Talking about a Revolution.

It didn’t take me very long working in a bookstore to realise that philosophy titles rarely become bestsellers. Rarer still is the author actually alive to enjoy his or her commercial success. So, being the proud advocate of democracy that I am, I think it is worthwhile to pay attention to books that have enjoyed any measure of popular reception. And no, I’m not going to talk about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.*  In this post I want to briefly discuss a remarkable book by the late Thomas S. Kuhn called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Structure is remarkable not just for its sales record, which I have seen estimated at around 750,000 copies, translated into some twenty languages. Unlike Pirsig’s philosophical novel, the ideas in Kuhn’s work have been an incontrovertible force in academia since the book was published in 1962.

Like most books that get me excited, Structure is a fundamentally interdisciplinary work. It is philosophical to be sure, and I agree that it should be classified as philosophy for lack of a better term. But like all ground-breaking ideas, its designation as philosophy is tentative and conservative. Kuhn is a sociologist and a cultural theorist, a scientist and an historian. His arguments cannot reasonably be constrained to any single field that he draws upon to build his theory.

The book’s effects were so widespread that the terminology spilled out into the ‘real’ world. Nearly everyone has heard of paradigms and paradigm shifts, to the point where such things are perversely considered buzzwords. As usual, The Simpsons spells it out best. Who can forget the Poochie episode:

Network Executive: We at the network want a dog with attitude. He’s edgy. You’ve heard the expression “Let’s get busy”? Well, this is a dog who gets biz-ay; consistently and thoroughly.
Krusty: So he’s proactive?
Executive: Oh, God yes! We’re talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.
Writer: Excuse me, but “proactive” and “paradigm”? Aren’t those just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important? Not that I’m accusing you of anything like that… I’m fired aren’t I?

It is always bewildering to me how quickly an idea can go from crazy to brilliant to obvious to cliché. Not many years ago, Kuhn’s Structure was among the most cited books in the humanities. Now we give anyone who uses its central concept in normal speech a double take. At the risk of looking like the mindless Network Executive, I want to take seriously what Kuhn said about revolutionary science with a particular focus on what Kuhn might have to say about my favourite outrageous paradigm.

In my last post I discussed the appeal of moral skepticism and briefly alluded to the Darwinian evidence for such a stance. There is little dispute that in the pure biological sciences, Darwin’s theory of evolution was a revolutionary scientific idea if there ever was one. Many philosophers and scientists have argued for the revolutionary implications of Darwin’s paradigm beyond the traditional scope of biology, including within philosophy. And so it is worth asking if the general idea of paradigms and revolutions can apply to philosophy. My inclination is to say yes, especially to the degree that contemporary philosophy relies heavily upon evidence-based findings in the natural sciences. This is especially the case when the scientific evidence in question can be interpreted to explain why past theories of morality fell short of a defensible case for moral skepticism and why such theories, in light of recent evidence, seem not only to be giving the wrong answers but asking the wrong questions.

It is worth recalling just how strong our intuitions in morality are, and why an explanation of their origin (and their separability from absolute truth) constitutes something of a paradigmatic shift in ethics. In one of my first courses in ethics we were weighing the different traditional theories of rightness. The three serious theories we considered were virtue ethics, deontology and consequentialism.** The first two theories both have some serious shortcomings, but they are relatively sophisticated arguments and much ink has been spilled wrangling over the details. In my mind, consequentialism still holds a special place for me, but my faith was shaken in that second-year ethics course with a very basic argument:

There are five seriously ill patients with a rare blood type. Each is suffering from    impending failure of one critical internal organ, say the lungs, liver, heart, kidneys and stomach. Each will die imminently without an organ transplant for their respective disease. One patient in the hospital for a routine procedure has the rare blood type and all five of his organs are suitable for transplant. Is it wrong to kill him and harvest his organs to save five lives?

Our guts tell us that killing an innocent person without his consent to save five others is reprehensible. And most of us would be embarrassed to hold a view to the contrary in good company. It seems fundamentally unquestionable that the man with the working organs has a right to live regardless of the unfortunate suffering of the other five.

Of course, we can start fudging some of the variables. Say the would-be donor is very old and all the recipients are very young. Or say the donor was a convicted axe-murderer. Or say that the recipients were all promising scientists studying a cure for cancer and are on the verge of a major breakthrough. Around the edges of the problem it becomes harder to lay claim to moral certainty. But the point is well made; our guts tell us in many matters of life and death, one life is worth more than five. In Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds he maps variations on this point empirically using Internet surveys and the famous trolley experiment.

So what is my response to this powerful intuition pump?*** I readily admit that on the fundamental decisions concerning life or death, our range of choices becomes almost binary. To live or to die is about as black and white as it gets, although our ever-growing medical knowledge promises to blur even this distinction. It is clear why evolution would have our passions most stirred by this crucial matter. And it is clear why decisions on this front are going to be among the most fundamental of any moral system. It may not be fair to judge an entire moral system based on this one issue, but any ideology that cheapens human life to the point of making it expendable based on a simple mathematical equation will have a lot of explaining to do.

But evolutionary gut reactions only get us so far. It is telling that while we sense a great and palpable moral indignation at the prospect of causing one person to die to save five others, we feel only intellectual and occasional gut-level outrage when five people are constrained to live poor quality lives so that one might live well. And yet this is basically the situation on Earth as we know it, a billion times over. When we consider global inequality, we are prepared to admit that our intuitions do not go far enough and that sacrifice is indeed a moral requirement.  This may look familiar.

There are five seriously poor people living on a rare planet. Each is suffering from a persistent lack of critical services, say clean water, proper diet, access to health care, proper education and general security. Each will live a shortened and at times desperate life without these services.  One person on this rare planet, however, has plenty of all of these services. Indeed, he has more water, food, health care, education and military  protection than he can possibly be said to need. Is it wrong to reduce his share to help the other five humans?

The analogy is not a perfect one, but my point is not that the situations are analogous. My point is that a consequentialist theory worth its salt demands sacrifice. While the issue of life and death tugs hard on our intuitions and casts doubt on the theoretical framework of a consequentialist outlook, this must be understood in the Darwinian ethical paradigm. We did not evolve in an environment that gave any moral weight to the well-being of distant humans we never met and likely never will meet. We did not evolve in an environment where humans were quickly and devastatingly approaching the maximum threshold for human life on Earth. The resource and population crunch is upon us, and we must override our intuitive shortcomings with intellectual motivations.

The true lesson of the organ transplant problem is not that we ought to engage in a heartless calculus of murder and pure collectivism like we see in insect societies. We are not ants, and our individual lives have worth and meaning independently of our vast colony.  The point is that our gut reactions are important not only where they are most strongly felt but where they are most sorely absent. To my mind, a comfortable if untimely death is not fundamentally worse than a reasonably long life lived out in the most terrible poverty that results from global inequality. I would argue that the two injustices are different only in degree, not kind.

The gap in our intuitive response probably explains why the sanctity of life is so crucial to our rich, Western way of thinking and why global inequality is a nagging and persistent afterthought, painful though it is to our compassionate sensibilities. Darwin’s paradigm explains why this is. And the first step to fixing a problem is properly diagnosing its cause.


* Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel has been called the best-selling philosophy book of all time and has over four million copies in print.

** A quick refresher: Aristotle argued for an ethics based on cultivating virtues and virtuous behaviour. Kant argued for a deontological (duty-based) moral theory of acting according to universally rational reasons. Consequentialism is the broad name for theories that take into account the consequences of actions, of which J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism is probably the best-known.

***One of Daniel Dennet’s better terms.

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