Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Empirical Ethics

Imagine you need to navigate your way through an unfamiliar city. A friend of yours knows where you are, where you need to go, and how to get there - so he can give you directions. He basically has two options; either he can say “Left, then right, then right again, then straight, then left…” and so on until he’s directed you, step by step, to your destination. Or he can say “Go left on William Street, stay on there until you get to the lights at Elm Street, then take a right…” These two options for getting from A to B correspond to the two main methods of getting from what you currently know to what you want to know: logic and empiricism.

Empiricism is based on the idea that by studying the things you already know, you can make predictions - and then check that those predictions actually come true in the real world. Empiricism is the platform upon which science is based - make predictions based on prior evidence then experimentally verify them. Like the directions that refer to street names, it is self-correcting and is therefore extremely likely to get you to your destination. If you make a wrong turn, you won’t come across the street you’re supposed to, and you’ll know to backtrack until you find it. If you make a prediction and it doesn’t match experimental results, you know your model is incorrect and must be updated. It’s very hard to stray too far with empiricism, when you do it properly.

Logic, on the other hand, is like the “left, right” directions. It can still get you to your destination, but every step in the process assumes you’ve gotten all of the previous steps right - because if even one of them was wrong you’ll end up in completely the wrong place, no matter how precisely you follow the later steps. Your typical logical statement goes something like “Given X, and given Y, then Z must be true” - but does not (in the context of that particular statement) make any attempt to figure out whether X or Y are actually true. Therefore, a logical statement is only as good as the assumptions it’s based upon.

Now, if you’re giving your friend directions and you don’t know the street names - you’ve made the drive before but you just know “the way” - then your only option is to give the “left, right” directions. Even though you know it’d make their life easier, you just can’t tell them the names of the streets. So too with logic - sometimes you just can’t empirically test your theory, so you have to use logic. Even though it is more vulnerable to mistakes, it is sometimes just your only option…but that means you have to be careful, and make sure you’re doing it properly.

Actually doing this - actually knowing the rules of logic, and accounting for your biases and so on - is much easier said than done (and will be dealt with in my book). But simply knowing this general fact - that you must scrutinise every logical step - can be hugely useful on its own, because certain social blind spots make us miss it.

Take, for example, the protesters who stand out the front of abortion clinics and harass the women heading inside. Pro-choice people get very angry with these protesters, and shame their tactics and so on, but the rhetoric they fire back kind of misses the point.

If, as pro-choice people do, you accept that a zygote is not a sentient being that should be accorded the full rights of a sane adult human, then these tactics seem shameful. Attacking women who are likely to already be emotionally fragile? Denying women the right to control their own bodies? Cramming one’s religious beliefs down someone else’s throats? Fairly intense, to say the least.

If, however, you take the anti-abortion position, and believe that the soul enters the body upon conception and that therefore aborting a fetus is morally equivalent to killing a baby or killing an adult…then really, waving signs and yelling at people is not a particularly extreme response. If it really is a place of mass murder, annoying the murderers is in fact probably too weak a response. I can’t imagine that if the circumstances were different - if someone were walking around the city killing an equivalent number of adults - all people would do is yell “Shame!” at the murderer.

In focusing on the anti-abortion crowd’s tactics, the pro-choice crowd has forgotten something very basic. The reason that it’s wrong to harass these women, or the doctors who perform the abortions, is not because it’s never alright to harass people. It’s wrong simply because it is not actually murder, and therefore the response is inappropriate for this situation.

There is no such thing as an immaterial, immortal soul, the only tenable method of attacking such ethical questions is with Utilitarianism, and an unfeeling cluster of cells does not have equivalent moral worth to the person within which it is located. The anti-abortion crowd have gotten this first step wrong, and have pretty much made logical steps since then (“Given murder, then wrong. Given wrong, then attempt to stop.”). But that one mistake at the beginning has sent them to the other side of town - so this is the terrain upon which our argument must take place.

Now, to be fair, the smarter pro-choice thinkers may be well aware of this. It’s much better for the hearts-and-minds campaign to focus on how these protesters are being horrible to fragile women than to say “These guys are basically just standing up for what they think is right, but are completely mistaken because religion has clouded their minds.” That tends not to play too well in the ‘burbs. So purely as a PR exercise, it’s not a terrible strategy.

But I think a lot of it is that the taboo against criticising religions exists in our own heads, not just on our tongues. Many people, who honourably try to be tolerant of people with different beliefs, go so far as to refrain from criticising those beliefs - not just publicly, but when they are thinking for themselves as well. As though that part of their argument can’t be touched - so we have to focus on the other parts. If we must tiptoe around the issue and be diplomatic in our public rhetoric, so be it, but I think we can safely acknowledge the truth here in low-traffic-blog land.

But this all just further reinforces the point that there are no separate magisteria. You cannot separate factual claims from ethical ones, because any logical system of ethics is only as good as the assumptions it rests upon. If you make one mistake at the start, like the soul entering the body at conception or the free market being able to self-regulate or the idea that water has memory, you will end up with the wrong answer. No two ways about it. We need ethics that are as empirical as possible - ethics that are grounded in reality. The notion that some ideas are above criticism does not serve us well.

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