Friday, June 30, 2017

The Moral Syllogism

I have read Jonathan Spelman's dissertation on moral objectivity and subjectivity and wrote a commentary that I have published in the "Commentary" section of the documents page of the desirism web site.

Spelman's dissertation argued for subjectivism on moral obligation.

In my commentary, I argued for two types of subjectivism. Spelman argued quite strongly that the beliefs of the agent are important in determining an agent's obligation. The primary case involves that of a doctor with a patient who has a non-fatal skin condition. The doctor has three options - drug A, which will treat the symptoms; drug B, which will cure the illness; and drug C, which will kill the patient. The doctor knows the effect of drug A, but - in spite of her best efforts to find out - could not determine which of drugs B or C will cure the disease and which will kill the patient.

This example demonstrates that the doctor's beliefs are relevant in determining her obligation to give the patient drug A.

Spelman uses a number of cases like this to argue that the agent's beliefs are relevant to the agent's moral obligation.

In the article, I introduce the concept of a moral syllogism. A moral syllogism can be expressed as:

(1) A prescriptive premise that reports generally what agents ought to do.
(2) A descriptive premise that presents the relevant facts in a specific case.
(3) A conclusion that tells the agent what to do in that specific case.

Understood in this way, Spelman's argument shows that the agent's beliefs are relevant in (3). However, Spelman wants to draw the inference from this to the conclusion that the agent's beliefs are relevant in (1). I argue that this inference is invalid.

Specifically, what Spelman's argument shows is that the moral syllogism actually has the following form:

(a) A prescriptive premise saying an agent with belief B ought to do A.
(b) A descriptive premise that includes the fact that the agent has belief B.
(c) A conclusion that the agent ought to do A.

The conclusion in this case depends on the agent's beliefs - depends on premise (b) being true. However, one cannot infer from the fact that the truth of (c) depends on the agent's beliefs that the truth of (a) depends on the agent's beliefs.

This is good news for desirism.

Desires are expressed as dispositions to act, given an agent's beliefs. An agent seeking his keys, who believes his keys are in the bedroom, has a reason to go to the bedroom to get the keys. If, instead, he believes that they are in his coat pocket has a reason to go get his coat.

If the prescriptive premise concerns what the agent ought to desire, and the actions that an agent performs depend on an interaction between desires and beliefs, then we need to look at the agent's beliefs to determine what an agent with those desires would do. Desirism, then, explains and predicts that the prescriptive premise is relativized to the agent's beliefs.

Yet, we still have room for epistemic responsibility. It may be the case that what an agent should do given her desires is to find more information. If the medical profession has a common reference book that would tell Jill which of drugs B and C will cure the disease and which will kill the patient, Jill would have an obligation to consult that reference book. The idea that the agent's beliefs are relevant to her obligations does not imply that we have to accept whatever the agent believes, no matter what it is. Instead, the perfectly objective prescriptive premise dictates what an agent with a given set of beliefs ought to do.

I think that I will be using this moral syllogism idea quite a bit in the future.

I worked these issues out in more detail in the paper.

In other news, my top project is still getting my head into philosophy mode. In 59 days, I will be class. I have caught up on the History of Philosophy podcast, and I am now going through the New Books in Philosophy podcast. This is helping me to get a surface understanding of various issues in epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, as well as different aspects of social and political philosophy. Hopefully, it will help me sound less like a novice when I get to school.

I have finished my course in basic formal logic, to refresh my memories on that topic.

I really need to do more in the area of practical moral philosophy. In particular, I think the one area that needs the most work is the nature of public debate on issues that are - literally - a matter of life and death for some people. Too many people are too comfortable with bad arguments. In the realm of politics, the art of the day is to interpret what the other party says in the worst possible light so as to present them as both extremely foolish and malevolent. It is extremely difficult, these days, to find a case where the public is discussing the relevant facts in an intellectually honest manner.

And, finally . . . it makes me nervous to think that before 2 years are out I need to write and pass a Master's Thesis. I really think that I should get started on that - even though my first day of class is still over 8 weeks away. I hate waiting until the last minute. I would really like to have my Master's Thesis written and on the shelf by next Tuesday. That way, I no longer need to worry about it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Two Types of Subjectivism

Tomorrow, I am going to attend a PhD dissertation defense by a University of Colorado graduate student, Jonathan Spelman.

When I learned that Mr. Spelman was delivering a presentation to the summer students at the university on "In Defense of Subjectivism about Moral Obligation" I wrote to him to ask if he had a paper on the topic I could review. He wrote back to say that it was his dissertation which he would be defending the following week. I got a copy of the dissertation - and read it.

My interpretation of Spelman's dissertation was that he gave a good defense of the claim that the facts relevant to a moral evaluation include facts about the beliefs of the agent.

Let's look at it this way:

A moral syllogism contains three parts.

(1) The prescriptive premise: A general principle governing what the ought to do.
(2) The descriptive premise: An account of the facts of the given situation
(3) The conclusion: A statement of what the agent ought to do in that situation.

An example of a moral syllogism - which comes from Spelman's paper - concerns the case of a doctor named Jill. Jill's patient Frank has a non-fatal skin condition. Jill knows that drug A will relieve the symptoms but not cure the disease. Of drugs B and C, Jill knows that one will cure the disease while the other will kill the patient. However, she does not know which is which. From this, we conclude that Jill ought to give Frank drug A. There is no sense in risking Frank's life to cure a disease where there is an effective treatment for its symptoms.

Spelman uses this as an argument for moral subjectivism over moral objectivism.

Let us assume that drug B will actually cure Frank's disease. However, Jill does not know this. There is a sense in which Jill should give Frank drug B in that this would produce the best outcome. However, given Jill's ignorance, this is not what she should do in the given situation. In the given situation - which includes the facts of Jill's ignorance - Jill should give Frank drug A as stated.

For Spelman, this supports the conclusion that beliefs are relevant to the question of what Jill should do. This is a form of subjectivism - a form of the view that something is right in virtue of the agent's beliefs, rather than in virtue of the facts of the matter.

Well, I write back with a comment.

One of those comments is that Jill's beliefs ARE facts of the matter. This is in keeping with my own position that "subjective" and "objective" are not mutually exclusive options. We have objective facts of the matter regarding mental states - such as the facts that describe what Jill believes regarding the effects of drugs A, B, and C.

I have an objection to Spelman's paper in that he does not seem to distinguish between two separate propositions.

Proposition 1: The truth of the conclusion of a moral syllogism depends on beliefs.

Proposition 2: The truth of the prescriptive premise of a moral syllogism depends on beliefs.

As I mentioned, Spelman produces several arguments that can be understood as showing that the truth of a moral conclusion depends on beliefs. In the example above, what Jill ought to do with respect to her patient depends crucially on her beliefs regarding the effects of drugs A, B, and C. Her ignorance over which of the drugs B or C will cure the patient and which will kill him are morally relevant. The conclusion that Jill should give the patient drug A depends on the fact of Jill's limited knowledge regarding the effects of drugs B and C.

However, one cannot infer from the fact that the truth of the conclusion depends on Jill's beliefs that the truth of the prescriptive premise depends on Jill's beliefs - specifically, in her belief in that premise. The prescriptive premise states that Jill ought to do that which - given her beliefs - would be best for her patient. This prescriptive premise is true independent of whether or not Jill accepts it. This identifies an actual and objective moral obligation.

Just to drag desirism into this conversation, this obligation exists in virtue of the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote this sentiment using the social tools of praise and condemnation. But that does not impact the actual argument we are discussing here. There might be some other way to support the proposition that this objective moral obligation exists. What matters is that one cannot infer the proposition that the truth of the prescriptive premise depends on the agent's opinion from the fact that the truth of the moral conclusion depends on the agent's opinion. This is no more valid than inferring the fact that the truth of the descriptive premise depends on the agent's opinion from the fact that the truth of the conclusion depends on the agent's position.

The truth of the conclusion depends on the agent's opinion because the (objectively true) prescriptive premise says that it matters - and that provides the reason for including (objectively true) claims about the agent's beliefs in the descriptive premise.

This yields an objectively true conclusion that depends crucially on the agent's beliefs about the world (such as Jill's partial ignorance regarding the drugs B and C) in premise 2.

Well, I have exchanged some emails with Mr. Spelman - soon to be Dr. Spelman. He does seem to want to infer from the evidence he provides that the truth of the conclusion depends on the agent's beliefs that the truth of the prescriptive premise depends on beliefs. I think that this is a mistake. At the same time, I have to say that he has done a very good job proving that the truth of the conclusion depends on the agent's beliefs. Even if he draws an invalid implication from this fact, he has demonstrated what, within desirism, would be considered a very important fact.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Problems for Libertarianism: History of Wealth Distribution

Imagine, if you will, a community living on a large island.

A group of strong-men living on the island has been spending years accumulating wealth. Mostly, they have done this through strong-arm tactics. They have gone to property owners and commanded that they turn over property or face the consequences. They have enslaved people - forcing people to work on improving their property, planting and harvesting their crops, assembling material in their shops, collecting the benefits in ways that substantially prevented their "workers" from having the opportunity to leave. As a result, this small subset of the population - let us imagine that this top 1% owns half of the island.

NOW that they have accumulated all of this properly - mostly through violence and forces appropriation - they want to institute a new social rule. This rule says that no person can take property from another by force.

It certainly seems quite convenient for those who now own half of the property in the community that NOW they would be so concerned with prohibiting the use of force to redistribute the wealth. That is what they call it, by the way - a term that presumes their rightful ownership when that, in fact, is exactly what is in dispute.

Let's use another example. A thief pulls out a gun and tells you to step into the alley. There, he forces you to hand over your wallet, your watch, and . . . well . . . "that's a nice looking suit you are wearing." Then, after he has taken these things from you, he then announces, "New rule: No person may take property from another person by force."

The timing is quite convenient.

This idea that no person may take the property of another person by force lies at the core of libertarianism. We can see why those people who have already taken a large amount of property from others by force . . . who have, in fact, taken about as much as they can effectively take . . . would then insist that it would be wrong for others to take property by force FROM THEM.

However, would it not still be the case that the robber owes something to the robbed? The extortionist owes something to those from whom they extorted? The slave owner owe something to those he enslaved?

A lot of libertarians, it seems, wants to just blow past this issue as if it does not matter. It is no wonder that this ideology is favored among those who have already accumulated great deals of wealth, and is viewed less enthusiastically from those (and the descendants of those) from whom wealth was taken.

Problems for Libertarians: Economic Capture

As a part of my attempt to step outside of my particular intellectual bubble, I regularly listen to the podcast EconTalk hosted by Russ Roberts.

The task of stepping out of one's bubble is to read things one may not necessarily agree with. I tend to be on the liberal side of things - so the libertarian-themed EconTalk would qualify. Though, in violation of this principle, I sometimes find myself agreeing with what is said, and incorporating some libertarian thoughts into my own writing.

The fact that global trade is responsible for lifting over a billion people out of extreme poverty represents one area where free-market principles and compassion went hand-in-hand for a better world.

However, in looking at both sides of these debates, I do come up with some problems for libertarians.

A few blog posts back, I wrote a post in which I showed how the moral argument in defense of the right to freedom of speech paralleled the moral argument in defense of a right to freedom of trade - a free market. (See Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Markets)

Basically, the argument states that the right to freedom of speech is a right to freedom from violent interference based on what one says, writes, or communicates in other ways such as art or gestures. The reason we need to keep violence out of the forum is because, once it is introduced, those with power are going to determine - through violence - what people may hear or write. Inevitably, those with power are going to make this determination based on what promotes their own interests. Those with power will allow speech that promotes their interests, and condemn through violence speech that would thwart their interests.

The same argument applies to the market.

Basically, the argument states that the right to freedom of trade is a right to freedom from violent interference in the exchange of property. The reason we need to keep violence out of the market is because, once it is introduced, those with power are going to determine - through violence - what people may trade. Inevitably, those with power are going to make this determination based on what promotes their own interests. Those with power will allow trade that promotes their interests, and condemn through violence trade that would thwart their interests.

If one thinks that this is a good reason to allow freedom of speech, it seems to follow that it is also a good reason to allow freedom of trade.

This does not imply unconditional freedom in both cases. The right to freedom of speech does not include the right to lie - or even to make careless claims in some circumstances. False advertising, fraud, libel and slander, are prohibited. And freedom of trade is restricted with respect to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to name a few. However, it does argue for a strong presumption in defense of freedom - that freedom be permitted unless and until compelling reason can be provided in favor of violent interference.

The puzzle for libertarians is this:

We introduced violence into the market long ago. If this argument is sound, then this predicts that we should expect to find a great deal of evidence of cases where powerful people are using violence in the market place to allow trade that promotes their own interests and prohibit trade that conflicts with their interests. Yet, when one searches through the works of libertarian think-tanks such as the CATO Institute, Hoover foundation, and - indeed - listens to the podcast episodes from EconTalk - one discovers very little discussion of programs that transfer wealth upward.

This is not to say that such talk does not exist. It is simply much less common than talk about the transfers of wealth that benefit the poor. We see such organizations complaining more about minimum wages, national health care, public school, and public health care than we see them complaining about tax benefits for corporations, restraints of trade, the capture of regulatory agencies, a multi-hundred-billion dollar defense industry that is, to a large degree, a corporate welfare program, government-funded research where the wealthy take the research and sell it, and foreign wars that are fought for corporate interests.

I would like liberal readers to note - all of the items that I listed above that libertarian think-tanks tend not to talk about are cases where libertarian principles support liberal political objectives. Yes, there such things do exist. One can find them if one does not spend all of one's time in one's own political tribe hating everything having to do with the other political tribe - one can find potential areas of agreement and . . . GASP! . . . even areas of potential cooperation.

But, let us put that aside for the moment.

This seems to have two possible implications: at least if we look at things as they appear from the point of view of libertarian think-tanks.

(1) The premise in which the right to freedom of speech and freedom of markets is false. It is not the case that, if violence is introduced into the forum or the market, that those with power will use violence to permit that speech/trade that benefits them and prohibit that speech/trade that is not in their interest.

(2) Those with power can not only use it to buy legislators, regulators, public-relations companies (and advertising campaigns), media, lobbyists, and lawyers with which to manipulate the powers of government to concentrate economic wealth in their hands. They can use their power (and, in particular, their money) to capture the attention of libertarian think-tanks as well.

Option 2 is not a conspiracy theory. It does not require people consciously deciding to do evil. It is simply the case of a market responding to incentives. Think-tanks need money. The wealthy and powerful have money to spend. Powerful people have reasons to fund those think-tanks that put more emphasis on criticizing programs that transfer money downward and ignore programs that transfer money upward. So, these are the types of think-tanks that survive in the market. This is an example of the market at work.

But, then, that illustrates a part of the problem with inequalities of wealth. Inequalities in wealth not only allow the wealthy to concentrate even more wealth into their hands through their control of the government but also through control of education, research, and the media. They create a culture in which academics focus their attention on issues that benefit those with money and ignore research into that which benefits those who cannot afford to pay for that benefit.

That is a problem for libertarianism.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Arab and Medieval Philosophy, Free Will, and Consciousness

In 80 days and some change, I will be attending class.

In the mean time my current activities have involved getting through the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. The "without any gaps" component has to do with the fact that it does not skip from Aristotle to Aquinas. Instead, we have spent about 60 podcast hours on the Stoics, Neoplatonists, philosophy in the Arab world, and medieval philosophy before reaching Aquinas.

Let me fill you in on some of the things that I learned so far in this podcast.

First, there's the extensive cooperation that existed between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars in Islam. Some people may be familiar with the fact that much of the scholarship of the ancient Greeks was preserved in Arab countries while Europe went through its dark age. The reason for this preservation in scholarship had to do intentional efforts to translate Greek philosophical works into Arab. For this, they worked with Jewish and Christian scholars who knew Greek and could help in the translation. Furthermore, the works of Christian and, in particular, Jewish scholars were a part of the philosophical dialogue going on at this time. These were not isolated communities - they shared a common culture.

Second, Arab intellectual culture continued past the Crusades. The way history is generally taught, when the Europeans attacked the Middle East in the Crusades and made off with their books, this sparked a resurgence in philosophy in Europe, while the Arab world went into a rapid cultural decline. It would be more accurate to say that, once the Crusaders made off with the books they captured, they quit paying attention to Arab culture. Therefore, the continuing Arab intellectual activities after the Crusades went unnoticed. However, it is not the case that what Europeans decided not to notice did not exist.

Third, a great many scholars in medieval Europe and in the Middle East during this time period "scriptualized" Aristotle. They thought that Aristotle could not be wrong. They also thought that scripture could not be wrong. Consequently, a great deal of philosophical effort went into trying to discover an understanding of Aristotle that matched their understanding of the Bible. If both were true, then they had to agree with each other. This was difficult considering that, for example, Aristotle argued that the universe was eternal and scripture argued that it was created. This was only one of the struggles that was taking place.

Fourth, a lot of excellent brain power was spent trying to prove the truths revealed in scripture. Humans may be able to come up with some tremendously imaginative ideas to argue that this is the case. In fact, many of those ingenious ideas might even have a place in the real world - for example, aiding in our understanding of the relationship between universals and particulars. However, in the end, it would be like adopting a project to show that the events in The Lord of the Rings were actual historical events. Regardless of how imaginative and innovative those solutions were, it would have been great to have had that intellectual power devoted to real problems.

I am forming the opinion that contemporary philosophers are also working on projects comparable to trying to prove how wine and bread can literally become the body and blood of Christ while showing no indication that such a transformation has taken place. These have to do with free will and consciousness.

I have never found much use for either of these two concepts. I don't think either of them exist.

Proving that something does not exist - unless it involves a straight-out contradiction - is near to impossible. I think that the proof of its nonexistence will come directly from the observation that people have quit talking about it. In the moral philosophy that I defend, I make no reference to free will. It is thought that, after years of discussion of moral theory, with no sign of free will, people may begin to wonder where free will went. In fact, it did not go anywhere. It never existed. I can leave it out of my discussion of morality because it does not do anything. Rather than being disproved, the theories will just fall into disuse. We will also find that consciousness does no good. It is unneeded and, consequently, may be cut out of your most recent efforts.

In its place, we have the physical structure of the brain motivating behavior - structures that can be molded by experience praise, reward, condemnation, and punishment. Reward and punishment have a determined effect, and are motivated by that which is a fact in the brain.

"Consciousness" is another thing that will fall into disuse until we decide that it was not being used for anything. It plays no role that requires its existence.

Well, the next part of my studies - once I catch up on the History of Philosophy - is to brush up on my logic.

I am now in regular communication with the philosophy department at the University of Colorado. As a graduate student, I have been assigned an advisor, and made arrangements to take a class in modal logic this semester. When I took propositional logic, the class was exceptionally easy. But that was two dozen years ago. Now, we get to find out just how rusty my mind is.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Trump and the Paris Agreement

I have been spreading the following moral analogy concerning President Trump's decision to have America leave the Paris Agreement:

[I]President Donald Trump has actually given us all reason to be embarrassed to be Americans.

Imagine a village where an alarm has sounded that the river going through town will flood. The villagers gather to put sandbags along the banks to keep from flooding the town.

The wealthy owner of a large house watches them work, while sitting back drinking lemonade. His house will be flooded, too, if the river breaks over the banks. But he is counting on the hard work of the other villagers to save his home, with no contribution from him.

Or, he will help, if the other villagers will pay him enough to make it worth their while.

I would be acutely embarrassed to be that person. But that person is the United States under Trump.

This analogy is missing one important element. The owner of the house sitting on the porch drinking the lemonade is CONTRIBUTING to the size of the flood. He owns a dam upstream. He has ordered the spillway opened to pour even more water into the river, making the villagers work all that much harder, or forcing them to pay him not to flood the town.

That is the type of "greatness" Trump is aiming for.

It's embarrassing.[/I]

In addition to the points raised in this post, there is a related point to consider.

Imagine that you were somebody living in this town trying to save his home from the flood, working side by side with the others. There, on that porch, sat a man drinking lemonade - refusing to help - and even suggesting that his employees at the dam feed even more water into the river.

How would you feel?

Donald Trump is promoting a great deal of hatred and contempt of the United States. One question that we have reason to ask is: How do they intend to express that anger and contempt?

One of the ways in which they may be expected to express their anger is by simply resolving to have nothing to do with the man sitting on his porch. This could range from refusing to do business with him, to failing to do anything to help protect him if some burglar, vandal, or arsonist (for example) should decide to attack his home.

We would reasonably expect the people in the village in this example to resolve to quit doing business with the man on the porch to whatever degree they are able to do so. They would resolve to take their business to the neighbor who helped them on the dikes, not the selfish man on the porch who not only refused to join them but made their job that much harder. Rather than making America great again, Trump is giving people around the world a good reason to carry out their economic activities with fellow countries who have joined in the fight against global warming and to deny their business to the country who refuses to help.

We would also reasonably expect the people in the village to be a bit less concerned about the fact that somebody in the village may form an intent to rob or vandalize that man's house. After all, they will think to himself, he is only getting what he deserves. In the world today, this means simply not caring to help to prevent a terrorist attack against the United States and not caring one bit about our security. Some of the people in the village may get sufficiently angry that they may carry out such an attack. Others, though they would not conduct such an attack themselves, certainly will not see much reason to put any effort into helping to prevent it. The result is that living in the United States becomes that much more dangerous.

These possible responses may help to explain why several states, cities, and companies resolved to continue to help in the fight against climate change, even as Trump pulls the federal government out of the Paris agreement. These human beings recognize that there is a lot to be gained by joining the others on the banks of the river to fight the rising floodwaters. There is reason to cultivate the good will of the other villagers. It is good for business, and it provides benefits in terms of mutual security. Promoting a culture of mutual cooperation requires that one agree, from time to time, to cooperate.

Of course, one of the manifestations of this culture of cooperation is that members of the community will sometimes choose cooperation for its own sake - merely because it is the right thing to do. Sitting on the porch refusing to contribute, and even taking action that forces the others to work that much harder, can be expected to have some significant costs.

Nobody in the village is going to think that the man sitting on the porch while they work to save the village from the flood is 'great' in any sense of the word. They are going to think that he is a . . . well, honestly . . . that he is an asshole. Because that, in the proper understanding of the term, is exactly what he is proving himself to be. His attitude and his actions will leave him without friends and without help when he needs it most.