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.