Friday, January 07, 2005

The Consequences of Heaven

Moral Obligation in the Long Run vs. The Barrel of a Gun The Anal Philospher squashes Peter Singer like a bug:
Singer is a consequentialist. That an act is of a certain type, e.g., homicide, torture, incest, bestiality, adultery, lying, or breaking a promise, is morally irrelevant to him. The only thing that matters, to a consequentialist, is an act's consequences. ... I find Singer's recourse to consent interesting. Consent is a deontological concept. It is linked to rights-possession, which Singer, qua consequentialist, disavows. If a particular act brings about the best overall consequences, it is irrelevant that not everyone affected by the act consents to it. Put differently, if consent has moral significance, then people cannot be used as mere means to collective ends as Singer wishes. As this shows, Singer is not only a bad philosopher; he's a bad consequentialist. Sometimes he appears not to understand his own theory.
This argument is typical of almost all leftist thought that I have read and is why I believe that the center and the right are the only political debate is serious and meaningful. The simplest leftist, naturalist, rationalist argument is something like this: "There no such thing as real, objective morality. There is no absolute." The irony is that this is an absolute statement, and it uses language and logic while denying that they exist or have any real, serious meaning. And, more, the leftist typically has a great number of things that he feels people ought to be compelled to do. Notice: he feels they ought to do them, and that if they object, they ought to be compelled to do them anyway because they are right and reasonable. If there is no absolute, where do all these insights and obligations come from? Here is the argument, taken from The Handbook of Christian Apologetics, edited by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli. They call it The Moral Argument, and it is taken from the chapter Twenty Proofs proofs for God:
1. Moral obligation is a fact. We are really, truly, objectively obliged to do good and avoid evil. 2. Either the atheist view or the religious one. 3. Atheism is incompatible with there being real, objective moral obligation. 4. Therefore, the religious view is correct.
People do object to premise 1. but most, I think, mis-speak themelves. What I think is intended is "I do not think that X is a moral obligation." If they really want to deny 1. in all cases, then the desire to feed the hungry (or help Tsunami victims) is merely a statement about preferences and is no more binding than "I like chocolate." Denying 1. means embracing might makes right. The best time to ask them to reconsider their denial of moral objectivity is right after they have been mugged or robbed. The more popular objection is to 3., but there is no convincing argument deriving obligation from a random, meaningless universe, and if that is so, the effect is the same as the denial of 1. There are reams of books that claim to have overthrown 3. I own some of them. The attempts boil down to some form of Utilitarianism, which is no solution. Utility always comes down to some big conceptual thing that no one, and I mean no one, uses to convince themselves that a possible action is bad. Does anyone really think someone contemplating murder stops to consider "the greater good of society" and, concluding that despite the good it does him right now, murder is bad for "society" in the "long run"? There are theories that moral behavior is selected for by evolutionary processes but there is no proven link between evolution and behavior (the link between evolution and physical form is better). It is also hard to see how self sacrifice can be selected for, since the sacrifice itself precludes reproduction. I think this "Moral Argument" is a good argument, and one of the reasons I concede premise 1. is that there are very few people who act as if 1. was false, despite what they may say about morality or God (those few that do typically wind up incarcerated or in in psychiatric care). As Kreeft and Tacelli put it, this argument can show people how people's belief in morality is "inconsistent with what they claim to believe about the origin and destiny of the universe." What we hold to be true of the universe affects our actions, including our politcs. Political debate involves 1) understanding what our moral obligations are, and not whether they exist. It also, 2) involves what we ought to do about them. In other words, it is about when and where compulsion is justified, and what form can it take while still being moral. As a ceretified "Right Whinger," I think compulsion can only justified for things that are considered objectively true, and sometimes not even then because compulsion is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Compelling mere wants is never justified. When I argue against abortion, for example, I do so because I think it is objectively wrong, not because I don't like it or I have some special book I'm quoting from. I'm not trying to bend the world to my likes; I'm telling anyone who'll listen about what I think really is. The point of all this (other than exposing the incoherence of the radical left, which is always fun) is that the means count as much as the ends. You can't use logic to prove that there is no logic, and you can't deny there is such a thing as moral obligation and then get upset when people don't want to support your pet hobby horse, whether it be AIDS in Africa or what have you. Peter Singer can't claim right and wrong are dependent on consequences and embrace the importance of consent at the same time, since good results can be obtained regardless of consent. Ask the wife of a man who sneaks into a casino and wins big. She'll consent to the money, of course, but that is after the fact. The radical left always wants to tear down and smash today in return for a castle in the future, never asking how the demolition team will build it from the broken rubble. Their ends and their means don't add up. Now for the curve. How does the Christian concept of Heaven fit into this discussion of means and ends? Are religious critics right when they say that Heaven is used to justify anything and everything in the here and now? Is the promise of Heaven the cause of war and murder and suicide bombing? Not if we keep our means and our ends coordinated. Suicide bombing to get into Heaven is much like using logic to disprove logic. How heavenly would Heaven be if it was filled with people who lied, raped and murdered to get there? No one wants to live with people who behave like that, not even the people who do the lying, raping and murdering. There's a double standard in the jihadis thinking: that what they have done will not be measured and returned to them, that what they reap will not be what they sow. There is a classic logic game called The Prisoner's Dilemma, in which two prisoners can avoid jail if they both cooperate with one another. They have, however, no means of communicating with each other and if one defects and the other does not, the defector will gain at the other's expense. In the traditional form of the game, the point seems to be that the safest way to act is self interest, even if the result is not optimal. A variant was introduced in 1984 that changed the game completely. In the iterated form, the game is played again and again, and the players can remember the results of past games. The game was run through computers and the strategy with the most promising results in this much more life like model was called "Tit for Tat":
The strategy is simply to cooperate on the first iteration of the game; after that, do what your opponent did on the previous move. A slightly better strategy is "Tit for Tat with forgiveness". When your opponent defects, on the next move you sometimes cooperate anyway with small probability (around 1%-5%). This allows for occasional recovery from getting trapped in a cycle of defections. The exact probability depends on the lineup of opponents. "Tit for Tat with forgiveness" is best when miscommunication is introduced to the game. That means that sometimes your move is incorrectly reported to your opponent: you cooperate but your opponent hears that you defected.
I read this result as a vindication of cooperation and forgiveness. There is a startling comparison to Christian teaching here:
give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. Luke 6.38
So there you have it. A computer model showing how the means figure very laregly in our ends. In this model self sacrifice (risk) is rewarded through increased odds for a good outcome on the next go around. If the model is accurate (there are quibbles here, but for the most part I think it is) it pays to concentrate on getting our means right and let the ends take care of themselves. It suggests that large levels of taxing and spending - coercion and engineering focused on certain preconcieved ends, no matter how noble and lofty - will not produce the type of society desired, one of voluntary copperation and respect. What you'll get is Soviet Russia or something like it. We can't do evil in the hopes that good might come of it because we get what we give on this earth. If you teach a man that power comes from the barrel of a gun, you should not be surprised when he points one at you. And Heaven? Well, if there is a Heaven, the game goes on and on and on, doesn't it? Nothing we do is a mere one of, to be forgotten when the sun goes down. Far from being escapist, Heaven sharpens our focus on the here and now.

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