“People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“People as things, that’s where it starts.” June 23, 2010

For an explanation of what Weatherwax Wednesdays are all about, read the introduction post.

This week’s Weatherwax quote, like last week’s is from Carpe Jugulum. The first speaker is the Omnian missionary, the second speaker is Granny Weatherwax. The two of them alternate speaking throughout the dialogue.

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example.”

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?”

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”



“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they are getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . .”

Sometimes we pass over points of commonality with the idea that the ideas are too basic or foundational to merit much discussion. I don’t think that there are many people who think Granny Weatherwax’s prescription for behavior is wrong, but there is considerable difference about why we ought to follow it.

In my younger, Kantian days, I followed the Golden Rule and anything else that seemed to fall under the purview of the Categorical Imperative in an attitude of pure duty. The primary satisfaction I got from behaving rightly was like the quiet click of a Rubik’s cube sliding through its final sequence or the sound of a pencil being laid down at the end of a proof.

My mistake when I was younger was: in my utter detachment from the people affected by my actions, I was still treating people as things. Instead of ‘ends in themselves’ I treated them as means to an abstracted kind of righteousness for myself, their needs as tasks to be completed.

Moving away from Kantianism hasn’t caused a radical shift in the actions I take, but it has changed the attitude I try to cultivate when I make moral choices. The goal is not simply to reasonably consider my imperatives and minimize the objectification of others, but to reach the point where ‘not thinking of people as things’ is my default mindset. I want to engrain it into my habits and character so that it is not my guide solely when I am making consciously identified Moral Decisions, but so that it becomes a constant constraint on even my most quotidian actions.

P.S. Speaking of universal moral truths, Matt Shafer from Sword and Cross has a great post up titled “The Single Ethical Principle?” which argues that “ethical action consists in reciprocity and mutuality of action.” (This post is a follow up to another  piece “Agnostic Faith” which is well worth a read).

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  • Ooh, this is interesting. Do you have any further insight into what exactly it was about Kant that so abstracted your treatment of the Golden Rule and kept you thinking of people as things? Is it just the extent to which the Categorical Imperative is a rational thought exercise rather than an intuitive mindset and way of being, or is it something else? (Kant himself would probably take issue with some of the distinctions implied by that question, but whatever.)

  • I think it was making it so rules-based that it felt as comfortable and solitary as standardized tests. I've always enjoyed taking standardized tests because, no matter how complicated the exam, the overall problem is simple. It's you versus an impassive, impersonal enemy, and, ultimately all the power is in your hands. (Cultural biases and strange grading practises aside, natch).When I'm taking these exams, I get to become a laser-focused one-woman wrecking crew. Every correctly answered question is a victory over the the enemy. Possibly this is how people approach things like rock-climbing, I've never been athletic enough to check.The end result is a very me-centered competition. I was into morality primarily as a duty and a series of small triumphs, but the people I might be serving were just as interchangeable and insignificant as the vocabulary questions on the SAT.

  • Part of the issue with deontological (rules-based) morality, is that it seems to make me too perfect as an actor. If I am using a morality algorithm and I am aware of it's rules, my only concern is that I avoid any GIGO problems with my data inputs. All flaws in my actions come primarily from data deficits, and the primary role of other people in my morality system is to serve as walking, talking references to data I am not currently in possession of.Again, this is a dehumanizing view of the supposed beneficiaries of my actions. It also does not see anyway I might improve as a moral actor besides by increasing my stores of reference data. Both these conclusions don't accord with my observation of myself and others as moral actors in the world. I had to jettison the deontology.

  • Interesting. I am bad at moral philosophy but it sounds like you are deciding to nuture your moral habits by broadening your empathy. The Dalai Lama would concur, but I am not sure I have you right. This stuff is confusing.

  • Hi Leah,You might be interested in reading Harry Gensler. He is a logician who does a wonderful job wedding hard heads and soft hearts. He has a proven the Golden Rule in formal logic*, but pairs it with a long discussion about the importance of moral imagination to put oneself in the other person's shoes. In order of increasing sophistication: Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction, Formal Ethics, and An Introduction to Logic, which has the proof of the Golden Rule.* The proof has a loaded inference rule: the universalizability of moral judgements. Thus atheists cannot use it as a proof of objective ethics.

  • Justin, I'm curious why you say that the "universalizability of moral judgments" in the proof prevents it from being used as a "proof of objective ethics" — you seem to have skipped a couple steps of argument. Could you clarify that?

  • Hi Matt,My logic is a little shaky, but here goes. The must fundamental way to evaluate the validity of a logical argument is using truth tables. Logical arguments are valid just in case it is impossible to have the premises true and the conclusion false. You can easily see that in a truth table, but they become unwieldy and intractible for longer arguments.So people instead do logical proofs using inference rules. Now, for an argument to be truth-preserving, the inference rule must itself be logically valid. It must be impossible to have the premises true and the conclusion false. You can see that by constructing a truth table for modus ponens. That lets you make inferences based on modus ponens.The problem for atheists is that the inference rule based on the universalizability of moral judgements is not truth-preserving. It is possible to have true premises and false conclusion without logical contradiction. The proof relies on people, for some other rational reason, believing in the universalizability of moral judgments. As a Christian I believe that because (1) I am designed by God and my unfallen moral intuitions are from the law God wrote on my heart (Heb. 8:10), and those intuitions tell me people are equal, and (2) the revealed truth of the Bible. We are all made in God's image, and Jesus holds up the Golden Rule as the essence of the Law (Matt. 7:12)

  • I’m familiar with truth tables and inference rules, and I’ve read Godel Escher Bach, but I think I still need to ask you to break that down a little slower, Justin.I think your argument is that the validity of the universalizability of judgment arguemnet is not proven. That I can’t say for certain that the statement: if x has property U (universalizability), x is moral for all x in the set of moral judgments.That’s true, but nearly all of our usual rules of inference would fail this test when they are brought to bear on worldly realities, rather than mathematical abstractions. Where is the proof that the inference “if the position of object x is identical to the position of glass object y at some time t, and x’s velocity is nonzero at time t, and y is stationary at time t, and the topology of y at time t-a is non-identical to y’s topology at time t+a (where a is arbitrarily small), then it is correct to infer that x broke y is truth preserving?Do inferences about the causality of a window being broken by a rock also come down to intuitions that God wrote on our hearts? This argument sounds like the usual theist escape from the Cartesian circle. Isn’t it possible that our inferences with regard to morality as well as causality are not as well founded as modus ponens but are based in a more Bayesian reasoning?

  • Hi Leah,I tried to read Godel, Escher, Back when I was in high school, but couldn't get through. So you are a better natural logician than I am! My knowledge is pretty much limited to Gensler's logic textbook.Moving on, the standard for logical proofs is obviously not real world correspondance, but internal logical consistency. It means (among other things) showing that you can't have the premises true and the conclusion false without getting a logical contradiction. In other words, can deny the conclusion and produce a reductio ad absurdem?I think one can delve into some exotic species of skepticism and deny duties of rationality, but for the most part I bracket that and accept duties of rationality as normative, and that first and foremost includes logical consistency. You can actually get some moderately strong ethical principles out of this. For example: Belief-Actions Consistency: don't combine believing that it is wrong to do A with acting to do A.In the predicate calculus it is:~(u:O~Au_ & u_:Au_)If you don't know formal logic, here is a quick and slightly precise rundown.u: is you believeO is oughtAu_ (the u should be underlined, but I don't want to look up the ascii) means 'imperative that you do A)So u:O~Au_ translates to 'you believe that you ought not to be under an imperative to do A', or better yet, 'you resolve that you ought not to do A'.Now let's do the proof. It will be proof by contradiction (RAA), since those are easy. That means deny the conclusion and show that this leads to a logical contradiction.1. ~(u:O~Au_ & u_:Au_)2. assume: (u:O~Au_ & u_:Au_)3. u:O~Au_ (from 2)4. u_:Au_ (from 2)5. U O~Au_ (from 3)6. U Au_ (from 4)7. U ~Au_ (from 5)8. ~(u:O~Au_ & u_:Au_) (6 contradicts 7)Note that I am heavily cribbing from Gensler's logic textbook. This is not original thought by me.Just to explain a little, step 5 is popping the beliefs into a "belief world" which must be logically consistent. Same thing for 6. Step 7 is from an imperative so it applies to all worlds, including our current belief world (if it were optional then it would not accurately capture what we mean by imperatives). At that point we have a contradiction. So we refute our denail of the conclusion by RAA.So, the point being, you can be logically consistent and deny the universalizability of moral judgments, and thus the Golden Rule. You cannot be logically consistent and deny basic logical principles, including some interesting principles about consistency of beliefs and actions.Do inferences about the causality of a window being broken by a rock also come down to intuitions that God wrote on our hearts? This argument sounds like the usual theist escape from the Cartesian circle.I'm not sure what you mean about theists escaping a cartesian circle. My only understanding of that is Descartes failed proof for the reality of the external world presumed on the existence of a loving God. My point is this:There is no logical proof for the existence of objective ethical standards. And empirical arguments, such as those based on evolution, etc… are very weak if not complete failures. They are certainly much weaker than arguments for the existence of God.

  • Cranky Curmudgeon

    I try to avoid doing unto others what I would have them do unto me. Tastes differ.

    • deiseach

      Does that include repurposing quotes from George Bernard Shaw as your own, Cranky?

      *wags finger*

  • ReadsTooMuch

    Leah, this is a really helpful way to point out a problem for deontologists. I honestly don’t know whether it really applies to Kant (he has a whole bunch of other stuff on ethics that’s apparently more helpful), but Jacques Lacan has a fantastic essay comparing Kant and the Marquis de Sade, basically working out a more rigorous version of your point.

  • I agree, Granny Weatherwax is tremendously cool. I first ran across this notion you write on in Father Elijah, however. And Michael D. O’Brien expressed it in much the same way, that all sin is, at its root, the act of taking a luminous being, created and beloved by God, and treating it as an object. I am uncertain if I picked up the converse — that treating things (animals, for instance) like people was similarly sinful in nature. Still and all, it’s a very Catholic perspective on sin.