Sunday, November 17, 2013

Moving Beyond the Rational

Unlike everything else in the news, this isn't about Rob Ford.

I'm going to merge some Fraser Institute news with recent discussions in class, an old Munk Debate on religion, and some ideas from David Hume.   Here we go!

Kate McInturff writes at the CCPA that the Fraser Institute,
"would like to remove compassion from the policy debate about poverty in Canada....because....compassion is causing us to confuse those who have lower income with those who do not have enough income to sustain life."
The interesting bit to me is just these few words:  "compassion is causing us to confuse...."

Christopher Sarlo, at the Fraser Institute writes,
"Poverty, like disability, is an emotional issue, laden with strong feelings of sadness and disapprobation, but there is surely some value in setting emotion aside in order to measure the phenomenon as objectively as possible."
McInturff responds, in part,
"if compassion is excluded as a basis for attending to poverty, what reason could there be to proliferate models for measuring it?"  
Exactly.  If not for compassion, why would we care about poverty objectively?  Maybe much of the third world would die off, and we'd lose some good low-wage staffers, but beyond that, if I don't have an emotional connection to others as part of humanity, why help them?  Death by poverty decreases the surplus population, so more jobs for everyone!   There is no rational reason to keep the poor alive.  We do it because we care, because it causes us internal distress to know people are suffering.

David Hume
Hume explains that reason can only recommend the means for attaining a given end, but it can't tell us what the ends should be. Only our compassion, our sentiment, can inform our morality.  Ever.  We know what's right or wrong specifically by acknowledging our internal feelings when we approach the subject - if it makes us feel disgust, it's likely something that should be stopped.  If it's agreeable to us, then it's likely a good thing.

He writes,
“...every quality of the mind, which is useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others, communicates a pleasure to the spectator, engages his esteem, and is admitted under the honourable denomination of virtue or merit” (M 9.12).
But it's not just an individual inkling that creates community morality or standards, morality
"implies some sentiment common to all mankind, which recommends the same object to general approbation, and makes every man, or most men, agree in the same opinion or decision concerning it. It also implies some sentiment, so universal and comprehensive as to extend to all mankind, and render the actions and conduct, even of the persons the most remote, an object of applause or censure, according as they agree or disagree with that rule of right which is established. These two requisite circumstances belong alone to the sentiment of humanity here insisted on” (M 9.5).
When we think of the impoverished suffering, we react precisely because (or if as the case may be) we are imbued with compassion.  If we take away compassion, we take away our sense of morality, and then it's quite easy to enforce draconian measures on the poor.

I'm afraid that's the idea.

On to my class discussion and the Munk Debate on religion.  My class argued over the relative merits of religions - the good and bad they bring to the world - much the same way Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens debated the issue (likely because there may be one or two Hitchens readers in the room):

The scriptures grant tacit permission for people to commit atrocities.  If we say those bits were wrong, then either God or the humans writing the word of God are fallible.  Therefore we can't trust anything written there.

And we ended up down the road of reason over belief.  If we can't know this stuff to be entirely true, then we shouldn't trust any of it.  But does it really matter if religious stories are true or if they're logical rather than just a system of belief?

In a different text, Hume questions the foundations of science by arguing that we can't actually prove causality.  If a billiard ball hits another, and it moves into a corner pocket, then we have theories that explain the transference of energy (E 7.6).  But we can't actually prove that energy is transferred.  It could be the case that that second ball just up and moved itself!  It's highly likely that causality is the case, but we can't empirically and definitively know it to be.  Therefore, it's a belief.

So....  if all science is predicated on a belief - a likely and useful theory but a belief nonetheless - is it the case that we can have morality grounded in belief rather than reason?

Tony Blair
Tony Blair does an admirable job dealing with just this question when asked by an audience member, "Which of your opponent's arguments is most convincing?"

He responded that the hardest of Hitchens' arguments to refute is that scripture can get in the way of good religious acts.  But he gives it a go anyway and comes up with this:  Religious doctrines were written for a specific time and place.  We have to get to the essence of them and follow the spirit of the readings, not the letter of them.  God's not in the details here, he's in the essence of it all, which requires us to love one another in the spirit of a love of God.

He adds something that's very Humean:  religion impels people to act in a way that's more imperative than science does - the passions move us more than reason.

Christopher Hitchens
Now, I'm liberally connecting religion to compassion, belief, passion, and sentiment willy nilly, but I don't think that's a problem.  They all come from that same place - something Hitchens refers to, in answering the same audience question, as the numinous.  He says the hardest thing to toss aside from the religious argument is that there are elements of wonder and awe in the world, and that feeling we have can't be explained away with science.  We have a sense that there's something beyond the material - something numinous, transcendent or ecstatic.  "It's important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion is good at enshrining that in music and architecture."

Or, as Hume says,
belief is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object, than what the imagination alone is ever able to attain. This variety of terms, which may seem so unphilosophical, is intended only to express that act of the mind, which renders realities, or what is taken for such, more present to us than fictions, causes them to weigh more in the thought, and gives them a superior influence on the passions and imagination.....belief consists not in the peculiar nature or order of ideas, but in the manner of their conception, and in their feeling to the mind. I confess, that it is impossible perfectly to explain this feeling or manner of conception. We may make use of words, which express something near it. But its true and proper name, as we observed before, is belief; which is a term, that every one sufficiently understands in common life. And in philosophy, we can go no farther than assert, that belief is something felt by the mind, which distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination. It gives them more weight and influence; makes them appear of greater importance; inforces them in the mind; and renders them the governing principle of our actions.  (E 5.12)
The irrational, subjective feeling of compassion doesn't cause us to confuse issues, but allows us to understand them from a place unfettered by reason, and then compels us to act.   

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