One of my fundamentals is that I am not above anyone else. I’m not better and I’m not more worthy than anyone. And no one else is above me either. It’s a symmetry argument.
I suppose it’s an easy claim to make and agree to but holding on to it brings me to some uncomfortable conclusions. It forces me to respect people I can’t agree with and people I find horrifically mistaken. Flat-earthers, anti-vaccine activists, white supremacists, stock traders gambling on other people’s livelihoods, modern slave owners, petty thieves, take your pick. I’m not above them, I’m not better than them.
By which I mean that I don’t get to call them stupid or evil or a flaw in the universe. No one goes around making intentionally bad decisions. I always have to assume that whatever people choose to do, it’s the best possible choice given their circumstances and abilities. If it looks stupid or evil to me it’s because I’m not them. I don’t see those circumstances, I have a different mind.
It’s fairly easy with those I want to call stupid, say, those anti-vaxxers. Yes, yes, they’re wrong, they’re mistaken and their actions harm others. But do I really think they’re too stupid to see facts in front of them, and I can because I’m smart and therefore they should listen to me? I have no idea what their decision making process looks like! To be honest, some of these people probably know some of the facts related to vaccines better than I do. And how about the people who give no second thought to it, and just do what the authorities tell them? That is far more stupid, yet I’m not bothered. And there, I think, lies one key to understanding their thinking. Frame it like this: they are doing all they can to protect their children in a world that’s full of uninformed people just blindly following orders. That is pretty much what’s happening, isn’t it? And holy shit nope nopity nope on government regulated mandatory medical treatment. Have you seen what kind of governments there are? In dystopian TV series people opposing that kind of stuff are the heroes.
They’re still wrong, as far as I know. And I can wish as much as I like that they weren’t but I can’t place myself above them. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I or you shouldn’t try to convince them to change. All I’m saying is that both I and them are just trying our best in the world, and my best isn’t any better than someone else’s, it’s just mine. (And no, this isn’t about facts. As a fact, vaccination as a means to prevent diseases is a rock solid one. If you still feel like yelling that, I haven’t managed to get my point across. My apologies for that.)
It gets a whole lot more difficult with those I want to call evil. There are some really horrible deeds being done in the world which I really really hope didn’t get done. But why? I can’t refer to any divine order or supreme purpose. I don’t believe in those things. In the end my conviction is that the universe has absolutely no point to it and doesn’t care. So what I want to call evil is just something that I really really really do not want done, yet somebody else wants to do. And why would my want be more important? It isn’t. It’s just mine.
Rory Miller put this quite bluntly in Conflict communication, when talking about the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Note: he fully acknowledges that as a scientific theory the hierarchy is a lousy one, but finds it otherwise useful, and I agree. In any case I think the following quote is spot on:
”Lastly, according to Maslow, if all of these needs are fulfilled, an individual can self-actualize. You can live your dreams. Follow your heart. Write poetry or sculpt or do philanthropic charity work. Or you can live out your serial killer fantasies. That’s important. Not everyone shares your dreams. Not all humans draw joy from the same things. The pattern (whether of Maslow’s hierarchy or the scripts we address later) are nearly universal. Their expression, however, can run the entire spectrum of human thought and feeling. If you give a man everything he needs, he will start looking for what he wants. What he (or she; men have no monopoly on this) wants may be to dominate or to destroy. You cannot simultaneously ignore this fact and deal with it.”
I have to repeat myself: this logical stance I’ve taken does not at all mean I’d be ok with ”evil”. I’m really not. I still get infuriated and horrified, and want to do what I can to make it stop. I’m only saying that I can’t get on a moral high horse when I do that. I don’t have any kind of authority on what ought to be, only on what I want.
What I’m really getting at is that I have to totally abandon the idea of ethical utilitarianism, that thing where you try to count the amount of goodness coming out of each option and picking the one that leaves the biggest number on the global bottom line. Not only because it leads to absurdities (which it does, because you really can’t count goodness like that) but because I don’t get to choose what other people count as good.
(Apparently that makes me some kind of meta-ethical moral relativist. I made the mistake of checking out some wikipedia articles on this stuff. Philosophers and labels… Well, I suppose that’s their whole job. Fine. So be it.)
It’s kind of funny because I thought I did buy that. But for some reason I’ve become keenly aware of ingroup-outgroup motives in people’s behaviour (and I’m suspecting that, for what ever reason, my emotional response to tribal and even familial belonging is weaker than normal – it would fit my life story quite well) and that has lead me to Jonathan Haidt’s work on morality, through the themes of how to change someone’s mind discussed at lenght and on many sides in the You are not so smart podcast. (This by the way is the third time in five posts that I’ve linked to it.). And that is what I was actually trying to get to when I got lost on this philosophical detour. Maybe next time.
P.S. After writing this, I read this post. “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup” , and it both inspired and depressed me to no end. Inspired, because this is exactly what I was trying to get to, next time. Depressed, because why would I bother writing about it some more when somebody obviously way better and more prolific than me has already poured their wisdom in to a top post in the time scale of years? I’m trying to be convinced about my own convincing in my first post. I’m not.