Summary of Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: Part 4 – Thought experiments in Ethics


My friend Ed Gibney has written on each and every one of the thought experiments in  Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. He has also summarized his own100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.” 

(Here is his summary of, and commentary on, Baggini’s thought experiments dealing with metaphysics. It follows from a previous post on metaphysics. I have added my own brief reflections at the bottom of the page.)

From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.
http://www.evphil.com/blog/what-i-learned-from-100-philosophy-thought-experiments

4. Ethics

The most commonly cited source for human ethics today is religion. This invention is understandable because it fills the void of our longing to know how to survive in our inherently uncertain universe. As seen in #58 Divine Command, when environments are filled with harsh adults who are unable or unwilling to explain themselves, children learn to obey to survive. This can easily lead to a perpetual cycle as these children also learn to dominate when they can, and they don’t learn to think clearly on their own.

However, #95 The Problem of Evil shows that Gods have all just been made up ideas, and the particular one invented and followed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the one that is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving—is a logical impossibility given the facts of the world. #45 The Invisible Gardner illustrates how scientific discoveries have made the gods of the gaps vanishingly small. Poof. In fact, according to #8 Good God, no gods tell us what is good; we determine it ourselves. In #78 Gambling on God, religious answers for epistemology and logic have been shown to be flat-out wrong and dangerous. They must be discarded. All of the good benefits of religion can be provided by a secular worldview.

So what are the secular sources of ethics? Traditionally, in philosophy, as in #60 Do As I Say, Not As I Do, we see how any morally considered human behavior has an intention, an action, and a result. That’s the way an event is described prior to, during, and after it occurs. It’s the way the past, present, and future are bound together by causality yet allowed to be looked at separately across time. Virtue ethics concerns itself with the intention behind an act. Deontology focuses on the action alone. [Kant’s deontology focuses on intention too.] Consequentialism focuses on the result. But all three may be evaluated individually for moral purposes. Also, #71 Life Support points out that neglecting to act is still an act that can be morally judged for intentions and consequences.

Exploring these philosophical options, deontological rules and universal virtues don’t work by themselves because sometimes, as in #7 When No One Wins, it’s possible to do long-term good by doing short-term bad. Even further, as in #99 Give Peace a Chance?, more deaths over the short-term may be preferable to more misery and death over the long-term, although empirically it’s not very easy to know the difference ahead of time, and I personally am very glad that my best course of action hasn’t involved such sacrifice. The most universally known deontological rule is #83 The Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule is simply calling for reciprocity, for empathy, for more cooperation. But this isn’t enough! Cooperation towards what? Putting a bagel on Saturn? Subjugating ladybugs? Spreading the message of Moses? It’s terribly misguided to focus on means without considering ends too.

Consequentialism or utilitarianism tries to focus on ends, but historically they have only considered well-being, pleasure, or avoidance of pain as the ultimate goal. #84 The Pleasure Principle, however, shows that pleasure or freedom from pain are not ends in themselves, they are means towards something else. They are signposts for how to act towards survival. #98 The Experience Machine says the best prospects for long-term survival and well-being lie in dealing with the real world. Pleasure or pain avoidance are merely proximate goals in service of an ultimate goal, they are not intrinsically or inherently valuable or costly on their own. This is partly why utilitarianism fails. In #89 Kill and Let Die, we see another reason is because human evolution, as well as the evolution of other advanced animals, is governed to a greater or lesser extent by a mix of genetic and cultural traits, so the practically unknowable value of one unique human to the cultural evolution of our species means we cannot weigh life and death trolley-problem decisions by using some simple rule such as “one human = one human.”

According to #96 Family First, the equal weighting of persons or sentient creatures in the theoretical mathematics of utilitarianism doesn’t hold up in the real-life decision-making of individuals because we are not indistinguishable widgets that can be perfectly substituted one for another. While all human beings originally have equal standing for moral claims, the actual force of their claims on us is variable depending on many things such as our ability to satisfy their claims, their reputation from prior actions, or their possibility of reciprocating aid over repeated interactions in the future. In other words, as in #22 The Lifeboat, moral concerns are a force that behaves somewhat like gravity with stronger pulls by larger bodies at close distances often overshadowing the background tugs of fainter objects far away, and moral actions get harder to determine the farther away their actions are directed.

So prior sources of ethics all have problems. It’s okay to discard these old values though since we see in #27 Duties Done that oughts must be derived from more than just current norms of oughts. In #50 The Good Bribe, we see that in order to truly consider “the big picture” of a moral decision, you must look at the largest and longest view of life. In #100: The Nest Café, we see that due to the deep interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all living things, hierarchies of needs ought to be considered for each and every form of life. This includes all seven areas of E.O. Wilson’s consilient view of life: 1) Biochemistry → 2) Molecular Biology → 3) Cellular Biology → 4) Organismic Biology → 5) Sociobiology → 6) Ecology → 7) Evolutionary Biology.

Thus, as described in #52 More or Less, evolutionary ethics are based upon a deontological rule — “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” — and that gives us an objective and universal consequence towards which we ought to act using virtues derived from evolutionary studies that scientifically prove to us which traits are successful in leading life towards that goal. We may not be able to answer any ultimate questions now of why the universe and life exist, but maybe someone will be able to someday, and it is our job to do what we can to get to that day. Therefore, the number of people and the quality of their lives ought to exist within some range that balances scientific progress against existential robustness.

To clarify, in response to someone Questioning All This, too little life in terms of quantity, quality, or diversity is a fragile state, and too much life full of overcrowded, competitive, misery is another fragile state. Evolutionary ethics looks for robust optimization in the middle where well-being is also optimized, but this is only reached by recognizing that comfortably assured survival for life is the ultimate goal. The only position that contradicts this would be an argument for universal death, but that is an argument we living beings reject. Once you agree that any part of life ought to continue, then you agree that life, in general, wants to continue and we are then down to questioning the details of how that works, which is an empirical question. So, therefore: 1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive. By discovering this objective basis for morality, we can examine history and see how the moral values of humans have grown and changed over time and we can try to judge them using the meta-principles of what we see best survives over the long-term during evolutionary processes.

Okay. That is what “good” is, but how do we live a good life?  What does this mean for me, for individual flourishing, or for what the Greeks called eudaimonia? We want to be happy and to feel pleasure, but we must recognize, as in #26 Pain’s Remains, that pain in life is unavoidable, and may, in fact, be necessary for all of the wisdom and empathy it gives us. Pain is a useful signal. Further, #91 No One Gets Hurt shows how we carry a host of biochemical “side effects” from our evolutionary history. We have freedom and flexibility to overcome many of them, but they cannot be completely forgotten. When one knows that some part of their actions are bad they will be subject to feelings of guilt. In #76 Net Head, we see that these guilty feelings or other perpetual feelings of anger are sure signs that your worldview isn’t working. They come from cognitive appraisals that “something is bad and I need to do something about that.” That “something bad” is either the world or your worldview.

From #68 Mad Pain, it is obvious that we humans feel pain when flesh and bones are torn apart, but perhaps we can feel physical pain when neuronal connections are torn apart as well. This would explain the observations that any challenge of a basic assumption will release anxiety and defensiveness. Such challenges painfully tear our minds apart. But ripping off the duct tape that holds most worldviews together seems much more preferable than feeling the continual anxiety that seems to arise when most worldviews are faced with evidence from the real world. In #61 Mozzarella Moon, we see that speaking in a debate probably moves too quickly to change deeply held beliefs. Surprising validators can change some minds. But dysrationalia stops many minds from changing, and that is caused by cognitive biases (hardware), but also a lack of understanding of probability, logic, and scientific inference (software).

It may be difficult to turn your back on your past beliefs, but according to #69 The Horror, we must always accept that what is done is done, and we, therefore, ought to strive to live well from now on so as not to reach the end of our lives and have only shame and regret to look back upon things that can no longer be changed. This will not be easy. In #75 The Ring of Gyges, we see how our intuitive moral feelings are often in conflict because of the debates that rage within us regarding the self vs. society, or society vs. the environment, or the short-term vs. the long-term, or just the fundamental choices between competition and cooperation. This is what drives the two faces of humankind, but wise people can see this and act accordingly. When we do so, we may truly begin to love life, and even see, as in #20 Condemned to Life, that immortality is not a curse. It is the logical outcome of evolution, and we ought to be able to bear it. Such long good lives, or at least, for now, such a good long succession of them, would indeed be “beautiful.” But what exactly do I mean by that?

My brief reflections – Traditional religious beliefs are mostly nonsense. Moreover, the divine command theory is ridiculous as Plato demonstrated in the Euthyphro, the problem of evil devastating for classical theism, there is no invisible gardener, etc.

I’ve never found much to recommend Kantian deontology, although I think a modified utilitarianism has a lot to offer. Like Mr. Gibney I think that evolutionary ethics explains the origins of ethics and can also function well as a normative ethical theory. I would modify Mr. Gibney’s “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” by adding “and flourishing of life.” Survival isn’t sufficient by itself for goodness. (Note that Mr. Gibney seems to recognize this later on in the essay.)

I would also modify Mr. Gibney’s “1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive.” While I think you can get is from ought I don’t think you can get it quite that easily. (Perhaps Mr. Gibney is just summarizing here.) For example, Schopenhauer would argue that life wanting to survive is just a will to live that perpetuates suffering. So again we must enter the picture and choose to try to survive well, live well, or flourish.

(Next up – the thought experiments dealing with aesthetics.)

10 thoughts on “Summary of Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: Part 4 – Thought experiments in Ethics

  1. Agreed with what is written here regarding religion, both Gibney, and Messerly’s commentary. Unfortunately–for us, not religionists–religion has existed for all of recorded history; plus prehistory.
    Possibly the main meaning of Abrahamic religion is to attempt to trick the susceptible into being self-sacrificing, but such is merely hypothesis.

    “religious answers for epistemology and logic have been shown to be flat-out wrong and dangerous”

    Agree again; still, there is a method involved in the madness of the wrong and dangerous. A purpose perhaps to usher eschatological trajectories. An elderly religionist knows his own personal death is approaching, thus the world is ending for that person. For a given religionist it follows that the world as we know it must end as well.
    This is to say that what appears to have no purpose can be the opposite: a deadly serious purpose.

    @Wilson:
    “1) Biochemistry → 2) Molecular Biology → 3) Cellular Biology → 4) Organismic Biology → 5) Sociobiology → 6) Ecology → 7) Evolutionary Biology.”

    Perhaps 8) might be posited as Transhumanist Biology. Posthumanism could nominally be 10– yet it would be in this scheme escaping from biology.

  2. [9) would be a transition from transhumanity to posthumanity. It would have to mean space colonization– such as mining asteroids for the necessary resources]

    At any rate because Abrahamic religions are flawed, doesn’t mean they are fatally flawed– however it is true they will have to eventually be altered beyond all recognition. After all, the Christianity of 1st century Christians differs very much from the Christianity of 2019. First century Christians would be shocked even by the Christianity of 2019 fundamentalists.
    Gautama, despite his equanimity, would be profoundly shocked by the Buddhism of today.

  3. Continued thanks for posting this and for sharing a few of your own thoughts about it. I thought I’d respond briefly to three things.

    –>I would modify Mr. Gibney’s “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” by adding “and flourishing of life.” Survival isn’t sufficient by itself for goodness. (Note that Mr. Gibney seems to recognize this later on in the essay.)

    Yes, but I don’t modify this because I actually define flourishing and well-being as things that help to enhance the survival of life. If they didn’t do this, they wouldn’t be good and we could never encourage them since they would lead life towards extinction. To add “and flourishing” risks making it sound as if its a separate thing. I’m getting better at saying this more explicitly in my latest presentations and papers. Life isn’t some on/off switch. To think so would be going back to visions of elan vital. So, just as life emerges and evolves slowly over evolutionary time, so does an ability to survive—from mere existence to lives with well-being and flourishing.

    –> I would also modify Mr. Gibney’s “1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive.” While I think you can get is from ought I don’t think you can get it quite that easily. (Perhaps Mr. Gibney is just summarizing here.)

    Well, we get from is to ought just this easily all the time with any conditional proposition. (In my paper, I note that *if* you want to get to Poughkeepsie, you *ought* to take the train there.) The difficult part is finding the conditional proposition that drives a universal and objective moral ought. That’s why I call this survival of life “the want that must.” And I do go into more detail on that in my other writings. But I still like the aphorism sometimes to get people talking.

    –> For example, Schopenhauer would argue that life wanting to survive is just a will to live that perpetuates suffering. So again we must enter the picture and choose to try to survive well, live well, or flourish.

    My answer to Schopenhauer is that perpetual suffering is exactly the evolutionary clue that you aren’t doing it right. By defining flourishing as living, I am saying much the same things as you, but I am placing the end consequence explicitly in the wording. By focusing simply on “flourishing”, utilitarians have left open the questions of whose, how much, and towards what end?

  4. @ Alan — “Perhaps 8) might be posited as Transhumanist Biology. Posthumanism could nominally be 10– yet it would be in this scheme escaping from biology.”

    These are all still part of the evolutionary history of life as far as I’m concerned. There’s no escaping variation, selection, and retention. I would understand quibbles with calling some forms of existence still “biological”, but that gets down to definitions of what life is, and that is not all that clear at the margins, which is what I noted in epistemology and logic.

  5. Ed – I like the way you consider flourishing as enhancing survival. That strikes me at first glance as plausible. We certainly do go from is to ought assuming we have some desire as in “if you want to become a lawyer, then you ought to go to law school.” Or “if you don’t want to get wet, then you ought to take your umbrella.” But of course, while Kant thinks there is a categorical imperative independent of our desires in addition to these hypothetical imperatives, Hume doesn’t think there are any categorical imperatives. So, as you note, that is the difficult part. To find exactly how to bridge the is/ought gap in ethics. The natural law theorists beginning with Aristotle do this by considering human nature, so perhaps you can and do get there but I’d have to read your other writings to see. Still, off the top of my head, life wants to survive so it ought to survive just doesn’t seem to follow in the same way that our other hypothetical imperatives seemed to.

  6. Edifying comments, put together, a mini-lecture on Hume and Schopenhauer.
    No flourishing = existence;
    flourishing = Life, not life.
    As a layman, can only write that the will to survive is not really living, (this is almost too obvious to mention): it is a pre-modern neo-animal existence. But has the advantage of living day to day and savoring the moment. The modern life looks toward a glorious future, but can sacrifice savoring the moment. However future beings wont know what they’re missing.

    Want you to know due to the above although I accept transhumanism, do not look forward to it. The negation of the past a well as the present is for the Superman– no room for doubters.

    “These are all still part of the evolutionary history of life as far as I’m concerned. There’s no escaping variation, selection, and retention. I would understand quibbles with calling some forms of existence still “biological”, but that gets down to definitions of what life is, and that is not all that clear at the margins, which is what I noted in epistemology and logic.”

    Have to think about this a long long time– perhaps forever. Would think of transhumanism as being the revolutionary rejection of biological life: evolutionary biology versus revolutionary biology et that’s more or less quibble.

  7. PL — What is “absurd” about my comment exactly? I’m not new to noting the need the modify the Golden Rule. The wiki entry on GR says, “Philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, have objected to the rule on a variety of grounds.” Also, see the literature on the Platinum Rule. And I’m sorry but you are just plain wrong that I do not value cooperation in society. I extol it as an evolutionary virtue all the time. It is not, however, the summum bonum. It is only a means to an end. Mr. Sloan, on the other hand, has said repeatedly that he has no need to consider consequences with his morality (hence my question about bagels on Saturn). I find that assertion far more obviously wrong than what I am saying. And Mark Sloan has never been able to persuade me otherwise.

  8. No way people, or any animal, can practice the Golden Rule. Wouldn’t homo first have to become homo deus in order to realize such? And then conditions would be so different, that the Golden Rule wouldn’t mean what it now means.

  9. …This is worth getting into: perhaps a dozen more comments– until everyone gets tired of it.

    “It is not, however, the summum bonum. It is only a means to an end.”

    Which is why Communism failed; in 1848 some sort of goal existed, a trajectory, but later it became putting a bagel on Saturn. ‘What to do’? (Why, invade other countries, that’s what. When you don’t know what to do, invade a nation.)

    “Mr. Gibney trivializes both the Golden Rule as a useful moral guide and the importance of cooperation in society by his absurd argument […] In contrast, Mark Sloan has ably defended the Golden Rule as a useful heuristic”

    First, what are people? Let’s just say for the purpose of this comment that we are omnivores. To choose one word out of many. An omnivore consumes meat as well as vegetable and mineral. Meat = kill. The human evolved as many things, including a killer ape. No kill equals no meat.
    As long as such is the case– as long as kill is so important– the Golden Rule is a high ideal, unreachable for the great masses of low people.

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