Thursday, May 22, 2008

Austin Dacey: Conscience As Open Source Ethics

Austin Dacey concludes The Secular Conscience by elucidating his idea of conscience through an extended comparison with the scientific method and the open source software movement:

Like the sciences, conscience shares many of the key features of open source methods. Discussion of matters of conscience is transparent: its reasoning is open and accessible to all. No barriers of cost or expertise or community membership keep out some discussion partners. Contributions are judged on their merits as assessed by peer review and feedback. Discussion partners share a common goal -- to seek answers to questions of meaning, identity, and value -- and common standards, like the assumption that conversation is guided by objective norms for what counts as a good reason. These assumptions are themselves open to scrutiny. And while there are no final authorities, there are clearly leaders of conscience, people distinguished by outstanding contributions to religious and ethical questions. When the network of conscience produces results -- such as the idea of civil disobedience or the idea of private property -- they are of course not licensed. But they are protected under the legal and cultural framework of an open society, where they become part of an intellectual and moral commonwealth, to be seen, heard, and read by anyone.

You are already a contributor to open source ethics. If you are like most human beings, you probably think about what you have most reason to believe and do about central human questions of meaning, identity, and value. You think about what constitutes your good and the good of others. You try to apply your principles in action and live according to your conscience. You reflect on the results and share your findings at least with others you know, if not in public discourse such as letters to newspapers, local government forums, and online forums. You listen to criticism and feedback at least sometimes and you revise your principles and values in light of the best solutions that emerge from that conversation.
Open source ethics also "expands the pool of conversation partners" so that "the chances of hitting upon defensible beliefs, values, and practices will be maximized."

That's the promise of the blogosphere, yes? And of discourse itself.

I am not entirely persuaded by the Millian view that free speech is justified because it permits experimentation with thoughts and ideas such that the better ideas are free to show up and distinguish themselves from the lesser ideas. Yes, that is a good that free speech delivers, and one can reasonably expect lost insights resulting from silencing divergent voices. But this argument seems to suggest that free speech can be shut down after "we" reach a configuration of thoughts and ideas that "we" consider final, best, complete, or what have you, whereas I don't think that end point is, in principle, reachable. I don't know who the "we" is to adjudicate the matter, or if it is reliably the same "we" on the receiving end of the adjudication; and even under a thought experiment in which I place myself in that throne, I don't know how I'd know that "we" are "there" at the final resting point after which further free speech would be pointless. I don't know what that terminus would look like; and I don't know why I can presume to get to the best ideas for someone else. Some important matters have a final answer (why are planets round?), but some do not (what is the best epic poem?). It's far from simple to say whether a given question falls under the former or the latter -- this is one more question to thrashed out under conditions of open discourse.

There is no prospect of an end to open discourse (a "final answer" on all questions) any more than there is a prospect to an end of science (a complete understanding of the natural world). And that always-openness is not a bad thing.

Dacey emphasizes the value of revisability -- that we should be free to re-think our past commitments and revise them in the light of new insights. This underscores the fact that people can and will get things wrong, and that setting them right requires the freedom to do so. This idea of revisability will be bad news for Chris Hedges, whose ongoing book tour rests on the assertion that non-believers like Dacey believe they have achieved perfection. Whereas at best, Dacey believes he has found the means of conveyance -- the secular conscience -- by which everyone can carry the conversation productively forward.

I think free speech is justified because it allows truths to emerge through the liberation of unbounded possibilities, but also, more fundamentally, because I have yet to see a convincing argument for restricting it or a source of power with sufficient legitimacy to restrict it. We should be free to speak and think freely for the same reason we should not be subjected to pain -- because we are creatures who flourish when we can speak freely and live without pain. And yes, that does postulate the value judgment that flourishing is better than not flourishing.

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