"rights" talk is a fancy way of expressing feelings…right?

I recently finished a fascinating book, Moral Tribes, that argued, believe it or not, against rights. Specifically, he argued that “rights” are really words that we hide behind. I think there is some truth to that.

Abortion is wrong because all humans have a right to life. Abortion is okay because all women have a right to choose. Gay people have a right to marry. The government has a right to define marriage. We cannot kill one person to save five because people have a right to life. Whether it’s carrying a gun into the library, burning a flag, or not vaccinating your children, we love to use “rights” and “duties” when talking about moral issues, when making moral judgments, or justifications, or rationalizations. Rights do all the heavy lifting, they are the argument; we hide behind them, they sound objective, smart, impartial, universal.

But what if the word “right” is nothing more than a fancy way of saying “I don’t like it.” In other words, “I don’t like abortion, it feels wrong.” A feeling, a gut reaction, an emotion, subjective. Everything else – all the arguments, justification, rationalization – is extra, meaningless, scaffolding. “I like when mothers can choose.” Same thing. First comes the feeling, then comes the argument to justify the feeling. If you keep asking why, you eventually get to feelings, intuitions, and gut instincts.

It reminds me of working in the Law Library. Patrons many times come in asking about “their rights” on any number of subjects. But sometimes what they really mean is this: I want x. Does a “right” exist to allow me to get x. In other words, please give me a fancy legal term that will magically get what I want.

Well, overall I think this is a negative, simplistic, reductionist view of human beings, similar to the “boo-hiss” theory that reduces all moral reasoning into simple emotions, so I don’t buy it for those reasons. I apply it to myself (which everyone should do), and I do find some truth in it.

Here’s the point. The argument tends to stop when you throw the R-bomb, and that’s really the worst thing. I believe in a right to life, you believe in a right to choose. Let’s go our separate ways, right?  Wrong. It’s not that simple. Public policy needs to be written, and these issues bear directly on laws that influence our lives. So politically at least we cannot ignore each other. Also, we might kill each other (people have killed for much less). Therefore, we need another solution.

Joshua Greene’s solution is to reduce rights talk into Utilitarian calculations. How much suffering does abortion cost overall? How much happiness does gay marriage promote? And let’s go from there.

Sounds promising. Does it work? Well, sadly, according to what I read in his book, it doesn’t. His utilitarian solution to abortion, for example, the only problem he tackled, was horribly complex, speculative, long-winded, not mathematical, and ultimately not convincing…it ends up being pro-choice, which is fine, but it leaves the reader scratching his head as to how the argument got there and how smart you have to be to engage in moral debate for God’s sake–do we all have to go to Harvard to think correctly about these issues? Greene takes nuanced thinking to a whole new level here, to the point of meaninglessness. Maybe I will stick to my “rights talk” – much simpler and people get my meaning. In fact, the same old arguments against Utilitarianism rears its’ ugly head – it’s very very hard to actually calculate suffering and happiness.

"rights" talk is a fancy way of expressing feelings…right?

Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

Different people. Different values. Can’t we all just get along?

Pro-lifers yell “Right to life!” Pro-choicers yell “women’s right to choose!” End of discussion, right? This book is an attempt to solve that problem. From conservatives to communists, from Jews to Jehovah Witnesses, we need a way to make decisions together — especially about public policy — if we are to get along. We need a “metamorality,” a universal language, a “common currency,” says the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene. We need an ethical code that transcends each particular ethical code.

And his answer is…drumroll please….utilitarianism! (I can feel your excitement). A moral philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1700’s, utilitarianism is amazingly simple: maximize happiness and reduce suffering, as much as possible. That’s it. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad. Act accordingly.

Can we agree on that?

Probably not. That’s why the book is 300+ pages. And still, probably not. Nice try though., right?

As for me, I must say, I am convinced…in theory at least. This book has fundamentally changed some of my opinions. This is one of the most important books I have read this year, perhaps in my entire life. It has certainly brought together several intellectual strains that have been floating around in my head for decades now; specifically, Kant and John Stuart Mill. Kant I named my son after. Kant’s morality is a strict, rule based, “no exceptions” kind of system (never lie, never kill, never cheat, never steal). You can think of it as a religious ethics with a rational foundation. Kant also didn’t think that happiness was the most important thing (Mill did). John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. His system, as I mentioned, is very simple: morality has one rule: in all your actions, reduce suffering the most and maximize happiness the most impartially (counting yourself as only one person). It’s hard to disagree with that. Finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. This book says that Kant is right and Mill is right, depending on which context you find yourself in. Within groups, Kantian morally works the best. Which means that when dealing with your family, friends, and church, you should be a strict Kantian. Never cheat on your wife. But when it comes to dealing with “others,” with global issues, public policy — then you should put on your utilitarian hat and start calculating, weighting, crunching the numbers. Sometimes you have to break an egg for the greater good.

I was so blown away by this conclusion, I emailed the author and told him so. He emailed back right away said “that makes it all worthwhile.” Whether you hate utilitarian thinking or not, this book is amazing on many different levels: brain science, psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. A bright, interdisciplinary guy and a good writer.

But…

The end of the book, which is supposed to apply the theory to actual cases (conflicts between groups), is very deflating and depressing. He only talks about abortion in detail, and that discussion was painfully abstract and intellectual (after making a strong case for pro-life and pro-choice, he falls on pro-choice). You can tell he is trying to make everyone happy. Does he really expect normal people to be able to philosophize in this way? The tree is good, but not its fruit. It almost feels like he built up all my expectations, and then, at the end when it really counts, he quits. Utilitarianism, which on the face is very simple and powerful,  ends up being very complex, abstract, and subtle – a puff of smoke. Worse, his version of utilitarianism ends up being very close to what everyone already believes: punishment is good, inequality is okay (some), buying presents for your kid is good, capitalism is just fine. All things that, on the face of it, are not utilitarian. The message, at the end of the day: just be a little less selfish, a little more altruistic, okay? He even calls himself a hypocrite at one point for not being a “true” utilitarian. C’mon Greene, where’s your balls? That’s why I have such respect for guys like Jesus or Gandhi. They set the bar extremely high and put their life into it, they make no excuses and make no accommodations for the morally weak. They say: love your enemies. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it goes against human nature and how our brains are wired. Do it anyway. And they did. And you can too.

Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them