Thursday, August 31, 2017

Sidgwick on Motives

I have survived the first week of class.

I have nothing of substance to report in the Environmental Philosophy class yet, since we devoted our first day to introductions and paperwork rather than philosophical argument. I can report that as somebody who does not handle interpersonal interaction well, this class will be stressful.

Modal Logic is not going to lend itself to discussion. I listen to lectures. I do my homework, I pass the class. meet my logic requirement.

That leaves the ethics pro seminar.

It will provide me with an opportunity to present a paper in a seminar-like setting at the end of the year. This is one of the academic skills I am missing.

The first three weeks of the class is going to be on Sidgwick. However, I will not be using my paper on Sidgwick vs. Hume on reasons that I wrote for the class since the relevant chapter is not among the assigned readings. Instead, I will produce a paper on Sidgwick's objections to the idea that motives are the proper object of moral evaluation.

Sidgwick explicitly rejected the idea that morality primarily concerns the evaluation of motives, and that the evaluation of actions is derived from a prior evaluation of motives.

To make his point, he identified a number of cases where our moral judgment of an action deviates from our judgment of the motives behind that action. Specifically, he identifies cases where:

1. An agent with bad motives does what he ought to do.
2. An agent with good motives nonetheless performs a wrong or immoral action.
3. An agent is morally blamed for consequences that did not touch his motives at all.

All of these conclusions seem to raise significant problems for the thesis that we evaluate motives first and, from that, derive an evaluation of actions.

For the first type of case, Sidgwick calls up an example from Jeremy Bentham about a prosecutor who is motivated to convict an accused defendant out of malice towards the accused. We may say that the prosecutor has a prima facie obligation to recuse herself. However, assume that she is the sole person capable of taking the case. Sidgwick admits that the prosecutor could be blamed where malice motivated her to perform harmful actions that her duty as a prosecutor would not require. However, the existence of malicious acts done out of malice does not disprove the possibility of right actions also done from malice.

For the second type of case, Sidgwick uses an example of a man who "tells a lie to save a parent’s or a benefactor’s life." We can easily imagine a case when telling a lie to save a life is not wrong, such as the paradigm case of lying to the Nazi soldiers about the Jews hiding in the attic. However, these types of cases do not discredit Sidgwick's point. We can also imagine a case of a person who commits perjury to get his father acquitted of a crime. His good motive - the affection of a child for a parent - does not make his act a right act.

In the third type of case, Sidgwick pointed out, "[Y]ou’ll agree that we can’t evade responsibility for any foreseen bad consequences of our acts by the plea that we didn’t want them for themselves or as means to some further end (p. 94)." It seems that the paradigm case that fits this description is that of negligence. The drunk or texting driver had no motive to brutally slaughter the children in a young family and maim the parents can be considered an evil person. All she wanted to do was get home and go to bed. Wanting to go home and go to bed is not a bad motive. But if her drinking or texting causes a fatal accident, she will have done something wrong.

From these three types of cases - and we can probably come up with countless examples of each - it seems reasonable to conclude that our moral intuitions do not evaluate actions based on an evaluation of the motives behind those actions.

However, there are other ways to relate actions to motives.

The type of motive-based theory that Sidgwick was considering was one like that put forward by his contemporary, James Martineau. Martineau held that God gave us intuitive knowledge of the moral value of various springs of action. These springs of action have a ranking - some were better (or higher) than others. When two springs of action suggested different actions, the right thing to do (according to Martineau) would be that action motivated by the higher motive.

As we can see from the examples above, right action can sometimes spring from bad motives, and wrong action can sometimes spring from good motives or no motive at all.

However, there is a different relationship between right action and good motive that Sidgwick did not consider. This is a variation of the virtue theory that Rosalind Hursthouse presented. Hursthouse defined right action as "that action that a virtuous person would characteristically do." We only need to modify Hursthouse's account slightly to say that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would characteristically do, and we have a motive-based account that can handle Sidgwick's three cases.

In the first type of case, there is a way in which a properly motivated prosecutor would prosecute the accused, and that defines what the malicious prosecutor should do. In discussing the impossibility of a person acting on two motives – duty and malevolence – choosing the motive from which to act, Sidgwick says that we can tell when the prosecutor steps out of line by noting when he performs an action that malice might motivate but duty would not. We see this same distinction to be found in acts that a person with good motives would perform and those she would not perform.

In the second type of case, we see a situation where a person, despite family affections, is expected to have a stronger aversion to committing perjury. Note that perjury is a special case of lying. We assume that a person is put under oath when there is a special need to know the truth of a matter. The ritual of taking an oath or affirming may be understood as serving the task of triggering this aversion. We can understand that the witness may also have personal affections that give him a reason to lie, but this family affection – though a good motive – is not good enough.

The third type of case, exemplified by acts of negligence where a person did not intend to bring about an effect that was – or, at least, should have been – foreseen can be seen as examples of an agent lacking a good motive. The drunk driver ought to have been more concerned about others. In other words, the virtuous person would have had such an aversion to harming others that he would have taken precautions. Many cases of wrong action may be understood as lacking a virtue rather than having a vice.

In these cases, actions are not judged by their consequences. Nor are they judged by the motives of the person who performed them. They are judged on whether a person with good motives would have performed them. A person with bad motives may perform the same action and it still counts as a right action. An act (e.g., of perjury) may have produced better consequences but still counts as wrong but the aversion to dishonesty prevents the person from performing such an act.

Please note that a person with an aversion to committing perjury would refrain from an act of perjury “because I would be committing perjury” and potentially for no other reason. This would be true in the same way that a person would refrain from holding his hand over an open flame “because it hurts”l we would then look at the reason - the motive – and evaluate it as a good reason or a bad reason.

This then takes us to the question of what counts as a good reason/motive.

I will address that question later.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Ventriloquists vs. Translators

In my readings for my environmental philosophy class, I have been reading Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature.

Chapter 6 in this book talks about the idea that nature talks to us. It calls to us. If we listen to nature, we can know what it wants of us and what our obligations towards nature are.

Steven Vogel, the author of this book, does not accept these claims. He takes them quite seriously and argues why they make no sense.

I want to mention them here because what he said is as applicable to priests (people who claim to speak for God) as it does to environmentalists who claim to speak for nature.

In his response to these types of claims, he distinguishes between translators and ventriloquists. What he does to respond to these types of claims is to argue that there are people who legitimately speak for others - translators. And there are people who pretend to speak for others when what they are doing in fact is taking their own ideas and attitudes and projecting them onto the entities that they are claiming to speak for.

Translators, in my sense, are those who speak for another speaker, saying the words that speaker is for whatever reason unable to say herself (possibly, but not necessarily, because her language is different from ours). A ventriloquist, on the other hand, is someone who speaks for something that is not a speaker, projecting her own words onto a mute object and then pretending that it is that object that is speaking and not herself.

However, Vogel tells us, speaking implies the use of a language, and language use implies the possibility of a dialogue. Allegedly, nature speaks to us - being able to tell us what it wants (and we are thought to have some reason to consider those wants). For some reason, we are supposed to listen to nature. Yet, for some reason, nature has no reason or obligation to listen to us and to consider our wants. Language use involves the possibility of dialogue, as I said, but this conversation with nature is more of a monologue. Or, more precisely, as like the commands of a sovereign given to subjects whose duty is to stay quiet and obey.

For the ventriloquist, nature (or God, as the case may be) is the performer's dummy. The ventriloquist puts his own words into the mouth of the dummy - into the mouth of nature or God - so that he does not have to take responsibility for them. He does not need to explain them or justify them. He does not want to answer any questions. He does this by throwing his voice and making the speaker somebody other than himself - somebody who cannot answer the other person's questions.

The translator can be wrong. In fact, Vogel asserts that translators are always wrong because no language translates smoothly and completely into another language. Still, there are ways to correct for error. The translator can go to the person for whom she is translating and ask questions, request clarifications, and offer alternative interpretations for the speaker to choose from. The ventriloquist assigning his own ideas to God or nature cannot do either.

More importantly, the ventriloquist obtains a politically powerful - and morally questionable - status.

The political danger arises when we are led to grant the ventriloquist’s words (which we mistakenly think of as the words of the dummy) the same respect we grant the words of real speakers, because in doing so the ventriloquist gets a power other speakers do not have: the power to make truth-claims without the responsibility to provide first-person justifications for them.

As I said, this applies as much to those who claim to speak for God as to those who claim to speak for nature.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Moral Status of Future Persons

Today is the first day of my new life, as it is the day of my first official event as a graduate student - grad student orientation.

It is something like starting a new job. On the first day, one doesn't get to do any real work. One goes through the rituals of becoming a part of the organization. The first day of work, in my case, will be Monday when I attend my first class.

What I wish to do on this blog for the next two years is keep track of ideas that I encounter in my studies.

The overall goal, of course, is to know what good is - or, more precisely, to know what "better" is. Recall that this whole project started with an interest in leaving the world a better place than it would have been if I had not existed. This lead to the question, "What is 'better'? How would I know that this world is better than some alternative?" And that, ultimately, is what I am here to study.

There are far more topics likely to show up in my readings and classes than I am going to be able to write papers about. So, this blog will be a way of saying something about "those other things" that I am not going to be able to put into a paper.

I have just been sent, electronically, a set of readings for one course that indicate that the class will spend some time on the topic of the moral status of future persons.

I can give some preliminary thoughts on the issue of the moral status of future persons. After all, this is a subject I have thought about before.

There are arguments, often used in the abortion debate but that extend far beyond this subject, that says that there is something intrinsically good in bringing a person into the world. Given a choice between a world in which a person exists - capable of experiencing the world, having joys and sorrows, capable of enjoying and appreciating sunsets, friends, falling in love, enjoying friendships - is something that is good as and in itself. Every person that we bring into the world becomes somebody who gets to enjoy sunsets and friends and falling in love.

.So, we should create as many people as possible. Women have an obligation to give birth as often as they can up to the point where the earth cannot hold one additional person.

I take this to reduce the "life has intrinsic value" view to absurdity. Though, my actual reasons for rejecting this hypothesis is the fact that I cannot figure out how to put intrinsic value in any working physics of the universe. Ultimately, the claim that there is no such thing is the claim that such a force or substance is not needed to explain anything that happens in the real world.

Desirism, of course, holds that there is no such thing as intrinsic value. All value exists in the form of states of affairs and desires. To determine the value of a future person, one has to look at what is true about such a world in such a person exists, compare it to a set of desires, and determine whether the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true in the state of affairs in which such a person exists. For example, if a couple wants to have a child, then a state of affairs in which that child exists has value for that couple. If, at the same time, another couple wants to enjoy the freedom (and the financial savings) associated with not having a child then, for them, a state of affairs in which they have a child has negative value.

Desires that might or might not exist yields value that might or might not exist. If the first couple has a child, they will create a being with desires and, in virtue of those desires, there are states of affairs that will have value (good or bad) relative to that child's desires or interests. However, when the second couple decides not to have a child, the desires that will not exist as a result of that decision can neither be fulfilled or thwarted. In determining the value of things in virtue of their relationships with certain desires, relationships to desires that do not exist produce values that do not exist. The thwarting of a desire that does not exist creates a badness that does not exist. (Of course, "creating a badness that does not exist" is actually a contradiction - the more direct way of stating this implication is to say that it creates no badness, at least not here.)

Utilitarians are often bothered by the problem that, if happiness has intrinsic value, and we should create as much of what has intrinsic value as possible, then we need to create as much happiness as possible. This means creating people up to the point where the creation of one more person creates just as much happiness as unhappiness. That is where we stop.

This also means that if there are desires that will exist, then there are future states of affairs that will have value relative to those desires. If we expect that there will be an actual human population in the year 2100, then we can expect that states of affairs in the world at that time will have value depending on how those future states of the world relate to those future desires. Actions that we take now can make life for the next generation, and the generation beyond that, and the generation beyond that, better or worse than it might have otherwise. been. It makes no sense to talk about value relative to desires that will not exist, but a great deal of sense to talk about value relative to desires that will exist.
The obligation to care for the interests of future generations gets complicated. Though future states of affairs will have value relative to the desires of future people, the question is whether we have reasons to be concerned about what those relationships turn out to be.

Future generations have no capacity to reach back in time to cause us to acquire those interests that will dispose us to act in ways that will create future states of affairs that fulfill those future desires. What we need are current reasons to act in ways that create future states of affairs that fulfill future desires. Many of us have this in virtue of our concern for our own children. This concern for the future welfare of children creates reasons to promote a general interest in the welfare of future generations. This is one vary direct way to argue for promote current desires that tend to create future states of affairs that will fulfill future desires. We can, then, defend this as a moral value - though it is a value grounded on current desires for the well-being of future generations and not on future desires that lack any causal power to reach back in time.

Well, these are preliminary thoughts. We will see if the readings for this section of the course will tie in with these ideas. I suspect that will be at more towards the end of the year.

In the mean time, my next subject of concern is with whether plants, machines, and shopping malls have morally relevant interests that are independent of the interests that people have in them.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Anti-Liberal Attitudes on the Left

I try to avoid being a part of the echo chamber. If those likely to read what I write already agree, then I see no reason to write it. And there is no reason to write for those who will not be reading it. I prefer write about where I think those who basically agree with me might be making some mistake (acknowledging the fact that the mistake may be mine).

I assume that anybody reading this has the correct attitude towards Nazis and white supremacists (though I have posted on the thesis that romanticizing the Confederacy is equivalent to romanticizing Nazi Germany – which I, for one failed to appreciate until recently).

The point at which I disagree is with those denying a right of freedom of speech- who advocate violence as a legitimate response to repugnant beliefs.

For Us or Against Us

I can’t even get to a discussion of that right anymore without first running into the barricade, “Either you are for us, or you are against us.” I am being told that I have a choice – to be either anti-Nazi or pro-Nazi. Except, to be anti-Nazi now must mean being anti-freedom of speech and pro-violence. Which means, being pro-freedom of speech and anti-violence now means being pro-Nazi.

In the days and months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many liberals – the best liberals - pounced all over then US President George Bush for saying, “Either you are for us, or you are against us.” They told Bush that his view was too simplistic – even simple-minded (and indicative of his general lack of intelligence). He was trying to brand those who opposed his “Patriot Act”, spying on Americans, the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo prison, torture, and other practices as being “pro-terrorist”. They correctly branded this as not only insulting but worthy of condemnation. Bush was trying to defend America by destroying that which made America worth defending.

Now, liberals – the worst of them – are using Bush’s argument. Where Bush told me that favoring a right to privacy and opposed to torture I was "pro-terrorist", I now have people on the left telling me that if I am in favor of the right to freedom of speech and opposed to "street justice" then I am pro-Nazi. I have a simple decision to make. "You are for us, or against us". You oppose freedom of speech and support street-violence, or you are pro-Nazi.

Once upon a time – about 15 years ago – the bulk of liberals recognized, "You are for us, or you are against us" for what it is. It is a battle cry of tyrants and despots. It effectively says, "You must choose. Either you are our servant, or you are our enemy. You must serve the dictator, or you are an enemy of the state. You support the church leaders, or you are a heretic. Obey or die."

Once upon a time – about 15 years ago – the bulk of liberals recognized that the world was more complicated than this. The bulk of liberals realized that a true patriot can support the ends of the administration in fighting terror while still objecting to its means.

At first, their target is the Nazi or some other target group – a group that seems to be a legitimate target of violence. However, the target list grows. Soon, their target list includes the advocate of free speech and the opponent of street violence. After all, "if you are not for us, then you are against us". That is to say, "If, in your defense of free speech and opposition to street violence you stand in the way of those who would attack the Nazis, then you are as bad as a Nazi, and deserve the same treatment."

This is not some slippery slope argument – some dire warning that, "If we start out in this direction, then we will slide down some slope to a point we would not like; therefore, we ought not to start." This is a logical implication argument. We are not "sliding down some slope to a destination we will want to avoid". We have already reached it. "You are for us or against us" does not lead to "Bend your knee too us or be counted our enemy." It literally means, "Bend your knee to us or be counted our enemy."

I am not bending my knee.

No doubt, they will respond by saying, "Therefore you are siding with the Nazi." However, their claim is no more true that former President Bush's claim that when I opposed the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, torture, and Guantanamo that I was siding with the terrorists. What I was doing – and what I am diong now – is siding with freedom and against tyranny of all forms – no matter how all-knowing and benevolent the would-be dictator thinks himself to be.

Freedom of Speech

On the issue of freedom of speech, there is a new bunch of liberals who think that it is permissible to respond to words they do not like with violence. It is not just any words, they tell us, but words calling for violence. So, what they are telling us is that words calling for violence against those who use words to call for violence is justified. I'm having a little bit of trouble making sense of that position.

Ultimately, people who want to control speech through violence are people who want to control people through violence. And they are not trying to control the speakers or the writers. They are trying to control the hearers and the readers by controlling the ideas we may hear or read about.

It is an attempt to use violence to control the ideas we encounter. With this, they seek to control what we think and, through this, they seek to control what we do. They assert that we lack the capacity to think for ourselves and, thus, we need an authoritative (and violent) overseer giving advanced approval to what we have access to – to make sure we are thinking the right thoughts. They judge themselves as the only ones capable of encountering these "bad ideas" without corruption – so that they can dictate what passes their gate and what must remain outside.

There are a lot of people out there who want to control what we say or do. Violent wars as well as political and religious purges have been fought over the fact. Eventually, a few people got the bright idea that we'll simply outlaw the use of violence to control what people may hear and read. We are going to limit people to the non-violent tools of persuasion only – the pamphlet, the treatise, the play, the public speech on a soap box, the march, the song, the billboard, the full-page ad. It means that there will be a lot of shouting – and a lot of very angry shouting.

Ironically, Nazis love the idea of using violence to control what others may hear or read. They were great fans of book burnings and sending out thugs to beat up on those who expressed opinions they disagree with. Many of those today who call themselves anti-fascists are, in fact, fascists. They are misnamed in the same way the "Patriot Act" was renamed – an attempt to get approval for something by calling it the opposite of what it actually is. They are people attempting to gain control through violence. They are seeking to control people not by persuasion and argument, but by using violence to control what people can hear and read. They are, in fact, the new fascists.

The true anti-fascist is the person who is opposed to controlling others through violence. It is the person who stands opposed to "you are for us or you are against us" - who stands opposed to "bend a knee or be branded our enemy." The true anti-fascist is the person who opposed the Bush Administration when it used this argument, and who stand opposed to those on the left when they use this argument.


Having said this, there are some significant problems that we need to work on. Racist and prejudicial attitudes are rampant. "White privilege" and "male privilege" are real phenomenon that impose injustices daily. These problems deserve not only words of acknowledgement, they deserve genuine action. We need election reform, a better way of hiring and evaluating police officers, systems of compensating for past injustices and systems for preventing future injustices. That work happens to oppose opposition to the idea, "You are either for us or you are against us" and "it is permissible to respond to words and other communicative acts with violence."

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sidgwick: Methods of Ethics, Part 01

In 22 days, I will be in class.

One of those classes, I strongly believe, will begin with an evaluation of Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics. As this is considered a work of central importance in philosophy, I am reading through it and feel that I should provide a critique of its contents.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of a critque of this sort to focus on points of disagreement rather than on points of agreement. And, I have a point of disagreement.

In Book I, Chapter 1, Sidgwick lays out what he takes to be the proper focus of his study. He wants to examine the various ways in which people make moral decisions - various "methods of ethics". These are intuitional - the immediate apprehension of the good or the bad of an action; the egoistical - the good of the agent who is making the decision; the utilitarian - the general good of all people. He argues that people generally tend to rely on all three methods, shifting from one to another. It is his intention to study these three methods, to determine their proper realm, and to find some intellectual balance between them.

In considering his account, I have come up with a way of viewing the various moral theories as they relate to desirism.

Desirism says that individuals with particular ends or desires, living in a community where they can influence the desires of others, have reasons to use their social tools to mold the desires of others in ways compatible with the fulfillment of their own desires.

To illustrate. I have an aversion to pain. I have reason to cause others to have an aversion to causing me pain - doing so will help me to avoid a state in which I am in pain. They, insofar as they have an aversion to pain, have reasons to cause in me a like aversion to causing pain.

Of course, an aversion to causing pain will do some good. However, there is more than one way for them to get me (and for me to get them) to act in ways that will prevent the realization of a state in which they are in pain (or I am in pain, respectively).

But, if I want others to refrain from acting in ways that will put me in a state of pain, there are several ways I can do this. I have mentioned these several ways before, but I have not systematically set them side by side for examination.

I have spoken about the use of reward and punishment as incentive and deterrence. However, I have said that this is not an actual interest in the subject of morality. This is its purpose in law - and in enforcing the rules of a game.

In the realm of morality, reward and punishment are used to alter desires and aversions - to prevent me from causing you pain because, for one reason or another, I do not wish to cause you pain or - better yet - I wish that I do not cause you pain or - even better - I wish that you are not in pain.

I regularly distinguish between a desire to realize some state and a desire that realizes some state. For example, you can get me to avoid actions that cause you pain by getting me to have an aversion to causing you pain. Or I can have an aversion to doing something that might cause you pain. You may want to cause in me an aversion to driving drunk on the grounds that if I had an aversion to driving drunk, I would have an aversion that would make it less likely that you or somebody you care about will be in a state of pain. You may have reason to cause in me a desire to keep my promises because, if I had such a desire, you would be able to plan your own actions based on a reliable prediction that I will do what I said I would do. This will help you to fulfill your other desires. My desire to keep my promises is not a desire to help you fulfill your other desires, but it is a desire that helps you to fulfill your other desires.

I would like to address another set of distinctions - using a desire to tell the truth as an example.

You can give me a desire to tell the truth - a desire to report what is true because it is true, and an aversion to saying what is false because it is false. This is a desire or an aversion that takes truthtelling as its object - the agent is directly concerned with the fact that her statements are true regardless of their consequences or any other consideration. This is not to say that this desire or aversion cannot be outweighed by other concerns, but it does exist so as to motivate a person to generally tell the truth and refrain from lying.

You can also give me a desire to do that which is right and an aversion to doing that which is wrong - accompanied by a belief that telling the truth is right and lying is wrong. This has an advantage over the first system in that it is easier to modify. All one needs to do is change my belief about what is right and wrong and this will change my actions. Whereas the first system requires a change in my desires - a shift in my desire to tell the truth and my aversion to lying. On the other hand, what is an advantage is also, at the same time, a disadvantage. Being an intelligent and reflective person I am likely to look into this belief that telling the truth is right and lying is wrong and ask, "What is it? Can such a thing ever be?" And, questioning whether telling the truth is right and lying is wrong, I lose the motivation to tell the truth and refrain from lying.

A third option is to simply promote an interest in general utility. It would follow, for a person interested in the overall good, that a general disposition to tell the truth and to refrain from lying is a disposition we would all have reason to adopt and to promote in others. And yet we would recognize that this disposition may need to be overridden if following it would, itself, produce a great deal of misery. The problem with utilitarianism rests in the fact that it works best if there is a single ultimate end to be maximized - and there is no such end. This began as a simple aversion each individual had to experiencing their own pain. This provided people generally with reasons to promote in others a set of interests that would reduce the chance that they would be in a state of pain. Now, as a result, we have people with multiple interests. Each person still has their own aversion to pain. They have an aversion to others being in pain. They have an aversion to bringing it about that others are in pain. They have a desire to do that which is right and refrain from doing that which is wrong. They have a desire to maximize utility. And each and every one of these motivations provides its own reason for action.

Sometimes these motives or springs of action conflict with one another. Situations will arise in which a person's aversion to his own pain will conflict with his aversion to others being in pain, or his aversion to doing that which is wrong and belief that an action that will prevent some pain for himself is wrong. There is no single end guiding an individual's action - but multiple ends. So there is no single "end" for the interest in utility to latch onto.

What I like about this is that it shows us where the three dominant theories of ethics comes from.

You have the person who tells the truth because it is the truth and refrains from lying because it is lying. This is the virtue conception of ethics - the idea that morality consists in having good character traits.

You have the person who has a desire to do what is right and a belief that truth-telling is right, and an aversion to doing what is wrong and a belief that lying is wrong. This is deontological moral theory - the theory that states that right and wrong is determined by following certain rules, and that there is no greater virtue than acting from a sense of duty - doing right the right thing because it is the right thing.

Finally, you have the person who tries to maximize utility - recognizing that truthtelling, as a rule of thumb, tends to maximize utility.

All three major types of morality can be grounded on the interests of individuals in avoiding their own pain - and similar natural, biological interests - and nothing more complex or mysterious than that.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Right of Necessity

One of the things I do for entertainment is listen to the New Books in Philosophy podcast.

The most recent episode interviews Alejandra Mancilla on her book The Right of Necessity, Moral Cosmopolitanism, and Global Poverty.

Basically, the paradigm example of the right of necessity involves a hiker, caught in the wilderness when an unexpected blizzard hits, finds shelter in a mountain cabin. She violates the right to property to break into the cabin. This is generally considered as being permissible.

However, if this is permissible, then is it not also permissible for people who are starving because of a famine to take food from those who have more food than they can use? Does it not justify those need medical care to survive taking what they need to acquire medical care? If not, why not?

Alejandra Mancilla argues that it is permissible. In fact, she argues that people have a right to the basic necessities - a Hohfeldian right that implies that others have a duty of non-interference.

I have used the cabin case as a counter-example to a strong thesis of Libertarian property rights. The libertarian would say that the hiker has to stay outside the cabin and freeze to death, refusing to violate the property rights of the owner.

However, if one says that the hiker has a moral permission to break into the cabin while the owners are absent, then why does the hiker not have a reason to break into the cabin if the owners are present? The right of necessity seems to imply that, if the owners are present, they have no right to tell the hiker, "Stay outside and freeze to death." Instead, they have an obligation to provide the hiker with aid.

In the same way that the cabin owners have an obligation to provide the hiker with a warm place to stay, the wealthy have an obligation to provide the sick and starving - at least those who can be helped with some small cost to the super rich - with food and medical care. This is not a supererogatory action. This is a duty.

In desirism terms, people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn and even to punish those who hoard wealth while others are suffering from a lack of food and medicine - the basics of survival. Helping the global poor is not a supererogatory action - it is a moral requirement, like keeping promises and repaying debts.

On documents page of my Desirism website, there is a paper on "A Foundation for Political Change" which applies these same ideas to the Lockean system of property rights. People seem to forget that Locke's theory of property rights require that those with properly leave "as good and as much" in common for others - enough to meet the basic necessities of life. If there is not enough property left in common for others, then those who have hoarded property have taken more than they have a right to take from the state of nature.

If there is not as much or as good left in common for others, then those who have hoarded an excess amount of properly need to provide those others with that which is at least as good as what they could have acquired from there being "as good and as much" left in nature for them.

We can turn this into an argument for global basic income, if we please - even if it is an income that is provided through an employer of last resort that a person can go to if they cannot find another job. This employer of last resort could put such people to work doing whatever they can do in service to the public good (if anything), but in all cases give them as good and as much as they need for the basics of survival.

Mancella expresses her arguments in terms of rights. However, it is generally easy to translate rights-talk into desire-talk.

One way of saying that A has a right to X is to say that people with good desires would act to ensure that A acquired X. A right to a fair trial means an obligation on the part of others to establish the institutions necessary to provide people with a fair trial. An act is obligatory if it an act that a person with good desires would do. Those who fail to do that which a person with good desires would do may legitimately be subject to condemnation or punishment.

The right to the essentials of life are like the right to a fair trial. We may tax people to provide it and to morally condemn those who seek to prevent people from getting a fair trial.

This book seems to cover a lot of material that I am interested in with respect to the practical application of desirism. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to read it. I have to focus on the material that I need to get my degree. It causes me to regret the shortness of life and the few hours in a day.

I will throw out the suggestion that, if somebody wants to read it and provide a critique from the point of view of desirism, I would consider posting the document on the desirism site.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Character Thesis and The Desire Thesis

This is the month in which I return to graduate school. My first departmental meeting is in 24 days, and my first class is in 27 days.

Over in the "documents" page of the Desirism site, I have posted a new "work in progress". This is a commentary on "Character and Blame in Hume and Beyond" by Antti Kauppine.

I want to say a few words about commentaries.

Among my sources of entertainment is the podcast series, The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. In the late ancient and medieval period philosophers traditionally produced commentaries on earlier works. In fact, scholars created copies of original works by writing the original text in a column down the middle of a page with particularly wide margins. They would write their own comments in these margins. Those comments often contained some of the author's most original work as they wrote their understandings of, expansion on, or criticisms of the content of the original work.

I think that there is some value in that kind of work, so I have taken to producing my own commentaries. If I find an article with some particular merit, I have decided that it may be worth while to write a commentary on that article, explaining my understanding of that material, expanding upon it, or offering criticism of it.

Recently, I have read Questions of Character edited by Iskra Fileva. It contained Kauppine's article above, which I found worthy of commenting on as a way of developing and explaining my own view.

(NOTE: I still have a problem identifying my own view as "desirism" since it fells quite pretentious. I have an actual aversion to being the kind of person who defends my own moral theory. And, yet, I have a moral theory to defend. It causes a fair amount of tension from time to time.)

Kauppine's article concerns the "The Character Thesis" (CT).

Blame targets a person's character, as manifested by bad thoughts, words, and actions.

This is quite similar to a claim within desirism. That claim can be expressed as "The Desire Thesis."

Praise and blame - as well as other types of moral reward and punishment - targets a person's malleable desires, as manifested by bad thoughts, words, and actions, with the aim of promoting desires generally that produce benefits and reduce harms.

What is unstated in this thesis is that "benefits" and "harms" are understood in terms of the fulfilling and thwarting of other desires.

In the article, Kauppine produces three arguments - taken from Hume - in defense of CT.

(1) We want to attribute the bad action to the person who performed them in order to call that immoral, and we do that by saying that the action comes from the person's character.

(2) Blame has the potential of altering a person's character, which in turn can produce benefits in the form of future good action.

(3) CT is consistent with the concept of "excuse" and how excuses function in moral discussion.

These also provide reasons to accept The Desire Thesis. However, I think that this account leaves out the most important defense of CT and DT. This is the fact that praise and blame also influence the character of other people - people other than the agent. If we are interested in the utility of CT and DT, this effect on the character of several other people and their several future actions produces much more of a benefit than that produced by altering the character of the one person explicitly praised or blamed.

I use the idea of capital punishment, the use of literature to promote good character, and the power of gossip (discussed in another article in this same anthology; "The Psychology of Character, Reputation, and Gossip" by T.L. Hayes, Robert Hogan, and Nicholas Emler) to argue for the power of third-person or even fictional-person praise and condemnation.

So, we add to these:

(4) Blame has the potential of altering the character of people other than the person blamed, thus harvesting benefits from their improved behavior as well.

Of course, (4) is particularly important in desirism, where reward and punishment - including praise and condemnation - are used as a tool to mold malleable desires and, thereby, produce more behavior that tends to fulfill other desires and less behavior that tends to thwart other desires.

After presenting these arguments in favor of CT (and, even more so, DT), Kauppine considers three objections.

(O1) The Autonomy Objection: Blame should attach to that which is under an agent's control, and character traits are not under an agent's control.

According to Kauppine, Hume simply denies that blame is attached to that which is under a person's control in some "free will" sense. We seek to blame the person, and that means attaching the act to his character. DT goes further in denying that blame is free from control by arguing that character is under the influence of blame itself (or, more accurately, rewards and punishments including praise and condemnation).

(O2) The Moral Luck Objection: The level of praise or blame given to people depends, to some extent, on the effects of their actions independent of character. For example, we recognize the distinction between attempted murder and murder even where that difference is attributed to some matter of luck thwarting the attempt.

Kauppine argues that Hume simply denies the existence of moral luck. DT, on the other hand, takes morality to be a practice that the vast majority of people - regardless of their backgrounds and levels of education - must participate in. Therefore, it cannot be too complicated. There is no way to remove moral luck without making morality too complicated. This is why it remains. Yet, blame still targets character since its purpose is to alter character - to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and aversions that tend to prevent the thwarting of other desires.

(O3) Blame of Actions Out of Character: The thesis that blame targets character is threatened by the observation that we assign blame even when a harmful act is out of character. A person cannot entirely escape blame for a violent assault on the grounds that it is out of character.

According to Kauppine, Hume would argue that these actions are not actually out of character if they come from the person being blamed, even if they are unusual for that person. DT makes this more explicit and defines "out of character" in the morally relevant sense as "anything that comes from traits that praise and condemnation have no power over". Can the rare action be prevented by a stronger character, which itself is under the influence of praise and condemnation? If so, then it is not out of character in the relevant sense.

So, we have four arguments in defense of CT (and of DT) and a response to three potential objections.

These responses help to illuminate the features of desirism and, through this, produce a significant value. In my previous writings, I have not given much attention to the fact that a moral theory is one that nearly everybody can use. Yet, it proves to be an essential part of the defense against the "moral luck" objection. This discussion also heads off in the direction of equating a person's character traits with "the person" - the issue of personal identity - which I have seen for a long time but not explored in detail.

The one thought I want to leave you with is that the fact that this is a commentary does not imply that it is trivial. This commentary describes some important developments in and components of desirism.