Monday, June 8, 2009

A Phenomenology of Moral Experience: Part the Third

Other sorts of Rules

I have been focusing on games here. There are other codified strictures on behavior, which concern themselves with other pragmatic concerns or aspects of human life. These too I’ll categorize as “rules,” for purposes of the discussion.

Consider a car repair manual.

It might seem odd to refer to repair and construction manuals as bodies of rules, yet that is precisely what they are. They do share with other bodies of rules, such as the institutional fact of money, or the rules of games, the common element that they are created by humans for human purposes. Their intent is to govern human action for particular pragmatic ends.

There is no sense in which these rules existed before human beings created automobiles. Yet, once cars were created, their objectivity and the purpose for which they were created both effectively constrained possible rules for car repair, limited options with respect to what would count as successful auto repair. Humans respect these limitations, and even discover some rules, modify existing rules or create new ones, as they formulate and use the extant rules for auto repair.

Notice here that rules of games, by virtue of the fact that they are strictures, create room for error. With auto repair, this is also the case but, there is more to it. The nature of the object of concern, the automobile, contributes in a sort of objective fashion, to the ‘room for error’ and contrariwise, contributes room for getting things right.

The nature of the objects (cars) and the purpose for which they are built (to safely and quickly move humans and stuff from place to place) delimit what can be counted as a rule of auto repair. This is different than the situation with hockey or chess. In these two cases it is true that the rules, as institutional facts, delimit what can be counted as a “move” in the game, but there is some amount of flexibility, either in the arena of allowable moves (as in Hockey) or in the allowable objects for use as pieces or space for the game (as in Chess). However, in the case of car repair the object around which the rules revolve, the car, introduces a higher number of limitations than do the ‘objects’ used in games.

Games tend to be more arbitrary or “free” in this respect. They are not constrained in as many ways by conditions that are strictly speaking, independent of the body of rules considered as a linguistic or conceptual structure. Chess is freer in this regard than hockey.

Other bodies of rules, like automobile repair manuals, are much less “free” because they are tied to human use of more complex physical objects possessing certain specific natures. These natures must be respected or we cannot use them for our purposes. The complexity seems to introduce limitations.

Let me see if I can explain this a bit better: Chess is a game of the ‘freer’ sort. You can use a wide variety of objects as chess pieces, boards, etc... You can play chess with digital information; you can play it with chunks of plastic, or bits of ceramic. The ‘board’ can be in logical space, or physical space. Indeed, it is even the case that “players” can be nonhuman. Chess is loosey goosey indeed.

Money is another example. Shells, stones, fish; silver, gold, magnetic domains on a hard-drive, all of these can be counted as money. It is an objective fact that these things are money in a social group, but that is an objective fact only because the group agrees to use them as such. This objective fact is unlike other objective facts about those tokens; it is an objective fact that coins are metallic quite apart from any human intentions. It is an objective fact that shells are excretions of mollusks, quite apart from any human intentions. The point here is that there is quite a lot of room here for free play, with regard to the objects that will be counted as money. In that respect, the ‘game’ of money is very like the game of chess.

It is an objective fact that shells and magnetic domains are money, only because human groups collectively decide to treat them as such, use them in certain prescribed ways for barter and trade of goods and services. This will be an objective fact for humans in those groups, and those outside that wish to trade goods or services with members of those societies, and this will be a fact about these ‘monies’ quite apart from any countervailing individual intentions human beings may form. As long as groups collectively intend to use dollars as money, those rectangular pieces of linen are money. And it is simply not the case that I can make them non-money by individually saying or thinking so. No, there must be a collective intention to that effect, and a widespread one, before this would occur.

Ice Hockey occupies a sort of middling ground in this regard. It must be played on ice, using a puck and sticks. There is some amount of wiggle room with regard to these objects. Pucks do have to be of a certain dimension, and composed of hard black rubber, but that could conceivably change (for instance introduction of a ball shaped puck, and we would still consider the game to be ‘hockey.’ Sticks can be wood, aluminum, or graphite composite, they can be of various lengths, and there is a certain range of allowable curvature for blades. Skates can be composed of various materials, even the exact alloy of the blade itself can vary. On the side of the rules of play, Hockey is a bit freer than is chess. We can do away with the rule against two line passes. We can do away with the ‘touch up’ rule for icing. Indeed, we can do away with the icing call altogether. We are relatively freer to “mess” with the non-essential rules, and will still count the game as Hockey.

The case is different with car repair. The purpose of cars, the more complex physical nature of cars (largely determined by their purpose) and the physical limitations of human agents place limits on the set of standard procedures that can be followed by agents as they repair automobiles. Silly examples: marshmallow tires cannot be used; wooden engines are a no go. So, while there is some room for innovation and novelty, this particular realm is not as ‘loosey goosey’ with regard to object or ‘rules of play’ as either hockey or chess. For contrast, if we were to concentrate on rules of the road, we see more variances. But, as long as we are focusing on repair and maintenance manuals, there is relatively less ‘wiggle room.’

This gives us a way toward bridging the gap in the discussion between bodies of rules that have nothing to do with morality, and those that apparently do. Remember that the point of launching into this examination of rules was to bring the inqirey back around to the set of rules we term “moral” and try to delimit their essential characteristics. We can do this by comparing and contrasting them with these rules we have been discussing.

So far, we have noticed that some rules are more constrained by their objects than others. We have also seen that all rules are constrained by the purposes for which they are created. All of this points the way toward a way of conceiving of moral rules as things that have an objective core in the more full blooded sense of automobile repair manuals as opposed to rules of games. There is a purpose for which they exist, and this strongly constrains the content of these rules in a way yet to be detailed. Yet, we will also see some striking parallels between rules of the road and moral rules. There is room for a certain amount of play, if not in the objects of these rules, then in the ‘rules of play’ that serve those objects. (More on that later.)

Have we exhausted our phenomenological description of rules? No. Bodies of Rules are not isolated islands. They exist as components of a complex web of inter-related and interdependent nodes, a complex web of human intention. We next take a quick look at the structure of this web.