Wednesday, December 30, 2009

the trolley problem

I'm done this before with Michael Slote and self-other asymmetry, and Donald Davidson (click through again at the first link), but the trolley problem is the prime example.

Still rewriting:
Common sense morality is morality among equals.
Military logic combines consequentialism and an ethic of piety. The issues raised by the trolley problem are part of the justification for military command structure. The military may not pretend to have an absolute moral answer -and when they do they're a danger to our form of government- but for their purposes the answer is a given and they have to deal with the consequences. Officers and enlisted therefore are kept apart, fraternization is considered inappropriate. The men who make the decisions regarding who lives and dies are not allowed to become friends with the men who are the first to die, any more than they are allowed to call themselves their equals. You can't mix equality with such responsibility over others. These are the sort of formal kinship relations anthropologists have studied for generations and they have a purpose.

The inability of academics and liberal technocratic intellectuals to understand subjectivity as a constant in behavior, including their own, connects to all sorts of things. Democratic politicians do not "command" respect but they ooze superiority while claiming friendship. And the people who hate condescending liberals are often so offended by the condescension that they ignore the logic of the argument.

Consequentialism may be strictly logical but dictatorship is not, even the dictatorship of technocrats. And as I've pointed out again and again, the liberal defenders of consequentialism and of other forms of academic truth-seeking more and more are dismissive of democracy, and of community as constitutive of anything. Community thus is defined as a group of individuals who choose to have some things in common. In fact the reverse is true: people are almost entirely tokens and types who respond differently based on individual experience.

The only non-contradictory form of human organization is a functionalism seen otherwise in the culture of termites and ants. Liberal self-supporting academicism, consequentialism, Quine's naturalized epistemology et al., lead down the road to the elimination of the individual as such, in favor of low common denominators. Yet all are founded in individualism. And no one, meaning no one who claims to be interested in the trolley problem, has noticed its connections to the military and to formalized kinship relations, because no one has been willing to leave the world of truths and absolutes and accept and acknowledge the political world of socialization, cohabitation and subjectivity that they actually live in and work within so unreflectively.

There is no right answer to the trolley problem, there is only the ongoing process of choosing what we value. If any of these idiots had been less ideological (and more observant) there would be no discussion of the trolley problem as such. As it is it's central.

The cognitive revolution was founded on the pretense of the intellectually and perceptually stable subject. A knee-jerk response to the fears engendered by behaviorism and communism as well: cold war culture. If not for that everything above would be pretty basic stuff.

This all ties into a discussion of Shakespeare on another page.

If the right-wing base prefers community to "objectivity" the same is true of the community of the academy and of followers of naturalized epistemology. Community, collectivity and language, always take precedence. That most born-again Christians will get in their cars and drive safely to the doctor to get a flue shot and most climate scientists will agree on the data confirming anthropogenic global warming says nothing about what's most important to either.


  1. Been thinking about what you've said here about self-other asymmetry on and off recently. I like how it's a very simple observation yet powerful -- especially for its size.

    Want to share one of the thoughts I had (and feel no need to post this publicly) as I've been mulling over what you said here.

    An ex of mine used to make positively sure they did more than 50% of the household chores. That irked me.

    So -- correct me if I'm wrong -- it seems to me that the reasonable part of Kant's universal law theory is the symmetry part, and the universalism is the unreasonable part.

    But you're pointing out that actually one is supposed to require more of oneself than one requires of others. Which is obviously true.

    I've long thought that that's an outcome of a presumption of selfish myopia. Knowing that I will not perceive the clean-ups my flatmate does, as much as I will perceive my own clean-ups, I (and s/he) need to do >50% of the house work. We may each be doing only 48% but it will feel like each of us is doing 60%, and yet we need to discount that and assume each of us will always overestimate our own workload.

    (Maybe this trivial observation doesn't cover the more serious ethical issues you sometimes write about. Eg, war.)

    So ... do you think that makes sense? Am I understanding your point and the others' right? Do you think I'm right in noticing an interplay between a few different symmetries and asymmetries?

  2. Virtue ethics are founded explicitly on priors. Science in theory is not. But scientific observation, discounting the importance of priors,"reinforces" (in the language of behaviorism) non-virtuous behavior. As I say again and again: measuring to the mean puts downward pressure on the mean.

    And in this culture of non-virtue only the lawgivers are left to see themselves as moral actors and the laws the result of their enlightened reason. The result is authoritarianism

    But you yourself are turning social relations into contract law, and that's another problem. A community of monads is no more founded in "truth' than any other. Culture is culture, but the fact of culture is ignored.

    That will get you here:


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