May 16, 2012

Ethics without imperatives

Try to ground ethics and morality in nature and natural processes, and one of the common results is fuctionalist descriptions.* The problem with such descriptions, though, is that while they work fine to account for how some particular culture's moral rules got the way they are, they fail -- really fail -- to offer any account of an ethics that could actually critique the status quo.

And if your ethics can only ever serve the powers that be, never unsettle them, never challenge them or manage even a weak threat, then what good are they?

Case in point: Patricia Churchland.

Churchland, who describes herself now as holding to "revisionary materialism," though in the textbooks it's always "eliminative materialism," and it's not clear whether she's saying she's modified her view or just revised the name to "revisionary" because people misunderstood "eliminative" -- but, anyway, Churchland, who writes a lot about philosophy and nueroscience, recently gave an account of naturally-grounded morals in an interview. Talking about why lying is wrong and how it can be thought of as wrong, for example, without appeal to metaphysics, or "just because," or revealed truth or something like that, she used the Inuits as a case study and said:
"So one of the things for the Inuit is that deception is particularly bad. People do murder each other from time to time, especially men murder other men over women, and this is tolerated to a degree – not now, but before they were westernised or Europeanised – but deception ... Well, why is that particularly bad? Once you understand the culture a little more deeply you can see that deception really jeopardises the group as a whole, because they’re always on the knife-edge of survival. Starvation is always just a seal away. So when someone deceives them about something, and the whole group undertakes an activity as a result, they waste precious resources, energy. And starvation did of course happen. So the point is then that this platform is in place, and people feel these strong attachments, these strong bonds, not only to offspring but to mates and others in the group, and that motivates them to do things with them and for them. It also, I think, motivates what we see in all social animals, and that is occasionally the need to punish miscreants" (pdf).
And great. Fine.** One could certainly see how an evolutionary process of tribal survival would favor the group that had strong prohibitions against lying. One tribe was fine with lying, now they're all dead. Another tribe was appalled by all kinds of deception, they live on, and we can talk about them in our examples.

But then, the more interesting question: In a society or culture where it's developed that people think lying is OK, how does it happen that someone stands up and says, "Guys! Lying is wrong. It's always wrong." 

And more importantly, if that person were asked "why?" -- asked to justify that claim, asked for a ground -- how could an account like Churchland's above ever work to support that ethical argument?

Apparently one could proceed according to Churchland's program by adding "because it will help us survive/continue to survive as we are (and that's good, a society should want to survive, because," as directly falls out of Churchland's apparent implicit definition of "good," which is the real ground here offered, "societies that want to survive, survive more frequently that those that don't)"***

But, unless I seriously misread her, Churchland is giving up on ever making an imperative claim, or anything more than description of the way things are. There'd be no possibility, for her, of ever getting to a universal and categorical ethical imperative. Imperative pronouncements are disallowed. A statement such as "It is always and everywhere wrong to cook and eat one's grandmother" would have to be revised, modified, prefaced to read, at the strongest, "In every culture and context known to us so far, it has been useful for the sake of a given society's self-perpetuation to consider it always and everywhere wrong," and so on.  

One can say imperative things, on this model, but only when they are not imperative. Only once removed -- as other people's contextually-produced imperatives. Descriptive statements replace those one would usually think of as more than descriptions. I.e., as ethical.

Of course, one could give an account of how cultures developed universal-categorical claims, and how their development was aided or fostered by such claims, but the universal-categorical would, in this way, be remade into an evolutionary feature conditionally accepted because of it's usefulness for survival. 

Another version of the same problem, less hypothetical than the moralist opposed to lying: How could the claim that ethics exist the way they exist in a given context because of their social function of enabling a culture as a culture to continue on, status quo, surviving, ever allow one to argue, e.g., against slavery? It certainly could support an argument for slavery. After all, slave owners can always point to the existing slave-owning system and say, "hey, look, it works!", where "works" is taken to mean exactly what Churchland takes it to mean.

As I read it, such a descriptive natural process account of ethics can only ever be an account of ethics as they are, never as they should be. What's specifically delimited is counter-cultural, counter-historical, counter-keeping-the-powerful-in-power ethics calling for and demanding radical upheaval and change of unjust, self-perpetuating systems.

But if ethics can't serve as a call for an overthrow of the world as it is, what's the point?

Isn't it exactly the dispossessed, the oppressed, the disinherited who need ethics? The powerful, after all, have power

(In this, certain imperatives are of course already at work (which cannot be grounded or justified in the course of a parenthetical). I'm fine with that. And Churchland can give me only an account of how these imperatives contextually, historically came to be, but even granting the truth of that description, the operative imperative resists being reduced to a socially useful sentiment, and persists in being an imperative, in making a claim that comes from and is possible because of a historical context and yet insists on being and is a claim about more than that context, a claim about how things should be, without a good goddamn for how they have been or are).

To use Churchland's own example, is there anyway, using Churchland's model, that the murdered Inuits in an Inuit society that tolerates murder can make the argument they ought not be murdered, and the murders ought not be tolerated? After all, the society is continuing on as it is just fine. 

Or, take something closer to hand: When John Derbyshire, long-time racist and long-time writer for National Review, says, "White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with," on what grounds would Churchland disagree? 

If it's just a matter of quibbling over historical facts, and one grants that if it's the case that white supremacy has successfully produced stable, surviving societies of white supremacy, then white supremacy is, actually, really all for the best, some very vital things, it seems to me, have been too easily conceded.

*The objections here to not apply to all postmetaphysical, non-supernatural, not-based-in-divine-revelation systems of morality. They apply only, as far as I can tell, to those that attempt to bypass or somehow route around the very stubborn is/ought problem.

**The newsworthy part of this interview is unrelated to Churchland's account of how ethics happen. It's rather that she -- promoter of philosophy informed by/based in neuroscience -- takes New Atheist Same Harris to task for his attempt to use the promise of neuroscience to ground morality non-religiously. She says: 
"I think Sam is just a child when it comes addressing morality. I think he hasn’t got a clue." 
"Sam Harris has this vision that once neuroscience is much more developed then neuroscientists will be able to tell us what things are right or wrong, or at least what things are conducive to well-being and not. But even if you cast it in that way, that’s pretty optimistic – or pessimistic, depending on your point of view. Different people even within a culture, even within a family, have different views about what constitutes their own well-being. Some people like to live out in the bush like hermits and dig in the ground and shoot deer for resources, and other people can’t countenance a life that isn’t in the city, in the mix of cultural wonderfulness. So people have fundamentally different ideas about what constitutes well-being."
*** A thought experiment: 

Imagine a society that survives specifically because it does not consider its own survival a paramount good. It continues to exist because it refused to take certain common sense measures of self preservation. E.g., total pacifistic non-resistance. Every day, again, the society is basically on the edge of suicide by ethics. With the result that, by merit of this behavior, the society survives. Conversely, if it cared about its survival, considered that to be the most important thing, the paramount good, it would not survive. So: valuing survival = not surviving; not valuing survival = surviving. Question for Churchland: should that society value its survival?