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“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part II)

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In my last post in this series, concerning Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about the concept of good and evil and the character Ivan’s personal atheistic perception that they are contingent on God existing (or at least an afterlife of eternal reward or punishment).  While there may even be a decent percentage of atheists that share this view (objective morality being contingent on God’s existence), I briefly explained my own views (being an atheist myself) which differs from Ivan’s in that I am a moral realist and believe that morality is objective independent of any gods or immortal souls existing.  I believe that moral facts exist (and science is the best way to find them), that morality is ultimately grounded on objective facts pertaining to human psychology, biology, sociology, neurology, and other facts about human beings, and thus that good and evil do exist in at least some sense.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Ivan’s influence on his half-brother, Smerdyakov, who ends up confessing to Ivan that he murdered their father Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s philosophical influence on him.  In particular, Smerdyakov implicates Ivan as at least partially responsible for his own murderous behavior since Ivan successfully convinced him that evil wasn’t possible in a world without a God.  Ivan ends up becoming consumed with guilt, basically suffers a nervous breakdown, and then is incessantly taunted by a demonic apparition.  The hallucinations continue up until the moment Ivan comes to find out, from his very religious brother Alyosha, that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  This scene highlights a number of important topics beyond the moral realism I discussed in the first post, such as moral responsibility, free will, and even moral desert (I’ll discuss this last topic in my next post).

As I mentioned before, beyond the fact that we do not need a god to ground moral values, we also don’t need a god or an afterlife to motivate us to behave morally either.  By cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, and analyzing a situation using a rational assessment of as many facts as are currently accessible, we can maximize our personal satisfaction and thus our chances of living a fulfilling life.  Behavioral causal factors that support this goal are “good” and those that detract from it are “evil”.  Aside from these labels though, we actually experience a more or less pleasing life depending on our behaviors and therefore we do have real-time motivations for behaving morally (such as acting in ways that conform to various cultivated virtues).  Aristotle claimed this more than 2000 years ago and moral psychology has been confirming it time and time again.

Since we have evolved as a particular social species with a particular psychology, not only do we have particular behaviors that best accomplish a fulfilling life, but there are also various behavioral conditioning algorithms and punishment/reward systems that are best at modifying our behavior.  And this brings me to Smerdyakov.  By listening to Ivan and ultimately becoming convinced by Ivan’s philosophical arguments, he seems to have been conditioned out of his previous views on moral responsibility.  In particular, he ended up adopting the belief that if God does not exist, then anything is permissible.  Since he also rejected a belief in God, he therefore thought he could do whatever he wanted.

One thing this turn of events highlights is that there are a number of different factors that influence people’s behaviors and that lead to their being reasoned into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.  And I think what Ivan told Smerdyakov was in fact absurd — although it was a belief that I once held as well not long after becoming an atheist.  For it is quite obviously absurd that anything is permissible without a God existing for at least two types of reasons: pragmatic considerations and moral considerations (with the former overlapping with the latter).  Pragmatic reasons include things like not wanting to be fined, incarcerated, or even executed by a criminal justice system that operates to minimize illegal behaviors.  It includes not wanting to be ostracized from your circle of friends, your social groups, or your community (and risking the loss of beneficial reciprocity, safety nets, etc.).  Moral reasons include everything that detracts from your overall psychological well-being, the very thing that is needed to live a maximally fulfilling life given one’s circumstances.  Behaving in ways that degrade your sense of inner worth, your integrity, self-esteem, and that diminish a good conscience, is going to make you feel miserable compared to behaving in ways that positively impact these fundamental psychological goals.

Furthermore, this part of the story illustrates that we have a moral responsibility not only to ourselves and our own behavior, but also in terms of how we influence the behavior of those around us, based on what we say, how we treat them, and more.  This also reinforces the importance of social contract theory and how it pertains to moral behavior.  If we follow simple behavioral heuristics like the Golden Rule and mutual reciprocity, then we can work together to obtain and secure common social goods such as various rights, equality, environmental sustainability, democratic legislation (ideally based on open moral deliberation), and various social safety nets.  We also can punish those that violate the social contract, as we already do with the criminal justice system and various kinds of social ostracization.  While our system of checks is far from perfect, having some system that serves such a purpose is necessary because not everybody behaves in ways that are ultimately beneficial to themselves nor everyone else around them.  People need to be conditioned to behave in ways that are more conducive to their own well being and that of others, and if all reasonable efforts to achieve that fails, they may simply need to be quarantined through incarceration (for example psychopaths or other violent criminals that society needs to be protected from, and that aren’t responding to rehabilitation efforts).

In any case, we do have a responsibility to others and that means we need to be careful what we say, such as the case with Ivan and his brother.  And this includes how we talk about concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and moral desert (justice).  If we tell people that all of their behaviors are determined and therefore don’t matter, that’s not a good way to get people to behave in ways that are good for them or for others.  Nor is telling them that because a God doesn’t exist, that their actions don’t matter.  In the case of deterministic nihilism, it’s a way to get people to lose much if not all of their motivation to put forward effort in achieving useful goals.  And both deterministic and atheistic moral nihilism are dangerous ideas that can get some people to commit heinous crimes such as mass shootings (or murdering their own father as Smerdyakov did), because they simply cause people to think that all behaviors are on equal footing in any way that matters.  And quite frankly, those nihilistic ideas are not only dangerous but also absurd.

While I’ve written a bit on free will in the past, my views have become more refined over the years, and my overall attitude towards the issue has been co-evolving alongside my views on morality.  The main crux of the free will issue is that libertarian free will is logically impossible because our actions are never free from both determinism and indeterminism (randomness) since one or the other must underlie how our universe operates (depending on which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is correct).  Neither option from this logical dichotomy gives us “the freedom to have chosen to behave differently given the same initial conditions in a non-random way”.  Therefore free will in this sense is logically impossible.  However, this does not mean that our behavior isn’t operating under some sets of rules and patterns that we can discover and modify.  That is to say, we can effectively reprogram many of our behavioral tendencies using various forms of conditioning through punishment/reward systems.  These are the same systems we use to teach children how to behave and to rehabilitate criminals.

The key thing to note here is that we need to acknowledge that even if we don’t have libertarian free will, we still have a form of “free will” that matters (as philosophers like Daniel Dennett have said numerous times) whereby we have the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed in certain ways, thus allowing us to take responsibility for our actions and design ways to modify future actions as needed.  We have more degrees of freedom than a person who is insane for example, or a child, or a dog, and these degrees of freedom or autonomy — the flexibility we have in our decision-making algorithms — can be used as a rough guideline for determining how “morally responsible” a person is for their actions.  That is to say, the more easily a person can be conditioned out of a particular behavior, and the more rational decision making processes are involved in governing that behavior, the more “free will” this person has in a sense that applies to a criminal justice system and that applies to most of our everyday lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks that their behavior doesn’t matter because there’s no God, or because they have no libertarian free will.  What needs to be pointed out is the fact that we are able to behave in ways (or be conditioned to behave in ways) that lead to more happiness, more satisfaction and more fulfilling lives.  And we are able to behave in ways that detract from this goal.  So which behaviors should we aim for?  I think the answer is obvious.  And we also need to realize that as a part of our behavioral patterns, we need to realize that ideas have consequences on others and their subsequent behaviors.  So we need to be careful about what ideas we choose to spread and to make sure that they are put into a fuller context.  If a person hasn’t given some critical reflection about the consequences that may ensue from spreading their ideas to others, especially to others that may misunderstand it, then they need to keep those ideas to themselves until they’ve reflected on them more.  And this is something that I’ve discovered and applied for myself as well, as I was once far less careful about this than I am now.  In the next post, I’m going to talk about the concept of moral desert and how it pertains to free will.  This will be relevant to the scene described above regarding Ivan’s demonic apparition that haunts him as a result of his guilt over Smerdyakov’s murder of their father, as well as why the demonic apparition disappeared once Ivan heard that Smerdyakov had taken his own life.

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“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part I)

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I wanted to write some thoughts on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and I may end up writing this in several parts.  I’m interested in some of the themes that Dostoevsky develops, in particular, those pertaining to morality, moral responsibility, free will, moral desert, and their connection to theism and atheism.  Since I’m not going to go over the novel in great detail, for those not already familiar with this story, please at least read the plot overview (here’s a good link for that) before pressing on.

One of the main characters in this story, Ivan, is an atheist, as I am (though our philosophies differ markedly as you’ll come to find out as you read on).  In his interactions and conversation with his brother Alyosha, a very religious man, various moral concepts are brought up including the dichotomy of good and evil, arguments against the existence of God (at least, against the existence of a loving God) such as the well-known Problem of Evil, and other ethical and religious quandaries.  I wanted to first talk about Ivan’s insistence that good and evil cannot exist without God, and since Ivan’s character doesn’t believe that God exists, he comes to the conclusion that good and evil do not exist either.  Although I’m an atheist, I disagree with Ivan’s views here and will expand on why in a moment.

I’ve written a bit on my blog, about various arguments against the existence of God that I’ve come across over the years, some of which that I’ve formulated on my own after much reflection – and that were at least partially influenced by my former religious views as a born-again Protestant Christian.  Perhaps ironically, it wasn’t until after I became an atheist that I began to delve much deeper into moral theory, and also into philosophy generally (though the latter is less surprising).  My views on morality have evolved in extremely significant ways since my early adult years.  For example, back when I was a Christian I was a moral objectivist/realist, believing that morals were indeed objective but only in the sense that they depended on what God believed to be right and wrong (even if these divine rules changed over time or seemed to contradict my own moral intuitions and analyses, such as stoning homosexuals to death).  Thus, I subscribed to some form of Divine Command Theory (or DCT).  After becoming an atheist, much like Ivan, I became a moral relativist (but only temporarily – keep reading), believing as the character Ivan did, that good and evil couldn’t exist due to their resting on a fictitious or at least non-demonstrable supernatural theological foundation and/or (perhaps unlike Ivan believed) that good and evil may exist but only in the sense that they were nothing more than cultural norms that were all equally valid.

Since then, I’ve become a moral realist once again (as I was when I was a Christian), after putting the philosophy of Ivan to the test (so to speak).  I realized that I could no longer justify the belief that any cultural moral norm had as equal of a claim to being true as any other cultural norm.  There were simply too many examples of moral prescriptions in various cultures and religions that couldn’t be justified.  Then I realized that many of the world’s cultural moral norms, though certainly not all of them, were largely universal (such as prohibitions against, at least certain forms of, stealing, killing, and others) which suggested a common human psychological component underlying many of them.

I also realized that as an atheist, much as Nietzsche realized, I now had to ground my own moral views on something that didn’t rely on Divine Command Theory, gods, Christian traditions, or any other foundation that I found to be invalid, illogical, unreasonable, unjustified, or not sufficiently demonstrated to be true.  And I had to do this if I was to find a way out of moral relativism, which simply didn’t sit well with me as it didn’t seem to be coherent with the bulk of human psychology and the more or less universal goals that humans strive to achieve in their lives.  It was ultimately the objective facts pertaining to human psychology that allowed me to resubscribe to an objectivist/realist morality — and now my views of morality were no longer contingent on merely the whim or dictates of some authoritarian god (thus bypassing the Euthyphro dilemma), but rather were contingent on objective facts about human beings, what makes us happy and fulfilled and what doesn’t (where these facts often disagree with moral prescriptions stemming from various religions and Divine-Command-Theory).

After dabbling with the teachings of various philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, Foot, and others, I came to accept a view of morality that was indeed coherent, sensible, sufficiently motivating to follow (which is a must), and which subsumed all the major moral theories into one framework (and which therefore had the best claim to being true since it was compatible with all of them –  virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism).   Now I’ve come to accept what can be described as a Goal Theory of Ethics, whereby morality is defined as “that which one ought to do above all else – when rational and maximally informed based on reason and evidence – in order to increase one’s personal life fulfillment and overall level of preference satisfaction”.  One could classify this as a subset of desire utilitarianism, but readers must be warned that this is NOT to be confused with traditional formulations of utilitarianism – such as those explicitly stated by J.S. Mill, Peter Singer, etc., as they are rife with problems resulting from not taking ALL consequences into account (such as consequences pertaining to one’s own character and how they see themselves as a person, as per the wisdom of Aristotle and Kant).

So how can good and evil exist without some God(s) existing?  That is to say, if a God doesn’t exist, how can it not be the case that “anything is permissible”?  Well, the short answer is – because of human psychology (and also social contract theory).

When people talk about behaving morally, what they really mean (when we peel back all the layers of cultural and religious rhetoric, mythology, narrative, etc.) is behaving in a way that maximizes our personal satisfaction – specifically our sense of life fulfillment.  Ask a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Humanist, why ought they behave in some particular way, and it all can be shown to break down to some form of human happiness or preference satisfaction for life fulfillment (not some hedonistic form of happiness).  They may say to behave morally “because then you can get into heaven, or avoid hell”, or “because it pleases God”, or what-have-you.  When you ask why THOSE reasons are important, it ultimately leads to “because it maximizes your chance of living a fulfilled life” (whether in this life or in the next, for those that believe in an afterlife).  I don’t believe in any afterlife because there’s no good evidence or reason to have such a belief, so for me the life that is most important is the one life we are given here on earth – which therefore must be cherished and not given any secondary priority to a hypothetical life that may or may not be granted after death.

But regardless, whether you believe in an afterlife (as Alyosha does) or not (as in Ivan’s case), it is still about maximizing a specific form of happiness and fulfillment.  However, another place where Ivan seems to go wrong in his thinking is his conclusion that people only behave morally based on what they believe will happen to them in an afterlife.  And therefore, if there is no afterlife (immortal souls), then there is no reason to be moral.  The fact of the matter is though, in general, much of what we tend to call moral behavior actually produces positive effects on the quality of our lives now, as we live them.  People that behave immorally are generally not going to live “the good life” or achieve what Aristotle called eudaimonia.  On the other hand, if people actually cultivate virtues of compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, they will simply live more fulfilling lives.  And people that don’t do this or simply follow their immediate epicurean or selfish impulses will most certainly not live a fulfilling life.  So there is actually a naturalistic motivating force to behave morally, regardless of any afterlife.  Ivan simply overlooked this (and by extension, possibly Dostoyevsky as well), likely because most people brought up in Christianized cultures often focus on the afterlife as being the bearer of ultimate justice and therefore the ultimate motivator for behaving as they do.

In any case, the next obvious question to ask is what ways of living best accomplish this goal of life fulfillment?  This is an empirical question which means science can in principle discover the answer, and is the only reliable (or at least the most reliable) way of arriving at such answers.  While there is as of yet no explicit “science of morality”, various branches of science such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neuroscience, are discovering moral facts (or at least reasonable approximations of these facts, given what data we have obtained thus far).  Unless we as a society choose to formulate a science of morality — a laborious research project indeed — we will have to live with the best approximations to moral facts that are at our disposal as per the findings in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, etc.

So even if we don’t yet know with certainty what one ought to do in any and all particular circumstances (no situational ethical certainties), many scientific findings have increased our confidence in having discovered at least some of those moral facts or approximations of those facts (such as that slavery is morally wrong, because it doesn’t maximize the overall life satisfaction of the slaveholder, especially if he/she were to analyze the situation rationally with as many facts as are pragmatically at their disposal).  And to make use of some major philosophical fruits cultivated from the works of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Rawls (among many others), we have the benefits of Social Contract Theory to take into consideration.  In short, societies maximize the happiness and flourishing of the citizens contained therein by making use of a social contract – a system of rules and mutual expectations that ought to be enforced in order to accomplish that societal goal (and which ought to be designed in a fair manner, behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, or what he deemed the “original position”).  And therefore, to maximize one’s own chance of living a fulfilling life, one will most likely need to endorse some form of social contract theory that grants people rights, equality, protection, and so forth.

In summary, good and evil do exist despite there being no God because human psychology is particular to our species and our biology, it has a finite range of inputs and outputs, and therefore there are some sets of behaviors that will work better than others to maximize our happiness and overall life satisfaction given the situational circumstances that we find our lives embedded in.  What we call “good” and “evil” are simply the behaviors and causal events that “add to” or “detract from” our goal of living a fulfilling life.  The biggest source of disagreement among the various moral systems in the world (whether religiously motivated or not), are the different sets of “facts” that people subscribe to (some beliefs being based on sound reason and evidence whereas others are based on irrational faith, dogma, or emotions) and whether or not people are analyzing the actual facts in a rational manner.  A person may think they know what will maximize their chances of living a fulfilling life when in fact (much like with the heroin addict that can’t wait to get their next fix) they are wrong about the facts and if they only knew so and acted rationally, would do what they actually ought to do instead.

In my next post in this series, I’ll examine Ivan’s views on free will and moral responsibility, and how it relates to the unintended consequence of the actions of his half-brother Smerdyakov (who murders their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s influence on his moral views).