Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Of vices and rainbows

Many of us have a combination of vices and virtues. Whether or not we are viewed as primarily bad or good persons may depend on the viewpoint of the people that knows us. A mother may never have an "objective" perspective of her child. But is there really such an objective viewpoint? How will we judge and measure each other's wickedness (and goodness)? Perhaps one day, people in the future would view most of us now as as evil as we view many Nazis or Southerners during the early and mid 19th century who either had slaves or supported the institution. Future people may view us as primarily bad for things like eating or wearing animals or for the environmental damages, or for our wars, or for our racism etc, etc. So there is both substantial circumstantial, synchronic and diachronic perspectivism in moral evaluations of whole persons (and entire societies as the case may be).

Now I think vices and virtues themselves are objective (they may be dispositions etc) but how are people in whole to be morally evaluated under such perspectival considerations? Are our attributions of moral worth like our seeing rainbows or are they more like seeing colors; that is, with a substantial personal coloring (no pun intended) but still objectively evaluable? If the later what standards will we judge people by? Maybe the lines will be shown to be wholly arbitrarily drawn. It may be that the lines and standards are dependent on the society to a large degree in that certain societies make becoming good (or bad) easier or harder and it is that standard that we have to measure people against (relative to the place and time they live under) but is this the kind of objectivity that will do the job for a robust moral realism?

One possible response to this kind of perspectivism is that we may have to orient our blame at character traits and motivations (ill or good will, etc) instead of individuals which may have varying degrees or combinations of good and bad traits. This would mean giving up of contempt for contempt seem to be an attitude fundamentally attached to persons as a whole and not merely character traits. But this seem to be at odds with our most deeply held intuitions concerning the seeming fact that there really are bad (or good) people in the world, not just bearers of traits which are bad (or good) and that that the bad does deserve something like contempt. The sacrifice to shift to that reorientation of our moral outlook may be too much to give up that intuition. It would also push to problem back to traits instead of persons for we can always ask what is the standard for minimal amount of combination of good vs bad traits for moral decency? Maybe only purely moral saints, those who are morally perfect, are the ultimate standard to avoid the arbitrariness of it all. I would hope for all of us that that is not the case.

Alternatively, we may wish to draw the lines at those who either endorse/identify or are against their vices or endorse/identify with their virtues. Those who do the later are deemed good persons while the former are deem bad. This would mean that many if not most people we now regard as good may actually be bad because they do not try to go against their vices and may even endorse or identify with many of them. But this would also save the distinction of good/bad people. However, I don't think this will do much as there are varying degrees of endorsing and identifying with one's vices and virtues, both in degree of strength of endorsing, how often it occurs consciously, and which vices and virtues we do so. So we may be back at where we started. Some people may be largely against their vices but do not identify with their virtues or vice versa. Some may only rarely consciously be aware of where they stand with regard to their values and moral beliefs. There are so many combinations that lines may have to be arbitrarily drawn.

Are racists today, in our society, worse than racists before?

We all know that Nazis and Apartheid supporters and slave owners are evil, etc. That's a general statement and many Nazis probably were genuinely good people but most were quite evil. They were racist, militaristic, did not follow moral scruples (sometimes brazenly violating them) even the ones that never killed anyone or invaded anyone or stole from anyone; just by being a member of the Nazi regime and supporting the killing, invasion etc of that regime makes one vicariously evil with one's despicable viewpoints and spiritual allegiance. I will call this kind of Nazi the "Bystander Nazi". However, someone living today and in our society or comparably rich and free information societies who hold similar deplorable racist views, holding everything else equal to the Bystander Nazi, can be argued to be far worse morally than the Nazi.

This is because our culture has far more epistemic resources available to defeat racist views than 1930s Germany. Not only is information dispelling racist views much more common and available but the skills necessary to dismantle those views (and other views such as aggressive militarism, etc) are available to almost anyone who desires to acquire them. All one of reasonable intelligence needs to do is pick up a study a critical thinking book to acquire such skills. Holding everything else equal, the Bystander Nazi and the everyman/woman racist today, are not equal in their moral worth. You would have to display far more vices, especially ignorance, hatred, prejudice, lack of empathy, etc to be a racist today than someone in 1930s Nazi Germany. Since such a person has more vices, it is reasonable to see this person as more contemptible and blameworthy as well.

Why are physicists such bad philosophers?

In this hilarious post, a philosopher makes fun of the critical thinking abilities (or lack thereof) of some physicists and also has some justified words about their hubris. His observations of that hubris, and ignorance, and condescension for philosophy and many other disciplines mirrors some of my experiences with talking to them as well as was explained in one exchange with a string theorist.