Despite best efforts to spend my online time wisely, I’ve fallen back into the habit of keeping tabs on YouTube videos dabbling in ethics. Nothing new there, but it got me thinking about a string of contradictions that continues to evade participants, capped off by the frequency with which metaethical irrealists are now accused of harboring ulterior motives. This is the stuff of conspiracy-mongers, and though it's not exactly a new phenomenon, it was never this common in the past. I’ll take a stab at pinpointing why caricaturing non-realists in this way only ends up hurting the caricaturist.
The irrealist position being reachable through uncontaminated motives should register with you regardless of whether you yourself hold the contrary position, or any other position available on the continuum. As a former robust realist turned quasi-realist, I am not here to counter the realist view as advanced by its top-tier exponents (i.e. non-YouTubers), because the relevant literature is prodigious to the point where nobody can do it justice in a single post, and because I don't take umbrage with metaethical realists who stray from wild accusations; who never ascribe ulterior motives to others.
Theorists and Activists = Apples and Oranges
Consider how the friction between value monism and value pluralism squares with the issue of first-order (normative) ethical analysis and second-order (meta) ethical analysis, and how it further implicates my italicized breakdown of activism vs. theory:
Theorists who aren’t activists: Rightly concerned with normative and metaethical affairs.
Activists who aren’t theorists: Should be concerned with normative ethics only.
Simple question for readers: Are you here for activism (i.e. suffering alleviation) or are you here to be the best analytical thinker you can be?
In a perfect world, one would go hand-in-hand with the other, so it’s pretty ironic to see people who pride themselves on their understanding of how profoundly imperfect the world is, being the very same people who unwittingly lap up idealistic mergers of activism and theory, where sound theory equals good activism.
Daydreaming aside, it’s clear that these are mutually exclusive pursuits, and this entry will relay the levelheadedness behind keeping the two compartmentalized. Note that you can still be an activist in the morning and a theorist in the evening, but trying to juggle the two symbiotically will only worsen your performance on both fronts.
This may be noteworthy insofar as how we (as moral agents) choose to spend our free time. I'm a value pluralist, so I have no reservations about allocating my free time to both ventures, separately of course.
The case for compartmentalization targets select value monists who insist that qualia is the lone source of intrinsic value, but who nonetheless care deeply about the true/false status of their metaethical position. By caring about this, they let theory-based quests for truth sidetrack them from pursuing optimal activism. From the standpoint of monistic qualia-welfarism, having a vested interest in whether something is per se true or per se false is cart-before-the-horse thinking. A belief being correct or incorrect doesn’t itself impact anyone’s welfare, so when someone goes quietly from a belief in realism to a belief in irrealism, this is nothing more than a cognitive endeavor, one which doesn’t ipso facto cause harm to any sentient creature. Sticking a nail in someone’s eye on the other hand does cause harm, but pointing this out is a conversational derailment since we’re evaluating a process of belief (transitioning from metaethical realism to irrealism) separate from any act. That is, if you’re committed to responsible use of the English language, where beliefs and actions are different words which carry different definitions.
It’s just as feasible for an agent to be a metaethical realist (belief) and to stick a nail in someone else’s eye (act) for no good reason, as it is for me to have the impulse to type “1+1=3” while being cognizant of how 1+1=2 in actuality. Regardless of the discipline we’re discussing, mere knowledge isn’t enough to paralyze behavior incongruent with said knowledge. The causal-chain behind our motives to act ethically or unethically is a separate subject, and is not built into the very fabric of ethics. This is precisely why immorality and amorality were sundered from the get-go. Just by existing, amoralists demonstrate that moral knowledge doesn't ipso facto drive moral action, solidifying the framework of morality as not inherently motive-inducing. With this in mind, if value monists’ exclusive concern for sensations is to be internally consistent, it must render innocuous all talks of truth vs. falsehood, as those guidelines are disconnected from the properties of first-order sentiocentrism.
The conflation of theory and activism, and the subsequent conflation of belief and action, is what shifts this debate away from "realism vs. irrealism" and morphs it into a debate over Moral Internalism vs. Moral Externalism. I will get to this a bit later, but for now let's just assume for argument's sake that the above paragraph is inaccurate and that Internalism is accurate. If so, moral convictions do indeed give way to moral motivations. In that case, it makes perfect sense to ask: How could any metaethical realist possibly stick a nail in someone else's eye for selfish reasons? The answer is dirt simple; ethical egoism is compatible with metaethical realism. In fact, most ethical egoists have historically been metaethical realists. So whenever someone criticizes "Nihilism" on the grounds that it creates an excuse for people to be selfish, this is not a charge against "Nihilism" at all since the critic is actually objecting to the underpinnings of ethical egoism (first-order position) only.
Think of it this way; would you rather live in a world where everyone shares your particular take on metaethics (everyone is a robust realist) while disagreeing with your normative position (everyone is an ethical egoist) or would you prefer a world where you enjoy full agreement on the normative side (everyone is an anti-egoist) and full disagreement on the metaethical side (everyone is a non-realist)? I'd much rather see a world filled with anti-egoists who happen to be irrealists. I can't be alone in picking that over the alternative where I'm stuck with seven billion normative egoists who happen to be metaethical realists (big whoop). So an ultimatum like this should go a long way in helping us reach a level of clarity over unwarranted alarmism.
Comprehending this while clinging to theory (non-activism) and monistic qualia-welfarism (anti-pluralism) without demarcating between first-order and second-order theories of ethics, makes for some contradictory practices. I am referring specifically to Inmendham and co. here. To this day, Inmendham gets animatedly indignant over people’s metaethical positions, even when those people are fully on board with his first-order prescriptions 100% of the time. Worse yet, he’s taken to claiming that any departure from metaethical realism disqualifies the speaker from justly advancing her normative stance. If said stance cannot be true (or false, for that matter), we are told that the advocate has no business trying to convince others of it. As I’ve noted a few times before, this is on par with telling fervid film critics to shut the fuck up because cinema realism doesn’t pass ontological muster. Bizarre stuff.
The only way to make sense of this activism><theory symbiosis façade is to out Inmendham as a value pluralist who latently cares about truth for truth’s own sake. I’ve tried to get this admission out of him in the past and was met with fervent pushback the moment it became obvious what its implications are for his monistic value superstructure. To be fair, positing truth as a non-instrumental value wouldn’t devastate qualia-oriented superstructures, it would just show that no theory of ethics attains supremacy over the others without succumbing to some level of pluralistic concessions. Inmendham wants no part of this, because rightness and wrongness must fit into a neat little package. This is, again, idealism posturing as pessimism.
Reputable ethicists understand that boundaries between first-order and second-order theories are paramount. Their conclusions are hardly contestable, as first-order theories are in the business of prescribing what ought to happen in any given scenario. Second-order theories deal with moral semantics, moral epistemology, moral psychology, moral diversity, moral ontology, moral naturalism vs. non-naturalism, and lesser abstractions in general, so they are divorced from imparting insight onto moral dilemma based verdict-fishing. None of the positions within the second-order catalog are intended to influence how we view the first-order status of a moral act. So embracing some form of consequentialism or non-consequentialism (first-order / normative positions) while settling on some form of metaethical irrealism (second-order / non-normative positions) is cogent and in no way internally inconsistent.
Nevertheless, concerted efforts have been made to delegitimize the barriers, mainly by Efilists. But why? Why have hapless efforts to blur the normative with the meta been so enduring on this corner of YouTube? What’s the underlying motive here? As mentioned, the answer could be fairly straightforward: Efilists don’t just value harm-reduction, they also value being correct about things. Big picture things. If not, Inmendham wouldn’t continually throw fits over anyone’s second-order views, nor would fellow Efilists commend him for it every step of the way. Since caring about axiological correctness constitutes a value of its own, Inmendham and co. are value pluralists without even realizing it. This is the crux of what I’m getting at and have tried to get at the last time around. If they weren’t pluralists, they’d be content with any activist who, like a proper monist, is driven exclusively by the reduction of suffering and is unperturbed by not being a truth-teller. Cure-minded philanthropists come from all ideological backgrounds, and there are no correlations pointing to higher charitable spending coming from those who are more attuned to reality. Clearly, not being versed in truth doesn’t interfere with efficiently alleviating harm. Apples and oranges.
Since Inmendham is bent on being a truth-teller on top of being a harm-eliminator, his fierce monism collapses into covert pluralism. What else can it do? That this continues to escape him is a testament to his unwillingness to lucidly examine the finer points of his idiosyncrasy. If I’m wrong here, he will have no qualms with choosing between the following:
- Being a propagandist who reduces plenty of harm through non-stop activism (offline)
- Being a truth-teller who reduces less harm by devoting much time to theory (online)
Fanciful notions of activism><theory symbiosis need to be stamped out before the conversation can even get off the ground. Theory = apples, activism = oranges. Easy does it.
I suspect that this will be handwaved, because the moment you accept it, it will dawn on you how bootless a platform YouTube is for anyone striving to be a productive reducer of harm. For the record, this applies equally to YouTubers who aren't Efilists, but who think they're doing a public service by uploading videos on serious issues. Leaving YouTube is difficult for some people, since they’ve formed friendships there, but they also dislike the prospect of having to admit that they're on there for social or cathartic reasons only, and would prefer to perceive themselves as martyrs for a great cause. So they cling to the aforementioned (and unfounded) vision of a symbiosis between activism and theory. With some Efilists, this is penetrated even further by the insistence that monistic value is plainly defensible when you get down to it and any talk of first-order and second-order theories being kept separate amounts to pedantry.
I also suspect that their stonewalling will be followed by claims of me being “lost in minutia” per norm. This is a flagrant copout employed by people who are unable to differentiate justified vs. unjustified hair-splitting.
Hair-splitting is unjustified whenever it’s used as a cover to intimidate newcomers into silence or intellectual subordination. Scholastic power-trippers have a tendency to resort to this. I on the other hand boisterously support autodidacts who see the stark contrast between education and schooling. Normally, an inability to distinguish first-order and second-order analyses is something I’m willing to chalk-up to informal thought-pattern bias, no different from thought-pattern biases in favour of formal wavelengths (shaped by schooling).
I value education, but I also disvalue schooling, so I’ve never been one to back pedantically motivated dismissals of non-scholastic pursuits when it comes to any field. It is only when one camp’s agenda centers on the claim that metaethical irrealism (“Nihilism”) roadblocks all attempts to thoughtfully construct normative positions, that ignorance of minutia becomes more than a foible. Since my “activists =/= theorists” point is grotesquely overlooked on YouTube, this is not one of those cases where the pedant is being pedantic for the hell of it.
Inmendham has uttered the phrase “the devil is in the details” numerous times in the past, so the contextual noteworthiness of minutia is not beyond his comprehension. It just needs to be weeded out, primarily in the moments when it ends up being unflattering to his token monism.
Could it be that Efilists are intermingling theory with activism for reasons I’ve overlooked? The rationale might go something like; Truth is vital because speaking truth-to-power ruffles traditionalist feathers, which brings in more recruits, which furthers the harm-elimination agenda. This approach turns irredeemably naive if we accept Inmendham’s view that people don’t want to hear the truth deep down, because the truth is “ugly” or something to that effect. I'm not swayed by these one-dimensional accounts of people’s belief systems, so this is only an internal problem if you happen to agree with that.
Still, “truth-to-power” based arguments for the telic value of truth are unfounded because, historically, the most effective activists weren’t particularly good at refuting their respective opposition’s best arguments. MLK’s mass appeal was almost entirely down to poetic feel-goodness; worlds apart from scientifically minded counters to race-realism emerging during the same period. This doesn’t mean MLK was a poor activist; it just means he wasn’t in the business of being an intellectual heavyweight who cut to the core of what his top-tier opponents believed. He had countless opportunities to rebuke the alleged facts promulgated by segments of the segregationist troupe, but opted for the sort of mawkish approach he figured would resonate with more people. He was right. No one should be surprised by this, as proficient activists have to be people who never surpass their lightweight status, and who therefore never provide sufficient counterarguments to their top-tier objectors but still appear convincing enough to fence-sitters who eventually become their backers.
To sufficiently handle one’s top-tier opponents, one must earmark ample time to the inactivity of reading (non-activism). I’m not suggesting that reading isn’t a cognitive activity; it’s just not the sort of thing dyed-in-the-wool activists would consider productive. As long as you possess the basic reading/writing skills to interpret slogans, you've got everything it takes to be a kosher activist. This goes twice for the alarmist strand of activism I’m targeting in this post; activism so repulsed by the continuation of suffering that its wavelength runs on unabashed urgency. Consequently, said wavelength loses any hope of identifying where impassioned activism ends and where sober analysis begins. All the indignation in the world over the horrors of suffering, flung at people due to their metaethical positions, becomes unintelligible the moment you section off activism from theory. Inept theorists and non-theorists are often top-notch activists, and this is the only thing that should ultimately matter if you hold a monistic outlook on value.
If you’re dedicated to both activism and theory, it's counterproductive to undertake the two while on the same channel, blog, podium, etc. The next time someone remarks on how “Suffering doesn’t matter” know that the statement is made outside the bounds of activism, and is therefore inconsequential. It should be reassuring to know that uttering a few words in a given sequence doesn't cause harm, and increasingly hostile reactions to those words reek of alarmist psychology.
If you’re a genuine value monist, your sole interest will be rooted in some kind of hands-on activism, since accurate descriptions of reality do nothing to prevent suffering. As truth itself has zero intrinsic value to you, the prospect of badgering unreceptive people with endless response videos won't be conflated with activism. No, you will recognize these response videos for what they are; a vulgar yearning for intellectual submission from people whose worldviews aggravate the uploader; a desire to see the other tap-out to the uploader's will.
Inmendham isn’t burdened with extra responsibility in light of his metaethical realism. Uploading videos is not a burden for him. It’s catharsis, and it will continue being pseudo-activism for as long as random vloggers’ potential submission to his worldview doesn’t translate to harm reduction. If Inmendham keeps accusing disagreeable parties of running away from responsibility, the bull's-eye needs to revolve around how those people actually spend their free time, not what their metaethical position happens to be. By refusing to accept this as the criterion, Inmendham ends up convincing himself that it’s physically impossible for metaethical irrealists to be activists or philanthropists, or for metaethical realists to be gluttons or egoists, when bountiful evidence to the contrary exists.
Furthermore, if people embrace metaethical irrealism simply because they're trying to come up with rationalizations with which to run away from moral responsibility, why would they subject themselves to all these counterarguments on the internet? If you just want to do what you feel like doing, you'll stay offline and simply do it. How the hell does some stranger uploading videos in favor of robust realism do anything to prevent you from carrying on with your selfishness offline, in your private life? If you want to be selfish, you'll be selfish. It just doesn’t follow that you'd feel compelled to "justify it" to a few dozen strangers on YouTube who will never have any power over you. This is well-poisoning, pure and simple. Metaethical irrealists are here because they want to defend their genuine take on second-order ethics, just as the realists do.
Now, vlogging might turn out to be a deflationary form of activism if:
- (1) The vloggers you’ve selected to respond to are influential enough to bring about change, once convinced of your views.
- (2) Moral Internalism is correct.
We know Inmendham avoids meeting the demands of # 1, given how uninfluential (and unworthy of response) the users he's spent years responding to are (Hythloday71, Anekantavad, etc). These people have no societal sway whatsoever, so Inmendham's perpetual responses to them are fueled by personal animus, not messianic commitments to fix the world. I’ve already gone over the tips activists can utilize in order to become popular on YouTube, or the ways to ingratiate oneself into the social graces of YouTube superstars. It's been over 18 months now since Inmendham read my input on all this. We can safely say that he remained uninterested in applying those tips, because he doesn’t want to put on the clown-shoes and is too prideful to try currying favor with trendy vloggers who have a larger platform. So much for the so-called burden of moral responsibility I keep hearing about. He's not inconveniencing himself, and that's fine. Just don't pretend that realism in ethics creates behavioral burdens that people can't deal with, which is why they contrive a belief in "Nihilism". It's borderline conspiratorial.
As for # 2, Moral Internalism contends that ethical convictions necessarily morph into ethical motivations. I’m a Moral Externalist, so I think internalistic linkage between one’s beliefs and behavioral justificatory force is hogwash. For instance, I believe a vegan diet is more ethical than a vegetarian diet, yet I’m never compelled to give up dairy in my day-to-day life. According to Inmendham, I should be struggling with this, so much so that I’ll resort to pretending that veganism is no better than vegetarianism, that way I can rationalize an excuse to not “take responsibility for the truth”. Last I checked, Inmendham is also not a vegan, and loses no sleep over that fact, just as I don't. This is because moral convictions don't significantly drive behavior, regardless of how tightly held they are.
If you earnestly believe metaethical non-realism entails normative nihilism (aka fatalism or defeatism), this only speaks to your dormant valuing of truth as an end unto itself. We usually pursue realness-over-falsehood beyond an appreciation for its instrumental benefits, but must this guide our construction of ethics, from A to Z no less? I say it mustn't. Just as promise-breaking shouldn't be verboten in all imaginable scenarios, neither should a given ethic be saddled with the impossible task of grounding itself in robust truth. If you only valued popping delusion-bubbles with regard to how this stands to mitigate harm, then people’s metaethical positions wouldn’t matter to you in the slightest. Your concerns would start and end with people’s normative positions, as those carry the blueprints establishing what we ought to value (and how we ought to act, if you're a Moral Internalist).
Unless you’re networking with YouTube superstars, policymakers, celebrities, assorted influential figures, etc... your engagements via response videos have nothing to do with “making the world a better place”. If changing ordinary minds doesn’t improve the world the way changing influential minds does, as is the case, it follows that anyone who wants their participation to be more than “intellectual wankery” will focus all efforts on changing the minds of people with large audiences. Yet seldom few do this. Go figure.
If you have no appetite for social networking tactics and the like, odds are you're here for the same reasons I am; to offer commentary on interesting topics despite an awareness of how inconsequential your contribution is sure to be. The sooner you embrace this, the sooner you will rid yourself of the misplaced alarmism that muddles your thinking in relation to first-order / second-order ethical analyses.
It will also make you less of an idealist, more of a pessimist. From what I recall, Efilists are supposed to be all about that morbidness; the stuff ordinary folk just can't deal with. Right?