Friday, August 28, 2015

Modern philosophy makes no sense

Kevin Drum talks about the failings of modern philosophy, including its fascination with the trolley problem. He describes a common philosophical undertaking, taking an apparently reasonable position then attempting to apply it universally and consistently, then being shocked at the results and either using that shock to discredit the initial position or claiming that the shocking final result is a valid result. The trolley problem is popular precisely because it is so easy to generate apparently reasonable initial positions, then extrapolate from them.

Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save, whether its book, web site, or organizational form is an extended exercise in this process. He takes scenarios based on a drowning child, and extrapolates to teach us how we should respond to global poverty. And it's a deeply dishonest effort.

The trolley problem (and Singer's drowning child variation) are exercises not in moral philosophy, but in moral psychology. They investigate the boundaries of our moral sense, not in the realm of logic but in the realm of emotion. And it turns out that our emotional moral senses are complicated, even chaotic. Like public opinion surveys, the results you get from exercises like this depend a great deal on precise wording, the exact types of actions (or inactions) taken (or not). What they show is that our moral sense is weird, strange, and inconsistent, and that we don't really understand it.

What Singer does with this stew of inconsistent results is to pick a particular result that supports his conclusion, then extrapolate from it, ignoring and sometimes dismissing contradictory scenarios, as well as common patterns from the same sets of morality exercises.

For example, Singer tells the story of someone driving a luxury car that represents not just a current source of great personal joy, but his retirement savings, then asks whether the owner should direct a train away from a child to save the child's life, even at the expense of his own joy and future well-being. Unsurprisingly, most people think he should, and from that Singer concludes that we should all forgo all but the bare essentials to prevent avoidable deaths from poverty.

Yet if you change the story a bit, and ask questions like "Should someone mortgage their house to pay for life-saving treatment of a child who lives down the street?" you would get different answers.

In Singer's book, all his scenarios support his conclusions. Moreover, after noting that trolley problem thought experiments suggest that people view action and inaction differently (perhaps recognizing that in a finite life, we cannot do all things), he dismisses that general observation, consistent across a wide range of moral psychology scenarios, as irrelevant.

Unsurprisingly, while noting that poverty has decreased dramatically over the past five decades, both in real and relative terms, the book spends almost no time investigating that phenomenon, insisting instead that large increases in aid are the best answer going forward.

The biggest disappointment for me is that I agree with Prof. Singer that we should and could be doing far more, and yet I found the arguments in his book depressingly weak.