Monday, April 16, 2007

Ethics and speech

I hold meta-ethical subjective relativism, that all of our ethical beliefs are fundamentally subjective: the properties of goodness and badness name only states of mind, not properties of objects outside our minds. Things aren't good and bad in themselves, there are only subjective, mental facts about what people approve and disapprove of.

This position entails then that to the extent that there is such a thing as a social ethic, it comprises more or less complicated statistical properties of individual beliefs. Thus the only way to change social ethics is to change the individual ethical beliefs of a large number of people. And the best way to change individuals' beliefs is by speech[1] (the deprecated alternative is to simply imprison or kill everyone who has or lacks a particular belief).

Therefore speech has an ethical component. Indeed most speech, even speech not intentionally directed at ethical belief (i.e. propaganda), has some sort of ethical component, at the very least indicating some degree of the author's or characters' approval or disapproval of the depicted activities. Even news reports, supposedly purely descriptive, often betray an ethical bias in the language used to describe. It takes considerable discipline even in science to remove ethical biases and only describe the world.

Of course, we should not adopt an overly simplistic evaluation of the moral content of speech, nor a simplistic, over-literal model of how it actually affects its listeners' moral beliefs. But it does appear to be the case that clear societal ethics do emerge from the cacophony of millions of voices.

Ethical criticism of speech is, of course, a form of speech, indeed of propaganda. The recent conflict over Don Imus' racist remarks is a good case in point. It is instructive to note that the conflict played out exactly the way we would expect in a free society. Had CBS/MSNBC been fined by the FCC for Imus' remarks, I would have been quick to object: It is not, nor should it ever be the government's job to regulate speech. The counterargument contains exactly two word: First Amendment. Full stop. The members of society evaluated Imus' remarks as ethically wrong, and, using nothing but social pressure in the form of speech, marginalized his racist content to the point where his sponsors no longer considered it in their interest to amplify his views.

With regard to my previous essay, there are two moral questions: What sort of sexuality do we want people to have, and how do we want people to relate to other? It's difficult to have no opinion: even the opinion that our sexuality and relationships should be left to chance and genetics—and that to tolerate with approval all the sorts relationships that ensue—is a particular opinion; to have no opinion, one would affect no preference at all between ideal anarchy and inflexible totalitarianism.

Consent and personal responsibility, although important, cannot be the end of our ethical discourse. Consent must account for the range of choice; the concept is vacuous in the absence of or severe restriction of choice: A chattel slave "consents" to slavery because he has chosen it over death, and thus takes "personal responsibility" for his choice. Liberty—especially in our society of complex interlocked dependencies—is not just a narrowly negative concept, the absence of physical coercion, it has by tradition and history become, like it or not, both wider and positive: There are other forms of coercion than violence, and we have positive obligations to make available a wider range of options, encourage (and thus define) wise choices and discourage unwise choices.

It's not even that we have real obligations ("obligation" is just a metaphor) so much as that, with six billion of us (and more on the way) crowded on a planet that can support only tens or hundreds of millions without complex technological specialization) we actually do affect each others lives by all our speech, even by our silence. One can escape these obligations only by abandoning empathy, and becoming indifferent to the suffering of others.

[1] In the broadest sense of communicative behavior, including speaking, writing, pantomime, television, movies, video games, etc.


  1. But of course from a meta-ethical subjective relativism, there's no REAL moral objection to abandoning empathy and embracing indifference, yes? There's absolutely no real moral reason why I should give a damn about influencing how anyone else thinks about anything, although there may be excellent prudential or self-serving reasons. Jake sees no moral harm in rape, Jonathan thinks it a moral abomination, both want to persuade others of his position: but there's no real moral difference between their positions, surely, under a meta-ethical subjective relativism.

  2. Deacon: There's no objective reason to preserve or abandon reason, but there are real reasons: that empathy is in fact prevalent in human minds.

    There's no objective difference between Jake and Jonathan's positions; they are attaching different subjective evaluations to the same objective distinction. To the extent that these positions are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, one will gain social currency, in a statistical sense, and one will not.

    This is perhaps an unsatisfying position from a philosophical perspective, but it appears to describe how ethical change actually occurs in human society.

  3. Oops... There's no objective reason to preserve or abandon empathy.

  4. "Meta" is somewhat misleading. All ethical discussion (and philosophy?) is meta, in the sense of being concerned with actions, and not the actions themselves.

    But there is another issue which BB overlooks: the possibility that ethical standards--even objective ones--could be cognitively realized, and yet not theological or platonic, but nonetheless binding. And certainly humans' awareness of pain, and of shall we say economic-biological necessaries--food, a certain degree of liberty, shelter, employment, a mate, etc.--are not at all relativistic, or at least not to the extent that a Humean ethical skeptic would suggest. Seeing a soldier or cop torturing a prisoner injustly, sane persons experience the pain vicariously, and thus give the word "injust" (or evil, wicked, unethical, etc.) to that act. That sort of identification process is not simply waved away because a Hume says the statements are not "necessary" or something; and there is a logical aspect to that "identity ethics," if you will: you would object greatly to being tortured for no reason; therefore, you should, if rational (and consistent), object to another person being so tortured, as long as he is not some Ted Bundy or something.

  5. Perezoso: It appears that you are not using some terminology—specifically "meta-ethical", "objective" and "relative"—in precisely the same sense as I use it. You can find my definitions in MESR part 1.

    There's nothing intrinsically or objectively wrong with punching someone in the nose. It is only because there is something intrinsically wrong with subjective pain, and because punching someone in the nose causes pain, that we object to the punching.

    Regarding identity ethics: I happen to be as empathic as the next guy, and I do, therefore, construct an identity ethic (and I would object to even Ted Bundy being tortured), but that ethic is constructed by virtue of my extant feelings of empathy, not by logical necessity.

    The argument that identity ethics is logically entailed is flawed. You and I have covered this topic before.

  6. I suggest your use of meta is incorrect, and a type of manipulation. You are, more or less, following Hume, and taking a skeptical position towards objective values. Really adding "meta" (and possibly even "subjective") does not add much to the discussion.

    And I don't think the common experience of pain (or hunger, desire, need for shelter, a certain degree of liberty, etc.) as a basis for value construction (ethics) should be waved away. Any normal human will feel pain when punched without his consent in the nose; and normal humans must eat as well (and need housing, employment etc.). We don't have to vote on whether unwarranted pain (or assault, murder, etc) should be allowed (or whether hunger is acceptable). Those types of acts are considered by law as objectively wrong, as well--it's not merely coincidence that murder has have been considered wrong for centuries all over the globe (nor is it bizarre that most humans object to totalitarian regimes that on occasion permit murder). It is the relativist and skeptic who is making the stranger claim: that humans do experience the world in completely different ways, and that hunger doesn't matter, or that pain could be acceptable, etc.

    Yes, there is a semantic problem--it's difficult to formulate ethical statements in a logical fashion--but not impossible. It is rather inconsistent (ie irrational) to claim that an act (torture) inflicted on someone is acceptable (or meaningless) except for oneself: you have in a sense denied the person being tortured the rights you yourself claim ( freedom from unwarranted restriction, pain, confinement, etc.): which is to say, ethics via subjectivity could be in some sense quite objective. And in some sense I think Gewirth's rational ethics and a more Rawlsian/Hobbesian contract both lead to that position: that a person is sort of bound by the ethics (and politics?) that one implicitly or explicitly upholds (ie having enough liberty to pursue ones bio-economic-goals)--tho' the Rawlsian move is a bit more pragmatic: given a choice of an ethical model, and knowing that there is high probability that the chooser will be bound by the ethics/politics/economic model that he chooses, he will choose a sort of "fair" (non-fascist, if you will) and somewhat egalitarian ethical model. That may not be necessarily true in formal logic sense (tho Gewirth claims his system is), but a sound, pragmatic basis for ethics-- and political theory; the only counterargument being really Malthusian (famine, war, disease) or pure machiavellian nihilism (which Humean skepticism easily entails).

  7. Perszoso: I'm doing my best, but your comments are simply at such right angles to my own thoughts that I'm at a loss as how to continue. You make enough sense that I suspect I agree with you, and I suspect that 90% of any disagreement is purely semantic.

    Unfortunately, the semantics of key terms have become so confused in canonical philosophy, especially on a superficial reading (i.e. the reading of anyone who does not spend a professional career parsing some subset of the canon).

  8. Ah professionalism. I did graduate work in philosophy (and linguistics) a few years ago (with A's): I don't think much has changed. Gewirth and Rawls both offered fairly powerful criticisms of (and alternatives to) Hume's skepticism (the fact/value distinction). I'm more of a language-logic-computing person, but Gewirth's argument (based on a rational agent's valuing of his own "right" to pursue bio-economic goals, more or less) is not that trivial. Which is to say, if you grant people "ought"--or really that people are similar in relevant features than not, in a sense--- to be rational, then Gewirth's theory holds: saying certain values are rationally defensible seems quite a bit stronger than saying we might have similar ethical "tastes". If you deny that humans have any obligation to be rational (consistent, non-hypocritical, "moral" in traditional sense), Gewirth doesn't really matter, but then philosophy (or scientific knowledge as a whole) doesn't mean much to irrationalists either.

  9. Gewirth's argument is not trivial, but neither is the linked criticism. I'm curious if you read it carefully: the criticism does not hinge on the ethical value of rationality itself, but rather on the observation that autonomy is a fact, rather than a rationally constructed position.

  10. This particular post seems a poor place to have this discussion. I've written much more directly on MESR in many other posts; if you wish to undertake a detailed criticism of my position, perhaps one of those other posts would provide sufficient context for a more productive discussion.

  11. You make enough sense that I suspect I agree with you, and I suspect that 90% of any disagreement is purely semantic.

    Speaking as an outsider who just came in to this discussion, this seems to be wholly accurate -- a lot of this is semantics and not necessarily substantive. Colin McGinn of Rutgers University (and a leader of the "Mysterian" school) has demonstrated pretty well that moral objectivism is not incompatible with what Larry categorizes as MESR (though McGinn does object to the "moral relativism" in its more strawman-esque form).

    I find this quote from Timothy Zarofsky of Northwestern useful: "Are moral truths true because they are facts or because they are universally agreed upon?"


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