Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Undergraduate moral relativism and tolerance

One of the puzzling features of undergraduate moral relativism is that students seem to think that their moral relativism in some way either supports or is required by a notion of tolerance for other people's practices and beliefs. This is puzzling because, after all, if relativism is true, then if I believe or society believes (depending on whether the relativism is individual or social) that someone's variant practices and beliefs should be squelched and the person should be punished for them, then this is the right thing for me or for society to do. In fact, this consideration is a good reason to abandon relativism.

Still, it is a good question why it is that students hold together the doctrines that (a) moral relativism is true, and (b) moral relativism connected with tolerance. Do we just want to say that they are massively irrational[note 1], or that this is just an effect of original sin, or is there a more proximate and specific explanation?

I want to offer two different hypotheses. The first hypothesis is that students confuse together the concepts of culpability and wrongness. A person may do wrong, but not be culpable for it if she does not know that what she is doing is wrong and she is not culpable for this ignorance. Conversely, a person may do the right thing, under at least one description, but still be culpable, if she erroneously believes it to be wrong. A certain tolerance goes together with considerations of inculpability. If someone is engaging in some immoral activity but doing so inculpably, then it makes sense to be tolerant, provided that undue harm to society does not result. From the claim that the Nazis believed what they did was right, the relativist laboring under a confusion between culpability and wrongness concludes that what the Nazis did was not wrong (for them). However, interestingly, in one's own case, what one believes to be wrong and what is culpable come very close (there is still a gap since one can do what oen believes to be wrong but be non-culpable on grounds of internal or external compulsion), and hence the confusion does not significantly affect a lot of first-person deliberative behavior. Thus, a typical individual relativist still tries to figure out what is the right thing to do, and consults with others, even though this makes no sense given that whatever she believes to be right is guaranteed to be right.

The second hypothesis is different. Consider first a relativism about an area of life that does not expressly involve ethics, say esthetic or gustatory relativism (what is beautiful or tasty to me may not be beautiful or tasty to you, and there is no objective, mind-independent beauty or tastiness). This kind of relativism does support quite a bit of tolerance. If Century Sundae is not tasty to you in the way it is to me, I should not impose it on you, and I should be tolerant of your desire to eat the mildly repellent (to me) Chunky Monkey. Here, the relativism is sufficiently limited that it does not undercut, but instead supports, tolerance.

As a result of this, one might conclude that relativism in general supports tolerance about the praxis that is relatively evaluated. However, in the special case where the relativism is moral relativism, this does not hold. The reason that esthetic or gustatory relativism supports tolerance is because of objective moral principles concerning respect for differing preferences and views. But once the relativism becomes moral relativism, these principles are undercut, a fact one might easily miss.

Or maybe they are not entirely undercut. After all, if one is a "nice" person who believes that one should be tolerant of people with differing practices, then individual relativism renders this belief self-justifying. But of course individual relativism would equally render the opposite belief self-justifying.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Plato on knowledge and teaching

For a long time, based largely on the Meno, I've been under the impression that Plato interdefines knowledge and teaching. Here is the idea:

  1. Teaching is the imparting of knowledge.
  2. Knowledge is what can be taught to every one who is willing and has sufficient learning abilities.
If this is right, then Platonic knowledge is never essentially private. It cannot be essentially indexical, since you cannot believe the same thing I do when I believe that I am six feet tall, arguably. Nor can it be of something essentially temporal: I cannot teach you that I am presently writing this post, because by the time you learn it, it may no be longer true, and hence it may not be knowledge. Neither can knowledge be of culturally relative facts. That this piece of jewelry is beautiful is something I may simply be unable to teach a Spartan, and she may be unable to teach me that that amphora is elegant.

Platonic knowledge thus must be of a non-indexical, atemporal, non-relative reality. And all this follows from Plato's understanding of teaching.

Moreover, teaching is not indoctrination. It is not the mere transmission of opinion or even the turning of knowledge into opinion. It is the imparting of knowledge, so that she who is taught can herself in turn teach. The evidence that the teacher has must itself be evidence that can be imparted to the student. Thus, the evidence, too, must be non-indexical, atemporal and non-relative, accessible to people of all times, cultures and social classes (think of the slave boy) who have sufficient ability. This does not require the theory of recollection--a divinely implanted faculty or knowledge that we receive by illumination at conception will do the trick, too--but does seem to require something special and universal like it.

Furthermore, a part of what it is to teach is to show how the knowledge withstands Socratic questioning--this questioning, thus, is a part of the teaching process, and the knowledge must be something that can survive this.

Or so, on this reading, Plato thinks. Whether it is all true is another question.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Latin trinitarianism and the perfection of love

Oddly enough, some social trinitarians have argued that perfect being theology supports their view (see Dale's discussion). I shall argue that perfect being theology supports Latin trinitarianism very nicely.

Perfection strongly suggests the presence of perfect interpersonal love.[note 1] Therefore, perfection considerations make it plausible that there is more than one divine person exhibiting perfect interpersonal love. Moreover, love has two kinds of perfections.

The first perfection of love is that of generous giving and receiving—this is the perfection of beneficence. There, the perfection is the greater the greater the gift. The gift of divine existence seems the greatest gift possible. So, at least one divine person has an existence that is a gift of the other, and this person receives this existence gratefully. Note that in generous love, there is no need for any quid pro quo and so the love can be made mutual by gratitude. Moreover, it might be stretching our ability to know about perfection with much confidence, but it is at least plausible that for every pair x and y of divine persons, x and y are related by such giving and receiving, so that either y receives divine existence from x or vice versa (but not both at pain of vicious circularity). Interestingly, this condition is only satisfied by Christian Trinitarianism if the Catholic doctrine of the double procession of the Holy Spirit holds (otherwise, there is no such giving and receiving relation between the the Son and the Holy Spirit).

The second perfection of love is the unitive. All love involves a certain minimal union of mind and will (we try to see things from our beloved's point of view, and we are apt to particularly pursue those goods that our beloved particularly wills), and all love is directed at a union that is more than minimal, a union that is a consummation of the love. The perfection of love will be a consummated love, a love that achieves a perfect union. An absolutely perfect union of love will be one where there is the maximum of unity that still allows for the most perfect kind of love. The most perfect kind of love is interpersonal, so the union of love must maintain a distinction of persons. But, it is plausible (assuming this is at all possible), that everything else but the relations distinguishing the persons, will be in common in the perfect union of love.

In particular, the perfect union of love will, plausibly, involve one mind and one will. Not just in the extended sense in which we talk of two human beings being one mind and one will, but in the literal sense of having in common a mind that is numerically one and a will that is numerically one. (Maybe we can even get the divine simplicity claim that the mind will be identical with the will, but I don't want to insist on that at this point.) This one mind and one will is essentially indivisible, for perfect love will seek an indivisible unity.

We thus get numerically one divine ousia, including numerically one mind and numerically one will, and yet more than one person.

Interestingly, while above I took the route of perfection of union, the route of perfection of generosity can also be used here. Generosity can be perfected in at least two ways. One is with the value of the gift—a better gift is one that perfects generosity more. The other is with the intimacy of the gift-giving—with how close the gift is to the giver. Thus to give money is ceteris paribus less generous than to give an heirloom, and to give an heirloom is ceteris paribus less generous than to give a kidney. The most perfect gift will be one that is both of maximum value and of maximum intimacy on the part of the giver. The divine nature is of maximum value. There are now prima facie two ways for perfect generosity to be exhibited. One way is for the divine giver to make another God, another person with another, qualitatively identical, divine mind and will (or ousia). But this does not exhibit perfect intimacy in the generosity. That intimacy will be perfectly exhibited when the divine mind and will given are the very same divine mind and will that the giver has, when the very same life that the giver has is given to the receiver.

And it is only in a perfectly intimate generosity that reciprocation by gratitude is perfected. For the closer the gift to the heart of the giver, the more the recipient's generosity means to the giver, and when the gift is the giver's own mind and will, the giver's own life to be shared, the generosity can be a deep affirmation of the giver, and indeed is a recognition that one prefers to have one's life as gift than to have it on one's own, and that recognition is a willingness to share that is in principle generous. It is, indeed, a kind of giving back.

Objection: Social trinitarians claim to believe in the unity of God and hence will claim that their doctrine of the Trinity is compatible with everything I said above.

Response: If social trinitarianism is to be distinct as a doctrine from Latin trinitarianism, it, I think, has to claim that Latin trinitarianism posits too much unity in God. But if this claim is made, then the above argument works—for the above account posits the maximum of unity in God apart from the distinction of persons, which is precisely what Latin trinitarianism gives. Of course, if social trinitarianism (which, in general, is kind of hard to define) turns out to be compatible with Latin trinitarianism, then there might be no disagreement here at all.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Business idea: Professionally pressing family archival CDs and DVDs

This is not a philosophy post, so feel free to skip. Last night, I was backing up 16gb of family photos and videos once again. I have most of it also backed up on CD-Rs and DVD-Rs, but now I'm copying it onto two more hard drives. Apparently, home-burnt CD-Rs and DVD+-Rs degenerate because they are ink-based. Nobody knows in just how long they degenerate, because it would require long-term study. Commercial CDs and DVDs have a metal layer that has physical pits in it, but there is no consumer device that makes them.

I wish someone made a business of transferring home video DVD+-Rs and home photo CD-Rs onto professionally pressed DVDs and CDs for archival purposes (and maybe keeping a copy on the business's backup server in case one's own give out). As more and more people have a lot of their family memories on digital media, I think there would be significant amounts of money to be made.

I googled to see if anybody does this sort of thing. Couldn't find anybody. Here is a niche—maybe the invisible hand will fill it? Currently, you can't get professionally pressed CDs in quantities less than, I think, about 250.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Consensual killing

In an earlier post this week, I argued that if one accepts the Interest Thesis (IT) that what makes a killing of an innocent person wrong is that it goes against the victim's interests, one needs to hold that it is never in the interests of a person to be killed. Hence, if IT holds, the justification of euthanasia in terms of the interests of the patient/victim fails. I ended the post by mentioning an account on which a person's consent is what makes it acceptable to kill the person, without settling the question whether that would be a good account. I will now try to settle this in the negative.

Why would x's consent make it permissible to kill x? Consent (and I use the term to mean "valid consent", consent satisfying whatever kinds of freedom and knowledge conditions are needed) is tied to autonomy. Generally speaking, when consent makes it permissible to do something which is impermissible without the consent, that is because doing the action without the consent is a violation of the person's integrity. Is killing a person without her consent a violation of the person's integrity? That claim seems to have a lot of plausibility.

But why does non-consensual killing violate a person's integrity? Here, we have to be careful. It won't do to say that such killing makes it impossible for the person to fulfill her life's autonomous projects. For it might be that the person's life is in such a miserable state that she has no projects that are interrupted by the death. She may want death, but still not consent to death. It need not even be an autonomous project of hers to continue living, just a morally driven determination not to consent to death.

Perhaps we want to say that non-consensual killing violates a person's autonomy because death is always a very serious harm and we should not intentionally impose very serious harms on innocent people without their permission. But I think we can simplify this principle to just say: "We should not intentionally impose very serious harms on innocent people", and then all intentional killing of the innocent is forbidden. Moreover, even if we don't go for this simplification, if we think death is a very serious harm, then we are apt to think that someone requesting death is irrational or constrained by circumstances, both of which endanger the validity of the consent. At this point it will be really implausible that it is the lack of consent that makes murder be wrong—for the serious badness of death is entering into the story.

Or maybe, in line with the element of formalism in Kantian ethics, we will say that the reason it is wrong to kill someone without her consent is that it is wrong to significantly change a person's life without her consent.

But this change principle is inapplicable and/or false. First of all, it's not clear that terminating a life counts as "changing a life". Moreover, if it counts, then so does beginning a life. But a couple does not need consent from their future child to conceive that child. Second, there are many significant life changes that it is permissible to impose on a person. It would not be impermissible for me to offer you a billion dollars, if I had it and if I had no morally obligatory alternatives for my largesse. But the offer would significantly change your life, and it would do so without your consent. For either you would accept the offer, in which case your life would significantly change (assuming you're not already very rich), or you would reject the offer, in which case your life would also significantly change, for instance because for the rest of your life you would from time to time be reflecting on your decision and wondering if it was the best one. Nor would I need to ask a person her permission before offering her a life-changing argument. Granted, she would have to consent to the change of life, but if the argument were powerful, her life would be forced to change: either she would have to act in accordance with the argument or else she would have to become the sort of person to whom arguments do not matter. Examples like this can be multiplied.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

An argument against presentism

Presentism holds that only presently occurring events exist. You and I are watching an exciting game of tennis. Our particular interest is drawn by Federer's next serve which is at a match point. With eager anticipation I speculate about how the serve will go. Federer is serving. You briefly respond to my remark during the serve itself, saying that my speculation doesn't look right. Federer has served and wins the match. We continue disagreeing about the serve for the next fifteen minutes. Such a conversation is perfectly natural.

It seems essential to understanding how the conversation goes that we are all the time talking of the same serve. I claimed before the serve that it was going to be and then continue to maintain that it was a beautiful topspin. You claim that the serve was a poorly executed topspin-slice which only won the game by a fluke.[note 1]

It is difficult, however, for the presentist to maintain that we are talking about the same thing. After all, my initial remark, according to presentism, is about the future existence of a serve (note that on open-future presentism, it is not even yet the case that the serve will exist). Your next remark is about an existing serve. My next one is about a serve having existed. What unifies the topic of these remarks? After all, they are only a disagreement if they concern the same serve.

Moreover, consider the state of affairs that I am claiming to obtain, the state of affairs of the serve being an excellent topspin. Let us suppose I am right. Then it seems I am continually pointing to the same state of affairs throughout the conversation. I am certainly not changing my mind—I am too pigheaded for that. Consider now the truthmaker of my claim.

There are two kinds of presentist views about the truthmakers of claims apparently about past or present events. On a Bigelow kind of view, these truthmakers are presently existing but tensed concrete (i.e., non-abstract) states of affairs. On this view, I am initially claiming the obtaining of the concrete state of affairs of an excellent topspin being about to soon be served. You respond, during the serve, with a denial of the occurrence of the concrete state of affairs of an excellent topspin being presently served. I pigheadedly affirm the obtaining of an excellent topspin having been served. How is there any disagreement here? I first maintain the occurrence of one state of affairs, to which you respond with the denial of the occurrence of a second, and then I respond with an affirmation of the occurrence of a third? It seems plain that according to this kind of presentist we are talking about three different states of affairs, one of which (the one talked about during the serve itself) includes a serve, and the other two of which do not (since there are no past or future serves according to presentism).

Moreover, while the point is most vividly made concerning conversation that straddles the time of the event talked about, the point also can be made in regard to a distant past event. Suppose you and I are discussing the Battle of Waterloo. What makes it be the case that we're talking about the same battle? We can't just be talking of the present state of affairs of there having been such-and-such a battle. For there were many battles in the past. Rather, we're talking of the present state of affairs of there having been a battle x seconds ago. But the x keeps on changing, so the state of affairs we're talking about keeps on changing on us.

The second kind of presentism, ably defended by Merricks, holds that there are no truthmakers for typical past and future tensed propositions. Then my first claim, made before the serve, has no truthmaker. Your denial of the claim, during the serve, is the denial of a claim that in fact does have a truthmaker—the presently occurring serve. And then my subsequent re-affirmation is the re-affirmation of a claim that, again, does not have a truthmaker. Plainly you and I are not talking about the same thing, since there is no truthmaker homogeneity (two propositions are truthmaker-homogeneous iff they both lack truthmakers or they both have truthmakers of the same kind) between what I say and what you deny.

Killing, the victim's interests, and euthanasia

This post is based on the argument of the previous. I am going to argue for the following (material) conditional:

  1. If killing an innocent person is wrong because it goes against the victim's interests, then killing an innocent person always goes against the victim's interests.
The Interests Thesis (IT) is that killing an innocent person is wrong because it goes against her interests. The Bad Life Thesis (BLT) is the thesis that it is possible for an innocent person to have such miserable prospects that it is not against her interests to be killed. The conditional (1) can be seen either as providing a reductio of IT or else an argument against BLT. I suspect there are philosophers who accept IT and BLT, for instance accepting IT as a way of countering Marquis-type arguments against abortion and accepting BLT in defense of euthanasia. I think that even if one rejects euthanasia, as I do, BLT has some plausibility (I recall the story about some saint praying for death when very ill—it's wrong to kill the innocent, but perhaps not irrational to pray for death), so overall one might take this argument to provide evidence against IT.

My argument for (1) is very simple:

  1. If x is an innocent person who does not consent to being killed, then it is wrong to kill x even if it were in x's best interest to be killed. (Premise)
  2. If IT, then it isn't wrong (barring special circumstances such as promises) to kill someone when it is not against her interests to be killed. (Premise)
  3. If BLT, then it is possible to have an innocent person such that it is not in her interest to be killed and the "special circumstances" clause in (3) does not apply. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, if IT, then not BLT.
There is something tricky in (4), but if one thinks that the special circumstances in (3) involve the existence of additional positive features of the situation that make a killing be wrong (one might say that those are features that make the killing wrong—say, as the breaking of a promise—but don't make the killing murder), I think (4) will be plausible. Could lack of consent be such a special feature? But I don't think it would be a special feature: it would mean that we are gutting IT, and replacing it with the view that what makes killing wrong is that it goes against the person's consent.

Now, the standard justifications of euthanasia involve the claim that euthanasia can be in the interests of the victim/patient. But if BLT is false, then these justifications fail. If there is no other kind of justification, then euthanasia is wrong.

One might try to justify euthanasia by saying that killing someone who validly consents to being killed is not wrong. But this is not a justification of euthanasia as such, but a justification of helping anybody who validly consents to being helped in suicide, whether the suicide is a case of euthanasia or not. I take it to be an essential feature of euthanasia that it be a killing construed to be in the best interests of the innocent victim/patient.

Objection: We need to ask the patient whether she consents to being euthanized because we cannot presume to judge for her whether death is in her interest. Her opinion has a merely epistemic role here.

Response: This confuses consent with opinion, a performative with an assertion. It can be perfectly rational to say: "I know that having A done to me is in my best interest, but I do not consent to having A done to me." And if someone tells us that being killed would be in her best interest but nonetheless does not consent to being killed, it is uncontroversially wrong to kill her. Why would someone think that A is in her best interest but not consent to A? Well, she might think it's immoral to consent to A. Or she might have made a promise to someone never to consent to A, without making any promise to avoid A.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

An argument concerning abortion

Note: Portions of the argument below sound like I accept consensual euthanasia. I don't: intentionally killing juridically innocent persons, whether they consent or not, is wrong. But I don't make use of this belief in the argument, and my argument is in large part aimed at people who do not share this belief of mine on euthanasia.

This post is divided into three sections, the first giving a standard argument against abortion, the second giving a standard response, and the third arguing that the standard response is unsatisfactory, at least if one allows that one can rationally desire to die, a thesis that I am not sure of, but that few people who are not already pro-life will deny.

Part I: A standard argument against abortion: This takes two steps. First, one shows that a typical fetus would have a future of the same sort that we do were she not killed. This may involve metaphysical arguments to establish that the future is indeed the fetus's future in the sense that the fetus is identical with the adult human being. (I argue like this here.) The second step is to show that at least one of the reasons that it is wrong to kill you or me is that it would undeservedly deprive you or me of this sort of future, so that it is wrong to kill a typical fetus for exactly the same reason.

Part II: One standard response: Grant, at least for the sake of discussion, the claim that the fetus would have a future like ours, but deny that the undeserved deprivation of a future life like ours makes the killing wrong. Instead, what makes it wrong to kill someone is that doing so goes against the person's interests, which are defined in terms of the desires that the person has (on a crude version of the response) or would have in ideal mental circumstances (on a less crude version of the response), desires whose fulfillment requires the continuation of life. The reason for going for the "ideal desire" view is some version of the example of the suicidal teenager: it is wrong to kill the suicidal teenager even if the teenager lacks all future-directed desires. But, one argues, in ideal mental circumstances, the teenager would want to live, so a better story is the ideal desire one.

Part III: A response to the response: It is not the case that what makes it wrong to kill x is that x actually or ideally has desires that require the continuation of life. For suppose George does not actually or ideally desire the continuation of life. He is miserable, abandoned by all friends, no longer capable of engaging in any of his past projects, in the grip of a painful terminal illness. It seems not that implausible to suppose that George could rationally desire to die, so that he not only actually but also ideally has the desire to die. We may also suppose that he has no fulfillable ideal desires incompatible with the desire to die. Now some strongly pro-life people will deny the idea that one can rationally desire to die, but I suspect there are very, very few pro-choice philosophers who will dispute this. Moreover, even someone completely opposed to euthanasia can hold that it is rational to have the desire to die as long as one adds that it is wrong to act on that desire (other than maybe by praying for death).

So, to recap, we suppose, and few pro-choicers will deny us this assumption, that George rationally, consistently and ideally desire to die. By the response in Part II, what makes it wrong to kill people is actual or ideal desires that require future existence. But George doesn't have such desires, and hence it follows that is not wrong to kill him. But this is absurd.

A reader might say: "So, you've shown that if you accept Part II, you accept the permissibility of euthanasia. Almost everybody who is pro-choice already accepts the permissibility of euthanasia, so this is no reductio." But that would be a mistake. For I did not say that George consents to being killed. All I said is he desires death. It is one thing to desire something and another to consent to it (see this post). And I suspect that most pro-choice folks will agree that it is wrong to kill a non-consenting innocent adult, even if that adult desires to be killed. For it is the consent rather than the desire that matters here. Why would George not consent? Here, a myriad of possibilities is available, including religious views, views about the sanctity of life, views about the way that killing him would dehumanize the killer, etc.

So it is not enough to establish the lack of actual or ideal desires presupposing future life to show that a killing is permissible. Step II fails.

Could we say that the fetus consents to being killed, so that we could say that it is permissible to kill someone lacking actual or ideal desires presupposing future life if the victim consents to being killed? No: the fetus plainly does not consent. Could we say that the fetus would consent if it could be asked? We have no reason to suppose that. In the typical case, the fetus would be asked to give up a future like ours with no compensating benefit to the fetus, and there is no reason to suppose a positive answer to a deal like that. Alternately, perhaps, we could handle the consent question in the way we handle it in practice: appoint a proxy. But note that a proxy cannot have a potential conflict of interest, and in the case of abortion, the mother does have a potential conflict of interest—if she's considering abortion, this is not unlikely to be the case because she takes the pregnancy to conflict with her interests or the interests of her significant other or of her other children. Rather, the proxy has to be one who considers primarily what is good for the individual that she is a proxy. I suspect that, given "future like ours" considerations, in typical cases such a proxy will not agree to abortion.

Could we instead say that the fetus does not dissent from being killed, and it's permissible to kill someone who (a) lacks actual or ideal desires presupposing future life, and (b) does not dissent from being killed? That requirement seems too weak. It would be wrong to shoot George without positive consent from him (if he's capable of giving it) or presumed consent or proxy consent, I think.

A final option (Frank Beckwith suggested something like this): Perhaps the pro-choice opponent can say that having (actually or ideally) desires, or desires of a certain sort, is part of what makes one a person, and so it is not the case that killing someone who has the desire for life is wrong because it goes against that desire, but what makes it wrong to kill is that it is a person who is non-consensually killed. If one takes this view, then it seems one gets a completely different account of the wrongness of killing from that given in Part II. It is not the having of desires presupposing future life that makes it wrong for one to be killed (at least if innocent), but, simply what makes it wrong to kill x is that x is a non-consenting person. Her desires are beside the point: only the consent matters here. However, this account of what is wrong with killing is inferior to the Marquis account in Part I. For it fails to show how killing someone is different from doing other things that the person does not consent to, such as patting on the shoulder. Patting on the shoulder may be wrong without consent (though probably not always wrong), but is clearly much less of an evil than killing someone. Nor is it that the victim actually or ideally has ideally a stronger desire not to be killed than not to be patted, or that she more strongly dissents from being killed than from not being patted, since neither of these might be true, at least if we assume that one can rationally desire to be dead.

So it seems to me that it is hard to rescue Part II, and hence the Marquis argument's claim that if a fetus has a future like ours then it is wrong to abort the fetus survives.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

An asymmetric forking model of free will

In the following, "free" shall refer to the kind of indeterministic freedom present in full-blown libertarian human choices, choices that are free in and of themselves (think of Kane's Self-Forming Actions; I prefer the term "primarily free" as opposed to "derivatively free") rather than in virtue of proceeding deterministically from habits developed by earlier free actions, in normal circumstances (e.g., without any backwards causation, prophecy, etc.) I want to offer a model for a free choice between A and B.

Note first that if any time t it is determined that the agent will freely choose A (respectively, B), then the agent has already freely chosen A by time t. This is the basic postulate of the kind of libertarianism that interests me. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to verify that the postulate is unaffected by Frankfurt cases.) Only the free choice of A determines that the agent freely chooses A.

Suppose now that in the actual world, which I will call wA, the agent freely chooses to do A rather than B, and suppose the two choices are incompatible. When I talk of choosing, I shall fix one particular choice-situation. Let FA be the set of times t at which it is still nomically possible that the agent will not choose A. Let tA be the latest time with the property that every t<tA is in FA (i.e., tA is the supremum of FA). Note that if t>tA, then it is determined at t that the agent chooses A. By the basic postulate it follows that the agent has chosen A before every time t such that t>tA. So, t is the time at which the decision is complete.

In the asymmetric forking model, we consider in addition to wA a world wB and suppose that:

  1. The agent freely chooses B in wB (in the relevant choice circumstance where she is choosing between A and B);
  2. wB matches wA up to but not including time tA;
  3. There is a time tB with the property that at every time t<tB, it is not yet determined in wB that the agent will choose B, and at every time t>tB it is the case that the agent has already chosen B;
  4. If wB and tB satisfy (1)-(3), then tB>tA.
  5. The objective probability in wA (respectively, wB) that the agent will choose A (respective, B) tends to a high value (perhaps even 1) as t approaches tA (respectively, tB) from below.

Condition (4) makes this incompatible with the symmetric forking model: no choice can be simultaneously modeled by the symmetric and asymmetric forking models. Observe that condition (5) means that in wB, the situation looks like this: First the probability of choosing B goes to some low value (because the probability of choosing A increases) as the time t increases to tA. Then eventually the probability of choosing B goes to some high value as the time t increases to tB, finally hitting 1 at every time later than tB (and maybe at tB itself). In other words, the agent inclines strongly towards A, and then finally chooses B.

I think something like this model is needed if we insist (a) that one cannot be ignorant of one's free choice and (b) that one cannot observe things that happen over very tiny intervals of time. In my previous post, I argued that the symmetric forking model fails desiderata (a) and (b). Let me now show how the asymmetric forking model might satisfy them. The idea is simply that if one is in wA, one may introspectively notice the probability of one's making choice A increase (though staying below 1) to a high value, and this increase might take a significant amount of time during which one is settling on A. This awareness of the high value of the probability of making choice A could be sufficient to guarantee knowledge of the choice (though this does assume that one can know that one won't win the lottery, which is controversial) in wA. Note that even if one perishes shortly after tA (cf. the world w*A in my previous post) it is still true that one knew with high probability by time tA, and maybe even shortly before tA, that one would choose A.

Now here is an interesting thing. If indeed (a) and (b) are met, the following takes place in wB. As one approaches time tA, one forms with high credence the belief that one is choosing A. But then one doesn't choose A, and soon one changes one's mind, and comes instead to know with high credence that one is choosing B.

Observe another interesting feature of this model. Suppose that w*B is like wB but one stops existing or one's freedom is taken away at some point of time between tA and tB. Then, in w*B one does not choose A and one also does not choose B. It is an interesting question whether in w*B, the agent is responsible for not having chosen A. The answer seems affirmative. After all, had he chosen A by around time tA, he would have been responsible for that. Why shouldn't he be responsible for not making the choice of A? But if so, then one can be responsible for something that is not a choice (it is presumably not the case that around tA the agent has chosen not to choose A—that would, I think, yield something like the problematic symmetric forking model for the choice between A and not choosing A). This would be interesting.

Moreover, I think that if (a) and (b) are true, then something very much like the asymmetric forking model must be satisfied by all full-blown libertarian choices if (a) and (b) are to hold. But somehow I am not sure I like the asymmetric forking model that much—I am really not sure it matches the phenomenology in all cases, in respect of the kind of bouncing of probabilities that we've got in wB. So, it seems to me that perhaps sometimes either something like the symmetric forking model holds or at least sometimes the asymmetric model holds but without anything like (5). If so, this is an argument against the conjunction of (a) and (b), and, plausibly, evidence against (a), the claim that we must be aware of our free choices.

The claim that we make full-blown free choices unconsciously is an interesting one. It's interesting, for instance, that some neurological work that has been used as an argument against the existence of free will presupposes that free choices would be conscious. If we have a good independent argument against this consciousness hypotheses, that neurological work will no longer provide any evidence against our account of free will.

Alternately, one might deny (b). For non-naturalists, it isn't that hard to do that!

Monday, April 21, 2008

The symmetric forking model of free will

Until very recently (the last hour!) I thought the following was quite a good model of what typically happens when a normal human agent x freely chooses between actions A and B: There are worlds wA and wB and a time t such that

  1. wA and wB coincide at all times earlier than t;[note 1]
  2. wA and wB have the same laws, and x is a normally functioning agent in both worlds in respect of the decision between A and B; and
  3. At all times later than t, it is true at wA that x has already freely chosen A, and it is true at those times at wB that x has already freely chosen B.
From (1), we can conclude that at no time earlier than t is the case at wA or wB that the agent has already chosen between A and B, but by (3) at all times later than t this is the case. Call (1)-(3) the Symmetric Forking Model.

It is, I think, prima facie plausible, at least to libertarians, that at least some normal human choices satisfy the Symmetric Forking Model.

However, it now seems to me that the following three propositions are incompatible (though we may need to tweak them slightly to get this result—I am just sketching this):

  1. The Symmetric Forking Model holds of some normal human's choice.
  2. There is a certain tiny but positive amount of time e such that a normal human cannot be aware of distinctions between events where the person gets to observe the distinction for an amount of time less than or equal to e.
  3. Necessarily, if one has freely chosen A, then one was aware of the choice of A as a choice of A.

Why are these incompatible? Well, start with the Symmetric Forking Model and form worlds w*A and w*B which coincide with wA and wB, respectively, up to time t+e, but where our agent x is miraculously made unconscious at time t+e. Then, by (5) (with a bit of handwaving), the agent in w*A cannot be aware of having chosen A and the agent in w*B cannot be aware of having chosen B. For the agent does not get to observe the difference between choosing A and choosing B before t, since the two worlds coincide up to t, and hence only gets to observe the difference between t and t+e, which by (5) will not be enough.

The plausibility of (5) and (6) is enough to make me have serious doubts about (4). On the other hand, I can also see how the plausibility of (4) might be seen as casting doubt on (6). I am in fact suspicious of (6), so I do not think it is absurd to hold on to (4) but reject (6), if there is good reason to hold on to (4).

One might think that libertarianism commits one to (4). But that, I now think, is false. For one might have a case where the alternative to making at t the choice to do A is not making another choice, but temporizing and taking longer to make up one's mind.

I think it is an interesting challenge for a libertarian to construct a model of free choice compatible with (5) and (6). I have some somewhat inchoate ideas in this direction. But that may be fodder for another post.

[Edited to rename "Forking Model" to "Symmetric Forking Model", to distinguish this model from a different model that hopefully will figure in tomorrow's post.]

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Defeating evil

In recent years, some theists have proposed that it is not enough to say that God allows evil that greater good may come of it (with whatever qualifiers and precise formulation that needs). Rather, God defeats evil. I have suggested once that when x forgives an evil that was done to her, this is a good sufficiently to justify God's permitting the evil. In fact, I think a stronger claim holds: when we forgive an evil done to us, we thereby defeat that evil. Interestingly, even though the claim that an evil has been defeated strikes me as logically stronger than the claim that a greater good has come from the evil, it can sometimes be the case that we can directly see that the defeat claim is true and then infer from that that a greater good has come. Here is such a case. I think of Jews in one block of a concentration camp who get up an hour before everybody else at, so that they can all take turns praying using the one set of tefillin and one prayer shawl that they have hidden, risking their lives and sacrificing their meager sleep to praise the Lord. This, it seems clear to me, defeated at least some of the Nazi evils done to them: the Nazis strove to dehumanize them, but instead as a result they rose—by God's grace surely—to the greatest heights of humanity. (This kind of reminds me of what I say about poetic justice here.)

Let me end on a different, somewhat lighter note. Here is a proposed sufficient condition for defeat of an evil, that probably does not apply to the above cases. An evil E is defeated in respect of a victim x if x is able to properly and whole-heartedly laugh at E. (Here it's worth remembering Isaac's name. Literally: "He laughs (or will laugh)". Who is "He"? Probably God: "God laughs at his enemies" seems to be the image.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Could a perfect act-utilitarian make assertions?

I suspect in the end the answer to my title question may be positive, but I want to run through an argument that makes it problematic that a perfect act-utilitarian, i.e., someone who always figures out the maximum utility and acts in according to it, could make assertions. I am making no claims of soundness or validity for the argument.

Making assertions is a norm-governed practice. An essential part of what it is to engage in a norm-governed practice is to accept the norms as applicable to oneself. What exactly the norm of assertion is—what conditions are such that making an assertion that p is appropriately—is controversial. Proposals made have included truth, belief, justified belief and knowledge. All of these have something to be said for them. But the following does not: "The norm of assertion is the maximization of utility." The practice of uttering that which the uttering of maximizes utility is not the practice of assertion. The perfect act-utilitiarian is governed by the norm of utility-maximization in all actions. Therefore, she does not accept the norm of assertion. Therefore, she does not engage in the practice of assertion. Therefore, she does not make assertions.

Deep Thoughts IX

The past is over.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Discovering duties

The progress of biology involves, inter alia, the discovery of unknown kinds of organisms. The progress of ethics involves, inter alia, the discovery of unknown duties. There is a vague disquiet one feels, however, at the suggestion that one has discovered a new duty, especially one hitherto unrecognized and generally violated by people. It may seem, especially to those with conservative inclinations, unduly revisionary.

But in fact it is no more revisionary than the discovery of unknown species. Of course, once discovered, a revision to some theories may be called for, but the simple fact that there is an unknown species is entirely unsurprising. Likewise, the simple fact that there is an unknown duty should be unsurprising. Actions are presumed to be permissible unless there is a specific argument why they are not. In general, we have very little in the way of positive evidence for the permissibility of an action. Except in cases where the permissibility follows from the obligatoriness, or when we have some divine revelation (e.g., we know that all the actions done by Jesus were permissible), we typically assume the action to be innocent until proven guilty. But the flip side of such a presumption of innocence is that the presumption is highly defeasible, and so it should be no surprise if we should discover a new duty.

Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that moral progress consists largely in the discovery of unknown duties or, equivalently, unknown prohibitions. Some discoveries are simply the result of new situations raising new questions—the discovery by Anscombe, Wojtyla, Paul VI and others that the moral prohibition against unnatural sexual activity generalizes to a prohibition against all contraception (except through abstinence) was triggered by the advent of effective non-barrier methods of contraception. But some discoveries concern activities people have blithely engaged in for centuries, such as our discovery that there is a prohibition against buying and selling people or that it is wrong to execute criminals when lesser penalties are sufficient to prevent crime. Of course, some dispute the correctness of some of the claimed discoveries. And, of course, the discovered prohibitions tend to follow from principles that were previously available.

My last post, on fantasies, is meant to be that kind of contribution to moral progress, albeit more modest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fantasies and autonomy

Sometimes we fantasize about specific others behaving a certain way with regard to us. Sexual fantasies are one species of the genus I am interested in, but the genus is wider than that. There can, for instance, be fantasies about the recognition of our excellences, about others doing something humiliating, about climbing Mount Everest with one's best friend, etc.

To fantasize about a situation is more than just to think about the possibility of it. As in the case of hoping, there is a positive attitude towards the situation, though unlike in the case of hope, there need be no expectation. The positive attitude by itself shows that fantasizing about a bad situation (e.g., about one's being cruel to someone or one's engaging in an illicit flirtation) is wrong—for, surely, our attitudes should be appropriate to their object, and the attitude towards something bad should negative. In such a case, we have what Aquinas calls the sin of "morose delectation". Moreover, beyond a positive attitude, there is a first-person involvement in a fantasy--one reacts emotionally to it in somewhat the way one would were it real.

What I said so far shouldn't be controversial, though in the past I've had trouble getting some students to accept that morality governs the life of the mind.

But I want to note a different kind of badness in fantasies involving the behavior of specific others, even when the situation fantasized about is not actually a bad one. This kind of badness occurs when the fantasy does not respect others as autonomous persons. The fantasizer is, after all, in charge of the situation. She is like film director, telling this actor to do this that actor to say that. But unlike a real film director who does this in cooperation with actors who have read the script and agreed to act according to it, the typical fantasizer is arranging the persons in her mind without any cooperation, all on her own. And herein lies both the attraction and the danger of the fantasy. The fantasizer in creating the fantasy is in a sense more powerful than God in creating the world. For while God cannot make a person freely do something (this is true by the relevant definition of "freely"), the fantasizer can. It can, for instance, be a part of the fantasy that some persons freely fawn on her. This attitude of being in charge of others can be a way of using them.

I want to qualify this a little. There is a certain respecting of autonomy if the behavior of the fantasy's characters is constrained by the real-life behavior or commitments of the persons. If I have had a number of delightful conversations with George, there perhaps is nothing wrong in fantasizing about another, since in doing so I am constrained by George's actual character, and thus he is to some extent autonomous even as found in my mind. If I do this well, I might even find myself rebuked by fantasy-George in the course of the fantasized conversation. Likewise, if someone has undertaken a morally licit commitment to do something with me, it does not seem problematic to look forward vividly to that activity. Again, the actual person has had a moment of autonomy in the creation of the fantasy.

But the more the fantasizer is in charge in arranging the behavior of the characters in the fantasy for her own gratification, the more problematic this fantasizing is, as it is a failure to respect the fact that others are independent persons, not subordinate to her pleasure.

On obvious objection is that I am confusing fiction and reality. The student who fantasizes about me saying that his shoddy paper, which he whipped off during the half hour before it was due, was the best I have ever read is not actually making me do anything. This is true, I respond. But he is in an important way using me for his own gratification. His fantasy gets its life from my reality. That I am not actually physically affected by the fantasy does not mean that I am not used—certainly, the voyeur's victim is used by the voyeur even if the victim does not find out.

It is true that when sane people fantasize, they can typically distinguish fact from fiction. But at the same time, what gives pleasure in the fantasy is a deliberate mental relaxing of the distinction, a willing suspension of disbelief. To treat the characters that inhabit one's fantasy as pawns to be moved in accordance with one's desires for one's gratification is seriously problematic, and it develops a disrespectful habit of the mental treatment of others. Even if one is right that this habit will not overflow into controlling behavior—and how can one be sure of that?—the mental attitudes are themselves morally bad.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Prediction of choices

Here's something a bit funny. We're told that people's decisions can be predicted by brain scan several seconds before the people think they've made a conscious decision. John Dylan-Haynes, one of the researchers, says: "Our decisions are predetermined unconsciously a long time before our consciousness kicks in". What is the evidence that the study provided for this interesting claim? According to the New Scientist's summary: "By deciphering the brain signals with a computer program, the researchers could predict which button a subject had pressed about 60% of the time – slightly better than a random guess." (The choice is a binary one.)

So the claim which the data supports is that several seconds before the subject thinks she's made a choice, the brain is in a state that makes one of the choices somewhat more likely than the other. Now, we can ask: Which of two hypotheses does this data support better?

  1. Our decisions are predetermined unconsciously a long time before our consciousness kicks in.
  2. Unconscious factors a significant amount of time before the conscious decision indeterministically affect the likelihood that we will consciously make one decision rather than another.
It seems clear that the data moderately supports (2) over (1). Why, then, would the researcher opt for (1) despite the data? Perhaps on the basis of other studies--but if so, then what he should say is that the present data weakens the evidence for his thesis (maybe he did and the New Scientist didn't quote that?). Or maybe the researcher thinks that improvements in the prediction procedure will eventually make it work at 100% accuracy. But the present prediction accuracy gives one very little reason to think this. Maybe the data rules out the hypothesis that there is no unconscious processes involved in decision-making, and hence offers support for (1) over the hypothesis that there is no unconscious component to decision-making at all, but who believes that hypothesis anyway?

It's worth noting that in ordinary situations where we ordinarily take people to have free will, we are often able to predict people's decisions with much better than 60% probability. This isn't to denigrate the brain-scanner. The case here is of a binary choice between button pushes, and our own accuracy would probably be fairly poor. Still, it would be fun to compare the brain-scanner against the accuracy in prediction by a researcher looking through a one-way mirror, seeing which button the person gazes towards, etc.

All that said, I actually have little problem with claim (1): I am not aware of a good argument that freedom (even of the libertarian sort) requires that one be aware of the decision when one makes it. In fact, if anything, it fits better with my preferred model of free will to have the awareness of the decision be explanatorily and maybe even causally posterior to the decision.

Yet another counterexample to utilitarianism and reason why personal identity matters

Suppose that the world contains an infinite row of people, whom we can (if we don't mind doing such a thing at least in a thought experiment) number in order ...,-4,-3,-2,-1,0,1,2,3,4,.... All of these people are the same in all morally relevant, with one exception. The folks with negative numbers are all very miserable, with an equal amount of misery, and the folks with non-negative numbers are all blissfully happy, with an equal amount of happiness. A reliable genie offers you a choice: If you raise your left hand, person with number -1 will be made blissfully happy, like the people with numbers 0,1,2,3,4,...; if you don't raise your right hand, person number 0 will be made as miserable as the people with negative numbers.

What should you do? It's clear: lift your left hand. You clearly have decisive reason to do this. But notice that total utility need not be changed by your action (assume for simplicity your own and the genie's utility is not changed). In fact, the situation where persons numbered ...,-4,-3,-2 are miserable and those numbered -1,0,1,2,3,4,... are blissfully happy is isomorphic to the situation where those numbered ...,-4,-3,-2,-1,0 are miserable and those numbered 1,2,3,4,... are blissfully happy. So on utilitarian grounds, there is nothing to choose from between these two options.

Someone whose ethics is not centered on the maximization of utility will notice that even though the total utility in both cases is the same (whatever it is: it seems to be infinity minus infinity!), there is a difference for two specific people, namely those numbered -1 and 0. This is yet another way in which personal identity matters. Unless persons have an identity over time or between worlds (or both), we have a hard time making sense of the difference the two cases. Utilitarianism does not particularly care about the identities of persons, and that's why it has trouble with this case.

Utilitarianism can perhaps be fixed to account for this. One might supplement it with the idea that when comparing utilities between possible outcomes, we only compute differences in utility. When choosing between options A and B, we let u(x,F) be the utility that possible person x has if F is chosen, and then sum up u(x,A)-u(x,B) over the union of the possible persons in the relevant A-world and the relevant B-world. Notice, though, that looking at it this way emphasize the importance of personal identity between worlds—it matters which goods and bads befall whom. Once we agree that it matters which goods and bads befall whom, utilitarianism should seem significantly less plausible. And we may still be able to manufacture counterexamples. Suppose the genie adds that however you choose, an infinite number of equally blissful genies causally isolated from everybody else, will pop into existence, but these genies will be numerically different in the scenario where you lift your left hand from the ones who pop into existence in the scenario where you don't lift your left hand. Then, the above utility difference method will generate infinite minus infinity as the difference between the two scenarios, which doesn't allow for a decision.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Babette's Feast

I showed Babette's Feast once again. I was this time struck by the nuanced critique of a religion of the word. The congregation to a large extent has a religion of the word—sometimes spoken and sometimes sung.

The word spoken, by itself, is not enough, even when it is the right word. Lorens, the young officer, is able to take the devout words and use them to rise socially. (I am reminded of Aquinas' remark that without grace even the Gospels would be dead and useless.) Still, the word when spoken in the right spirit can avail much: there is clearly much good in the congregation and its pastor, and the pastor's words are an occasion of grace.

Nor does singing the word suffice. Singing in and of itself avails little, as the episode with Papin suggests, but when the right words are spoken in the right spirit, again we see that much is accomplished for the sake of the community. But it is not enough.

The daughters of the pastor add good deeds to the mix. Much good is achieved. But all this, while very good, is not enough. The right word is spoken and sung, in the right spirit, and accompanied with good works. But the congregation's love still threatens to fall to pieces around old animosities. Even a religion of word and deed is not enough: one needs the love-feast, the eucharist, the sacrament.

Each of the three is essential. The pastor brings the word. His daughters continue to hold on to his word, trying to keep at alive in the community, and giving it flesh in their charitable deeds. But Babette puts it all together, integrating word and deed into sacrament. And now the congregants reconcile to each other, and unity is restored. But the word did prepare the way for this, and the reconciliation in many cases is accomplished through words. It is all needed.

Friday, April 11, 2008

History of philosophy

Occasionally, I find myself party to conversations about analytic and continental philosophy. It seems to me that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sextus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, ibn-Rushd, al-Ghazali, Maimonedes, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant and Frege all practiced analytic philosophy for a significant part of their philosophical lives—some of these, indeed, for just about all of their philosophical lives. When I read these people, I find them kindred souls, clearly engaged in the same rational pursuits, using pretty much the same tools, as I am. To denigrate analytic philosophy would, thus, be to cut oneself off from much of our philosophical tradition, and to lack the tools of analytic philosophy is to severely limit one's ability to engage this tradition. Fortunately, I have found it rare these days for continental philosophers to denigrate analytic philosophy.

I presume continental philosophers can likewise trace their lineage through the history of Western philosophy, though some of the names will be different. Significantly, I expect that just every major figure in the middle ages will have to be left out, and perhaps also Aristotle (but Plato and Socrates would stay), but one can in exchange add a number of more recent luminaries like Pascal, Hegel and Kierkegaard. By and large, continental philosophy strikes me as a more recent development. (Nothing wrong with that!)

I worry a bit about unconsciousness of ignorance. I am basically entirely ignorant of continental philosophy. Yet it does not seem to me that this ignorance significantly hampers my understanding of any pre-20th century philosophers I've read with the possible exception of Husserl. I presume that likewise continental philosophers who do not know any analytic philosophy do not think they are missing out on much understanding of major historical figures. So, I guess, I should conclude that probably I am missing out on major insights through my ignorance. On the other hand, maybe we're all lucky, and the insights about, say, Plato and Ockham that I'm missing by ignorance of continental philosophy are not insights I am that interested in, and the insights about them that the continental philosopher ignorant of analytic philosophy is missing out on are ones that she is not that interested in. But this doesn't seem right—philosophy is, surely, properly a holistic enterprise.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Conjunctive analyses

Sometimes we try to analyze a concept as a conjunction of two or more concepts. Thus, we might say that x knows p provided p is true and x justifiably believes p. Frequently, such proposed analyses founder on counterexamples—Gettier examples in this case.

I want to highlight one kind of failure. Sometimes analyzing x's being an F in terms of x's being a G and x's being an H, fails because to be an F, not only does x have to be a G and an H, but x's Gness and Hness have to be appropriately connected. While Gness and Hness are ingredients in Fness, their interconnection matters, just as one doesn't simply specify an organic compound by listing the number of atoms of each type in the compound, but one must also specify their interconnection.

I suspect this kind of connection-failure of conjunctive definitions is common. One way to see what is wrong with the justified true belief analysis of knowledge is to note that there has to be a connection between the justification and the truth and the belief. Specifying what the connection has to be like is hard (that is my understatement of the week).

Here's another case of the same sort. Suppose we say that an action is a murder provided it is a killing and morally wrong. Then we have a counterexample. Igor, who used to be a KGB assassin, has turned over a new leaf. As part of his turning over a new leaf, he has promised his wife that, no matter what, he will never kill again, no matter what. Maybe in ordinary cases that promise would be inappropriate. But given Igor's life history, it is quite appropriate. Now, Tatyana has just mugged Igor and is about to stab him to death so as not to leave any witnesses. Igor picks up a rock and kills her in self-defense. What he has done was a killing and it was morally wrong—it was the breaking of a promise. But it wasn't a murder because the connection between the fact that the action was a killing and the fact that the action was morally wrong wasn't of the right sort. (One might try to say that it was a killing and immoral, but wasn't immoral qua killing.)

When we hear a conjunctive analysis being given in philosophy, I think it's time to look for a connection-counterexample, a case where each conjunct is satisfied, but the satisfaction of the conjuncts lacks the right kind of interconnection. Sometimes, I think, one can intuitively tell that a proposed analysis is unsatisfactory for lack of such interconnection even without coming up with a counterexample. Here is a case in point. Consider the notion of "causal necessitation". A natural-sounding definition is this: an event E causally necessitates an event F provided that (i) it is nomically necessary that if E holds, then F holds; and (ii) E causes F. But even if it turns out that this is a correct characterization—that necessarily E causally necessitates F if and only if (i) and (ii) hold—I don't think it's a good definition. For it misses out the fact that one wants a connection between the necessitating and the causing—the co-presence of the two factors shouldn't be merely coincidental. But it's really hard to come up with an uncontroversial case where we have a difference between the two. (Interestingly, it may be possible to do so if Molinism is true.)

We are rightly suspicious of disjunctive analyses. I think we should have a similar, though weaker, suspicion of conjunctive ones.

There is a structural connection between the points in this post and Aristotle's Metaphysics H6. The point is also similar to Geach's discussion of the good. We cannot define a "good basketball player" as someone who is (i) good and (ii) a basketball player.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Analyses: a hypothesis

In philosophy journals, one occasionally sees things like this:

Necessarily, x is an F if and only if x satisfies each of the following n conditions:
(i) ...
(ii) ...
(iii) ...
(iv) ...
I hypothesize that every philosophical claim of this form that has ever been made in print by a Western philosopher with the number of conditions n greater than or equal to 4 is:
  1. false, and/or
  2. stipulative, and/or
  3. circular, and/or
  4. redundant.
By "circular" I mean that Fness is implicitly or explicitly found in the conditions. By "redundant" I mean that one of the conditions is entailed by the others.

My evidence for the hypothesis is inductive. I have never seen a correct, non-stipulative, non-circular and non-redundant set of necessary and sufficient conditions for anything philosophical where there are more than three conditions.

It could be that the hypothesis is false. Is there a counterexample?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Art as argument

I once ran a panel discussion between an Islamic theologian and a philosopher of art. The Islamic theologian was defending what she claimed was traditional Islamic jurisprudence, that for the sake of freedom of inquiry it is legally permitted to write anything in the context of intellectual verbal argument (even really nasty things about the founder of Islam, as long as long as they were supported by argumentation), but that there are restrictions on, say, what is permitted in art. The idea was that in intellectual inquiry, verbal expressions have a privileged status.

It seems to me that this account of inquiry is somewhat impoverished. While argument can be made in words, it can also be made in other ways. In their fun Handbook of Christian Apologetics Kreeft and Tacelli give this argument for the existence of God:

There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don't.
I may not see it, because my own appreciation of music is most deficient[note 1], but I see the kind of argument that is made here, and it is not an argument in words—simply asserting that there is the music of J. S. Bach doesn't do the job. The music is an essential part of the argument itself.

Or consider the following argument:

  1. Guernica
  2. Therefore, war is wrong.

Does it make sense to simply incorporate a work of art as a premise to an argument. One problem—and this may be the reason for the apparent Islamic privileging of verbal arguments—is that arguments that incorporate a work of art as a premise are hard to criticize. I am not a pacifist. So I accept that the above argument is unsound. But it is really hard to see what I deny. Do I deny premise (1), i.e., deny Guernica? That seems to be a category mistake. Or do I deny that (2) follows from (1)? So there is something unfair about the use of art in argument—one is putting oneself beyond criticism, except maybe by a competing work of art.

Difficulties with this notwithstanding, I do think the idea that a work of art can express an otherwise ineffable proposition is defensible. Perhaps Guernica expresses the proposition that war is like this (isn't it fun to use hyperlinks to indicate referrents of demonstratives?). If so, then while denying Guernica is a category mistake, denying the proposition expressed by Guernica is no category mistake.

If so, then poems, songs, novels, etc. can express propositions that have truth value. This might be relevant to an account of Biblical inerrancy that includes the full range of genres found in Scripture.

Final note: I think the Bach and Guernica arguments may have different logical forms. It may not be that the music of Bach itself expresses something that implies the existence of God, so that the music is not a premise, but only a part of a premise—the premise that there is this [mp3 download is from here].

Monday, April 7, 2008

Love of substances

Thesis: Necessarily, it is appropriate to love x in the primary (or focal) sense of "love" if and only if x is a substance.

Why? Maybe because of the Augustinian and Thomistic doctrine of the interchangeability of being and love, and the Aristotelian doctrine that substances are what has being in the primary sense.

If the Thesis is true, this has metaphysical and ethical consequences. Metaphysical consequence: All persons are substances. Ethical consequence: We shouldn't love countries, nations, ecosystems, galaxies, ideas, etc. in the primary sense of "love". If, further, we add the Aristotelian claim that the only real substances there are beings that have life, we get the useful fact that we shouldn't love our non-living material possessions in the primary sense of "love". (I am open, however, to particles being substances. It's odd to say that I should love particles in the primary sense. But less odd when one considers the fact that they do have a sort of "life", and even less odd when one adds that love needs to be proportioned to the dignity of the beloved, so that particles, though lovable in the primary sense, are lovable in only a little way.)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Why do we need substances if presentism holds?

If presentism holds, it makes perfect sense to talk of what Alexander and Bucephalus did, of the properties they had, of the relations they stood in, and so on, and for none of this do we need Alexander and Bucephalus to exist. After all, Bucephalus doesn't exist any more. Alexander does exist (in heaven, purgatory or hell), but his present existence has nothing to do with the truth of propositions such as that Alexander conquered much of the world and rode Bucephalus. Bucephalus led a full horsey life, as descriptively rich as the life of any presently existing horse. Truths about the past are just as true as truths about the present, and according to the presentist, we do not surrender realism in the case of truths about the past.

But if we can make sense of talk about the past without positing past substances, why can't we equally make sense of talk of the present without positing present substances? If one can be a realist and yet say that dinosaurs once walked the earth without quantifying over dinosaurs, why can't we equally well be realists and yet say that horses now walk the earth without quantifying over horses?

There is a hole in this argument. Perhaps on Cartesian grounds it is undeniable that I now exist, and hence that there is at least one presently existing substance—I. But it is unclear that the Cartesian argument establishes my present existence. I think to myself: "I think, therefore I am." What gives evidence for the "I think" is already in the past by the time I get to the "I am". So, rather, I should say: "I think, therefore I was." At least, I can say this: any certainty that I have about the "I am" is a certainty that I also have about the "I was". Anyway, this seems beside the point. For the same strategy that the presentist uses to explain the truth of "Bucephalus was" without presupposing Bucephalus can surely be used to explain the truth of "Alexander Pruss is" without presupposing Alexander Pruss.

I am not satisfied with this argument. I feel that a sophistry is in the air, or else that I am unfair to presentists. But I suspect the following is true: The presentist who accepts a tenseless quantifier, a tenseless "exists", which I'll indicate as "exists*", and who then says that only presently existing things exist*, will probably be subject to this worry. On the other hand, the presentist who doesn't accept a tenseless quantifier may have some difficulty in explaining presentism: it is a triviality that only presently existing things presently exist.

Friday, April 4, 2008

An argument for incompatibilism

The following argument is valid:

  1. Normally, if an embodied person freely does A, then x could have done otherwise than she did. (Premise)
  2. It is a common occurrence that an embodied person freely does something. (Premise)
  3. If a general conditional holds normally, and specific cases of the antecedent are common, then it is nomically possible that the antecedent and consequent hold simultaneously. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, it is nomically possible that there be an embodied person x and an action A such that x does A freely and x could have not done A. (By (1)-(3))
  5. Metaphysically necessarily, if an embodied person x does A freely and x could have done otherwise, then determinism is false. (Premise)
  6. Therefore, it is nomically possible that determinism does not hold. (By (4) and (5))
  7. If determinism holds, then it holds of nomic necessity. (Premise)
  8. Therefore, determinism does not hold. (By (6) and (7))

Observe that the Principle of Alternate Possibilities in (1) is not subject to any Frankfurt-style counterexamples. I got this Principle based on an idea of David Alexander, but I don't think he endorses this version.

I think the tough question is whether (3) holds. But I think it at least holds as a probabilistic principle: if normally (if p, then q), and if cases of p are common, then probably a case of both p and q is nomically possible. In fact, a stronger probabilistic claim seems to hold: probably some case of both p and q actually holds. (When I talk about cases, I am assuming that the conditional is a quantified one: for all x, if P(x), then Q(x).) If so, then the conclusion would be that probably determinism does not hold. (Not earthshaking in light of the fact that there is some direct reason from physics to think it does not hold.) But the stronger non-probabilistic claim is also plausible. How could something be normal and yet nomically impossible?

[Edited to fix typo in argument and attribution of PAP.]

Thursday, April 3, 2008


In an earlier post, I went after sexual stuff in advertising. It's time to move on to food. The following argument is valid:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally make someone feel inappropriate hunger. (Premise)
  2. Some food advertising intentionally makes people feel inappropriate hunger. (Premise)
  3. Some food advertising is wrong. (By (1) and (2))
Inappropriate hunger is basically hunger when one is not in need of food.[note 1] I don't know for sure that (2) is true, but it seems plausible—certainly food advertising can make one feel inappropriate hunger, and it would be surprising if this weren't intetional. Premise (1) is surely close to the truth at least. Maybe it needs some qualifier like "prima facie", or maybe there is a lack of consent condition that needs to be added (it seems plausible that it is permissible to do medical research where inappopriate hunger is induced in consenting subjects). But I suspect that even if one appropriately qualifies (1), this will not affect the application here. That something like (1) holds seems to be a clear consequence of the fact that either hunger in general or at least inappropriate hunger is a bad.

I suppose few people dispute (3). The likely health consequences of some food advertising are sufficient to establish (3). But what's interesting is that this argument provides another reason, a non-consequentialistic one, to object to the advertising.

There are analogies to other kinds of induction of desire in advertising. But not all induction of desire is problematic. Induction of an appropriate desire is in itself unproblematic. Thus charity advertising that induces a desire to help the needy is not problematic (assuming there isn't something else wrong there), since a desire to help the needy is appropriate.

Let me end with a question: Suppose that advertisers limited themselves to morally licit advertising: no induction of inappropriate emotions, no false statements (and that includes not making statements about your product being better than the competitor unless you believe it on good grounds), etc. How well would advertising work then?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sexual cases are different

One vague but real division line among thinkers about sexuality is whether sexual cases are in some important way different from all or most other cases. Some writers on the right, for instance, think that in sexual cases categories like "the sacred" or "desecration" are applicable, or that there are higher moral standards in sexual cases (so that, e.g., it may not be immoral to misuse a finger, but is wrong to misuse a sexual organ, or it is not always wrong to use someone non-sexually but always wrong to use someone sexually). At the same time, the idea of sexual cases as somehow different has historically also been found among some left-leaning folk as well, such as in quasi-religious ideas of transforming the world through removing our culture's sexual restrictions (one probably wouldn't talk of transforming the world through removing our culture's dietary restrictions[note 1]), or in the idea that sexual oppression is particularly bad. Other writers, on the other hand, hold that sexual ethics is not in any significant way different from other areas of ethics (C. S. Lewis says this explicitly in The Four Loves).

Who is right? Well, here I just want to note one way in which our attitudes towards sex are different from our attitudes towards other activities. Sex is impermissible without consent, and while there are other activities of which that is true, the requirement of consent in sexual cases is much more stringent than in most non-sexual cases. Here is one way in which this is so. For some activities, such as the eating of ice cream, the consent of a minor or someone generally incompetent is acceptable. For many activities for which the consent of of a minor or someone generally incompetent is acceptable, such as medical procedures, the consent of a proxy is sufficient. However, in sex we are suspicious of the consent of a minor and we do not allow proxy consent. There are not many other cases like that.

That is not to say that there are no other cases like that. Some Christian denominations that reject infant baptism can be seen as treating baptism in this way. I can also see how someone might take this view of certain kinds of major life-changing medical procedures that arguably do not treat an organic condition, like physician-assisted suicide (here "life-changing" is an understatement), sex-reassignment or the amputation of the limb of an apotemnophiliac. Note that an analogy between sex and these cases underscores the idea that there is something momentous about sexual cases. Our rules on voting are somewhat similar but not quite the same: one must cast one's vote oneself, not have a proxy cast it for one[note 2]and one must be of age, but the difference is that one does not need to be competent other than by age.

If there is a difference, we may ask why there is such a difference. One consideration is that sex is a momentous matter because it is closely related to life-and-death matters—sex does, after all, involve the functioning of reproductive organs (this is true not just in the case of intercourse). Another is that love is always something momentous—the duty to love is the ground of all other moral rules—and sex ought to be the consummation of a particular kind of love (eros), so it inherits momentousness from it; moreover, one might argue that the particular kind love that sex ought to be the consummation of a love between free and equal persons, and consent thus is plausibly required. One might also bring in contingent psychological features of sexual cases, but I would prefer not to do that, because those could be absent, and the consent requirements would still be in place. In any case, it is clearer that there is something different about sex than most other activities—that is a datum—but what that difference is is harder to capture.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Seduction, advertising and provocative dress

Thesis: It is wrong to intentionally attempt to sexually excite another person without the other's consent.

I will argue for the Thesis in a moment. But at the moment, I want to clarify a few things and give some consequences. I take it to be a consequence of the Thesis that the following three actions are wrong:

  1. Including sexually suggestive imagery in advertising in non-pornographic media in order that the viewer might be sexually excited and thus inclined to favor the product.
  2. Dressing in a provocative way in public in order to sexually excite others.
  3. Seducing another by trying to cause another to become sexually excited, when the other does not consent to being caused to become sexually excited, whether the means be a romantic dinner, ethanol, unfermented grape juice, a movie, a touch, a word, etc.
Both to clarify the Thesis and to explain why these follow from it, note first that consent is not the same as enjoyment or wishing. Thus, that a reader of a magazine might enjoy being sexually excited at a model in an ad does not entail that the reader consents to that excitement. One way to see this is to consider the following case. Yakov is a Jewish man who smells some delicious sweet and sour pork while walking by a Chinese restaurant. He wishes God had permitted him to eat sweet and sour pork. He then remembers that in Talmudic law, it is permissible to violate kashrut to save your life (except in times of religious persecution). The food smells so good that he desires that the cook should come out, point a gun at his head, and tell him to eat some sweet and sour pork. He would enjoy this, moreover. (Let's suppose he's a very brave man much given to pleasures of the palate, so the sight of a gun pointed at his head would not spoil the delicious taste.) However, the fact that he wishes the cook to do this, and that he would enjoy it, does not contradict the fact that he has not consented to having a gun placed to his head. One can desire something and know that one would enjoy it when it would come, but nonetheless not consent to it.[note 1]

Thus, even if it were true that the readers of a magazine would enjoy the sexual excitement, it would not follow that they consent to it. I do restrict claim (1) to the case of non-pornographic magazines, because the reader of a pornographic magazine can be presumed to give consent to being sexually excited by the contents. (This might be partly definitional of a pornographic magazine. I am not saying that there is nothing wrong with pornography, just that its wrongness does not follow from the Thesis.) Likewise, that someone comes to enjoy being seduced, and even comes to consent to its continuation, does not entail that the initial attempt to sexually excite was consented to. At the same time, consent can be implicit in a context, so this is not going to cover all cases of seduction (e.g., it will not cover seduction in the context of a relationship where such seduction is implicitly consented to and where the implicit consent is not withdrawn—again, I do not want to say that all consensual seduction is acceptable, but only that it does not violate the Thesis).

Observe, also, that expectation is not the same as consent. A person might expect that a popular non-pornographic magazine contains some provocative imagery, or that a date will try to seduce one, but expectation is not the same as consent. It should be no defense in a theft case that a man knew that a neighborhood was rife with muggers when he went out for a walk and hence he consensually handed over his wallet, so it wasn't theft.[note 2]

In any case, even if most readers of some non-pornographic magazine or most bystanders consented to being sexually excited, there would surely be some who did not, and if the intention was to excite all readers or all bystanders of the appropriate sex and sexual orientation, then some would be excited non-consensually, and a violation of the Thesis would occur.

What is kind of interesting about this argument is that many arguments against the sexual objectification of women have involved the harm to women from such objectification (see, e.g., Dworkin). While I think such arguments are basically sound, they miss out on a dimension of the question, which is that in many not overtly pornographic contexts the male viewers are not consenting to sexual excitation, and hence are being wronged.

I am assuming here that sexual excitement is a state of the person that includes some emotional and some physiological components, and that these physiological components involve, at least in part, the physiological state of the person's sexual systems.

Why should we believe the Thesis? I think it follows from the same considerations as make sexual assault be wrong. Sexual assault can range from full-scale violent rape to a sexual pat on the behind. What is common in all of these cases is that the contact is sexual in nature and not consented to. (Whether the contact is desired, wished for or enjoyed ought to be irrelevant to the question whether a sexual assault occurred, though obviously the more undesired the contact, the worse the crime.) It seems plausible to suppose that any sexual manipulation of parts of the physiological sexual systems of a person is wrong.[note 3] Nor should it matter much whether the manipulation is done directly by means of the assailant's body, or by the intermediate use of some tool. Even if the manipulation is done by means of the victim's own self without the victim's consent, this is surely sexual assault (think of the case of hypnotizing an unconsenting subject[note 4]).

Cases of intentionally sexually exciting someone are cases of intentionally manipulating the physiological sexual systems of the other. Hence if they are non-consensual, they are wrong for the same reasons that sexual assaults not involving physical contact are wrong. Hence the Thesis is true.

Interestingly, then, sexual assaults against men are not as rare as people think—I suspect a lot of ordinary magazines contain them.