Friday, October 12, 2007

Privation Morality

Every profession has its crosses to bear, and I think that academic philosophy has a particular burden of attracting guys who want nothing more from life than to win arguments.

I remember one particular philosophy lecture I once heard, where the guy was talking about the problems of artificial intelligence, specifically, how would one know if one succeeded? By one measure, this is just an extension of the old conundrum of how does one tell that other people are actually feeling, thinking, existing as conscious beings. Since we can only experience our own consciousness directly, we have to infer that others have it, etc. etc. BFD.

But the “artificial” part of artificial intelligence had the guy going. He’d read a paper by someone who had suggested that what you could do was build a robot that could only tell the truth and then ask it if it was conscious. Ha! Problem solved.

I observed that while we had pretty good evidence that it was possible to create beings that were conscious (I’m willing to offer myself as an example), we’ve never, ever encountered a being who could only tell the truth. Actually, it’s worse than that, since Gödel’s proof insists that such a thing is a logical impossibility, but I was just offering the sort of argument that can be followed by a bright high school student, which apparently ruled out its use by editors of whatever journal my professor had read.

Well, maybe he was just “trying to get us to think.” Yeah, that’s the ticket.

In moral philosophy you regularly run into the “lifeboat model,” where various groups of people are put into a lifeboat with limited food, or that will sink with too many people in it, etc. and you’re supposed to figure out what the ethical and moral choices are. The unreality of the model tends to make for unreal arguments, with people actually mapping the artificial situation into something more familiar and realistic, thereby confusing the issue sufficiently that the professor can win the argument. (That last part is me being snarky, of course).

There’s a much more meaningful question that I’ve been thinking about lately; one that I think clarifies matters rather than obscures them. The question is, “What would or wouldn’t you do to keep your children from starving?”

This isn’t an artificial question at all; throughout history, people have had to answer it on a regular basis, and we have some pretty reliable answers. Would you steal? Of course. Lie, cheat, break the law, poach the King’s game, kill a fellow human being? All of these have been done (sometimes for less worthy cause than feeding children, too, but we’re working at the margins here).

In times of dire privation, the real questions are about what won’t/can’t/shouldn’t be done. You shouldn’t eat your seed corn, for example, because that just insures greater privation later. According to Marvin Harris, you shouldn’t kill the sacred cows, because they are the equivalent of seed corn, without them, no next generation of oxen and no way to plow the fields. So you get the grand taboos, the ones that will kill your society if you break them. But absent the grand taboo, all bets are off.

In the recent North Korean famine, grandparents stopped eating to give their grandchildren enough food to live, slowly starving themselves in order to allow life to continue. The Inuit supposedly took the grandparents out onto an ice floe and left them there, to exactly the same purpose. In other times and places, some of the babies were taken to the hilltop and left to die of exposure.

I’ve seen commentary on the movie version of The Cider House Rules that indicated that pro-life conservatives found its morality acceptable, because the abortions weren’t just for “convenience” but rather out of necessity. Privation morality is part of the well-spring of the conservative world view, and the desperation narrative is one that conservative know well.

And realize this. If you must rob, and loot, and kill for your children’s lives, then it’s best not to do the deeds near to home, and not to take from your own family or tribe. Best to go farther afield, where the “others” live, those who don’t look like you, or speak the same language, or follow your customs. So privation morality makes sense of racism in that way. It also informs the blood feud, the vendetta, the holy war.

It’s the men who leave home in the desperate attempt to gather enough to feed their families, and it’s the women who stay behind, to tend the young, to make whatever compromises and sacrifices that are made in the near field. Privation morality is thus both patriarchal and matriarchal; patriarchal when the men have found the bounty, after the hunt, after the war, after the pillage, but matriarchal when the men are gone, when the times are toughest, holding together what must be held together if the family – and society – is to survive.

I’ve watched privation morality at work, in rural America, in low rent urban districts, and at a distance, by reportage, in parts of the world where grinding poverty is the norm. I recognize that the sheer opulence of our land allows us to at least contemplate such things as generosity, kindness, and the fellowship of all men. And I sometimes despair that, despite the immense wealth that has been created in the last three centuries, despite the vast riches of a continent that we occupy, there are still many among us who feel that privation morality is an absolute law, and that even too much is never enough.

And the agricultural fertility of the land in the Middle East has been in decline for the last three thousand years.


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