Wednesday, April 18, 2007

today i bought a new bike.

you know when you're dating someone way cooler or prettier than you, and psh/whatever of course, but sometimes you look at them and just laugh, bemused, thinking: what? what is going on here? how did this happen? that's what my new bike is like.
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Monday, April 09, 2007

III. rational agency is a bullshit foundation for anything

christ, i've been rattling on now forever and i haven't gotten anywhere near to the point of my paper yet, which is that if morality is anything that matters, then it's not the sort of thing that depends on our being rational agents. because whatever rational agency is, not everyone has it, and no one has it all the times-- and guess when we're least likely to have it? when it counts. when things are tough. when it hits the fan.

rational agency isn't some obscure philosophical idea, it's a way of viewing other people that pretty much everyone uses to get through the day. people do stuff that makes you mad or makes you happy, and that is translated almost immediately into being angry at them or pleased with them, liking them or disliking them, and we don't really bother justifying the connection, but if someone asked you to, you wouldn't have to think that hard: jane did x. she could have done y (steve, sal & danni were all in same sitch and THEY did y.). but she did x. and x fucking stung. so jane is a douche. she's not a child. she's not a sociopath. she's not a dog. she should know better.

when philosophers go to justify moral standards and the penalties for breaking them, they usually say the same sorts of things: human beings are rational agents. human beings have the the capacity to grasp moral reasons and the capacity to act according to them. children, the mentally ill, and those under extreme stress may be permanently or temporarily exempt from moral scrutiny precisely because they are NOT rational agents. dogs just are what they are. dogs just do what they do. human beings can reflect on what they do, and when their desires conflict with their moral beliefs, they can, by force of will, behave morally despite their desire to do otherwise.

it is my studied opinion that this is bullshit. it is true, as i will personally attest, that most persons tend to reflect (and reflect and reflect and reflect) on their behavior. most persons analyze, to one degree or another, what it is they should do, and what it is that they want to do, and why they should do it, and why they should want it, and so on. it may be the case that thinking rationally-- consciously reflecting on our behavior or analyzing our options-- we tend to be better behaved. (or it might not be the case. thinking things through hasn't always led me to behave in ways that i'm proud of.) but whatever it means to think rationally, it's clearly not something that everyone does, and it's clearly not something that anyone does all (i would even say most) of the time. we we do hurtful things (which is when the question of morality generally comes into play) we're so often under stress, or feeling some strong distracting thing, or we lack some relevant information.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

(a small break from explaining myself.)

we know some things, and one of the things we know is that we have brains in which knowledge must somehow be instantiated. and we detect activity there-- we can talk, for example, about neurons and how they fire. but we don't know how knowledge is instantiated in brains-- what the physical state is that equals knowing your childhood address during all of that time you spend not consciously saying it to yourself. and we can calculate the energy of the entire universe, but what we find is that: seventy percent of the universe is something that isn't matter. we don't know what it is. we call it dark energy, or quintessence or the cosmological constant, but we might as well call it 'other people's hearts' for all we know about it. and of the thirtyish percent of the universe composed of matter, the vast majority is dark matter. what is dark matter? well, it's the kind of matter that we can neither observe nor know the composition of. another term we use to bracket off the inexplicable in our mathematical models. and the matter that we know, that small percentage of a percentage that we've got a handle on (minus brain matter), when we look at it down as far as we can look, is a matter of quantum mechanics, of which the physicist richard feynman said "if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics." [as a small taste: if you are interested in making sense of quatum theory you'll have to get used to assuming that we live in one of many possible worlds existing in four dimensions.]

i look in and i look up and i see what i sort of know and i'm in awe, but it's a thin film on the surface of what i don't know, which is almost everything.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

II. the relevant facts.

so as a conscientious society we need a consistent set of principles that we all understand and agree on-- morality or ethics or whatever you want to call it-- and they should jibe with the facts that we've managed somehow to know about people in the world. here are the relevant facts as i understand them:

(1) we live in a deterministic universe. whether we're formed by god or darwinian algorithms it all amounts to the same thing: effect has followed cause has followed effect from long before us, and they continue to follow each other right through us, and every belief or desire that you have must ultimately be the effect of some cause that existed before you did. which is just to say: you might behave that way because you're clever or selfish or wonderful, but you're clever or selfish or wonderful because you were un/lucky enough to have acquired that characteristic from somewhere. even those qualities that we cultivate in ourselves must be the result of some preceding beliefs and desires-- the desire to cultivate and the right equipment to do the job-- which we can also explain, and back and back and back until conscious you gives way to unconscious you gives way to not you at all with no break in the causal chain.

(2) some things feel good, and other things hurt. we have nervous systems calibrated to sense the lightest touches, insults disguised as compliments, even the weight of a gaze. we're on a hair trigger when it comes to feeling things, oh man can we feel them. so you may not have chosen to be clever or selfish or wonderful, but it is nonetheless the fate of the people near you, for better or for worse, to feel the force of your wit or self-involvement or wondrousness. we can't escape the fact of our nervous systems-- our sensitivity to pleasure and pain in their myriad and nuanced forms.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I. the motivation

what i've been thinking and writing about for the last month or so is rational agency and how morality does and doesn't depend on it. it matters, and i'll tell you why: we have social institutions, and through our social institutions we do things to people. we tell people where they can and can't go, what they can and can't do. sometimes we put people in a building and hold them there while years of their lives pass, or until they die. sometimes we cause people to die. we strap people down and kill them. we have to say why. with stakes like that we can't just say "this is for the greater good", or "you deserve this", we have to say what "good" means, where "deserve" comes from, and who decided and why they get to. if we can't, then we're just burying people alive, consigning them to the nightmare of being unjustifiably restrained. it's no small matter to take away a person's life, or some part of their life. no matter what they've done we've got to explain to them, and to ourselves, in a meaningful way what we're doing, why, and what gives us the right to. and it's got to square with what we know about the world and about people. and what we know about the world, and about people especially, is changing.

there are, of course, philosophical principles at the foundation of our justice system. this is a liberal democracy, founded on social contract theory, which has been profoundly successful in some ways. but this theory is itself built on a particular conception of human beings as rational agents-- as persons whose actions are best explained in terms of free and measured deliberation. it was all worked out a few hundred years ago, before we even knew the chemical make-up of water, let alone our own bodies, our own brains. before freud, before darwin, before watson & crick.

and the story that is both larger and more intimate is how we treat each other, not as citizens, but as friends and colleagues and hook-ups and competitors. we cause a lot of harm to each other with our jealousy and anger and righteous indignation, and i think that these intimate harms should be attended to as well. if my feelings and the behaviors that they prompt can cause harm, i have to think about what justifies them, or if anything does, or if there the sorts of things that can be justified.

i'm tired and i haven't gotten anywhere near my point yet. i think that i'll have to do this in installments. but i'd like to explain what i've been working on, and why it's relevant and accesible, and interesting, and urgent. how it changes me, and how i hope it can be used as a lever to change things larger than me.