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.