It’s a contingent fact that we care

I mentioned a passage from the Odyssey in my latest comment on Fact 1.5, as illustrating my claim that “It’s not natural to treat strangers or foreigners well, it’s not natural to think that everyone should have equal treatment, it’s not natural to think that women matter just as much as men do.” Having mentioned it I wanted to read it again, and having read it again, I wanted to post it.

It’s in Book Nine, which is where we at last get to hear about Odysseus’s journey from the beginning, when he is staying with the Phaiakians and Alkinöos asks him (in the last lines of Book Eight) to tell his story. After some polite throat-clearing he gets on with it:

I was carried by the wind from Troy
to Ismarus, land of the Kikonians.
I destroyed the city there, killed the men,
seized their wives, and captured lots of treasure,
which we divided up. I took great pains
to see that all men got an equal share.
Then I gave orders we should leave on foot—
and with all speed. But the men were fools.
They didn’t listen. They drank too much wine…

And ate too much meat and gave the neighboring Kikonians time to collect and attack. But you see how the story is told. The first and only glimpse of moral concern (or perhaps it’s prudential, or more likely it’s both) is Odysseus’s concern to make sure all his men got their fare share of the treasure and the women that they had all grabbed. The Kikonians might as well be animated figures in a computer game. This isn’t a factual issue. It’s not that Odysseus and his crew think the Kikonians are robots or zombies – it’s that they don’t care. They should care, but they don’t. Facts are part of getting them to care, but they’re not enough. Facts are necessary but not sufficient.

(For the record, I’m not assuming that Sam Harris thinks facts are sufficient. I was just disputing the list, not his views as a whole, which I haven’t yet read. On the other hand, I don’t agree with his claim that science can answer moral questions; I think science can help answer moral questions, can contribute to moral questions, but not that it can answer them, just like that, boom. Just a difference in emphasis, basically.)

I’ll add something I said on a new post of Russell’s, in reply to his ‘In other words, ethics is ultimately based on the affective attitudes of human subjects, not on the fabric of a reality external to these!’

In other words it all turns on the fact that we care, and it’s a contingent fact that we care. We might not care, and if we didn’t, morality wouldn’t even exist.

There’s a horrible passage in one of Jane Goodall’s early (and for a general readership) books on the Gombe chimps, about one elderly male chimp who was left with a paralyzed arm after a polio outbreak. One day a group of chimps were in a tree grooming each other and the damaged chimp slowly and with huge effort climbed the tree and with an exhausted sigh settled down to be groomed – whereupon all the other chimps left.

We could be like that – and we are a little like that, but not entirely. Or chimps could be less like that – and in other contexts they are less like that. The contingent fact is that chimps have some empathy and we have more, and over our history we have learned to refine and develop and expand it. That’s where morality is. It requires caring, and empathy, and those aren’t automatic.

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