Friday, January 28, 2011

deus ex machina

Consider a war in which a country goes to war based on good reasons. They have justification for their invasion and attack. But as it turns out, their war was unjust because the information they had which they based their justification on was false. This is called subjective justification. Sometimes people may believe they are justified subjectively when they are not. Consider the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Joseph Lieberman who voted for the invasion has said that he would vote again because the information available to them at the time suggested that the invasion was justified. Thus he was appealing to subjective justification to avoid culpability. Objectively there were no WMD and links to al Qaeda but he claimed that at the time, there was subjective justification. But this is not subjective justification because there was no subjective justification (no solid evidence) even at that time to justify war.

Now imagine that a country does have subjective justification. All the best sources tell them a foreign country is a danger to their existential existence and that they must resort military attack to defend themselves. They try to avoid war as much as possible and try to obtain the best most accurate information but the information still suggests that they are under grave threat. But it later turned out that they were wrong despite their best efforts.

Now are they responsible for the damages and lives lost during the war? My intuition is that they are not blameworthy for the war since they had subjective justification but that they may be responsible for the damages and lost lives. Blameworthiness and responsibility are not the same things though they usually suggests that one implies the other. Take for example a small child who breaks a window by accident. The parents are not blameworthy for the breaking of the window but they certainly are responsible for it. In the example I used, the warring nation may be responsible to try and restore the other country as much as possible to before by offering aid and restitution, etc, but they are not to blame for their actions.

Now consider our own legal institutions. They are ideally designed so that there is maximal epistemic reliability so that the guilty are made to be punished and the innocent set free. However, sometimes, the innocent are punished. No real state even "maximally" insures epistemic accuracy meaning they try their best and have the best institutions in place to insure it, never mind guarantees it. No state will ever guarantee it because it is not possible but some may eventually maximally insure it. Now is the state responsible to the people unfortunately but inevitably "falls through the cracks" despite their best efforts in the same way?

Some US states allows people who have proven that they were sentenced to do time when they had been innocent all along to sue to state and gain compensation for their loss despite the fact that the legal process in which resulted in their incarceration went wholly accordance to the law (no malfeasance and no corruption e.g. on behalf of the justice system). Sometimes the technology wasn't available at the time they were falsely convicted to exonerate them (DNA tech e.g.).

Let's say that this happened to some individual and he is found guilty in a court even when he is really innocent. Let's also say that by some miracle or some force capable of producing miracle's to force the state to the state into restitution. We will call this force "deus ex machina." This force would thereby not violate any of the state's rights. But the state may have subjectively justifiable reasons to seek to defend itself against such forced restitution, perhaps even using deadly force in return if they are not made aware of their error. So it would seem that in this case, there is a kind of irredeemably unhappy situation for all where justice may, in some form or other, lay at the feet of all sides even when they are against each other.

Other ways morality limits itself

In the previous post I noted that in some sense morality limits itself. Living a virtuous life may come at considerable cost to oneself and one's duty to be fair to oneself may have to be taken into consideration and this consideration is a moral consideration itself. There may be other reasons to see certain moral ideals as being limited by morality. Consider the moral ideal some people may have of being completely selfless. Some people may value this and there may even have been a few people in history that were. All of their interests and time and effort were taken to relieve the suffering of other people or to increase their happiness. But I think that this kind of life has something against it. It is not universalizable under the categorical imperative for one.

Consider a "society" of two such completely selfless individuals, A and B. A's interests all lay in furthering B's interests and vice versa. But what are all of B's interests? Well, they are A's interests and so on. This would be a kind of infinite regress of the worst kind. This reasoning would work for a society of any size greater than two as well. So we seem to need some selfish interest that further our end in itself under such a scheme.

Be good but not too good

Many wise people like Kant have known that the good tend to suffer far more than their fair share in life. It often costs considerably in terms of suffering to live a just life in an unjust world. People have gone to prison, suffered social costs, lost all their positions, been tortured, and even lost their lives to further a just cause.

This claim that the good tend to suffer far more than is their fair share is not just a cliche but has some odd moral implications. There seems to be some limits to how far we ought to live a virtuous life if that life will harm us. If as many philosophers have thought, we have a moral duty to ourselves to be good to ourselves there may be limits to how moral we ought to be from morality itself. This would be one way morality limits itself. Many philosophers have given such an argument against suicide. We have duty to ourselves to not only be good to ourselves, to treat ourselves fairly but to maintain our lives. If some people are living lives at terrible costs to themselves because they are trying to be the best people they can be in the face of evil, do they have a moral obligation to not live a life that is so harmful? In other words, how much does their moral obligation towards themselves to be fair factor into consideration when deciding what kind of life they should live? Should they be martyrs? That seems to be asking too much if we are to take their obligations to their own lives seriously. Their obligation to their just cause may have to be balanced against their obligation to themselves.

But how do we respond to those who would use this as an argument that we ought to live a virtuous life that would not cost anymore than it is expected of the average person (or no less). If anymore, it would be "unfair" to us. If less than it would be a life that is in some way a life of "moral freeloading." How are we to become better people if we only ought to seek moral mediocrity?

My suggestion against this is that we ought to change our fundamental value structure so that we derive happiness and pleasure from being virtuous itself and displeasure at not being virtuous as much as possible for us individually. In this way, we change, and the pleasure we derive from doing good for its own sake is balanced out by the negative consequences of being virtuous in a unjust world. The burden on our shoulders is lightened by the mere fact of us reorienting our fundamental values so that the costs are balanced by some benefit to ourselves. Many people when they take up a cause reorient their values so that they come to derive pleasure from contributing to a just cause automatically. But often this does not work as many people, I think, do not further just causes as much as they know they should because they are afraid of the social costs. But if they work on consciously valuing certain ethical values in themselves more than they do, they would change their fundamental outlook. Society can further this as Kant suggests by creating and endorsing certain kinds of moral parables that show and celebrate people who have lived virtuous lives all to no benefit to themselves but at considerable costs (they were not rewarded or even recognized for their actions either in their life times or in the after life and suffered greatly). Too often will tell children lies that being good will be rewarded with some benefit when that is often the opposite of the truth. Instead, they should learn to value doing good for itself.

However, no matter how much we try, I believe there are limits to the "wiggle room" in how much we can change our value structure. We are, for the most parts (except for those rare people capable of being happy martyrs), simply constrained by our nature to not go behind certain limits and be too selfless coming at a cost to ourselves. To each his own, but I have no doubt that most people are capable of far more reevaluation of their fundamental values than is the case.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Morality of attraction

In this episode of the FX series Louie, the eponymous star of the show is out on a date with a woman who he apparently likes and she seemed to like him. They are in a coffee shop and trying to have a conversation when a few jocks come in and start behaving obnoxiously and talking loudly. Louie asks them to quite down. This pisses one of the jocks off so bad he decides to come to Louie's table and harass him and his date. The bully is persistent in his bullying of Louie and is physically intimidating him, trying to instigate a fight. But Louie refuses to fight the younger and much more physically fit man. Eventually, Louie caves in to the bullying and "apologizes" to the bully for asking him and his buddies to quite down.

Louie's date then seem to loose all interest in Louie. She seems to realize consciously that her loss of interest (and presumably sexual attraction) is irrational as getting into a physical confrontation or even risking one by being more assertive would have been foolish for Louie. But she claims she can't help it and wants to end the date. Louie gets angry at this "fickle" change of heart.

This is an instance of what I will call "the luck of circumstantial attraction." But I am more interested in what will will call "the luck of constitutive attraction" (you may now have noticed the analogy with their analogues in moral luck). Many of us are attracted to people with certain features that are culture and time specific. For example, men today, in general, like women that are a little heavier than men did 30-40 years ago. Men also tend to like women a little lighter than men liked women during when Paul Ruben painted his paintings (hence the term "Rubenesque"). Men in different cultures than ours like women that are heavier or lighter than we do in general depending on the one we're talking about. Likewise with many other features, physical, behavioral and psychological. There is a malleability there that is context and time sensitive.

What is the morality of discriminating against someone based on such arbitrary features? Louie seemed to be upset over his dates change of heart and seems to be rightfully upset especially seeing how irrational it is and how much she even realizes its irrationality but do people who are turned out by equally other arbitrary features also have a more justified complaint? Some of us are constitutively not attracted to people of certain disabilities, weights, heights, ethnicities, hair color, eye color, etc, etc. Discrimination based on many of these criteria are unconstitutional in job hiring, etc. But in the case of attraction, we seem to be far more permissive in discrimination here. We not only don't see it as not worthy of legal prohibition but we usually don't even see it as unethical in general. We say "It's a woman's prerogative," etc but is there a good reason to see this kind of discrimination as unethical as well?

I think it depends. Certain physical features that a culture thinks attractive certainly are arbitrary. Consider the practice of African female genital and ancient Chinese footbinding. Having mutilated female genitalia and disfigured small feet is considered attractive in those cultures among the men. Now many feminists have (and I think rightfully so) blamed the men as well as the misogynist culture that produced these practices instead of the women in them who actually perform the acts of mutilation. They point out that, that it is men's desires (attraction for a certain feature) that fuels and are inherently part of the institutions of these barbaric practices. Many feminists have also leveled blame at many men for their desire of some kinds of aggressive porn which either explicitly or implicitly mimic rape. They point out that this enforces and contributes to a certain kind of "rape fetish" and thus may further a rape culture.

Now, men do not actually mutilate their daughters in these cultures. It is the women (mothers and grandmothers) who usually do in cutting of their daughters or the binding of their feet but feminist tend to focus the blame on men even when men do not participate in actual mutilation. Can we here say that it is just a "man's prerogative" to be attracted to any feature he pleases? This doesn't seem to satisfy feminists. I think the feminists are right but I also think that the same line of reasoning can be applied (with certain caveats) to certain other features in our culture. I certainly am not saying that discriminating someone based on weight, height, disability, race, hair color, eye color, etc, are as unethical as desiring only women bound feet or mutilated genitalia. The later practices are far worse and discriminating against women who do not have bound feet and mutilated genitalia produce and contribute to institutions far worse than the former.

But certain practices of arbitrary attraction do produce institutions of discrimination. They may not be as harmful (but some may, at least hypothetically be) as footbinding and female genital mutilation but they are still harmful and unjust. People with certain disabilities e.g., can contribute to relationships as meaningful as any one else. So long as the disability does not inhibit certain normal human functions part and parcel of relationships (of a sexual nature, e.g.) discrimination against people with disabilities in attraction and relationships on that bases does seem to be immoral on much the same bases and for some of the same reasons discrimination against women who have normal genitalia and feet does. It's not just a man's or woman's prerogative as institutions of discrimination may be based on or is behind such discrimination.

Now some disabilities do seem to be justifiably discriminated against in this area. Severe mental disability may detriment the meaningfulness of certain relationships such as romantic ones. Other arbitrary discriminatory practices that individuals may have such as if one has a progressive bent and simply would refuse romantic involvement with a rightwinger also does not seem to be unethical because there is no institution of discrimination against rightwingers behind someone's choice and a relationship between two individuals with such radically opposing views may be justifiably hinder meaningfulness. Likewise with people who are way too overweight or underweight to contribute to normal relationship activities and or should be of health concern.

How do we distinguish between some justifiable case (ethically permissible) of discrimination on some trait and some unjustifiable one? Well, I pointed out two criteria above. 1. If the trait seriously may detriment the relationship for no good reasons and is "arbitrary" like certain weight ranges, height, ethnicity, hair color, etc) and 2. that there was an institution of discriminating against these people beforehand which caused the discrimination in attraction. Now the words "arbitrary" and "detrimental" in the two criteria will have to be specified and given more flesh but I think a workable definition is capable of being formulated for moral purposes. There may also be a 3rd criteria that not only is the discrimination a result of past institutions of discrimination within the culture but contributes to furthering institutions of discrimination towards people with those features.

Of course, I don't think there should be laws against this kind of discrimination but I do think there is reason to be less permissive/tolerant towards it than we are. It may not be helpful to blame those who discriminate this way. Ameliorating such practices of discrimination based on these arbitrary and non significant traits may best be accomplished by monitoring and changing cultural practices at large instead of individual practices (such as fair and accurate media representation). It has been widely known among social, behavioral scientists and feminists that certain kinds of "fetishes" can be created "in the lab" quite easily. A mild but remarkably persistent foot fetish has been created in undergraduate men, e.g. and fetishes for certain kinds of foreign accents have been created in women after only a few minutes of conditioning in the lab. These arbitrary and often persistent fetishes are quite easy to create but I suspect that the malleability of what features we are attracted to in general are as well to balance out any previous biases.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What's the difference between determinism and fatalism?

One way may be to describe the difference in counterfactuals. Fatalism is the thesis that had things been different at some time t, it still would have occurred some event (here we may or may not want to see this event as a token or type, it may not matter) at a later time t'. Determinism has this as a vacuous truth since it could not have been different at time t because events at time t is determined by the events in some previous time and the laws of nature.

The parable of Jesus

Many secular people who admire the story of Jesus will point out that it is a moral parable. It is the story of someone that gave his life for the sins of others and was kind despite the huge costs incurred to himself. It is about redemption. But can our sins be redeemed by punishing someone else, even someone who is purely good? It seems immoral top punish innocent people on behalf of the guilty. Sins don't seem to be transferable. Sometimes some minor sins are for example, fines can usually be paid by the friends and family of the guilty and thus, the guilty incur no harm as a result of the punishment. We seem to have no problem with that kind of transferability of punishment. David Lewis wrote an interesting paper on the topic called Do We Believe in Penal Substitution?. I personally find the redemption parable uninteresting and quite morally barbaric. Punishing a good man for the sins of the sinful seem to be a immoral act.

That aside, however, I believe that there is an alternate interpretation of the story that warrants moral attention. I make an analogy to the ubermensch of Nietzsche. The ubermensch is someone that would choose, out of his own will, a life of great challenge and struggle, if only to exercise his strength, courage and engage in a creative life if only for the sake of the challenge. There is triumph in the struggle and it's more important in Nietzsche's scheme of things to live a beautiful but tragic life than a happy or pleasant life if the later life does not offer the opportunity for struggle and greatness. The virtues of strength and courage and creativity are paramount for Nietzsche. Being all powerful might even prevent someone, say a god, from living such a great life because omnipotence forbids the possibility of true struggle and the exhibition of heroic courage which comes in the face of one's own peril when one struggles against something greater than himself. This is why Nietzsche always thought the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus's claim that the gods have good reason to be jealous of man to be insightful and true. This is one kind of paradox which I will call a "paradox of omnipotence." Jean-Luc Godard explored another similar theme in his Hélas Pour Moi. In this film, God takes over the body of a man in order to seduce his wife. It seems that only a man, in all his finitude and imperfection can truly win the love of a woman. A god may manipulate her or coerce her into loving him but he cannot win her love the old fashioned way, i.e., through charm, conversation, etc, all the mere mortal appeals.

Now let's imagine a perfectly moral being. He happens to be all powerful as well. Now I suggest that there is a similar paradoxical limiting of one's virtues by being omnipotent in moral virtues as well (instead of the Nietzschean virtues of strength, courage, and creativity which are not traditionally thought of as moral virtues). How does being omnipotent limit oneself here? Well, it seems to me that only the mortal, the finite, are truly capable of things like moral courage, free will, moral responsibility and so on. An all powerful and all good god cannot be truly morally courageous (what has he got to be justifiably afraid of? What can possibly harm him?). Courage is the overcoming of justified fear through strength of character and will. Without the possibility of justifiable fearing anything, courage is impossible. God may only be "courageous" in a irrational sense that he overcomes an irrational fear. God can seem to do no wrong either and may not seem to have a choice in doing evil as he is determined by his omnibenevolence and his other attributes.

Thus it seems to me that God, or any moral ubermensch, if he is truly all powerful and all good, would necessarily choose to limit his powers by some kind of incarnating himself into mortal form and suffer through the (moral) trials and tribulations of someone that is put into dire situations to test and practice his own moral virtues. This would then be a parable to show that the possibility of being truly good and decent necessarily rests on our finitude. I think that this is an extremely far fetched interpretation of the Bible and it is likely not how it was intended to be read by any of its writers. But for me to see any value in the Bible at all, with all its barbarity, I would have to see it this way.

My review of Merit, Meaning, and Human Bondage

By Nomy Arpaly Here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

According to Bloomberg Magazine

The manager of the top performing hedge fund in 2010 was an ex philosophy prof. Interesting article and accompanied video interview. See here.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Possibility does not entail any degree of probability

In the previous post I noted that I think Wittgenstein was trying to make the point that the mere raising of a possibility counter to common sense does not offer us a justified reason to put that common sense into real doubt of any degree. Real doubt requires more than mere raising of alternative (logical or otherwise) possibilities or the feelings of uncertainty which may result from it. One example of possibility not entailing any probability is this:

Consider the unit line (length of 1). It contains a continuum of numbers from 0 to 1, inclusive. Choose any arbitrary number on that line, say, .333.... There certainly is a possibility that a random selection of any number from that continuum will be .333...; after all, a number between 0 and 1. But what is the probability that it will be that number? The answer is literally, 0.

So in this case, even though there is a possibility of it landing on that number, there is no probability of it ever doing so. Our confidence in it landing on it, if it is to be rational, to to assign it 0 confidence.

Wittgenstein's examples, I believe, used real life possibilities instead of this mathematical example.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My reply on a blog

Here's my reply to a blog's post about Wittgenstein's On Certainty.

I think it quite a naive reading of W’s On Certainty to say that the Moon Landing was a refutation of his views. Keep in mind that, as a young man, W was a year away from his doctorate in aeronautical engineering and he probably was well aware that someday, maybe even in the near future, people would walk on the moon.

Let me just say that I believe W’s work on doubt to be very insightful and even correct. I may be taking some exegetical liberties in my interpretations but such liberties are justified when dealing with W because he was such a horrendous writer. Horrendous writer may be but I still find many of his ideas quite profound though, as with you, I also think that much of his esteem among many philosophers to be from his “bewitching” personality as opposed to the quality of his views.

This is how I interpret those passages. W was making an analogous move to Gettier in his seminal work on knowledge. As Gettier showed that justified true belief (JTB) is not necessarily a well defined and philosophically robust definition of knowledge but may be loosely termed such, W showed that just by raising possibilities counter to some forms of common sense is not a philosophically relevant form of doubting.

Gettier showed that it takes more than just JTB because the justification criterion must occur in a certain way. It can’t just be any ol’ sort of justification because one can be justified in some belief coincidentally. W’s example of being correct about dreaming and being on the moon, I believe, is meant to show that same point as it relates to doubt.

Mere raising of possibilities such as the possibility that one is now dreaming or being on the moon yesterday when one doesn’t believe oneself to be does not destroy one’s belief or even certainty in such beliefs. W’s reasoning for this conclusion as is detailed is by several examples and arguments.

He argues that raising odd possibilities tend to cancel out. For example, the possibility of someone being on the moon in 1949 (when On Certainty was written) when he tells you that he was is more than canceled out by the possibility of his being crazy or by him using those words in a way that you have misunderstood him. He could be in a different linguistic context than what you presume him to be in of speaking truthfully (such as sarcasm, telling a fictional story, etc) or he could be speaking in a language you don’t even understand. These unlikely possibilities cancel out any such *even more* unlikely possibilities of someone being on the moon in 1949 (which was impossible given the technology of the time). Raising of mere (logical) counter possibilities does not entail one should justifiably lower the probability of any belief as doubt would require. This was, I think, W’s point.

I think W was also making some kind of distinguishing remark about raising a counter possibility and the *feeling* of being doubtful and being doubtful itself. Think of this example (mine, not W’s but I think captures what he meant). Imagine a drug that is able to induce a *feeling* of doubt even in your most confidently held beliefs (maybe in logic or math). Now just because you feel doubtful doesn’t make it’s doubtful that that belief is false. Consider W’s quote:

“From its seeming to me – or to everyone – to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so.”

I think W was making the point that true doubt requires justified reasons (and not just coincidentally justified) and not just a feeling of doubt or a mere possibility. That may have been an analytic truth to him as Gettier’s point that it is just an analytic truth (“built in the very meaning”)that knowledge requires more than JTB. Hence someone who claimed to doubt based on some mere possibility and a “doubtful feeling” simply don’t know what to doubt means (though they may in a philosophically irrelevant sense be correct in that usage much as JTB may be correct in some common usage).

To be doubtful you would have to be justified in the doubt in just the right way (just like you would have to be justified in just the right way for a belief to be knowledge). And that would entail you being able to answer a host of questions to which all our common sense beliefs may be connected in some way to that belief. See W’s quote:

“For this demands answers to the questions “How did he overcome the force of gravity?” “How could he live without an atmosphere?” and a thousand others which could not be answered.”

The more certain and “common sense” the belief, the more questions you’d have to answer which are connected to it. Compare this view with Quine’s web of beliefs and I think there’s quite a similarity. With Quine’s web, the closer it is to the center of the web, the more it will disturb the outer edges of that web and more of the whole web will have to be replaced by a more justified system or web of coherent beliefs.

W also notes that normal doubt requires some standard of weight to measure certitude or confidence. We doubt some belief X by using a stronger standard Y. Y provides the standards to put X into question. Even if X ultimately ends up being correct, if we had a stronger standard in a “common sense” Y to justifiably put X into doubt, X would only end up being correct *by coincidence* much like someone who says in his dream “it is raining” may be only coincidentally correct about the status of the non dream world.

Someone who doubted Y without good reason to by holding fast to some contradictory belief X would not be in fact correct to doubt Y in favor of X (compare with the Matrix where we are told that we don’t live in a real world but a dream world where evil robots are controlling our dream environment). He would not have an epistemic right to doubt Y because he could not provide a stronger standard to do so (which would entail coherently and justifiably answering a host of questions related to common sense Y).

I am now convinced that raising mere possibilities cannot justify loss in certainty in some belief as W claimed for much of the same reasons he argued. Doing so would be more akin to artificially inducing a feeling of doubt rather than real doubting. Lowering of confidence in our common sense beliefs (or any belief) has to occur in just the right way much as justification has to occur in just the right way for knowledge. This would still allow for the normative claim that it is still good practice to question all our beliefs but just that when that is done without good justification, it is not real doubt.