Sunday, September 30, 2007

To Err (In A Manner of Speaking) Is Human

As stated before, I've been doing some rethinking, not simply of ethical and political conclusions, but of the very way in which I approach the questions.

It is, I suppose, characteristic of many mathematicians that we seek only answers of a certain form, even to entirely nonmathematical questions. To earn even my respect, an ethical or political theory had to derive from explicit first principles and valid laws of deduction. But as I've reflected, I find something very wrong with most axiomatized ethics, something which is handled quite better by the old illogical traditions.

In a mathematical proof, one begins with a set of assumptions, each of which ought to appear in the proof (explicitly or via an intermediate result). If you haven't used one of your assumptions at all, then the theorem is more generally applicable than it was stated, or (as is more often the case) the proof is mistaken.

What does this have to do with anything?

There are many ethical and political theories, for example Kant's categorical imperative or Locke's Second Treatise on Government, whose philosophies stand in respect to psychology and sociology as Laplace's cosmology stood in respect to God: they have no place for such hypotheses, they would give the same answers regardless of how human beings are actually constituted to think and act. And this, I think, disqualifies these theories from constituting either a complete way of life or a viable government, if adhered to completely. We are not Kant's universal rational agents, we are not simple economic beings maximizing some concrete utility, and a system that treats us as such will be without answer to a vast range of human behavior.

For example: it has been shown that people will forgo something to their own advantage if they feel that it also benefits someone else (even a stranger) unfairly (see the ultimatum game), and it is well-known that we make competitions out of things that give us little advantage (such as who passes whom on the highway, when the real difference in travel time is often negligible). The best explanations for these and other phenomena are ultimately sociological in nature: not much has changed in human nature from the tribal days, when allowing oneself to be beaten or taken advantage of even once would be known by others and lead to further trouble.

And before we criticize these departures from rationally calculated standards as something in all cases to be overcome, let us reflect on Kant's proclamation that not a single lie could ever be justified, not even (to use the canonical example) denying to the Nazis the presence of a Jewish family in one's attic. We generally find this conclusion to be wrong, and so those of us who want to make a similar generalization about lying are forced to invent sloppy arguments that would justify these "good lies" within a system that prohibits all lies. For example, "mental reservation" is a terrible attempt to escape this problem, because it could be applied as well to the ordinary situations where we prohibit lying:

Wife: "Are you sleeping with your secretary?"
Husband: "No, of course I'm not" (at this instant, that is.)

I'm not interested in the case of lying so much as the general fact that all simple philosophies tend to have their "hard cases", and they either have to bite the bullet on unpalatable conclusions, or construct ad hoc arguments that escape them. The ones that do the latter are generally less dangerous.

Moreover, we have a certain level of acceptance of social roles that goes well beyond any rational estimation of expertise or power; the police officer's social (and often moral) authority is as vital to his effectiveness as his official authority. The situation is even clearer with, say, priests. And a society that would be built without any social roles at all (the perfect envisioned society of some libertarians I know) is disarming itself of the most necessary of all tools for maintaining itself.

The old traditions of morality and statecraft, with all their contradictions, their ad hoc attachments, their messiness, have proven vastly better adapted to survival than their neatly reasoned descendants. Every other generation since the Enlightenment has prematurely written the obituary of the Catholic Church, and been amazed to see it outlast the appointed successor in the realm of ideas. And this, I have come to think, is due to the way that the aged faiths and systems contain implicitly so many things that resonate with actual human nature- not often by design, but by the necessities of survival in the hearts and minds of men. The Marian doctrines have long been criticized by those who would rationalize the Faith, but their real significance lies in the resonance of a loving Mother in the cosmos. And it has borne fruit for generations in inspiring great devotion, both among those who identify with Mary (the old ladies praying novena after novena for their children and grandchildren) and those who seek her (Pope John Paul II, who lost his own mother at a very early age, made Marian devotion a keystone of his sermons, his proclamations, and even his motto: "Totus Tuus").

But if a vast, messy tradition is usually superior to an oversimplified theory, what would be better yet is something fully true. And when it comes to finding such a thing, there are two principles I've come to think are relatively sound:

1. While our thinking about ethical and political theories should be as consistent as we can make it, it is not necessarily a flaw of one of these theories that it fails to be consistent.

2. Because we are, in fact, a particularly constituted sort of being, the principles on which a sound ethical or political theory is constructed should involve the input of the "narrative disciplines"- history, psychology, and sociology.

Yes, I've changed in regard to sociology. I'd once characterized it as completely unscientific, totally fabricated, and useless to the rest of the world. Well, I've now cleared the prisoner on the latter two charges, and pardoned it on the first. I still don't place too much trust in the way that the study of sociology is currently conducted, but I now think that it is an absolutely essential enterprise to the understanding of human life.

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