Sunday, November 28, 2010


Some philosophers think prepunishment makes compatibilism philosophically hard to swallow. If we know someone will commit a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, why shouldn't we be able to punish them before they commit it? A compatibilist seems to have no principled way of avoiding implementing prepunishment despite its unattractiveness to our moral sensibilities.

I once argued in a paper that it's not the fact that we have a Kantian respect someone's decision making faculties to make the choice their own (that is, until the time they actually make it) that makes prepunishing them so distastful to our moral sensibilities but our hardwired Strawsonian psychological constitution which can't help but input moral demands and capacities on them and when they violate such demands, produce the reactive attitudes on our behalf. Our hardwired reaction prevents us from assessing the thought experiments involving prepunishment the way they are intended.

But now I think there may be some other reason as well also set apart from Kantian respect for people's decision to commit the crime "up to the last moment".

Consider two people, A and B. Both are equally good at shooting a gun and have equal evil motivations at killing a rival.

A points a gun at his rival and shoots. He hits his rival and kills him.

B points and shoots in exactly the same way and for the same reasons and motivations as A and by some turn of chance, a strong wind blows his bullet a fraction of an inch off target thereby just barely missing B's rival.

Both are caught by authorities and charged with crimes. A with 1st degree murder which carries a 25 year sentence and B with attempted murder which only carries a 5 year sentence.

Both did the same thing but in A's case, he kills his rival. Why should the law and our moral sentiments treat the two cases differently when the difference (wind) was out of the control of both? A seem to deserve harsher punishment and is guilty of worse but has done nothing that was in his control worse than B. If a certain theory of action is correct, then A did the exact same thing as B but receives far harsher punishment and moral judgment. Notice that we only know what to charge the defendant after the crime takes place, not after when he has completed the action he has control over.

I'm not sure why we intuitively judge this to be the case and if such a judgment is sound.

This seems to be where the very same intuitions come into cases of prepunishment. We are hesitant to judge because we doubt that someone could so be determined or destined to commit a crime. We don't know if a crime will be commited (or what kind it will be) till after it has been. This is a bias and prejudice against the existence of determinism or perhaps our predictive abilities rather than a bias against compatibilism per se. This bias prevents us from accessing the scenarios of prepunishment as they were intended to be, I think.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I posted this on a facebook group a while ago. It's what I think about the moral status of abortion.

I think the issue isn't whether or not a fetus is a human; they clearly are in the biological sense. The issue is whether or not they are persons and have the requisite rights and obligations accorded to such moral beings. Being human and a person is the distinction that is crucial to separate and which people from both sides of the debate often confuse.

Many humans do not have obligations and rights accorded to persons. Consider those who are brain dead but whose bodies are kept alive by artificial means. The persons once inhabiting their human bodies are dead in the legal and philosophical sense because they have no higher brain activity but their human bodies are kept alive. It is the higher brain activity that distinguishes a brain-dead individual whose body (human organism) is kept alive, and a fully functional person. A human kept alive in such a way will breath, have a pulse, fight infections, grow hair and nails, regulate body temperature, etc using the function of their lower and mid brains. But since these structures have nothing to do with consciousness, the individual has ceased to be with us. They have permanently lost the structures responsible for consciousness and an inner life.

We can also think of thought experiments with brain transplants. It seems that the brain is where the seat of the soul lies and once a brain (more specifically, upper brain or cerebrum) is transplanted to a new body, the individual person becomes transplanted to a new body as well. That seems to be our intuition regarding persons. Our soul is not situated in the rest of the body but in the brain.

If the seat of the soul is in the functional cerebrum, then an individual person does not exist until a functional cerebrum exists. This occurs after the 16th week of gestation (actually of fertilization between egg and sperm more specifically which is slightly different meaning but hardly relevant). > 95% of all abortions in the developed world occurs before this point. It is only then that there is sufficient neuro-eletrical activity begins in the cerebrum. Some developmental neuroscientists say that it occurs later at around the 18-20th week (>98% of all abortions occur before the 20th week) but we may want to be cautious and give the earlier date.

Some neuroscientists say that even more specifically, the seat of consciousness is the neocortex structure which is the outer layer of the cerebrum but this is recently invalidated 9at least for some individuals) by the existence of some people such as some in "vegetative" states (though most in these states are unconscious) do not have such structures and yet seem to be (by brain imaging experiments) fully responsive and conscious persons "locked in". That is, they respond to verbal and tactile stimuli but cannot respond physically but their brains behave in ways indicative of conscious responses to said stimuli.

Some say that what matters is consciousness itself and we only become conscious not after we have a functional cerebrum alone but after integration of the functional cerebrum with the rest of the central nervous system which occurs at around the 22-26th week of gestation. However, even if this is so, I still prefer the functional cerebrum criterion since I think we may have rights qua persons even before we become conscious much as unconscious people in comas seem to have rights only accorded to persons. That is, I believe that we should take the existence of a physically functional *entity* or physical structure responsible for consciousness rather than the consciousness itself as the criterion for the existence of that person. For technical reasons, I do not believe that a person actually is (i.e., identical) with their cerebrum but they do coincide (are coincident objects) together. I think persons are phase sortals (or phase objects) rather than substance sortals (or objects) of their functional brains.

Think of it like this. If you were to run your biological development backwards and started to get younger and younger eventually turning into a fetus etc, at what point in time would you have stopped being you? I think most people would not identify with a fetus that lacks a cerebrum but only relatively simple brain structures that regulate heart rate, breathing, body temp, etc. In fact, I think most people wouldn't even identify with someone in the very advanced stages of alzheimer's when they have nearly completely lost all long term memory and ability to learn. though they may be barely conscious in the sense that they can respond to simple verbal cues and have retain some reflexes, etc, the person they once were seem to be gone in very advanced stages.

However, even if we say that a person exists after the 16th week as I think the evidence suggests, that still doesn't mean some cases (though not all) of abortion after that time shouldn't be performed. Rape is a good example because even though the fetus is a person, the person made to carry that person is not obligated to do so. The rapist though, may be argued to be obligated to prevent from dying or killing to that fetus OTOH. that raised additionally interesting problems in its own right. It is supererogatory and very nice of her if she chooses to carry through terms but she may not be morally obligated to do so if she chooses not to.

Informative and entertaining debate between Singer and Slote

Here's the debate. Peter Singer wrote a famous article about 40 years ago titled "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243).

The basic conclusion is that we are under the same moral obligations to donate as much money, time and effort to relieve the world's desperately needy as we are in saving a drowning child in a shallow pond we happen to come across on a stroll through the park. We will ruin our nice cloths in pulling the child out of the water but will obviously not incur any further harm to ourselves as the pond is shallow. To not do the saving is a gross moral wrong. Singer argues that not donating all we can possibly afford in saving the needy of the world from starvation and preventable disease is a comparable wrong.

Slote, I think, hit it right on the head when he basically argued that evaluations of actions must take into account motivations and character traits. There is no way around that. This is (partly) why our legal system takes into consideration malice or other intentions in choosing the appropriate the kinds of crime to classify an act which violates the law and the severity of punishment in punishing that act. In no way is a person who refuses to donate money displaying as bad a character trait or motivation as someone who refuses to save a drowning child at minimal cost to himself. The later is almost certainly displaying monstrously evil motives and has a very bad character and hence, worse from a moral evaluative perspective. The moral badness comparison gives much of the original argument Singer uses much of its oomph.

OTOH, I thought Singer gave devastating arguments to Slote's reduction of the problem to the trait of empathy. Slote argues that we are justified to blame those who refuse to save the drowning child more than those who refuse to donate (which does fall into more accord with our intuitions) because the former shows a greater lack of empathy. So while I agree with Slote that motives and character evaluation must come into play here and elsewhere in moral evaluations of action, it can't possibly come down to just an evaluation of empathy. Singer's argument here is similar to the one I gave in my critical review of Slote's book, "The Ethics of Care and Empathy."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Experimental philosophy (XPhi) has received some press in the last few years. I am skeptical of its purported powers to offer insight on philosophical questions so far. Maybe in the future there will be novel and interesting ways that do offer insight into the philosophical questions but I don't see the way it is being used now doing that.

XPhi uses surveys to ask a "representative sample" ("the Folk") of the population what their philosophical intuitions are in the hypothetical thought experiments used by philosophers to generate intuitions used in philosophical debates. If the Folk's intuitions tend to lean one way, it is interpreted by XPhi proponents as some (but not conclusive) evidence that that way is the right way. In other words, XPhi philosophers are sometimes suspicious of their own intuitions and will give certain weight to the intuitions of the Folk. And there is evidence from XPhi that the intuitions of philosophers tend to run differently than the intuitions of the Folk on many issues.

An example of one instance where XPhi experiments has used to give credence for one perspective over another in contemporary debate is the debate over what are lies. Don Fallis has used experiments showing that the Folk consider bald-faced lies to be real lies. This is counter to many philosopher's claims that bald-faced lies are not lies because they don't involve an element of deception as is required with genuine lying. Experiments show that the Folk considers bald-faced lies to be lies contrary to the classical definition of lies accepted by most philosophers. Fallis has adduced this as evidence that the classical definition must thus be false. My reasons that XPhi as it currently is used is not that interesting and relevant to philosophical questions are the following:

1. Many of the samples used in XPhi experiments are not representative samples (they are the undergrad students of XPhi philosophers who are taking phil 101 type classes).

2. Much like individuals often get similar but different concepts confused, it's not that much of a stretch that sometimes, a majority of the population will similarly conflate two different but (superficially) similar concepts.

3. There may be very good reasons why philosophers have the intuitions they do. They may do so because they realize a subtle difference that the Folk do not that must be upheld in any definition. There are good reasons for including a deception criteria in lying for example as I have pointed out before and also see here.

4. It's been known for a long time by cultural psychologists and anthropologists that surveys, intra and especially inter cultural ones, can vary widely in the responses given simply by changing subtle wordings in the questions asked or the context in which they are given. The answers sometimes do not reflect true differences in cognitive thought processes and profiles but rather in "surface" linguistic differences in how words and scenarios are interpreted.

Perhaps one day XPhi will be used in a way that is insightful but the experiments so far do not seem convincing to me in settling any philosophical issues.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The philosophy of philosophy

This is an interview with professional philosophers about what is philosophy.

Here are a couple of definitions of my own.

1. Philosophy is a systematic attempt to answer the most important questions anyone can ever ask.

2. Philosophy is an attempt at extending all our common sense notions to their logical conclusion and seeing if there are any contradictions that arise. If there are, philosophy's other job is an attempt to see which side of the conflict is more plausible or whether the conflict is due to a conceptual confusion instead of a real conflict.

You're welcome to post your own definitions.