Sunday, July 6, 2014

On the good life, even without moral choice

I have received a little criticism for my most recent substantive blog post here, "The Illusion of Moral Choice," though certainly not the kind I expected. While I did get a little pushback of the "you're putting too much emphasis on consequentialism" kind, as I anticipated, and none of the "you're wrong" that I figured might happen, I was also told that the case I outlined remains unsatisfactory as a theory of morality because it doesn't address the central questions of that endeavor: How should I live? What is the good life?

I should clarify then: I never intended that essay to address these questions, nor did I intend it to be anything like a moral theory. I'll briefly summarize the aims and case of that piece here:
  • We can't execute moral choice, at least not in the way we think we can. Particularly, we do not have libertarian free will. In light of this, we do not meaningfully have the capacity to execute moral choice. As I think incompatibilism (the notion of free will is not compatible with us as matter) is probably nearer the accurate state of our world, I think moral choice is an outright illusion, a lovely and rather useful fiction upon which we build entire civilizations.
  • The notion of valuing something for its own sake is another illusion that smells a bit of solipsism and stealth dualism.Values always depend upon consequences, though this isn't to be confused with consequentialism. Particularly, the means don't justify the ends because the means are ends too.
  • Values are always, so far as we have any reason to believe, the products of self-replicating molecules doing their thing, which is to say replicating themselves. This should not be confused with that our moral values should be set in service to the goal of self-replication on some level of meaning or another; it's that they are in that service and can't be otherwise, however they happen to seem to be set.
In short, I wrote the previous piece to offer some account of why we have values and to suggest that we do not choose them.
In response to this complaint, what I'd like to do here is talk briefly upon how we might make sense of "the good life" in light of the fact that self-replicating molecules are, to the best of our knowledge, the only source of values--values that we do not have the capacity to choose. I will also say something about "how should I live?" On that, however, it seems a bit presumptuous to do much more than talk very vaguely and generally unless working out the ethical details in specific cases.

The good life

In the previous essay, I made the case that all values follow in some way from self-replicating chemistry--the only locus of values as we are able to make them intelligible, even construed almost absurdly broadly. Chemistry does what it does, utterly mindlessly. In the case of sentient beings, very complicated self-replicating chemical systems manifest partly in a phenomenon that can (nearly equally broadly) be construed as "psychological pathways." This, as a few critics noted, is not a particularly satisfactory way to think of values, even if this is in no way a comment regarding its accuracy.

These psychological pathways, at any rate, can in principle be understood as electrochemical phenomena, mostly in the central nervous systems of sentient beings, though there's no guarantee that any neat map could be drawn between them in the general. Most importantly, these psychological pathways are not tabulae rasae in any extant sentience; they are shaped by their evolutionary heritage. And it is important to bear in mind when talking about that evolutionary heritage that we are, indeed, talking about the total history of successful chemical self-replicators in at least one unbroken chain going back to the earliest self-replicating carbon compounds in that ancestry.

Moreover, the theory of evolution by natural selection is the only mechanism that's needed to get us from there to here, and it is by that fact of nature that we see what "evolutionary heritage" amounts to: systems of self-replicating molecules out-competing others in self-replication in an environment that is frequently resource-limited or even resource-scarce. That is to say that "evolutionary heritage" amounts to "the inheritance of being very good at successfully continuing to self-replicate over geological timescales under sometimes fierce competition." It is implied that elaborate systems arose as a result of best-facilitating the process, and it is these that define the markings on our tables with which we have to work. Our sentience, intelligence, and concomitant psychological pathways--vague, as a descriptor, as those might be--are one such result, and they set all of the constraints and possibilities for what we call the good life.

The good life, via some measurement that also remains unclear but salient enough to bear almost all of the fruit called the human drama, means achieving some minimum standard of success in one way or another according to the constraints and possibilities provided by the world we inhabit, which includes how we're built to interact with it.

Conscious experience

For whatever set of reasons that has not been worked out yet--being the ominous hard problem of consciousness--somewhere along the line from simple replicating carbon-containing molecules to modern humans, conscious experience entered the milieu of effects that proved useful to the self-replication of many of these molecules, and as it was useful enough to be worth the cost, it was selected for in a competitive world that has not shaken it. My goal here, of course, is not to speculate on how or why consciousness arose; I'm merely nodding to the fact that it did.

It is simply a part of conscious experience--for reasons that appear immediately practical to biology--that some experiences are pleasurable and others painful, often in complex and competing ways. Some of these ways are basic, such as the pain of being burned, and others are quite complexly interwoven with competing "internal" psychological experiences, such as the release from emotional pain, often interpreted as a kind of pleasure, that self-inflicted burns seem to bring to some troubled humans (whom, one must hope, could potentially find far more successful ways to cope with their difficulties than self-injury). In all cases, psychological pathways that arose from our evolution as a strategy to help the molecules that define us to continue to self-replicate are at the bottom of the quality of our conscious experience.

That there seems to be no end to the extremes of complexity and resulting behavior that arise from this murky mix of psychological states, say in cases like self-immolation in protest, changes nothing about this fact. Even here, when these experiences and their presumed qualities manifest in particularly incomprehensible ways, still we find no explanation that escapes the reality that within those individuals certain psychological pathways must be so unbearably ordurous that even this horrible end to one's suffering can be effected. That one's suffering can arise in terms of imagining the suffering of many others, again, does not change the fact.

However horrible, glorious, or mundane the varieties of sentient experience, something identifiable with "the good life" floats ethereally in this conceptual space, a set of ideas that represents how we make sense of things. The good life, whatever it is, is some combination of psychological states, experienced necessarily firsthand, that somehow net significantly in the positive under some kind of undefined but salient metric (or collection of metrics) that give a sense of discernible quality to a life filled with conscious experiences. These conscious states are a result of an evolutionary heritage that reminds us that we're, at bottom, collections of competitive self-replicating chemistry and associated chemical paraphernalia that happen to be very good at having done what they do, better than untold other numbers of combinations at doing what all life does--creating local environments for self-replicating molecules to continue to self-replicate as efficiently as possible.

"The good life," then, taking this very broad and impractical view, has everything to do with creating and maintaining psychological states that are experienced in a positive way, this being largely determined by that very same evolutionary heritage. We call this well-being, and we value it because it is what valuing something means. This too is unsatisfactory, of course, and does nothing to create a moral theory--which I still have no interest in doing. It does nothing to address how we might achieve "the good life," even if it does point us in a direction that might help us figure it out

How should we live?

I don't know. I don't claim to know. I don't trust most people who claim to know.

What I do know about this, though, is that whatever answers have the potential to be deemed "right" when it comes to this question, they must account for some manner of maximizing experiences of the good life, which is to say well-being when all of the myriad aspects of conscious experience are taken into account. Suffering, when severe enough and combined with sufficiently strong reasons to accept that it is terminal, should be seen as a negative state--as in below zero--in whatever metric does the measuring, and thus it is conceivable that no experience, death, is in some cases better than enduring more torturous existence.

The question of how we should live is hard, of course, because we have to honor the individual experience with the collective good. There is a complex and tense interplay between the ways in which we've prioritized ourselves, along with our nearest families and friends, arranged by our evolution into some hierarchical system with "everybody else," present and future. And as this indicates, there is more complexity to this riddle than accounting for the present moment's experiences; these factors are necessarily concerned with the future, both short-term and long. The tension between the individual and the collective isn't a straight tug-of-war in diametrically opposed directions, either. It is a plain fact that the collective good reflects back upon the individual's well-being in many, but not all, cases. Put another way, many of our games are not zero sum, but understanding this isn't always clear, even with the best information (stupidity certainly makes this matter even more difficult to parse out and must be accounted for).

It is very difficult and important to wheedle out how proper balances should be struck in this complicated web of moral attention, but a lack of a proper way to define "well-being" comprehensively in light of this challenge doesn't change anything. Many concepts, whether a nation is "wealthy" for instance, are very difficult to measure properly because of the lack of a good way to aggregate data both satisfactorily and simply. A number of measures must be used, and complicated indices that take several of them into account at once represent our most sophisticated efforts. Critically, nobody seriously contends that the operative concepts of macroeconomics are a wash, though, because of the difficulty in clearly defining terms that involve several kinds of averages across millions or billions of people.

Of course, this is precisely where I said in my previous piece that moral philosophy still has a great deal of very important work to do, which I certainly think is the case. I just am making the case that as a discipline, it cannot get confused about where moral values come from (it isn't really conceptual space--that's not a real place--and it isn't exactly choice) and send itself down blind alleyways. While our values may manifest as ideas and thoughts about the world, those are just an image of the underlying biology at work, which is itself chemistry. We simply no longer have good reasons to think anything other than this, and any work that points to thinking otherwise is clouding the issue unnecessarily.

What is the good life? It has something integral to do with netting positive in well-being.
How should we live? Whatever answer is correct has something integral to do with well-being.
What is well-being? Here's the rub, and whatever it is, it must somehow be attendant to the circumstances that have arisen as a result of our evolutionary heritage as systems that facilitate the self-replication of certain kinds of carbon-bearing molecules.

No comments:

Post a Comment