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Archive for September 2010

Unknown Atrocities

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What will future generations condemn us for?  That’s the question that Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah asks and it’s a good one.  It’s a question that I ask my students in order to provoke their thoughts about the objective character of ethical arguments.  Many of my students think they believe that morality is relative; that it’s all just a matter of opinion, or there is no genuine right or wrong (not synonymous theses but not distinguished for most of them).  Of course when I ask them what they think of slavery or the Holocaust they contend that these are genuine wrongs.  Yes, it’s their opinion that these things are wrong, but it’s also something more.  They have good reasons for thinking that these particular past practices are wrong and they think these reasons should trump the view that “Hey, you think slavery is wrong, but I think it’s right, so we should just agree to disagree.”  Since they may have spent a couple hours arguing about vegetarianism or abortion and did not convince their roommate they tend to think that perhaps the majority of objective moral questions have been settled.  I don’t mean to pick on my students because I am also guilty of accepting much of what is conventional and traditional as correct.   However, it really is surprising how shifting the framework of the question 100 or 500 years in the future can stir their imaginations to judge current practices differently.   I’ve asked the question about what practices will future generations condemn  of elementary, high school and college students. The responses I get are incredible and varied.  I hope you’ll consider weighing in (either by adding your prediction or defending an action you think has been wrongly singled out for moral obsolescence).

Appiah identifies four practices that he thinks are headed for moral obsolescence;

1)      Our prison system.  The U.S. imprisons a shocking ¼ of the world’s prisoners and only 4% of the world’s population.  Moreover the majority are non-violent offenders.

2)      Factory Farming.  Even pre-schoolers know that animals suffer.   I wonder are we still living with Descartes’ worldview (see earlier post)?

3)       Our treatment of the elderly.  Nursing homes are a horrible place to spend the so called golden years.

4)      Our treatment of the environment.   I can hear my grandchildren 40 years from now “you knew that fossil fuels caused climate change, you taught a class on environmental philosophy, and yet you often drove 100 + miles to ski for the day?”

Appiah’s list is very plausible but by no means the most obvious, imaginative, nor exhaustive (he doesn’t claim it is any of these).    One more obvious choice would be the prohibition against gay marriage.  That practice follows Appiah’sthree criteria for practices destined for moral obsolescence to the letter.   First, the arguments are not new.  The case against gay marriage seems lifted verbatim from the case against inter-racial marriage.  Second, the most common appeal against gay marriage is that it would change the definition of marriage.   As the opponents say “marriage just is between one man and one woman.”  This is simply another way of saying “tradition.”  Third there is plenty of strategic ignorance going on, where defenders of traditional marriage are apt to ignore the vast array of benefits and rights that they enjoy (adoption, hospital visitation, inheritance) .

As for the more imaginative, I emailed a friend in prison for a non-violent offense (growing marijuana) and asked him how he felt about Appiah’s first item.  He not surprisingly agreed and commented how absurd it seemed to him that in a country that claims to pride itself on personal freedom and choice would imprison people for growing a plant.    I was definitely intrigued by his addition to the list.  He wrote:

I’ve often thought about the age we all live in and how we are still very much a part of what I would consider the ‘Dark ages’ of human development.  I’m surprised he [Appiah] didn’t mention our atrocities commited in the name of ‘civilized’ warfare [my bold].  We are still a war-like people throughout the planet, killing each other over anything and everything.

The condemnation of civilized warfare is certainly a more speculative proposal for condemnation than Appiah’s other condemned practices.   However, it is more on the scale of condemnation of slavery than the treatment of the elderly.  Most people desire better treatment for the eldery and would not want to place their parents in a nursing home.  Like slavery, most people don’t like war, but see it as a necessary evil (by comparison “how else are we supposed to grow cotton”).   Of course, one important difference is that we fought a war to end slavery.  Yet a war on war would is self-refuting.

Even the rather mundane choices that Appiah offered were ridiculed by many of the commenters so it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t step too far out on the fringe.   As a blog that maintains that most of its ideas will probably be wrong, I don’t feel constrained by appearing reasonable.  I’m more interested in bold and imaginative ideas.

So what are your proposals for practices destined for moral condemnation?


Written by sturgis

September 30, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Is determinism dogma?

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Although the free will vs. determinism question is often cited as an example of a philosophical problem, it is rare to see contemporary philosophers give much of a defense of free will.  But has determinism one the day?  I don’t think so.  I think this issue offers a good example of an unknown, unknown where very smart people have repeated the same fallacy for long enough that it has become engrained.  A pretty standard defense of determinism is offered by Galen Strawson in recent NYT blog:

Strawson gives the following argument:

(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.

(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.

(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Strawson is a very smart person and well respected philosopher.   However I can’t figure out why he or anyone else thinks this is a compelling argument against free will.  As Strawson acknowledges the crux of the arugment is 3.  He elaborates on that claim as follows:

Why can’t you be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all? In answer, consider an expanded version of the argument.

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience [italics mine]0.

Let’s stop here for a moment.  My experience is that when looking for dogmatic assumptions start with what the philosopher takes to be “undeniable.”  Why should we think that it is undeniable that the way we are is [ENTIRELY] the result of our genetic inheritance and early experience?  Of course these factors clearly play a very large causal role in our actions, but the very question we are trying to answer is whether there is anything more than genetic inheritance and early experience.  Strawson’s argument begs the question.   Said another way, if free will does exist then who we are now would not be the result of genetic inheritance and early experience, it would also be the result of the free will.

An aid to obscuring truth is repeating the dogma and so it is no surprise that we see the same fallacy crop up twice more:

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience [italics mine].

In 3(d) and 3(e) Strawson once again asserts, but does not argue for the claim that any change we attempt to make now will also be the result of genetic inheritance and previous experience. Of course that is what the determinist believes, but what argument do we have for believing this is true?   You might think that I am being overly selective and confusing Strawson’s outline for his argument, but you can read the post yourself.  The important question I want to consider in this blog post is not whether determinism is true but why is it so easy for philosophers to confuse asserting the truth of determinism for arguing for it?

I suspect that Strawson’s assertion passes for argument because of a dogma that all causal powers must be reducible to some basic hard rules of science (hereafter reductionism).  The determinism story is that since the first stages the universe has been ticking like an ordered clock and that each successive stage determines the next.  So for most determinists all causation  boils down to an ultimate reduction to the laws of physics.  So if we say that that x causes y (I caused myself to buy a loaf of bread) then this explanation must be resolvable into some more basic story about particles interacting with one another.  For Strawson it seems that he would like to include some hard basic biological rules about genetic inheritance as well.

The story of the universe acting like a ticking clock is plausible, but not obviously or necessarily true.  However, I think reductionism passes for truth because because it seems like the alternatives are either chance (no better for free will) or miracles (even worse).  But why should we think that those are the only alternatives?

It’s embarrassing how little I know about either physics or biology, however I’ll attempt to make a virtue out of this ignorance.  I know that even most determinists are willing to admit that post-Newtonian laws of physics don’t seem determined and I know that genetic inheritance is not iron clad either.  If the laws of physics and biology are indeterminate and so perhaps not laws in the strong sense then it could be that free will is a casual power that operates consistently with possibilities given but is not reducible to a single set of them.  I cannot freely will myself to fly, because that is not consistently with the range of possibilities.   Of course making rooms for the will as a causal power seems to make the universe a little messier place, but if Strawson is willing to include genetic inheritance along with the laws of physics as independently lawlike, then the lack of a simple single unified causal theory would seem to apply to his account of the universe as well.

So what do you think?  Is determinism (and more specifically reductionism) a belief like Descartes dualism that kept him from recognizing animal pain (see previous post)?  Do we have a good reason for thinking that universe must be a ticking clock?  What are the other problems of admitting multiple kinds of causes in the universe?

Written by sturgis

September 28, 2010 at 10:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Unknown Unknowns

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The phrase “unknown unknowns” was made famous by Donald Rumsfeld in a speech on Weapons of Mass Destruction.   Rumsfeld used it to feed paranoia about WMDs and Iraq, with the logic that even if something does not appear to be problematic, it might be dramatically worse than you imagine.   In his Opinionator blog for the NYT, philosophical filmmaker Errol Morris references the phrase to consider more general and personal cases of ignorance such as the case of the bank robber who thought spraying lemon juice on his face rendered him invisible to security cameras.  As Morris puts it, there are the things you know (e.g. that you exist) and there are the things you know that you don’t know (e.g. such as the melting point of Beryllium in his case).   With regard to the things that you know that you don’t know, you could look up the answer.   However for the things you don’t know, you don’t know, there isn’t much you can do about it.   Morris considers some fascinating cases of anosognosia, a condition where a person may be partially paralyzed yet seem to be unaware that this is the case.   In the concluding piece Morris wonders to what extent we might all suffer this kind of self-delusion about the nature of reality.

I first encountered the phrase in the Landmark Forum (long before Rumsfeld’s press conference) and have no idea where they got it.  Despite its deserved reputation for the hard sell and jargon, the Forum does (or did 10 years ago) genuinely concern itself with helping people see the dirty water we swim in.  In The Forum they used the phrase to refer to those parts of your personality that automatically run your life and affect the quality of your experience.   For example, you think you’re unhappy because your coworker is a jerk, but what you don’t know (and you don’t know that you don’t know it) is that it’s the complaint that it is sucking the life out of you.

The catchy phrase of “Unknown Unknowns” is a modern invention, but Plato describes the predicament in his allegory of the cave.   Plato thought that for most of us, the closest we get to reality is as prisoners watching shadows of puppets.  I mean, we don’t even get to see the puppets!

If the domain of the unknown unknowns was completely impenetrable it might make for some interesting thought experiments but it wouldn’t change much.   Yes, many of us have been intrigued by the prospect that we might just be “brains in a vat” but at the end of the month I still pay my phone bill.  What makes unknown unknowns intriguing is the possibility that perhaps they can be known.

In his piece, Morris seems rather despondent about our ability to come to know the UKUKs.  However we have plenty of historical examples of peoples and cultures coming to know things they didn’t know they didn’t know.  We’ve learned that earth is not flat, that people are not property, that germs cause diseases, and that we can discernibly impact the climate of our planet.

While the phrase “unknown unknowns” suggests a mystery as to how we might ever discover these truths since presumably we wouldn’t be looking for them, it doesn’t give us any reason to think that we couldn’t.   At least one well proven method for discovering the unknown unknowns is to reject false beliefs.  In some cases the truth may be right in front of us, but a belief or assumption may keep us from recognizing it.

Even the brightest people of an era can be guilty of believing some fundamentally incorrect things.  Descartes (a pretty smart dude) for example, believed that animals did not experience pain.  Descartes believed that there were fundamentally two kinds of “stuff” in the universe, soul stuff and material stuff.  Only humans had the soul stuff (as evidenced by our reason) and the rest of the universe (including animals) is just extended matter.  He argued that only the soul stuff could experience pain and so despite the horrendous cries of animals when subject to painful actions, it’s just an automatic response.  Descartes’ view seems absurd to any pre-schooler with a pet today (sadly still credible to many professional philosophers), but made sense given Descartes’ generally well reasoned arguments for why consciousness must be distinct from material stuff.  Since I’m not as smart as Descartes I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some important truths in front of my face too.

So one point of this blog is to question some of the fundamental beliefs of our age and your comments are welcome.   Of course questioning basic beliefs is not as ambitious as laying out an alternative picture, but if we don’t “see the puppets” at least we’ll know we’re looking at shadows.

Written by sturgis

September 27, 2010 at 6:26 pm