Friday, December 23, 2011

Is the Indian Caste System a form of Racism?

I've only read a few articles on the philosophy of race and critical race theory so I'm not sure about this area of philosophy but it seems that the question of whether the caste system of India (actually, there are many kinds of caste systems in practice today in India but I elide on this unnecessary complication) ought to be classified as a racist institution needs to be seriously addressed. It would obviously have large implications morally and legally for a large swath of humanity if it is deemed such. I don't know if the question has been addressed in the philosophical community but from what I have cursorily read about the caste system from the wikipedia page, the objections to such a classification (usually the one's from Indian sociologists) are quite lame.

The objection from these objectors to the racism charge is that castes are not races and so any discrimination among castes cannot be construed as racism or racial discrimination. Because they say that members of different castes are of the same race, the discrimination lower castes face, though may be repugnant, is still not racial discrimination.

This line of reasoning is based on a misunderstand how contemporary race theorists understand racism (see here for one example of a contemporary understanding of racism). Nearly all contemporary race theorists AFAIK do not understand racism to be defined by mistreatment necessarily from different races. They have good reason for this. For one, race is notoriously difficult to define and thus what constitutes discrimination on that basis is not clear. Furthermore, members of the same race may be racist towards each other. In other words, race component in racism is in the eyes of the beholder, or more specifically, the eyes of the perpetrators of discrimination or the negative intentional, racial attitudes. If members of a group sees racial differences in another group and treats them or have attitudes towards them that are discriminatory then that would be racist even if those differences are illusory and not in anyway biologically, physically instantiated. Also, remember that someone can be racist towards their own race.

Consider the racism that was met out to the Jews during Nazi Germany. That was racism as most race experts would agree though most German Jews are indistinguishable physically (and cluster closely even genetically) from “Aryan” Germans. The racial differences were merely in the eyes of the Nazis, i.e., they were wholly illusory. The Jews (among many other victims such as Gypsies and Slavs) were treated as somehow fundamentally different by their “racial essence” their “blood” according to their “Aryan” counterparts in society. That viewpoint from the perspective of the perpetrators is what counts, not the actual “race” (whatever that is) of the victim vis a vis the perpetrators. Also consider the genocide in Rwanda. The Tutsi and Hutu are physically (and linguistically, genetically and culturally) almost indistinguishable from each other. However the genocides they have committed against each other (in the 70s and 90s) are indeed racial in nature.

It was racial because the perpetrators each time saw their enemies, the people they would go on to exterminate as somehow fundamentally different in essence from them. That essence can be passed down from one generation to the next and is, for the most part, viewed as immutable. That sounds rather like the ideology behind caste system! 

Objectors to the caste-as-racism theory may object that though “actual race” is irrelevant to racism, the caste system is still not racist because the categories of races are a western categorization. But descriptively, there may be little to no difference between how the caste system structures society along the same lines as how racism structures society (i.e. based on perceived inherent abilities of groups that are passed down through generations). One may respond that any semantic hairsplitting is just an apologia for such oppressive practices as the caste system inherently may be.

One may wonder if different intuitions that separates a descriptivist versus a direct reference theory of language is at the heart of this issue. Descriptivists may say, “hey, if it walks like a duck, quacks like duck, it is a duck!” Thus because the caste system has all the qualitative hallmarks of a racialist institution (walking and quacking along perceived similar lines as racism), it is a racist institution. But direct reference theorists such as a causal reference theorist may say that the word “racism” has certain cultural connections to how they have been actually used in the west to refer to specific institutions and do not reference to other institutions no matter how qualitatively similar.

This brings up the issue of whether even if the direct reference theorists (or those who share that kind of intuition) are correct about the caste system, that would only be an empty victory for the caste system apologists because such a system though not “de jure” racist may be justifiably then deemed “de facto” racist especially if the institutions are extremely harmful like they are in actual racism (and there seems to be wide agreement that the caste system is extremely harmful to members of certain lower castes).

So if India has such widespread institutions of racism (or something very much like it) then it ought to motivate the civilized world to action in abolishing such oppressive institutions. India has already begun since the 1950s policies which aim at ameliorating the negative effects of caste discrimination. But it is still a largely caste society; sentiments towards different caste divisions still run deep in society and even if there are no more negative ostensible effects from the caste system, it may still be inherently oppressive system (or set of systems) and worth abolishing completely. Indeed the UN has already denounced Indian caste system as racism before.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Future of just war

There are only two legitimately justified grounds for going to war as far as I know currently in international law. 1. Defense from an unjust invasion or attack. 2. Humanitarian intervention (for stopping crimes such as genocide and other crimes against humanity). Both motives require high standards of proof because of the moral seriousness of war. But in the future I wouldn't be surprised if other reasons for just war are added. This is because of the nature of globalization in bringing the world "closer".

Consider pollution. I can imagine that nations in the future may go to war with each other because one nation's pollution affects a neighboring country so much that many deaths occur in the later country from such pollution. Pollution is one of those modern phenomenon that crosses national boundaries and ought not be regulated internally according to state's sovereign rights because its effects are global. 

However, if pollution affects others and those people have exhausted all diplomatic and other methods to try and stop the offending nation from harming their people through pollution, may they go to war to stop or curb it?

The issue then will be formulating just war principles in going to war in such cases such as the one here about pollution. How culpable must a country be in allowing pollution to affect people in another country for a neighboring country (or any other country seriously affected) to justly go to war to force the polluting country to comply in changes to domestic policy so that the harmful pollution is stopped or reduced? Ought economic considerations also be allowed as justification? If the pollution affects another nation's economic development by spoiling their resources but has few or not very serious health effects for the people (say because few people live near polluted areas), can that nation still justifiably go to war to stop or reduce the pollution using deadly force? 

What will the principles of just war theory be? There seems to be so much gray area that such principles will be difficult to formulate. Philosophers need disparately to apply their skills in this area in the future. Matters of such importance and difficulty ought not be left to lawyers.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Curmudgeon Sage

Many people seem to assume that a perfectly good person would simply always act cheerful, without anger, civil, tolerant, and caring. However, I'm not sure that this assumption holds up when one really thinks about it. How would a good decent person act in an severely unjust society? To me, it is more plausible such a person would be in many ways often uncivil and behave angrily and maybe feel contempt or other hostile emotions for others. A well-mannered German in Nazi Germany that does not feel and act on certain hostile feelings towards her Nazi fellow citizens and her society at large may not be all that good a person.

But societies can have wide ranging degree of justice and benevolence depending on the moral characters of the people in it and the institutions in that society. Some societies are probably much more just than others. Furthermore, one can presumably imagine totally just societies (or reasonably close) and societies that are far more unjust than any human society that has ever existed.

No one in our world is morally perfect. In some ways, there are profound evil even in the most just actual human societies. However, what justifies a person in acting with incivility, with the behavior of a righteous curmudgeon? Is there some principle that is society invariant? Because it seems to me that what justifies righteous curmudgeon behavior in one society may not be justified in another more just society. A righteous acting curmudgeon may behave in certain curmudgeon-like ways in his society but because he may also have some moral flaws, he would not be in the right to act that way in a better, more just and more benevolent society even if there are still moral failing in that better society. He would be "casting the first stone" in that other better society.

So is the justification one have in feeling certain hostile feelings towards others (such as those with severely worse moral deficiencies than oneself) and his acting on such feelings only society-relative? Or if it is absolute what principle governs when such feelings and behaviors are justified? Perhaps the only person that is truly justified in being a righteous curmudgeon is a morally perfect being, a curmudgeon sage. But such a being is only imaginary for it is unlikely anyone was ever morally perfect.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The ABCs of epistomology

I posted a blog about the alief/belief distinction. But it seems that many philosophers would want to see faith as a separate phenomenon with distinguishing characteristics from alief and belief. Hence, perhaps we can term faith , "celief" (pronounced 'seeleef')? Now we'll have the ABCs of epistomological states.

Twins and pain redux

Awhile ago I had a post about Wittgenstein's conjoined twin and pain argument. I argued against W that if materialism is true then he is wrong. Looks like the empirical evidence says that philosophers share that intuition but the folk do not. It's no surprise that W would favor the folk over the philosophers.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Is the right to self-defense "unlimited"?

By "unlimited" I mean to ask Are there limits to this right to the number of people killed in self defense (assuming that one is in a situation that fully justifies the exercise of that right)? Of course, causing more harm than is necessary to perpetrators in the defense of oneself and foreseeable but unintentional side-effects to innocent bystanders ought to always be in consideration. Jeff McMahon's discussion of self-defense takes as a case example of unjustified exercising of self-defense by risking life or serious harm to innocent bystanders. If defending oneself has a reasonably high risk to harming an innocent bystander as well as the perpetrator, one may be prohibited from defending oneself if that risk is great enough and harmful enough to others.

But here I will give another scenario that may also be at tension with a conception of the right to self-defense in an absolute, unlimited sense. It is directed at perpetrators but the proportionality criteria is different in my case than the standard way it has been treated which focuses on the proportionality directed at one agent perpetrator. My scenario exploits our conflicting intuitions that the state has a right to impose its coercive powers on people so long as it has justified means to do so with our intuition that our right to self-defense in life threatening circumstances are absolute (that is, we are permitted to go so far as even to kill those that poss a justifiable threat to us).

The right to defend one's life from unjustly being killed seems to be one of the most foundational ethical intuitions most of us have. But does that right extend to the justified defense of oneself against the state when the state is also justified in killing or seriously harming someone?

Now assume for argument's sake that the state has enough evidence and justly convict someone of a heinous crime, say, mass murder. The state, as the argument goes, has a right to execute under its laws this individual [NOTE: I'm assuming here that the death penalty can be justly applied by the state. I will illustrate a more general case below that does not rely on the justifiability of capital punishment but the justifiability of other kinds of serious punishment such as long term  imprisonment).

But even if the evidence is sufficient for justification in this particular case is met, that does not entail that it will be accurate for even justly convicted individuals can be innocent. Even the best DNA evidence when it is done right and points an accusatory finger at someone can be wrong. The strongest evidence may sometimes be wrong. The state, if it is to have punitive capital punishment laws at all, must do its best in the face of epistemic blind-spots. It can only diminish the probability of punishing the innocent, never completely eliminating it. There is no such thing as absolute 100% proof of guilt.

Does someone who is objectively wrongly convicted but justly under some reasonably good justice system of some capital crime have a right to defend his life against the state? If yes, then he may try to justly kill the state's representatives (hence forth collectively called 'The Law') who try to kill him (capture and detain him in order to kill him). But how many of these agents of The Law may he kill if he is successful in killing the first one(s) that try to do so? The state is justified in killing him under some subjective criterion for the standard of proof is met but they are objectively wrong. The defendant is objectively and subjectively correct about his own innocence. Are there proportionality constraints to the number of unjust perpetrators liable to be killed in self-defense scenarios in this case? In other words, must at some point in exercising his right to self-defense in killing those trying to kill him he ought to willingly sacrifice his own life to be killed by the state? If so what is that point, how many is too many? Perhaps a person may kill an arbitrarily large number of The Law so long as they continue to try and execute him. So long as they continue to attempt to apply the law to him he has that right. Perhaps he may not permissibly kill even one. But either case it seems counter intuitive when one compares it to our common sense notion of self-defense. We can justifiably defend our right to defend ourselves when our lives are in danger against those liable for our predicament even by taking their lives.

Now you may say that it is unlikely that someone can keep killing members of The Law in this way because a state usually has so much more might than individuals within it so this scenario is unlikely to ever be real so why worry about it even if there are no limits to the number of state representatives liable to be killed in self-defense by one wrongly convicted individual. But kinds of rare scenarios, even ones that cannot happen in our actual world must be worked out in any area of philosophy to test the conceptual soundness of the reasoning. The scenario sketched may happen in our world such that someone may obtain enough power by some means (or is simply just lucky or good at avoiding capture through killing the law enforcement officers who try to bring him to "justice")

In the case of the innocent man under threat of execution, he seems to have a moral right (though maybe not a legal right) to kill any number of The Law and maybe even those that operationally or otherwise indirectly support his capture and execution. If they keep coming for him and he, by luck or miracle say, is able to kill all those who come for him we are left with the question how many may he continue to kill. How many is the limit until the killing of those that try to execute him will become unjust? Or can he keep killing them and any number is just? Maybe until he kills all agents of The Law?

This is a scenario for capital punishment but does it extend to life imprisonment? A lifetime of unjust captivity by some kidnapper may seem like a crime that one is justified in defending against even if it means killing one's captor. Kidnappers seem justifiably liable to be killed in self-defense. So do those who are sentenced to life in prison (objectively innocent though meeting reasonably just criterion for proof of guilt) have a right to kill their captors who are members of The Law? The Law also seem to be innocent in a strong sense (though guilty in some other) for they are merely doing their jobs the criterion for justice having already been met in a court of law before imprisonment of the innocent prisoner. So this scenario is a very infelicitous one where all parties are in some sense innocent but it seems all are permitted to seriously harm each other and it is unclear if there are any moral constraints at all to say when the violence ought to end.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Article in the NYT

I thought I'd give people a heads up on a rare quality article in the New York Times (Wanted: Worldly Philosophers). It is written by two economists talking about the parochial vision of modern economists and advocates a "worldly" philosophical approach to economics much like the early economists who were also moral philosophers such as Smith, Mill, Marx, and Keynes. The article forgot to mention modern philosophers and economists that take a more comparative/holistic approach to economics and asks foundational economic problems associated with justice such as Rawles and Sen. It's nice to see two economists admit the limitations of their current field and give credit where it's due to philosophy.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Freedom of expression proposal

I've been doing some political blogging recently under the name 'melektaus' for hiddenharmonies. This is mainly a China watchers site. I've also been reading up on some of the jurisprudential arguments on the limits and foundations for free expression.

Last year, the Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to some years in prison in China (under the article 105 of their criminal anti-slander statute). He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in abstentia. The Chinese government convicted him of slandering the state and inciting the overthrow of the state. These charges Liu does not deny. Some of the charges against him do seem to suggest that he did slander the state and advocated for some atrocious actions (such as waging aggressive wars and colonization).

But was his imprisonment just? The Chinese laws are much stricter than contemporary American laws on the freedom of expression. US laws are probably the most permissive in the world despite the fact that recently in the last 10 years some people have been sentenced to prison for making youtube videos, for selling cable subscriptions, and two Americans have even been assassinated for nothing ostensibly more than making recruiting videos for al Qaeda. But overall, it's still quite permissive.

Now many European laws against the freedom of expression are much more restrictive. You can be sentence to serious prison for things like Holocaust denial, teaching one's dog the Nazi salute, for calling a royal family member a "whore," for posting racist web messages, for insulting homosexuals, for posting offensive youtube videos of dead people and so forth.

So it would seem that Europe and China are at one ends of the spectrum and the US is at the other end (unless you include places like N. Korea or Iran or Myanmar which is probably even far more restrictive than Europe and China). Is there a golden middle?

I argued in the blog's thread that Liu's sentenced was too harsh and that China (and Europe) ought to amend its laws to allow more freedom of expression. I proposed what I called a "two-tiered" approach. This is just a rough sketch of what I propose.

Things like defamation, either individual or for groups (this includes hate speech), should be a civil matter with decisions being merely declaratory unless there is proved “actual malice” (or something similar along those lines meaning either “knowledge the information was false” or “reckless disregard for its truth or falsity”).

Declaratory decisions mean that decisions are not punitive or demand any civil awards but merely a declaration from the court ruling that one group had been slandered or libeled. This itself ought to provide much of the desired social effects. Many people who sue for slander or libel sue as a matter of “principle”, to restore their good name and so forth and not to receive a monetary award or even to punish those who had defamed them.

It is important that the courts then make the reasons given for its decision public so that the public can see that there is evidence and reason that supports the court’s decision. Proof that one side had indeed been unjustly defamed is important to the wronged party to restore his or her good name.

In cases where actual malice is proved (see New York Times v. Sullivan) criminal punitive measures may be justified and perhaps punitive awards awarded if there is proved damage done (to the defamed person or group).This “two-tiered” approach should allow for substantial amounts of free speech. When a court decides in a declarative decision that some person or group has been defamed, that decision will have weight in future criminal cases if the same defamatory material is used in the future against victims. So if others or the defendant continues to use the same defamation against the victim(s) of the defamation and this is coupled with the motive of actual malice then there may be criminal or civil prosecution with actual punitive measures or monetary awards awarded to the defendant.

Now this would allow many forms of free speech, even demonstrably false speech, and even some cases of “hate speech.” Liu e.g., was sentenced to prison for slandering the state and inciting the overthrow of the state. I think that his imprisonment is harsh. I don’t agree with the Chinese laws.

Under my proposal, the government, if they feel they have been slandered, may sue Liu (in an impartial court of law) for a declarative statement that they were slandered. If the courts judge that the evidence suggests that the government had been slandered by Liu and they win, such a declaration is “in effect”. Now if others or Liu continue to defame the state using the same claims or similar claims and moreover, do so with actual malice (which is now much easier to prove with the declarative judgment), the government may proceed with criminal proceedings (either punitive awards or prison, probation, etc).

Now actual malice, as shown by the NYT v. Sullivan decision is often in practice difficult to prove and many may continue to use false speech if they do so without malice (in complete ignorance of the facts and the declarative judgment e.g.) but it will be far more difficult to do this with the courts declarative ruling made public. This difficulty in practice to prove malice will give substantial freedom for speech which I think is desirable.

One may also add an immediate harm criterion to the above malice criterion. That is, the state will also have to prove that the slander causes the state immediate harm or potential for civil unrest, etc. This criterion will add further legal hurdles to protect freedom of expression while allowing for the banning of some forms of hate speech or defamation.

Some forms of hate speech may thus be completely criminally outlawed but only done so after considerable legal hurdles are cleared (to prevent abuse of the system and to protect some degree of freedom of expression).

For example, consider, say, that some Tibetans or pro-Tibet groups inside Tibet continue to slander and libel the Han Chinese inside China using the rhetoric of genocide or colonization and so forth. Hans, under some kind of class action suit may sue the organizations or individuals responsible for spreading that defamation. If the courts are convinced based on evidence presented by the Han legal representatives that such claims are false and defamatory, then a declarative judgment is ordered in support of the Hans. If these Tibetan individuals or groups continue to spread such defamation against the Hans, in clear-eyed knowledge of the declarative judgment in favor of the Hans, the state may then seek to prosecute the groups or individuals responsible for maliciously spreading hate speech. It would then be a criminal matter and punitive judgments may be meted.

Now the government may also criminally prosecute directly without any prior declaratory decision if they can prove malice, etc but this in practice will be avoided by prosecutors because it will make it more difficult to prove malice when there was no declaratory judgment in force to show that the defendant ought to have known his claims were defamatory. So in practice, this will mostly be set up as a de facto two-tiered system protecting people's right to say false things about individuals and groups including hate-speech but that they cannot do so or that they are subject to criminal prosecution if they continue to defame others using the same or similar material in clear-eyed knowledge of the declarative judgments contents. This would then also protect individuals and groups from continued defamation.

Sometimes, further evidence which wasn't available at the time of some declaratory statement is made available and the defendant may have further (this time more justified) ground to make the same accusations against the person that had been slandered. If so, the criminal court may decide that this further evidence may now justify the accusations and if the former victim wish for the accusations to stop, she will have to sue the defendant again for another declaratory judgment this time under the new juridical justification that new evidence supporting the truth of the accusations is available to the accuser. But if the criminal court feels that the "new evidence" is not sufficient to sustain the old charge against the defendant or that it is not relevant, they may then decide to proceed with criminal portion of prosecution.

What about cases such as ones similar to the German man that taught his dog the Nazi salute? In this case, there is only an expression of hate and it is an expression without much or any cognitive content (actually, I have argued elsewhere that expressions of this sort do have significant cognitive or propositional content). Since cases such as this are almost pure instances of malice without any propositional content, they may be outright prosecuted because the actual malice criterion (or something similar) is already automatically, by the very nature of the expression, satisfied. Those who do acts such as this or shouting slurs at people from cars and so forth do not wish to engage in dialogue are are merely using words like a bludgeon, i.e., maliciously. I see no problems even under this two-tiered system to go ahead straight away with criminal prosecutions. Such kinds of "speech" do not further public democratic discourse, the very thing that the 1st Amendment was designed to protect.

This system will be in practice similar to the US's conception of the limits of free expression before the 1970s. Subsequent Supreme Court judgments have overturned, in my opinion, many good anti-defamation statutes. Most states do not have any criminal defamation laws (including for hate speech) and those that do are effectively been abolished in practice (with only a few law suits filed in the last 20 years with no convictions AFAIK). There are important dissimilarities between my system and the old US one. My system is fundamentally a dual "two-tiered" system for all practical purposes. This proposal is a happy medium between the very permissive (and I think harmful) freedom of expression laws in the US and the more oppressive (also harmful) laws of Europe and China.

Principle of reciprocity and liability transparency

I outlined a scenario before about two nations going to war. One of these nations is an unjust invader of another nation's territory. Call the aggressive unjust nation "Eveville," and the nation they invade "Utopia." Meanwhile, Eveville has a neighboring country call it, "Switzerland" that is neutral in the matter. In the following scenario, the situation is a little different than the original blog's but the situations are still similar and I will draw two distinctive lines of possible ways of thinking about the right of two nations to defend itself from each others military acts when both nations are just actors.

Now most (excluding hardlined pacifists) would argue that Utopia has a right to defend itself against unjust invasion and occupation even if it uses deadly means. I agree. Assume that we are right. Now Utopia is a poor country and the only means of defense they have is using crude weapons which may foreseeably harm the citizens of Switzerland (the weapons used may go astray or the damage done extend to and kill a few Swiss) when implemented in defense against their neighbors Evevillians upon the later's invasion. Let's assume that Utopians have no other plausible means defend themselves.

The question is, does the Swiss have a right to "defend" themselves against the Utopians in their defensive measures which may unintentionally but foreseeably harm the Swiss? I will call the Utopians in this scenario an "innocent threat" because they pose a threat to the Swiss but in doing so, they are merely acting innocently because their intention is only to defend themselves against the aggressive military actions of the Evevillians.

To summarize, the Evevillians launch an unjust attack on the Utopians. Utopians then counter attack but that counter caries significant risk of death to many of Eveville's neighbors, the neutral Swiss. The question is does the Swiss have a right to attack Utopia to try and stop Utopian's defense of itself against Eveville?

Now some may say that the Swiss has a right to defend themselves against the (defensive) actions of the Utopians even by deadly means if the risk their citizens will be killed by a stray or overextending defensive measure is used by the Utopians against the Evevillians. But does the Utopians have a right to then attack Switzerland to counter this counter measure? Some may say that that is also permissible. In other words, some would say that both are permissible to attack each other. But some would go on to say that though both are permitted to attack each other, only one side may be justified. This would depend on how great the harm posed by the invasion of Utopia is. If the harm is greater than the the calculated risk of unintentional harm inflicted on the Swiss, only the Utopians are justified in attacking the Swiss to prevent them from defending themselves against.

I want to now propose a principle here called the principle of reciprocity. This principle is based on counterfactual reasoning. If the Swiss were in the same position, the "same shoes," ceteris paribus, as the Utopians, i.e., they were being unjustly attacked by the Evevillians, would they think it justified to defend themselves even at great cost to a neutral country (say, the Utopians which has the reversed relationship to the Swiss in this counterfactual)?

If the answer is 'yes', then there is reciprocity and the Swiss may not justly attack the Utopians to stop their defensive attack on the Evevillians. If the answer if 'no' then they may. This principle has a distinctly contractarian flavor. What is permissible and justified depends on what parties would do if they had switched roles, if "the shoe was on the other foot".

But I think there are other options besides the principle that we should also consider. Perhaps we could also think that the Swiss do not have the right to attack the Utopians but do have a right to attack Eveville for it is Eveville that initiated this spiral of violence forcing Utopia into a defensive position but also putting the Swiss in grave danger of a defensive attack that overextends the harmful effects to them as a neutral neighbor. So the Swiss cannot maintain their neutrality because the aggressive unjust behavior directed at others also ultimately will affect it in adverse ways. In other words, perhaps the Swiss ought to see Eveville's attack on Utopia as "transferring" to its own territory, as an indirect attack on Switzerland. Thinking it as an indirect attack on its own nation will then destroy its conception as a neutral neighbor and thereby force it to see itself as a participant in being unjustly attacked. This will then give it the right to attack Eveville or to assist Utopia in her defensive actions.

I prefer the last conception of just war. My example shows with this tricky dilemma of the limitations of an isolationist and neutral mindset in the modern world. Injustices to one country often has multiplier and chain effects of violence that extends to others not directly involved and that these multiplier and chain effects pose serious problems for international justice. Modern warfare, by its very nature, almost always includes significant innocents at risk whether they be just combatants, civilians of just nation, or civilians of even a non-attacked neutral country.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Moral intuitions

I've been thinking about moral intuitions lately. Many of our normative judgments seems to ultimately be based on our intuitions. We can give and give reasons but all reasons must come to an end. That end point is usually some moral intuition. It's curious that so many of our moral intuitions overlap not just within society but across societies.

However, here, I'd like to point out that many of our moral intuitions may be motivated by forces outside of our consciousness. This insight was realized by Nietzsche and Freud (in some of his philosophical writings which are remarkably good for an amateur philosopher).

The subconscious may have its own forces which motivate and produce intuitions in us and because these motives are not subject to the light of consciousness, we may not be aware of their moral legitimacy. They may have flaws, things we would not want to follow through on. They may even be considered immoral if we realize what they are. I made remarks in another post along these lines though there, I did not mention the subconscious. But the subconscious may provide the conceptual resources to really express what I was trying to get at.

Some of our judgments may be based off of intuitions that though ostensibly on the surface noble, may actually be a form of a masked subconscious forces that are not. What if, say, we find out that our demand for rights of the individual have large components that are simply motivated by self-interest motives?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Coyne on the Templeton Prize

The Templeton Fund scholarship offered a prestigious prize of about 80 thousand bucks per year over 2 years to study free will and God's omniscience and this was awarded to a philosopher at the Uni. of Riverside. Well, the biologist Jerry Coyne went ballistic. He displayed the kind of arrogance towards philosophy that many non philosophers have and which I have mentioned elsewhere. You can read his rants here and here. I guess some of it is jealousy and some of it is just plain ignorance of philosophy. I responded to his argument in a blog defending the Templeton research project.

I haven’t read Coyne’s responses to all his critics but I did read the notorious first anti-philosophy blog and one of its follow-ups. Let’s call his argument what it is: silly.
He may have elaborated on it so that it is a better argument but I just can’t see any way to make it sound. 
His main argument simply seems to be that we need to think deeply about non existent beings such as god and all philosophical problems related to god. This reasoning seems to suggest that non existent beings are irrelevant to the pursuit of anything worthwhile such as the pursuit of truth. 
But that assumption is clearly false. Examples from science, a subject that Coyne should be familiar with shows this falsity. Scientists make use of all sorts of fictional objects (in clear-eyed understanding that they do not existent) in their thought experiments. Things and events they know to be non existent. 
Just a few famous examples from physics: 
-Newton’s bucket. Newton knew that our universe does not contain a single object (the bucket filled with liquid). But the thought experiment illustrated interesting points that advanced science. 
-Maxwell’s Demon. Again, Maxwell knew that there is no such demon; that wasn’t the point. the thought experiment illustrated interesting points that advanced science. 
-Schrodinger’s Cat. Again, no physicist takes such a being seriously. It is merely meant to demonstrate a point about the conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics. 
-Objects with mass riding on a beam of light. Used by Einstein when he fully knew that such actions are impossible.
-Time machines. Most theoretical physicists do not believe they are physically possible and yet there are plethora of papers in physics journals using these fictional objects to demonstrate points about our very real world. 
Additionally, there are also objects that are very well possibly non existent but worth considering anyway such as strings and even time (which may be illusory according to many physicists today). But if these things turn out to be not real, they would still be considered useful fictions that advanced science. The conceptual tools developed in thinking about them makes it worthwhile to develop even if it turns out they don’t exist. 
The most obvious example of a useful fiction is the mathematical world assuming physicalism is true as most scientists (and I’d imagine Coyne) would proclaim allegiance to that doctrine. Numbers may not exist as such but they are useful for the advancement of knowledge. 
But Coyne may respond that in all these cases, there is some criterion or criteria distinguishing the putatively non real but useful objects from their non-useful counterparts. But then the onus is on him to show what that criteria is (I’m sure philosophers of science would love to know. What a time-saver for scientists that would be!). 
Coyne may respond that no such criteria is necessary for it is just plain obvious that imaginary things like god are too silly to be useful to advance knowledge about our world while imaginary things like rotating buckets in otherwise empty universes, Maxwell demons, etc are not. But because his intuition is not shared among many others including philosophers, his intuition shouldn’t be taken any more seriously. 
Here’s a more positive reason Coyne is wrong. The point of the Templeton project is free will in the face of certain kinds of certain knowledge (of future events, etc). The notion of god is merely a rhetorical device. 
It may very well be possible that one day technology will allow prediction to be very accurate so that we can have what was once thought to be god-like epistemic faculties. If that is the case, it is useful to think deeply about free-will and moral responsibility in counterfactual terms to illustrate the conceptual structure of the concepts now important to us. God is only used derivatively to analyse the important concepts that need elucidating.
Coyne misses the whole boat in thinking the god is the primary object to be analysed in this project; it’s not. Free will, moral responsibility, the nature of time and knowledge about time is, things that even a scientists should admit are well worth investigating. If fictional objects helps facilitate that venture as Newton’s bucket, Maxwell’s Demon, etc has for science, then so be it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Made the philosophers carnival

For the second time with my post on philosophical progress.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Rosenberg on naturalism

Alex Rosenberg has a piece in The Stone and this talk with Owen Flanagan about naturalism. His The Stone piece was pretty bad. It was a response to Timothy Williamson's piece but the only strategy Rosenberg employs to defend naturalism in response to the rather straightforward arguments of Williamson seems to either bite the bullet big time and to use an ostrich approach viz, pretend the argument doesn't exist (Williamson's rejoinder seems to echo my sentiments on it as well).

Here's my comment to the Flanagan/Rosenberg debate:

I’ve read Rosenberg’s piece in the NYTs and seen this episode but I am still not clear on what kind of naturalism he is advancing.

Anyway, here’s another thought I had while watching. Regarding Rosenberg’s responses to the moral issues Flanagan raised, it doesn’t seem to me that Rosenberg’s explanation will do the kind of work needed for any kind of theory required for a normative outlook in the world. Rosenberg says something like it may be natural to behave morally and that provides all the normativity we need. (I hope I’m accurate in capturing his expressed views and apologize if I got them wrong).

But then the problem is why ought we follow our natural moral instincts? I can imagine someone saying in response, “because we want to” but I don’t think this will do because of this. It is reasonable to me that we also have many natural instincts that may be detrimental to morality (such as instincts to rape or murder in some circumstances). It becomes difficult to see why we ought to follow or cultivate some of our instincts (namely the moral ones) rather than others (the ones detrimental to morality). A response here is that since most of our instincts are moral in nature, we ought to follow that and ignore any instincts that may go contrary and cause discord with the majority of our instincts.

But what if the classical Chinese philosopher Hsun Tzu, e.g. is correct and that the majority of human natural instincts are not moral but selfish and immoral? In fact, the thesis that humans are by nature essentially wicked is supported by at least some empirical evidence. Then ought we follow our evil instincts, ignoring our moral ones and murder, rape, etc?

However, may rebuttal can actually be stated more convincingly when one accepts the seemingly obvious assumption that people, even if they happen to be mostly innately good, can cultivate their wicked side so as to become mostly bad people. The question is why shouldn't we cultivate our evil instincts so that they overwhelm the good aspects if the kind of naturalism Rosenberg is advocating is true? There seems to be no normative force behind it and that is a reductio counting against it. The extra assumption is plausible especially when you consider cases like Robert Alton Harris, who had been a seemingly normal boy, once very sensitive to the suffering of others (even cartoon characters such as Bambi according to his sister), but under severe child abuse, became one of the most notorious psychopaths ever on California's death row.


I've included another comment on the talk:

I also found Rosenberg’s answer to the political stuff intriguing but very much lacking in argumentation relying on major assumptions.

For example, he says that punishment and distributive justice itself is a leftist notion and says that his form of naturalism justifies a less punitive and more egalitarian society in terms of distributive justice. His reasoning is that [deterministic] causation makes free will and hence moral responsibility impossible. But he then goes on to say that we cannot abandon our (in P.F. Strawson’s words) reactive attitudes due to their naturalness. But presumably some of our natural reactive attitudes are retributive and its unclear that they would be assuaged by the realization that we are unfree beings without punishing (or rewarding people in the case of our inclinations to praise).Moreover, Rosenberg relies on these assumptions

1. that naturalism implies that determinism is true

2. that determinism makes free will and moral responsibility impossible

The first is an open question. Philosophers of science and physicists are not convinced that all our actions are determined. As to 2. most philosophers are compatibilists. Also even if the world were not deterministic, most philosophers would probably believe in free will since there are also libertarians and most compatibilists theories of free will does not depend on the truth determinism/indeterminism, either would do. It seems that Rosenberg would need to offer a serious rebuttal and defend the small minority of philosophers (12%!)who do not believe in free will.

Friday, October 7, 2011

More on the feelgood topic of abortion

We all know that sex selective abortion is wrong. At least most of us. But why is it wrong? It has been suggested that it causes sex imbalance so that many men will not be able to find wives and this causes social instability and other undesirable social effects. But that is not all is it? Let's say that there is a way to ameliorate or eliminate whatever social problem this causes. Say that there is a way to have the surplus men marry women from countries with an imbalance of females. Then would we say that sex selective abortion is permissible? If not why not?

One response is that people shouldn't be able to select for traits like sex or any other physical trait like eye color and height and so forth. That's a possibility and it does have some ground for support.

But I suspect that many people would say that sex selective abortion as it is practiced around the world constitute violence or even "gendercide" against girls and women and that this is the primary reason it is wrong. If this is the primary or only reason someone thinks sex selective abortion is wrong (assuming that the first reason can be solved by the out-marriage, e.g. and that the second objection does not hold for the person) then this person seem to need to offer an explanation why that is if they also hold that fetuses/embryos, zygotes are not persons worthy of a right to life. If unborn human organisms are not girls or women and do not have a right to life, sex selective aborting them is not a crime of murder against persons and hence not gendercide.

Now some may swallow the bullet and say that it may not be gendercide against females persons but it does constitute some kind of symbolic crime against women in the sense that pornography does so. It is a crime of psychical violence perpetrated against born women and girls by vitiating the status of females or by treating females as less than equal to males despite the fact that the actions are directed towards fetuses and not actual persons. But I'm not sure this is a persuasive move.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review of the movie Source Code

Here. Pretty good but not anything like the awesome Moon by the same director Duncun Jones.

Monday, September 26, 2011

My review of Philosophers Without Gods

Here. It's an anthology of papers on the philosophy of religion.

Abstract concrete distinction: a matter of degree?

In previous posts, I talked about how some abstract objects may have concrete components. Many philosophers seem to think that this abstract/concrete divide is black and white, that all things are either abstract objects or concrete and nothing in between. Either objects are like numbers/pure sets or they are like rocks, planets, chairs, etc.

But many things in reality are not so clear cut and what do we even mean by abstract anyway? It's kind of like a definition of god, negative definitions abound. But there seems to be many criteria for abstracthood. Satisfying some but not all may at least intuitively deem some objects partially abstract or partially concrete. I've identified several criteria and given examples of objects that satisfy them but not others.

Observability: I take this to mean something like cannot be seen, touched, smelled, tasted, heard, etc. Some objects cannot be observed in these ways. Electrons are not observable even in principle as the laws of optics prevent us from seeing them; they are just too small. But electrons also has some mass and thus many people, common folk as well as philosopher would not think to attribute abstracthood to electrons and this leads me to the next criteria.

Mass: Some objects contain no mass such as photons. But photons have other properties like linear momentum and occupy space and has causal properties and thus many people may not attribute abstracthood here either.

Spatial extension: Some things lack spatial extension such as the geometrical center of mass of the planet earth. They are merely points in space(time). But in some sense, this is also not an abstract object because it is not causally inert. It exerts physical effects on the world. Our equations for properties like centripetal force rely on this object's existence (if only as an abstraction!) to work.

Non-gerrymandered: Consider a chair. No one doubts that this is a concrete object (except maybe ontological nihilists or those like Van Inwagen). But what about the mereological object composed of the chair and the table (chair-table)? This object, if it exists, seems somehow unnatural. It is a gerrymandered object. It does not "carve nature at its joints." It is not a natural kind.

Causally inert: Only the most abstract of objects has this last property and this property may be the most weighted property of abstracthood. Numbers and pure sets have it. Maybe some other things have them as well (the Good, etc). Causally inert objects do not cause things to do this or that. They just are, they exist in some abstract realm. If it has this property it has the others as well.

What if an object as some of these properties but not others? Some are probably weighted more than others but i will not advance any kind of quantitative or qualitative weighting myself. But it seems to be reasonable that satisfaction of some of these properties may be at least somewhat indicative of abstracthood especially if it satisfies several.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A secular argument against abortion

In previous posts, I talked about my views on morality of abortion (here and here). If I understand Jeff McMahon correctly, I take my views as very similar to his view.

I focused on the personhood aspect of fetuses, embryos and zygotes and not on the tricky issues regarding the permissibility of abortion for pregnancies involving rape or pregnancies endangering the life of the woman. My personal view is that a person (with all the rights that comes with that status) comes into existence during the 20-22 week of gestation. Abortion is permissible prior to that time on my view. However, there are those philosophers that have advanced arguments that suggests otherwise.

Don Marquis for example, takes the organismic view which suggests that people are organisms. That is, they come into existence just after conception when a new organism comes into existence (as soon as a zygote does or just after conception). Eric Olson takes the view that people are animals, a view that implies that a person comes into existence at about 2 weeks into gestation (when multicellularity, cellular differentiation and other criteria for animal-hood are satisfied). Michael Tooley says that a person must have certain psychological states such as certain kinds of psychological continuity (see here for a debate between Tooley and Marquis). On Tooley's view, people come into existence only shortly after they attain the ability for language (at about age 1). My view roughly is an temporal intermediary of the extremes of these views and it also corresponds to the time frame of most states' laws on abortion.

I think my view is the best view, the most reasonable and defensible. But is it possible that I am wrong and one of the others right? Sure. It's a tricky issue like all issues still in contention in philosophy. Let's say that I'm 70% sure of my position, 10% sure that either Marquis' or Olson's view is correct (that is, person comes into existence within the first two or three weeks after conception) and 10% sure that Tooley's is and 10% sure that some other time is the correct period for personhood. If I'm 70% sure of my view, that means there is a chance that I am wrong and abortion may be immoral (personhood may come into existence before the 20th week). In that case, terminating a fetus or embryo before that time would be immoral. Let's say that there's a 15% chance of that (10% chance that Olson and Marquis are right and 5% for some time in between my view and theirs). Is it worth making policy decisions based on my view knowing that there's a small but significant chance of legalizing certain forms of murder? Even if the social benefits of protecting a woman's right to choose is significant, we have to bear in mind the possibilities that a person's right to life may be seriously jeopardized. In my view, it's a small chance but a significant chance. It is a possibility of a matter of life and death for people we are talking about.

For all but Marquis's view (since he takes the earliest defensible view), the subjective probability that one's view is wrong and that persons come into existence prior to that point must come into the equation in policy decisions. Such a calculus weighing the possibility of life and death based on the social benefits may be distasteful to many but is they support a woman's right to choose, they must answer why that risk is worth it or explain why we should ignore making the risk calculations. For individual people they must live with the fact that even if they hold some later views such as similar to mine or even Tooley's, they may be wrong and they need to take into consideration in their decision that they could be wrong about the moral status of the fetus or embryo. Even a small probability that personhood has come into existence may be enough to deter some from terminating the fetus.

Alternatively, there may be no fact about the matter between all these views (assuming that epistemicism about personhood is false) and drawing a line in the ground somewhere may be the best thing we can wish for. In that case, the calculus may be avoided if we knew for sure that there is no fact of the matter in such closely contested and roughly equally well supported issues of personhood. In that case, we just have to draw a line somewhere much like the law draws an arbitrary line between adulthood and adolescence at age 18 (claiming that there is no fact of the matter about adulthood also implies that epistemicism about adulthood is false).

Philosophy and Progress

There's some kind of conference at Harvard in conjunction with Australian National University on the topic of progress in philosophy. See here for video of a talk on the subject between Jason Stanley and Carlin Romano and here and here for comments. Romano is not a philosopher but a journalist. Though I think Stanley could have done a much better job at presenting his case, Romano's talk was atrocious. He displayed incredible arrogance and ignorance. His ignorance is understandable for a layman, even one that occasionally dabbles in philosophy as Romano reviews philosophy books for a living. but that coupled with his shear arrogance is what made so many philosophers react to his talk in such a harsh manner (see Leiter's blog for some comments and reactions). It's like the Writer Karl Krauss said Journalists are people with "no ideas and the ability to express them" was made for Romano.

For a while, I didn't think the Romanos of the world deserved responses from philosophers. Such ferocious and recalcitrant ignorance should just be ignored. The literal and figurative mic should just be muted. But I realized that there are so many of these types that the profession of philosophy need to respond to them and take them seriously because policy is dependent on the views of the masses, ignorant ones as well as more informed, more humble ones. If voices like Romano's are amplified and that is what people hear, they will be convinced of philosophy's alleged limitations because they don't hear the other side and if philosophers don't do a good job of defending philosophical practice in the academy, we're the one's that ultimately loose out. That's not to say that philosophy doesn't have any real limitations, all disciplines seeking to acquire knowledge is limited by a host of things or else the human race would have the omniscience of gods. But the criticisms from the Romanos of the world are wholly baseless. What defects there are in reality are not focused on. Instead, false defects are sold to people who don't know any better. That's why I think Stanley's clumsy and flippant response was inappropriate and I think he could have given better examples (to which I will say a little more later) to argue his case in defense of philosophy from the idiotic criticisms of Romano.

Now for my take on philosophical progress. I noticed that few people in the video or commenting on it even tried to make clear what is meant by "progress." Maybe they did but that segment wasn't included in the videos I saw on this conference.

I take what people mean by philosophical progress to be ambiguous between these two main meanings. 1. progress means getting closer to the truth. That is philosophical theories and ideas get more accurate as representations of reality as time goes by (presumably like science does). 2. Philosophy is useful for society. It plays important functional roles.

Now the second meaning, if true, may go some ways to support the first. Consider mathematics. One of the principle arguments that mathematics is true in the robust sense of true and not in some figurative, fictional sense, is that it has proved so useful. It is very applicable to the sciences and thus that goes to show that it is likely true. This is the famous indipensability argument made famous by Quine and Putnam. Because we can not dispense with mathematics and mathematics makes use of existence claims (eg. there is a smallest prime number) a fortiori, there exists at least some numbers Quine and Putnam have argued. Similarly with physics. How do we know relativity theory is true? Well, there's the empirical evidence but also our GPS systems depend on the theory to be true. Same with quantum mechanics. Our technologies depend on QM to be true or at least reasonably accurate a description of the world. I will argue that philosophy also fills indispensable roles in human society much as mathematics and physics.

But first, the claim that philosophy gets closer at the truth. I will answer affirmatively and say that it does get closer at the truth. Philosophical theories become more nuanced as time goes by. Philosophers have a much better conceptual grasp of things, our view of the world become more fine grained, as distinctions are made. This point was made by some speakers including Stanley. By getting more of a detailed and complex picture of our world (conceptual refinements), we are in much better shape to make accurate theories. Philosophy does do that. Philosophy also consistently finds errors in its own thinking by finding assumptions and refuting them. By making conceptual distinctions, we avoid equivocation fallacies and jettison many previous held false beliefs. Take the centuries held belief by philosophers that knowledge is justified true belief. This has been held for centuries by almost all philosophers but since the early 60s, there was almost a consensus formed over night that that notion is either wrong, or at least needs to be refined (which philosophers have done). Now there is still much to do to understand what knowledge is but philosophers no longer make the same mistakes because those mistakes have been exposed since then (by the counter examples given by Gettier in 1962).

Knowledge is one among many many examples one could find.

Now on the to second claim that philosophy is useful. This will be even easier to prove than the direct claim that it gets closer to the truth. I mentioned above that its usefulness is also evidence of its truthfulness so what I will say here may also be added as further evidence that the first claim is true assuming that indispensability arguments are sound.

I already posted on the contribution philosophy has had throughout society here. Philosophy is indispensable for society. Our legal system depend on it. Many jurisprudential journals liberally cite works from philosophers. Philosophy has heavily shaped the legal system in the US and in Europe and also in international law (especially human rights law). Questions of moral responsibility, free will, causation, rights, personhood, etc play vital roles in our legal system.

The abortion and euthenasia debates depend heavily on questions of personal identity. One of the most important decisions in 20th US history was Roe v. Wade. The courts were persuaded to rule as they did largely due to the influence of the metaphysician Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous paper in defense of abortion (among other philosophical arguments made).

Another far more recent example is the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision. This decision by the Pennsylvanian court struck down the Dover Pennsylvania Area School District's proposal to teach Intelligent Design in its high school. Justice John E. Jones III, in his opinion of the decision argued that the crucial testimonies from philosophers of science Christopher Pennock and Barbara Forrest was decisive in the decision showing that ID was 1. not science, 2. a disguised version of Creationism which has already been ruled by previous supreme court decisions to be unconstitutional when taught in science classes 3. that the motives of the ID proponents are to proselytize. The decision prohibited the teaching of ID in high school science classes and set a huge precedent for the rest of the country.

That's just two examples of some of the most important decisions in the US that have been crucially influenced by philosophical considerations but the examples can be multiplied.

Outside of law, we have the familiar examples I already talked about and also given in Stanley's talk with logic. The electronic and computer revolution could not have occurred but for developments in logic, a branch of philosophy. Also take decision theory which have influence many areas of the sciences such as economics, psychology and even AI. The first decision problem and a decision theoretic treatment of it was the very philosophical problem, Pascal's Wager.

We also have other influences such as the development of modern conceptions of democracy (Rawles being the most influential political theorist in the world for the last 30 years). Modern conceptions of economics (such as the development of the modern science of economics itself from the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith). The development of modern cognitive science (Stanley used this example in his talk) essentially sprung from the debates Fodor, Goldman and Searle had with each other during the late 60s. The scientific method itself, again by philosophy's insights was first developed.

So philosophy's influence on the world is not in dispute. It has drastically influenced our society and will always do so if we are to use the past as a guide.

I think one can find far more examples to support the claims I've made. These examples are off the top of my head. A little research and preparation would add substantially to these examples.

Now my comments on Romano's talk specifically. He seems to give little to no direct reasons, for his claims, that philosophy is "fraudulent." Most of his criticisms are stylistic criticisms (such as claiming that philosophers write in ways that are too hard to understand or that they should not have such a long acknowledgement section in their books). Because this says nothing about the content of philosophy, I will not address it (I think it's simply false, analytic philosophers tend to be quite clear writers for the most part).

As for his non stylistic criticisms, Romano also says that there should be far more collaboration from philosophy departments with other departments. I agree but Romano puts the blame wholly on philosophers for what he claims is the insular and arrogant nature of philosophy departments. In my experience, philosophers are the most likely to want to collaborate with others and are the most open to seeing value in other departments. It is usually the other departments that need to be informed of the value of philosophy.

I mentioned in an earlier post that in most interdepartmental dialogues, the philosophers will almost inevitably know far more about the other disciplines than those in the other disciplines will know about philosophy (see here for an example). This is understandable as there is just about a philosophy of everything. So I agree that there should be more collaboration but I think most of what is prohibiting that constructive dialogue is the arrogance and ignorance seen in people from some other disciplines who don't know a lick about what philosophers are up to. Check out this, this and this just examples from the ignorance of physicists (though in recent years this seems to have started to change among physicists especially theoretical physicists due to the work of philosophers of science on the problem of time, e.g.).

Most telling of all in suggesting that it is Romano that is the problem and not philosophers ability to write or to come up with important insights is this: Romano mentions near the end that only philosophers understand the language they write in. That's an interesting admission. It says that philosophical writing is not by his lights, inherently unintelligible. But if Romano can't understand what philosophers are writing about, how does he know that it is fraudulent?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Weird puzzle about infinite utility

Found this on another blog. The blogger writes:

Imagine a universe containing infinitely many immortal people, partitioned into two "spheres". In one sphere, all the inhabitants live a blissful existence, whereas the members of the other sphere suffer unbearable agony. Now compare the following two variations:

1) Everyone starts off in the blissful sphere. But each day, one more person gets permanently transferred across to the agony sphere, where they reside for the rest of eternity.

2) Everyone starts off in the agony sphere. But each day, one more person gets permanently transferred across to the blissful sphere, where they reside for the rest of eternity.

Which scenario is better? The answer, paradoxically, appears to be "both".
At any moment in time, there will be infinitely many people in the original sphere, and only a finite number who have been transferred across. So option 1 is better.

However, each particular person will spend only a finite amount of time in the first sphere, whereas they will spend an eternity in their post-transfer home. So option 2 is better.

[A clarification is in order. As stated, it remains possible for some people to remain forever in their original sphere. (Suppose we assign each person a natural number. Each day we can transfer across the next even-numbered person. Then the infinitely many odd-numbered people never get transferred at all!) So let us stipulate that no-one is "skipped" in this way, and that every individual will indeed get transferred at some point.]

How are we to evaluate the options without falling into paradox?

(I owe this problem to recent discussion with ANU grad students. I think they in turn got it from Alan Hajek)

Here's my solution which I posted on the comments section:

It's an interesting problem that I think has a solution. First of all, as to the question which is "better," the term is ambiguous. "Better" can be used to mean which world has more total utility (from a "god's eye view" or from sub specie aeternitatis). In that case the two worlds are identical. But it could also mean that which world is more rational for one to choose to live in. In that case I think it's the second world. Here's my reasoning.

No matter who you turn out to be in the second world, you will eventually be transferred into the sphere where you will experience an eternity of positive utility. Your experiences of negative utility, no matter how large up to that point just before transfer, will be finite whereas your experiences in the world with positive utility will be infinite so it's rational to choose the second world.

If you had chosen the first world, this would be reversed. No matter who you are, you will eventually be sent to a sphere with infinite negative utility for you. So no matter how much positive utility you experienced prior to being sent there i while still in the first sphere, you will experience an infinite amount of total negative utility.

So choose option two. The paradox as I see it comes from the fact that the two ambiguous uses of "better" can come apart in such scenarios. But that's not surprising for me. There is a similar situation I talked about on my own blog before.

Consider this scenario:

An immortal who has alternating good and bad days (sum of his utility on those days are either positive or negative). His bad days all come on odd numbered days. So days 1, 3, 5, 7,... are all bad and the rest are good days for him where he has +1 utility.

But let's also say that on his bad days, they are a diminishing sequence, say on his first bad day, his summed negative utility is -1 and on his second bad day, -1/2, 3rd bad day, -1/3, 4th day, -1/4 and so on. So we will have a sequence (-1 + -1/2 + -1/3, + -1/4...). As the negative days approach infinity, his negative utility approaches infinity as that series is a divergent series increasing without bound. Thus there will be the same amount of positive vs negative utility in the end for him (both infinite) but only a fool cannot see that this is a very good world to live in. For *any* continuous finite span of time beginning with the first day and is longer than two days, the sum of his utilities for those days will be positive. The longer than span, the more positive it will be. The further he is along his life span, the more positive benefit he will have accrued.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Death and morality

There is some literature from what I know on the badness of death. See this paper by Sider and the book The Ethics of Killing by Jeff McMahan for example. There are other problems with the ethics of death due to some metaphysical considerations. Consider when someone is murdered. Murder is considered very serious morally and legally because of its badness to victims. But if we can someday (somehow) resurrect the dead, will our punishments toward murderers be fitting? Perhaps we ought to have to compensate them for punishment that exceeded the seriousness of the crime! How would death be different than say, a long coma? So instead of murder, a more appropriate crime for the perpetrator would have to be revised to "serious bodily harm" or perhaps something even less serious.

But this conveniently avoids the metaphysical problems for you may define death as irreversible cessation of life. In that case no one that is resurrected really died. But that seems wrong because death seems to be an event that is not dependent on future contingent events. If someone is not resurrected for whatever reason but resurrection is a possibility, his death seems not to depend on this future possibility not being actualized but on some event prior (his brain being destroyed by a bullet, e.g.).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mirror image guilt

In this The Stone article by Nancy Sherman, she discusses the nature of survivor guilt. That's when someone feels guilty about surviving an event where someone else dies. It is common in plane crash victims and survivors of wars. Sherman's examples are from US soldiers.

I don't think this topic is all that interesting. A similar topic was touched on in Bernard Williams' famous article on moral luck. Williams' example is that of a truck driver that hits a child who jumps into the road. the driver can't stop in time and ends up killing the child. Clearly he is not at fault. But he feels guilty.

This is an example where guilt is inappropriate in some sense but we also feel that the driver should feel some guilt for hitting the child despite the fact that he is not to blame. There is something defective about someone that doesn't feel any of this inappropriate guilt which seems paradoxical. At once, the guilt is inappropriate but we feel it out to be felt by those in that situation.

In my view, it is far more philosophically interesting had Sherman dealt with the topic of appropriate guilt from soldiers. She barely even mentions the fact that often, soldier should feel guilt for participation in an unjust war or occupation but nevertheless feels no qualms about it. This phenomena is far more common and far more morally relevant in my opinion. I think the reason why so many soldier who participate in unjust wars do not think deeply about the moral implecations of their actions not only their conduct in war but in going to war and feel no appropriate feelings upon such reflections is that we have blindly accepted the myth that all soldiers on the battlefield are moral equals. That is, all have the right to attack and kill each other so long it's all within the principles set by jus in bello. That is how international law and just war theory commonly see it. But war's moral principles should not deviate from common moral principles such as self-defense and not all soldiers are on equal moral footing. Some may be permitted and even 0bligated to kill while others are not.

Because of this myth, soldiers do not feel appropriate guilt about being in war, killing enemies, civilians or helping people to kill or occupy. They feel they are given an excuse and can abandon accountability and accepting that lie by not holding them accountable makes one complicit in fostering that belief. Jeff McMahon exploded that myth in his book Killing in War (also see some of his papers on his academic site).

Notice however, the mirror image between survivor guilt (and Williams' example) compared to that of guilt from participating in an unjust war or occupation by a soldier. Whereas in the former case, in some sense, the guilt is inappropriate but people still experience it while in the later case people ought to feel guilt (it's appropriate) but don't. Furthermore, we typically think there is something wrong when they don't feel guilt despite the fact that it is inappropriate (though maybe we shouldn't) in the Williams example but we typically don't think there is something wrong with a soldier participating in an unjust war (though maybe we should) . That was an odd little asymmetry I noticed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Retribution and virtue theory

There are many advantages to a retributivist account of punishment as just desert. There are also advantages all around from a virtue framework when it comes to distributive justice relative to other approaches but I don't want to talk about that now. Here's one serious weakness.

Virtue theory says that someone out to be punished when they have certain vices that are deserving of punishment. That central claim appeals to our retributivist intuitions that bad people simply deserve certain ends that others do not (and symmetrically, good people deserve other better ends, etc). However, we can imagine at least in some possible scenario that some possible being will have some vice(s) worthy of punishment on that account but this creature will have the vice(s) in virtue of some law of nature that makes it impossible in that world to rehabilitate. That being is by the nature of that world, recalcitrant. Now imagine that that creature has the vice(s) he has not by some choice of his own but because he had been born with it and he has never committed any act on his vice. We can more plausibly imagine this last clause by imagining that his environment had never given him the opportunity to act on his vices. Now because he has never acted on his vice, he has not committed any immoral acts. But a virtue retributivist would say that he deserves to be continually punished, for as long as he is in existence. If he is an immortal, that means being punished forever for no immoral act. That would seem unfair and cruel.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The mind, brain and the world

Assume that mind-brain reductionism is true. Assume, as many cognitive scientists, philosophers and neuroscientists and laymen that thoughts are merely structures of actively firing neuronal networks and memories are inactive networks of neuronal networks.

I claim tentatively that this seems to be a limitation on realism. If scientific theories are formal representations of a belief of set of beliefs about the world and beliefs are thoughts, there seems to be inbuilt limitations on how accurate our all theories can represent the world. Our brains are finite. It is composed of 100 billion interconnected neurons. Even if each neuron can be a single thought, our theories might ultimately be deficient or fine grained enough to represent the world if the world is at its most fundamental level, too fine grained, nuanced, sophisticated to be represented by such a neuronal networks. There should be a large but finite number of structures built up from basic thoughts or single neuron firings (2^100 billion(?)).

So if reality is much more nuanced in its structure than the brain is capable of forming structural isomorphisms with, there seems also to be limitations to our understanding of the world. Our theories may approach a perfectly accurate description of the world but never get there even in theory. It will have inherent limitations. If the universe is infinitely fine grained (detailed) and all that detail is interconnected in a way that it matters for an accurate description of it to represent the interconnection and more fundamental levels are required for explaining less the fundamental, then the brain will never represent reality in its essence. Even if the universe is not infinitely fine-grained (considered as gunky) or there are possible representational simplifications that retain complete accuracy but that these are sufficiently so beyond the capacities of the brain's flexibility to represent it, it will still be the case that our theories will always be strictly speaking false and that there is upper limit to how further accurate our understanding of the world can get.

My idea is predicated on a kind of representational theory of mind. The analogy (and it's a rough analogy) is with cameras. The picture resolution of a digital camera is dependent on the number of pixels it fits on a picture. The picture's resolution is limited by that number. Reality is presumably continuous but if there is enough pixels, a picture can approach a representation of some parts of the world (the scene represented in the photo). But there may be things in the world the camera cannot accurately represent due to limitations in the resolution power (for example, very fine print at some distance) and lack of pixels it can fit in a picture. The brain has analogous limitations assuming the assumptions mentioned above is true.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What I'd like to see from XPhi

I've talked about the (de)merits of XPhi here. I mentioned that there are potential philosophically important uses of X-Phi. Here's two relevant questions I'd like to see it answer and I think are of important philosophical relevance.

From what I argued in my previous posts (see here and here) about the knowledge argument, I'd like to see an experiment comparing survey responses of two linguistic groups: a group composed of native language speakers of a language that does not recognize the color red as a unique primary color but a shade of some supercolor such as "dark." The other group does recognize red as a primary color such as native English speakers. The speakers of the language that doesn't recognize red should be from a group that also has not had much influence from western culture or any cultures that partitions the color spectrum in a different way.

Of course that will be hard and in practice no culture is so discrete from the linguistic and cultural influence of others but there still are some cultures that are relatively isolated. Many speakers of the Trans-New Guinea languages are so isolated even today. They would be a good group to sample because as I've mentioned, they only recognize two basic primary colors (dark and light). They would serve as a good comparison group with Native English speakers, e.g. To test their intuitions on the knowledge argument compared to the control group of native English speakers would be a good way, in my view, to see if there is anything substantive and sound about it. Let's say that the non control group doesn't think that Mary learns anything new once she sees the apple for the first time, that would go in some ways in showing that it is conceivable Mary learns nothing new when she sees red for the first time. The knowledge argument, like many arguments in metaphysics and especially the philosophy of mind, are based on conceivability constraints. By showing that our own intuitions are culturally/linguistically biased, it may go in some way to show that it is conceivable that Mary did not learn anything new contra the early Jackson and his supporters.

Alternatively, I also am interested in some of the debate in the notion of civility. The concept and role of civility has taken on some popularity among moral philosophers in the last 20 years.

Brian Leiter has a nice short paper on role of civility in democracy. He argues that civility, or at least the demand for it from all parties in society, though important and justified in many social circumstances, can sometimes get in the way of democratically important process. I share this view. There is something deeply suspect about those who focus on and demand civility in the face of deeper and more important issues. I call these people the "Tone Nazis" or "Tone police" for their preoccupation with the tone of one's message instead of the content. I always felt that, in some sense, these people that demand unconditional civility to all parties, even the most irrational and dogmatic ones, were complicit in processes detrimental for a democratic society. They may also be, despite their good intentions, complicit in furthering some loathsome views by (unintentionally) giving them and their supporters respect they are not due.

Civility is not owed to many people who are obstinately ignorant in the face of reason. We sometimes think that everyone is owed some bear minimum civility but no one has really questioned if this is really the case. Many of us already have intuitions that civility is not owed to certain persons such as Nazis or rabid racists but why should it end there? Certainly there are lots of people that are as obstinately ignorant as Nazis and not owed any civility. Many people in society are probably not owed civility in all circumstances. A demand for civility toward those individuals holding intractable and unreasonable views either by them or those who may disagree but still think those opinions and those who hold them deserve some "respect" may hinder such fundamentally important democratic processes such as sincere and reasoned public discourse. If you take a look at many of the religious right or political rightwing fundies, they are almost without exception, incapable of responding to rational debate. I think that this common belief that we should have "respect" for completely unreasonable people and views even when they are held in the face of overwhelming counter evidence is a sign of a harmful postmodern influence in our society. Not all opinions are worthy of our epistemic esteem. Not all people are worthy of respect especially if those people hold on to their unreasonable opinions in the face of overwhelming counter evidence.

Leiter argues that for people like these, there is no obligation to be civil to them. The question that follows is whether it makes sense from a consequentialist perspective to be uncivil to them. That is, whether or not it will help them to change their ways by being uncivil to them. If it doesn't help them in making them more reasonable people (either not changing them or even making them less reasonable) then despite the fact that we don't owe them any civility, it may not make sense to be uncivil to them. But if it can be shown empirically that being uncivil actually works better in making them more tractable and reasonable, then it follows that we should act in uncivil ways towards them (since we are not obligated to treat them with civility).

I would like to see an experiment testing if uncivil (and there may be lots of indexes that measure uncivil behavior) behavior is more efficacious in getting unreasonable people to change their views in the face of overwhelming counter evidence. There are some studies already done showing that, for example, conservatives actually tend to hold on to their demonstrably false beliefs even more strongly when they have been disabused with the light of reality. See here. In these studies, the evidence is presented in a dispassionate way to test subjects. But if it is presented in a more passionate, direct, and perhaps what some would consider an uncivil medium, I wonder if conservatives would react the same way (that is, with an increased conviction in their original views instead of changing or updating their previous views to accommodate the new evidence). To what degree of uncivil behavior would change their views? Are all kinds of uncivil behavior equally efficacious or equally ineffective?

I suspect that for the most part, in cases where there is one person delivering the strongly or "uncivilly" worded counter argument, it will tend to be slightly more effective than dispassionate or respectfully worded messages of the same content in getting the intractable and unreasonable test subjects to come to their senses. There already some evidence to support this. This may be especially true if the message is repeated in the same tone. I also suspect that if there is a second party, a confederate of the deliverer of the message who explicitly backs up the message in equally a harsh tone, the test subject will be even more likely to change her views in the face of that message (in fact, I think she will be far more likely here than when there is just one person delivering the message). I don't know if any additional confederate beyond two will substantially make it more likely the test subject will change but I suspect that if it does it won't be as much as the increase from one to two. I also predict that this "bandwagon affect" is more pronounced in self-described conservatives than in liberals and that conservatives are more likely to change their views when the message is presented uncivilly than in more moderate or dispassionate tones than liberals.

Some of these last predictions are based on my personal experience so are quite speculative, obviously. I would really like to see if there's any truth to them.