Saturday, March 01, 2008

Certainty: Like the Welfare State

My argument here is that there are going to be 2 kinds of certainty. The first is the banal kind, the sort that we move in every day. Things like the immediate presence of physical objects, or a certainty about a social rule - I am certain I can exchange the appropriate amount of money for the goods I want. In other words, the kind of certainty that no one philosophizes about (except as part of a larger hypothetical) because it is so banal and obvious.

It is the kind of certainty that the world demands from us. Even the most ardent skeptic is certain he has to jump out of the way of the oncoming truck. The world demands that we believe particular things, or we will suffer death, humiliation, or foolishly wasted time.

The idea that the world demands this certainty from us is key to my argument here. We can't question these basic certainties; the problem of whether or not to accept them is taken out of our hands. Individual desires have nothing to do with them.

The problem comes when one wants everything in life to be certain in this way. There are some things that we must make decisions to believe, some things that we must take responsibility for. In other words, there are matters that we must judge rather than discover.

Isn't this precisely what most moral or apologetic reasoning is about? The attempt to find in the world something that will take the judgments out of our hands?

Take moral reasoning. I think the vast majority of ethical thought is about wanting the world to be a place that makes our moral judgments for us. Every time a moral situation comes up, we'd like the situation to tell us what we must do. We want our world to be like a platoon Sergeant barking out orders at us.

So, we find positive laws from theological sources, or from evolutionary psychology, or from "objective self interest."

The point of all that is to avoid making a moral judgment and to do something much simpler: make a moral discovery.

And apologetic reasoning? It's the same thing, isn't it? Rather than making a judgment about God, or a making a wager, one hunts for "reasons," "justifications," and "warrants" that will make the judgment for us. We want to discover that, goodness me, we must believe in God! We have no choice! "Reason" demands it! Or, we must follow this law! "Morality" demands it!

So how is this like the welfare state? It's an abdication of responsibility. Rather than standing behind one's moral judgments or theological wagers, we expect the world to do it for us. We expect the world to give us what we "need" rather than throwing the dice and making a choice. The state gives us the goods we "need" rather than us achieving them for ourselves.

It is those choices that create the second kind of certainty. It is a retroactive certainty; you can't see how the dice will fall until you throw them. Once you make the choice, you walk down the path, and the second kind of certainty will come of its own accord.

I'm not saying that we should believe or do things without reasons; I'm saying that we can't pretend that we can live lives devoid of significant choice because all the answers are ready made for us. Plenty of people do pretend this, especially in politics - what else is the meaning of "Let's not challenge liberal democracy and capitalism, because every attempt to do so has ended in tears"?

I want to make it clear that nothing in this post is about making deductions from these certainties; I'm not Descartes talking about his cogito.


Greg Fowler said...

"We expect the world to give us what we "need" rather than throwing the dice and making a choice. The state gives us the goods we "need" rather than us achieving them for ourselves." Although there may be some people who have the mindset that you suggest, I think it's unfair to suggest that our social safety net is nothing more than that. Our 'welfare state' as you label it, reflects the compassion of a majority of Canadian citizens who recognize that there will always be those amoung us who need a helping hand. Those people are not necessarily lazy bums, or freeloaders, or scam artists, etc. In many cases, they are people who were living just one paycheck away from disaster when it decided to strike. Sometimes that is business failure, or an unexpected illness, a cognitive challenge, etc. Just because somebody isn't always totally self-reliant shouldn't make them a target for ridicule.

Mike said...

Well, I wasn't really out to attack welfare here. I was trying to use a common perception of what welfare is as a metaphor. Or analogy. I forget which.