Archive for September, 2008

Why Community Service?

by Jason Stotts

I saw a sign today that asked “Why Community Service?” and then proceeded to list all sorts of superficial reasons why one might want to engage in community service.  This is to be expected, however, as they could not list their true reason.  Just imagine seeing this on a poster:

Why Community Service?

Because the lives of others are more important than your own.

The World as it Isn’t

From time to time I will be putting up material that was originally written for my forthcoming book, but which was cut for various reasons. This section was cut after a restructuring rendered it unnecessary. However, I rather like it and couldn’t bear to see it go to waste. ~Jason


The World as it Isn’t
by Jason Stotts

Today, Ethics seems to be suffering under the weight of a particularly malignant strain of myopia that has prevented them from seeing the forest from the trees. Indeed, we might even go so far as to say to claim that instead of seeing a forest, or even the trees themselves, today’s ethicist have found magical wonderlands in small fragments of bark littered among the dirt on ground. This is because Ethics today is constructed upon the basis of the world as it isn’t: a world that exists nowhere but in debaters’ points and imaginations. There are three primary strategies that these ethicists employ to create their worlds: specific hypothetical constructs, alternate realities, and emergency situations. Each of these has its own particular problems and after we have investigated each individually, we shall also see that there is a larger issue at work here.

The first common practice is to riddle an ethical inquiry with hypothetical constructs designed to create a highly selected context that will help a philosopher prove a point. Some examples of these are a magic pebble that can cure any illness, a group of people imprisoned from birth in a cave forced to watch a puppet show, a demon bent on deception, or a trolley run out of control. All of these philosophers use their different hypothetical constructs to help them prove different points, but their purpose is to create a highly specialized context that may or may not be at all similar to reality. The problem is that there is no necessary connection between these constructs and the way the world really is: in fact, they are created precisely because the point cannot be proven using that which exists, so these philosophers are forced to evoke that which does not.

There are other philosophers who have a different approach to construct the world as it isn’t, those who do not postulate constructs in this world, but postulate other worlds which bear some relation to ours. These philosophers are not content just to postulate some small difference in order to prove their point; their points are so at odds with reality that they must construct a divergent “parallel reality” that has laws and rules that suit the point they are trying to prove. Many times this arises when a philosopher wants to explore the possibilities of choices going otherwise than they did or situations developing differently than they, in fact, did. The focus of their otherworld is the point that they need in order to prove: the only problem with this is that the very point that they are trying to make becomes the most radically divergent from reality.

The third way that philosophers try to construct the world as it isn’t often uses some devices from the previous two argumentative strategies, but is fundamentally different because it focuses exclusively on using emergency situations as its justificatory framework. Ayn Rand first identified this emphasis in her essay “The Ethics of Emergencies” . The use of emergency situations as the exclusive justificatory framework for an ethical system betrays a fundamental flaw in that system: the system is appropriate only to conditions and situations in which human life is impossible. Further, these same situations are exceedingly rare and not likely to be experienced by many people. It is not just that these philosophers utilize a single construct, like a runaway trolley from above, but rather their entire foundation for their ethic is emergency situations. This issue is as much metaphysical as it is ethical, but the simple fact is that most people do not live in a constant state of crisis. Moreover, such a state would be inimical to human life and by its very nature unpredictable. This unpredictability would render Ethics a useless field: how could one identify principles if the situation was not able to be known and could change without warning? Indeed, it is a bit of irony that anyone would attempt to construct an ethical system in a world of emergency as such a basis makes the field useless.

Before we move on, let us pause to note that our condemnation should not be extended to the use of parables in ethics or of the extraction of moral truths from fiction. The difference is that these two avenues are not used to justify the moral principle, but rather to show how it operates: to concretize it. It is certainly not inappropriate to read a story and extract a moral lesson from it, as long as we realize that the story is not justification for the principle. As long as we remember this, and independently judge all such extracted principles, there is much we can learn from fiction.

The causes of the construction of the world as it isn’t are manifold, but they all boil down to this: the ethics being advocated is inappropriate to human life in reality and therefore, if they want to attempt a justification, then they must attempt to “step outside” of reality and justify their ethics on the basis of something else. Some philosophers end up needing to create the world as it isn’t because they presuppose the ends they wish to prove. This presupposition can have disastrous consequences as one can be blinded by the need to justify one’s ends and reach for tenuous connections. Once this kind of philosopher comes up against a wall in justifying his system in reality, he is forced to leave reality to find the “justification” he needs.

Other philosophers end up creating the world as it isn’t because their epistemology bars them from the world as it is. If one supposes that he is locked behind a veil of ideas or forever barred from reality by faulty faculties, then he, of course, will find himself stuck creating the world as it isn’t. But, the fault still lies with him as this poor epistemic assumption is the only thing holding him back from access to the real world. Indeed, many philosophers recognize the absurdity of their own position when they advocate this, such as David Hume when he reminded people to leave aside their skepticism when they left the drawing room.

The last major cause is that group of philosophers who advocate what Ayn Rand called the “Primacy of Consciousness”. This is the position that one’s mind has causal efficacy in the world and thus one’s thoughts can transform reality. While this may be appropriate for a child’s play, when advocated by a philosopher it is ridiculous. Yet, people advocate this as well. The philosopher George Berkeley, for example, thought that objects disappeared if they weren’t being looked at. Thus, in order to make sure the world didn’t disappear when he closed his eyes, he had to postulate an all-seeing god. Yet, one would think that he would have learned about object permanence much before he was old enough to read and certainly well before he wrote his treatise. Indeed, the entire idea of the primacy of consciousness seems predicated upon the irrational wish for an inhuman power.

As should be obvious, an ethics predicated upon justification from the world as it isn’t is not applicable to the world as it is. It is, in fact, a perversion of Ethics into a field unrelated to human life. Consequently, this kind of ethics has the peculiar distinction of being a self-destructive ethics. I attribute the utter indifference of our current culture towards ethics to this emphasis. If you are shown only ethical theories based on situations that you know will never apply to your life, then you will, of course, lose interest in the entire field.