Enda Kenny’s speech

Like most people in Ireland, I was very impressed by Enda Kenny’s speech yesterday denouncing the Catholic hierarchy’s facilitation and cover-up of the rape and torture of children.

I wonder how long we would have had to wait for a speech like that if similar crimes had been systematically committed by “forces of the British Crown”? Oh well — let’s let it pass. But now that Irish society seems at last to be freeing itself from the authoritarianism of the Catholic hierarchy, perhaps it might also try to shake off a few of habits of thought that come with religious traditions in general, and with Catholicism in particular?

Ireland threw off the authority of British rule years ago, but Irish society seems to have remained subservient to the supposed moral authority of the equally worldly power of the church. I don’t think Irish society can ever free itself of such powers until “free thinking” becomes more of a way of life here. By “free thinking” I mean the rejection of orthodoxy and the routine acceptance and encouragement of heterodoxy. As things stand, too many Irish people habitually accept the opinions of experts, and are impressed by mere consensus. The word ‘contrarian’ is a term of abuse in Ireland, like ‘denier’. If we had more deliberate contrarianism, Irish society would be freer, and Ireland would be a better place to live. That means shaking off conformism and respect for authority. Too many flatter themselves with their own “anti-authoritarianism”, but simply bow to a different authority, such as that of a political movement.

Another habit of thought we would all do well to shake off is the suppposition that blame is inherited. This has been the traditional rationalization of anti-Semitism, with which Catholicism has been closely associated over the centuries. It is also the rationalization of much nationalist hostility towards members of minorities who are considered “too British”. If you are descended from imperialist overlords, it is habitually thought, then you inherit the blame for their injustices.

I suspect that much child rape and torture was rationalized in a similar way by perverts as a supposedly “corrective” measure, in other words as “deserved punishment” for an imagined inherited culpability. Nearly all violence is facilited by anger, and one can only feel anger by somehow cooking up a sense of having been wronged in some way, however ludicrous.

We’d also be better off without the habit of assuming right and wrong are a matter of the motives of the agent instead of the consequences of his actions. This comes from traditional religious morality, which was aimed at keeping one’s soul free of blemishes, with the eventual reward of an eternity in paradise. Both the focus of moral deliberation and its supposed motivation were centred on the self. In other words, to find out what’s the right thing to do, you look at your own motives, and to get a reason for doing it you anticipate your own reward.

In his speech, Enda Kenny used the word ‘narcissism’, and like most of the other words in his speech I think it was chosen carefully. I suggest he had in mind the inward-looking, self-serving aspects of that understanding of right and wrong.

The Catholic church is not the only institution that lives by and fosters these habits of thought, of course. Some completely secular bodies do it too. Wherever there are inward-looking, secretive, authoritarian, conformist habits of thought and attitudes, the darkness lingers on…

What’s wrong with killing? Or hacking a dead girl’s phone?

What’s wrong with killing? — We don’t ask that question often, because nearly all of us agree that killing is wrong. Since nearly all of us agree it’s wrong, we overlook the question of why it is wrong. As soon as we ask that next question, we see that different people give different answers to what is wrong with it. Some people will say what’s wrong with killing is that it has terrible consequences. Assuming the person who was killed did not want to die, his death thwarts a huge swath of his strongest preferences. It thwarts his preference to continue living, of course, but it also thwarts many other preferences that can only be satisfied by his continuing to live, such as becoming a lover or an artist, getting married, raising children, advancing a career, or making a mark in the world. Perhaps the strongest of all of these preferences is simply that almost every person prefers to be the master of his own destiny, and getting killed thwarts that preference.

As well as the victim’s preferences, there are all the preferences of all the people who would have preferred the person who was killed not to have been killed — family, friends and others.

Philosophers call people who judge action in that way “consequentialists”, because they look at how good or bad the consequences of action are.

Philosophers use the term “non-consequentialists” for people who instead judge action by looking at the agent’s motives. Non-consequentialists will say what’s wrong with killing is that it involves bad motives such as murderous intent, malice, or an urge to break rules that must never be broken.

That is essentially a religious way of judging action, because in effect it involves looking at how “blemished” or “blemish-free” an agent’s “soul” (i.e. conscious mind) is when he acts.

Next question: what’s wrong with hacking a dead girl’s phone?

Again, almost everyone will agree that it’s wrong to break into the voicemail of a dead girl’s mobile phone, to delete messages and all the unpleasant, distasteful rest of it. But consequentialists and non-consequentialists will diverge again here over what is wrong with it.

First, let’s consider how consequentialists see things. If messages are deleted, a police enquiry can be misdirected, and that could easily enable a murderer to go on to murder other people. That is a very serious and unwelcome consequence.

Furthermore, if the deletion of messages gives family and friends the false hope that she is still alive, that is very upsetting for them. Still further, if their private expressions of grief are made available to others, that invasion of privacy must be a source of great discomfort to them, and extremely hurtful to their feelings.

That is bad. But however upsetting it must have been for them, we have to ask whether the upset involved their most central preferences being thwarted.

Our central, most important preferences don’t have much to do with “feelings”. You can see this by asking yourself whether you would rather your lover be unfaithful to you without your knowing about it, or with your knowing about it. Most would rather take the pain along with the knowledge, because the knowledge matters more to them than avoiding the pain.

Ask yourself how bad it would be to kill someone painlessly — as opposed to killing someone painfully. Most will agree that the difference is very marginal, or even entirely negligible. If you are killed, that is very bad, not because someone hurt you, or hurt your feelings when you died, but because you ended up dead.

To the family or friends of a murdered girl, getting false hope is bad because their preference to know the truth is thwarted. That certainly is a real preference. But I’m not concinced it is an absolutely central one. Suppose your doctor gives you false hope by downplaying the severity of your illness. Is that really such a terrible thing? It’s bad, but it’s not all that bad.

It seems to me that in the larger scheme of things, when parents are trying to deal with the awful fact that their child is missing, to believe wrongly that she is still alive — when in fact she is dead — isn’t all that bad a consequence.

Finally, still considering consequences, we must consider the harm done to the dead girl herself when her voicemail was hacked. I’m sure I will annoy anyone who reads this when I say these consequences are not relevant. They would only be relevant to someone who is still living. The girl is dead — her privacy cannot be compromised, because there is no privacy to compromise.

So from a consequentialist perspective, the phone hacking scandal involved dirty deeds, various things that no journalist should have been involved in, but nothing quite as indescribably evil as most of the current commentary seems to suppose.

Nearly all of that commentary has come from a non-consequentialist perspective. Non-consequentialists look at the motives of the agents involved, from Rupert Murdoch down. They find urges to dig up the dirt, to interfere with inncoent people’s lives, to invade privacy, to pander to the lowest tastes of the newspaper-buying public. But perhaps worst of all, they find something like necrophilia in the urge to “rape” the private voicemail of a dead girl’s mobile phone.

And since they’re looking at motives rather than consequences, and thinking about the blemished nature of the “souls” involved, no doubt they remember Murdoch’s shameless union-busting, shameless strike-breaking, shameless tits-showing, shameless salacious celbrity-hounding past.

Big fucking deal. That’s journalism.

I imagine it’s pretty obvious that I’m a consequentialist. But I suggest the differences between consequentialists and non-consequentialists are worth thinking about.

The “saintly” professions

Some of the best human institutions deliver the goods in an “unintended” way. For example, take science. Despite what the newspapers tell you, and despite what scientists themselves would like you to think, scientists are not self-denying saints in pursuit of truth. Like the rest of us, scientists choose their career because they’re interested in it, they’re reasonably good at it, they expect to make a decent living out of it, and they vaguely hope to make their mark in it.

Science is a social process in which scientists are primarily motivated to promote their own careers and compete with each other for recognition.

One of the unusual things about science is that when scientists try to discredit the efforts of other scientists, as they must to gain recognition, they have to appeal to explanations and the results of tests. That requirement — that scientific theories explain things and pass tests — turns science into something special: it becomes an exercise in piecing together a coherent picture of the hidden structure of the world.

Science is the pursuit of truth because of the “rules of the game” of science rather than because scientists are motivated by a “noble calling”. The truths that science delivers are mostly unintended consequences of competition between scientists who are motivated to seek personal recognition and career advancement.

A good scientist strives for recognition by blowing his rivals’ theories out of the water. That is not selflessness. So it is hopelessly naive to claim that a bad scientist is someone who is “not selfless enough”.

Many other human institutions are like that. In particular, a bank is not a charity but a commercial enterprise whose success happens to promote the success of other commercial enterprises.  When people complain that the banking system has failed because bankers were “too greedy”, I’m afraid they’ve missed the point of banking. (The banking system failed, but for other reasons than the greed of bankers.)

To take a more topical example, a newspaper is not a source of moral guidance but a source of news, and hopefully a source of controversy and a spur to discussion as well. So when people complain that journalists have not been guided by noble enough motives, they may have a legitimate moral complaint, but they don’t have a well-aimed professional criticism.

And yet, professions such as science and journalism increasingly present themselves to the public — and insidiously, even to their own practitioners — as uniquely admirable moral pursuits. The general public is encouraged to look up to scientists and journalists as if they were especially virtuous individuals instead of perfectly ordinary individuals engaged in an activity that tends to uncover truths.

Hence the sense of outrage that has accompanied the breaking scandal of phone mailbox “hacking” at the News of the World. Much of this outrage has been stirred up and expressed by journalists themselves, eager to promote the self-congratulatory assumption that journalism is a uniquely virtuous profession, and to fume appropriately when the assumption is shown to be false.

The scandal has made a much smaller splash among the general public. Most of the general public were never inclined to think that journalists were saints, nor are they much outraged now to discover that what they do is distinctly non-saintly. Newshounds live on Grub Street: it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

Puritans 1, liberals 0

Should a lawyer promote a client’s “not guilty” defence if the lawyer knows the client is guilty? The law says not, because it would mean committing perjury. But it does happen. And most of us would accept that it is morally justified: everyone should get a decent legal defence, whichever way he chooses to plead.

Should a newspaper stoop to snooping, or to breaking the law to get a story? Most of us would accept that this is morally justified when important facts are revealed in the public interest. Whistleblowers have to break employers’ rules to blow their whistles, and all law amounts to is rules “of the land” rather than rules of employment.

Most of us accept that criminality is sometimes justified. For example, emails from the University of East Anglia’s climate research department revealed serious failings on the part of people who worked there. But these emails were stolen, and the person who stole them is a criminal. A civic-minded, conscientious criminal.

Much of the moral outrage over phone “hacking” and police payments (etc.) at the News of the World is an expression of disgust and disapproval not at criminality per se, but at criminality that is not in the public interest. Instead, the criminality involved panders to the lowest human tastes. We might say it served the public appetite — i.e. what the public are interested in rather than the public interest.

The difference between public interest and public appetite comes up again and again in all sorts of disputes. For example, some people want to take drugs, and others think no one should want to take drugs. Typically, the former want drugs to be more easily available, and the latter want drugs to be less easily available. Or again, there are some who enjoy pornography, and think it should be reasonably easily available; others think no one should enjoy pornography, so it should not be available at all.

This is not a difference between right-wing and left-wing thinking. It is a difference between those who respect the wishes — however salacious — that people actually happen to have, and those who are only prepared to respect “respectable” wishes. I’ll call the latter “puritans”, because in effect they insist that wishes must be “pure” to be respected.

You can see that this is not a difference between right and left, because there are puritans on both sides. On the right, there are religious fundamentalists who oppose pornography, prostitution, etc. because these involve “sin” — i.e. sinful sexual thoughts. On the left, there are feminists who oppose pornography, prostitution, etc. because these involve wishes that “objectify women”. In both cases, some wishes are considered improper and on that count are not worthy of respect. This sort of puritanism can be very sinister: consider the Marxist idea of “false consciousness”, which in effect denies that impure wishes are wishes at all, but instead a symptom of some sort of mental disorder. Orwell was infuriated by this sort of intellectual dishonesty.

These attitudes reflect two concepts of freedom, which Isaiah Berlin called “negative” and “positive”. According to the negative concept, freedom is simply the absence of external obstacles to getting what you want. According to this idea, a free man is just someone who can do what he wants to do, no matter what it is he happens to want. This concept of freedom is very simple and straightforward. No one can ever be completely free, or should be, as one person’s freedom tends to impinge on another person’s freedom. From this perspective, politics is a non-utopian matter of compromise, of muddling through as best we can.

According to the other, “positive” concept of freedom, freedom is all about empowerment. To be free, a person must want the right things, and avoid the weaknesses and failings associated with wanting the wrong things. Thus Rousseau wrote that “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”. Why is he “in chains”? — Because he has been corrupted by society. For example, his mind has been corrupted by advertising that makes him strive for things he doesn’t really need, by technology that makes his life less “authentic”, and so on. She is in chains too, if she wants the sort of things feminists deem to be inappropriate for a woman to want.

I will make no secret of the fact that I detest this positive concept of freedom, and the utopian, violent, intolerant politics of those who embrace it. As Burke said, “In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.” 220 years on, we can add the gulag and the gas chamber.

The News of the World scandal has annoyed people in different ways, for different reasons. It seems to me that most are annoyed for puritanical, “positive freedom” reasons. They neither like nor respect the salacious appetites of the public. They wrinkle their noses at tabloid journalism, because they think newspapers should “empower” those who read them through education instead of entertainment. They despise the mundane wishes and appetites of ordinary people.

I think it’s time for ordinary people to fight back.

The worst mistake of all time

Pop psychologist Sam Harris tells us that

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.

I think this encapsulates in a single paragraph the worst and most persistent error in philosophical thinking in all recorded history, East and West. It is inspired by the wholly mistaken thought that our minds are essentially non-physical, and so are “cut off” from the physical world. If my mind doesn’t directly interact with the physical world, the idea goes, then I don’t see the physical world directly, but instead exist as a centre of consciousness or “eye” watching a “cinema screen” of conscious experiences. And when I act, the idea goes, I am really trying to make pleasant things appear on my “screen”, rather than manipulate the physical world that lies behind the “screen”, outside my mind. Does this sound familiar? If so, you may require a sort of philosophical “therapy”!

I think it’s pretty clear where the idea comes from. Man is a religious animal. We have an awareness of — but aversion to — our own mortality, and so prefer not to face up to it. So we pretend to ourselves that our minds do not really belong to the physical world: the physical world of disease, decay and death. Thus, all over the world and throughout history, we humans have a weakness for belief in ghosts and we trust “shamans” who supposedly can “transcend the physical”. (A recent science-fiction version of these ideas imagines that a person’s mind is a mere “pattern” that can be transferred to a super-computer by super-intelligent computer boffins, thereby making that lucky person’s mind immortal.)

But whatever the source of the idea may be — you don’t have to agree with my story above — the idea is just plain mistaken. Minds are what brains do, and brains are the product of evolution. Unlike a “soul”, a brain is not a non-physical entity “breathed into” an alien physical body by God. A brain is a functioning physical organ shaped by natural selection to serve its purpose in a living organism, of which it is an integral part.

Primarily, the brain of an organism helps the organism to achieve its goals (which are shaped by the common goal of its genes, to proliferate in future generations). And almost all of the organism’s goals are external, not internal. In other words, the brain’s main purpose is to make sure external physical things are arranged in a particular way, rather than to make sure internal experiences have a particular quality. Organisms have goals such as getting food and shelter, killing enemies, and so on, as opposed to removing the experience of hunger, or having the sensation of warmth, or enjoying the conscious satisfaction of revenge.

The goals are external, because that is where natural selection applies pressure. An animal will not pass its genes on if it does not eat food or find shelter, or if it gets killed by its enemies. So there is selective pressure to pursue food, seek shelter, and alas, to kill. These are external goals. But there is no selective pressure to have this or that sort of conscious experience. A wide variety of “primitive” creatures do not experience anything at all, neither hunger nor cold. Some are emotionally indifferent when they kill others. Natural selection is largely indifferent to the internal experiences that accompany our perceptions of outside conditions.

Humans evolved through a long series of small steps from earlier creatures that did not have brains at all. There is no line dividing “before” and “after” — between earlier creatures that sought external goals, and later creatures that sought internal goals. The “after” here is largely illusory, a figment of our imagining that the mind is a “ghost in the machine”. What really happened as mammalian-type brains evolved was that organisms’ goals became more and more multifarious, and the internal representations (like maps) needed to achieve them became more and more detailed, and hence the “internal” life of some organisms became richer and richer. But at no stage did any organism’s goals move inwards to become primarily “internal”.

Let us return to Sam Harris’s claims quoted above. We emphatically do not “form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness”. We seek friendships because alliances are of real value in passing on our genes to future generations. Alliances enable reciprocal altruism, in other words, mutual support between individuals who are unrelated by descent. If we do not achieve our goal of forming friendships, we recognize that fact, and the recognition is accompanied by a conscious sense of failure which we call loneliness.

Love is not an emotion. It is a biological condition, usually of benefit to the genes of those who are in it. Love enables the sharing of burdens and the division of labour in raising offspring. This can be a rocky road, and the fortunes of those who travel along it vary. As they vary, lovers can experience a wide range of emotions, from lust to murderous jealousy.

Harris’s Bambi-and-butterflies approach to “love” isn’t just laughable, it’s downright dangerous. A lot of people think they aren’t in love when actually they are, and vice versa, because they have swallowed a “spiritual” philosophy that assumes the mind is essentially disembodied, so that the human condition boils down to “feelings”.

That mistake can have a very dark side. What’s wrong with killing? — If your answer to this appeals to experience, you’ll probably say what’s wrong with killing is it causes pain to the person or animal that gets killed. But then you’d have to accept that killing is OK as long as it’s painless. That is a licence to murder.

Against Harris, I would argue that we do not usually “eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues”. Usually, we eat food because our stomachs are empty, and we are drawn to foods that provide us with the nutrition we need most, foods that are typically high in calories, high in fat, salt or protein, and unsurprisingly taste best to us. To deliberately create food with a specific taste, appearance and texture is as much to create good food as to create the experience of eating good food. If it were possible to have the experience on its own, as in a dream, I think most of us would opt for the real thing instead. The legendary “vomitorium” of the decadent Roman empire had nothing to do with puking, for the simple reason that people like good food, not the mere experience of eating.

But I accept, sometimes we do seek particular sorts of experience. That is a relatively rare occurrence, and when it happens it is part of a larger project that has an external goal as its eventual object. To seek a particular sort of experience is a bit like deliberately programming a flight simulator to give a trainee pilot the experience of a particular sort of aircraft malfunction: the eventual aim is to deal with real malfunctions of that sort better.

Harris’s assumptions about motivation — essentially, that we always do things in order to have various kinds of conscious experience — is remarkable in two respects. First, it seems untouched by the most important breakthroughs of twentieth-century philosophy, such as those of the later Wittgenstein or the American pragmatist movement. Second, it amounts to a denial of evolution. Living things whose primary purpose is to achieve “internal” goals simply cannot evolve through the process of natural selection.

(The quoted passage is taken from his blog post “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”, in which he argues for the legalization of all drugs. I’m happy enough to accept its conclusion, but I refuse to accept a discredited, non-physical view of the mind as the basis for that conclusion.)