What we owe to each other
I think about ethics quite a lot, whether for my projects or my life decisions. And yet, I’m not super into philosophy of ethics. I think it’s because I’ve come to the conclusion that any ethical framework is necessarly too reductive.
If you hurt (say rape) a person in their sleep and they don’t notice, it’s still pretty horrible, so ethics cannot be completely grounded in consequentialism.
However, if you’re on drugs or whatever and hurt a person while thinking you’re doing them good, it’s still a bad thing, so ethics cannot be asserted purely subjectively like deontology, it cannot be divorced from consequentialism either.
Utilitarianism is often criticized for being an oversimplification, but that’s probably true for all blanket system. Reflections in ethics should probably be on a case by case basis. In a world as complicated as ours, it is a hellish and complicated task, as The Good Place illustrated perfectly. But as oponents of the trolley problem often point out, real ethics problem have a lot more data and implications than artificial idealized thought experiments, and it can make them clearer.
This points to a postmodern nihilist approach of ethics. Without easy golden rules to live by, every case must be decided on its own terms. How might we best organize the world to that end? Probably by listening to everyone…
Madoka’s eternal return
There’s definitely something about Madoka that keeps on fueling my reflections. I expected pretty much nothing out of the conclusion of Magia Records, and yet I was given a pretty great monologue by my boy Kyuubey who remarks that all ethical frameworks are tied to the culture of a moment in time.
The “good” embodied by Magical Girls is circumstancial and changing.
Therefore, in the absence of absolute moral ground, his extreme liberal framework (let the people realise their wishes) is, if not as good as any arbitrary other framework.
Stronger still, it might be the best possible one.
Sometimes I feel like what I’m overthinking stupid cartoons, but it’s pretty hard to not read the above as a description of neoliberal capitalism. After the Death of God and the failed attempts of the XXth century to replace him with a human-made alternative (an absolute moral ground), this is the exact predicament the postmodern world is in.
Time and Relative Dimension in Ethics
Any “absolute good” is extremely arbitrary and unjustifiable, so how can anyone advocate rationally its application to all of society?
This is possibly the most crucial question nowadays, it is at the heart of the post-truth claims that lead to the current political climate. If nobody has the absolute right answer, why should anyone’s answer be less valid than anyone else’s? Our individualistic system culminated in the extreme “every voice is equal, we’ve had enough of experts“, and well you can see the results.
But while this is obviously utterly undisputably false for descriptive statements, I cannot argue this in good faith about prescriptive statements. There is no ground truth for “what should we care about?”. One of the biggest problems of our times is the conflation of descriptive and prescriptive statements in the current discourse.
One is “easily” solved by reason, but for the other, it’s hard to even imagine what a “solution” could be.
A few things, only here, only now
There is no such thing as objective ground when it comes to ethics. When you accept that morality is relative, isn’t the best we can get to is to listen to everyone’s perspectives and try to find compromises? To let people debate and convince each others? Doesn’t that mean that the Marketplace of Ideas (TM) should be the best possible system? Wouldn’t that mean that we are living in the best possible world?
It is the thesis hinted by the critically overrated movie Everything Everywhere All at Once. I consider it to be the most dangerous propaganda movie of all time, so I couldn’t resist dropping a few lines about it here before moving on.
The movie explores every conceivable world (while focusing only on a single family cause idk) and ends on the conclusion that the american-hollywood way of life, with its consumerist nihilism, its individualism and self acceptation, is the best possible reality, all (litteraly all) things considered.
I was outraged when seeing this film because I thought it was a stupid movie with an obviously wrong reductive point of view, but maybe its Panglossian conclusion is actually a statement and can be rationally defended. Shouldn’t we be in the best possible world, with liberal economy and participatory politics being two distinct decentralized democratic organization mechanisms keeping each other in check?
If you take a blank piece of paper and try to design a better system to aggregate everyone’s point of views, wouldn’t you come up with something similar? Is this… as good as it gets?
But Kyuubey is supposed to be the villain??!?
Yet, most people (myself not included) would tend to consider Kyuubey the villain of the series and therefore implicitely reject the system they de facto embrace in their daily lives. But as fond as I am of Kyuubey, I can’t help but think that there is a problem with the liberalisation of ethics.
I for one do not believe we live in the best possible world, but how can I possibly rationalize this claim? I’ve tried to put my finger on exactly what is bothering me. What’s the problem with the Marketplace of Ideas?
My main suspect is imperfect data transmission. There are many layers of distortion and indirections that the markets have to deal with, at the very least:
what people need
> what they want
>> what they think they want
>>> what sellers/advertisers think they think they want
>>>> what’s actually produced
All these indirections are vulnerabilities for a maximizer to exploit. Which puts us in quite a pickle, because the best solution to avoid vulnerabilities is decentralization in the first place. It seems that even under the best circumstances, keeping the system aligned and avoiding pitfalls require constant attention and active effort.
But what if people are not willing to do this effort? On what meta-ethical ground can you defend the claim that one must strive to keep the world ethical if it’s hard? Especially if you don’t even have a guiding metric to keep it aligned to? Once again, it seems to me that the only way to avoid a bottomless recursive nihilism is a leap of faith =/.
Meanwhile on Earth B
In the spirit of Free Speech, newly arrived on twitter, let us talk about absurdist fiction. Let us imagine a fictional universe where people democratically decide to elect fascist leaders, to perpetuate massive environmental destruction and the genocides it entails, to consolidate all riches inside fewer and fewer hands, to scapegoat some minorities instead of actually trying to rationally solve any problem.
It appears that voters are somewhere in a healthy middle between “every voter tries selflessly to do what’s best for mankind” and the libertarian “everyone should be completely selfish and things will work out for the best because reasons“. I’m sure some patronizing advocates of democracy would say that “people would vote the best thing if only they weren’t so misinformed”, that they did not think through all the consequences of their claims. That may well be. But epistemic humility would force us to take seriously the possibility that this might not be the case, though, and that voters actually want what they say they do.
But more importantly, regardless of whether they are mislead or not, how can anyone say they are objectively wrong if they want to drive their civilization into the ground? If everyone wants to self destruct, what objective counter argument can a lone voter oppose to advocate for arbitrary things such as survival?
There is no objective reason why “not letting people suffer and die” should be better than “not doing any effort“. The flipside is that there is no objective reason for the opposite either. At the very least, it works both ways. If there’s no absolute morality, nobody can argue that Kyuubey’s liberal system is actually better.
Objective good is impossible. That means that our current system is not objectively the best. The cold rational facade of “the best way to organize production” cannot be but a lie. We should not be afraid to question its fundations.
I don’t think we can hope for Kyuubey’s system to just “do the right thing”. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We need to chose and advocate which way forward we want. I, for one, would prefer it not to be Kyubey’s. But I’m definitely not willing to impose my single opinion on the majority.