My friend Ed Gibney has written on each 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 own 100 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 aesthetics. It follows from a previous post on thought experiments dealing with aesthetics. I have added my own brief reflections at the bottom of the page.)
From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.
6. Political Philosophy
First off, how are we to treat one another. #44 Till Death Us Do Part shows that love of another person is rational, or it is not love. Personal interactions are best modeled by iterated prisoner’s dilemmas, which explains how cooperation evolves. More specifically, in #82 The Freeloader, we see how cooperators pay the price for all freeloaders, which is why we have powerful urges to discover cheaters and stop them. Rather than being tempted to cheat, better strategies over the long-term have been discovered. They are: 1) be nice – cooperate, never be the first to defect; 2) be provocable – return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation; 3) don’t be envious – focus on maximizing your own ‘score’, as opposed to ensuring your score is higher than your ‘partner’s’; and 4) don’t be too clever – tricks are eventually discovered. Cooperative groups then go on to develop cultures.
We see in #67 The Poppadom Paradox that culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration. Multiple cultures and the scientific method provide the means for purposeful variation, rational selection, and a retention of the ideas that aid the survival of all cultures of life.
#61 Mozzarella Moon shows how Elinor Ostrom’s eight design features enable groups to manage their common-pool resources successfully. This is particularly applicable to all of humanity and the common resource we share called Earth. Ostrom’s first criterion requires “strong group identity and understanding of purpose.” Evolutionary philosophy identifies life as all of our group’s identity, and survival as its purpose. From this, our required behaviors should be clearer. But still, as in #15 Ordinary Heroism, doing good requires difficult judgments, which ought to be encouraged. Such encouragement can come from mutually understood norms among individuals, but in order to grow large anonymous societies, they must be encoded in laws through the formation of governments.
Why governments? And how might these governments be organized? We see in #82 The Freeloader that even if every individual was committed to cooperating with their fellow citizens, there would still be things that we need centralized and collective action to address. We know that the invisible hands of the market will lead to market failures if they are left to act on their own. The purpose of government is to regulate the economic system by correcting these market failures. #10 The Veil of Ignorance shows we ought to organize our political economies to promote the long-term survival of life.
But as noted in #100 The Nest Café, the most cited definition for the purpose of government comes from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which goes like this (with some numbering added for ease of analysis): “We the People of the United States, in Order to (1) form a more perfect Union, (2) establish Justice, (3) insure domestic Tranquility, (4) provide for the common defense, (5) promote the general Welfare, and (6) secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The framers of the U.S. Constitution gave no guidance on how to prioritize among these six interests though, which often compete directly with one another. How do we choose between more liberty and more justice, other than by the democratic squabbling of the loudest groups or wealthiest interests? This vacuum of ambiguity has been filled by the Cold War Philosophy and the Washington Consensus to promote the liberty of individuals as the highest end goal, but that is entirely amoral. A much better way to prioritize among the six interests in the Preamble would be according to the way we ought to prioritize all moral decision-making: we ought to act for the long-term survival of life in general. If that means slower economic growth, so be it.
Clearly, the fastest economic growth is blowing up in our face, and it does not meet the wider needs of life on Earth. It’s only when our absolute highest priorities are concerned with the evolution of life in general that we can find ways for all of life to flourish together and ensure its long-term survival. This can even be proven mathematically, as seen in #55 Sustainable Development where any supply of “widgets” becomes vanishingly small whenever those things are deemed irreplaceable and individual. The cost of replacing irreplaceable things in this world essentially runs to infinity, and these infinite values cause a breakdown in the use of classical economics. In the case of businessmen calculating the return on their investment while trying to use up natural resources, we might, therefore, speak “their language” and still hope to persuade them to set some things aside, to hold some things as sacred.
Wealthy oligarchs howl against such restraints on their personal liberties, but in #87 Fair Inequality we see that societies are most productive where everyone works hard, has purpose, and cooperates fully. Although people are no worse off materially if their neighbors get rich at no financial cost to themselves, they can be harmed psychologically by their increased awareness of the wealth gap between them. Seeing equality and inequality solely in material terms could thus be a terrible mistake. Perfect equality is not possible, but extreme inequality is not sustainable. Extreme wealth is generated by the economic system and the rules that society has evolved over the course of its history. A large portion of extreme wealth is therefore owed to society. As a final warning against any all-too-certain authoritarianism, however, #92 Autogovernment shows we may get better at modeling complexity and acting towards agreed-upon goals, but we must never mistake such contingent knowledge for complete clairvoyance.
In the effort to create and enforce such a fair and well-aimed political economy, there will, of course, be some individuals who will give in to the temptation to gain rewards illegally. First, we ought to endeavor to show such people, as in #14 Bank Error in Your Favour, that crime doesn’t pay because we may always be caught. This will not always be successful though, so as in #34 Don’t Blame Me, despite the fact that there is always external causality for our actions, we must be held responsible for those actions. We cannot change the past, however, so any punishment and blame must be forward-looking.
To expand upon that, we see in #97 Moral Luck that moral factors are not always in our control. We can’t know the future. Our wider environments are out of our control. Who we are (nature x nurture) is substantially out of our control. Free will determinists would say everything is out of our control. Given all this uncertainty in the world, there really ought to be much less moralizing judgment.
Of the four types of punishments used for doling out justice — restoration, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and retribution — only retribution is aggravated when we ignore the role that moral luck plays, but retribution should be ignored anyway since it is not forward-looking. Retribution is also pointless, as we see in #17 The Torture Option because torture does not work in the short-term since humans can obey internal motivations and deceive one another. Cooperation over the long-term is best gained by refraining from torture altogether. #36 Pre-emptive Justice shows that improving social conditions as a means of crime prevention works better than heavy-handed law enforcement, which often backfires.
We see why in #77 The Scapegoat because inhumane acts of justice can never be fully private. Such means will therefore always undermine the ends. The state is supposed to be that entity which possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. When justice systems are corrupted by individuals who think they can wield force outside of the rule of law, that is a necessary and sufficient ingredient for the failure of an entire state because the government will then no longer have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force.
It is far better, as in #79 A Clockwork Orange, to see that we are neither inherently good nor inherently evil—we are capable of both, a flexibility we must have in order to have the power to choose between alternate paths that are right some of the time and wrong some of the time. Understanding this leads to holistic approaches to social and criminal justice, which have been proven to work in other countries.
In addition to these economic and criminological elements of just societies, #33 The Free-Speech Booth shows that free speech is necessary for society to explore ideas, but it can be curtailed by harm principles (not offense) and public nuisance laws. #29 Life Dependency explores why abortion is a difficult issue to deal with because of the fuzziness that exists around the definitions of life and individuals. Therefore, we currently compromise socially. What we should not compromise on is seen in #35 Last Resort where suicide attacks are infinite ends to finite lives, which demand 100% certainty to justify them. But since this is unobtainable, suicide attacks are never justified.
At the end of our lives, #53 Double Trouble shows that voluntary euthanasia could be good for the long-term survival of life by giving us control over our own death and helping us avoid personal pain and suffering. Voluntary euthanasia can also take away worry from loved ones, and it can free resources for better use. It allows us to lose some of the fear of death, which means death becomes less a topic we need to repress, and more one that can be looked at plainly in order to motivate better living.
Finally, what can we say about how to deal with those who are outside of the social contract of government, which can only be entered into through conscious consensual cooperation? For non-human animals, #5 The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten shows that animals can have higher purposes than being eaten. But in #57 Eating Tiddles, we don’t necessarily need to pull ourselves entirely out of the food chain to morally cooperate with the project of life. Harm to any individual stakeholders, however, ought to be eliminated or minimized when weighed against the benefits. It may be correct that in #72 Free Percy, the independent existence of rights is “nonsense on stilts,” but we as members of a society agree to grant them to one another. We can also agree to grant rights to non-human animals and plants even though these forms of life cannot now recognize or reciprocate such agreements. Respecting the billion-year-bonds we share with other forms of life is precisely what we need to help us recognize that the selfishness of human tribes is inane.
What about non-living things? #32 Free Simone shows that artificial intelligence can be accepted where it is forced to cooperate with life, just like the rest of us. But #4 A Byte on the Side cautions that computers cannot currently meet our psychological needs for love. (Even though I just spent a LOT of time gazing into mine…)
Phew! Let’s pause for a break and think about the many details of this broad view.
My brief reflections – I’m glad that Mr. Gibney discussed the prisoner’s dilemma at length as it is the key to understanding moral and political philosophy and many other things as well. (For more see “American Authoritarianism: Coming 2017.”) The desire to defect—to follow one’s own short-term interest at the expense of the group—may be the major problem of humankind today and it will (quite likely) lead to the destruction of the entire ecosystem on which life depends.
The question then arises as to how to deter egoistic behavior and encourage cooperative behavior. I advocate disablement strategies, that is making the selfish move impossible. Today this would involve enhancing human cognitive and moral functioning. We must re-engineer human beings or we will not survive. Radical as this may seem, I see no other option that is likely to be successful.
I also agree with Mr. Gibney about 1) limits to free speech, especially given the speed at which lies now spread quickly around the world; 2) the moral value of voluntary euthanasia; and 3) the need to include animals and AIs into the moral sphere.
I would like to thank Mr. Gibney for all the work he did in preparing this material.