Troubles for Tolerance

A little while ago I wrote a post about problems for the idea that it would be good if everyone were equal. That is an easy target for me, because I don’t think that it would be good if everyone were equal, in part because of those problems. Today, then, I want to look at something that’s a bit harder for me. I think that tolerance is a good idea, and I would like to see more of it. There are, however, some problems for the concept.

Let’s start with a rough characterisation of tolerance. A tolerant person allows people to live according to ethical and aspirational systems with which he does not agree. It is a central aspect of tolerance that you allow people to actually put the ethical and aspirational systems into practice; it is not tolerant to pretend to allow them to do something, but to take everything away afterwards, or undo all their work. Someone who removes graffiti as soon as it goes up is not tolerating graffiti.

Now, there is an obvious problem for tolerance, and one that everyone grapples with. This is the person who wants to go around killing people. You can’t tolerate that behaviour, the argument goes, because it infringes on the rights of others. I agree. Tolerance should not extend to tolerance of murder, and the problem of where to draw the line is a difficult one. Here, I want to suggest that it is even more difficult than most people are inclined to think.

It is common for tolerant people to believe that the line over what you should tolerate should be drawn in general terms. It should not deal with the specific details of any actions, such as whether they happen on a Sunday. Rather, it should deal with broad ideas, such as “any action that does not harm anyone who is not a voluntary participant in the action”. This is harder than you might think, but I want to suggest that it may be a complete non-starter. I will consider a couple of very minimally tolerant standards, and argue that accepting either has difficult consequences.
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The Confessions of St Augustine

The Confessions of St Augustine is, of course, one of the great classics of western literature. It’s also one of the earlier classics of African literature, although it doesn’t seem to get put into that category very often; Augustine was born in North Africa, spent his youth there, effectively went to university in Italy, and then returned home. Of course, one could legitimately argue that if you are trying to broaden the literary canon, Augustine doesn’t count. It’s not like he hasn’t been in the canon for about 1600 years.

Having now read the book, I can see why it seized and held on to such a place. It is really very good. Apparently his Latin style is also excellent, but as I read it in translation (I’m such a lazy person), I can’t comment on that. The content, however, is very interesting. Some of the scenes are very famous, such as the “take and read” scene in the garden, or Augustine’s prayer: “Lord, grant me chastity… but not yet”.

It’s clear from Augustine’s account that he was a Christian, and a religious one, from birth. Even when he was a Manichee, he thought that he was a Christian, and arguably he was right, no matter how much he came to disagree later. However, he did a lot of anguished soul-searching, before finally deciding on celibacy and a particular version of Christian doctrine. It is tempting to label that version “orthodox Catholicism”, but a large part of the reason that position is orthodox is because Augustine held it. Within limits, there’s a pretty good chance that any position Augustine had taken would have ended up orthodox.

While the earlier sections of the book are largely autobiographical, there are philosophical and theological elements throughout, and the final sections are dominated by such discussions.

One notable feature is that Augustine was wrong on most of the important factual points he made. In his discussion of time, for example, he argues that only the present exists; that the past and the future do not. That position seems now to be untenable. Special and General Relativity mean that “the present” is not uniquely defined, so both the past and future must exist if the present does, because the present for some observers is part of the past and future for others. In his discussion of Biblical exegesis, he argues that Moses wrote so that everyone could understand, and interpret him in all the ways possible, consistently with truth. We now know, of course, that the opening of Genesis is, at the very least, highly misleading. It misled everyone who read it before the mid-nineteenth century, and continues to mislead a significant number of people now. It is possible to interpret it metaphorically so that it isn’t inconsistent with the known facts, but, basically, in any other context there would be no question about saying that it is simply false.

And that raises possibly the most important problem with his position. Augustine never questioned the authority of the Bible, in part because he believed that it was believed throughout the world. He appears to have been completely ignorant of the states of affairs in India, China, and sub-Saharan Africa. That may be forgivable, as the late Roman Empire had few contacts with those places, but there is a more serious point.

In Book Six (6.5.7), he says “Thus you [God] persuaded me … that I should not listen to any who said to me, “How do you know that these books were given to mankind by the Spirit of the one true and truthful God?” That fact was to be believed above all[.]” I have no problem forgiving his ignorance of relativity and evolutionary theory; Augustine was brilliant, but it’s asking a bit much to expect him to manage several centuries of science all by himself. I’ll even forgive his ignorance of the state of most of the world he lived in, because communications were difficult. However, his response to this question is unforgivable. Once that problem has occurred to you, it is deeply intellectually dishonest not to try to come up with an answer, and “I’m not listening! Not listening! La-la-la-la” is not an answer.

I find it very difficult to believe that someone of Augustine’s intellectual acumen and personality was not profoundly bothered by this issue. I know it used to bother me, back when I was a Christian, and I ceased to be a Christian when I decided that there was no good answer to that question. Some people are not inclined to worry about such things, but Augustine was the sort of person who writes a whole chapter on the nature of time, and the problems of trying to pin down what it could possibly be. He has discussions of epistemology in some of his other works.

In short, if he was preaching as he did while as unsure about the Bible as he should have been, he was intellectually dishonest. If he did not harbour the doubts, despite confronting the questions head on and having no answers to give (because I am fairly sure that he would have given them had he had them), he was culpably negligent, and probably lying to himself. It is somewhat disappointing to find that even Augustine falls in this way.

The Analects

I finally got around to reading the Analects of Confucius, in Arthur Waley’s translation. The introduction claims that this is actually a good, fairly literal, translation, which would make it different from his translation of, say, the Tale of Genji, which gets called a paraphrase. I imagine that’s an exaggeration born of scholarly outrage, but it has been clearly superceded by more recent translations.

Anyway, back to the Analects. I have to confess that I wasn’t impressed. Part of this is that I think Confucius is completely wrong in his choice of the ideal form of government; he’s a supporter of divine right monarchy. Another large part of it is that the Analects are irredeemably vague on just what makes right conduct. A great deal is made up of exhortations to behave properly, and with Goodness.

Well, obviously.

To illustrate the point, let us take one, fairly fundamental, issue. Confucius appears to believe that it is Good for the descendant of earlier emperors to rule with absolute loyalty from his subjects. I believe that democracy is basically Good. Now, the issue. I believe that Goodness involves compassion. Does Confucius think that? I have, honestly, no idea. He is so different from me on one point that I have no confidence that he will agree with me on other points. What, then, is his ethical position?

Reading books like the Analects is valuable, because it brings home the fact that the difference between good and evil is very far from being obvious. If you took an historical vote, feminism would come out as evil, even if you let women vote. There’s actually a good chance that it would come out evil if you restricted the vote to people alive now; history would definitely tip the balance. I think that the majority of all people who ever lived are wrong about that; are wrong about a fundamental feature of ethics. The existence of “honour killings” makes it clear that people alive now do not agree over “murder is wrong”. (Strictly, “killing, without juridical authority, someone who poses no immediate or even long term threat to your or anyone else’s physical well-being is wrong”. “Murder” comes loaded with wrongness as part of its meaning.) It’s important to note that the existence of murder doesn’t demonstrate this; people do things that they believe are wrong. The people responsible for “honour killings”, however, believe that they are doing the right thing.

If people can disagree on such fundamental points, a text that merely exhorts people to do the right thing, without being very specific about just what that is, is pretty much useless as an ethical text. And that, in the end, is how the Analects struck me.

Truth and the Absence of Fact

I bought this book about four years ago, because it was cheap in Galloway and Porter in Cambridge. It then sat in my pile of “things I will get around to reading” for quite a long time, partly because it got left in England when I came out to Japan. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it. It’s a technical work of academic philosophy, primarily concerned with the philosophy of language. I thought quite a lot of it was very interesting, so this post is also likely to get a bit technical.

Hartry Field, the author, is (or, at least, was in 2001 when this book was published) a proponent of the disquotational theory of truth. This holds that there is nothing more to truth than sentences of the form “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white”. It’s called “disquotational” because all you really do is remove the quotation marks.

One of the odd things is that he, and other proponents of this theory, occasionally talk as if proponents of other theories of truth are committed to sometimes violating the disquotational formula. They can’t really mean this, because it’s obvious that no theory of truth can actually violate the formula; the terms “snow” and “white” means the same both inside and outside the quotes (if they don’t, disquotation is wrong), which means that the equivalence must hold no matter what makes the statements true.

Disquotationalism is also applied to reference, the theory of how words refer to things in the world. The worry raised for other theories is “how do we know that “snow” refers to all the snow, and only to snow?”. However, this is also obviously an empty worry. Snow is the stuff that “snow” refers to, no matter what the theory of reference. If there are cases of small, agglomerated ice crystals falling as precipitation that are not referred to by “snow”, then they are not snow. I’m not quite sure what they would be; some variety of sleet or hail, perhaps.

There are genuine problems quite close to this one, however. The example that Field uses is the pre-relativity use of “mass”. According to relativity theory, there are two quantities, rest mass and relativistic mass, each of which has some of the properties attributed to “mass”, but neither of which has all of them. There is a real problem as to what we should say about mass when we discover this. There are several options. We can say that there is no such thing as mass, and adopt different terms for the relativistic quantities. Or we can say that we had false beliefs about mass, and there are several choices for which beliefs were false. Finally, we can say that our usage of mass was fundamentally ambiguous, with indeterminate reference.

I’m not sure that there is a right answer to these questions. I think we can choose, to a great extent, because language is something that we create. (Of course, we can’t normally choose as individuals; language is socially created, so we have to go along with other speakers of the language if we want to communicate.)

One thing I am sure of, however, is that disquotationalism doesn’t advance the discussion. It is remarkable how much you can do without worrying about the deeper issues, but I still think the deeper issues are real issues, and that philosophers should be trying to solve them.

Foundations of Ethics

There’s an interesting article in this week’s Nature (well, strictly last week’s now, but still the most recent one I have here), on research into the neural basis of disgust, and its links to ethical judgements. (Nature 447 (2007), 768-771) It would seem that, when people judge things to be ethically disgusting, they are using the same parts of the brain, and in much the same way, as when they judge faeces to be disgusting. There’s also a lot of interesting work on the human tendency to punish undesirable behaviour, and on the origins of compassion and cooperation, although that doesn’t appear in this week’s issue. It all appears to be perfectly natural.

This is a problem for ethics, because instincts hardwired into us by evolution in order to promote the spread of our genes in future generations are not generally considered to be the right sorts of things on which to found a system of ethics. Ethics should be grounded on universal truths, not a set of feelings cobbled together by the essentially random process of evolution because they were helpful when it came to surviving on the prehistoric African steppes.
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Problems for Egalitarianism

Today, I read an article in an ethics journal (called Ethics, simply enough) that defended egalitarianism. This is the view that it is, in general, a good thing to make a society more equal. It’s quite a popular view; it gets defended a lot. I, however, find it very unpleasant; its defenses almost always feel malicious. Specifically, they seem to be based on a dislike for the rich.

So, here are some problems for egalitarianism.

Throwing Acid At Supermodels

Supermodels are more attractive than the average person, by a substantial margin, and beauty is generally regarded as a good thing, even if only skin deep. Therefore, throwing acid at supermodels, which would reduce their beauty due to the scarring, is, in certain respects, good, if you are an egalitarian. I find this conclusion utterly implausible.

Of course, the pain caused by the acid is an extraneous factor. However, I do not find the idea that supermodels should be subjected to compulsory cosmetic surgery to reduce their beauty any more attractive, no matter how much this reduces inequality. This situation seems to be an almost exact parallel to subjecting the rich to compulsory taxes, in order to reduce their wealth.

Wrecking Marriages

One might object that disfiguring the supermodels should be ruled out because it doesn’t make anyone more beautiful. Indeed, most sophisticated egalitarians do adopt rules on which a change that benefits no-one is not good. (This is not universal; there do seem to be some egalitarians who are committed to compulsory cosmetic surgery for supermodels.)

So, consider another case. Ann and Andrew are a very happily married couple. Brenda is miserable because she is in love with Ann, and Bill is miserable because he is in love with Andrew. If Ann and Andrew were separated, and forced to pair up with Brenda and Bill, respectively, then Brenda and Bill would be less miserable, and Ann and Andrew would also be miserable, so there would be much less inequality in the world.

As you might imagine, I do not find the egalitarian intuition to be even remotely plausible in this case. I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.

Protecting Children from Good Parents

A common egalitarian claim is that it is unjust for children to have benefits just because their parents are rich. So, it should also be unjust for them to have benefits just because their parents are good parents, engaging with their children, being loving and supporting, and assisting them through their education. Indeed, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that this has a significantly larger effect on both the happiness and prospects for prosperity of the children than wealth does.

Therefore, a just state should not only take children away from excessively bad parents, it should also take them away from excessively good ones. A kind state would monitor parents and warn them when they were getting close to the line, and should neglect their children a bit or lose them, just as it would warn failing parents.

Now, I find this suggestion positively morally repellent, and I suspect most egalitarians would agree. So they owe us an account of which benefits it is unjust for parents to confer on their children, and which are allowable, and why the large inequalities that result are not something that should be remedied by an egalitarian.

Money is not Everything

I am not aware of any egalitarians who actually claim that the important thing is to equalise money. Instead, they talk about happiness, or opportunity. However, the intuitions and recommended policies all seem to be based on money.

For example, work on the causes of happiness suggest that it is largely independent of income, once income exceeds a certain threshold. The threshold varies by society, but being in a society with a higher threshold doesn’t make you happier, even if you meet the threshold. This means that there are almost certainly some poor people who are happier than some rich people. If you take money away from the poor people, enough to drop them beneath the threshold, you will make them less happy. Giving that money to the rich people will not make them any happier. Thus, taxing the poor (provided you get the right poor) and giving the money to the rich will reduce the inequality in society.

This is not what egalitarians generally seem to have in mind. It arguably should be, however.

So, We Let Them Starve?

Obviously, I don’t think that we should let people starve. Actually, I think that imposing fairly high taxes on the rich and distributing the money to the poor is almost certainly morally justifiable. This is because it is important to deal with the serious poverty in the world, and the resources to do so have to come from somewhere. The poverty is too urgent a problem to wait for economic growth to remove it, so redistribution is the only option. While the total wealth of the world is not fixed in the long term, it is over the timescale of this problem.

But this has nothing to do with equality. Actually, I strongly suspect that inequality is good, because it allows some people the leisure to develop goods that will substantially improve the lot of very many people. Medicine exists because small numbers of people were maintained in a much more comfortable situation than most of the population at that time. However, this is a different issue, and one I’m not yet completely confident about.

A final note for people who know the literature on this topic. I have a suspicion that a reasonable interpretation of Rawls’s theory of justice might well have all the consequences I think are right. It is a consequence of this that I suspect that it doesn’t have any of the consequences it is customarily taken to have.

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

Yesterday, I finished reading David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. It was, naturally, interesting. Although I read his Treatise of Human Nature years ago, and taught the causation and induction sections for something like ten years at Cambridge, I’d not previously read the whole of the first Enquiry.

One of the most notorious sections is chaper 10: Of Miracles. In this chapter, Hume argues that there can never be any reason to believe that a miracle happened. The basic argument is simple: it is always more likely that the sources are mistaken or lying than that a miracle occurred, so the reasonable conclusion is always that there was no miracle.

Hume’s reason for that belief seems to be that we have lots of empirical evidence that the laws of nature are never broken, so that testimony, which we know is sometimes false, can never be enough to convince us otherwise. It is interesting that he assumes that one will never personally witness a miracle.

This could be read as saying that it is irrational to believe something that you haven’t seen for yourself. That’s not what he means, however. He’s perfectly happy for people to believe testimony of the sorts of things that they have themselves seen; if someone tells me that they saw a flock of starlings flying through the air over Cambridge, I should generally believe them. When I lived there, I saw similar things many times. The problem comes with things that are very different from anything you have experienced.

Actually, I think there is a deeper problem. When Matthew’s Gospel says (27: 52-53) that, after the resurrection of Jesus, many formerly dead and buried saints went into Jerusalem and were seen by many, we can safely conclude that this never happened. Matthew was either lied to or lying. Somebody else would have mentioned it; at the very least, this mass resurrection would have got a mention in the other Gospels. More likely, it would have been reported, at least as a rumour, by the numerous Roman historians writing at the people. Large numbers of dead people getting up and walking around is not a common occurrence, after all.

However, consider the cases of resurrection that were reported to medieval shrines. These were reported within a few weeks of the event, by people who were there, with witnesses. A typical pattern is as follows: A child falls into a river, and, being unable to swim, sinks. After some time the child is pulled out of the river, but he is not breathing and has no apparent heartbeat. Efforts are made to revive him, but they fail, and he is pronounced dead. The child’s mother, deeply distraught, petitions the saints to save him. (Sometimes, she petitions several saints, but nothing happens at first.) Suddenly, the child coughs, sits up, and is well. The miracle is attributed to the saint who was being invoked at the relevant moment.

Now, I think it is much less reasonable to reject this account out of hand. This sort of thing happens today, particularly, in fact, with children who have fallen into water. As I understand the cases, even modern equipment cannot immediately find signs of life, but after warming up a bit, the child revives, apparently none the worse for wear. It’s rare, but it happens.

However, even if we accept the event, that does not mean that we accept that it was a miracle. A miracle is the direct intervention of God, suspending the laws of nature. It is true that, as far as I know, doctors do not currently understand exactly what is happening in these cases, but that is not enough to assume a miracle. There are lots and lots of perfectly common, everyday, events that science does not yet fully understand, including my ability to type. That doesn’t make that a miracle, so why should lack of understanding make these apparent resurrections into miracles?

And that, I think, is the deeper problem here. No matter what you see, that can only give you a reason to believe that you have seen something you do not understand. It cannot give you a reason to believe that you have seen something that breaks the laws of nature. One event is simply never enough to do that.

This does not mean that there are no circumstances under which it would be rational to believe in, say, ghosts. If the ghosts of several people appeared frequently to a number of people, appeared when being filmed for television, and appeared even when massive batteries of scientific instruments were set up, then it would be reasonable to believe that there was something there. After further investigation, it could even become reasonable to believe that there was something there that could not be explained by current science. There are, in fact, numerous examples of such things. Radiation is one; when it was first detected, it seemed to be impossible, but it kept showing up, and so eventually it was brought within the ambit of science.

There may even be things that happen lots of times, but which are not predictable, and so which do not get explained. Ball lightning is an example of this; the scientific consensus appears to be that the events happen, but there is no consensus on what causes them (other than that they are not lightning). The events are just not common or predictable enough to investigate properly. But that still doesn’t show that they are miracles.

The problem here, then, is that the supporters of miracles have not finished their job when they have proved that people rise from the dead. They still need to prove that they rise from the dead because an undetectable, ineffable deity wills them to. And there can never be any evidence for that. In fact, they need to show that the dead rise because the particular undetectable, ineffable deity described in their scriptures wills them to, and I cannot see any way to even begin doing that.

There is even some textual evidence that this is the sort of miracle Hume has in mind; he says that the miracles of different religions cancel out, which is only true if the miracles are supposed to imply the truth of the religion. If they are treated merely as events, there is no reason why all the events could not have happened. Obviously, a lot of people will be wrong about the causes.

And now, before I get distracted into epistemological relativism (because things are different for people who believe in God already, just as reports of radioactivity are different for people who believe in that already), I will leave things there.