An inalienable right


3:15pm  |  I took a few days off from studying. For the past few days, I took up Star Ocean: Till the End of Time from where I left off the last time that I had played it… a few years ago. I like RPG’s because I can take a break from studying, but the storyline permits me to stay connected to philosophical topics even while I am taking a break. I noticed that the themes from all of my favorite RPG’s share a commonality: they remind me of Hiroshima. I don’t know how any Japanese people can play it, without having flashbacks or having vengeful thoughts. I watched a documentary about Hiroshima a week ago, and it just made me think how horrible Western culture is; I find that it was/is dissociated from reality as well as from its ideals, so that it doesn’t even realize that what it does in practice is quite contradictory from its own ideals, and this is why the Western world can’t help but be under an illusion about what it imagines itself to be.

With my mind reset a bit, I return to Scanlon’s book today, hungry and eager for gaining understanding. So far, I’ve been working on pages 194-195 today. On these pages are basically what lays the foundation for “contractualism.”

[ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Point #1: From what I understand, Contractualism is a revised “Kantianism.” The core of its moral theory is something like a “categorical imperative.” But where Kantianism and Contractualism differs is that Contractualism is grounded in a biological fact about us (ie, the fact that we are inherently social beings), while Kantianism-proper is grounded in a metaphysical fact about us (ie, the fact that we can think abstractly and comprehend mathematical sentences, or otherwise what the oi-polloi call “rational”). This is what Scanlon means when he says that his moral theory is grounded in what we take to be “reasonable,” rather than what we take to be “rational.”

Point #2: Contractualism basically operates around the idea of “mutual recognition and accommodation” (p.194). And since contractualism is not intended to be “circular,” I have to presume that contractualism is largely hedonistic. I say it’s “largely hedonistic” because the objects of comparison are individual preferences, and because it employs a negative version of utilitarianistic-calculation. To note, this ability to make utilitarianistic-calculations is not very different from what Socrates in the Protagoras once suggested to be what would “save” humankind — Socrates called it the “art of measurement.” But to add to this note, if the “art of measurement” is a skill, then what it does is not to aim for maximal pleasure, but instead, it aims for correct judgment.

Point #3: Contractualism says at first, “Anything goes, unless someone objects.” Of course, then you ask “Why not?” And this is how you get the two opposing positions to an issue. But the arguments are negative. That is, the pro side is going to make objections for prohibition, while the con side is going to make objections to permission. And the two arguments are weighed against one another, and obviously there’s only one answer [so long as a war doesn’t break out]. But what is the criteria to determine which side wins out? Well, this is where Contractualism gets interesting. According to Scanlon, what’s important is the significance of the “burden” imposed on others — ie, whichever side has the less significant burden is the winning side.

Well, two questions: First, what does he mean by “burden”? And second, how do you valuate “significance”?

A quick search online of the etymology of the word tells me that a “burden” is a basically a “load” that one carries. From this basic meaning, there are two relevant nuanced variations that differentiate Scanlon’s intended meaning from the unintended one. One way is to take a “burden” to imply “difficulty.” The other way is to take “burden” to imply a “duty” or “obligation.” But these two slight nuanced variations end up in very different conclusions in this context, despite their common basic meaning. Not all difficulties are obligations, and not all obligations are difficult. So this is one thing I have to get clear on.

Next, the word “significance” is puzzling. In this context, I sense that it’s probably synonymous with “impact.” But what counts as relevant impact? That is what’s puzzling for me. Is it quantity, or quality? If the relevant impact is the former, then the calculation is going to be a numbers game — eg, how many people are impacted. But if the relevant impact is the latter, then the calculation is either going to be a matter of sensitivity — eg, how intense or deep the impact is for the individual in question (and then this is going to beg the question, which individual is the relevant one?) — or, it will be a matter of duration or totality — eg, how permanent and/or comprehensive is the impact? This is another thing that I have to get clear on before I can understand Scanlon’s theory quite properly.

In general, the more utilitarian interpretation of “the significance of burden” might mean something as simple as counting the number of people who would be affected — and in particular, how many people would be affected for the worse (this way, one is comparing apples to apples). A more deontological interpretation of “the significance of burden” would mean that the relevant individual considers the details of the obligations involved for both sides, and simply chooses one side (by considering certain relevant criteria) and sticks to it to the best of her ability (and, it goes without saying that it is this voluntary-choice that binds her to whatever bearing the “burden” entails).

So, now I’ve got one real criticism and one worry at this point. I was trying to apply Contractualism to my own life scenario: is it morally correct for me to study Philosophy at Harvard as a graduate student? And I came across two problems as I was applying the moral theory to my own real life scenario.

♦ Criticism: Suppose that someone objected. But the problem with this is that I can’t actually know why they object. It’s a bit of a metaphysical problem. But in order to overcome the problem, I’d have to accept some metaphysical facts. The question is, do I accept the metaphysical facts? For one thing, getting into metaphysics just opens up a whole new jar of worms that takes me away from the original question. It seems that I have to do more philosophy in order to answer the original question. But for someone who has a limited life time like me, I don’t know if this helps very much, since the case is a real-life scenario for a biological person and there is a time-limit involved.

In short, the problem goes like this: First, I can imagine and conjecture potential objections to permission all I want, but they are not actual objections. While the potential objections are still useful in that I can think about these in order to help me decide how I want to develop myself for the future reality, what’s ultimately important when a choice is required to be made are the actual objections, and not the potential ones. Secondly, actual objections to permission can only exist intensionally — ie, in a particular mind with a particular perspective on the world. This means that I have to consider whether I can know they what they think, and if so, then how I can come to know it — even before I can weigh the objections against permission against the objections to prohibition. But if the question of other minds and whether/how I can know them is not a firm place for me to start my inquiry, I just have to start with only what I do know — and that is my own mind. In other words, I have to think about what real objections come to my own mind. And the ones that come to my own mind are the only actual objections that I can know of. Of course, it may turn out to be the case that in the end, I don’t have any objections that can’t be overcome. Also, even if other people were to voice their own objections, how can I be sure that they are not speaking ignorantly? It’s possible that people are only voicing some generic objection to permission — whether it is correct or not — either because they sense the truth in some general way but can’t articulate it, or they actually don’t know it and so they say whatever the oi-polloi tend to say. I would have to speak with them lengthily and examine their minds in order to have a reason to justify whether the person is a knowing person, or an ignorant person. And if I can’t examine others very carefully in this way, and all I have is my own imagination and my own mind, then I am back to where I started: I can think of no real objection, and any potential objections are prima facie defeated. Such is the way of the solipsistic universe.

♦ Concern: So, suppose that I have overcome the problem in my criticism. Then the deliberation process basically goes like this: I have to become aware of what other people’s objections to permission are, and somehow weigh these against my own objections for prohibition, and then make an assessment of the significance of the burdens associated with each perspective. But such a deliberative process could be applied to very fundamental questions like, should I live or die? Or even, should this person live or die? Certainly, this might be a question for someone, even if it isn’t necessarily a question that everyone must confront. And certainly, it is a moral question. But I wonder how this deliberative process would go…

So this is my criticism, and my concern with Scanlon’s “moral theory.”

But aside from the criticism and my concern, my prima facie conclusion to a deliberation over this moral matter at this time, is this: given that I believe that a genuine and authentic life is not worth living at all, then if I cannot live in accordance with what the truth in my own heart, then I would not want to live at all. In a society populated by people like me, presumably there would be death-centers that conscious adult people could go to in order to get expert assistance with dying so that death is readily accessible/affordable, quick, effective, respectful, and [preferably] relatively painless (since, I think that pain can be distracting, and can sometimes make a person feel “unnecessarily vicious” in her attempt to “harden” herself to it, and I don’t think that this is the most appropriate state to be in when a person is dying by choice). Furthermore, having such death-centers would have at least one importantly beneficial side-effect — ie, a “just” society. To put it simply, on my view such death-centers would ensure that the “game of life” is more fair since life itself is more voluntary.

But what would Scanlon say about such a conclusion? I know that Scanlon is a strong supporter of the Constitution of the US, and likely the Declaration of Independence. But, does the Declaration permit me to choose to die? In the Declaration of Independence, one has unalienable rights. But surely there is a difference between having an inalienable-right, versus having a life that is itself inalienable. Which one does the Declaration mean? If the former, then presumably, it means that it is always right for a person to choose to live (if it is indeed a true and genuine choice), but that she is not necessarily wrong for choosing to die instead. Well, does this mean that a person could be just as right in choosing to die (if she so chose it as a true and genuine choice)? Interestingly, on the Catholic view, life itself is inalienable, not just the right to life…

Of course, the same would be true for the other two things explicitly named — liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I suppose that this should address my “concern” earlier.

Does this answer my “moral dilemma” then? According to the Declaration, it is not wrong for me to choose to live. It is not wrong for me to choose to pursue happiness. It is not wrong for me to choose period. But it also wouldn’t be wrong if I chose to die, or if I chose to give up my pursuit of happiness, or if I didn’t make a choice at all and remained entirely passive.

So basically, the Declaration only provides me with the protection of a certain kind of self-knowledge — that basically I have the good-faith of others (well, at least those who signed the Declaration, anyways) to act in accordance with the truth in my heart. In other words, no self-respecting American may disapprove of me or pass moral judgment on my free-will (ie, the truth in my heart), my choice to live, or my choices in pursuing happiness. Since it is not the life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness themselves that are being protected — but rather, the individual’s right to such things…

I’m going to have to ruminate on my discoveries here.