Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I Go on an Anti-Humanity Rant

There's a certain train station bookstore of which I have very fond memories. It's where I bought PKD's A Scanner Darkly and a really good book of Ted Sturgeon short stories. Recently, I happened to be passing through that train station again, and I didn't have enough to read for the trip ahead, but there wasn't anything nearly as tempting in the bookstore this time. I wound up buying City of Ember, which I knew I'd heard of because of the current film, but which I was also pretty certain I'd read about on Farah Mendlesohn's blog. Unfortunately, while I had remembered correctly, what I hadn't remembered is that Farah hated the book. Whoops!

I wouldn't say that Farah's quibbles weighed on me as much as they did on her, although they did, I think, make the book feel more childish. But I'll tell you what bothered me at the end of the book. In a fairly unsurprising plot point, it transpires that Ember, the underground city, was founded by people who were afraid that all of humanity would die out. They built the city and sent a group of elderly people and babies to live there so that at least one small sliver of humanity could survive. This is explicitly stated - "it's supposed to ensure that, no matter what happens, people won't disappear from the earth" (259). However, they deliberately asked the elderly people not to reveal anything of human culture to the babies, "so that they feel no sorrow for what they have lost" (260).

Okay. So that point is clearly necessary for the plot of the book to work - you need the people of Ember to be completely ignorant in order for there to be all the exciting revelations of things like boats and candles to people who've never even heard of such ideas before. But, to me, at least, this seems to kinda sorta negate the purpose of having Ember in the first place. First of all, it seems ludicrous to me that the babies would feel such sorrow at all. They might vaguely miss having the lives of their caretakers, but it's very difficult to feel such profound and deep sorrow over the absence of something you've never personally experienced. I often think that there are elements of life in the past that sound entrancing or desirable, but, if I've never experienced them myself, I don't really feel strong emotions about it.

But, leaving that aside. . . I don't see the point of saving humanity if you're not saving human culture, too. I see the value of saving individual human lives. We like humans, we like it when they don't die. And I see the value of saving human culture. Human culture is great! It's what makes life worth living. But I don't really see the virtue of saving humanity as anything other than a necessary aspect of saving human lives and a potential vector of saving human culture. If all of humanity were to die out, I think the particularly undesirable aspects of that would be: A) if it involved lots of people dying, not just lots of people not being born, and B) that no one would be able to appreciate or carry on human culture. I don't think the mere fact of this species not existing any more is so drastic - that's simply something that happens to species eventually.

We aren't told, in this book, what disaster exactly threatens the world at the time of the foundation of Ember. I guess that's explained in the prequel. And if it turns out, in that prequel, that Ember was immediately necessary in order to save actual human lives, I can accept that motive for the founding (although I still think the killing off human culture stuff is ludicrous and unnecessary). We should totally take drastic steps to save human lives! But if there wasn't any immediate threat, and the goal really was just to save humanity, then I'll be kind of pissed off. What makes us so great? Well, the culture, of course. But apparently Jeanne DuPrau isn't convinced. . . .


Lonin said...

yeah, so, i might as well come right out and say it: even if human culture can't be preserved... what about preserving a cultureless humanity for the hope that they might one day create a *new* human culture that's just as valuable as the current one...?

or is it completely accidental that humans are the medium that this culture has formed itself in, at all...?

~Lawrence: (i signed up to a Google Group under this username and i don't know how to change back)

Grace Mulligan said...

Thanks for your interesting question! I think you make a worthwhile point, and I'm going to have to answer it at Holbonic length.

Let's look at our moral intuitions for dealing with individual humans as an analogy. This may be an invalid analogy, but it's at least a starting point.

I think there is a fairly common moral intuition that runs something like this - it is morally wrong to kill people, or even to let people die, but it is not morally wrong to prevent nonexistent people from existing. That many people share this intuition is perhaps best shown by taking a look at the abortion debate in the US. I think it's fair to say that this is not generally (there may be exceptions) framed as an argument between people who think that murder is bad and people who think murder is okay. Nor is it generally framed as an argument between people who think preventing a potential human being from developing is bad and people who think it's okay. Instead, the argument generally is framed as a debate between one side that argues that fetuses are human beings from the moment of conception and that killing them is thus murder and wrong, and another side that argues that fetuses are only potential human beings, such that killing them is only preventing this potential from ever being actualized rather than murder and therefore not wrong. In other words, while there is a debate over a definitional matter of how to think of fetuses, the basic moral intuition is shared by both sides. It is also, needless to say given the time I'm spending on it here, a moral intuition shared by me.

If, then, we have a moral responsibility to preserve human life, but no moral responsibility to create human life where none previously existed, might the same not be true of human culture? I think this probably is my moral intuition here: we have a moral responsibility not to kill a living culture, or even, to some extent, let it die, just as we have a moral responsibility not to kill a living person, or even, to some extent, let it die. However, we don't have a moral responsibility to perform actions that will lead to the creation of new cultures, any more than we have a moral responsibility to perform actions that will lead to the birth of new people.

This having been said, there are some obvious discrepancies between the two cases that may well mean that the analogy I've built here breaks down. The most obvious discrepancy is that what I see as the reducio ad absurdium of the moral principle that we have a moral obligation to create new people wouldn't work as a reducio ad absurdium of the moral principle that we have a moral obligation to create new cultures. The reducio ad absurdium of the former, it seems to me, would be that adult humans would have to spend all of their time and effort on having children (and spending the bare minimum of time and effort necessary to raise them to adulthood so that they can start having children themselves). Even this, of course, would be deeply and profoundly immoral, since there would still be far more theoretical children who will never be born than actual children born, but it would be the closest to morality we could possibly get if we were to accept this principle. However, the equivalent reducio ad absurdium simply doesn't seem to work for the "creating new cultures" moral principle, given that in order for a culture to exist, at least some time must be spent by people in that culture on perpetuating the culture, so it would be nonsensical to argue that a culture must, under this principle, spend all of its time creating new cultures.

Nonetheless, I stand by my intuition. In particular, it's a pretty deep intuition that I generally have - it comes up in my theodicy discussion, too, which I'm afraid I don't have time to comment on right now, though I'll get back to you later - that it is nonsensical to claim that one has any moral obligation to something that doesn't exist. If you have any good arguments against this intuition, I'd really appreciate hearing them - I do try to be open-minded! But, as things stand, at least, I don't feel committed to a belief that the creation of something completely new ever morally justifies an action, ie, I don't believe that a world in which this culture has died but a new culture exists is meaningfully better than one in which this culture has died and no new culture exists.

Lonin said...

yeah so i was just reading this in (ahem) Yirmiyahu Yovel's introduction to Hegel's Preface to his Phenomenology of Spirit:

"The self-actualization of spirit is equally a process of liberation. ... Seen from the human standpoint, the process ends at the stage of Reason or freedom. From the standpoint of being it ends with the actualization of absolute being, when the totality reaches self-understanding through human culture and philosophy. This event fully actualizes the subjective character of substance and makes it into a subject/object. Thus, according to Hegel, the emergence of absolute Knowing -- and of human freedom -- is a crucial event, not only in the history of the human race, but in the history of being itself."

hmm, well, maybe this is all basic stuff you know about concerning Hegel. but what i wanted to point out is -- i think this actually accords more than a little with your post here -- human culture (plus philosophy) being the medium by which "absolute Knowing" "actualizes" itself within the "history of being" in general -- the grand project of the universe, as far as i can see in Hegel's perspective. it takes human culture, as a stage of evolution, to do this...!

oh, by the way... from reading about Hegel even just this much, i do think i've figured out that "the dialectic" isn't actually the name for the entire Hegelian ladder -- as far as i can tell, the ladder is actually just called "the phenomenology of Spirit". (Wikipedia: "[W]e must examine actual knowing as it occurs in real knowledge processes. This is why Hegel uses the term 'phenomenology'.) the "dialectic" i think is, instead of the entire ladder, the process by which Spirit moves from each step of the ladder to the next step, the kind of logic that he says has to be used to accomplish this....

Grace Mulligan said...

Interesting! I guess Hegel didn't believe in aliens ;-)?

I tend to think that my father and brother are more Hegelian than I am, although my father at least would be very offended if I told him he was a Hegelian. I guess my problem is that I'm skeptical about the actual achievement of absolute Knowing.

So the steps by which we get to the achievement of absolute Knowing
are a ladder, and the dialectic is more like a verb? Like climbing the ladder? I'll need to think about that some more, but I think I at least understand your metaphor.

Lonin said...

I guess, after looking over "I Go On An Anti-God Rant" again, I'm finding myself way way back here in the first month of your blog! The thing is that I really want to comment on both of the anti-whatever rants together, because I think they end up making the same sort of point, and it's just slightly more in focus here. The Anti-God Rant ended with a set of conditions under which "it's not worth it to create consciousness", after all, and here you talk about the (re-)creation of human culture as something that can't be defined as good simply by the value that the human culture finds in itself once it's created. I guess it all boils down to the statement that "it is nonsensical to claim that one has any moral obligation to something that doesn't exist", right? Am I reading this right?

Because I guess my answer to your challenge -- for a good argument against this intuition -- is that the creation of new people, or cultures, is good in a way that can't be defined by morals, let alone moral obligations! You say, "What makes us so great? Well, the culture, of course." But why does the culture make us great? ... Does it make us *morally* great? I guess it could be argued that being cultured makes us not treat each other like brutes; but, I don't think that's what you're saying. You're talking about human culture as an independent organism that humans can participate in, something that has a greatness independent of the survival of any of *us*. (Though, actually, aren't you saying here that the existence of human culture is actually *greater* than the existence of any literal organisms?)

... I have to believe that it's *better* for a universe to exist in which there are conscious beings, and in which there's culture, but... do I think it's *morally* better? Not inherently. I think that once I've decided that it is, in fact, better for such things to exist, I can choose to vary my system of morals such that it accounts for such things. But I think that decision is one that comes later.

... Though, at the same time: do I *really* believe this? After all, I don't want to have children; I don't think I could take care of children, and I certainly feel that having children would derail my life. So, the question is: how much do I believe that the good arising from the existence of the new consciousness of my children would offset the bad of the suffering that they and I would feel? My intuitive answer, my answer as regards *my* life is, certainly: almost none. But then -- does that mean that people's suffering in general isn't worth their existence? I don't really feel comfortable with any answer I've thought of to this question, including jerry-rigged things like "well, maybe each new person's existence is worth less the more people there already are, but each new person's suffering is just as bad". Maybe in situations like this, "ontological good" or whatever has to fight it out with moral good, and there's no system (what would it be? morality itself?) that really determines which of these two "goods" is better.

... On the other hand, you know, if I really *don't* have any moral obligation to beings that don't exist, does that mean that I can just go ahead and have kids anyway, even if I know I'll be a bad parent, seeing as I don't have any moral obligation to my kids *now*??

Another thing to keep in mind here is that I believe pretty strongly in some form of retroactivity.

Grace Mulligan said...

Actually, I think it would be legitimate to accuse me of a certain amount of hypocrisy on the "moral obligation to something that doesn't exist" point. After all, I'm perfectly happy to make this claim when it comes to arguing that it isn't a morally virtuous act to create good things, but I have a very strong knee-jerk reaction that it's a morally reprehensible act to create bad things, which, I have to honestly admit, is somewhat contradictory. I suppose there are ways in which I can make some sense of it, but it's at least worth keeping in mind that my moral intuitions aren't obviously logical here! If I really stick to that principle, then what's stopping you from having kids really shouldn't be their suffering. On the other hand, as far as I know, you already exist. It seems perfectly legitimate to me to decide not to have kids because you know it will cause you suffering (even if that suffering will come largely from your perception of their suffering, which doesn't exist yet). So you don't have to worry about your obligations or lack thereof to your non-existent kids; your obligations to yourself do the work here.

Heh, now you're starting to sound like that same book on Marx that influenced me to explain Hegel to you ;-). That book made the claim that Marx ultimately held some other principles higher than morality - he saw morality as being a stupid bourgeois creation used to keep people down. I'm not sure I completely followed the argument. I find these arguments hard to follow, in general. I certainly don't think that a well-thought-out, sensible morality is the key principle in my own life - and yet it's hard for me to imagine an abstract philosophy that privileges some other register above the moral. A confusion of my own, here, very much not your fault. Of course, you're welcome to explain to me how you can privilege some other species of value above morality, although I can't promise I'll understand it. What kind of value are you talking about? Why is it okay to hurt people in order to promote it? Why shouldn't that bother us?

Am I saying that the existence of human culture is greater than the existence of literal organisms? I feel like I was carefully trying to avoid saying that - hence the insistence that taking lives is wrong (and I really do believe that taking lives is wrong). Taking lives is wrong, and destroying culture is wrong, but I don't know if I'd say that one is worse than the other. Or if forced to choose, I'd probably choose taking lives as worse - it seems obvious to me that if the only way to actually preserve the physical lives of real people was to destroy their culture, then destroying their culture would be a necessary step. It's only if the destruction of culture is serving some purpose other than saving lives that I'm protesting it. I guess maybe you're looking at that "it makes life worth living!" bit? But I think there I'm focusing on myself - I live for human culture, but I suspect there are other people who live for other reasons ;-)

Grace Mulligan said...

One last point to make about morality - as you can probably already tell from what I've written throughout this entire comment, my concepts of morality are somewhat confused. If we're really discussing morality, and obligations to nonexistent entities, and stuff like that, I feel like we should figure out if we're deontologists or consequentialists. But I have the worst time trying to figure this out. Actually, probably the wisest thing I've read about this is what Jenna Moran has to say here (do a find for "outcomes") - the implication of what she writes is that we can't help but be deontologists when judging ourselves and consequentialists when judging others, and this certainly seems very true to my experience. I think the question of our obligations to non-existent entities probably has rather different answers from deontological and consequential standpoints.