Letters with Allen Wood (2): Tolerance

In Part I: Against Chaos the conversation focussed upon Professor Allen W. Wood’s arguments against my association with liberal movements and chaos. In this second part, the discussion switches to tolerance, and the political implications of intolerance.

The Canary Test - Levels of Tolerance Allen: I resist your criticism of intolerant tolerance [in Chaos Ethics]. Tolerance is a virtue, but by its very nature, it must have limits. Tolerance is the willingness to permit what you regard as dubious or even wrong to go on unhindered. Clearly there have to be limits to this, and good judgment is required in deciding what may be tolerated and what not. One obvious limit is that practices that make tolerance itself impossible cannot be tolerated. Unlimited tolerance leads only to chaos, which is bad. Tolerance must be intolerant of some things or it is not only not a virtue, but it is nothing at all (it is even self-undermining).

Chris: Here I am indebted to Isabelle Stengers, and probably should not fight her corner. But her point, that I support, is that there is a risk with 'tolerance' that we have not fully appreciated, an ability to destroy the hope of equality by dismissing other people's practices for living as 'mere belief'. In doing so, we are saying 'we know better' and in so doing the conditions for the Realm of Ends are lost because autonomy is undermined. As a Kantian, even a heretical Kantian, that is too great a price to pay.

Allen: Tolerance implies disagreement. It is like forgiveness, which implies grounds for blame. If you think the other should not blame you, you will be insulted if you are forgiven. Analogously, if you think the other is required to agree with you, you will reject their tolerance. But I think we should take it for granted that people disagree, that what some do or think will not be accepted by others. And then tolerance is what we should hope for. To disagree is, in one sense, to put yourself above the other, since you must think you are right and they are wrong. But we have to accept that others will think this too about us, and (always within limits) that it is OK for them to think that. To be tolerant is to invite tolerance in return. Those who are offended because you are tolerant (and therefore think you are right and they are wrong) are already being intolerant. Unless your position here is intolerable, that puts them and not you in the wrong.

Chris: Yes, perhaps I wasn't clear that 'intolerant tolerance' is a specific risk – it is not necessarily inherent to tolerance, although whenever people relate to each other through toleration rather than mutual respect, the risk can manifest as a kind of bigotry.

Allen: I find it odd to contrast ‘mutual tolerance’ with ‘mutual respect,’ since I think tolerance is precisely the way you do show respect for those with whom you disagree. How else could you show respect for them except by tolerating them? I think the cases you are thinking about (where "tolerance" becomes problematic and begins to look objectionably intolerant) are those in which there is something important going on that is well beyond the question of disagreement and tolerance. If an economically, politically and militarily dominant colonial power is engaged in minority rule over a foreign population, with different beliefs and practices, it may describe its attitude toward them as 'tolerant'. But in such cases that may be a euphemism, distracting from the real issue. If the colonial power is imposing its way of life on the native majority, and says it "tolerates" it (but only at those points where its capacity to dominate has given out), then this is not an admirable or even an acceptable attitude. (I don’t think it is even a form of genuine tolerance, though it may feel like it from the self-deceptive standpoint of the dominators.) It masks the unjust domination that is really the basic fact about the situation.

Chris: This is an extremely salient perspective on the issue I am raising, although it applies not just in the colonial situation – it can happen anywhere that there is a power imbalance, which is to say, everywhere. The intersectionality critique within feminism is an example of coming to terms with what I am calling 'intolerant tolerance'; the gradual recognition that in fighting for 'women' the feminists have inadvertently been enforcing ideals of white, middle-class women in developed nations. The clearest and most disturbing sign of this for me was those feminists willing to support war in Iraq on the grounds that the military action would be 'liberating' Muslim women... To my knowledge, none of the politically active women's groups in Islamic nations asked for war – nor, it might be added, was it wise to think that liberty could flow effortlessly from the barrel of a gun.

Allen: I think before I can decide what you or Stengers object to is something I would defend, I would need to know which cases you are talking about in particular, and I would have to decide what I think about those specific cases. I think if our only choices are tolerating the abuse of women and invading (with the aim of dominating) other cultures, then so far we have been offered no acceptable alternative.

Chris: This is undoubtedly a wise response, and both Stengers and I have somewhat different targets, although we are working on similar ideals and our goal is little more than to invite a pause, a hesitation, a scruple, whenever we are tempted to place our values and culture above those of others whose actual values and experiences we know very little about beyond our own ragged assumptions. This is what she calls 'the curse of tolerance', which is very close to what I mark by 'intolerant tolerance': the risk that our toleration is actually masking an unrecognised attempt to have power over others, to pre-empt the discourse or respect necessary for equal partnership, because we are sure that 'we know' and others 'merely believe' (i.e. are mistaken).

Allen: I think the issue we are now discussing illustrates a point I tried to make earlier. It is always a mistake to turn your justified reaction to common rhetorical abuses of certain moral concepts or principles into a general objection to those concepts or principles. This is what I fear may be happening in the case of your objections to tolerance.

Chris: Although I may oversell this point in the first chapter [of Chaos Ethics] for dramatic effect, I am not arguing against being tolerant. I am only trying to warn that we are unable to fairly judge whether we are tolerant when the only people we speak to share identical values to us – and even more so when the only people we will accept as part of our world are those who share our values. That, in essence, is the risk.

This discussion continues in the final part: Against War. The opening image is The Canary Test: Levels of Tolerance by (and copyrighted to) Nicola Moss, and is used with permission. I found it on her website, Layers of Life.

Chris’ first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, is out now from Zero Books, while Allen Wood’s twelfth on the subject, The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy is out now from Oxford University Press.


Letters with Allen Wood (1): Against Chaos

Earlier this year, I exchanged emails with Professor Allen W. Wood after sending him a copy of the page proofs for Chaos Ethics which I described as “the least Kantian book of Kantian ethics thus far written”. To my surprise, Professor Wood got back to me with some interesting challenges to my ideas. This is the first of a three-part edited version of our exchanges.

Turmoil Allen Wood: I haven't had time (nor will I) to read all of your provocative, lively, engaging, and erudite book. But I have looked at parts of it. I am pleased by the way it engages with Kant and Parfit, as well as my own work. I appreciate your quotation from Anscombe, with whose moral and political views I generally strongly disagree. But her quoted remark about consequentialism seems to me right on target.

[The 1958 quote referred to is as follows:

...the point of considering hypothetical situations, perhaps very improbable ones, seems to be to elicit from yourself or someone else a hypothetical decision to do something of a bad kind. I don't doubt this has the effect of predisposing people - who will never get into the situations for which they have made hypothetical choice - to consent to similar bad actions, or to praise and flatter those who do them, so long as their crowd does so too, when the desperate circumstances imagined don't hold at all.]

I have made a similar (analogous) point myself about something else (which may be related): I think that most instances in which people invoke the true proposition that moral principles have exceptions are cases in which they are trying to rationalize violating a moral principle in precisely a case where they should not be violating it. More generally, moral truths are more often used to justify wrongdoing that moral falsehoods, because if they are misapplied, they make good rationalizations for bad conduct. The most important truths are often the most easily abused. It is a common mistake made by non-philosophers in reading moral philosophy, especially the moral philosophy of the past, to react only to the rhetorical force that some assertion might have for us (for instance, the way it might be abused in some present-day political context) rather than considering what it actually means, and whether it is true. Thus to argue that some principle P is a bad or false principle because it has been used by Nazis, terrorists (or whoever your bugaboo happens to be) is in general a bad form of argument. This point might even be turned against Anscombe, if she were to use the common abuse of consequentialist reasoning as an argument that consequentialism is false.

Chris Bateman: There are definite problems here, and difficult ones to iron out! I learned a lot thinking about your "ends justify the means" argument [i.e. that all means are by definition justified by the ends they aim at], which is indisputably correct – and indeed, I had a go at refining this particular objection. My alternative "the goodness of ends cannot justify the immorality of means" seems to me an improvement (and obviously Kantian), but I feel it could be snappier!

Allen: I note that you even read my footnotes, to the extent of having caught me in one footnote from 1999  - a dismissive one about Lévinas – that I now regard as hasty, regrettable and based on insufficient engagement with his thought. It may be that further acquaintance would lead me back to the same dismissive conclusions, but I now think there is more to his views than I appreciated in 1999 and that I shouldn't have written what I did. My consolation over the years is that this was buried in a note in the back of the book, which few people would read. You have, at least to a degree, deprived me of that consolation. Some people will have the persistence to seek out my precipitous remarks, and even report them. I am at least glad that you do so in a way that makes me look moderate compared to Badiou, who himself is flatteringly presented in your book.

Chris: I always read footnotes – and yours are far more interesting than many philosophers! I have found a wealth of treasures hidden away in the back of your books... Although you may not appreciate this particularly ‘find’, I was glad of finding someone who would say aloud what many analytic philosophers think when facing Lévinas. I have to say, I dread to think what is going to be thrown back at me in the years to come! Perhaps it is best not to think about it...

Allen: I don't want to try to engage with all, or even very many, of the deliberately controversial things you thrust at us in this book. But I do want to dispute – as not only mistaken, but also too easy – the association of law with conservatism or the right and chaos with progressive politics or the left. I think we leftists have the correct take on law, seeing it as arising from reason rather than tradition, and capable of correction without relinquishing its authority.

Chris: I may need to stress that this association is more complex than a simple 'conservative = law' and 'liberal = chaos', since many aspects of the liberal political traditions (and especially in the U.S.) are deeply engaged with Law. Although this is how I introduce the concepts, the complexity of the concepts build slowly across the chapters so that it is only by the end that what I am gesturing at with 'Chaos' (and 'Law') is clear.

Allen: I am myself not in favour of chaos at all. I see chaos as simply the result of confusion and error. I do defend uncertainty and an awareness of our own fallibility. But that is not chaos. Conservatism can easily lead to chaos. Of course I may be taking the term ‘chaos,’ in your use of it, too literally. You are defending chaos in order to be provocative, and when someone does that, they usually have a more complex thought than the provocative word would normally suggest.

Chris: I am well aware that you have no truck with 'chaos' of any kind – but again, I think the concept of moral chaos I am defending is defensible, and actually inherent to virtue ethics. But key to my argument is that an excess of either Law or Chaos is always problematic, and one needs to be conditioned with the other.

Allen: 'Conservative' itself is a problematic term, especially in this period and in the U.S. One might associate it with a tendency to caution, taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions, believing according to the evidence, reluctance to embrace untried solutions too hastily, and wanting to preserve things as they are if they have proven to be the things that work best. But none of these traits characterize our self-described political 'conservatives' at present. Our self-described conservatives are really impetuous radicals, who substitute a simplistic dogmatic ideology for evidence and use it to rationalize any kind of corrupt or unwise scheme that seems to fit it.

The only things associated with the word that do characterize them is a stubborn tendency to defend unjust privileges and a bigoted and dogmatic defence of traditional superstitions. Conservatism in the present day U.S. sense leads directly to chaos, and this is not good. Conservatism leads to chaos when it confronts conditions under which traditional superstitions, entrenched privileges, and even excessive or misplaced caution or what you erroneously think of as responsible behaviour, result in "blowback" and conditions the conservative cannot have contemplated.

Chris: I believe I discuss the problems of 'conservative chaos' under the discussion of drone assassinations and recent unjust wars, in which I recognise a highly immoral chaos emerging from conservatively-motivated foreign policy... My goal is to recognise some forms of chaos as moral and some forms of law as immoral – not to give a free ride to either, and also to suggest that the Realm of Ends is unobtainable without this recognition.

This discussion continues in Part II: Tolerance next week. The opening image is Turmoil by Vitor, which I found at his site, The Fractal Forest. It is used with implicit permission of the author, who retains all rights to this image.

Chris’ first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, is out now from Zero Books, while Allen Wood’s twelfth on the subject, The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy is out now from Oxford University Press.


Chaos Ethics Out Now!

Chaos Ethics.cover

It's official - Chaos Ethics is in the warehouse, and the ebook has also been digitally issued. That means even though the release date is still a little over two weeks away, the book is already available to buy as both a paperback and an ebook.

This completes my three year mission to write a trilogy of books on the philosophy of imagination for Zero Books, and it's been one hell of a ride - before this last book had come out, I'd already used the first (Imaginary Games) to get a doctorate! My infinite thanks to those of you who have come along on this journey with me, and to everyone who explores these three books in the years to come.

I'd like to take this opportunity to once again thank everyone who has helped me with this book, which has been a far greater undertaking than I ever expected. Here's an extract from the acknowledgements:

Then there are the hordes of people who have helped me on either the manuscript itself or the long process leading up to it (many of them unwitting accomplices in my crimes!), including Neil Bundy, Peter Crowther, Ben Cowley, Nick Elliott, Jack Monahan, Jon Rouse, Wayne Thompson, translucy, Kelly Waldrop-Briggs, everyone at Chorlton Unitarian Church (true agents of chaos!), and a host of other people who, via my blog Only a Game, helped shape my views on all manner of ethical issues over the past decade. Especial thanks are due to everyone at my blog who discussed the trolley problem with me, including Bezman, Tom Camfield, Duoae, Corvus Elrod, Darius Kazemi, Marc Majcher, Duncan Monro, John Peacock, and Foster Nichols. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Cathy Bryant for getting me interested in philosophy in the first place, many moons ago in a very different life to the one I am living now. If it were not for her, the course of my life would have been very different indeed!

Lastly, but certainly not least, there are those who provided invaluable feedback on the draft manuscript including Vitor Bosshard, Gary Jones, Theo Malekin, Matt Mower, Michael Pereira, Sushma Sahajpal, and Oscar Strik, many of whom have been great friends of this project - some from as far back as the germinal 'Ethics Campaign' on my blog! The final version of this book is greatly improved by virtue of their contributions, although it goes without saying that any remaining mistakes are mine and mine alone. Michael and Oscar in particular went above and beyond the call of duty in providing assistance, and for this I am forever in their debt.

Well, what are you waiting for - go order a copy of Chaos Ethics right now!


Galileo the Hero and Other Mythos Histories

Galileo Suggest Jesus was just another human and you horrify orthodox Christians – suggest Galileo wasn’t heroic, and you horrify orthodox Positivists. How do disputes over historical facts possess this power to induce horror?

The inability to bear contradictory conceptions is called cognitive dissonance by psychologists. Recently, we have made watching other people endure dissonance into entertainment – amateur ‘singers’ who become enraged when their lack of talent becomes exposed, or low-income lovers reacting violently when a lying partner is revealed. The experience is disorientating, and can invoke rage in certain cases, yet we all experience minor dissonance on a daily basis in pursuit of a consistent sense of self: the story we tell about ourselves has to be maintained against the ambiguities of life.  We expect to encounter a single consistent story about the world – history – and when this is threatened by rival accounts, dissonance occurs.

In Chaos Ethics, I use the term moral horror to describe cognitive dissonance in the context of ethics – the unsettling or fury-inducing response to incompatible ethical conceptions. Moral horror can be seen in the context of abortion, gay marriage, and many more cases of contemporary political disagreement. My additional claim in this piece is that because we possess moral values concerning truth, clashes over historical questions also evoke moral horror, and this is the reason that contrary historical claims can bring about dissonance. When positivists express outrage at the idea of creationism, for instance, it is because this suggestion transgresses their deeply held moral values concerning truth (see The Mythology of Evolution for this discussion). What on the face of it seems to be a factual dispute becomes a moral conflict: ‘you should not believe this (because it is not true)’.

We need moral horror – it is not something we should wish to eliminate. It is one of the few things that will motivate us to take action against that which we judge as morally wrong. But there is also severe danger any time cognitive dissonance is involved, because we are at the greatest risk of acting unreasonably whenever it affects us (just recall the poor victims of those ‘shocking’ day time talk shows). In the grip of moral horror, we are certain we are right, and cannot – quite literally – imagine how the other view of the world that horrifies us could be in any way reasonable. At most, we can tolerate the other perspective, which is a polite way of saying that we look down on these foolish others and patiently endure their being so obviously wrong. A key part of my purpose in exploring moral horror in Chaos Ethics is precisely to move past this intolerant tolerance, and to achieve this requires a deeper understanding of the role of imagination in morality – and history.

To unravel the moral horror of clashing histories we need to appreciate that our access to the world is mediated by certain imaginative patterns. Joseph Campbell referred to the mythic systems that are tied to lived practices as ‘living mythologies’ and it is the nature of such things that they are indeed lived. Often, this entails a relationship between the practitioners’ ethics and the stories of their mythos (i.e. a specific cultural vantage point, see the chapter on ethics in Imaginary Games for more on this). We cannot, as Jean-François Lyotard and others have suggested, break out of seeing the world through these ‘grand narratives’ – judging them as if we could get completely outside is simply, as Charles Taylor observed, yet another mythic point of view (what might be called the postmodern or relativist mythology). No, I’m afraid we all must imagine in specific ways if we are to imagine anything at all (whether fact or fiction), but as both Campbell and Raimon Pannikar drew attention to, we all have great difficulty in understanding our own mythologies as anything other than truth – and this is the root of the problem to be explored here, because it is this that sets up inevitable cognitive dissonance.

For the purpose of explaining the phenomena under consideration, let us treat any mythos as comprised of two elements – mythos stories that are recognised as stories by those who share them, and mythos histories that are taken as factual. Mythos stories have as their focus their moral content – Jesus’ parables are a great example, or Homer’s Odyssey as a guide to how a Greek warrior must be tempered before he can become a good husband. Conversely, mythos histories are read as informing chronology rather than morality, a key archetype being Jewish genealogies in the Torah (“Abraham begat Isaac” and so forth) that organize the passage of time. Indeed, the Abrahamic traditions are sometimes taken as having ‘invented history’ in the way it is often understood – perceiving time as both passing and consecutive, and also as heading somewhere  (see, for instance, Jacob Neusner’s The Christian and Judaic Invention of History). Homer and (later) Herodotus developed a concept of recording the past narratively, but it is only after Christianity brought Jewish practices to Rome that the mythic dimensions of histories became fully-fledged.

Now the problematic part of mythos histories is that the transition from ‘story’ to ‘history’ implies a move from an infinite space of possibility to a finite space of definite facts. There can be (it is assumed) only one history, or rather there can be only one true history. In those traditions partly descended from Plato’s Greek philosophy (especially Christianity and its offshoot atheisms) this is an especially likely habit, but via the sciences (which grow out of Christianity and Islam, and hence Platonic thought) the trend is now everywhere. What is more, wherever the prevailing assumption is to demand a single true history, there is a temptation for people to treat mythos stories as mythos histories. For example, orthodox Christian sects may recognize parables as ‘just stories’ but the Garden of Eden will be taken as history. This is by no means a given, of course – the majority of Christian groups draw their lines here very differently – but the point remains that the presumed line between fact and fiction becomes blurred within an individual’s mythos.

This phenomena is not constrained to religious traditions, as is usually assumed, but happens just as readily within non-religious contexts. For example, for many positivists Galileo is presented as having defended a suppressed yet true description of the arrangement of the planets (heliocentrism) against the erroneous dogma of the church. However, the records of the same event offer multiple alternative accounts - including that the clergy at the time were the sober scientists in this affair and that Galileo's techniques were not sufficient to prove what he had nonetheless correctly intuited. Similarly, the usual positivistic mythos history requires Galileo as a valiant hero maintaining the truth against the errors of the church – but this account is somewhat undermined by the cynic’s observation that Galileo’s offending manuscript brought trouble for him primarily by portraying his then-ally, Pope Urban VIII, as a simpleton. Woe betide anyone who suggests to an orthodox positivist that Galileo’s downfall was his own arrogance!

We can see in this example why a mythos history is more than just a neutral chronicle of events, and why it is sometimes difficult to separate ‘story’ from ‘history’. To hail Galileo as a scientific ‘martyr’ requires a mythos history that presents him as heroically resisting religious oppression, and bringing forth the world-changing power of empirical observation that is the ‘sacred’ value of positivistic non-religion. This particular episode comes across radically differently from the viewpoint of (for instance) the Chinese, who were never so invested in any specific cosmological arrangement, and who readily adopted Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmos when exposed to it by the Jesuits – and without the significant seismic upheavals attributed to Galileo’s ‘heroism’. This is directly contrary to what is claimed by, say, Luciano Floridi, whose mythos history (presented at a TEDx talk in Oxford) essentially requires Galileo, along with Darwin and Freud, to acquire the grand status of epoch-making scientific iconoclasts fighting religion (a mythos Bertrand Russell helped lay the groundwork for). It is not that this role does not match ‘the facts’ in each case, but rather that the account of these individuals purely as revolutionary is radically incomplete – as would be the case for any history presented solely from a single point-of-view. As the philosophers of the twentieth century never tired of emphasizing, all history is mythic history.

Rather than taking this situation to mark the ‘end of history’, I want to offer a slightly different approach. In Chaos Ethics, I draw against William James and (later, and independently) Michael Moorcock’s image of a multiverse, rather than a universe. This is not the multiverse of quantum physics, however (although Moorcock also helped inspire that), but rather the idea that beings and things experience their own separate worlds, and that none of these worlds can claim to be ‘the true world’ when taken alone. Thus while in an (imagined) universe there is only one true version of events, in an (also imagined) multiverse the facts depend upon the world you are in: it is false in most Christian worlds that ‘Jesus was an ordinary human’, but this is true in any positivist worlds. Crucially, no world-independent account is available in a multiverse, even though there is substantial agreement (at least between humans) about all manner of things. All facts always depend upon the world they are perceived from, but these diverse worlds are congruent in the majority of cases for any given species or entity provided the necessary translations can be performed accurately. Where they diverge, however, is precisely at the fault lines between contrary mythos histories – and these thus become a locus for unresolved cognitive dissonance.

This multiversal perspective is not something that can be expected to attain widespread acceptance since it requires a strong imagination to envisage. But it may only take a sufficient volume of intellectuals to adopt it (or something like it) to radically enhance our diplomatic power, and thus our capacity for effective, peaceful action on a whole host of pressing issues. Orthodox theists and positivists are unlikely to be able to talk to each other effectively – but their moderate colleagues could cross this bridge, and securing that dialogue would go a long way towards motivating substantial moral action in the developed world. By substituting a mythos superset for a singular and exclusive mythos history, the possibility of harnessing moral horror as a transformative influence can begin to seriously emerge. This is a powerful option since, as mentioned previously, it is moral horror that helps motivate reform on ethical matters – but only when it is properly aligned. Up until now, the potentialities of the multiverse have been used mostly for ‘spin’ – to obfuscate and deceive by using the gap between events and the mythic histories that record them solely for partisan gain. We can only speculate at what might be achieved if we began to use it instead as a tool for peace.

For more on moral horror, intolerant tolerance, and how to be a traveller in an ethical multiverse, check out my latest book Chaos Ethics.


Exterminate! The Dalek and the Drone Assassin

Dalek ExterminateThe Daleks, the most feared race in the science fiction universe of Doctor Who. But is their terrible warcry of "Exterminate!" just a chilling historical reference to the Nazi's 'Final Solution', or is it also a horrific reflection of our own willingness to let our technology distort our ethics when it comes to violence?

There is an incredible scene in the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in which the military strategist Kongmong (or Zhuge Liang) commiserates with his enemy, the barbarian chieftain Meng Huo. Putting aside the radical differences with the historical personages these characters are based upon, what is striking about the scene is that two warriors who might be considered brutal by today's moral standards do something we can no longer countenance: they share in the grief of an enemy. Meng Huo's forces have been using rattan armour, a lacquered wood that is proof against the swords and spears of the invading forces. Kongmong reasons that if this mysterious defense is proof against both metal and water (the battleground being around dank forests), it must be vulnerable to fire. He thus sets an incendiary trap - but it is too successful. The laquer ignites and the soldiers are all burned to death. But rather than boast of his victory, Kongming weeps with Meng Huo over the terrible loss of life. Despite the savagery of this era, it is still devastating to Kongming to have caused death on such a scale. And so he weeps both for, and with, his enemy.

By comparison, the fictional Daleks shed tears for no-one. They are absolutely assured of their racial superiority, and thus have a mandate to eradicate all other species except when their own plans require enslaving the lesser races instead. Terry Nation, who created both the Daleks and the dystopian science fiction show Blake's 7, modelled the Daleks upon the Nazis, a theme that is most explicit in the final Dalek story of the classic era, Remembrance of the Daleks. Although extermination was a thematic element of the 1960s Dalek stories, it wasnt until 1972 that "Exterminate!" became their de facto warcry, an outcome that owed as much to British newspapers popularizing the phrase in connection with these cybernetic murdererers as anything else.

Fiction is the mirror of our moral selves and we can learn a great deal about ourselves from how we relate to ethical situations portrayed in stories. In the cases described above, we have two odd extremes of a some kind of ethical scale: war is an accepted tool by both Kongming and the Daleks, but the former aims not at the eradication of the enemy but in fact hopes to make them allies, something the aliens from the planet Skaro could not possibly contemplate. We cannot, I suggest, see ourselves in the Daleks, who are as close to absolute examples of moral wrongness as we are likely to find. But we also cannot see ourselves very well in this particular Kongming story - since when do we commiserate with our enemies these days?

The chilling fact of contemporary warfare is that we are far closer to Daleks than we are willing to admit. The familiar 'pepper-pot' shape of the Dalek is a machine (a 'travel machine', as it is called in Genesis of the Daleks) intended to house the mutated descendants of a dying race of humanoids on the planet Skaro. The scientists who make this device have in mind only their ability to continue as a race, but the twisted genius Davros adds a weapon to the casing and genetically engineers the organic occupants to have greater aggression and an absence of empathy and pity. There is a sense, therefore, of the Daleks being destined towards extermination. But in many respects, it is the addition of the weapon to the travel machine that transforms the Daleks from a means of survival to a means of extermination - and this parallels contemporary usage of robotic drones.

UAVs, as the military penchant for acronyms renders them - 'unmanned aerial vehicles' - are also a kind of 'travel machine'. They allow telepresence in remote locations, such that an operator in the United States can fly a drone (as I shall insist on calling them) on the other side of the world. Technology, our Enlightment mythology assures us, is morally neutral, and we should only be concerned about the ways we use our tools and not the tools themselves. Yet for some reason, we are not on the whole significantly concerned about the CIA mounting explosive missiles upon these drones and using them to strike at targets in Iraq and Pakistan. I suggest this is because we think of such deployments as being used 'against terrorists', despite an endless array of evidence that these drone assassinations have resulted in many hundreds of deaths among civilians who simply have the misfortune to be neighbours of those who have been marked for death by military bureaucracy. The facts of this horrific practice are not in dispute. Yet still, we do not weep for the enemy, nor even for the innocents slain in pursuit of the morally reprehensible goal of mechanized extermination.

I'm saddened to report that not long ago I discovered that someone in my circle of acquaintance was working on autonomous guidance systems for military drones. I am reluctant to force my moral values upon others but I had to confront him on this. "They only use drones to kill terrorists" was his shocking reply. Even if that were the case, which it manifestly is not, are we now so far from critically challenging our technology that we would walk into developing not mere Daleks, which after all are still vehicles, but autonomously murderous machines? Never mind the mythology of Doctor Who, this is the nightmare future of The Terminator we are sleepwalking into!

There is an oft-quoted comment from one of Heideggar's lectures that is usually quoted with horror:

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

Excluding militant vegans, who value non-human animals radically more than most people, this line is taken as a sick conflation of the moral value of a chicken or cow to that of the Jewish people. (I have never seen the lives of the Japanese civilians slain by the hydrogen bombs brought into this expression of outrage, however.) While Heideggar's remark was certainly ill-chosen, at its heart is a recognition of the risks of pursuing death as an automated process. The Daleks and the Terminators are science fictional expressions of this concern. Drone assassins are its horrific manifestation in contemporary war. If we cannot recapture some scintilla of the remorse Kongming shows in accidentally exterminating enemy combatants when we face down our intentional extermination of innocent civilians, we must urgently ask those who serve in our armed forces to find new moral values for the battlefield. For today, it is our own forces whose warcry has unknowingly become 'exterminate!'

You'll find more detailed discussions of drone assassination, the relationship between science fiction and ethics,  and other contemporary moral problems in my latest book, Chaos Ethics, available 26th September 2014.


DNA as Destiny?

FetusDo the arguments mounted against religion rely upon a naive understanding of DNA?

This is the argument I mounted in a piece entitled DNA as Destiny? that ran in On Religion magazine late last year. Since I'm not quite ready to post new material, I thought I would share this in lieu of a post this week. Here's an extract from the article:

To be prejudiced against a black woman because she is black or because she is a woman (the argument runs) is irrational, but to be prejudiced against a black woman because she is Muslim or Christian is not to be bigoted towards her but rather to pursue rational criticisms against those faith traditions. The tacit basis for this kind of claim is that those aspects of our selves that are not subject to change or choice are the fixed points of reference for our identities, whilst everything else is open to appraisal and can be rejected if it is irrational. While rationality is certainly part of the ideal being applied here, beneath this sort of argument lies a dependence on genetics to resolve questions of diversity.

You can read the entirety of DNA as Destiny? over on the On Religion website. Comments and discussion is welcome here!


Chaos Ethics in Production

Well, it's done: Chaos Ethics is uploaded to the publisher website! I’m just waiting for final word from Mike Moorcock, then I’ll give them the authorisation to begin production. It’s been a long road – this book really didn’t want me to finish it! – but I’m pleased with how this turned out. My first book of moral philosophy is finally on the home stretch…


Belief, Knowledge, and Moral Claims

I recently received an interesting comment to my 2009 piece Moore’s Paradox and the Belief in False Things. I’ve decided to reply to it as a letter-post.

Here is the comment that AnH posted:

Thank you for posting this article (I guess this comment is a little out of place, as it is five years after the original publication date). The essay is thoughtful, but I personally would disagree with a number of your interpretations of the key ideas presented in the text.

First of all, Moore's paradox has very little to do with epistemology. The question at hand is not one about what knowledge is, but about the absurdity arising from asserting two contradictory statements. Wittgenstein's remark, namely that there cannot be a verb that means "to believe falsely," is simply intended to illustrate the difficulty presented in Moore's paradox, and not to claim that we cannot believe false propositions. If there were some verb V that meant "to believe falsely," then that verb could be inserted into a sentence of the form "I V p," where p is some arbitrary proposition. However, to believe is to take something to be true (perhaps this is where you think epistemology enters, though epistemologists are mostly concerned with belief as a condition of knowledge, and not as a subject of study in and of itself), and thus to state that you take something to be true and that you believe that what you think is true is false is something of a contradiction.

So the issue at hand is not that you can't believe false propositions, it's quite obvious that you can (many people falsely believed that the earth was flat for many years). The issue is that you can't believe one thing and simultaneously believe that what you believe is false.

On to verificationism. You state that verificationists assert that all unverifiable statements are false. However, verificationism is not a theory about truth and falsehood of statements or propositions, but about what kind of statements have meaning. On the verificationist view, unverifiable statements are not false, they are meaningless.

Lastly and most importantly, your claims about knowledge seem to contradict everything common sense tells us about knowledge. It would not be the case that if Elvis were discovered alive tomorrow that our knowledge of his death would cease, at that moment, to be knowledge. If we discovered Elvis alive tomorrow we would not say that it used to be the case that we knew that Elvis was dead and now we know that he is alive, we would say that we thought we knew one thing, and it simply turned out we didn't. "I thought I knew..." is a common phrase in English.

It is generally an axiom of epistemology that there are things that we can know. Epistemology dismisses skepticism and instead asks, "assuming knowledge is possible, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be met for an instance of knowledge to obtain?"

Very few contemporary epistemologists are not fallibilists. To say that it is necessarily the case that we can only have knowledge if what we believe is true is not to say that we can only have knowledge of necessary truths, or that knowledge is an infallible mental state. Thus I feel your comments about human pride and our "unwillingness to admit that we believe false things" are perhaps a little unwarranted. In fact I can assert that I believe falsehoods without invoking Moore's paradox (as long as I don't make any such claims about specific beliefs).

Last comment: your solution of Moore's paradox seems to rely on a definition of belief that does not involve truth. But this definition, for you, follows from your claim that we believe unverifiable statements, and unverifiable statements are false. Like I said above, however, unverifiable statements are not false, they are meaningless. Thus unverifiable statements, such as moral claims, cannot be proper objects of belief. An emotivist may argue therefore that moral claims are essentially just sentences that are used to illicit certain kinds of responses from others. Of course verificationism seems to be a very strong theory of meaning in the sense that it keeps certain sentences that should be said to have meaning from having meaning, but it cannot be used to dispute an understanding of Moore's paradox.

My reply is as follows:

Hi AnH,

Many thanks for your detailed and thoughtful rebuttal of this post! Not at all a problem that it's coming ‘five years late’ - all material at this blog is always up for grabs whenever you want to talk to me about it. As is usual for older posts, however, my understanding of these issues has improved greatly since the time that I wrote it, and I accept much of what you say in your rebuttal. I would like to raise a few points of interest...

Belief and Knowledge

"(perhaps this is where you think epistemology enters, though epistemologists are mostly concerned with belief as a condition of knowledge, and not as a subject of study in and of itself)"

Yes, this is where I am asserting epistemology comes into play – I’m not certain how much being concerned with ‘belief as a condition of knowledge’ excuses the need to understand belief as a phenomena. It seems to me the latter is a prerequisite for studying the former! However, I am primarily a moral philosopher and a metaphysician and not an epistemologist. As you may appreciate, my specific beliefs make epistemology hard to commit to!

"The issue is that you can't believe one thing and simultaneously believe that what you believe is false."

This is the claim I dispute. But the nub of my disagreement is that the suture between propositional logic and belief fails, and once it fails the ‘law of non-contradiction’ ceases to have force. In order to understand belief (whether as a condition of knowledge or otherwise) it is necessary to see that it is not propositional in nature, nor is it a single phenomena. For one interesting thread of this discussion, see Tamar Gendler’s productive concept of ‘alief’.

"On the verificationist view, unverifiable statements are not false, they are meaningless."

You are right, of course. What I need to make my intended point is to stress not falsehood but epistemic relevance. Both false and meaningless statements are claimed to lack epistemic relevance (in two different ways). For the way I approach epistemology (mostly from the outside!), I can treat both of these dismissals as closely related. Other people will naturally approach this matter differently.

Some Flat Earth Pedantry 

"(many people falsely believed that the earth was flat for many years)"

I believe it would be fairer to say that many people falsely believe that many people believed that the earth was flat for many years. I say this because if you dig into this mythology you'll find it is far older than most people give credit for, and was not (to give the most famous misunderstanding) a factor in Columbus' voyage. If you consider the number of humans that actually ever believed in a flat earth, it is vastly less than the number of people who believed that ‘many people believed in a flat earth!’

 The Truth of Moral Claims

"Thus unverifiable statements, such as moral claims, cannot be proper objects of belief."

Moral claims are not unverifiable. The claim that they are unverifiable assumes an absolute yardstick against which they could be judged. But in fact, the only thing that we have that constitutes such a yardstick is logic (and mathematics, which Stephen Yablo demonstrates contains truth only because it is logically constituted). Consequentialist attempts to suture mathematics and morality have been nothing short of a disaster for moral philosophy (which thankfully consequentialists are recognising and fixing with a new focus on decision procedures). For more on this, see either Allen Wood’s rebuttal to Derek Parfit in the latter’s On What Matters, or my own forthcoming Chaos Ethics.

Moral claims can be verified provided their context is understood. In this respect, they are in a very similar situation to knowledge claims, including scientific knowledge claims, whose verification is always dependent upon the relevant theoretical background, a context that cannot ever provide an independent foundation to such claims. There simply isn’t an absolute yardstick beyond logic, and we thus run awry when we believe, along with Plato, that we can get out of the cave and discover information that can still be safely imported back into the cave. The cave is its own world! Stare at the sun as long as you like, you’ll never learn anything about the cave.

In this regard, I find a useful point of reference is Peter Lamarque's exploration of Wittgenstein's concept of a practice. Lamarque makes the point that the value of the queen in chess is objective within the practice of chess. Extending this argument, I would say that moral claims can be objective within the practices that define them – for instance, ‘taking steroids is wrong’ is a true claim for the practice of professional sportsmanship (anyone who disagreed with this claim is not participating in the relevant practice). The apparent ambiguity of morality comes not from any aspect of unverifiability but from the diversity of competing moral practices.

But this takes us a long way from Moore’s paradox!

Many thanks for the interesting points of discussion,

Chris.