morality_play (morality_play) wrote,

Techno Demonology 4: Social Darwinism, Market Fundamentalism, and Naturalistic Fallacies

People familiar with my livejournal polemics must be aware of my antagonism towards libertarianism. That antagonism is directed at no small number of intellectual failures contained therein. It's Lockean provisions. The temporal bias of contractualism. The _catastrophe_ that is consequentialism. The failures of it's privatization and deregulatory objectives. All of these are good reasons to march taudiophile and hhallahh off to the reeducation centers. This is said with a certain amount of good natured, apologetic jovialism to the libertarians on my friends list. monocrat is a smart guy, and eleventoes taste in industrial design is just _kick'n_, and I don't want to see them "marched" anywhere. As intelligent people though, I'd hope they would concede that creatures like ikilled007 are better off used as fuel, and probably don't have rights.

An important part of my criticism of market libertarianism, however, is more subtle than the problems summarized above, and consequently, it is often left unarticulated. Szerszynski's Techno Demonology provides the perfect platform to articulate it by placing it within the larger context of Winnerian politics of technology. Taken together, Szerszynski's model of the "elementals" and Ellul's theory of technique illuminate precisely what I believe is the "market libertarian pathology."

That pathology was put in sharp relief by spider88 in 2003, when she identified what I've been calling a strange species of naturalistic fallacy that has been percolating within popular culture. Her concern was with the _celebration_ of selfishness revolving around theses on evolutionary psychology by Robert Wright and Richard Dawkins. The latter, even after he had been careful to make the distinction between what our evolutionary heritage disposes us to do, and what we are _morally obligated to do_ very clear. This enthusiastic reception to narratives about our genetic commitments to "selfish genes" had apparently become an ordinary spectacle within evolutionary psychology. Her concerns inspired an interesting conversation back in 2005, where I described those individuals celebrating the intrinsic selfishness, genetically institutionalized within us by natural selection, as misunderstanding that they cannot rationally proceed from what _is_ directly to what _ought to be_. That they "fallaciously suppose that natural selection is a moral authority." Spider anticipates this naturalistic fallacy herself, with her attention to the distinction between "is" and "ought."

This distinction pertains to the essential structure of morality. If we make the inquiry of what the formal qualities of morality are, we can begin to set limits to the model by determining what is minimally required for an activity to even possess _intelligible moral content_. For example, because any normative analysis automatically entails that the subjects involved can _experience_ the circumstance of their interaction, we can say that a moral calculus requires a subjective entity on both ends. Subjective in the sense of a "being" with introspective or mental subjectivity. In other words, first order representational consciousness. An entity that can have a disposition about what is external to it. I find Thomas Nagel's "What is it Like To Be a Bat" to be a useful point of reference for this description. Without respect to Nagels rejection of physicalism, his essential point about subjectivity is that there is "something it is like" to be a bat.

As an inquiry, neurophilosophy, and the other various permutations of the philosophy of mind, need to be central to any appraisal of moral status, because of the necessity of experiential qualia in both the moral patient and the agent. I'd go as far as to say that when we discuss moral activity, we are preformatively describing _neurologies_ as the central object. That, when properly understood, this is what patients and agents really are!

A second essential feature is that morality is relational and intersubjective. One of these two subjects will be the actor in the moral calculus and the other will be the receiver. It's the capacity in which the activity expressed by one modifies the condition of the other that we are fundamentally taking as our subject when we describe moral activity.

Next, the moral actor involved, beyond merely possessing subjectivity, must be able to intellectually reflect upon the content of it's actions. It must be able to anticipate consequences and modify it's behavior consistently with an _objective_ of securing certain consequences. (Note that this would not necessarily be required of the receiver.) This is expressive of the distinction drawn in moral philosophy between moral agents (who intellectually understand moral content) and moral patients (who possess intrinsic moral worth without understanding). On an aside, only one thing gets my blood up faster than deliberate obfuscation of the distinction between these two types of moral relevance.

The important point about this provision is that moral activity is _instrumental_. It entails _design_. This is why we distinguish the sort of culpability associated with deliberative action from that associated with unconscious action and accidental consequences. We can say it's immoral for Bob to kill the lamb when he can foresee the inevitability of suffering and deprivation his actions _intend_. We might not be able to say the same thing about a lion killing a lamb, because the lion would not be able to meaningfully reflect upon the consequences of his actions. And as stated, we obviously cant declare an earthquake to be a moral actor, because it's a non-intelligent emergent phenomenon. While it certainly diminishes the quality of life of many moral patients, it does not do so as a part of any objective. There is no instrumentality here to attach moral content to.

Finally, (at a minimum) any appraisal of moral content takes a certain kind of intersubjective activity as it's object. Relationally, Dick may be standing precisely ten meters from Jane, and closing in at a rate of half a meter per second. These criteria are precisely quantifiable but _morally irrellevant_. It makes no more sense to ask if Dick's speed and direction are moral than it does to ask if the color of the sky is moral. The types of activity that moral reasoning takes as it's object are those that act as vehicles for pains/deprivations or pleasures/enlargements. Note too, that these things only make contextual sense applied to subjective beings that can intelligibly _experience_ them.

So, we have some useful (and uncontroversial) criteria to articulate what we mean by moral activity now. Moral activity is intersubjective. It's instrumental. Because it's intersubjective, it requires it's operators to be subjective. Because it's instrumental, it requires it's actor-operator to be an agent. It's principal currency is pains and pleasures, or more broadly diminishment or amelioration of the quality of life (the experiential qualia.)

What should be clear is that the distinction of a naturalistic fallacy that _makes it untennable_ is the same content that distinguishes natural/emergent systems from design. Design has moral content precisely because it is instrumental. But natural selection and the evolutionary process are something else entirely. Consider...

The life sciences use teleological nomenclatures with expressions like "design" and "strategy." The formal qualities of a tree or an insect are commonly talked about in terms of the evolutionary "design" of natural selection or their "strategy" for reproductive success. Rationally though, we realize that the tree was not _designed_ in the context that the word is conventionally used. And natural scientists use it, context dependently, in a way that acknowledges that there was no oversight to engineer it's mechanical properties. No intelligent reflexive mechanism was present to correct for any failures in a prototype. It does not service the objectives or artistic aspirations of any intelligent _agency_. It's merely the consequence of a non-intelligent selection process. Certain sequences of amino acids have historically been more successful at propagating themselves than other competing sequences. Any number of such random arrangements can occur. Some might manifest as more effective energy conversion or reproductive mechnaisms. Naturally, those arrangements propel themselves into succeeding generations, but this phenomenon is clearly distinguishable from a design process, with an agent selecting formal qualities to suit his purposes.

The tree is not anyone's artifice. And that limit's the ways we can even think about it to purely positive or descriptive terms. We can make positive statements of it's formal qualities; The color of it's foliage, it's dimensions, or we can make teleological statements about it's evolutionary origins. To go any further than that, to appraise the tree normatively, by asking if some feature of it were _moral_, would be to commit a very serious but subtle rational failure. _Normative_ questions or statements like these don't even make any rational sense when they pertain to emergent phenomena. It makes no sense to ask if a tree _ought_ to be a certain height (in a moral sense) because there is no subjective entity (no designer) to whom we can attribute moral or immoral intent. The tree simply _is_ that height irrespective of the way it's qualities impinge on moral patients.

This is the error of the naturalistic fallacy. It attempts to locate moral activity where the criteria for _any kind of moral content_ are just absent.
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