Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Multiculturalism and rationality

Multiculturalism derives in an important way from meta-ethical subjective relativism: Given that there are no objects our ethical beliefs reference, there are no objects referenced by cultures (in the sense of collections of ethical beliefs adhered to by people who chose the same or similar self-identification). So there is no objective (non-minded) or "neutral" basis by which to differentiate or compare cultures, just as there is no objective way to compare ethics.

This truth has to just be swallowed whole: There is no objective basis to compare personal, cultural or social ethics.

(One can objectively critique a culture to the extent that the people in the culture do or do not hold scientifically established beliefs about objective reality. All cultures, however, dishonestly promulgate their ethical beliefs as objectively true, and predicate other beliefs on false or unprovable statements of objective reality, so this sort of critique is not very useful specifically as a comparator.)

Lacking an objective basis, how can we compare cultures? The central tenet of multiculturalism is that, fundamentally, you can't. Thus, some conclude, we ought to tolerate everything. This conclusion is logically fallacious. "Ought to" is the big clue. Let's put in the enthymeme and make the logical contradiction obvious.
(T): If there is no objective reason to prefer one action over another, then one ought to approve of both actions.
The problem is that (T) declares an objective ethical truth, but it contradicts the premise that there are no objective ethical truths. It is therefore internally contradictory with meta-ethical subjective relativism, from which we derive multiculturalism. One cannot rationally hold both MESR and (T).

MESR and multiculturalism are not ethical statements. They do not say you should not compare ethical beliefs, they say you cannot, at least not objectively. It is not "forbidden", it is impossible to do so rationally.

Our attachment to rationality and the pervasive acceptance of (T) has caused no end of confusion in ethical discourse. Even more fundamental to this confusion is the idea that rationality pertains only to objective reality. Emotions, tastes, preferences are dismissed as "irrational". Even such a luminary as Richard Dawkins exhibits this position:
Rather than the fanatically monogamous devotion to which we are susceptible, some sort of 'polyamory' is on the face of it more rational. ... Could irrational religion be a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love? [emphasis added]
Monogamous love, because it does not have an objectively true referent, is ipso facto "irrational".

I call bullshit on this notion. It would be irrational if I drew conclusions about objective reality on the basis of only my naive beliefs. I'm married, I prefer monogamy, and I do in fact like my wife "a hundred times more" than I like anyone else. To conclude that she is in objective fact a hundred times better than anyone else would indeed be irrational—but it is not irrational on its face to like her a hundred times more.

Dismissing our pure subjective beliefs (emotions, preferences, tastes and ethical beliefs) as prima facie irrational Puts us in a double bind. If it is morally wrong to act irrationally, and if rationality is restricted to objective reality, then it is morally wrong to do anything just because we want to. But we do all sorts of things just because we want to; are most of our lives spent doing something morally wrong? Must we give up all subjective preference?

On the other hand, to deny the (subjectively) normative value of rationality makes criticism of those who make false statements about reality considerably problematic. "Who cares," one might say, "that it's irrational to believe that God sends fags to hell? You just said there's nothing wrong with irrationality."

Fortunately, there's an easy way out of this paradox: Redefine "rationality".
(R) Rationality consists of believing and acting in such a way that, all things considered, one's own personal, subjective self-interest is maximally fulfilled."
This construction indirectly preserves the notion of objective truth as rational, and objective falsity as irrational. Since many desires must be fulfilled via objective reality, true beliefs about objective reality will result in making effective decisions; false beliefs will result in making ineffective decisions.

The construction "all things considered" (or at least as many things as a finite being can efficiently consider) is critically important to this construction both to match our ordinary intuitions about ethics as being about more than just the fulfillment of superficial desire, as well as to keep (R) from contradicting MESR.

One might, for instance, have a subjective desire to rape and murder little girls, but also a subjective desire to not go to prison or be executed. If someone's desire to rape and murder outweighs the desire to avoid prison, it would be rational to rape and murder little girls and then, when finally caught, spend a considerable amount of time in prison. As much as we'd like to call such a weighting "irrational", there's really no justification for doing so. The best we ordinary people can do is simply say that we so strongly prefer that people not rape and murder little girls that we are willing to put them in prison, not for acting "irrationally", but for acting contrary to our preferences—and it is likewise rational to do so.

It's very important to understand that, while the above construction is, of course, strongly counter-intuitive, it fits the facts far better than our naive notions that our particular ethical beliefs are objectively true. The lack of an objective ethical basis of our laws and social norms affects only our sense of self-righteousness; it does not (always) effect the rationality of creating and enforcing laws and norms.

This construction is not tautological. Consider the notions of Heaven and Hell. If Heaven and Hell actually existed, then it would be rational to sacrifice a lesser, temporal self-interest for the sake of a greater, eternal self-interest. However, since Heaven and Hell do not actually exist, a decision taken on the false belief that they do exist will fail the maximize an individual's own subjective construction of her own self-interest.

One can see this sort of irrationality in Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography, Infidel. She was convinced not of the notion that it was inherently or intrinsically ethical for women to cover themselves, but rather that if women did not cover themselves, then civilization would collapse into anarchy. She mistakenly believed that she was sacrificing one lesser self-interest (comfort and personal attractiveness) for a greater self-interest (a civilized, ordered society). But, since it's trivially obvious that women can show a great deal of skin without catastrophes of Biblical proportions, she was failing to maximize her own self-interest: She was sacrificing a self-interest for nothing she herself was interested in.

(Since all mistaken beliefs that affect one's self-interest are irrational, irrationality is, in many cases, merely a solecism. It's no great crime to be mistaken, but when does find out that one actually is mistaken it's stupid to refuse to correct one's beliefs.)

So let's swing back around to "multiculturalism". First, there's no objective basis to compare cultures. One can, however, criticize a culture directly for holding beliefs that are either provably false-to-fact (e.g. chaos resulting from women's "immodesty") or that are held as objectively true without evidentiary substantiation (e.g. Heaven and Hell). This critical framework can go pretty far, but only so far.

It is trivially easy to remove even something as egregiously objectionable (by Western standards) as fundamentalist Islam from this critique, and requires only the most modest and reasonable reinterpretation of the Koran and Hadith: Descriptions of Heaven and Hell, instead of being taken factually, are taken as merely emphatically specifying a degree of approval or disapproval of various acts. The rest is just subjective ethics: Individuals and the cultures they are members of simply hold the subjective ethical meta-belief that it is inherently good to act in strict accordance with the Koran, and inherently bad to act contrary to it. It is not, strictly speaking, necessary even to accept the existence of Allah as a metaphysical principle.

As purely a set of ethical beliefs, the Koran is nor more—and no less—subjective and arbitrary as is my own humanism.

On the one hand, MESR and multiculturalism denies that there is an objective basis to compare or criticize cultural beliefs. On the other hand, by the same token, MESR and multiculturalism also denies (T), that we must have a purely objective reason to believe and act. On this view, the question, "How can we compare cultures?" becomes incoherent. We must ask a different question.

The obvious alternative is, "How can members of different cultures most efficiently interact?" People do in fact have subjective preferences, and many of these subjective preferences are culturally and socially constructed—and people can also self-select cultures to fit their subjective beliefs—and it is rational by definition to maximize the fulfillment of these preferences (all things considered, of course).

Also complicating the issue is that every person is a member of multiple cultures, some by virtues of geography (I reside in the United States, which makes me a member of the American culture) and some self-selected (I label myself a member of the culture of humanists because I happen to hold humanist ethical values).

First of all, it's rational to try to change anyone's ethical beliefs or actions if they offend you. Most cultures and people, though, have ethical beliefs about what means should be employed to change people's beliefs and actions. For instance, American culture enshrines the ethical belief that it is always permissible to speak and write in such an attempt on nothing more than one's own personal authority. On the other hand, for those beliefs where speaking and writing will not do, there are mechanisms in place (again about which we have ethical beliefs) for implementing coercive action, usually limited by geography.

Thus, I may always speak and write about my opinion of Islamic culture (it disgusts me). I can participate in various democratic political processes to pass laws specifying coercive punishment for members—by virtue of their geographical location—of my city, county, state and nation. There are furthermore political processes for coercively implementing ethical standards across nations.

On the other hand, there is simply no way for me to have any effect whatsoever on the past, distant alien civilizations or hypothetical possible worlds. Any preferences I might have about such inaccessible locations are irrelevant, and can serve only a descriptive purpose, not a normative purpose.

As an example, let me talk about the basis in meta-ethical subjective relativism for my violent disapproval—and the limitations of that violence—of the war in Iraq.

First of all, I do violently disapprove of the war in Iraq, and I mean "violent" in the literal sense. There is, however, a process in place in the United States for expressing and implementing violent disapproval, and any individual physical activity to this end is not part of the process. I would very much like, and would unhesitatingly support, the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of George W. Bush and many members of his administration under due process of law. Make no mistake, legal violence is still violence: The police have guns, and prisons have bars. But as much as I disapprove of Bush & company, I disapprove more of extra-legal coercion (and I don't want to go to prison, either).

On my own authority, I'll write and speak about my ethical opposition to the war in Iraq. I have general legal and social permission to do so, by virtue of the First Amendment and the social beliefs underlying it. These principles also give general permission to participate in the democratic political process underlying the establishment and enforcement of laws by means of speech and my vote.

There are a number of characteristics about the war on which I ethically disapprove. I disapprove of the immense death and human suffering the war has caused, both to American soldiers and the Iraqi people. I disapprove of the massive expense the war has entailed. I disapprove of government officials showing willfully negligent disregard to objective truth and actively lying. I disapprove in principle of the violation of national sovereignty. I disapprove in principle of wars of conquest and aggression.

I don't believe that any of this disapproval is in any sense "objectively" true. But I still disapprove, so strongly that I will vote to make the corresponding activities illegal and punish anyone who perpetrates them. And if you don't agree, fuck you, argue with me from prison.

I also disapprove, just as strongly (if not more strongly), of the way Saddam Hussein governed Iraq. What I might have done had I been a resident of Iraq during his rule is, in the normative sense, irrelevant; ethical beliefs about fictional possible worlds are incoherent. I'm not a resident of Iraq, though. In this actual world, the only world where my actual beliefs have any currency, I am a resident of the United States. From that perspective my approval of removing Saddam Hussein is not even remotely comparable to my disapproval of both means of removing him by aggressive war or the actual consequences of having done so.

I also have come to the conclusion that there are no small few beliefs underlying the Iraq war which are either false-to-fact or unprovable in principle. These are matters of objective truth and can be argued rationally.

The most obvious irrationally mistaken belief is that we needed to go to war to prevent Iraq from using or obtaining weapons of mass destruction. The ethics of WMDs notwithstanding, it was false to fact to assert that Saddam Hussein or any Iraqi government had such weapons or had the capability to develop such weapons. Furthermore, this falsity was asserted with willfully negligent disregard for objective truth, both by the Bush Administration as well as Congress. (For this reason I will never vote for H. R. Clinton or Edwards for dogcatcher, much less President.)

As much as I personally prefer democratic, liberal and Enlightenment values, there is no objective basis to call these values superior to those of even the most regressive, tyrannical Middle-Ages society. To justify any coercive action on their objective superiority is irrational.

Again, I do very strongly prefer and approve of democratic, liberal and Enlightenment values. It is possible, under some hypothetical dramatic circumstances, that I might approve of some limited coercive action to impose some values outside of my national culture. (For instance, I might support some coercive action, far short of aggressive war, to inhibit Female Genital Mutilation in Somalia.) On the other hand, the component of individual liberty is so deeply embedded into these values that it is prima facie incoherent to establish these values by means of war. You cannot force a culture, society or nation to adopt Enlightenment values: The mere act of submitting to these values is contrary to them. Anyone who thought that we could impose Enlightenment values on Iraq by means of an invasion, or who believes we can impose them by means of continuing the occupation, is simply irrational, not to mention egregiously stupid.

This is just a sample. There are so many moral and rational objections to the Iraq war that one could fill a whole blog with nothing but. And not just one.


  1. Very good essay.

    One trouble with debating people on this issue is the commonly held notion that if an ethical position is not "objective" then it is meaningless, and that it has no force, even for the person advocating it. Your position on "violently" disliking something is good.

    I wonder if this mistake is what leads Harris to his own belief in objective ethics. He seems to feel that if he discovers an objective way to increase human happiness, he has discovered a basis for objective ethical standards.

  2. To conclude that she is in objective fact a hundred times better than anyone else would indeed be irrational—but it is not irrational on its face to like her a hundred times more.

    But I AM a hundred times better than anyone else, dammit!

    (Good essay.)

  3. But I have some quibbles. Call me.

  4. Okay, so, I totally plan on reading this whole essay. I just want you to know that it's waaaaaaay long.

  5. Chris: Thank you. I think you're correct about Harris' philosophical errors and naivete—although "naivete" is not really the right word, as the search for an objective foundation to ethics has been a millennia-long philosophical effort.

    Harris is naive, I think, only to the extent that he may mistakenly believe that ethical objectivism has a solid philosophical foundation.

  6. Honey, am I accurately representing your quibble?

    "Who cares," one might say, "that it's irrational to believe that God sends fags to hell? You just said there's nothing wrong with irrationality."

    But why is "God sends fags to hell" considered irrational according to definition (R)?

    I didn't choose the example very well: I used it only to highlight the consequences of abandoning the subjective normative value of rationality. A better example might be:

    "Who cares," one might say, "that it's irrational to believe that I'll go to hell if I fulfill my desire to have homosexual sex? You just said..."

    Note that in the construction of the essay, the normative value of rationality is asymmetric: I always disapprove of irrationality, but I do not always approve of rationality. It is necessary for an action to be rational to earn my approval, but it is not sufficient.

  7. I must be feeling better, I actually read it all this evening, long though it is. I agree! There, that was a boring comment, wasn't it.


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