The value of attentiveness January 24, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: attention, meditation, morality
As an introvert, I value time alone. I get overwhelmed by too much social activity. And yet, I love social activity often, especially with people I like and love. I mention this as a disclaimer for what will follow, because I am aware that my values are derived from these facts.
Growing up, I attended a Quaker school. Part of our routine, at a Quaker establishment of education, was meeting for worship; a silent time of reflection and potential personal communion with some god once a week. As a person who is easily distracted, it was useful to be exposed to and forced to get used to being quiet and inactive for a little while. It may be a post hoc rationalization, I know, but I have come to view the ability to do so as a sign of good character. I believe this because I’m generally happier the less I am distracting myself. I’m happier when I spend some time, each day, doing essentially nothing. Not all day, mind you, or even for a long time. Usually, taking 5-15 minutes now and then to just sit, not thinking about anything in particular and just relaxing without podcasts, TV, etc in the background is a means to allow my mind to calm and to unconsciously process perspective.
But more than those moments of quiet, I value attentiveness and the related skills of empathy and sympathy. I value these things because they expose us to parts of our minds, behavior, strengths and weaknesses contains within us in ways that we are likely to be blind to when we distract ourselves constantly. I know, I know…I’m starting to sound like that tropish old, grouchy man who complains that modern technology is destroying the world. No, it’s not that, it’s something more universal than that. That trope of the old grouchy Luddite is based on an ancient struggle for a balance between introspection and having to be active in order to survive being translated into concerns about technology.
I believe that there is a lot that happens in our brain that we are not aware of. Consciousness, whatever it’s nature, is only a small part of what our brain is doing at any given time, and if you have ever gone away from thinking about a problem to have the solution seem to come out of nowhere later, then I think you know what I mean by saying that when we are (consciously) thinking, we are still thinking. And while I don’t have any evidence on hand at the moment, I believe that when we distract ourselves constantly, we are unable to effectively introspect and process parts of ourselves which might be scary, unwanted, or apparently boring. Further, by glossing over those things I think we miss much about ourselves we could learn from.
It is for this reason that I have a fair amount of respect for meditation, at least insofar as it is practiced in a secular manner (the way Sam Harris advocates). It is also the reason why I have some affinity to the side of religion, as it has popped up through history, which tends towards the mystical or esoteric. Whether it’s wisdom literature, philosophical introspection, etc I am able to see the importance of this aspect of religion’s role in history because I have a similar set of values and internal attributes as the various writers I have loved from religious and philosophical traditions. For me, reading a good writer is like peeking inside someone else’s mind for a little while. I’m less interested in their beliefs, conclusions, etc as I am in the process, tone, and emotional environment of their thinking.
There is something essential, in my opinion, about being able to merely be without effort, sometimes. Other times, it is important to be silly, irreverent, ecstatic, and very busy, especially when their is shit to do. Because I’m an introvert, I work most often on my skills at being social. I work to overcome my fear of embarrassment, rejection, and (probably the worst of all) allowing my own emotional environment to awaken the parts of me I am trying to transcend (like defensiveness, when disagreeing with someone). My weakest point (as many people know) is probably my poor ability to communicate my needs and desires well, especially in the face of other people who have little problem making their preferences known. It’s, frankly, intimidating. For those who are good at making preferences and desires known, this can be frustrating in terms of being around me (both because I have trouble communicating my desires and because I will sometimes resent your ability to do so easily). Where others will ask (which often feels like a demand to me), I will rely on social context cues. This, for me and others, is inefficient and frustrating. It is, however, where my strengths lie, and is as a result of thinking that way most of my life t I am very good at reading those cues, where some people are not.
Those cues seem so obvious to me, but not to most people (Ginny will attest to that). It’s why I’m working on communicating better, while also trying to show how and why the ability to read cues is an important skill as well. That is because in the debate about whether it is better to communicate or to have a set of skills designed to make such communication generally unnecessary (some things will always be necessary to communicate overtly) is wrong-headed, in my view. Yes, we should all communicate effectively, but we should also be learning how to be more self-aware, and that self-awareness is the result of the ability to pay more attention to what is happening around you. That can only be done if we are not distracting ourselves. Because if people are better at being attentive and aware, those of us who are struggling to communicate well will be less stressed out about communicating, because we won’t have to as often.
But, as usual, such conflicts are the result of the social interactions of differing value sets. Never attribute malice where simple laziness, inattentiveness, and misunderstanding are a better explanation. All too often disagreements are about values which are incompatible, like when people think they are arguing about the same thing, when they aren’t.
To use an partially relevant example which Wes used, earlier today:
I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view).
Here’s the thing about this; I agree with him. His argument is sound, he has every right to use his phone whenever he wants to and he has no obligation to interact with people around him. But when I read this, my mind sort of winced, because from where I’m standing this approach is missing a larger question, one which trumps this question in some ways. Now, granted Wes is answering a specific question; whether it is acceptable to use your smartphone in a social situation, where doing so might offend people. Another disclaimer, I will grant that I have a visceral feeling of guilt when using my phone too much in social situations, which I admit is not an argument for not doing so, but it is the reason that I don’t tend to do it unless I have some significant business to attend to with people who are elsewhere.
But the other reason I don’t find this question particularly interesting or compelling is because I would have addressed another issue before I even got to that question. Insofar as I might disagree with Wes’s conclusion has nothing to do with consent or obligation in social situations. For me, the consent issue here is secondary to the larger issue–the larger meta-value–of whether I should be distracting myself in such a way at all generally, whether in a social situation or not. I agree that I don’t morally owe people my attention (in most cases), so I can choose to, without morally infringing on anyone by using my phone while around them. They may not like me for doing so, but maybe I’m OK with that. But because I value being attentive, I won’t use my phone in such situations because the attention I invest has the long term consequence of allowing me to be more sensitive, and fosters self-awareness which I value quite highly. Here, the moral question is not whether I’m bothering the other people right now, but it is a strategy I employ to be a better person generally in the long run, by being generally more attentive.
Wes might argue, as I have heard him say, that he’s not interested in the social activity physically around him, so he’s opting for the social activity through technology. And yes, that is a fine argument to make. And in some cases I will do the same. But what I keep struggling with is the problem of missing on the beautiful subtleties of things around me. For me to be open to the things which bring me real joy, fulfillment, and teach me not only about the world, but also myself, I need to often be willing to be attentive fully to my thoughts, feelings, the room I’m in, and the thoughts and feelings of others around me. And all too often, people (myself included) are merely distracting themselves with their smartphone, rather than using it as an alternate means to being attentive to the world.
S, while I will conclude, at least tentatively, that is is sometimes fine to be on your smartphone in social situations, especially where it fosters relationships with people who are elsewhere. But the question I keep wondering is whether people who are almost always on the smartphones (computers, TVs, etc) in social situations or not are doing so to foster and maintain actual relationships, or is it a habitual means to perpetually distract oneself? Insofar as technology is a means to establish and maintain community and relationships, I think it’s great. Where it doesn’t do that, I would prefer to minimize it’s presence in my own life (I’m not so good at that sometimes). Also, I recognize that there are legitimate times when distracting oneself is a helpful strategy, especially when it comes to things like clinical depression or other mental health concerns. There are certainly times when I need to distract myself to prevent the spiral of insecurity, fear, and anger which is a perpetual concern, but I can’t allow this to be an excuse to always distract myself. My concern is the apparent inability to put the phone away, turn the TV off, stop playing the game, etc for a little while and just stop. The inability to be bored, patient, and not entertained is a good skill, and I believe it helps us be more compassionate, empathetic, and (in the long run) moral people.
If I were more attentive to the world around me, rather than allow myself the easy distractions, I would be generally happier, I think. And I suspect that people generally following that advice would lead to better things as well. I would also write more, which is also good for me, psychologically and emotionally, since I would be thinking more. There are aspects of myself that I really love, and they too often get buried by the miasma of distraction. That me is attentive, affectionate, and more social. I want my family, friends, and lovers to keep encouraging me to be that person more, and I encourage others to consider doing the same.
Jonathon Haidt on preferences and morality November 28, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
Tags: gay marriage, Jonathon Haidt, morality, politics, preferences, society
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Saying ” because I don’t want to” is a perfectly acceptable justification for one’s subjective preferences. Yet moral judgments are not subjective statements; they are claims that somebody did something wrong. I can’t call for the community to punish you simply because I don’t like what you’re doing. I have to point to something outside of my own preferences, and that pointing is our moral reasoning. We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.
This is from page 44 of Jonathon Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind which I am currently reading.
This idea is central to how I have been thinking about morality in recent years, at least in conjunction to ideas very much like those in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. I take it as axiomatic that preferences exist as the basis for much of our opinions, whether they be about politics, sex, religion, etc. I realize that our values are not chosen, but are the result of fundamental emotional/pre-conscious processes which we don’t have immediate or easy access to.
But when it comes to things like public policy, especially when it comes to things like sexual orientation, I recognize that there is a significant burden on those who seek to limit personal freedoms which derive from our fundamental preferences and desires. Religion is a devastating vehicle for such preferences—preserving and sanctifying them—but it is but one example of the great-grandparent of all vehicles for such things; culture. Culture is not good or bad, per se, but it carries traditions and concepts which we put there, often without knowing why. Culture is the storage space for all of our un-chosen fears, hopes, and everything in between.
It may be one of the great ironies of the human condition that we have to be willing to reject the specific preferences that we have for the sake of personal rights of others. I say it’s ironic, because those same sets of preferences are the bases by which we rationalize morality at all; our personal preferences are the bases for enlightened self-interest, the golden rule, etc. If we didn’t share the universal sets of personal preferences, then morality would not be relevant because we would feel no compulsion towards any particular action, let alone compassion. It is because we care about our own preferences that we can, and feel compelled to, care about the preferences of others.
I cannot change, and did not choose, that I am sexually attracted to women rather than men (overwhelmingly, anyway), any more than another person cannot change that they are attracted to men, all genders, etc. Thus, the same desires I have to create various levels of intimacy and commitment with women are analogous to the desires that gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and even sapiosexual people have for the subjects of their desires. My preferences are mine, and their preferences are theirs. When put next to each other and looked at inter-subjectively, no subjective preferences have a privileged status and all must be given equal initial weight (my like of John Rawls will be apparent here). Thus, gay marriage is as much a right as any other form of marriage between consenting adults, because my preference for women is no more inter-subjectively valid than a preference for men and so forth.
Cultural tradition (specifically religion), the storage space for those bigoted fears, disgusts, and shames concerning homosexuality, are not sufficient reasons to create discriminatory policies against some forms of those desires for intimacy and commitment.
We have our preferences, but those preferences cannot inform, on their own, how we create policies that affect other people, at least in cases where no non-consenting victim exists. And we have to keep in mind that as we dig into our minds (in the sense of Nietzsche’s concept of being archaeologists of the soul), we may find that preferences can change, and that we may grow new ones as we grow and learn. Because while we may not choose our preferences, we can at least expose our mind to new ways of seeing issues which may alter the way our unconscious mind prefers to react.
Pay attention to your immediate and unconscious reactions. Be mindful of feelings of disgust, shame, and fear in the site of things which we cannot find reasons to feel disgusted, shameful, or fearful of. Sometimes interesting facts emerge while probing our preferences. And sometimes our preferences, and thus our values, are actually just wrong and will need to be replaced, if that’s possible.
For the sake of our species I hope that values can be replaced. But if not, I hope that we can at least convince people who have those damaging preferences that they should accept that their preferences will not become laws to govern all.
Morality as an applied science November 21, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: morality, naturalistic fallacy, Sam Harris, science
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Quick note: My blogging activity has been very light lately because I have just started working again. I am going to dedicate some more time to writing so that I can have at least a couple of posts a week, and hopefully more. One the positive side, my posts may become shorter (you’re welcome)
There continues to be conversations about the relationship between science and morality in the blogosphere (here’s some from yesterday), which is no surprise since it overlaps issues such as scientism, religion, and skepticism generally. These topics are all hot tamales, at least on my google reader.
Moral philosophy can bee thought of as an application of scientifically discovered facts to a problem in social dynamics. In a sense, it is a bit like a computer programming problem in that we know what kind of program we want to create (a harmonious society with minimal ill-treatment of its citizens), but we need to figure out how to achieve this goal with the software and hardware we have. The hardware and software are (loosely) ourselves, and the program we want to write involves coming up with a way to order social relationships in a way which benefits people while preventing their harm if possible.
And what is morality? Is it the study of how humans (or other sentient beings) interact in groups, or is it the study of the how those humans should act in groups given some given desires and goals? With morality the desires are given (they are the facts of our psyches), and the goals are at least defined even if not universally shared. It is the logistics of how to achieve those goals which are where science comes in.
Is this puzzle one for the scientific method, or more generally one for empirical research? That depend son how we are defining ‘science’ here. If it is meant merely are a set of tools towards pure research, where the empirical methodology we use is utilized in order to discover laws or support hypotheses towards some theory, then no. If it is meant as a more general application of reason and the scientific method, then yes. As I have written recently, I think that the term ‘science’ in terms of these philosophical questions (such as the issue of science v. religion) should make way for ‘skepticism’ instead.
Moral philosophy is not science in the same way that physics is a science. There is science where we know the road (method) but not the goal (like physics), and then there is science where we know the goal (some achievement, technological or otherwise) but not the path by which to get there. Morality is an example the latter; we know what we want to accomplish, but we need more information and analysis before we know how to get there. Morality is an applied science.
When we are talking about doing the science of morality, we are not talking about designing a set of experiments to discover the underlying laws of morality as we would with physics. But morality is a field where we have real, physical things about which we have questions and goals. We will use reason, empiricism, etc in doing moral philosophy but most importantly doing moral philosophy will compel the need for further empirical research, some of which might be physics. It will mostly be neuroscience.
So, to deny that morality is a scientific project only makes sense if we are to define science so narrowly as to limit it to pure research, rather than the larger skeptical project of discovering what is true or how to achieve things via naturalistic means. This is why I prefer to use ‘skepticism’ in place of science in so many conversations such as this, because so many people conflate ‘science’ with pure research. I think that is the source of much of the disagreement concerning this issue.
For people such as Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, etc, ‘science’ seems to stand for that larger skeptical project. The best approach to any topic (including morality) is this skeptical method often referred to as ‘scientism’ by so many commentators, and confused with some kind of neo-positivism by others. That’s why morality is a skeptical project; it is by these empirical and logical methods that we can get real answers to meaningful questions asked.
For morality, the question asked is something like “how should we behave socially in order to allow people to maintain personal and social well being?” This goal of well being (or whatever term you prefer) is not the thing we are trying to determine or justify, it is the project of moral philosophy from the start. If we were not assuming, axiomatically, the values of well being, happiness, or whatever term we prefer, we would not be talking about morality at all, but something else. And what other method besides the empirical ones of science could we use to find out how to answer this question?
We are not using science to determine what morality is or should be, we are using it to find the best ways to solve the philosophical problem we are already aware of. That’s why this is not about the is-ought “fallacy.” We are not saying that these are the facts, and so we should do this. We are saying that here is the place we want to be, so how do we get there?
Much like how we are not using science to find or justify our desires for truth when we use it to determine what is true generally, we are not using science to discover or justify our desire for a moral society by trying to discover the best means to attain such a thing. If you don’t take that goal as axiomatic, then you don’t care about doing moral philosophy. Similarly, if you don’t care about the truth, you don’t do science.
We skeptical and scientistic moral philosophers take what the hard sciences give us through their pure research methods and apply it to this problem of creating a better society in which to live. That, to me, is applied science.
The Moral Landscape (some early thoughts) January 14, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: morality, Sam Harris, science, The Moral Landscape
I’m currently (finally) reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which I am enjoying so far). I am finding that I agree with Sam Harris much more often than not, and will recommend the book.
Right now, I want to post a few short quotes concern an issue I have been thinking about, as well as arguing about on an email list for atheists.
What are our priorities? How can we make ourselves better people? What is a good person?
Here is a quote from the book which is tangentially related to some recent conversations I have been having via email with some atheists with varying priorities.
I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuititive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being). And only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.
Inserted at the end of that sentence there is an end note, from which I quote the following:
Many people’s reflexive response to the notion of moral expertise is to say, “I don’t want anyone telling me how to live my life.” To which I can only respond, “If there were a way for you and those you care about to be much happier than you are now, would you want to know about it?”
This is a question that is relevant to religion and faith. I ask, sometimes, a similar question to believers. If there were a worldview out there which could allow you to feel happier, more fulfilled, and could also survive skeptical analysis, would you want to know it? If it were true that religion is indeed a scam, that belief in god(s) is not warranted, and that science truly is the best method we have for attaining knowledge, would you want to know that?
I can only say that I truly would want to know if there were a god. Whether or not I would want a relationship with said being would depend upon the nature of that god. Would theists really want to know if they were wrong? Some would, but perhaps not most.
Harris continues on the next page (in the main text):
Whatever [the Taliban] think they want out of life–like keeping all women and girls subjugated and illiterate–they simply do not understand how much better life would be for them if they had different priorities.
I’m finding that I agree with Harris’ main premise of the book so far. His main idea is that because our behavior, feelings, etc are a result of a physical brain, science is, in principle as well as (possibly) practice, capable of discovering the states of being that would maximize “well-being.” Knowing what ways we might be well is a good start on how we should behave. I will keep reading.