The minimal moral position

Trivially, we act in ways that tend to satisfy our own preferences. Preferences are just what we prefer, and what we prefer is just what we would choose if we were able to act freely.

The satisfaction of a preference is an “objective” feature of action. For example, if I want my lover to be faithful to me, that preference is satisfied if and only if my lover actually is faithful to me. It is satisfied even if I think (mistakenly) that she is not faithful to me. It is thwarted if she is not faithful to me even if I think (mistakenly) that she is faithful.

Obviously, satisfaction of preferences has little to do with experienced pleasure. Thus preference utilitarianism is sharply distinct from traditional hedonistic utilitarianism (of the sort promoted by Jeremy Bentham).

Preference utilitarianism understands “the right” in terms of “the good”. It’s good for oneself when one’s own preferences are satisfied. It’s good for other agents when their preferences are satisfied. Morally right acts are those that promote the good of agents in general. Of course this is usually a matter of compromise between competing goods.

Since all genuine agents have preferences, and all genuine agents can act in ways that satisfy or thwart preferences of agents in general, the concepts of moral rightness or wrongness apply to the action (and inaction) of all genuine agents. This includes animals.

The meaning of the word ‘right’ in preference utilitarianism is different from the meaning of the word ‘right’ in other moral theories. This is in keeping with the broader truth that the meaning of theoretical terms depends on the theory they occur in, and on the way that theory is applied in practice. In other words, “meaning is use”.

This can cause some equivocation, as Kuhn recognized in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Suppose one person uses Newtonian mechanics, and another person uses Special Relativity. Then they use the word ‘mass’ in different ways. Its meaning differs between them. The first person takes mass to be an intrinsic feature of matter. The second person takes it to depend on the reference frame, and thinks it has a closer connection to energy than matter. Analogously, the word ‘right’ differs between a preference utilitarian and anyone who holds a rival moral theory.

Despite its verbose name, preference utilitarianism is probably the simplest moral theory there can be, involving the least commitment to other moral concepts such as virtue, rules, or culpability. It thus deserves to be called the minimal moral position.

Never forget the “struggle for existence”

I often think that those who say we face “climate change catastrophe” mustn’t really understand the most basic tenet of evolutionary theory: that life involves a struggle for existence.

Consider, for example, what the Sunday Times television guide says about tonight’s wildlife documentary on BBC2, The Polar Bear Family and Me: “polar bears are the world’s largest carnivores, but global warming is making it more and more difficult for them to find food”.

In fact, individual polar bears have always found it difficult to find food. Whenever less food was available, their numbers fell, as more of them succumbed to various causes of death. Most such causes have always been related to food shortage: diseases of malnutrition, exhaustion through having to travel long distances to find food, attacks by other hungry polar bears, even killing at the hands of human beings they wouldn’t have approached if they hadn’t been so hungry.

Whenever more food was available, their numbers rose – up to the point at which food was difficult to find again. That brings us right back to the situation described in the previous paragraph. Polar bear numbers are not decided by ancient “polar bear wisdom” with which they thoughtfully control their own numbers, nor is there a “delicate balance of nature” in the Arctic that perfectly suits polar bears. The issue is always settled the hard way – by food shortages and by death.

As Arctic ice melts, polar bear numbers may be rising or falling – and no one seems to know with much confidence which. Polar bears are good swimmers, and they get most of their food in the form of other swimming animals such as seals. It might be that more open water has the effect of increasing the availability of food – a situation that sustains larger numbers of polar bears. Or it might be that more open water allows more polar bear competitors into their “turf”, which help to use up the food supply. Or that less ice means fewer air-holes where seals can be caught. These are situations that sustain smaller numbers of polar bears. But fewer bears means fewer competitors for each individual bear, which makes finding food slightly less difficult. Which reverses things a bit. Via many swings and roundabouts of fortune, a sort of balance is struck. It isn’t a balance that arises through design, or anything like it. It’s a balance that results from the “chips falling where they may”.

Whichever way the chips may fall, the difficulty of finding food remains roughly the same. The degree of difficulty is always approximately a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure why so many climate alarmists seem to be unaware of this situation, which exists pretty much everywhere in nature. It might be that their area of specialization has nothing to do with evolution, which makes them no better qualified than any other layperson to guess the effects on life of a changing climate. Or it might be that the insight Darwin credited Malthus for bringing to his attention has been largely forgotten in today’s attitudes to “ecosystems”. These attitudes assume that there is something akin to design in nature, and suffering gets much worse when a supposed “way things were meant to be” is disrupted.

Wherever there’s life, there’s a struggle for existence. Whether sea levels rise or fall, whether ice caps retreat or advance, whether the climate warms or cools, whether the earth is beset by floods or droughts, even if everything stays exactly the same – living things have to battle against each other and their environment as a matter of life and death. There’s a lot of suffering in all that strife, and changes are just as likely to bring a little relief from that vast tapestry of suffering as to make it a little worse.

Were Hume, Kant, Mill, Darwin, Heidegger racists?

Most European thinkers of earlier centuries thought that “savages” lived more primitive lives than Europeans. At the very least, they thought that “savage” culture was less highly developed than European culture, and many believed that “savages” themselves were racially “inferior”, so that they were more like children than adults. For example, JS Mill opposed paternalism in general, but made exceptions of children and “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage”.

Were these earlier thinkers racists? I don’t think so. The word ‘racism’ is often applied to the belief that one race is “inferior” to another race, and by that criterion some or all of the above-mentioned thinkers would count as racists. But I think the word ‘racism’ should be strictly reserved for a moral failing: refusing or neglecting to give due consideration to some individuals’ interests because they belong to a particular race.

Racism is motivated by malice rather than incorrect information. Our attention should not be focused on beliefs, which are “afferent” states of mind in being normally shaped by states of the world outside the head via perception. Instead, we should focus our attention on volitional states such as desires, which are “efferent” states of mind in that they normally shape states of the world outside the head via action. Racism is primary caused by bad attitudes and unjust sentiments – it’s a culpable willingness to disregard interests through action or inaction. This is different from sincerely believing something to be a fact. Having a mere belief might be an epistemic failing, especially if the belief is false, but it can’t really be a moral failing.

Why not? Let’s accept that as a matter of fact, in the real world, no human race is “inferior” to any other race. Please be absolutely clear that I do not mean to question that fact. But now let us imagine an alternative world, in which we discover a long-lost race of humans who, alas, really are “inferior” to us in some respect or other. This is a wholly imaginary world, but it should be quite easy to imagine, because we already believe something akin to this about dogs. Statistically, Chihuahuas are “inferior” to Great Danes in respect of size, and Red Setters are “inferior” to mongrels in respect of intelligence. The “inferiority” of one canine race compared to another in no way justifies ill-treatment of members of the “lesser” race, in fact if anything it helps to justify special care and concern for the less able ones to protect their own interests.

In this imaginary world, a rational, well-informed person would adopt the belief that our long-lost race are “inferior” to other human races, in whichever respect we were imagining them as being statistically “inferior”. Note that in this imaginary world the adopted belief is true. But in rationally adopting such a belief, well-informed people become “racists”, according to the criterion used above to deem Hume, Kant, Mill, Darwin et al to be “racists”.

Therefore, that criterion must be wrong. No external fact about the world could possibly turn a rational, well-informed person into a racist. The mistaken criterion is counting a mere belief that one race is “inferior” to another as the mark of racism.

As far as I know, the alternative criterion (suggested already above) was first proposed by Peter Singer in his book Practical Ethics. It does not depend on belief: instead, racism is understood as failure to give equal consideration to some individuals’ interests because they belong to a particular race. From what I know of their lives, Singer’s alternative criterion exonerates Hume, Kant, Mill and Darwin of the charge of racism. As far as I know, none of them did anything to mistreat members of other races. But it does not exonerate Heidegger of that charge: Heidegger was instrumental in getting Husserl removed from his professorship at the University of Freiberg on the grounds that he was Jewish.

It isn’t all that surprising that thinkers of earlier centuries assumed “savages” were “inferior” in some ways to Europeans. At the time, little was known of the sophistication of their cultures. We now know that there is no such thing as a “primitive” human language, and that technological advance is a poor indicator of cultural richness. But thinkers of earlier centuries had fewer opportunities to find out about other cultures.

It strikes me as especially unfair to use the mistaken criterion of racism against Hume. More than anyone, Hume helped to clarify the difference between “is” and “ought”, and the relation between belief and desire as the component mental states that explain action. To accuse him of racism on the grounds that he had a “bad belief” is not only to use a mistaken criterion of racism, but also to overlook the insights Hume himself contributed to our understanding of action and morality.

The mistaken criterion judges belief in moral terms instead of epistemic terms. That is typical of a recent wave of intolerance, which I call intolerance of creed. I have written a little more about it here.

Sticks and stones

I got into an enjoyable Twitter debate recently with another philosopher over this old nursery rhyme:

Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me.

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in this old rhyme. (Or at least this early version of it – a later version substitutes ‘hurt’ for ‘harm’, which affects its meaning.) Construed as advice to children (or Irish politicians) it says: “if you want to be like me, don’t take offence too easily, or assume you have actually been harmed when you have merely been insulted. Try to not let your feelings get hurt too much by what people say.”

I like that, because I think people should put much more effort into not taking offence than not giving offence. What we call “offensive” is often nothing worse than a moral opinion that differs from our own moral opinions. Because it conflicts with our morality, we think it’s immoral, and that’s often a cue for condemning it and ostracizing its utterer. But it’s good for us to hear opinions that differ from our own, especially different moral opinions, because we tend to avoid listening to them. We may not smile sweetly as we hear these opposed opinions, but the widening of our horizons is salutary.

Even if what is said is motivated by genuine malice, and causes genuine mental anguish, that is not the same as actually being harmed. Personally, I would prefer to know how much someone dislikes me, even – in fact especially – if it hurt my feelings to find out. It’s usually better to know “where we stand” with others than to be cocooned in cotton wool where everyone plays “nice” and no one says what they really feel. If I really want someone to like me, I want to know what they really think of me, even if they don’t like me. We are usually harmed more by dishonesty than by honesty.

Most people tend to like those who are like them, and to dislike those who differ from them. So the ones who are subject to verbal abuse are often unusual in some way – they have might unusual talents, unusual opinions, unusual appearance, or unusual mannerisms. They may belong to another race, or have a minority sexual preference. If we try too hard to avoid causing offence instead of taking offence, it can foster an atmosphere in which differences are “not to be mentioned” – they’re swept under the carpet. But the great political “pride” movements celebrate differences rather than sweeping them under a carpet. If we insist on prohibitions or even inhibitions on mentioning difference, we may unwittingly substitute “black shame” for black pride, or “gay shame” for gay pride. I think that would be a very bad thing.

“Sticks and stones” can also be understood as saying something interesting about language and agency. When we act, a complicated causal chain links our intentions with the effects of our action. For example, inside an arsonist’s mind-brain are beliefs and desires that constitute his intention to set fire to a building. These cause activity in motor neurons, which move body parts, which result in the pouring of gasoline and the striking of a match, and so on. Many conditions are together sufficient for the fire, including the presence of oxygen. Some of them are more relevant than others if we are trying to prevent arson. To focus on the presence of oxygen – or even on the availability of matches – as “the” relevant, principal or culpable part of the cause of the fire is to focus on the wrong condition.

That’s because we can do nothing at all about the presence of oxygen, and the non-availability of matches wouldn’t be much help, as an arsonist could easily fall back some other – possibly more efficient – means of lighting fires. In that respect, we might contrast matches with assault rifles. Banning matches would probably do nothing to prevent arson, whereas banning assault rifles would probably help to reduce the scale of massacres of the sort seen recently in Newtown, Connecticut.

The “sticks and stones” rhyme reminds us that words are more like matches to an arsonist than assault rifles to a crazed gunman. It is an “error of focus” to think that words themselves are “weapons”.