Qualms beget alms

Does the average person need “engagement with complex ethical theories” to be a good person? This is the type of question that keeps weirdos like me and Adam up at night. In order to reply to Adam’s query I need to call upon an expert witness, Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Question of Motive. The key excerpt is in audio form here:

Schopenhauer asks us to imagine two young men, Caius and Titus, each passionately in love, each with a different girl, each thwarted by more favored rivals. Both resolve to kill the rival that stands in their way, “but when they come to actually prepare for the murder, each of them, after an inward struggle, draws back. They are now to give us a truthful and clear account of the reasons why they abandoned their project.”

For Caius, we are given a menu of explanations from which to choose, each representing a famous “complex ethical theory” from the history of moral philosophy. Perhaps Caius says,

I reflected that the principle I was going to apply in this case would not be adapted to provide a rule universally valid for all possible rational beings; because I should have treated my rival only as a means, and not at the same time as an end.” Or, following Fichte, he may deliver himself as follows: “Every human life is a means towards realising the moral law; consequently, I cannot, without being indifferent to this realisation, destroy a being ordained to do his part in effecting it. …

For Titus, the situation is different. Indeed, it’s not even possible to tell if he’s ever been acquainted with a “complex ethical theory” of any stripe. Thus spoke Titus:

When I came to make arrangements for the work, and so, for the moment, had to occupy myself not with my own passion, but with my rival; then for the first time I saw clearly what was going to happen to him. But simultaneously I was seized with compassion and pity; sorrow for him laid hold upon me, and overmastered me: I could not strike the blow.

Now Schopenhauer:

I ask every honest and unprejudiced reader: Which of these two is the better man? To which would he prefer to entrust his own destiny? Which is restrained by the purer motive? Consequently, where does the basis of morality lie?

I know how I answer. Titus embodies an indelible moral character, motivated purely by compassion, while Caius comes off as an amoral keener who could be persuaded back to murder by a particularly convincing footnote refutation. The basis of behaving morally, then, lies not in any philosophical treatise or divine command, but by cultivating our moral sense. Qualms beget alms.

This doesn’t eliminate the value of philosophy per se, but should definitely feed into how one sets their priorities. At the very least, any person who concentrates on living a life of compassion will run ethical laps around the man of manuscript, who is just as liable to become tricked by the latest sophist as he is to discover the first and only Grand Unified Theory of not being a dick.

In addition to the comments we receive below, there is some lively conversation taking place on Reddit connected to this post that can be found here.

“Comparative Ideological Studies”

I heard this wonderful episode of the podcast “99% Invisible” recently. It was about the problem of communicating across ten thousand years, to tell our distant descendants that “This Area Is Insanely Radioactive, Go Away”. In truth, even a ten-thousand year scope is irresponsible, since we all now understand that the material will be pretty unsafe for the next 250,000 years.

The speakers make the salient point that Shakespearean English is roughly 400 years old, or 4% of the time we’re trying to span. The “English” of Beowulf is 10% the distance they’re trying to shout over. Languages and common symbols drift away in the 10k year time-span. Nothing human is anchored down at that scale. Any foreboding landmark we can construct can become an attraction (or an undecipherable mess). Any repulsive obstacle can become an attractive challenge or an irrelevant nothing.

One especially curious solution was to genetically engineer some cats to become “living Geiger counters”, changing color in the presence of high-radiation, and then singing songs and telling stories whose moral was simply, “If the cats change color, run away.” The men who came up with this theory argued that culture itself was the only technology that could span that kind of time. If the simple heuristic that “cats should not change color” could be preserved over time, the people of the future do not need to understand the “why”. Let me be clear- it’s a silly solution. Still, thought provoking I think.

This long-temporal-distance communication problem has been itching me lately. I’ve been reading Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication, which nominally is about the problems of cultural exchange with extraterrestrials. [Full PDF courtesy of NASA.gov, here]. The big analogy, though, is with another kind of one-way limited-context communication: between human cultures separated by millennia. (I put up some early notes on my home-blog here, on trying to eke meaning out of Egyptian, Mayan, and North American artifacts).

One of the obvious benefits of “comparative studies” is that it can help to suggest what properties might be more generalizable and which are more contingent or local to the entities in question. From our distance and our own distinct cultural differences, we can make generalizations of other cultures that they themselves might not have seen as contingent or even worth comment. We might call these hidden premises “Unknown Knowns”, to fill out the missing quadrant of that infamous Rumsfeld quote.

We all float in a soup of communally-understood symbols and stories and ideologies that we might occasionally mistake for self-evident. Those who have never attempted their own “ideological comparative studies”- those who haven’t engaged with titled and demarcated Philosophies- may have a harder time distinguishing what is unique or contentious or inconsistent or “recent” in their own worldview, but they aren’t necessarily without a worldview. Those who choose not to engage with the minds of others are missing out on powerful tools of a kind of metacognition.

I apologize if this is a trite point. I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.


Hi all, I’m Chris, and I’m looking forward to more great conversation here. I have a low-activity Twitter as careid0, and I scribble madness at www.fogbanking.com. My perennial interests are decision-making, human-computer interaction, organizations, and games studies. I’m a consultant on weekdays and a game developer on weekends.

Is Philosophy Necessary for the Good Life?

Like many of my fellow Sweet Talkers, I’ve got an interest in philosophy, and especially ethics. But as interested as I’ve found it to be, the more I read, the more I have this nagging question:

Is philosophy necessary for a good and virtuous life? If so, then must we write off all of humanity as incapable of achieving the good life, save for the tiny sliver of those that engage in philosophy (never mind getting particular about which philosophy). If not, then what is the purpose of a philosophy of morality in the first place?

In the preface to Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum writes:

Like Socrates, I think that modern democracies need philosophy, if they are to realize their potential. And they not only need Socratic inquiry and self-examination, they also need engagement with complex ethical theories, prominently including theories of social justice.

If democracy’s potential requires the median voter to have “engagement with complex ethical theories”, then democracy is doomed to never fulfill its potential. Forgive me if that is excessively cynical.

But if philosophy and complex ethical theories are not to play the role that Nussbaum envisions, what role are they to play, if any?