Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Bad

I attributed the initial Moral Philosophy post to Jimmy Akin. It is on his blog, but it's by a guest blogger SDG. So here's Part Two:

Materialism and the moral argument – Part 2: "

SDG here (not Jimmy) with more on materialism and the moral argument (continued from Part 1).

Suppose you see me bullying a weaker party, and you confront me, saying: 'Stop that, you louse!'

'Louse?' I reply. 'Louse? A small, wingless insect of the order Anoplura? I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, friend. No no, I'm familiar with the slang usage, of course, but you're quite mistaken, I assure you. I don't feel lousy at all! Never better. You may be thinking of the sorry specimen here at the receiving end of my bullying, who has surely had better days.'

And, indeed, if by 'like a louse' you were only describing how you would feel if you bullied the weak, then your calling me a louse would seem to be a case of sheer projection, as much as my saying 'Stop making yourself nauseous, you fool!' when in fact you love haggis (or whatever).

On the other hand, if at this point you continue to maintain that, whatever my emotional state, there is some meaningful sense in which I am a louse, or that in some sense my lousiness is not contingent upon my own feelings or yours, then we will have to seek further for what exactly it is that we mean by 'lousiness' beyond one or another person's bio-electrical-chemical responses.

You might make a stab at reasoning with me: 'But look here,' you say, 'of course you wouldn't want to be bullied yourself, would you? Why should you treat someone else in a way that you yourself wouldn't want to be treated?'

But I reply, 'Why, obviously, being bullied makes me feel bad, but bullying others makes me feel good. You aren't making any sense at all. Surely you aren't suggesting some sort of quantifiable correlation between bullying or not bullying others and a higher or lower incidence of being bullied or not bullied oneself? I know people say things like 'What goes around comes around,' but don't let's kid ourselves. What correlates with being bullied is weakness; what correlates with not being bullied is strength. I, fortunate that I am, happen to rank in the upper percentiles of the strong — not strong enough to escape all bullying, perhaps, but strong enough to be the bully more often than not. So. There you have it.'

If I were in a tolerant mood, I might even be willing, for the sake of discussion, to allow that if it were possible somehow to make a deal with the universe such that abstention from bullying would entitle one to exemption from being bullied, under those terms I might possibly (reluctantly) be willing to forgo the pleasures of bullying others in order to secure for myself a lifetime of freedom from being bullied. No such terms being possible, though, that would seem to be the end of that discussion.

Where can we go from here?

I should perhaps point out that nothing I have thus far said tends toward some sort of live-and-let-live moral relativism in which bullies should be allowed to bully and we should not stop them, because different strokes for different folks. Different strokes for different folks perhaps, but that would seem to include the preferences of those who like to stop bullies as well as those who like to bully.

So far, for all I can tell, it would seem that all impulses and desires are in principle equally actionable, in proportion to their strength and in inverse relationship to any counter-impulses or countervailing considerations; and so if we like stopping bullies, bully for us.

We are even, it seems to me, free to hate and despise bullies if we wish (or to forgive them, whichever floats our boat). Let's not have any nonsense about loving the sinner and hating the sin (I mean, unless that's your thing). We can even choose to label them (or their actions) 'evil' from our point of view, just as I may call haggis 'disgusting' because that's how I feel about it, irrespective of how you feel.

Having said that, it seems to me helpful to have a vocabulary to describe areas such as long division and history and quantum physics in which different people's answers can be weighed against one another and some found wanting in relation to others, not according to the personal preferences of the judges, but by some more meaningful standard that applies to everyone and everything being judged.

'True or false' might be a start, helpfully supplemented by subtler terms like 'more nearly true' and 'more clearly false,' 'better or worse,' 'more accurate,' or 'more adequate,' or less, etc. Thus, your quotient is right; hers is wrong; how any of us happens to feel about it is irrelevant. Some estimates of the death toll of the Holocaust are better than others, and some are wholly inadequate and even reprehensible. The advocates of various proposals may (or may not) be equally sincere, but the question is not about that.

I hasten to add that dealing with facts doesn't mean that we can necessarily say with certitude, or even at all, what all the facts are, or that there is no room for honest disagreement and different points of view. What exactly happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Is string theory 'not even wrong,' as Peter Woit has argued? Those may be questions we aren't prepared to answer definitively here and now. The point is, whatever the answers are, they don't hinge on your feelings or mine.

Back to lousiness. Is there anything to be said for 'Stop that, you louse!' as anything other than a sheer projection of one person's bio-electrical-chemical aversion-responses on another?

You might take a stab at it by appealing to something like the good of the social order. What's wrong with bullying, you may say, is not that it offends your feelings, but that it harms another person and thus the greater good. That is why society labels me a louse if I bully, not just because of the feelings of any one person.

Now, as a matter of fact the defense of bullying semi-facetiously advanced above isn't especially the kind of thing that an actual bully in a real-world situation would be likely to say, at least as phrased. Here, however, is something that is very much the sort of thing that bullies, when confronted, often say in their own defense:

'We were only playing.'

Bracket for a moment the level of transparent dishonesty of this defense, all but confessed in the very sheepishness or glibness of the tone. Even the bully doesn't really believe he will get away with suggesting that we are all friends here enjoying ourselves in a mutually agreeable and pleasant fashion.

Put that aside just a moment, and consider whether there isn't actually at least a partial but significant level of truth in the bully's defense.

Let me preface these comments with a borrowed line from The Problem of Pain: Let no one say of me 'He jests at scars who never felt a wound.' I am the last person in the world to make light of bullying. In childhood I was not only consistently the bullied rather than the bully, I was at the very bottom of the bullying hierarchy, the bullied of the bullied, and for years the oppression I faced was regular and merciless. The morning walk to school in those years was for me full of dread over the coming confrontations, praying, praying to be spared that day.

For all that, I was never badly hurt, and seldom hurt at all. I know some victims of bullying are, but I think my experience is far more typical. The bullies were out to aggrandize their own egos at my expense, but not to do me any real harm. There was real malice in it, but the goal was to enjoy my fear and their sense of power. The claim that they were 'only playing,' while odious, is actually more nearly true than it might initially seem.

What's more, as intense as my fear was, I can't see that it has inflicted any lasting harm on any measurable level. Having been bullied seems not to have affected my long-term prospects for happiness and success.

For some years in school, I may have been among the least happy in my class; today, well, I just might be the happiest person I know. I'm well-educated, I have a good job and rewarding occupations, I'm blissfully married to a domestic and maternal goddess, and — perhaps most importantly from a materialist–naturalist perspective — we have five beautiful and intelligent children who have excellent prospects of success in life as productive members of society.

By nearly any Darwinian measure, I think it's safe to say I've been rather successful. My experience of bullying was intensely unpleasant while it lasted, but I can't see that society's interests or even my long-term good were ever particularly at stake.

That's not to say I don't think bullying a great evil. I do. I just don't think it's rooted in whatever measurable phenomena, if any, may be adduced under any such rubric as 'the greater good of society.' I think the evil of bullying is rooted in the dignity of the human person, which as I conceive it is bound up in a whole trans-materialistic understanding of human nature and the meaning of life and so on.

That is to say, I regard the dignity of the human person as the sort of subject that transcends individual feelings or preferences, much like long division and the exact circumstances of Jimmy Hoffa's death. Different people may have different interpretations of the evidence; some understandings will be closer to the truth, and some are further, even if no human authority can definitively settle which answers are the closest. But we are talking about something real, not about personal feelings yours or mine.

Continued in Part 3



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