in the face. My hand slipped, and I really did pie her in the face. Was that act (a) good because my intentions were good or (b) bad because it made both her and him very upset? In Schwitzgebel morally-ordered universe, would I receive reward or punishment for this? (Pro tip: in the real world, you get punishment.)

I think the system aught chide itself for not teaching you to get permission to mess with other peoples stuff, first and foremost.

I'm probably into more self aware systems than ones which merely targets everything but itself.

chinaphil said...

"you're saying "Might fail - therefore, don't try""

You keep telling me what I'm saying. But you're wrong. I'm actually saying (and I quote): "we should be continually engaged in mitigating specific inequalities"

"it's always situational"

This is where you're misunderstanding my argument. When I refer to "inequality" in the general (or abstract) sense, it's not situational. For any given situation, there are probably ways in which inequality can be mitigated. And we should be making efforts to reduce (situational) inequalities. But reducing or eliminating one specific, situated instance of inequality does not mean that all (general/abstract) inequality will be gone. That's all I mean.

"It's sounds like you're saying there's only one equality ideal?"

Again, you're using words in a really odd way. Of course there's only one (for any given model - and I specified the model in my post: Gini coefficient). Ideal means best. Ideals are by their nature singular. If you believe in ideals, you have to believe that there's only one, or you're using the word in an odd way that needs explaining.

"And you think that any effort towards some kind of equality must be heading toward that one, singular equality ideal?"

No, I explicitly said I don't think in terms of ideals.

"I've asked the type of morality you're talking about"

Did you? I didn't spot it. Above I was concerned only with pointing out that you were attempting to use morality in a very narrow way. My personal beliefs about morality? I'm a pluralist. The word morality clearly means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I myself understand it in many different ways. I can see the attraction in some kinds of consequentialism (negative rule utilitarianism), Kantianism (human rights), some kinds of Christian ethics. I suppose if there's anything distinctive about what I believe, it's that one's moral quality is highly conditioned by circumstances. Whatever kind of morality you are measured against, your circumstances constrain how much good you can do and how good you can be.

I guess I mean that I don't find "morality" to be a particularly useful category. To talk intelligently, I think you need to specify what kind of moral thing you're talking about.

"Is it the type of morality that doesn't care if you starve - if it tells you to burn all your crops, you just do it? Is it that type you are talking about? That genuinely shouldn't be an uncomfortable question at all."

It's not uncomfortable, it's just irrelevant to me. As I said above, I'm not religious. But as I understand it, in Old Testament morality and in some kinds of modern Christianity, if God tells you to burn your crops - or yourself - you do it. As I say, you and I probably think that's stupid, but some people out there mean precisely this when they say "morality" - and I can't tell via computer screen if you're one of them, so you have to specify to me what you mean.

"I think the system aught chide itself for not teaching you to get permission to mess with other peoples stuff, first and foremost."

This is just avoiding the question. Are you a consequentialist or a deontologist? Roughly speaking, do you think it's OK to kill one person to save ten others (consequentialist) or that it's always inherently wrong to kill (deontologist)? I literally don't know how to talk to you, because I don't know how you're using words. I don't know what "morality" means to you. You seem to have some strong opinions, but also to be unaware that not everyone shares them. I'd like to understand what they are, because this back and forth has been interesting to me.

chinaphil said...

Sorry, another long one:

"you're saying "Might fail - therefore, don't try""

You keep telling me what I'm saying. But you're wrong. I'm actually saying (and I quote): "we should be continually engaged in mitigating specific inequalities"

"it's always situational"

This is where you're misunderstanding my argument. When I refer to "inequality" in the general (or abstract) sense, it's not situational. For any given situation, there are probably ways in which inequality can be mitigated. And we should be making efforts to reduce (situational) inequalities. But reducing or eliminating one specific, situated instance of inequality does not mean that all (general/abstract) inequality will be gone. That's all I mean: the difference between an abstract concept and concrete instantiations of that concept.

For the record, yes, I understand that you think what I'm saying "sounds" defeatist. I acknowledged that above: "Yes, that is the constant worry. Not giving yourself excuses is important." But I'm not writing self-help literature here. I'm not going to change what I think simply in order to be cheerier.

"It's sounds like you're saying there's only one equality ideal?"

Again, you're using words in a really odd way. Of course there's only one (for any given model - and I specified the model in my post: Gini coefficient). Ideal means best. Ideals are by their nature singular. If you believe in an ideal, you have to believe it's the only one. If you've invented some kind of multiple-ideal concept, you'll have to explain it.

"And you think that any effort towards some kind of equality must be heading toward that one, singular equality ideal?"

No, I explicitly said I don't think in terms of ideals.

chinaphil said...

"I've asked the type of morality you're talking about"

Did you? I didn't spot it. Above I was concerned only with pointing out that you were attempting to use morality in a very narrow way.

I think you're getting mixed up here amongst three things. (1) What you think morality is, (2) what I think morality is and (3) what the word means. The word clearly means many different things, and when using it in debate, we need to make extra effort to ensure that we are understanding it in reasonably similar ways. I don't yet know what you think morality is - do you? You seem to have some strong opinions, but you haven't said clearly what you think morality consists of.

As for (2), my personal beliefs about morality? I'm a pluralist. The word morality clearly means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I myself understand it in many different ways. I can see the attraction in some kinds of consequentialism (negative rule utilitarianism), Kantianism (human rights), some kinds of Christian ethics, maybe even some Daoist ethics. I suppose if there's anything distinctive about what I believe, it's that one's moral quality is highly conditioned by circumstances. Whatever kind of morality you are measured against, your circumstances constrain how much good you can do and how good you can be.

I guess I mean that I don't find "morality" to be a particularly useful category. To talk intelligently, I think you need to specify what kind of morals you're talking about.

"Is it the type of morality that doesn't care if you starve - if it tells you to burn all your crops, you just do it? Is it that type you are talking about? That genuinely shouldn't be an uncomfortable question at all."

It's not uncomfortable, it's just irrelevant to me. As I said above, I'm not religious. But as I understand it, in Old Testament morality and in some kinds of modern Christianity, if God tells you to burn your crops - or yourself - then that is the right thing to do. As I say, you and I probably think that's stupid, but some people out there mean precisely this when they say "morality". It's a part of the meaning of the word.

"I think the system aught chide itself for not teaching you to get permission to mess with other peoples stuff, first and foremost."

Again I think you're failing to distinguish concepts. I asked about the concept of morality, not about educational systems.

My guess is that you are basically consequentialist: you think that the moral value of an act depends on how much good it does in the world. (I'm basing that on what you said about burning crops.) Roughly speaking, you would think it's OK to kill one person to save ten others rather than say it's always inherently wrong to kill. Is that right? At the moment I literally don't know how to talk to you, because I don't know how you're using words. You seem to have some strong opinions, but also to be unaware that not everyone shares them! I'd like to understand what they are, because this back and forth has been interesting to me.