Sunday, February 19, 2006

Mark van Roojen Podcast

This worked out better than I had hoped.

I think, eventually, we need to get an RSS feed, and get a podcast up and running. In the meantime, I provide you with our very first MP3 of a talk here at Bowling Green. Mark van Roojen popped by to tell us all about Moral Rationalism and Rational Amoralism [MP3]. Sound like fun? You bet! It was, it was. Just have a listen.

While listening, you should download this outline [PDF] of the talk. Mark points it out at the beginning of the talk, and thinks it is of great value while listening. I agree.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Polity Values Thought Experiment

Fellow Bloggers,

I invite my fellow bloggers to reflect on the following matter. Admittedly this topic strides the boundary between legitimate political philosophy and mere fanciful daydreaming.

Say in some hypothetical democracy they carve text that expresses the polity’s normative ideals and values into the inner wall of the legislature. In this way policy makers are constantly reminded of the core political values that they serve, or that they can appeal to to make the hard decisions, or to settle collective doubts.

The obvious question is what should that text be? The idea is to coherently express, in as few words as possible, the core ideas of the good and just polity. One rule of this game is to limit your text to between 25 and 40 words. Here is my first attempt, followed by some very brief commentary.

1. Teamwork to make dreams come true.
2. Resolve conflict with constructive innovation and fairness.
3. Maximize the value of personal autonomy and responsibility.
4. Prevent the suffering of the innocent.
5. Avoid practices that degrade character.

The first principle or ideal is straight forward utilitarianism, but with a twist. Instead of maximizing welfare, maximize the satisfaction of dreams. This allows elements of ideals, inspiration, and sophisticated life planning.

#2 expresses the notion that conflict should be an invitation to reinvent and uplift deep assumptions and possibilities, not an invitation to violence. Failing that, just split the difference of burdens and move on.

A lot is going on in #3. I say liberties are practices that protect the value of autonomy, our ticket to the dignity-invoking kingdom of ends. This ideal also implies the good of political participation. Protecting responsibility can imply, at a minimum, desert values and personal development.

#4 is consistent with utilitarianism, maximin, dignity and virtue.

#5 is consistent with virtue and dignity as well.

I invite others to either attack my attempt at general polity-guiding text, or better yet, to submit your own!
Adam White

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Considering all the stuff we know about argumentative strategies, you'd think we'd be above a little rhetorical manipulation.

Philosophy is fun, but it should be funner, c.f. bad grammer. I'm probably abnormal in my sensitivity to agressive argumentative strategies and the use of rhetorical manipulation. Afterall, I feel dumb all the time, and when someone tries to make me feel dumb without addressing my argument fairly, I can't help the overwhelming sensation to go cry in my office [or smash some teeth in]. Don't get me wrong, rhetorical manipulation is often quite useful, and it's often a great source of humor, see current administration for both types. But most of the time it's just annoying and unproductive. Sure it can get us immediate gradification--when our objectors storm off or become silent we're the winner right? Ultimately its use just makes one look like an ass; intellectual perhaps, but no less stinky butt. Further, it's use makes us bad philosophers.

I suspect that these argumentative strategies are unintentional, and so I doubt they'll go away. Heck, it's so prevalent in the literature and at conferences you'd think it was expected of us. But I'm inclined to think that it's in everyone's best interest in this department to call each other out when it happens, in class and in posts. Keep each other philosphically accountable, so to speak.

But perhaps I'm being overly idealistic to suppose that in a philosophy department we'd want to win our arguments based on soundness or cogency, rather than an appropriatly timed ad hominem or straw man (to mention some popular forms). Perhaps it's not in everyone's "best" interests after all. I'm open to counter-examples. Heck, I probably am one.

Any thoughts? (Note: I know I've even used some in this post, point them out!)

Sunday, February 12, 2006


I was in the shower this morning thinking about Superman.

No, no, it's not what you think. I had just read some article that referred to the ring of Gyges, and it got me thinking about human nature, and wielding power. So the amazing thing about Superman, as we all know, is that he's sort of all-powerful (though not invisible) but he never takes advantage of other people. Just think about how amazing that is! Can anybody say that they could be so restrained with Superman's powers? Also, he has an intuitive sense of right and wrong. He can quickly survey a scene and know what is the moral course of action. I concluded as I soaped my head (I have no hair, and thus no use for shampoo) that Superman was the perfect example for a virtue ethicist. He's been raised properly, and always picks the path of the golden mean (though his mean is going to be radically different from mine and yours). "He's perhaps to brave," you say, but I think he knows to keep his distance from kryptonite, does he not? He's not thinking about consequences, necessarily, when he acts, he just does what he thinks is right.

Then I got around to thinking about other superheroes. Batman's a consequentialist, of course. I don't know if he's a utilitarian or not, but certainly some kind of consequentialist. He can be a little brutal because he thinks it's necessary to achieve his ends. He doesn't have the moral perception that superman has, and while superman is optimistic about human nature, Batman is pessimistic. Batman, I think, is often inclined towards the extremes of many of the categories in which Superman finds a golden mean. But Batman is disciplined, and has a strong sense of duty. He kicks butt when he needs to.

Then I was trying to think of a Kantian superhero. Batman and Superman lie way too often to be Kantians. A Kantian superhero has got to be without a secret identity, then. What would he/she do, just run around treating people as ends in themselves, never as mere means?? Wonderwoman is good, because she doesn't have a secret identity, but I think she's more like superman, probably a virtue ethicist. Spiderman's a utilitarian, I think. The Green lantern? Aquaman? He's always looking out for the rights of sea-creatures, but they're not rational. Or are they...? Maybe he knows something we don't. Captain America? He doesn't exactly have a secret identity, its more like he left his old identity behind when he became captian america. He's also really into freedom, so that's good. Anyone have a suggestion? This is bugging me.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Psychological egoism and what we want

Psychological egoism is the view that all individuals in fact do what they believe is in their own self-interest. This is *not* synonymous with the claim that all individuals in fact do what they want. ‘Want’ is not ‘self-interest’ by definition, contrary to what one of my furry-faced colleagues thinks. For it to be the case that these two concepts are essentially related the following bi-conditional would have to be true: if you want X, then X is in your own self-interest and if X is in your own self-interest, then you want X. While it is arguable that the second half of the bi-conditional is true, the first half of the bi-conditional is not true. I only need one example to show this: I want to smoke a cigarette right now. Smoking is not in my own self-interest, but I want it nevertheless.

Perhaps my furry-faced-friend does not have psychological egoism in mind, but a popular theory developed in the literature on moral psychology and moral motivation. One view suggests that in order to move someone all the way to action a *desire* must be present in the explanation of the individual’s behavior. This is not the thesis of psychological egoism and even the defender of this view must explain why some desires are different than others as in weakness of the will (she might, for example, appeal to higher-order desires).

Now of course ‘wants’, ‘desires’, ‘self-interest’, etc. are all terms of art and can be filled out in various ways. The key is to avoid rendering one’s own thesis trivially true. If you think ‘self-interest’ just means doing what you want, then you need to rephrase psychological egoism to say something like all individuals in fact do what they believe is in their own best-interest. In other words, if psychological egoism is just the view that individuals in fact do what they want, then you are not telling me anything substantive. For example, a prominent psychological egoist like Hobbes will say that an individual *in so far as she is rational* will want to get out of the state of nature.

Finally, it may be the case that psychological egoism is often in danger of collapsing into a trivially true thesis, but this is something the defender of the view is going to want to avoid, not embrace contra Mr. Furry Face himself.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Can beliefs be immoral?

I had a chat outside of class with our man D. Shoemaker. At some point, we got on to the topic of the morality of belief states. David maintained that a belief, like "tall people are inferior to short people," can be immoral. I said that beliefs cannot be immoral. Here's a hasty outline of my position.

Morality, it seems to me, is about how we treat one another, not what we think of one another. What matters in morality is what we do, not what we think. Beliefs, all by themselves, cannot be moral or immoral. They just are.

Now you might think that if you believe something like "tall people are non-persons" and believe that "it is okay to kill non-persons" then you are likely to kill tall people. Is, however, the belief itself doing any sort of moral work? Or is it the killing of tall persons, and the connection between the belief and the action? It seems to me that all the work is being done by the treating of tall people in one way or another, and none by the thoughts floating in my head.

Take two cases.

Suppose I am a brain in a vat without any ability to communicate or otherwise impact the world around me. Suppose I think that tall people are non-persons. Is my having that thought immoral? I think that's silly.

Suppose there is a twin earth far, far away, with an impenetrable wall between it and our earth. Suppose I have beliefs about the agents (who are circles and squares) on twin earth. Suppose I think it okay to kill circles just for sport. What's (morally) wrong with my thinking that? The impenetrable wall makes it so that no one on either earth will ever have any sort of communication or interaction with one another. Can I have any beliefs about agents/things/whatever on twin Earth that are immoral? I don't think so.

Just to be clear, suppose all of the above beliefs are caused in the right way for moral appraisal. That is, no one is somehow "forced" to believe one thing rather than another because of evolution, genetics, compulsion, the way the brain is, and so on.

(A separate question: Does my position imply that intentions don't matter? You tell me, I don't know...)