Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Planned Parenthood and the Conflict between Empathy-based and Consequentialist Moral Reasoning

If I were perfectly honest, I would say that the PP videos appeal more to the level of empathic reasoning rather than civic reasoning. At a civic policy level, once one grants the premise that foetuses maybe aborted and are non-human or subhuman, it inevitably follows that one can do all kinds of experiments with it.

Screen-Shot-2015-07-30-at-11.23.05-AMHowever the reaction against the PP videos is a gut reaction not really a matter of civic reasoning of objectively measuring the causes and effects of certain policies. It seems inhuman to us to acknowledge something as a boy or baby and then proceed calmly to dissect it. It is unbecoming to deny that something is a human while extracting its human organs with a Hannibal like coldness accentuated by a live video. These are reasoning about interpersonal relationship about how we should treat each other at a personal individual level rather than arguments about causes and effects about civic policy.

I have alluded before to the divergence of rule consequentialist thinking about civics and empathetic reasoning about moral character in anglophone moral and political philosophy. For the sake of completeness I’ll repeat it here again.

The collapse of Aristotelian global teleology, whereby human characters and civics were coordinated according to a common teleological goal, would after the Reformation lead to the private-public distinction and the divergence between civic policy and moral characters.

In notable British Enlightenment and Proto-Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Paley, Hume, etc, we can see argumentation about civics which often occurs separately from argumentation about moral characters. Hobbes of course was infamous for a reductionistic view of humanity as merely the sum of its fears and desires, Civic policy could be reduced as a game-theoretic cooperation of self-interested players seeking to attain certain goods in common, e.g. security.

The divergence would lead to the development of two distinct schools of thought particular to the British Enlightenment, the emphasis upon “moral sentiment” or empathy as well as the rise of rule utilitarianism/consequentialism. Irish and English thinkers like Berkeley and Paley, etc, would focus on developing rule consequentialism as the fundamental principle grounding civic policy, while Scottish thinkers like Hume and Adam Smith would focus on moral sentiment and empathy as the locus of moral character. Perhaps no greater example of this divergence could be seen than in the two separate books of Adam Smith, his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, outlining a moral system for evaluating moral characters, and his “Wealth of Nations”, outlining in a scientific way a system for the coordination of economic goods. The same divergence as well can be seen in Hume in the difference between his works on moral sentiments and his works on justice and property. His work on moral sentiments focuses on describing the shape of empathy, his work on justice. sovereignty, and property rights continued Hobbes project of understanding the rise of convention, property rights, submission of authority, etc, as the product of economic agents engaged in conformable behaviour to attain certain goods, foreshadowing modern game theoretic analysis.

It is quite evident that the mode of reasoning for the two are rather different. The rule consequentialist and/or objective observation of patterns of behaviour which arises from civic agents with delimited goals involves a lot of “third-person” reasoning about actions and effects and primarily involves a coordination problem between various goals. Their concern is not with the individual character qua individual but rules or general policies and their effect upon the whole.

Thinking about moral sentiment or empathy on the other hand involves, not the homoeostasis of the commonwealth or society, but the homoeostasis of the individual, how he relates and interacts with other people at the personal level, his psychological reactions to the acts of others, as well as the conditions and customs which would enable the maximum of sociability or relatability to others. All these are considered in relation to character evaluation rather than the determination of civic policy.

To date the two forms of thinking has not been coherently integrated in Anglophone thought and they are often confused with one another. Occasionally the advocacy and rejection of a certain civic policy ceases to be judged based on its objective effects but as an expression of one’s moral character. Both the left and the right are guilty of this. If one supports, say, immigration controls, than that person is a racist and a xenophobe, never mind its actual objective effects upon the economy or community. If one does not equate abortion with murder, then one is a baby killer independently of the objective merits of criminalising and executing mothers who have illicit abortions and the effect which it would have on the number of illicit abortions as well as the welfare of the child. On the other hand actions which do instinctively inspire revulsion, such as callously trading or dissection of unborn foetuses, instead are calmly dismissed in utilitarian terms of maximising the use of material intended for the waste.

As a good Chinese legalist as well as a Hobbesian, I tend to focus a lot on the “rule consequentialist” end of civic policy as coordination problems and have been in the habit of sticking purely to the “civics” side of political question determining causes and effects of policy rather than seeing civic policy as expressions of moral character or exercises of empathy. . However I haven’t really given much thought to the “moral character” end of the British moral/civic tradition. But until we do have some means of reconciling the two aspects of moral and civic philosophy, it would be very hard for people to reason systematically about moral character and civic policy if the logic of one keeps flowing in and out of the other and vice versa.

Therefore given that the Anglophone worlds have yet to integrate the two parts of moral and political philosophy into a coherent system, the rule consequentialist system and the empathetic moral character system, the result is often a confusion of discourse as language from one system flows into the other and vice versa. Gay marriage, for example as I’ve argued, draws its force more from empathetic exercises on what marriage means rather than the objective functions and ends of a civil marriage, that is, what it does.

Perhaps however we live in such confusing times that we should just abandon consistency of reasoning and marshal whatever rhetorical resources we have at hand to bring about a desired effect. What is clear is that the PP videos are disturbing at a personal and visceral level. Perhaps that subjective resonance should be first exploited and we can figure out how it all fits into objective civics later.


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This entry was posted on September 8, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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