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I’ve got a new, upgraded version of this blog program to work with today.  It’s one of those things.  We’ve been meaning to upgrade for a while, but it wasn’t hurting anything to stay where we were, so we didn’t get around to it, and then we did.

I can’t see a great deal of difference between the old version of the program and this one, except that in the space for the post title it says Put Title Here in very faint grey letters until you do put the title there, and I don’t see the point. 

Otherwise, it’s just what I’m used to.  It feels like one of  those things, an upgrade for the sake of an upgrade, as if the people who write these programs think that something has to change every few years or so, even if there’s no need for it.

Having gotten my obligatory new thing bitch out of the way, I want to go back to Ayn Rand and Peter Unger, because I’ve started Living High and Letting Die:  Our Illusion of Innocence, and all I can say is that I’m flabbergasted.

Well, okay, that’s not all I can say.  But we’ll get there.

First, I think Robert is wrong that Ayn Rand gives no compelling reason why we shouldn’t just off and bash somebody in the head if they have something we truly want for ourselves.

Rand’s entire conceptual structure rests on the fact that human beings have one and only one means of survival–their minds–and anything that corrupts or violates that diminishes our capacity to live.  In order to survive and live, we must use of minds to their fullest, which means identifying and accepting the real.  Force and fraud are the chief ways in which some human beings try to destroy the minds of others.  When we engage in force or fraud, what we do is to deny reality rather than accept it.  We not only make other people less capable of surviving, by violating our own hold on rationality and reality, we make ourselves less capable of surviving.

I was also a little confused by Cheryl’s comment that she wasn’t being rational when she decided to read what she liked just because she liked it.  I don’t understand what isn’t “rational” about that.  In fact, I’d say–and I think Rand would say–that choosing to read what you “ought” to read because somebody’s told you that’s what you’re supposed to do would be irrational.  Reading what you want to read because you want to read it is, in fact, the rational thing to do.

And that brings me to Unger, because the issue of rationality looms large in his book, and the issue of truth does to.

But not in the way you’d expect.

Let me throw in a little background here,

I said when I first started this book that it looked as if it were going to make the same argument as Peter Singer”s “Famine, Affluence and Morality.”

I was more right than I realized.  Unger not only directly acknowledges that Singer’s essay is his starting point, and that his book is meant to strengthen Singer’s and extend them. 

Singer’s premise, and Unger’s, is that people living in the first world are doing something deeply immoral and reprehensible if they do not give–by private donation or through their governments–all the wealth they earn beyond that necessary for basic survival to people in the third world who without such a donation would surely die early.

I do intend to address that premise eventually, but for today I want only to note a few things about this book.

The first is that Unger has a skewed idea of the “rational,” too. 

At one point, he declares that there is no need to insist on rationality in moral argument, because rationality has nothing to do with moral argument.  He “proves” this by giving a hypothetical example that goes as follows:

You’re walking by and see a child drowing in a shallow pond.  It would cost you nothing to save this child–it wouldn’t be dangerous for you, get you in trouble or otherwise negatively impact your life–and you easily can save him.  But you see that the child is your cousin, and under your uncle’s will, you and this cousin will share in the uncle’s great fortune.  The cousin with get four fifths, and you will get one fifth, unless the cousin dies before you.  Then you will get it all.

Unger then tells us to assume that you have a drug you can give the drowning child to make sure he won’t suffer, and another drug you can give yourself so that forget all about what you’ve done and therefore never feel any guilt.

It’s therefore rational, he says, for you to let your cousin die–and that proves that rationality is no use in moral argument.

The crux of all this, of course, is that it amounts to saying:  if we lived in an alternate universe that was nothing at all like our own, rationality would be no use in moral argument. 

But we live in this world, not that one, and there is no case in which you could commit such an act in which these conditions would prevail.  And once these conditions do not prevail–once you have to consider the cousin’s suffering and your own guilt–then rationality does indeed become vital to moral argument. 

And that’s without getting into whether or not it would be rational for you to gain a fortune by such means in the first place.  I think it wouldn’t, but we’ll get to that later.

The next thing Unger does is to make a slight nod in the direction of moral truths.  How can we know–on what foundation can we say–that moral dictates are “true.”

And then he doesn’t discuss it.  He just announces that the question is a distraction, and entirely beside the point.  Human beings, he says, act as if moral precepts are true, in fact are passionate about their commitment to them, so it doesn’t matter if they’re  “true” or not.  They just are.

In other words, Unger provides no basis at all for any of the things he is about to say, unless you accept his claim that we all have Basic Moral Values that are just here, however they got here, and we should just go with them as far as they will lead us, taking them to their logical conclusions.

And it gets worse than this.  He starts out with a single moral idea, which he ascribes to Singer and adopts as his own, which goes like this:

“If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.”

Then he amends this to say that it should be read in a strong sense–we are morally obligated to do it, and we’re doing something bad and wrong if we don’t do it.

He then points out that most of us would feel that there is something wrong with an adult who didn’t save a child from drowning in a shallow pond–that we feel that such an adult has an obligation to save that child.

And then he goes on to say that if we have an obligation in that instance, we have it in all instances, including when it comes to starving children in the third world.

Now, like I said, this mess of half-thought and solid confusion can use a lot of untangling, but right now I’d like to point out one more way in which Unger simply refuses to engage any argument at all.

There are two possible responses, he says, to our moral belief that the adult is obligated to save the child drowning right in front of him. 

One of those responses (he calls it the “preservationist,” accepts this obligation, but denies that it extends to people far away without whom we are in direct contact.

The other of those responses (which he calls the “liberationist”–is this stuff predictable, or what?) says that the obligation is the same in both cases because the cases are subtationally the same.

At that point I thought he was just going to ignore the third possibility, which is that it can be argued (and with good foundations, too) that we are not morally obligated in either case.

But he doesn’t ignore that, exactly.  He notes that the idea exists, calls it “negativist,” and airily announces that the idea is so morally repugnant that there’s no point in paying any attention to it.  When it can’t be helped, he’s going to restrict any comments about that to the footnotes.

It is, truly, one of the most remarkable examples of bad faith argument I’ve ever seen.  It’s not really argument at all.   It’s more like, “I’m going to tell you what’s what, and it is because it is.”

Unger is not trying to prove a case.  He’s simply announcing it, and then calling it self evident and declaring victory.

And the case is monumentally ridiculous, too.

But more on that tomorrow.

At one point,

Written by janeh

July 16th, 2010 at 8:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Charity'

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  1. Upgrades could be worse – you could get an improved version that adds on things you don’t need and leaves out stuff you find essential, and yes, I’m thinking about MS Office 2007 here, with the really charming way it screwed up the printing of calendars in Outlook – and then provided a new program to do the job, which has its own irritating little bugs. And the way you can’t merely shut down documents in Word, but end up shutting the whole program until you find a way around that. And… Oh, well. You get the idea. Minimal observable change in an upgrade sounds really great!

    I guess I left out the underlying thoughts in my statement about reading. I do that a lot. To me, preferences – liking and disliking – are very similar to emotions, and therefore basically irrational. They’re not entirely the same, of course, since I might have very good rational reasons for liking or disliking something. But very often, I don’t decide for or against reading something for rational reasons – I think the ideas I expect to find in the book are important, I notice I’m tired and stressed, and I expect to find distraction and amusement in the book, etc. I decide because I feel that this one will be boring and that one interesting or the other one is written by someone whose personal life I read something disgusting about. That’s where the irrationality comes in, when I don’t have any logical reason for my feelings of interest or disgust or boredom.


    16 Jul 10 at 9:05 am

  2. Ah, the wonderful world of upgrades! My improved PowerPoint at work is adding up to three steps to every operation, and my improved SpellCheck was grading my spelling today as though I were typing in Spanish. Last week it was French.

    But I’ll stand fast on Ayn Rand. I don’t doubt she hated bandits and con men as much as I do, but the rationale she offers is unconvincing. A really good team of bank robbers may be thinking harder than some of the people who put money in the bank–and a man with a gun is exceptionally real. The confidence man needs to do an above-average job of distinguishing fake from real, and, again, is obtaining wealth by the use of his mind. What they aren’t is fair–but that’s not a Randian concept.

    But I bother to critique her because she made an intelligent effort–indeed one of the MOST intelligent efforts. Unger being taken seriously is an excellent argument against academia as we know it. In other lines of endeavor, people who work on that level are panhandling or mugging, but not too successfully. Serious banditry takes, as I said, more thought and effort than this fellow puts out.


    16 Jul 10 at 4:00 pm

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