About ethics and families
by Sebastian Benthall
Most of the great historical philosophers did not have children.
I can understand why. For much of my life, I’ve been propelled by a desire to understand certain theoretical fundamentals of knowledge, ethics, and the universe. No doubt this has led me to become the scientist I am today. Since becoming a father, I have less time for these questions. I find myself involved in more mundane details of life, and find myself beginning to envy those in what I had previously considered the most banal professions. Fatherhood involves a practical responsibility that comes front-and-center, displacing youthful ideals and speculations.
I’m quite proud to now be working on what are for me rather applied problems. But these problems have deep philosophical roots and I enjoy the thought that I will one day be able to write a mature philosophy as a much older man some time later. For now, I would like to jot down a few notes about how my philosophy has changed.
I write this now because my work is now intersecting with other research done by folks I know are profoundly ethically motivated people. My work on what is prosaically called “technology policy” is crossing into theoretical territory currently occupied by AI Safety researchers of the rationalist or Effective Altruist vein. I’ve encountered these folks before and respect their philosophical rigor, though I’ve never quite found myself in agreement with them. I continue to work on problems in legal theory as well, which always involves straddling the gap between consequentialism and deontological ethics. My more critical colleagues may be skeptical of my move towards quantitative economic methods, as the latter are associated with a politics that has been accused of lacking integrity. In short, I have several reasons to want to explain, to myself at least, why I’m working on the problems I’ve chosen, at least as a matter of my own philosophical trajectory.
So first, a point about logic. The principle of non-contradiction imposes a certain consistency and rigor on thought and encourages a form of universalism of theory and ethics. The internal consistency of the Kantian transcendental subject is the first foundation for deontological ethics. However, for what are essentially limitations of bounded rationality, this gives way in later theory to Habermasian discourse ethics. The internal consistency of the mind is replaced with the condition that to be involved in communicative action is to strive for agreement. Norms form from disinterested communications that collect and transcend the perspectival limits of the deliberators. In theory.
In practice, disinterested communication is all but impossible, and communicative competence is hard to find. At the time of this writing, my son does not yet know how to talk. But he communicates, and we do settle on norms, however transitory. The other day we established that he is not allowed to remove dirt from the big pot with the ficus elastica and deposit in other rooms of the house. This is a small accomplishment, but it highlights how unequal rationality, competence, and authority is not a secondary social aberration. It is a primary condition of life.
So much for deontology. Consequential ethics does not fare much better. Utility has always been a weakly theorized construct. In modern theory, it has been mathematized into something substantively meaningless. It serves mainly to describe behavior, rather than to explain it; it provides little except a just-so-story for a consumerist society which is, sure enough, best at consuming itself. Attempts to link utility to something like psychological pleasure, as was done in the olden days, have bizarre conclusions. Parents are not as happy, studies say, as those without children. So why bother?
Nietzsche was a fierce critic of both Kantian deontological ethics and facile British utilitarianism. He argued that in the face of the absurdity of both systems, the philosopher had to derive new values from the one principle that they could not, logically, deny: life itself. He believed that a new ethics could be derived from the conditions of life, which for him was a process of overcoming resistance in pursuit of other (perhaps arbitrary) goals. Suffering, for Nietzsche, was not a blemish on life; rather, life is sacred enough to justify monstrous amounts of suffering.
Nietzsche went insane and died before he could finish his moral project. He didn’t have kids. If he had, maybe he would have come to some new conclusions about the basis for ethics.
In my humble opinion and limited experience thus far, fatherhood is largely about working to maintain the conditions of life for one’s family. Any attempt at universalism that does not extend to one’s own offspring is a practical contradiction when one considers how one was once a child. The biological chain of being is direct, immediate, and resource intensive in a way too little acknowledged in philosophical theory.
In lieu of individual utility, the reality of family highlights the priority of viability, or the capacity of a complex, living system to maintain itself and its autonomy over time. The theory of viability was developed in the 20th century through the field of cybernetics — for example, by Stafford Beer — though it was never quite successfully formulated or integrated into the now hegemonic STEM disciplines. Nevertheless, viability provides a scientific criterion by which to evaluate social meaning and ethics. I believe that there is still tremendous potential in cybernetics as an answer to longstanding philosophical quandaries, though to truly capture this value certain mathematical claims need to be fleshed out.
However, an admission of the biological connection between human beings cannot eclipse economic realities that, like it or not, have structured human life for thousands of years. And indeed, in these early days of child-rearing, I find myself ill-equipped to address all of my son’s biological needs relative to my wife and instead have a comparative advantage in the economic aspects of his, our, lives. And so my current work, which involves computational macroeconomics and the governance of technology, is in fact profoundly personal and of essential ethical importance. Economics has a reputation today for being a technical and politically compromised discipline. We forget that it was originally, and maybe still is, a branch of moral philosophy deeply engaged with questions of justice precisely because it addresses the conditions of life. This ethical imperative persists despite, or indeed because of, its technical complexity. It may be where STEM can address questions of ethics directly. If only it had the right tools.
In summary, I see promise in the possibility of computational economics, if inspired by some currently marginalized ideas from cybernetics, in satisfactorily addressing some perplexing philosophical questions. My thirsting curiosity, at the very least, is slaked by daily progress along this path. I find in it the mathematical rigor I require. At the same time, there is space in this work for grappling with the troublingly political, including the politics of gender and race, which are both of course inexorably tangled with the reality of families. What does it mean, for the politics of knowledge, if the central philosophical unit and subject of knowledge is not the individual, or the state, or the market, but the family? I have not encountered even the beginning of an answer in all my years of study.