Thursday, 5 September 2013

Jain monks and Dworkin's morons

The late Ronald Dworkin, in 'Justice for Hedgehogs', defines a 'moron' as a truth-making particle for moral judgments. He thinks they can't exist.

He says - One might say that moral judgements aren’t made true by anything, because they’re not true. Maybe they’re not the kind of thing that can be true, like emotional outbursts. That’s one view, and it’s wrong, and we can have an argument about that.”

“Someone else might say that some moral judgements are true, and when they are true they’re made true by something real, something out there, some moral particle … “morons”. If you think that, then you have no reason to deny that there are fundamental conflicts of value. If moral judgements are made true by morons, there could be different kinds of morons. But that’s very silly, because there are no such things as morons, but that is a view you could have.'

Jainism is a pretty ancient religion which has a lot of substantive moral content arising out of a 'hedgehog' value- viz. Ahimsa, that is non-injury. It also has a realist ontology of a dynamic and relationist type such that mechanism design is an internal property of the system and, hence, aporias and antinomies have a work-around.
Jainism specifies different sorts of 'karma binding' particles whose influx (aashrav) is dependent on one's actions and which can ultimately be terminated by some monastic practice. Jainsim has a relativistic epistemology and so its 'morons' can be considered as mere mental constructs- i.e. the name given to a class of heterogenous sub-atomic events which appear to us to have had a particular karmic result.
Furthermore we are welcome to stipulate that all karmic events only occur over one life-time- i.e. belief in reincarnation is not required for a thought experiment using Jain morons. Indeed, one could reinterpret the experiment such that morons become purely nominal markers conforming to our subjective value system- thus ending up with something like Gandhian karma-yoga philosophy.

Dworkin isn't saying morons of a Jain type are bound to be utterly unreal. They may be real in the same way the valency of an emotional outburst is real. He just thinks there are no such things as morons because they are silly.

This is the other side of Hume's Guillotine- belief in an 'ought' causes us to arbitrarily restrict the domain of what 'is' for the purpose of our argument. In other words our preferred ontology is no longer at home in the world. What we are doing is an exercise in ontological dysphoria. Which is fine, if we are up-front about it. But is that what Dworkin is doing? Perhaps, he has found some sub-set of things in the world which are necessary and sufficient to fully determine a truly 'Hedgehog theory of value'- i.e. something based on knowing one 'big thing'- and so Hume's Guillotine isn't relevant. There is a way to partition the Universe such that only the good bit- which Dworkin knows about- counts.

Thomas Nagel, Dworkin's old partner from the NYU colloquium on Law & Philosophy, has aroused considerable ire from Darwinists by coming out as a supporter of Natural Teleology, not because the data looks that way to him, but for a priori reasons. In his new book, Mind & Cosmos, he says- “Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.”- which is sweet except he fails to add, 'and blowing its head off coz doing the walk of shame out of a middle-aged Tam Bram's flat is simply not an option what with all the mean things them other Universes will text and twitter each other and OMG was I wearing granny panties last night? That's it. Goodbye cruel Multiverse. Remember me on Facebook.'

Dworkin's argument isn't teleological but based on the Aristotelian conception of the good and worthwhile life in which self-abnegation, or the Kantian sort, and self-aggrandizement, of the Nietzchean, are kept in equipoise. Addressing an interlocutor equally harmoniously constituted, Dworkin writes-

Let us say you are required to serve on a Jury. To determine the defendant's degree of guilt, you have to answer the substantive, first order, question- would a reasonable person consider this person's action to be morally wrong? Dworkin says that you, as a member of the Jury, have an additional obligation- viz. to find answers to 'meta-questions' like 'is our morality really moral?' which are consistent with your decision in the jury room and to affirm those answers with equal moral conviction simply as matter of good conscience.

At this point, alarm bells should be ringing. Is it really a requirement for Jurors to have a full fledged Moral philosophy?
After all, if evidence is produced that Jurors typically have a cognitive bias resulting in their awarding damage awards markedly divergent from what they would have assessed if properly trained in Bayesian methods, then there is a legal remedy- either Legislative or Judicial.
Does the fact that I now know I have cognitive biases and that I also know that the Judiciary will seek to compensate for this, somehow change either the nature of the moral work I am required to do in the Jury room or my own confidence in my ability to discharge that work?
No. I still have a duty to help administer Justice as part of the Social Compact by which my own life and property are safeguarded. The Judge can still clarify to me what a phrase like 'morally wrong' means in the context of the trial.
Let us suppose I hold heterodox meta-ethical views. During the course of discussion in the Jury room, I might well say something like 'Well, I can see that what the Judge requires of me is not a decision according to my own beliefs but according to what I judge to be the commonly accepted belief amongst ordinary people. So, from that point of view, I agree or disagree with this verdict.'
Dworkin thinks there must be 'internal reasons' by means of which everybody can have a Morality consistent across all orders of questions. There should never be a need to look at 'external reasons'- which bracket questions of morality- and which have to do with what exists and how things work in the World we inhabit.
Trivially, one such person must exist- at least in the eyes of the holder of this opinion. Equally trivially, we could define that person as living the Aristotelian good and worthwhile life, at least in a certain respect. Everything else follows by mimesis.
But Dworkin is not making this trivial claim. Rather, he describes the first order, substantive, moral decision situation, regarding whether certain actions are right or wrong, as operating in a very particular way such that information from the external world is grist to a purely 'internal' moral mill which, once its wheels have begun to grind, can soar aloft to tackle second order and third order questions re the morality of our morality or the morality of our moralizing over our morality and so on.
Dworkin thinks there is a Morality engine which can operate like a Research Program in Mathematics- it is independent of the external world, in terms of its inner consistency and though an 'internal sceptic' can arise (in the manner that Constructivists are sceptical about some Mathematical entities) still, the discipline is sheltered from 'external sceptics'. But this begs the question- Mathematics is not just tolerated but widely taught because it has proved 'unreasonably' successful in advancing Technology and Productivity and Military Power. The same is not true of Moral Philosophy. Even if it could be reconstituted in a manner analogous to Mathematics (indeed, there are systems of deontic logic which are mathematical) it is still not safe from the external sceptic because either
a) it yields unequivocal answers even to first order questions- e.g. is abortion wrong? Is it wrong to attack Syria?- whose salience as wedge issues arise from considerations of strategic dynamics involving the inertia of preference falsification availability cascades. Here, there is a clear signal extraction problem- because of an entangled political element and a moral element. How can there be a truth making cascade of purely moral arguments, as Dworkin prescribes, which yields a bright line judgement WITHOUT reliance on a signal extraction mechanism? Either information is being thrown away- which is a defect in a truth maker- or else Dworkin's solution is not genuinely interpretative
b) it doesn't answer tough questions. It weeps and turns back when faced with hard cases. Ergo it's a waste of time. That's first order immoral.

Dworkin and Rawls and Nagel and Putnam and Sen and Nussbaum and so on, aren't going to come out and say 'abortion is wrong' because that would upset the Feminists. Sen and Nussbaum can harp on about female foeticide, but won't attack abortion itself, because clearly killing boy babies is a good thing. Similarly, Nagel might niggle about Global Justice, but he isn't going to come out and say anything substantive which might get him labelled an Islamophobe or as against us darkies or as a hater of little children.
Now, there is a way round this which is to say, well it doesn't matter what we think is right or wrong, what matters is that we have a passionate interest in the subject. Thus, the serial killer stalking Lailah is just as good as the heart-broken poet Qais Majnoon. Both are passionately interested in that obese maiden though the stalker wants to peel off her skin to make a roomy garment for himself, while Qais just wants to Email her a few more plaintive ghazals preparatory to broaching the topic of a Neo Platonic three-way with God.

Does Dworkin's 'internal error sceptic' really advance Moral Philosophy? Suppose he says- 'if x is wrong, then our moralizing is wrong because in some respect what we are doing is like x'. Following Dworkin we might reply- 'Dude, you just said x is wrong. That's moralizing and it can't be wrong in the same way that x is wrong coz that's a category mistake. Words aren't like the thing they describe. The word hot isn't hot. Nor is saying 'eating babies is wrong'  itself wrong because no babies get eaten when we make the statement. What? You ate the baby while I was busy saying 'eating babies is wrong'? And that makes it my fault? I will beat you with my hockey stick.'
Clearly, this is pointless.
On the other hand, if, as I have suggested, Moral Philosophy is considered to be a bunch of Research Programs then one can have a sensible type of 'internal status sceptic' who says- 'look you guys are deriving a result by assuming something- like Dworkin's simultaneous equations which perfectly capture everything related to Income distribution in an economy- which not only can't but ought not to exist in a world where Morality isn't empty. Stop it. You are being silly. Look, I've found a workaround which derives the same substantive result but in a manner that gives more insight into the decision situation.'
If we admit that this type of internal status sceptic (who says some moral claims are neither true nor false because they can't be constructed or are impredicative or incompossible) can help Moral Philosophy to move forward- on an analogy with Mathematics and Physics- then Dworkin is hoist by his own petard. His disbelief in any such animal (a disbelief which arises from the way he has set up his definitions) makes him a particularly egregious type of external status sceptic. He is using morality to denigrate morality. More importantly, Dworkin's notion in this regard prevents him from seeing that if Moral Philosophy is driven by 'internal reason' then it must also be the case that it's trajectory is unknowable, at any given moment in time, for computational reasons. Either the subject is empty or it has the capacity to surprise its assiduous students.
Dworkin's criticism of the external sceptic also misses the mark. It doesn't matter that, by definition, whatever the guy is doing isn't Moral Philosophy because we don't know in advance that it isn't isomorphic to something which is. The notion that a process of external reason is necessarily separate from, or can set limits in advance to, the cognitive space generated by an 'internal' process of reasoning is sheer question begging Scholasticism. Granted, internal reason is either Nagel's bat or it is nothing. But bats are genetically canalized. We don't know if Dworkin's 'Moral Philosophy' might not generate the same phenotype as something like Binmore's Whiggish Game theory. Chances are, they will if they address the same substantive issues.

There is a way- the Jain method of anekantavada- whereby Public discourse can admit Dworkin or Putnam type arguments without committing intellectual hara kiri- but the only reason Jain Epistemology doesn't cash out as anything-goes relativism is because it is founded on both Monks and what Dworkin also calls 'morons'. For Jainism to work properly, the Monks have to go out into the world. They have to enable incohate situations to evolve to a point where there is a bilateral moral claim which is either true or false. One way of determining how and when to 'ripen' such a claim has to do with being sensitive to the 'aashrav' of karma binding particles. Morality is Physics, it is zero-intelligence Agent Economics, it deals with 'morons'- but only because what is truly moronic is metaphysics and, at that Circe's Symposium, we are all drunken swine.

1 comment:

  1. This seems a complete distortion of Dworkin. Have you actually read the book?