A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 10 July 2015

Some thoughts on the ethics of fantasy, Kantian injunctions, and the importance of words

I had a fairly productive evening walk tonight, getting a fair bit of thinking done. This is my attempt to record it for future reference, to help myself remember it, and perhaps to find some flaws in my thinking. This is of necessity somewhat meandering.

The Ethics of Fantasy

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick at one point briefly wonders if fantasising about a person violates the Kantian injunction not to treat them purely as a means. I wondered if this objection to fantasy holds.

This is not the only reason we might think that fantasy is in some way objectionable. I suspect that there are in fact stronger arguments against it based upon the character it either implies or develops in the person having the fantasy. However, this is the particular line of attack I am considering first.

The argument would be as follows:

(1) Fantasising about a person involves treating them purely as a means.
(2) Treating a person purely as a means is morally impermissible.
(3) Fantasising about a person is morally impermissible.

Does fantasising about a person involve treating them purely as a means?

There are multiple propositions which we might have in mind here:
(a) Fantasising about a person of necessity involves treating them as a means.
(b) Fantasising about a person tends to involve treating them as a means.
(c) Fantasising about a person promotes a habit of treating them as a means.

(a) seems clearly false. You could have a fantasy purely about a person you care about doing well, without any imagining any personal gain from it. (As a side note: does imagining greatness for your descendants count as imagining personal gain, if you foresee being long dead by the time they attain it?)

(c)  is plausible, but seems to fit more neatly with the character-based argument. In any case, it's not something I've greatly thought about.

(b) seems probably true. However, it leaves open the possibility that one could tailor one's fantasies so as to avoid treating people purely as means. To understand how to do this, we will need a clear idea of what we mean by "treating someone purely as a means" and hence why it is immoral.

What is it to Treat Someone Purely As A Means? Why might it be morally wrong?

A couple of preliminaries:
  • Kant thought that all moral law was reducible to his maxims. I am not committed to that claim, indeed I'm highly sceptical that this is the case. Hence, the fact that an act is wrong does not mean that someone is being treated purely as a means.
  • The fact that there are multiple ways of interpreting a claim does not mean that there is a single correct way to interpret it, nor does it mean that all possible interpretations are equally valid.
One particular interpretation of the injunction seems implausible. Suppose that two people with no concern for one another carry out a trade which advantages them both. This is surely morally acceptable. (Perhaps we may think that they ought to have concern for one another - but once again, that's a concern about character rather than about actions.) So clearly, "acting in a way which affects others, motivated only by your own self-interest" is not inherently wrong.

To tighten this slightly, what if one of the traders - call him Bill - would in fact be willing to mug the other trader in order to get what he wants. However, Bill concludes that it is easier and less risky to just trade, rather than to attack the other man. Again we might disdain Bill's character. But his actions are unobjectionable.

At this point, I wondered how we might start positively motivating the view that there are other beings which have moral value, such that we may not treat them purely as means. It will be helpful to have a rough ontology of different "levels of being". At the bottom, we have 'objects', things which are entirely properly used purely as means. For example, a stone.

Why is it acceptable to treat these purely as means? One answer might be that they have no ends, nothing which they may desire. But then what counts as an end? Suppose you have a humanoid which behaves somewhat normally, except that it never forms any intentions of avoiding pain. It dislikes being in pain, but if you offer to prevent the pain or to make it go away, this being will claim to be indifferent. I think it is sensible to conceive of this being having a desire not to be in pain, even if it never acts upon this desire. If we accept this, then "lacking ends" seems like a sensible criterion for being an object. (It may be incorrect as a criterion, but hopefully it will do for now. People should feel free to attack this criterion - I certainly would if I had a better idea).

Somewhere above 'objects' there are 'persons'. Persons are beings capable of critical reasoning.

It makes sense to think that animals are not objects. (What makes the difference, though - the fact that they feel pain, or the fact that they act in ways which we may sensibly conceive of as being "for their own benefit"?) Most people would hold that animals, despite having interests, have fewer rights than humans. What might ground this view?

(a) An inability to carry out critical reasoning
(b) An inability to reciprocate behaviour according to moral rules
(c) A lesser ability to feel pain

If one thinks (c) is the only reason, then one should probably stop pretending to be a Kantian and just come out as a utilitarian.

(a) was suggested to me by Georgi Vuldzhev, another ESFL blogger who (as it happens) studies at MMU. We had a vague intention to meet up, and eventually did so on the day before he headed back to Bulgaria for the summer. He is of a view that I refer to as "human-imperialism", the view that humans (and, if there are any, higher beings) have rights, but lower beings do not and may be used by humans as they so wish. (The semi-intentional perjorativeness of this term comes from the way this view reminds me of the corresponding "state-imperialist" view, i.e. the view that states have rights, but lower beings - such as individuals or minority groups - do not, and may be used by states as they so wish. The state-imperialist view is not so prevalent now as it used to be, but has a strong historical pedigree. Personally I reject the view that states has interests which may be disentangled from the interests of their members, and therefore the view the view that states are in any sense "higher" than individuals. Indeed states - though not their subjects - are properly viewed as mere objects. But I digress).
I didn't think this was an especially good reason at first. I think it is wrong to cause pain to conscious beings, regardless of whether they can reciprocate. After more thought, I wonder if reciprocity might be relevant, albeit in a different way. Suppose there were a species of homo economicae. They feel no pull of morality, and are only interested in it as it affects others' behaviour. Upon entering human society, we implement laws to bind them in certain ways, but although they are in no way malevolent towards us - indeed, we very much benefit from their existence - they remain fundamentally amoral beings.
Suppose one of these homo economicae (call it Flaa) owns a boat, which they use to transport valuable goods. You also own a boat, and while sailing you see Flaa's boat slowly sinking with a valuable cargo on board. You sail over, and could at this point offer to rescue Flaa only on condition that Flaa hand over ownership of all of his cargo (or indeed, all of his property wherever it may be). Host humans would baulk at this offer, seeing it as exploitative. There is arguably an implicit reciprocity, in that we would all rescue each other without asking for compensation beyond any costs incurred in the rescue.
In this case, however, you know full well that Flaa would force you to hand over everything you owned were it you that were drowning. In this case, you might be justified in extracting everything possible from Flaa, since he would not reciprocate any gallant and generous rescue you were to perform. (Is this really the reasoning, or have I merely constructed an elaborate rationalisation for treating an outsider more harshly than an insider?)
Note, however, that the issue is not that Flaa cannot reciprocate: it is that he can, but does not. So I'm still somewhat doubtful. (Also, it's not that I think Flaa has no moral standing, it's that I don't feel the requirement to engage in certain behaviours where he wouldn't reciprocate. So this is perhaps of dubious relevance).

(a) is interesting. I was originally thinking that the key might be the ability to carry out critical moral reasoning; I have broadened it out in order to make it plain that this is the difference between persons and sub-persons.
There is some intuitive appeal to the idea that the ability to carry out critical moral reasoning, to understand why others have value, might be the source of having value in and of oneself. Note that it must be about having this ability, not about actually carrying out critical moral reasoning: otherwise this would disqualify most people. (If the requirement is to understand why people have value, then whoops! Suddenly anyone with an incorrect metaethical theory loses value. If the requirement is merely to understand that other people have value, then that's still disqualifying moral irrealists, which seems very odd).

What, then, do we mean by "can" carry out moral reasoning? One response might be to take it entirely literally, accept that not only children and senile people but also people of low intelligence are of significantly reduced moral value relative to those who can do this reasoning. (As a semi-professional ethicist, this seems like a highly self-serving position; then again, that doesn't make it wrong). Another might be that one possesses the brainpower, if not the mental skills, to carry out such reasoning. (Is there a speed requirement for this thinking, or any kind of requirement to be vaguely correct? Euthyphro was wrong to think that Zeus' command made an action virtuous, even he was not at all close to the moral truth, but he was capable of debate.)

One might think that "can" means that there are members of one's "natural category" who actually carry out moral reasoning. This is wrong on two counts: firstly there are no truly natural categories, and secondly recall the homo economicae. They can have cerebral experiences every bit as rich as humans without understanding or attempting ethics (perhaps they have other feelings to compensate, or the way we experience moral emotions is how they experience the feeling of being or having being irrational). If they are as morally valuable as humans, then critical moral reasoning is not relevant.

(At this point, I was out of new thoughts regarding meta-ethics. I then thought briefly about the Free Thoughts podcast; I have an episode of this on my mobile, but I found it not worth listening to. Indeed, the quality of these podcasts is quite variable, which I suspect may be because the podcast is fundamentally about ideas. If the ideas of the guest are not very good, then there is little or nothing which can be done to rescue an episode.

What are ideas? They need not be either true or false - Marx's theory of historical materialism is an idea, but it is wrong. They should be contrasted with facts, which concern the state of the physical world and are (I think) by definition true. If we accept this distinction, it may then be helpful to admit at least one more category of statement. This category needs a name so that I may think about it, but it is those statements which are true purely in virtue of the terms used: "2+2=4", "In an ideal free market with perfectly rational actors, a uniform product, etc, the equilibrium market price is also the market clearing price", and "No bachelors are married". What should I name this category? I have heard the word "artefact" used by philosophers used to mean something similar, should I use this word?)

The chief danger of choosing a "wrong" name is that it may prevent me from communicating my thoughts to others. There are two main dangers here: 'non-communication' and 'miscommunication'.

Non-communication is where I attempt to convey a meaning, but my intended recipient fails to grasp it. Miscommunication is where I attempt to convey a meaning m, but my intended recipient thinks I mean meaning n (such that m and n are distinct). Miscommunication is the worse of these, since it least it is usually clear when non-communication has happened which makes it easier to fix.

If I choose a name which already means something to other people, then there is a severe risk of miscommunication. If I make up a word, then there is a severe risk of non-communication, but this is much less bad. Hence in general I should prefer inventing new terminology over potentially misusing existing terminology.

In my particular case, then, I should not use the word "artefact". Upon further thought, it occurs to me that "tautologies" is the word I want, so I do not in fact have to coin a new word - however, I should not have shied from coming up with a new word providing I was willing to define it.

Incidentally, is communication the crucial value of language? Surely beauty and brevity also have roles. I would tend to think that communication is the most important consideration, though if these are not well-defined then it may in fact be meaningless to say that one consideration is non-lexically more important than another, given that any assessment of a use of language which attempts to give a combined value based on multiple values will rely just as much on how me measure success on each value as on the actual value we place on each value.

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