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No Weird Counter Examples

The Philosopher Liam Kofi Bright, remarks on twitter that utilitarianism is right if we just exclude “galaxy brain” takes. Utilitarianism is the philosophical view that what is right is what procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number; what Bright is calling to exclude, I believe, are examples like those provided by Robert Nozick of a utility monster, a being who is able to experience a googolplex units of pleasure when he eats us. Utilitarianism plus the utility monster seems to yield the result says Nozick, that we should all jump into his mouth.

Bright’s “no galaxy brain” proviso calls to mind Bernard Williams’ responses to a similar objection against a theory of human rights. On this theory rights are trumps. We proceed making our utilitarian calculations, but in certain cases if some course of action would conduce to the greatest felicity of the most number of people we prohibit it because it infringes on rights. So for example, it would make everybody happy if so-and-so would shut up, but we don’t allow ourselves to make him hold his peace because he has a right to free speech. The objector to this account of rights (or perhaps to rights at all) asks us to imagine that once the man opens his mouth the vapors issuing forth will, Thanos-like, destroy half the universe. Surely in that case we could button his lips? the interlocutor asks. Williams’ response: “Rights are trumps IN BRIDGE not in whatever bizarre space game you’re playing.”

The “no weird counter examples” proviso is attractive. In action theory we define an action as an event caused by a desire. If Brutus stabs Caesar the motion of his hand and the knife in his hand are caused by his desire to kill Caesar and hence it is an act, and a blameworthy one as Caesar was his father, whilst if a breath of his, like the butterfly’s wings in China, causes a hurricane in California, Brutus did not act. To which the clever philosopher asks — what if it in order to express his fiery yearning for liberty Brutus etched “Liberty” in a stone tablet, and a pebble dislodged by his chisel startled an ox that trampled Maria in the marketplace. Did Brutus act to kill Maria? We say no, but if we essay to say why we may find ourselves confounded, generating ever more subtle theories, festooned with epicycles. The no weird counter-examples proviso comes to the rescue. To paraphrase Williams we respond to the over-ingenious theorist — action is a game we are playing in which desires cause motions in normal ways, not in some weird ox game you are playing.

And in epistemology we might say — we know the world through our senses, and Descartes, and authors of the Yoga Vasistha, and Wachowski sisters and other noisy skeptics, Be Dumb. Because in the normal world we know what is the case by looking with our eyes and hearing with our ears. We are not in a jar. Shush Galaxy Brain. No weird counter examples.

And yet we would be rash to do so. Because if we know anything we know there is a pressure not to believe weird ideas, and yet weird ideas have proven true. Slavery is wrong, although almost nobody thought so. The world spins, although the complacent boggle. Dig a well deep enough and you hit infinite space — literally — weird as that idea is.

Do we, amphibian that we are, have a way out of our impasse, forced to live out our lives on the dry land of the normal, but to lay our eggs for the future in the wet pond of the weird? Could we argue weird counter-examples are okay for the brainy among us, or the young, or those under conditions of urgency? In addition to the obvious snobbery of such a course of action, a regress beckons, and not a good one, as when the candy store’s boasts a back room with even more delightful dainties. The rule for how to decide when to be strange and when not — shall it be strange or no? The reader can see why this won’t cut it.

And yet as the events of this week in America show us, too tender allowances for weird ideas lead to atrocities. The fantasy that there are secrets barred to us by the sour fathers of the status quo, which we can see through with enough callous red-pilling, is an adolescent’s wet dream and video game of unlimited innocent freedom to murder.

Maybe we can look at the fruits of our ideas and thereby know them, following the recommendations of the favorite philosopher of George W. Bush, Jesus. Weird is okay if it makes us care about the stranger, his food and his ideas, not if it gives us an unassailable conceptual pillbox from which to snipe our narcissistic rage. Normality is to be embraced if it means we are humble to our earthly routines, but shunned if those walks take us the long way around and we avoid the shantytown by the river.

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