Collective Agency and the Pretense of Ethics

There’s a problem about political discourse that’s been bugging me for a while and I think I finally understand what it is.

Ethics presumes agency. It makes no sense to make an ethical demand of an entity that is not an agent. It’s why we don’t demand of the Earth that it stop producing hurricanes. We can wish things were one way or another, but we can only add a “should” if we’re talking about something an agent can make a choice about.

I see no reason to imagine there is such a thing as “collective agency”. Indeed, there are powerful reasons not to believe in agency of any sort, even individual. But individual agency also has a lot going for it, not least of which is the visceral experience of having choice over personal actions. In the case of “collective” actors, there is no corresponding experience of agency that needs to be accounted for. This seems like good enough reason to regard collective agency as a useful fiction.

So when we say, for example, “war is wrong”, whose action are we talking about? War is not an action individuals take, only groups. So it is not subject to ethical evaluation. As something caused by an entity with no moral agency, war is more like a hurricane than like a murder.

Of course, that’s not the end of ethics and war. It’s plausible to argue that individual participation in war is wrong. And it’s important to note that if each moral actor acted ethically, the non-ethical but still very unfortunate events we call wars would no longer happen.…

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Ethics of Santa

Last night I co-hosted (along with the amazing James Walpole) the last of our series of philosophy discussion calls Praxis Philosophy Nights (though the series is continuing without us as hosts, which makes me extremely happy). Our final guest was TK Coleman, who makes a living loving Christmas music. He joined us to argue that there is nothing ethically wrong with lying to kids about Santa. The rest of us on the call, either out of conviction or simple sportsmanship, did our best to take him down. For my part, while I’d like to think I put up a good fight, I came away more or less convinced: it is not unethical to lie to children about Santa. The video’s here. Here’s my take on the relevant arguments (summarized in my words, though many of the arguments come from others on the call):

The Anti-Lying Principle (ALP)

A plausible Anti-Lying Principle (ALP): lying is ethically wrong unless the motivation behind it is to benefit the person being lied to, and there’s reasonable expectation of success.

Let’s draw this out a bit. If I lie to give you a surprise birthday party, most of us think that’s okay. The experience you’ll have when you get the surprise will make the lie worth it. There is no guarantee of this, of course. Maybe you hate surprises and I don’t know that. But, there’s a reasonable expectation of success. If I found out you hate surprises and then tried it again, I would no longer be justified, since I no longer have a reasonable expectation of success.…

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The “What Doesn’t Kill You” Paradox

Suffering built that mustasche

“From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

There’s a lot of truth to this popular phrase. It points to a broader truth: to grow, we must act. It is in the process of acting toward a purpose that our faculties are shaped. But acting toward a purpose can only happen if we have some goal that is not easy to achieve; otherwise, there’s nothing to act for. We need problems to grow against. Satisfaction is stasis, and stasis is the antithesis of growth.

“The obstacle is the way” is another phrase that points to the same truth.

There’s an obvious problem with taking this truth to heart. Follow it to its logical conclusion, and it tells you to have as many problems as you can possibly handle. If “what does not kill me makes me stronger”, doesn’t it follow that I should get beat and maimed to just short of death as often as possible? I’ll get so strong!

No big problem. Truisms always break down when you take them as absolutes. Take it as a general rule, not a necessary fact, and things ought to look better. But even this softer version has its problems.

I think about this most often in terms of parenting. I grew up a poor, undocumented immigrant moving from one shitty neighborhood in Queens to another. I left home at 16 and had to make it on my own from there on (admittedly, with a lot of help – but it was help I had to find).…

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