Monday, May 28, 2012

Is pain "intrinsically" bad?

In the last post, I mentioned that Shelly Kagan said (in passing) in his article published in the Chronicle that pain was an intrinsic bad. I've seen other philosophers say this too but I have yet to see a defense of it.

What about for very very evil people? Is pain intrinsically bad when experienced by these people? Maybe intuitions defer here but I think mine suggest that pain maybe intrinsically good for the very evil. Perhaps that's because I tend to have more retributive intuitions than most?

Why is death bad?

This question seems like it would have an obvious answer and yet philosophers have struggled to provide an adequate answer. This is because many of the answers that common sense and from traditional philosophy has supplied gives incoherent or very problematic answers.

Shelly Kagan works in this little studied area of ethics. See here for an interesting article by him published in the the Chronicle which tries to general outline the problems for the different accounts of why death is bad. He supplies and defends a deprivation account of death in his latest book but does not offer significant defense of his own views in the Chronicle article.

The deprivation account is a comparative account. It basically says that what is bad about death is all the goods that one would not get to enjoy when dead (similar to the opportunity cost of the economists).

Kagan says that unlike pain which is intrinsically bad, death is a comparative or relative bad. He then provides some challenges to this view which I think are quite damaging to that view and I am not sure how Kagan is able to surmount them in his book since he does defend it. I also think that if you are to gives such an account, you may have to also supply a calculus which includes the bads and goods of life instead of just adding up all the good one misses in death. I haven't seen anyone do that so far in talking about the badness of death which is odd. The negatives may outweigh the positives for many people in the world but it is hard to say that death is not bad for these people. The death seems to be bad even if the accounting of the positives versus the negatives in their lives would have came out in the net negative unless that net negative is so unusually bad that they themselves wish they had not gone on living. Some philosophers have argued that for almost all human lives, the bad far outweighs any good of living. So not being born is preferable but on a deprivation view, this may imply (with some additional supporting arguments of course) that death is preferable to life.

I have my own rough views on this topic which I'd like now to sketch out. It is a very tentative view and I'm not sure if people have advanced similar views before as I'm not familiar with the literature.

I will call my view the fractured-self view (I wish I was a better poet because the name sounds clumsy to me). It is similar to the deprivation view in that it is also a comparative conception of death but it does not focus on the goods that are deprived from death.

Rather it focuses on what the death does to the self. I believe that much of our conception of ourselves are grounded in our core principles and values and our most valued projects. In fact, I believe that our major life projects fundamentally encapsulate our principles and values and thus are expressions of the self.

Our major life projects are to fulfill certain roles, professional, familial, moral, artistic, spiritual, etc. When we die, these projects which reflect our principles, our values and thus expressions of our most fundamental self go unfulfilled. We have no prospects of completing them; indeed, not even the opportunity to attempt to.

That is what is tragic about death. It fractures us in a most fundamental way. Had we lived we would have sought to complete these life projects. So the reason death is bad is because it is bad compared to a counterfactual (the life had the dead individual survived). I believe this view avoids some of the major problems Kagan says have outlined and that of his own views. For example, if non existence is bad because it deprives us of the goods of living, why do we not view the nonexistence before death as just as bad as the nonexistence after? On my view, because the nature of life projects are always future oriented, non existence in the past does not matter because for the simple fact that we cannot complete a project in the past (backward causation notwithstanding) but we can for future projects if we are alive. It is not the time of our birth that prevents us from completing "projects" before we are born; it is the fundamental causal and nomological structure of the world that does that. There's no tragedy in not being able to do the impossible. That's what accounts for the temporal asymmetry. However, on Kagan's view, this objection is problematic because goods in the past are as good as goods in the future (at least ontologically there doesn't seem to be any reason to view them as different from a value perspective).

My view explains why it is often believed that death for a 90 year old is not as worse as death for a 20 year old. The 20 year old is likely to have many more life projects unfulfilled. The 90 year old, on the other hand, likely would have fulfilled many major life projects and would have very few remaining. She is nearly whole upon her death at 90 whereas the 20 year old's death fractures him in a way that leaves him less than whole. Of course, the 90 year old may still have some projects that go unfulfilled and thus that would explain why it is still somewhat tragic for that nonagenarian to die but just not as tragic as the 20 year old. In short, death prevents us from developing our full selves, being a whole.

But what about newborn babies? Isn't it tragic for them to die even though they are too young to have any projects in mind? Maybe it is the potential life projects that matters most in evaluating the tragedy of a newborn baby's life. A baby has no life projects but they do have the potential or propensity for developing lots of life-projects and the extinguishing of that potential or propensity by death is what is tragic about death for it.

There may be lots of problematic issues for this account of life but prima facie, it seems very plausible to me. I need to think more and harder about what the potential problems are and if they can be overcome. This is a very tentative view for me now. One objection may go on to ask the further question why being less than "whole" or developing into "our full selves" is really that bad? I can only think of responding with what was basically hinted at above; that it is bad because our most fundamental values cannot be realized and that is certainly bad. There's no more explaining that needs to be done to explain why things going contrary to our basic values and principles is bad (for us). We've hit philosophical rock bottom. But this may seem circular or question begging but I can't think of any further justification for my view.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


While reading a very interesting and insightful paper on the topic by J. David Velleman, I realized that the paper's insights are deeply related to the recent case of a young Rutger's student, Tyler Clementi, who had committed suicide when a roomate had spied on and live-streamed video of Clementi in a romantic tryst with another man.

Clementi was so humiliated that he committed suicide. Yet Clementi was apparently an openly gay person. The video was also not viewed many people (I believe only the roomate and some of his friends) and did not involve very explicit sexual acts. So some may wonder why he became so distraught.

Velleman's account of shame is complicated and builds on a classical account of shame first ingeniously formulated by Augustine (who used the Genesis story of Adam and Eve for support) and is also similar to the account of shame given by Sartre. The paper is densely argued and there are parts that are opaque but definitely worth reading and it is remarkably relevant, I think, to the Clementi case so if interested I suggest reading both the paper and the Clementi case since I don't want to do the paper any injustice by synopsizing the analysis.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pragmatic worries for metametaphysics

This is an interesting video blog on metametaphysics. Here's something the two philosophers did not explicitly mention: one way to cash out grounding or the fundamentality relation may be the cutting-nature-at-its-joints talk.

Perhaps an analogy would serve an explanatory purpose here. Some paintings are abstract, like say, cubism. Cubism still represents reality but perhaps not as accurately as say, a photo or a more fine grained painting. The cubist representations don't cut nature at its joints but does manage to pick out the same structures as the photo.

But I tend to have pragmatically inspired worries. Perhaps what we determine to be fundamental may largely depend on what we have uses for. So say numbers are often posited to exist because they serve useful purposes but if we can jettison them for something else that can do the job better (or maybe we manage to abandon whatever the job they serve to describe completely) we may not view them as fundamental or even real anymore. They don't cut nature at its joints at all; nature has no number joints.

Maybe tables, chairs and even people do not cut nature at its joints or at least cut it less fundamentally than more natural objects (perhaps subatomic particles or the cosmos as a whole?).

More specifically, say, tables are posited to exist because they serve an important role in society but table-chair composites do not and thus we may not see it as fundamental or as real as the table and chair individually. The table is physically separated from the chair, of course, but we posit the existence of many things that have parts vastly spatially separate from other parts (the solar system, e.g.). That may be because the solar system plays such an important roles in our society, our sciences and so forth. Likewise, the left-half of the table is seen as less fundamental or real as the whole table perhaps because it serves a smaller function for us. But say someday we stop using whole tables for whatever reason but find major indispensable uses of half-tables and forget all about whole tables. Will we then see whole tables as we do like table-chairs?

It may be more difficult to jettison the usage of some things than others because they are so culturally and socially and personally ingrained.

But pragmatic considerations come in degrees (which may explain the fundamentality or grounding relation) and are relative to societies and times (which may undermine essentialism or neo-aristotelianism).

Perhaps the sciences offer the best analogy here. At one time, Newtonian mechanics was a model that was thought to describe reality. But when Einstein came along, his model was then seen by scientists and common folk as a more accurate model which is more fundamental in a sense than Newton's. Scientists don't want to say that Newton was wrong maybe because his model still has practical applications in society. But say, one day, a model of physics will render both Newton and Einstein's theory useless (as an explanatory or any other kinds of tool such as a handmaiden for developing new technologies, say) and posit laws and objects that are so different from anything these two physicists posited that people may forget those other theories and call them false.

Here, you can say that it is because the new theory more accurately represents reality than the former two or you can say that it has more usages that the previous theories it has supplanted does not. What reasons do we have for the former explanation than the later?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Psychopaths and Confucian moral psychology

I have little respect for the New York Times. Their quality of journalism is poor but unfortunately standard fare for much of the world's press. However, occasionally one can find gems such as this well researched article on psychopathy by Jennifer Kahn.

Psychopathy is a philosophically rich topic with clear relevance for moral psychology and meta-ethical debates on the nature of moral reasons and moral motivation. 

What has always interested me about psychopaths is not that they have little regard for other people's welfare which is obvious but that they often display very little regard for their own. They are known to be extremely brazen and do things that jeopardize their own well-being. Punishments often do not sway them from harming others (as the article nicely illustrates). Violent psychopaths have very high recidivism rates. They seem to have little to no fear and show little to no anxiety and stress.

I remember reading or hearing of a famous experiment involving psychopaths. A control group and a psychopathic group were wired up and told they were about to receive painful shocks. The control groups displayed profound stress (measured in physiological makers such as heart rate, galvanic skin response, cortisol levels, etc) between the shocks. In other words, they were anticipating the shocks and felt understandable stressed at the future prospects of the pain. But the psychopathic groups felt almost no stress.

psychopaths have often do not recognize fear in others (probably because they don't feel the emotion themselves). In one incident, a psychopath was asked to identify a collection of pics of facial expressions representing various emotions. She identified all of them correctly except the photo of a face displaying fear. She said that she didn't know what that face was expressing but she had seen such an emotion before right before she stabs her victims.

As the article illustrates, psychopaths often are carelessness and recklessness. But I am also reminded of a passage in the Analects that says roughly that one tell-tale mark of someone to be feared in a position of power or state rule is someone that have little regard for their own safety. Presumably, this is saying that if they have a history of little regard for their own well-being, they are the type that will have little regard for the well-being of others and ought not be trusted with ensuring the well-being of others. I can't remember the passage so if Carl knows which one this is, I'd really appreciate his help.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Evolution and masochism

I just finished reading a really good sci-fi novel called the Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect. The behavior of the lead protagonist, Caroline, got me thinking of the evolutionary roots of masochism. Caroline is an extreme masochist and enjoys being tortured. It got me thinking of a passage that always stuck with me after many years from the great 20th century feminist work The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvior. de Beauvior was quoting (approvingly it appears) the claims of a famous German psychoanalyst (Karen Horney) who said something like "All women are masochists". Now this seems way overstated.

But even if it is somewhat true that there are many female masochists, from an evolutionary perspective, why is that? What possible evolutionary purpose does it serve? If some psychologists are correct, certain fantasies that are extremely masochistic (even life endangering) seem to be common in women so de Beauvior and Horney seems to be on to something.

It seems to me that masochists would be more likely to be culled out of the population, that such a trait is detrimental to fitness in the genetic sense. Thus those who are genetically disposed to it should be a very small minority. de Beauvior and Horney suggest a cultural explanation for that prevalence. But mightn't there be an evolutionary answer (as well)? I am divided between the cultural and the genetic dispositional perspectives. Maybe it is a combination of both factors interacting in complex ways (like many complex traits).

What I'm about to say may be extremely unPC but it seems that one possible reason that may explain the prevalence of female masochism is that it does confer an advantage. It may be that masochistic women are more desirable to men, that more dominant women are less so and thus the masochist traits are passed down more often than otherwise. Maybe even women who resist rape are more likely to be killed by their attackers (especially from foreign barbarian hordes which I'd imagine was once quite a common threat) than those who do not resist (and presumably a masochistic disposition may go some ways to make this acquiescence more likely). Non resisters are then more likely to be then taken into the group of the invaders or attackers as a "war bride" or something like it and thus bodily survive albeit psychically and dignity wise shattered. Mightn't masochism make even psychological recovering from these kinds of incidents more likely?

But what about male masochists? After all, the term is named after a man (Sacher-Masoch). Are male masochists as common as females? If males are far less likely to be masochists then the evolutionary psychological answer I gave may have some support because it does seem that it would be detrimental for males to be masochists. After all the hypothesis is basically a "rape theory" of masochism. Of course even if it is the case that men are far less likely to have that disposition it may be as de Beauvior suggests, because of cultural factors alone which tends to inculcate masochistic tendencies through the conditioned association of certain images and narratives to normal sexual sensibilities. There may not be any sex-selective differences on this account.

I'm usually not partial to evolutionary psychology because of its common, ad hoc, just-so stories, and I realize that I am giving an evopsy answer (and like many evopsy claims, very unPC!). But I make no claims to giving a scientific answer, just some crazy speculation.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The extended mind and the self

Some philosophers of mind such as David Chalmers and Andy Clark have defended what is called an extended mind theory (actually there are many kinds of extended mind theories) which claim that our minds are not just physically located in our heads. Some theorists posit that it is a system that is a combination of subsystems such as the brain combined with the rest of the central nervous system and perhaps also combined with the rest of the body (The neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, if I remember correctly, also defended such a view in one of his books). Some others have posited that even the surrounding environment can be included in the whole system which is either identified with the mind or has properties which the mind supervenes. Chalmers and Clark defend a process view which says that the mind extends to the interactive process (not the system per se) between the central nervous system and the immediate environment mediated by the sense organs, etc.

This is troublesome for the brain view of personal identity. I like that view and I believe Jeff McMahon has defended such a view very admirably. I think it is the best view and it justifies many of the medical practices we have today in the US such as our laws regarding brain death and abortion, very important ethical issues.

I wonder if there is a way to keep the ethical benefits of a brain view taking into account the criticisms of such a view from the extended mind theory.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Of cosmologists and equivocators

I've posted many times of the arrogant, condescending and ignorant opinions many physicists such as Feynman, Weinberg, and others have about philosophy (here and here). The latest fiasco in this is Lawrence Krauss book which he explicitly claimed including in an Atlantic interview (then somewhat retracted in the same interview and in other articles) solves age-old philosophical problems such as why is there anything rather than nothing. Of course, Krauss uses the same old silly argument that when the physicist says that particles (or what appears to be particles) can come from relativistic quantum fields (RQF), the RQFs, they claim, are really "nothing" and the physical laws then generate the particles which solves the problem. Abracadabra! That's how you get something from nothing.

This despite the obvious objection that because these RQF have certain properties they are not a "nothing" but a something. Krauss and other physicists have only explained how something can come from some other thing, not out of nothing.The philosophers of science David Albert (who also has a PhD in theoretical physics!) point out to this silly error in a blistering book review in the New York Times.

Krauss did not like that review and predictably, went on a legendary tirade calling Albert a "moron philosopher" and calling philosophers in general all sorts of names and denigrating the whole discipline (he has since made somewhat of a retraction of denouncing the whole field.)

Even Krauss's friend and fellow cosmologist Sean Carroll has basically taken Albert's side (as well as other cosmologists like Lee Smolin and the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne).

On Sean Carroll's excellent cosmology blog, I posted the following replies (comment #59 and 61) which I state that despite Krauss's errors which Carroll was justified in pointing out (such as ad hom and strawman arguments), Krauss is guilty of something much worse that everyone seems to have missed: you can make a good argument that his statements were insincere, dishonest, and maybe even fraudulent because Krauss exploits an equivocations seemingly purposefully. You can also add to that list, the no true scotsman fallacy to the list of all Krauss's errors in the Atlantic interview when asked by a very informed interviewer that if philosophy is so useless why did was modern computer science born from the work of Russell and Wittgenstein? Krauss then said that they are mathematicians! This despite the facts that both Russell and Wittgenstein (not to mention many other philosophers) received their PhDs in philosophy, taught in philosophy departments all their lives, did work in other areas of philosophy, considered themselves philosophers, considered their work in logic to be extensions of Aristotle's and Leibniz's original work etc, etc.