Outside the Universe?

  • July 14, 2023
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Moral Progress in Dark Times: Universal Values for the 21st Century by Markus Gabriel, translated by Wieland Hoban Polity Press, 2022; xii + 281 pp.

It would be easy to give this book a negative review, as it advocates a number of policies that from our standpoint are wrongheaded. Gabriel is especially alarmed by the dangers of “climate change” and also extols the spirit of cooperation that the German people displayed in acceding to the necessary measures to cope with the coronavirus pandemic (the book is a translation of a German work that was published in 2020, when panic about the virus was at its height).

The temptation to toss the book aside is difficult to resist when we learn that

in Germany we rely on the state as a vehicle of moral progress—an idea that came about in the context of the German nation state’s emergence and is rooted not least in the thought of Kant and Hegel. Precisely because the history of the German nation state involved unimaginable harm, it is crucial for us to remember the foundational gesture of the Enlightenment and effectively implement its moral impulse on an institutional level.

It would be a mistake to give in to it, however. Gabriel is an interesting philosopher and what he says sometimes converges in surprising ways with positions held by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. Like them, Gabriel holds that the concept of action is fundamental in explaining the behavior of human beings. To understand his view, we first need to note that he has an unusual definition of “universe”: “The universe is all that can be explored using the methods of modern natural science; it is limited to the measurable realm.”

Human beings go beyond the universe, taken in his sense:

Causality—the relationship between causes and effects—does not consist in material-energetic systems encountering other material-energetic systems. My desire to buy a cooling drink at the height of summer in order to quench my thirst is not only a neuronal impulse but is also connected to the fact that I know where there are drinks and form the intention to buy a drink, to my taste, to the existence of production chains for drinks, and so on. This constellation of factors contributes decisively to any successful explanation of one’s actions: what people do cannot generally be explained in physical terms.

You might wonder, “That’s what he says; but why should we accept It?” One of the arguments he deploys to support the view that measurability isn’t the be-all and end-all of explanations of human action resembles a point made by Rothbard. Neoclassical economics, which Gabriel calls “economism,” is one of the most prominent instances of appeals to measurability:

“According to the fallacious model of Homo oeconomicus, people strive primarily for economically quantifiable utility values—a striving to which they ultimately subordinate everything else in the struggle for survival.”

Gabriel notes that this model contravenes readily established facts:

“In game theory, it was already discovered decades ago that people still make moral judgments even in competitive situations, that they are concerned not only with profit but also with fairness—which initially struck economists as irrational.”

Gabriel doesn’t give an example, but the familiar ultimatum game is a good illustration of what he means. In it, one player gets a certain amount of money which he has to divide with another player. This first player offers the second player a division, which the second player either accepts or rejects. (Bargaining isn’t allowed.) If the second player accepts, both players get the money, in the agreed-on division. If the second player rejects the division, though, neither player gets anything.

Self-interested rationality would dictate a division in which the first player keeps nearly all the money. It’s to his advantage to get as much money as he can for himself, and the second player will rationally take the small amount he is offered, because otherwise he would get nothing. People in experiments don’t meet these expectations, however; often the second player will reject an offer he considers unfair, even if he stands to lose money by rejecting it.

Rothbard used an analogous argument against Gordon Tullock, who maintained that a person won’t join a revolution unless the advantages of doing so outweigh the costs for that individual. Even people who want the revolution to succeed would prefer a situation where other people undertake the revolt and bear the risks. Rothbard countered that this argument doesn’t take account of the power of ideology. People sufficiently gripped by the moral imperative of revolution will put aside narrow calculations of self-interest.

Both Gabriel and Rothbard appeal to moral considerations, and there are significant similarities between their accounts of morality. Both of them believe that morality is a matter of objective truth, not mere subjective preferences. According to Gabriel, at least some of the truths of morality are self-evident, and one of these is that slavery is wrong. Rothbard also thought that all human beings have the right of self-ownership; he agrees with Gabriel that there are no natural slaves and not with Aristotle.

If you object to Gabriel that great philosophers like Aristotle defended slavery, contending that some people are “natural slaves,” he answers that Aristotle was blinded by ideology and really knew better:

It is extremely easy to explain why Aristotle’s supposed conception of humans is untrue and wrong. It is enough to point out that natural slaves have never existed and never will. It is utter humbug to believe that those who are enslaved were somehow made slaves by nature prior to that; Aristotle is wrong here. And it was by no means self-evident to Aristotle that some people are natural slaves—that is why he argued the case with such vehemence and attempted to justify the prevailing slavery.

I certainly agree with Gabriel that slavery is wrong, but it isn’t a good criticism of Aristotle that the fact that he engaged in argument shows that his opinion about slavery isn’t self-evident. He can consistently hold that there are natural slaves without maintaining that this is self-evident.

I encourage those so inclined to search for the insights in Moral Progress, but whether this enterprise is a good way to advance your own moral progress I do not venture to say.

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