Thursday, January 16, 2014

In which I try to understand Dan Fincke's empowerment ethics

In recent weeks I've been reading the work of Dr. Dan Fincke, who blogs at "Camels with Hammers," specifically some of his work regarding his views on what makes for an ethical life. I've been doing this because I respect Dan as a very nuanced, critical thinker, and I want to see if his specific meta-ethics are something I would agree with. I've frequently been flying by the seat of my pants when it comes to moral issues, trying to use basic empathy as a starting point when things seemed murky (and then a bunch of thinking), and it's occurred  to me that I don't necessarily have a solid meta-ethical system to work with.

I've long thought that some form of objective morality, that would be appropriate in all times and cultures, exists and is discoverable by reason. I am somewhat familiar with other attempts to do this, for example, utilitarianism, but the ones I'm aware of all seem to fall flat for one reason or another. I thought Sam Harris had something going for him by claiming that the moral good is whatever allows for the greatest well-being (in The Moral Landscape), but while there are some good things in that book, the basic premise I describe was never properly argued for, and criticisms seemed spot on.  I would still recommend reading the book.

I don't want to get bogged down in discussing the other ethical systems at this point, so let's just take it as given that the ones I know of have not been compellingly argued to me, and get right to looking at this empowerment ethics. I'm going to try and explain, as best I can right now, the premise and argument behind empowerment ethics, using my own words where possible, and then some applications of it that have occurred to me. How easy or difficult that is will give me some idea of how well I'm understanding Dan's work -- or perhaps just an idea of how carefully he chose his own words.

Warning: given how much he's written on this subject, this will only be a summary, at best. I very highly recommend reading the source material, multiple times if needed (I've reread more than one his posts more than once in this effort). You can start here, or if you just want to read one thing, read My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications to Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People


First off, everything (and everyone, obviously) that exists does so through, or rather as, it's various functions, or the things that it does. Water is water because it has water functions and properties. This is simply an objective fact. Fire is because it functions as fire, with sub-functions at the chemical level adding up to, well, fire. When you start getting various functions together, more complex functions will emerge, creating new things. So, water plus sufficient sunlight gets water vapor, which combines with the atmosphere to create clouds, which are clouds because they function as clouds. In a similar (though generally more complex manner), water can combine with other things to function as bacteria, insects, plants, dogs, and humans. We are human because we function in a human fashion, composed of numerous sub-functions. To function well as humans means to function effectively as humans.

When we speak of something being good, we're actually talking about it being effective. If a car is a good car, that means it's effective at being a car, and performing the various sub-functions that make up a car, such as providing power to the wheels, protecting passengers in crashes, efficient use of gas, etc (and you can break all those down into further sub-functions). If it gets good gas mileage, that means it's effective at using the gas it has efficiently. If it has good tires, that means it has effective tires that contribute to the overall effectiveness of the car (effective/good traction in various weather conditions, no leaking of air, etc). And so on. Obviously, something can be more or less effective at being what it is (good car vs bad car vs it's-ok car).

So, in other words, goodness = effectiveness. The more effective something is at being it's function (in other words, just being itself), the better it is. To be a good person then, would be to be an effective person. That seems a weird way to speak of it when we're referring to a morally good person. Translating though, that becomes "morally effective person," which doesn't seem so strange. In fact, it seems downright accurate. Someone who is effective in their morals would be the same as a "good person" in the moral or ethical sense. The more effective someone is at being moral, the better person we consider them to be.

"Empowerment ethics" then comes into play when you get a bunch of functions that combine and interact to become super-functions, or what Dr. Fincke refers to as "powers" (yes, I know, I thought of comic books, too). Human beings are beings with a whole variety of powers: intellectual powers, social powers, sexual powers, artistic powers, and so on. However, since everything --including us-- exists as its functions (as opposed to having functions), then that means that we don't have these powers, we are these powers. And if we are our functions/powers, and if goodness=effectiveness, then it follows that to be good is to maximize our powers, or functions, and be the best we can be. Morality is just one of the ways we do this.

Now, an instant objection is that seems very self-centered, and to an extent perhaps it is. But, intrinsically the only way we can fully empower ourselves and flourish to the max that our abilities allow is by helping to empower others, helping them be the best themselves they can be. When a teacher teaches, passing on their skills and knowledge, she is adding to the power of her students, which in turn increases her own power. Aiding others empowers ourselves, as well as those we aid.

I'm not going to rehash what Dan has written about how this relates to dictators, or the "disabled." I want to get to the applications that have come to mind as I've been going over his work. Those applications include health care, immigration, charity work, and even voting. However, I'll only briefly discuss a couple of them, as this post is already getting long.

Health Care.
People cannot flourish to their best if they are not healthy. This is obvious. As such, adequate or better health care may be one of the most important things people need in life, beyond basic survival items. Helping others to achieve better health raises our own power, our own effectiveness. As those others flourish, they will help others to flourish more, and some of that may even come back to ourself, enabling us to flourish or maximize our power/effectiveness even further. We don't all have to be doctors to do this, or any other kind of medical professional. There are plenty of things that we can do to either avoid harming other's health, or to help improve it. Get vaccinated if you're able, in order to avoid being a carrier of illness, and maximize herd immunity. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze ("vampire sneeze!"). Have health insurance if you're able, in order to incentivize yourself more to go to the doctor, and not worry about going broke because of it. Help others to have insurance by supporting political measures that aim to bring insurance and it's benefits to more people (The Affordable Care Act is not the best solution, but it sort of heads in the right direction).

People are people, no matter what part of the world they come from. Morality and ethics do not change merely because someone is from another country. Thus, if it's wrong to murder a fellow American, it's wrong to murder a Mexican, Ireland native, or someone from Japan. If empowering fellow Americans to help them flourish also empowers ourselves, then empowering someone from another country would do the same, regardless of how they got here. Ideally, they got here legally. However, as best I understand it, most people who come here illegally do so because they are looking for a better life. They already could not fully flourish in their home country, and so they are seeking someplace they can. What possible reason could we have for not helping to empower them? I suppose one could say they are draining resources from the law-abiding, but if we simply kick them to the curb, then their suffering and lack of flourishing is on us. On the other hand, if we provide certain basic assistance (at a minimum), then their future flourishing will help society as a whole flourish. 

I realize that I've simplified these issues, and there are plenty of connected issues to complicate the problems involved, but I think it's a good starting point.

I make no claim to properly and fully understanding empowerment ethics. That'll take more study. So far, I haven't found any obvious weaknesses to the argument. The more I understand it, the more it seems to be a rational way of looking at ethics. Of course, I have to be careful. Much of it seems to agree with my own ideas, which means it is likely to be more seductive to me. Thus, I need to be even more diligent in my studies, try to find and understand objections, and make sure I'm not accepting it just because I like it.

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