Saturday, August 20, 2016

Time - Addemdum. Philosophy Bites Podcast Notes

Speaking about needing more time (the subject of my last post, today's list of Philosophy Bites podcast episodes while I exercised left me with a great deal that I would want to write about - if I had the time.

J.L. Austin and the Philosophy of Language

Today's podcasts included Guy Longsworth talking about J.L. Austin and Ordinary Language Philosophy.

According to Longsworth, Austin believed that humans had spent a considerable amount of time into developing its language, and consequently had built a lot of insights into language itself. A precise understanding about the use of language would provide important insights into the things that people were talking about.

I am afraid that I disagree with the premise. Language is a tool invented by committee designed to serve a number of purposes - including purposes of manipulation and deception. It is filled with the myths and superstitions of folk belief such as - if we look precisely at the meanings of the terms - the idea that the sun rises, malaria is caused by bad air, atoms do not have any parts, and planets are a variety of star.

Furthermore, no two of us actually speaks the same language. We can see this immediately in the fact that no two of us have the same vocabulary. However, more to the point, we learn our language through experience - and no two of us have exactly the same language experience. Consequently, even for the terms we know, we can expect to find small variations in the understanding of the terms from individual to individual. This is the mechanism through which meanings drift over time and through which isolated regions slowly adopt different ways of speaking.

Being a slave to language as it exists is like being a slave to a computer that exists. If a better tool can be constructed, we should not hesitate to construct it. Similarly, if we can make language more efficient by modifying the meanings of terms, there is no good argument to be had against doing so.

Melissa Lane on Plato and Environmental Sustainability

In another episode, Melissa Lane talked about Plato and economic sustainability. Now, one may ask, "What to heck does Plato have to say about economic sustainability?" Lane brings out of Plato the fact that he considered the relationship between the state and the individual to be one in which the state shapes the character of the individuals. A part of what the state does is mold the character of individuals so that they fit into a functioning community. Applying this to our modern problems means that the state should be concerned with molding individuals to live a sustainable lifestyle.

In fact, the ideas that I defend - that morality itself is devoted primarily to molding the characters of individuals by molding the desires that will motivate their action, combined for the reasons that exist to create a community capable of sustaining themselves over time, argue for promoting those desires and aversions that would be a part of a sustainable community.

Ronald Dworkin and the Unity of Value

In one of the episodes, Ronald Dworkin argued for the "unity of value". Dworkin was reacting to the idea, for example, that liberty and equality are in conflict. He objected to the idea that, to bring about equality, a society must restrict liberty in that it must restrict people from doing things that break equality. Correspondingly, if one were to promote liberty, one would have to sacrifice equality.

Ultimately, Dworkin argued that there is a right answer to moral questions. It might not be easy to discover, and he might not know what it is, but all of morality is built on the assumption that there is a right answer. There is a point at which we can have the most liberty compatible with the most equality. At any point where morality deviates from this point, then we are not trading one good for another. We are, in fact, giving up something that is good for something that is bad.

I argue that values are, in fact, incommensurable. We can know this because of the phenomenon of regret. If I offer you a choice between taking a $10 bill on the one hand, and between taking that same $10 bill plus another $5 bill on the other, these are commensurable values. You take the $15 without regret. It is absolutely worth more than the $15. This is what happens when we are talking about commensurable values.

However, the young person who has to make a choice between moving out of state to attend a prestigious school and staying at home with her friends and family is not making a choice comparable to that between taking $10 or the same $10 plus $5 more. Even if the individual clearly prefers to go to the prestigious school and get the degree, what she gives up to do so still hurts - still comes with a great deal of regret. The fact that one good can outweigh another, but cannot actually substitute for another, is what I mean by the incommensurability of value.

This does not deny the possibility that one can have the best possible combination of both liberty and equality. Nor does it deny that anything that deviates from the best possible combination of liberty and equality is a worse option. One does not need a "unity of value" to get these results.


These are three posts I would write in more detail if I had the time. As I go through my day, I usually find a dozen things to write about. But, the time is not there - and I generally prefer to write more detailed arguments than the snippets I have placed here. It's a bit frustrating, really.

More time! Must have more time!

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