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(Cross-posted from my website. Podcast version here, or search for "Joe Carlsmith Audio" on your podcast app.)

"Great is the matter of birth and death. Life is fleeting; gone, gone. Awake, awake, each one. Don’t waste this life!"

- Dogen

1. Introduction

In my last essay, I looked at two stories (brute preference for systematic-ness, and money-pumps) about why ethical anti-realists should still be interested in ethics – two stories about why the “philosophy game” is worth playing, even if there are no objective normative truths, and you’re free to do whatever you want. I think some versions of these stories might well have a role to play; but I find that on their own, they don’t fully capture what feels alive to me about ethics.

Here I try to say something that gets closer.

1.1 Slaveholder stuff

Of course, often, the thing that feels most alive about ethics is “getting it right” – whatever that means. That is, it’s the slaveholder stuff. The stuff where: wait, what’s actually going on in a factory farm, or a concentration camp? What is the nature of the thing happening in this building? What’s at stake here? The stuff where saying “whatever,” or “idk man, sounds like this sort of talk might involve changing my default policy, I’m out” ends up looking, in retrospect, not like some sort of hip and sophisticated assertion of your freedom from some “game,” but just, like, well … evil. Blindness. Cowardice. The thing that shame and guilt and horror and anger are meant for. The thing where you turned away from something to-be-seen, where you didn’t understand something to-be-understood.

I think anti-realists should face the fact that they have a harder time making sense of this. They talk and talk about their “cares” and their “on reflections,” and the realists say, again and again, “not enough,” “not enough.” And it isn’t enough. Faced with a concentration camp, what sort of talk could be enough? Is an extra objective normative realm enough? Do we even know what we want, when we want something “enough” for everything that everything means? Do we want philosophy at all, or something else? Something to tear through it all? Something to break it all open? “Beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough…”[1]

I’m not, here, going to try to defend an anti-realist story about “getting it right.” I’ll flag, though, that I expect some such story to be available, at least in many cases. For example, regardless of realism vs. anti-realism stuff, I expect some good-enough story about why I would be messing up by stabbing the nearest pencil into my eye. I ask myself: “How about stabbing this pencil into my eye?” I answer: “No.” And I expect this process to be in “good order.” To not be resting on some kind of inescapable illusion about the existence of an extra normative realm, or some such. But this is a different can of worms.

1.2 Taking responsibility

Here, I want to talk about something else that seems alive to me about ethics – something that feels importantly related to “getting it right,” but which I think has its own independent resonance, and which, for me, points in the opposite direction from “whatever.” Namely: something about “taking responsibility,” “knowing what you are doing,” and “looking out of your own eyes.”

I don’t know fully what I mean. But I’m going to try to point at some stuff, in a bit more detail than I’ve done previously.[2] In particular, stuff about:

  • Understanding what it’s possible to be and to do
  • Understanding what you are, and what you are in fact doing
  • Choosing what to be, and to do

Thanks to Ketan Ramakrishnan, Katja Grace, Nick Beckstead, and Jacob Trefethen for discussion.

2. Some backdrop

The high-level, maybe-unnecessary-to-say-but-who-knows backdrop here is something like: you are, in fact, a real thing.[3] And not just, like, a rock. Some different sort of thing. Something alive. Something that looks out of its own eyes. It’s strange. It’s easy, somehow, to forget. But it’s the real deal.

And you’re going to live some particular life. Your choices are going to cause certain things – some things that you can see and experience, and some things that you’ll never see (do you believe in them?). Then (modulo some big changes), you’re going to die, and be dead forever and ever, and that will be all. You’ll have been a particular thing, a particular sort of force in the world, a particular locus of causation and thought and experience; and then, it’ll be over, and you’ll disappear.

So there’s some sort of chance, here. A brief chance. Something that’s not going to come again. Something where, if you don’t do it, it won’t happen.

And there’s a way this chance will go, if you don’t “play the philosophy game.” It’s related to that old thing, the “unexamined life.”[4] If you go this route, you’ll be some particular, unexamined sort of creature. Some sort of “default.” And obviously, this has its comforts. Maybe it’s more intuitive. More “common-sensical.” Maybe it goes, more smoothly, with some sort of flow. Maybe it seems, to you, like “body” rather than “head,” and you like “body.”[5] And maybe, in particular, it seems less likely to follow some abstraction off a cliff. Which seems, in some circles, like a risk these days. As ever.

But there’s a thing that the unexamined life isn’t doing: namely, looking at itself in the face. Understanding what it is, what it’s doing in the world, what it might be doing instead, what its “chance” will ultimately amount to in different circumstances. Or, maybe it starts with some story about this. But it’s not checking if that story is true. Or even, if the story could be true. And it’s not choosing a new story, if the default story is false; or if the default story can’t look at itself without recoiling; if the default story can’t tell itself in its own voice.

Indeed, it’s not clear how much “choosing” the unexamined life is doing at all, vs. defaulting to some choice-already-made. At the least, it’s not making itself, as a whole, on purpose. Some other purpose made it. Or something random coughed it up. And it defers to that thing, that “default.” After all: whatever. 

Of course, we can always say “whatever” to all of this. Ultimately, if someone insists on saying “whatever” to everything, we’ll stop having stuff to talk about (though: this isn’t just an anti-realism problem). And in that sense, we are, somewhere, going to have to appeal to some kind of brute motivation, some kind of preference or desire that something — your life, your choices, your understanding, your effect on the world – be a certain sort of way. But I think we can say quite a bit more about what this motivation is tracking than “I’m just into systematizing stuff” or “I just prefer that my policy have properties like consistency, coherence, simplicity, etc” or “I can make some extra money/power this way.” Here are some gestures.

3. Understanding what’s possible

In my last essay, I talked about how having a consistent policy isn’t an “idiosyncratic preference” thing: rather, it’s a “what policies are literally possible to have” thing. If you think that you, in your freedom, are pulling a fast one on logic, and somehow managing to have your cake and not have it too, you’re just wrong. You’re just deluded. And if you’re trying to have your cake and not have it too, the sooner you notice this and give up, the better – at least from a “succeeding at what you’re trying to do” perspective.

Thus, consider again the lizard stuff from the previous essay:

Suppose I come to you on Monday and I say: “Are you the type of agent who prefers A+ over A?” And you say: “Of course! Better for the Utopians, not-bad for the lizards.”

And then I come you on Tuesday and I say: “Are you the type of agent who prefers Z over A+?” And you say: “Of course! Higher total, higher average, more equality – easy!”

And then I come to you on Wednesday and I say: “Are you the type of agent who prefers Utopia over a zillion barely happy lizards?” And you say: “Are you kidding me? Fuck those lizards!”

And I come to you on Thursday and I say: “Are you the type of agent who doesn’t prefer things in a circle?” And you say: “Of course! Preferring things in a circle is crazy!”

And … that’s all. You go back to the unexamined life. The philosopher doesn’t try to take your money, or turn you into a lizard, or whatever. No one forces you off of any cliffs. And plus: you got to say what you wanted to say each time, right? Isn’t that what this is about? Indeed, the people listening each day seemed pleased with your answers. Is philosophy, maybe, super easy?

But oops: you’re still wrong. You’re not that sort of agent. No one is. That’s not a type-of-agent-you-can-be.

Fine, but does it matter? No one’s actually proposing that we create lizard farms, after all. All this stupid impractical philosophy stuff. Just do the right thing already!

But being wrong has the same sort of costs it always does. For example, maybe one day someone starts talking about how there could be a lot of people in the future, and how each of these people would be just as real as you or me, and how maybe this matters a whole lot, like really a lot. And maybe you notice some connection between this and the lizard thing, and you pounce on it, and you proclaim that obviously any policy that could lead to lizards over Utopia is silly, because you’ve got a policy that doesn’t do this – indeed, one that has no downsides or uncomfortable implications. You remember describing it during some weird week a while back. Everyone loved it. People getting interested in this future people stuff should try your policy instead. (What does that policy say about future people, you ask? Um, whatever you wanted to say by default. Something moderate and very sage. No need to learn anything.)

But the thing is: you’re wrong. You don’t have this policy. You just think you do, because you’re not looking at things whole, or steady. And now the people listening are wrong, too. They’re trying to join you in laughing from some high horse that doesn’t exist. They’re trying to live, with you, in the land of square circles, where philosophy is easy, all your intuitions are true, and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs. But the place to live is the real world. 

Again, again: I’m not trying to turn you into a lizard. But I am trying to un-turn you un-into something you never were.

Indeed, I’ve found it helpful, in relating to Benign Addition, Non-Anti-Egalitarianism, Transitivity, and Utopia>Lizards, to invite the parts of me that care about what’s stake in each of them to come forward; and then to see if I get to the point where me and these parts all sit down at the same table, look at A and A+ and Z together, and say “well guys, I guess we’re just not going to get all of this, huh. Yep, I guess not.” Not trying to decide which one to let go of; but just noticing, with all parts of me there to notice too, that something I might’ve hoped for isn’t possible.

I’ve found that somehow, this posture creates a different tone than the one I used to have, re: lizards. Not a pulling in one direction or another. Not a vying-for-control. Not even an “omg it’s so horrible.” Something quieter. More of a muted sadness and recognition thing. A not-up-to-me-ness. And not up-to-philosophy, or “philosophy’s fault,” either. But also, an un-fogging. A seeing more clearly what sort of shape a path forward would have to take.

And this posture also opened up some space for me to notice some stuff I wasn’t noticing before, about my reactions to these cases (for example, I now like Non-Anti-Egalitarianism less than I used to; and I’ve got additional doubts about “separability” – though this is a longer story). But I wouldn’t have noticed this, if I had just gone with some flinching “fuck it,” or some unexamined “they’re all so obvious.” Actually, none of them seem obvious to me now. And somehow, seeing more clearly that I can’t have all of them, I feel more free, rather than less.

4. Understanding what’s actual

So understanding what’s even possible is one benefit of the “philosophy game.” Now I want to look at something richer and more complicated: namely, understanding what’s actual, in terms of who you are, what you care about, and what sort of force you are in the world.

4.1 Being and becoming

First, though, a caveat. The line between this and the next section, on choosing who you are, what you care about, etc, is blurry – and instructively so.

In particular: above, yes, I said that you’re a thing. But this was a simplification. Really, you’re only a thing to something looking at you from the outside. From the inside, you’re something else: something not-yet-settled; something more up-to-you (here the incompatibilists about free will rebel; but we should have that fight: the fact that they’re wrong, for the relevant sense of “freedom,” is important). Indeed, I think some anti-realists go wrong in this vicinity, with their “on reflections” and their “what I care abouts.” They want to be already-a-thing, so that they can ask themselves what sort of thing to be.

Of course, it’s not that you’re entirely not-yet-a-thing, even from the inside: for example, you can’t just choose to be whatever you want. If you want to say that you love eating bricks; that what you care about most is amputating your own legs; and that your endorsed policy is to stab pencils into your eyes whenever you get the chance: well, here’s a pencil, let’s see. “Oh, also, I’m weak-willed.” No, there are limits, even if it’s hard to say where they fall. In particular: those are skin-in-the-game words you’re trying to use. We need to see that skin. And you should, too.

So there’s some sort of dance between understanding/interpreting ourselves and becoming ourselves, here, which I admit I don’t have a rigorous account of, but which is neither a free-for-all nor a normal form of map-making. But I think ethics is doing a lot of this dance. Let’s look at the “understanding” angle in particular.

4.2 The “it’s a mess” view

I have a hazy memory of a conversation with a friend, where he said something like: “I used to be more of a total utilitarian, but I’ve mellowed over the years, partly in response to that stuff about infinite ethics. Now, I endorse a view that I call the ‘it’s a big mess’ view. Or, ‘fuck it, pluralism.’”

I know various people like this. Before they wanted simple theories and hard lines. Then it became a bit much, and it stopped making sense in the way they had hoped it would, so they fell back on something softer and richer and more complicated. Something like total utilitarianism, but … less. With more of a “common sense morality” element. More ability to say “OK yeah that too.”

Doesn’t that sound nice? You can almost feel the parts of them that had been suppressed reviving. And isn’t it also less, I dunno, threatening? The old way had some “follow it off a cliff” energy going strong. The new way has more wiggle room. You’re allowed to be a mess! And not a lizard – or, for Christ’s sakes people, a supervillain.

And I think people like appeals to moral uncertainty for this reason too. Not, often, because they have some theory about how to do moral uncertainty that they’re actually using to get the verdicts they’re claiming “moral uncertainty” yields (the formal frameworks for doing moral uncertainty are suuuuper janky), but because it gives them some hazy license to bring back in more pluralistic and common-sensical vibes; to let more parts of themselves have a voice.

4.3 Seeing yourself whole

I’m generally a fan of various vibes in this vein. But I think we should acknowledge that moving in the direction of “it’s a mess” has costs. In particular: what it gains in not-off-a-cliff, it loses in self-knowledge. That is: say what you want about total utilitarianism, but you knew what kind of force it was in the world: namely, a force for total utility.[6] It had some admirable quality where you’d say “doesn’t that imply X?” and it would look you in the eye and say “yes, yes it does.” Whereas vague gestures at “pluralism” and “common sense” and “it’s messy” have no such substance or heft. They’ve retreated behind some sort of cloud. They’re less threatening, but that’s because they haven’t said what they are, except that trust me, it won’t be off-a-cliff (since of course, we all know where the cliffs are, right? Common sense can’t be a cliff, right? We all know what common sense is, right?). There’s a reason politicians on the campaign trail are vague.

And I think this issue bites harder as we move further in the direction the “unexamined” and the “default” (my “it’s a mess” friends are still waaaay far towards “examined” and “systematic” relative to what’s possible). That is, maybe you want to say, with my anti-realist foil from the previous essay, “I don’t draw curves at all; I just do what’s most intuitive in each case.” And what is that? Hard to say. But more importantly: even if we can figure out what it is in any given case (by, for example, querying our intuitions), we still can’t see what it amounts to. We can talk, individually, about each of a zillion little choice vectors one by one; but we don’t know where they push in combination, what they are doing, what explains them; what they represent. We can see ourselves making any given specific choice. But we can’t see ourselves whole.

Of course, seeing ourselves fully whole doesn’t seem like an option, for minds like ours. So dimly, that mirror. We barely know who we are. We barely know what forces work through us, inside us, around us. We’re bouncing, so often, off the surfaces of things, descending gradients we can’t see, responding to cues and incentives and pressures we can’t track. And even beyond this buffeting, we’re just genuinely very messy creatures, with complicated norms, values, intuitions, and so on. And I don’t think we should push this under the rug, or distort the truth in order to compress ourselves more succinctly.

Still: I think something is lost in the vagueness of “my values are complicated,” or “you don’t get to know what you’re fighting for.” In particular: the less you know what something is, the less you’re in a position to endorse it, reject it, change it, in a way that’s in touch with its nature. The less you know what you’re fighting for, the more that thing is fighting through you, using you, without your having looked it in the face and said “yes.” “Common sense” is suuuper not an exception here. Where did common sense come from? Something with power – some set of people, some selection process — put it in place, including in its place in your head, and your sense of what’s “safe” and what’s “a cliff.” Maybe, if you saw that thing whole, it would seem wise (I do think common sense is very often wise – and that it’s having-been-selected is evidence for this), and you would say “yes” to it. But maybe not. And if you can’t see it, you can’t tell.

4.3 Agents-you-aren’t

There’s also an “understanding” failure mode in the opposite direction, here, which philosophy also helps with: namely, having a false vision of yourself-as-a-whole. (Cf., again, many total utilitarians.)

Above I talked about agents-you-can’t-be, because they’re not logically possible. But there’s a different thing, about agents-you-could-be, but which, oops, you aren’t.

For example, maybe, according to you, you’re an “all men are created equal” type. That is, you treat all men equally. Maybe you even write a fancy document about this, and this document gets involved in the founding of a country, or something.

There’s a thing philosophy can do, here, which is to notice that you still own slaves. Including: male slaves. And it can do that whole “implication” thing, about how, Socrates is a man, you treat all men equally, therefore you treat Socrates equally, except oh wait, you don’t, he’s your slave.

Now: philosophy isn’t yet telling you to free Socrates, here. But it’s pointing out a failure of self-knowledge. You thought you had seen yourself whole. But you were wrong.

Indeed, wasn’t it great? You drew a curve. You did what the total utilitarian, above, was willing to do. And, thus: you learned something.

Drowning children stuff has a lot of this part.

5. Choosing what to be

So philosophy can help you understand what sorts of agents it’s possible to be, and it can help you understand what sort of agent you are. Still, aren’t we missing something? This makes philosophy sound, mostly, like a combination of (a) logic, and (b) psychology. Is that all? Wasn’t there supposed to be something more active and normative about ethics?

Yes. But I think this part is the trickiest to understand, partly because of the being vs. becoming dance I mentioned above. Indeed, I don’t think I understand it fully myself. But let’s look at some examples.

5.1 Crates

Suppose that you’re at dinner with a friend, eating some pork chops. Your friend starts telling you about someone she knows, who keeps his dog, for months at a time, in a cramped, metal, hard-floored crate where it can’t even roll over; who beats this dog regularly; and who is planning, in a few years, to stun the dog, slit its throat, and eat it (he lives in a country where this is legal; and in fact, quite normal). “What?” you say. “That’s horrible.” You think about the dog, trapped, suffering, the metal pressing against its sides, chewing repetitively on one of the bars. You want it to stop. You want to help.

Maybe a dog sort of like this one. (Image source here.)

Then you remember something about how pigs get treated in ways not-too-different from this, and maybe worse, in giant farms all around your own country.[7] Pigs like the one you’re eating now. You think about this, too. Pigs, you expect, are roughly as conscious as dogs. You imagine a pig in a similar situation.

Gestation crates. Image source here.

Now, one thing that could happen here is that you realize that actually, your reaction to the pig is similar to your reaction to the dog. That there’s a curve here, in your heart, that you didn’t notice before; but which, once seen, starts moving, and taking on some sort of fire, and suddenly you’re looking around at the world, and the farms, and the porkchop, and the leather of the couch, in some very different way, and something is breaking open, crying out, reeling in horror.

In that case, the self-knowledge victory – and so too, I claim, the “examined life” victory – is fairly straightforward. You’ve learned something new about what your heart responds to, and where it’s at stake in the world.

5.2 Hot and cold hearts

But let’s say that actually, when you think about the pig, your heart is cold. Somehow, this time, you’re not very fussed.

What happens next? If you’re enough of a “fuck it” anti-realist, if you’re not trying to see yourself whole, you might just say “whatever,” and go back to eating. Helping dogs, apparently, is intuitive to you; helping pigs, not so much; and that’s, just, the data. Why draw curves?

But maybe you read the last section, and you’ve decided that seeing yourself whole is worth trying. So you start trying to explain why you have this pattern of intuitions. Is it, maybe, because dogs have nice soft fur, and pigs don’t? You trying drawing that curve. What would it predict about your reaction to, say, a hippo? You think about a hippo like the one from the zoo, trapped in a crate, suffering, getting its throat slit. And this time, your heart is hot; you’re fussed. Look at that hippo! It can’t even roll over.

A hunted hippo. (Image source here.)

So you’re already on the “examined life” train, here; and you’re learning stuff. And let’s say you ride that train for a while, gathering data about your intuitions, trying to fit some sort of curve to them. And let’s say you do pretty well at it, and in particular, you end up with the following theory looking decently well-supported: namely, your intuitions respond to the plight of animals that the particular culture you were raised in thinks of as important-to-treat-well. And let’s say, even, that you do some more research about why your culture is into this particular set of animals and not others, and you find out that it has to do with some contingent facts about farming and zoos and domestication and cuteness and stuff.

Now, here the realist feels an impulse to pounce. “Ha!” they say. “Your intuitions are explained by a causal process that wasn’t plausibly sensitive to the objective moral facts! No way your culture peeked into the envelope of the normative realm, then decided which animals to honor, and which to brutalize. And also, no way the objective normative realm draws important distinctions between dogs and pigs. That would be so arbitrary! The objective normative realm isn’t like that! Or so I intuit! Thus, your intuitions are biased, and must be given up. (Well actually, no, your intuition about the dog was true; not the pig one though, that one is a bias!).”

But then, uh oh: nothing can peek into this sort of envelope, because this sort of envelope lives apart from the natural world, and “peeking,” with your natural-world, causing-you-to-say-and-do-stuff mind, is a natural-world thing. So the realist gets sheepish and starts muttering about math and consciousness and how maybe-somehow-though.

5.3 Is your heart a thing?

But what of the anti-realist? I think many anti-realists assume, too quickly, that they can just talk like realists, here. That they know what is “arbitrary” and what is not; what is a “bias” and what is not; and that knowing how an intuition got there is equivalent to knowing it should leave. But we are made entirely of stuff that got there, somehow.

Or are we? From the outside: yes. From the inside, though, it’s more complicated. In particular: we’re not fully made-of-anything, yet, because we’re not fully made; we’re in-the-midst-of-making. We’re doing the being-and-becoming dance, and what you choose to become, you’ll have been the seeds of all along.

Thus, suppose that you are left with the following psychological theory: “my intuitions about which animals matter are explained by blah features of my culture’s attitude towards animals.” Suppose, further, that you’re wondering, given this, about whether to keep eating pork chops, or to stop (or maybe: to keep eating them in some more complicated and still-opposed-to-factory-farming way). And suppose you’re the type of anti-realist who thinks that what you “should do” is determined by what you “care about.”

OK, what do you care about? One story is: “I care about the animals that my culture treats as important.” And indeed, this story might seem the most natural fit with the “data.” If all we’re doing is drawing empirical curves, in an effort to explain your actual pattern of intuitions, this curve might seem like the winner. Maybe it’s a bit janky – your culture didn’t exactly pick a natural class of animals to honor vs. brutalize – but such fidelity! And if you follow this curve, you keep eating.

So, are we done? Well, it’s up to you. You’ve done some self-knowledge-gathering. You’re seeing yourself more whole. But what are you seeing? And what do you have left to see? Given what you now know, what you are going to do with your single chance to live?

5.4 Seeing the general of the army you’ve been fighting in

One thing you’re seeing more clearly, now, is what sort of force you’re going to be in the world, if you stick with your “default.” Maybe before, you were a hazy cloud of “common sense,” and “whatever seems reasonable” and “not off a cliff.” But now, you’ve gotten more concrete, and you’re seeing stuff about zoos and domestication and cuteness; you’re seeing that if you got born into a culture that brutalizes dogs instead, you – or, an agent running a policy very similar to yours — would go along with it. So you’re knowing a bit more about what, in practice, you’ve been fighting for so far; what the general of the army-you’ve-been-a-soldier-in will do with victory and power; what sort of vector you’ve been, and will be by default: namely, a vector for animals-your-culture-likes getting treated well; and for keeping the rest in crates.

And maybe, if you’ve started getting the “examined life” thing into your bones, new self-knowledge questions are coming up, too. For example, what would your policy do in a culture that brutalizes certain sorts of humans? How does it know what’s an “animal” and what’s not? Why do humans call each other animals during genocides? What’s going on, more generally, when something puts something else in a crate?

5.5 Looking again

But there’s also a different sort of “examined life” move that’s available here: one that seems to me especially precious, and especially hard to understand. I’m going to call it “looking again.”[8] Or maybe: “looking more deeply.”

We said above that you found your heart hot for dogs, cold for pigs; and that you found a good empirical theory for why this is so. And if you want, you can stop there; the same way that, if you want, you can glance at a painting, log it as “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” and move on. Or the way you can glance at a forest, or the stars, and say “pretty.” Or the way you can glance at how-to-live and say “happiness.”

“I like it?” (Image source here)

“Pretty?” (Image source here.)

But you can also do something else. You can look again. For example, at the dog trapped in the crate, whimpering. What’s really happening here? What’s really at stake? Yes, apparently, your care for this animal is dependent on your culture. But what is that care caring about? When you recoil at this animal getting beaten, what are you recoiling from?

Or maybe you look, again, at the pig. Maybe you sit down next to the pig, next to the crate, on the hard concrete. Maybe you try putting yourself into a crate. Maybe you try chewing, yourself, on a metal bar; or getting dragged by the ear down a dark hallway; or writhing on a hook as the blood sprays from your neck. You’re not a pig: you know that. But there’s something going on with this pig. Have you seen that thing whole?

I’m not just talking about empathy, though empathy may be involved. You can do the thing I’m talking about with non-minds – with paintings and forests and stars, with music, and with bad stuff, too, with wars and genocides and pettiness and envy. It’s some other openness, some willingness-to-receive. I think it’s related to what Martin Buber means by “encounter”; and Simone Weil, by “attention.” And related, too, to some dimension of love – not necessarily the “yes” part, or the gushy-gushy part: but love like in-the-world-with-you, aware-of-you, willing-to-see-you-as-you-are. And I think some types of science have some of this, too.[9]

I don’t have a great story about what’s going on, with this thing. I admit that, when done in a moral context (and in fact, more generally), it pulls me towards realism. And I think it does this partly because it seems like neither some static inquiry into what you already care about – some attempt to “expose yourself to different stimuli” and to notice your resulting motivational patterns – nor the type of thing easily captured by the connotations of becoming “better informed” (though that is indeed one gloss).

Still, I expect the anti-realists to have resources, ultimately, for understanding this thing, and for treating it as important. And I think the being-and-becoming dance may have a role to play. That is, part of what happens, when you “look again” or “look more deeply” at something, is that you invest more of your being-and-becoming dance into relationship with that thing. You become something new, with that thing, now, doing more to shape you. Indeed, that’s part of what’s scary, about trying to see things more whole. You don’t just find out who you already were, where you already lived. You’re not, just, drawing a “map.” Not just “seeing.” You’re being seen; being touched; being made.[10]

5.6 Choosing what you care about

And let’s suppose that, after various examined-life things in this vein, some new story becomes salient: namely, a story on which what you really care about, with the dog, is something about suffering; that this something is at stake, just as much, with the pig; and that in this sense, lack of care for the pig is a “mistake,” a kind of blindness, a not-to-be-trusted, a not-to-act-on. So now we have two possible stories: “I care about the dog, but not the pig,” and “I care about both.”

Which one is true? Wait, didn’t we already answer? We said: your heart is hot for the dog, cold for the pig. Well, yes, we did say that. But one thing is: it’s not like your examined life thing was over here, on the left, and your heart was over there, on the right – or at least, I hope not. So one thing that could’ve happened, is that your heart started changing, “becoming,” as you were doing this inquiry-thing, and this “looking again”; that your heart started to understand better what it was responding to, in the dog, and started to see that thing in the pig, too; or that it started to respond to something new in both of them.

But let’s make things harder, and suppose that actually, your heart is still just cold for pigs. Indeed, let’s say that for whatever reason, your emotional psychology is really anchored on your cultural status quo, such that you just can’t get fussed, at a certain emotional level, about the animals your culture doesn’t care about. In that case, do we have our answer? Is the true story “you care about the dog, but not the pig?”

Well, I’m not sure. Because I haven’t yet seen what you ultimately choose to do. That is, from the outside, if we’re wanting to know “does this person care about both the dog and the pig, or only the dog?”, we’re not just looking at the hotness of your heart. We’re looking at what you do, ultimately, with the pork chop (or: its analogue). We’re waiting for you to choose. Then we’ll know who you are, and what you value. But not before.

But you don’t have to wait. You get to choose for yourself. You get to decide which story will be true. Which story will have been true, even before you decided. If you choose to put down the pork chop, because of something about the pig’s suffering, then it will already have been the case that there was something in you that would do that; something “moved,” pretty literally, by the pig’s suffering; something with motive force; something, I think, rightly called “care,” whatever its temperature in your heart.

That is, there is an important sense in which you get to choose what you value, because your choices, and what will-have-caused-them-once-they-are-made, are part of what constitutes what you value. You are not beholden to some pre-existing set of impulses and emotions and desires. You’re not even beholden to what you “would do,” “would feel,” etc in other, more idealized circumstances.[11] You are active. You are a participant. Yes, there is a story, here, but you can’t read ahead. You live in the story. You’re a character; indeed, a player character. Trying to read ahead would be another thing happening in the story now; there would still be a question of what happens next; and it would still be up to you.

This isn’t some post-modernist woo. It’s not a more general “choose your own reality.” You can’t make yourself, for example, into something-that-can-fly – and not because you’re not believing hard enough.

It can seem woo-y, though, because we’re bad at understanding compatibilism about free will; bad at understanding how it both be the case that there’s already a fact about what you will do, and the case that you get to decide. But, that’s the deal. And when you decide, what you care about will have been flowing through you; and we will see its fruits.

5.7 Living from the inside

To be clear: I’m not trying to say that there’s nothing confusing here. In particular: part of what we’re talking about is living “from the inside,” as opposed to purely “from the outside.” Looking out of your own eyes, instead of always from above; moving your own arms, instead of watching them move. And basically everyone, as far as I can tell, kind of sucks at understanding this realm of thing, including the “illusionists,” and the people who use the word “algorithm” like it’s supposed to help. It’s connected, unfortunately, to the consciousness stuff, the stuff about “qualia” and “what it’s like to be something”; stuff about the territory, the world, making a map of itself, “knowing” itself, “being aware of itself,” even as it surges forward, with the map making a difference, the maps mapping each other and themselves, eyes looking back at each other, the world becoming spirit, brute matter becoming “awake.”

But the confusing stuff here is also important, even to the meta-ethicists. In particular, I suspect that “reasons” are going to end up similar to “care, but from the inside,” and that part of what the realists are reacting to, when they recoil from rephasing normative talk in terms of “I care abouts,” is the sense in which “I care about” shifts us back into looking at ourselves from above, and “above” is not the stance of decision. “No, no, we’re not trying to map ourselves, here,” say the realists, and they are right. We are doing something else. We are doing the being-and-becoming dance. We’re looking out of our own eyes.

And I think the anti-realists struggle with this, too. Anti-realists are most comfortable with “above,” with some kind of descriptive, third-personal, map-making mode. They’re scared to not be doing science. So they hope that science can make their choices for them; that if they just knew enough science, there would be no need for ethics; that if they could just watch themselves hard enough, they would never need to be themselves. And maybe, if you do enough of that, you can forget that you were being yourself, making yourself, the whole time; that what you did, actually, was choose some specific self-to-be – one that granted some authority to some particular set of facts, which allowed some particular “outside” to move the inside forward. But it was you the whole time.

5.8 Gushy-gushy is not the same as care

And I think this issue matters, too, to realist objections to anti-realism that assume “what I care about” is some fixed, unchosen thing that the anti-realist thinks you must respect. And it matters, too, for anti-realists (and realists, too) who get worried that their hearts aren’t hot enough about the stuff they want to care about. Your heart – or at least, a narrow, gushy-gushy construal of your heart – isn’t the only thing with heat, here; your mind has heat, too. Your mind can move stuff, and be moved. It, too, has energy and life. Just as suffering can flow through from the world, to your heart, to what you do with the porkchop, so too can it flow through from the world, to your mind, and out along that same path – out through your arms, your voice, your life. “Gushy-gushy” is the not the same as care.

Thus, for example, many people, including me, want to say stuff like “people’s suffering doesn’t matter less, the further away it is from me in space.” But here the realist comes in and says “but c’mon, dude, there’s some clear sense in which you care more about the suffering you see right in front of you than suffering far away: for example, look at the difference in how hot your heart is. And also: you agree with me that this stuff about idealizations isn’t some straightforward solution. So where are you getting the idea that you shouldn’t be partial to the nearby-people? If I were you, and an anti-realist, I’d just be like ‘well, clearly I don’t, actually, care equally about people far away, and there’s no pressure from normative reality to revise this pattern of concern, so that’s just: that.’”[12]

But the pressure doesn’t need to come from normative reality. It can come from you. You can choose to not let your policy be dictated by the hotness of your heart in this regard. And if you do that well (doing it well is indeed harder), and without self-deception (also tricky), then I think it will be right to view your efforts as an expression of your care for far-away people. And if you do it fully, and you actually implement a policy that treats far away and nearby people equally, and you do this because it treats those people equally, then I think it will be right to say that you care equally about them, even if your heart’s mirror is partly dim.

But how do you decide whether to implement such a policy, or to try to? Look out your own eyes. What do you see?  

6. Poise

So these are three dimensions of the examined life: understanding what it’s possible to be and to do; understanding what you are, and what you are doing; and choosing what you will be, and what you will do. It’s trying to see more whole; but to see that whole, too, from out of your own eyes.

Now obviously, there’s a ton more to be said about the examined life, and about the value of anti-realist ethics in particular (and more to be said, as well, about some of the stories in the previous essay – here I’m especially interested in “getting your parts to play nice together” stuff). And I want to reemphasize that trying to see yourself more whole does not mean distorting yourself, or simplifying yourself, or killing parts of yourself, for the sake of becoming more “seeable.” Nor, indeed, do the vibes of the word “systematic” seem especially useful, here. This isn’t about forcing yourself into a spreadsheet. And the vibes of “philosophy” may mislead, too. Certainly, this isn’t about grabbing blindly at the nearest ethic you happen to associate with philosophers; and the costs of doing philosophy badly remain as high as ever (indeed, such costs are often proportionate to the enthusiasm and confidence with which the relevant “philosophy” was pursued – a fact that persists in its relevance to the case for “common sense”).

Nor, indeed, is the stuff I’ve been talking about some kind of uber-value, some hard constraint on how-to-live, that must trump and structure all other values. The value of “examination” and “seeing more whole” trades off against jogging and practicing public speaking and so on, just as everything else does. Indeed, in this sense, the account I’ve offered here raises the same question that the “brute preference” and the “money-pumping” accounts raised in the last essay: OK yes, maybe that’s worth something, but how much?

To me, though, it’s worth a lot. And I hope what I’ve said here can serve as an at-least-somewhat-structured gesture at part of what makes it seem that way. In particular, I’m hoping that some vision of a way of being might shine through. Something where you’re taking active responsibility for what you are doing with your one and only chance to live. Where you don’t just have a policy; you’re choosing your policy, designing it, trying to see what combination of forces it represents, trying to change it if you aren’t a “yes” to what it ultimately amounts to. You’re not just a thing; you’re a thing-making-itself. You aren’t just another vortex of causation, blindly flinging out whatever reflexive reactions the world coughed into you. Rather, you’ve found some sort of footing, some kind of center. Something stands upright. You know what you are doing, and why.

It’s a vision, for me, of a kind of poise; a not-flailing; perhaps, even, a kind of grace. Or maybe: a kind of adulthood. In so many ways, we are, indeed, as children. Barely not rocks. We barely have eyes, I suspect, relative to what it is possible; we never see near to whole; and what light can we see is almost too much, too bright. Still, we are here. We are free. We can try to look steady.

  1. ^

    See also Walter Kaufmann on God, in the intro to his translation of I and Thou.

  2. ^

    The idea of “taking responsibility” comes up often in my writing – e.g. here, here, here.

  3. ^

    Great start, Joe.

  4. ^

    Worth living, I expect.

  5. ^

    Though: philosophy has a body! Including: a chest. Or, it should. Abstractions – or, some abstractions – aren’t actually abstract. They’re just talking about a lot of concrete, detailed things at once. Cf. “Future people.” “Better for everyone.” “Children far away.” Thanks to a friend for discussion of this last point.

  6. ^

    Though: not if you suck at putting it into practice. Which also seems like a risk these days.

  7. ^

    Wikipedia here, here, and here. Horrible footage here.

  8. ^

    Here I’m inspired in part by the daughter-in-law parable in Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good.

  9. ^

    Thanks to Katja Grace and Anna Salamon for discussion of some of this stuff, years ago.

  10. ^

    Related: you read the text; but it reads you, too. (Maybe also: “if thou gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”)

  11. ^

    If someone tries to tell you what you will do in this specific circumstance, we get into weirder territory. But I don’t think it’s a problem. You still get to choose. It’s just that, one of the choices is to make the thought experiment incoherent.

  12. ^

    Though I actually think that “space” isn’t the thing here; rather, it’s more about my “zone.”

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Hi Joe, I read your posts twice and I liked many of the things raised but have a bit of a difficult time figuring out your exact positions on these topics. Would it be possible to just write down your views in a few lines? You can leave out the arguments.

I’m not Joe, but I thought I’d offer my attempt. It's a little more than a few lines (~350 words), though hopefully it's of some use.

Moral anti-realists often think about moral philosophy, even though they believe there are no moral facts to discover. If there are no facts to be discovered, we might ask “why bother? What’s the point of doing ethics?”

Joe provides three possible reasons:

  1. Through moral theorizing, we can better understand which sets of principles it’s possible to consistently endorse.
    1. Sometimes, ethical theorizing can help you discover a tension among the different principles you’re drawn to. EJT offers one nice example in his comment. Joe takes various impossibility results in population ethics to provide another example.
  2. Through moral theorizing, you can also develop a better self-understanding. If you’re just jumbling along without ever reflecting on your principles, you don’t know what you stand for.
    1. Consider the total utilitarian. They’ve engaged in moral theorizing, and now better understand (so claims Joe) what they stand for. If you never reflect on your values, you forgo some degree of agency. You forgo the ability to properly push for what you care about, because to a large degree you don't know exactly what you care about.  

We can call the first two benefits of moral theorizing ‘static benefits’ (not Joe’s term). Moral theorizing can benefit you by taking for granted your psychology, and provide you with tools to better understand your psychology, and make your existing principles more coherent. However, there’s also a more dynamic benefit to be had from moral theorizing.

  1. Moral theorizing can help you construct the person you want to be. This benefit is harder to precisely convey. 
    1. My analogy: I like going to galleries with friends who know more about the visual arts than I do. Sometimes, I’ll look at a painting and just not get it. Then, my friend will point out a detail I’ve missed, and get me to look again.
    2. In many cases, this will make me like the painting more. It's not that my friend provided me with more self-understanding by informing me that "I liked the painting all along". Rather, I've grown to like the painting more through seeing it more clearly. Ethical theorizing can provide a similar benefit. When we engage in ethical theorizing, we “look again” or “look more deeply” at who we are. This is partly about understanding who we already were, and partly about understanding who we want to become

This is an amazing post. I'm curating it.

I highly recommend it on the basis of its way-more-sensible-than-what-I've-otherwise-read takes on how to approach ethics from an anti-realist lens, and for being some of the best spiritual-adjacent EA writing I've read.

This is a really wonderful post, Joe. When I receive notifications for your posts, I feel like I’m put in touch with the excitement that people in the 1800s might have felt when being delivered newspapers containing serially published chapters of famous novels. : )

Okay, enough buttering up. Onto objections. 

I very much like your notions of taking responsibility, and of seeing yourself whole. However, I object to certain ways you take yourself to be applying these criteria. 

(I’ll respond in two comments; the points are related, but I wanted to make it easier to respond to each point independently) 

1. Understanding who we are, and who it’s possible to be 

My first point of pushback: I think that your suggested way of engaging with population axiology can, in many cases, impede one's ability to take full responsibility for one's values, through improperly narrowing the space of who it's possible to be. 

  • When I ask myself why I care about understanding what it’s possible to be, it’s because I care about who I can be — what sort of thing, with what principles, will the world allow me to be? 
  • In your discussion of Utopia and Lizards, you could straightforwardly bring out a contradiction in the views of your interlocutor, because you engineered a direct comparison between concrete worlds, in a way that was analogous to the repugnant conclusion.
    • Moreover, your interlocutor endorsed certain principles that were collectively inconsistent. You need to have your interlocutor endorse principles, because you don’t get inconsistency results from mere behavior. 
    • People can just decide between concrete worlds however they like. You can only show that someone is inconsistent if they take themselves to be acting on the basis of incompatible principles.  

I agree that doing ethics (broadly construed) can, for the anti-realist, help them understand which sets of principles it even makes sense to endorse as a whole. So I agree with your abstract claim about ethics helping the anti-realist see which principles they can coherently endorse together. But I also believe that certain kinds of formal theorizing can inhibit our sense of what (or who) it’s possible to be, because certain kinds of theorizing can (incorrectly) lead us to believe that we are operating within a space which captures the only possible way to model our moral commitments.    

  • For instance: I don’t think that I’m committed to a well-defined, impartial, and context-independent, aggregate welfare ranking with the property of finite fine-grainedness. The axioms of Arrehnius’ impossibility theorem (to which you allude) quantify over welfare levels with well-defined values. 
    • If I reflect on my principles, I don’t find this aggregate welfare measure directly, nor do I see that it’s entailed by any of my other commitments. If I decide on one concrete world over another, I don’t take this to be grounded in a claim about aggregate welfare. 
    • I don’t mean to say that I think there are no unambiguous cases where societies (worlds) are happier than others. Rather, I mean to say that granting some determinate welfare rankings over worlds doesn’t mean that I’m thereby committed to the existence of a well-defined, impartial welfare ranking over worlds in every context.  

So: I think I have principles which endorse the claim: ‘Utopia > Lizards’, and I don’t think that leaves me endorsing some unfortunate preference about concrete states of affairs. In Utopia and Lizards, Z (to me) seems obviously worse than A+. In the original Mere Addition Paradox, it’s a bit trickier, because Parfit’s original presentation assumes the existence of ‘an’ aggregate welfare-level, which is meant to represent some (set of) concrete state of affairs. And I think more would need to be said in order to convince me that there’s some fact of the matter about which concrete situations instantiate Parfit’s puzzle. 

How does this all relate to your initial defense of moral theorizing? In short, I think that moral theorizing can have benefits (which you suggest), but — from my current perspective — I feel as  though moral theorizing can also impose an overly narrow picture of what a consistent moral self-conception must look like. 

Great post!

For example, maybe, according to you, you’re an “all men are created equal” type. That is, you treat all men equally. Maybe you even write a fancy document about this, and this document gets involved in the founding of a country, or something.

There’s a thing philosophy can do, here, which is to notice that you still own slaves. Including: male slaves. And it can do that whole “implication” thing, about how, Socrates is a man, you treat all men equally, therefore you treat Socrates equally, except oh wait, you don’t, he’s your slave.

Charles Mills points out another tension in the Declaration of Independence: about 900 words after 'all men are created equal', there's a sentence about 'merciless Indian Savages'.

(Second Comment)

2. On seeing ourselves whole

You say, in response to messy pluralism:

“We can talk, individually, about each of a zillion little choice vectors one by one; but we don’t know where they push in combination, what they are doing, what explains them; what they represent. We can see ourselves making any given specific choice. But we can’t see ourselves whole.”

I love the sentiment you express here. I engage in moral reasoning as an attempt to see (and indeed construct) myself whole. With that said, I’m unsure how much “self-knowledge” we actually lose by adopting messy pluralism. I want to look at three components of the quote, and explain how I see myself whole in response t

            A. What are my little choice vectors doing? 

At an abstract level, my choice vectors are pushing me towards actions I can genuinely stand behind. They’re pushing me towards actions which, if I reflect, I can prescribe for all agents with my fuzzy, inchoate values in the decision-context I find myself.

            B. What explains my little choice vectors? 

Well, there’ll be some causal stories of the ordinary, standard type. But you know this. I take it that, through this question, you’re asking: what rationalizes my choices? What makes it the case that I am acting agentically, and with responsibility? Thus the final question.

           C. What do my choice vectors represent?

In the ideal case, they represent something like my answer in (A): that is, they represent the actions I’d prescribe for all agents with my fuzzy, inchoate values in my decision-context.

  • You might reasonably point out that this response is largely uninformative. What do my fuzzy, inchoate values actually represent? 

To see myself whole is to see myself as I actually am. That means, yes, seeing myself as someone who is genuinely committed to certain principles, and seeing myself as someone who can be surprised by what’s entailed by my principles. But to see myself honestly is also to see myself as someone in the process of becoming more whole; it’s to see myself as someone who has not yet (fully, at least) worked themselves out. 

So, what do my choice vectors represent? They represent a desire to alleviate the distress of those who are (and will be) suffering. They represent a desire to face up to the vast scale of the world, and a desire to face up to the fact that the world may not be how I wish it to be. And my choice vectors represent a desire to “look again” at morality, and to allow for the possibility that there’s something I might have missed. 

        D. Concluding messy pluralism

I think that acknowledging some degree of messy pluralism is part of what allows me to see myself whole. It allows me to encounter my values (my heart, my sentiment, whatever) as they actually are, rather than the values of some hypothetical, more precisely systematized offshoot of me.  

  • I agree that, to see oneself whole, one should look at the totality of one’s choices and principles, and then ask “wait, what exactly is going on here?”. Indeed, I think that this is particularly important to do when certain tensions in our principles or actions are brought to light. 
  • That said, I’m skeptical of how much more “self-knowledge” the utilitarian framework actually provides. The utilitarian can say, of course, that they are a force for “total utility”. But what does this mean, exactly? What’s the mapping between between valenced experiential states and welfare numbers, and, indeed, what justifies any particular mapping? 
  • When we get to what exactly we mean by total utility, I do become unsure about what the utilitarian is “a force” for. I think this is clear in population axiology and infinite ethics. Of course, there are more humdrum cases when this is clearer (though so too for the right kind of pluralist), and we may hope for some clever workaround in infinite cases.
  • But, insofar as utilitarians hope for and try to construct workarounds to (e.g.) cases in infinite ethics, then I think we’ve shown that real-life utilitarians are primarily a force for something more fuzzy and foundational than straightforward utilitarianism. This force, after all, is what motivates utilitarians to reject claims of equal welfare between (some) infinite worlds. At bottom, I think, the utilitarian doesn’t really have much more of a sense of what “force” they are than (at least some) pluralists — they’re primarily using “total utility” as a placeholder for a set of more complicated sentiments.

This force is not what motivates this utilitarian. Rather, we should act as if we are in a finite world, and even in an infinite world we should understand that utilitarianism is not about maximising some abstract utility function or number in the sky, but about improving the conscious experiences of sentient beings. Infinities don’t change the fact that I can reduce the suffering of the person in front of me, or the sentient being on the other side of the world, or the fact that this is good for them. And there are good practical, utilitarian reasons not to spend one’s time focusing on other potential worlds.

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