Skepticism and Moral Authority

Ahhh!!  It’s been a while!  I’ve been decompressing from a lot of things which you need not worry about.  I’ll write whenever I feel like it.  But I have a very important topic to cover today which I hope you’ll find interesting as well.

Skepticism is essentially a continuous reduction to premises.  No matter your argument, a skeptic will hammer your premises relentlessly, reducing them to still more fundamental premises even past the point where those premises can be counted upon.  If you’re attempting to prove that a bird is an animal, they’ll ask how you can know a bird exists, and how you know you exist as an observer to identify one, etc. etc.  It’s a useful angle to take in a philosophical sense from time to time.  What I want to mention in this post is how skepticism is usually limited to metaphysical or other non-moral oriented philosophical discourse.  Any attempt at moral skepticism will get you shunned, at best.

Moral skepticism may not be the description I’m looking for.  But if you ask someone why it’s moral not to kill people, they can’t tell you why.  They don’t know.  They may fidget a little with “but it’s… bad…” and if they’re smarter than the average bear they may whip out a “right to life” speech in justification.  It only delays the inevitable.  In a very fundamental sense, common morals are constructed through conditioning of random tidbits picked up from many different people over the course of your life, and defended with feelings instead of rationality.  Charity is an appeal to emotion, claimed to be justified in what way?  “But haven’t you any compassion for your fellow man?”  That’s not an argument.  While you may have a point, I am making no claims either way, you have to back it up with something rather than a simple socially coercive trick.  People who are generous hear it as a conditional, where if they are good people then they will do what this person wants them to and because this is human behavior, it is transformed into a biconditional where if you are not a good person then you will not.  Fortunately for charity organizations or would-be do-gooders they don’t have to formalize such a cruel sentiment- if they did it would be obvious that they’re trying to manipulate people.

Once again, this is very important, I am making no blanket statements about all charity groups.  I am making no assertions about the morality or immorality of their efforts.  I am merely saying that the means by which they arrive at their moral conclusions are…  shoddy.  They may be correct in the same way that I might say that if I am a wizard, then the moon is a sphere orbiting the earth.  I am a wizard, therefore the moon is a sphere that orbits the earth.  While a true conclusion, it doesn’t hold up.

So, if I could take a more skeptically reductive approach to morality, I’ll refer to charity first.  So we have some population of people who need help in some form or other.  Maybe they need food, shelter, that sort of thing.  True, I think we can agree on that.  We have established that they need it.  However, there is this sort of mystical magic wand *stuff happens* deductive approach before we arrive at, “therefore all those who are not in need are obligated to help them.”  Now, as a philosophical point divorced from my own reactions to such a point (Atlas Shrugged, anyone?) I have no real problem with this as a possible conclusion.  But you do have to get there somehow.  Waving a utilitarian catch-all of “the greatest good to the greatest number” seems plausible, but fails because maybe some super-rich person has a psychological dependency on collecting yachts which he must satisfy or suffer excruciating mental torture for the rest of his life.  While a far-fetched case, value is relative.  The example only stands in for more common marginal cases.  If I have a foot-long sandwich which I’m hugely looking forward to eating even though it’s more than I strictly need to survive, is it utilitarian to give half that sandwich to someone just because they need to eat something?  I am tracking a similar vein from previous posts, but essentially the utilitarian ideal is defeated by subjective and relative value.  Obviously I have no issue with donations.  However I would like to refine what most people think of as a donation- donors are not giving for the sake of others, they are donating for their own motives.  If they enjoy helping people, then they are donating for their own enjoyment.  Nothing wrong with that, but that’s a fact.  For those types of people, if they didn’t enjoy it they wouldn’t do it.  Perhaps donors are giving for the sake of their own egos, or perhaps to ease guilt, or maybe they think they are getting something in return, such as virtue in the eyes of God which will net them a ticket into Heaven.  Nothing wrong with any of these cases, apart from the God part being irrational but hey if that’s what floats your boat, go nuts.  However, sacrifice for the sake of others to no personal advantage whatsoever is never morally justified.  I am open to alternate ideas, please tell me what you think.  If you believe you can justify the morality of charity deductively, give it your best shot.

The fact that I have issued the challenge is not enough.  I have to prove this assertion on my own rather than blankly demanding that others disprove it.  By its very definition, to sacrifice is to give up value.  Presumably to someone else’s benefit, but not necessarily.  Now let’s consider the people who have the most objective value as opposed to the people who have the least.  In order to have objective value, you need to be able to produce results that are valuable to others.  Maybe you can weave baskets, maybe you have great leadership abilities.  You have something that others consider valuable.  According to this doctrine, in order to sacrifice to someone else’s benefit, there must exist someone else of lesser objective value than yourself.  Theoretically, there must therefore be some level at which you are neither giving nor receiving value through this sacrifice medium- the average.  Your objective value is sufficiently low that you are not required to give anything up, yet high enough that you don’t warrant receiving anything either.  Now if you’re in this position you actually have two choices to acquire additional value.  Option A; you can attempt to increase your own personal objective value- maybe acquiring a new skill or something- or Option B; you can decrease it, perhaps by working less.  Note: we are applying the same reasoning to small denominations of difference to test it for validity.  If you work less hard, you are handed more value courtesy of the people who choose option A.  If you improve yourself, some or all of that additional objective value is redistributed to the people who choose Option B.  Now this seems almost too simple a game-theory problem, but given a situation like this, it is positively inevitable that a self-reinforcing loop of the entire population deliberately decreasing their own objective value.  The reason for this is obvious: real-world results are not dependent on the incentives used to achieve them.  Mutual agreement to pay someone for a job is just as valid as agreement to pay someone twice as much for half the job.  You’ll get half the job, at twice the cost.

Now some people are probably irritated at my straw-man depiction of their beliefs.  True, my case of small differences in value requiring equalization is easy to disagree with.  The problem is that if this moral idea is functional, it should still work then.  In the ideal, perfect Communist vision everyone has the same level of material prosperity.  So my case is actually extremely valid since that’s the inevitable result if what you say is true about it working at larger scales. A claim of defying universality is extreme, but I’m prepared to treat that one as well.  Sure, it sounds horrible that a CEO has a private yet, a yacht, and a mansion while thousands of poor people try to scrabble together a living.  However think about that situation a little- how did the CEO get there?  Presumably he provided something of value to other people and they were prepared to trade for it.  OK, so you don’t have a problem with the self-made man, but you do have a problem with millionaire rich kids.  Inherited wealth?  Somebody had to earn it, and someone else didn’t spend it.  True, on the surface it doesn’t seem *fair* that by random chance that kid has millions dropped in their lap.  However, if their parents earned that money by providing value to people, and they chose to bestow that value on their kid, that is entirely within their choice.  Alright, so I’m reducing it to the self-made parents.  What about so-called Old Money?  Where nobody actually knows where the fortune came from, it’s just always been there.  Someone probably earned it, but it was like 300 plus years ago so who cares who did it?  Well if you’re prepared to concede that parents have a right to help their children as part of their free choice if they earned the money themselves, and that’s a legitimate exchange of value, then how the child got the money is irrelevant.  They can then give that value to their children, and so on ad infinitum as long as the fortune lasts.  If you’re not prepared to concede that parents may give their children money of their own free choice, you may want to rethink your conception of charity.  Because if you think that it’s valid for those parents to give that money to random strangers, but immoral to give it to their children whom they wish to give it to…  errm, that’s a little inconsistent.

But what about the extravagant parties and the immense waste of wealth!  This is unacceptable!  Why?  Why is it really unacceptable for spoiled rich kids to buy yachts on a whim, throw massive champagne bathing parties onboard and then blow them up in massive fireworks shows, only to repeat the stunt every day for a year?  Why do you care? Are you jealous?  Do you think you have a right to that person’s wealth, that just because you want some of it that you should get it?  Who’s calling who spoiled here?  It’s their money- if you agree with the above paragraph, they acquired it through legitimate means.  Who are you to say that they aren’t allowed to do that for enjoyment because it costs too much?  How can you get so uptight about a millionaire buying a private jet which they can afford, but not bark down your neighbor for buying a car that’s going to cost them more than they can afford?  If you feel the right to steal a piece of the millionaire’s pie, what should you think of that neighbor?  Hell, with gas prices the way they are you would have the moral authority to bash anybody who buys any car at all these days.  And if they buy a new SUV you could actually go on a witchhunt and burn them at the stake.  Morality policing is by its very nature contradictory

This post is getting a little long in the tooth.  Unfortunately I don’t feel like I was able to capture the essence of what I was aiming for.  I’ll try to sum it up as succinctly as possible.  Morality must necessarily be subject to the laws of logic, requiring both premises and logical processes.  However any attempt to formalize common premises produces chaos, and logical processes are often elided entirely, lock stock and barrel, but are still widely accepted.  Please, stop that!