The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 2)

Welcome back to Part 2 of the exercise in self-justifying wank that is The Ethics Of Ethics. This week we pick up from where we left of with Metaethics and get stuck into the second of our big philosophical questions: Certainty (or how stuff interacts).

For those unsure what the hell I’m talking about here, check out the links below:

  • The Ethics of Ethics (Part 3) – coming soon!


Certainty – how does stuff interact?

The second of the Big Philosophical Questions moves beyond the foundations established by the Metaethics (for those who can’t be bothered – reality exists regardless of whether it’s observed, but our understanding of it is subjective and therefore unreliable. This implies a scientific approach is the best way of understanding the universe).

Ultimately it can be summed up as ‘does free will exist or not?’

Yeah, not a big question at all, is it? Most of us will have played around with this at some stage or another, but usually give up on it when we realised that it doesn’t really matter in the end. Sure we may or may not have any control over what we do in life, but since we all feel like we have control over what we do, what we like and what we choose, then it’s all kind of moot, isn’t it?

Strangely enough, that’s roughly where this article is going to end up (with a couple of notable exceptions) but from an ethical point of view, determining whether or not humans are capable of free will or not is incredibly important. As in ‘has massive implications for the way we run our society’ important.

Don’t believe me? Let me lay a moral conundrum on you:

A man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Classic stuff, right? Is the man justified in doing so or not? Well surely that depends! How can we judge if he’s right or wrong unless we know the circumstance of the situation?

If the guy has no other choice to feed his family, then sure, he’s in the right – he is a victim of circumstances beyond his control (unless of course you’re a follower of ‘The Secret, aka ‘wrong’).

But what if he’s poor because he blew a generous social welfare cheque on alcohol? Then no! Off to jail with the scum and send his kids to foster homes – he made a choice to spend the money the way he did, and he must be held accountable for that choice.

But such comfortable convention logic, is completely obliterated the second we let free will into the party;

If free will does exist, then why is the guy’s responsibility limited by his circumstances? Sure, living in North Korea is a pretty serious setback, but so what? He is the master of his own destiny – unless he does everything in his power to improve the situation for himself and his family, then does he not also contribute to that situation by accepting it?

And if free will does not exist, the how can we hold anyone responsible for anything? So what if the guy blew his welfare on booze and willfully neglected his children? His choices are not choices at all; just the consequences of preceding actions that he has no control over. How can we condemn him for things totally beyond his control?

Things suddenly got a lot grey around here all of a sudden, hey? Fortunately, philosopher have been hard at work resolving this terrifying conundrum, and while they have for the most part just succeeded in making it even more complex and uncertain, they have managed to nail their opinions down to three broad schools of thought:

  1. Determinism

Determinists basically state that, because any given event is the product of events preceding it, free will cannot exist. Think about the guy stealing the bread – we know he’s poor, but why is he poor? What events lead up to him being poor? Why is stealing his only option to feed his family? What social and economic factors contributed to this situation? Does the guy actually have other options he doesn’t know about? Is he just really bad at decision making? Is he just an arsehole who doesn’t care about robbing a store owner? Is this a learned behaviour or a result of genetics?

What we start to build up here is a context for the situation that is so incomprehensibly complex that there simply is not room for free will to operate anymore. Even ignoring uncontrollable environmental factors such as the economy, where he lives, whether his parents were rich or poor, etc, even the way the guy thinks is inevitably going to be the product of his upbringing and his genetics.

And for those still not convinced, the deal is cinched by the fact that we know conclusively that how a person thinks, or their ‘will’ is entirely dependent on the physical organ of their brain – an organ which can very easily be messed with to get a different result. How can will be free when it is the product of a physical object that we can alter? How can will be free when we can control it?

  1. Indeterminism

Naturally, there is a sizable group who oppose Determinism under the very broad church of Indeterminism. There are a lot of alternative theories in this school, but they generally contend that free will very much does exist, that reality itself (and the human mind by extension) is not completely predictable and random to some degree or another.

This is a pretty persuasive argument in light of the fact that human are utterly terrible at predicting anything with any certainty. We get pretty close through the use of probability, but even in as simple scenario as bouncing a ball on the ground we are hopeless as producing 100% accurate predictions – the contributing factors such as friction, elasticity, heat generation, aerodynamics, windshear, to name just a few make the simple scenario so unfathomably complex that certainty is impossible.

This is only compounded by the fact that we don’t even have a good grasp of how reality functions at the smallest levels – in fact, the more we learn about quantum physics, the more bizarre and unpredictable things seem to get.

Many of these defences of free will can be written off as matters of subjectivity – just because humanity is not being yet capable of understanding everything necessary to make 100% accurate prediction does not mean those prediction cannot be made – but the bigger problem facing Indeterminism is that even if they are right, and reality is random, this still makes free will impossible.

Why? Because even if our thoughts are free of pure determinism, the only alternative is randomness – and we don’t have any control over that either. In order for free will to exist, our minds must not be predictable systems that are just the product of preceding events, but must ALSO not be the product of unpredictable chaos. But so far these are the only options the universe is offering us.

  1. Compatibilism

But hope is not lost for fans of Free Will! Compatibilists argue that this unique combination of freedom without too much freedom is indeed possible – Determinism and Indeterminism can live alongside each other in peace and harmony!

How? Well for the most part it’s just attempts to shoehorn in a little bit of unpredictability into otherwise predictable systems. Whether that’s our neurons being about to reprogram themselves, quantum states being undetermined unless observed, or the spiritual appeal that there is more to the human will than just the brain alone, they all fail to address the entire question for one reason or another.

Neurons may well be able to re-wire themselves, but this does nothing to explain why free will is so easily altered when the brain itself is messed with. Quantum physics is well beyond my comprehension, but Schrodinger’s Cat does a pretty good job of demonstrating the ridiculousness of things needing to be observed to be defined. As for the spiritual argument, well, given the complete lack of evidence for such a non-physical ‘will’ we class the argument as ‘faith’ and ignore it.

There is one option that might be viable thought: multiverse theory. Broadly speaking the theory goes that every time a choice is made, or an alternative outcome is possible, the universe splits apart – in other words, for every possible outcome of a scenario, there is a universe where that outcome occurred. It’s a fun idea that also enjoys the protection of being untestable (since it’s impossible to gather information outside our own universe), but it does appear to offer us a way to have our Determinism cake and eat our Free Will too.

Well I’ve got some bad news for you – Determinism shoots this one down as well. In order for the universe to split to support every possible outcome, it must be possible for alternative outcomes to happen and this is not true in a deterministic system. If every event that could lead to such a split is the product of a preceding event (which itself was the result of another preceding event and so forth right back to the moment of creation/godless explosion), then there is simply no flexibility at any point in the chain for an alternative outcome to occur. And if no alternative outcome is possible, then even if a new universe was created for ever decision it would just be identical to this one.

So why the hell is this relevant?

For a large part is isn’t. Even if Determinism is true (and to clarify, I’m yet to see anything that says otherwise) and our sense controlling our own lives is just an illusion, it doesn’t mean much from a day to day perspective: unless we suddenly gain the omnipotence necessary to predict everything with absolute certainty we have no choice but to act like we have free will and that our decisions matter.

But free will being an illusion does have a lot of rather massive implications for how we view ourselves within the world – Determinism implies that we are not only the product of our environments but literally have no control over anything we do. This in turn means that blaming/praising others and ourselves for our failures/successes in life is monumentally stupid – we are no more responsible for our wins than we are our loses. Pride becomes childish to the point of idiocy, and concepts like punishment which assume people are completely responsible for their actions start to look badly misguided.

This also has serious implications for politics. As I mentioned in Part 1, self determination and complete responsibility for one’s actions are the cornerstone of right-wing ideology; If you’re rich, you deserve what you earned and should not be taxed for your success. If you’re poor, you have no one to blame and no one to rely on but yourself – grab those bootstraps and pull son. But Determinism means that this philosophy, which has been so influential in economics and social policy for the last 80 years, is completely wrong. Kind of a problem since ~50% of people tend to vote that way.

Overall though I think a Deterministic universe has a pretty good message for us. We are the product, not just of our own labours, but of the labours of literally everyone and every thing that has gone before us. Not only that, we are contributing, just by existing, to the fortunes of every person that will every come after us as well. And since having a purpose in life is arguably also the meaning of life, that’s pretty damn awesome in my book.

11 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 2)

  1. I complete agree with this…as I tend to do with almost everything you write. Perhaps I should have been an ethicist because I love thinking about this stuff, and I do. I just don’t have the academic training in it to know all the terminology as well. 🙂 I think my path towards being deterministic because with reading Jared Diamond’s Gun’s Germs and Steel which I only found out many years later is predicated on Environmental Determinism.

    I am not sure if you’ve read any Asimov, but as I was reading this it occurs to me that Asimov must have been also very deterministic. In his two most famous series the Robot series and the Foundation series he is working towards the development of what he calls Psychohistory. A grand mathematical model that will be able to predict the future of humanity through providing the model with initial data and a series of laws that govern human behavior. I don’t think Asimov himself believed this to be possible, but I do think he felt that we are deterministic and thus it was at least in theory possible to predict human behavior as our knowledge and understanding increase. Psychohistory takes a good 25,000 more years to develop…which when you think about it, is not a bad prediction in itself. 🙂 I mean we are getting better at it, but certainly far from perfect. I think the fact that many people believe in free will and don’t subscribe to determinism impedes are ability to understand our behavior. Of course it does bring then another important ethical question…even if we could do it…should we? Because what you seem to be saying is that we could know the outcome of every sporting event if we truly understood all the variables involved, but clearly the enjoyment one gets from watching sporting events would be lost if we could accurately predict the outcome. I think one could argue that the flavor of life must be lost if we got better at predictions. We are far from that point of course, and my limited brain can hardly see it all being possible, but it’s interesting to think about. 🙂

    • Hey Swarn, I finally get around to answering this! Though in my defense at least part of the reason for delay was because I went and picked up Foundation by Asimov and enjoyed it thoroughly. Psychohistory is a perfect example of a determinism harnessed – I love the way he made it so capable yet also limited in reflection of the incredibly vast amount of information involved. Very like our current approach to science in that way; we have models that are very successful on a large scale and a small scale, but have trouble uniting the two. Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ is another perfect example, all the more so because it seems so damn obvious once you see it laid out before you.

      Have you read Asimov’s short story ‘The Last Question’? You can find it all here:
      He clearly thought a lot on the topic.

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  4. Thank you for the reply! In looking back at what I said, I must remember to edit my comments better because there are plenty of embarrassing mistakes there. I blame you though because your posts are often so thought provoking that my mind starts churning so fast that I am thinking about all the things I want to say as I type and not focusing on what I’m actually writing! My mistakes are proportional to how much I actually am enjoying what I’m writing. Probably not the best way for things to work. lol

    I am so glad you enjoyed Asimov. I actually have yet to read the Foundation series and have only read the Robot Series and the prequel to Foundation called Prelude to Foundation. Asimov is an extremely prolific individual and he was also an accomplished scientist as well. It is no wonder his writing is good heady nerd food! 🙂

    I have read that short story and it is brilliant. It’s actually the first Asimov thing I read. Reading his stuff has made me want to be science fiction writer. I sort of already have another career (and a new kid) so I’m still trying to figure it all out. lol

  5. By the way, I know this is an old post, but I just wanted you to know that after finally getting through the Robot series, I got back to the Foundation series. I had only read Prelude to Foundation prior to that. It’s fascinating to me, because what Seldon has done is to build a civilization whose central philosophy is built around maintaining scientific advancement. You have start of a primitive religion based on science, then it moves towards commerce, then dictatorship, and near Civil war if it wasn’t for The Mule. And as they grow what they gain is more and more faith in the Seldon Plan so that it is both a combination and scientific advancement and faith in their own success that moves them forward. It’s so thought provoking. In my opinion Asimov is to science fiction as Tolkien was to Fantasy. It’s a brilliant future laid out by Asimov and I think it takes such talents to span the incredible length of space and time that he does. Few of us can think in those grand terms I believe. And yet for all his understanding of science, his vision and his insight into humanity, some how everybody way off in the future still smokes cigarettes. And I think that is fucking hilarious. lol

    • Ha! Yeah I noticed that as well about the cigarettes! Funny really; a book series about predicting the future that overlooks that one significant detail. But then again, maybe when he wrote it it was nearly an inconceivable idea? Sort of illustrates how hard it would be to actually put together a real Seldon Plan, though I suppose that operated on an extreme broad scale for exactly that reason.

      • In general he doesn’t seem to make many predictions regarding changes to medical science. Perhaps it’s just something he always felt he just didn’t know enough about. From some of what I read about him he disliked trying to write about something he felt he couldn’t do well. In the 50’s though I imagine you are right in that it just wasn’t conceivable. I would have no reason to believe that having a glass of wine with dinner would ever be something humanity wouldn’t enjoy so I would probably still include alcohol in the future, so if you didn’t know anything about the ill effects of cigarettes you probably wouldn’t edit that out of the future either. And you’re right I guess ultimately a few years lower life expectancy probably doesn’t change the Seldon plan all that much anyway. But it’s interesting to think about what things in our present would not be part of our future that seem so permanent.

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