Weekend reading in ethics, featuring Marie Kondo

Here are three pieces that have been open in my browser for a few days now, while I kept postponing the urge to write something substantial about each of them. Instead, I’ll simply present them for your consideration, with a paragraph or two on selected areas of possible interest.

First, Bruce Schneier on blockchains, and how it’s debatable that they live up to what many consider one of their key promises: to “displace, reshape, or eliminate trust“. Schneier is an American cryptographer who has written extensively on security issues (his work on airport “security theater” is well-worth reading), and he certainly speaks with authority, even if you might not agree with his analysis.

What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they’re often single points of failure.

When that trust turns out to be misplaced, there is no recourse. If your bitcoin exchange gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If your bitcoin wallet gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If you forget your login credentials, you lose all of your money.

Second, an Indian man intends to sue his parents for giving birth to him. The Vox article on this story gives this summary of the philosophical position known as anti-natalism, as defended by my colleague David Benatar (and others):

The antinatalist argument goes like this: Pain is bad, while the absence of any experiences can’t possibly be bad. That means that creating people moves them from a state that isn’t bad to a state that is. “Coming into existence, far from ever constituting a net benefit, always constitutes a net harm,” Benatar argues in “Better Never to Have Been”.

I subscribe to anti-natalism myself, and am comfortable with its implication that humanity should allow itself to become extinct (which is not the same thing as deliberately and/or prematurely ending our lives, though we should be allowed to do that too).

However, an issue this piece raises is the difference between morality and the law. An action can be morally wrong, yet legal (for example, certain forms of deception), or morally permissible/good, yet illegal (blasphemy, gay marriage, euthanasia).

Furthermore, the law evolves, as does morality. We can’t judge people by some sort of end-of-history omniscient point of view. His parents might have had no reason to know or think about anti-natalism, and would have had no way of knowing that their child might consider himself harmed by coming into existence.

Mr Samuel, also, might never have encountered anti-natalism in a different sort of life – the sort of life most human lead – and even if he had, he might not have been persuaded by it. Many moral arguments do not involve an inescapable conclusion, and it seems inappropriate to hold people legally responsible on the basis of one particular conclusion to a complex moral argument.

For those who want to read more about anti-natalism, there are a number of responses to Benatar’s version of it (with replies from him in some cases) on the website of UCT’s Department of Philosophy.

Lastly, a meta-point on the difficulty of debating anything morally complex on social media, or sometimes, even alluding to complexity. Recently, the American author Barbara Ehrenreich tweeted about Marie Kondo, the Japanese author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and “Spark Joy”, which are apparently about tidying your room(s), but without the help of lobsters.

Ehrenreich is a multiple-award winning author, including “Humanist of the year” (American Humanist Association, 1998). Much of her work has been on social inequality, class, poverty, justice and so forth, so her credentials as a compassionate liberal-minded person are quite robust. This is, of course, no guarantee that you don’t end up saying something bigoted or, in this case (allegedly), xenophobic.

The URL of this USA Today piece on Ehrenreich’s tweet uses the word “racist” rather than xenophobic, and the content of the article leaves no room for debate on whether any other interpretation of the tweet is possible.

Given what we know about Ehrenreich – or what we could learn about her before calling her xenophobic or racist – this seems a perfect excuse to remind you of Rapoport’s Rules and the principle of charity.

What is more likely: that a democratic socialist who has spent her life fighting social justice causes is a xenophobe, or that she was making a political observation or joke that simply can’t work in the call-out culture of Twitter?

The tweet was posted the day before Trump’s State of the Union address, from an account (Ehrenreich’s) that frequently tweets criticism of Trump, MAGA, and the jingoism of Trump and his supporters.

If America is so great, she’s asking, how can it still be the case that someone can become a superstar in a majority English-speaking nation without being assimilated, and being “forced” to speak the language of that nation before she is taken seriously?

The tweet is poking fun at American exceptionalism, not Marie Kondo. Her follow-up tweet makes this even clearer, but is somehow also regarded as evidence of her moral failings in the USA Today piece.

Not giving people any benefit of the doubt, or not making any effort to inhabit someone else’s perspective before judging them according to yours, will more and more result in people simply not taking the risk of expressing any opinions that might provoke strong debate.

It’s not simply the case that referencing someone’s first language, race, gender or whatever makes the comment bigoted. The content and the context need to influence our reactions, otherwise, as per the J.S. Mill quote I pasted in a recent review of Russell Blackford’s “The Tyranny of Opinion”, our (public) lives and our communications run the risk of becoming “thoroughly artificialized”.

Xenophobia, racism, sexism and so forth absolutely need to be challenged, but if we do so without making any effort to understand that we can be guilty of false positives in identifying them, we compromise our ability to debate exactly the issues we claim to be motivated by, in that our definitions of them can become driven more by knee-jerk reaction than by careful identification.

For as long as hot takes of supposed Twitter scandals make it into mainstream media, and for as long as we indulge our confirmation biases to turn innocuous statements into scandal, the space for debating anything controversial will shrink.

In other words, we’re doomed.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.