I guess by writing this post, I’m making this question non-rhetorical.
Anyway yes this is about meta-ethics, sorry. If ethics is “why is stealing wrong?” meta-ethics is “What does it mean to say that stealing is wrong?” I.e., it’s like ethics, but meta: yeah?
So lately I’ve been bashing on utilitarianism and its daddy-philosophy, consequentialism. Smashing shoddy philosophy is fun, but it’s a lot easier to tear things down than to build them up. So I feel like it’s only fair to say what I believe in.
Consequentialism and utilitarianism have some embedded meta-ethical claims. To a utilitarian, saying “stealing is wrong” generally means something like “if you decide to steal, it’s likely that the world will be a worse place than if you don’t steal”, where “worse place” is some objective description of how well-off everyone is. I don’t buy this as a good explanation of “stealing is wrong”, because I don’t think you can find right and wrong floating out there in the world, detached from the act of making a decision.
Another popular explanation for “stealing is wrong” is that it describes an emotional reaction that people evolved as a game-theoretic strategy for survival. In other words, people think stealing is wrong because they get angry when people steal, and they get angry because our ancestors who didn’t get angry when people steal all died off (presumably because someone stole all their food or something). So, “stealing is wrong” doesn’t have any truth to it per se; it’s just a useful emotional reaction. And, if the evolutionary circumstances have changed so it’s no longer useful, we should rationally discard it. We can call this the scientific moral-nihilist perspective.
From my understanding, the science behind this claim is pretty speculative, but as a hypothesis it’s at least a fairly plausible explanation for where moral emotions come from. From this perspective, all of ethical philosophy is just a misguided attempt to rationalize fundamentally non-rational (although practically useful) emotions. I accept this as a fair starting point for ethical philosophy; let’s start in the hole of total doubt, with the presumption that all of this is bullshit, and then see if there’s any way to dig ourselves out.
The first step from escaping the nihilism bullshit pit (can I trademark that phrase?), is asking why we care to dig ourselves out to begin with. Why not say, “okay, sure, stealing makes me angry, there’s nothing more to it than that”?
The reason this comes up at all is that people have the ability to step back from their emotions and decide not to do what their emotions are telling them to do. We do this thing — this pretty strange thing, actually — where we “take responsibility” for our actions. Taking responsibility is basically making the claim that I, Josh, choose to do such and such, not because “I got mad” or “she made me” or whatever, but because, being who I am, feeling what I feel, I accept this decision as one I want to make.
There is definitely an epic blog post to write about what it actually means to “take responsibility”, how it relates to free will, what free will is, etc. But for the purposes of explaining meta-ethics, I think we can get away with the following limited observations:
-Taking responsibility takes effort. It’s not necessarily the default state. You have to “pull yourself together” and achieve a level of clarity.
-Taking responsibility is hard, but it feels good. It feels empowering. Failing to take responsibility is a form of private psychological hell… it’s a path to the shrink and to the bottle, to the state that led Thoreau to say “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
I credit my interpretation of responsibility to Christine Korsgaard‘s argument that by choosing an action, a person actually creates themselves as an “I”. In other words, the “I” in the sentence “I choose to…” is actually brought into being by the process of making the decision. That’s the difference between a computer and a person: a computer doesn’t assert that it’s responsible for its own decisions (and the day it does, it will be).
In other words, the word “I” isn’t a fact of nature; it’s an assertion and a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can see the border-line cases of this: a baby whose self-consciousness is coming into being, an addict who is arguably not completely in control of their own behavior, a victim of brain-damage where parts of their personality have been destroyed. “I” is a process, not a state.
So that’s “I”. What’s “we”?
“We”, like “I”, can be the subject of a sentence. “We .. solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States”, for example. “We” is a bunch of “I”s coming together to declare themselves as a single decision-making entity.
I would go so far as to say that the difference between “I” and “We” is of degree, not of kind. An “I” is a self-referential feedback process consisting of an interacting network of neurons, body chemicals, sensory inputs and muscle outputs interacting with an environment. A “we” is the same kind of self-referential feedback process, but it spans multiple skulls, and is therefore more fragile (since air is a slower medium than neural impulses). In other words, both single individuals and collective groups of people are the same kind of phenomenon, namely a complicated feedback loop that declares itself to be the author of its own decisions.
Okay. So, enough build-up. Here’s what I think it means to say that stealing is wrong: “Stealing is wrong” means that stealing breaks the “we”. It’s an action by one “I” that breaks the trust with other “I”s needed to participate in collective choice. It alienates others by doing something to them against their will, without consulting their desires and attempting to get to a mutually agreeable decision.
In this interpretation of ethics, ethical rules aren’t absolutes: in fact, by definition, they’re open to negotiation. Ethics is the communication of reasons that allow distinct people to see themselves as one, to walk out of a room saying “us” instead of “me and him”. Things like “no stealing” are just general principles that have emerged over time as good bases for we-formation.
This explanation is not incompatible with the evolutionary game-theory explanation. In fact, it’s complementary: the evolution is the how, the ethics is the why. Seen this way, though, ethics is more than arbitrary emotions; it’s actually an emergent property of any system of individuals that come together to cooperate. It may have evolved, but the direction of evolution wasn’t arbitrary, and can’t be discarded without discarding the goal of being more than an isolated individual, trapped in our own skull without the society of others.
Whether or not we choose to include another person in our “we” is the basic moral question. It’s hard to merge ourselves with someone else, but we are designed, for the most part (sociopaths, presumably, aside), to begin the incorporation process by default whenever we encounter someone new in circumstances that allow for communication. Cutting this process off is experienced as painful, because it very literally makes us smaller.
So, meta-ethics: the (moral) truth isn’t out there. It’s in here, with “us”.
Terminological footnote: For those who care about deontology vs consequentialism, I regard this as a deontological ethical theory, because the ethical “rightness” or “wrongness” of a choice comes from the decision-making process (whether it breaks down or builds up a “we”), rather than from the consequences of the decision. See again why I think consequentialism isn’t philosophically defensible.