Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Only Slightly Manic Linking

First things first. A friend of mine, Ben, who was until I perhaps unwisely ventured into the world of work a coursemate, has started his own blog. Doubtless presuming to a status as arbiter of my lonely gaggle of occasional readers' taste which is laughably out of my reach, I recommend it, on the basis that he is clever, interesting and an all-round nice bloke. He has been added to the blogroll.

Now, some more philosophical stuff. Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise has been doing posts on request, in order to raise money to go and report on whatever part of the coming judgement Tom DeLay, erstwhile leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, is receiving early. She's done ones on the end justifying the means thing and the foundationalism - coherentism distinction in epistemology. Both are fine introductions for the philosophically uninitiated.

Also, Political Arguments has a nice discussion going about the metaethical implications of Rawls, which I think may well be substanially wrongheaded - it forgets that Rawls is a political theorist, not a moral philosopher, and so nothing he says about the epistemological status of his normative claims necessarily implies anything about the epistemological status of normative claims more generally - but is nevertheless thoughtful and thought-provoking.

In more philosophy-related shenigans, Stumbling and Mumbling finds someone who thinks, more or less, that something being meritocratic justifies it - well, he thinks that laissez-faire capitalism's alleged meritocracy insulates it from leftish critiques, which is much the same thing, just with an added, somewhat implausible, empirical premise. This is, quite frankly, bollocks. If we, at age ten, killed everyone who couldn't run one hundred metres in under fifteen seconds, say, that would be meritocratic in the sense that on the basis of reasonably fair assessment of some ability, goods and bads would be distributed. However, this would clearly be really, really, really evil. Ergo, meritocracy doesn't necessarily justify social arrangements. The running example suggests that some attention to the goods and bads distributed by the social arrangements, and the pattern of that distribution, is needed. I suspect that laissez-faire capitalism does less well on this score.

In the last quasi-philosophy-related item, Matt Yglesias seems to claim that the horror of the Allied bombing of Germany in the Second World War is mitigated by the fact that the Germans could have given up, or overthrown Hitler, or something. I find this incredibly difficult to accept. Bombing genuine military targets without taking special care not to harm civilians is seriously wrong, whilst indiscriminate bombing of civilians is not only, I understand, a recognised war crime but totally f*cking disgusting. The former is a long way from being justified by the Germans at worst support for the Nazi regime and at best failure, but not without trying, to solve a significant collective action problem, but the latter is basically totally incapable of justification. It would have been totally unjustifiable to slowly cook Hitler, had he been captured by the Allies at the end of the war, and so surely the idea that there is anything that can mitigate doing the same to tens of thousands of civilians is simply repulsive.

Finally, Stumbling and Mumbling has some problems with London. He is lying, about all of them, the snotty-nosed little provincial oik, as I can only say I expect of someone who watches enough of Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Eastenders to be able to comment with confidence on the the relative attractiveness of their female cast members. It may be that he lives north of the River, and is judging on the basis of that alone, but that just shows that, as every South Londoner knows and has known forever, North Londoners are self-obsessed arrogant b*stards.


Ben said...

Thanks for the plug... I've not been going long, and hadn't yet decided whether I had anything to say worth publicising, but it's appreciated anyway!

jrm said...

I totally agree with you, Robert. I actually went and returned to read the MY post and confess I was appalled. MY is not really qualified to call his site "reality based."

I am utterly, categorically hostile to the notion of collective guilt. First, how can one reasonably estimate the collective guilt of humans subjected to a decade of totalitarian rule? Germans began the era with ample grounds for believing the whole of Europe was their enemy; they gradually sank into a pit whence there was little hope of escape, in which any individual German faced death for even subtle expressions of opposition.

Second, collective guilt is obviously irrational. Suppose you say that all US nationals are to blame for the invasion of Iraq, inter alia. Ah, but guilt implies there is one appropriate punishment that corresponds to the degree of guilt (let's say it's g; perhaps a permanent decrement in per capita GDP). Now, if we're really talking about collective guilt, then this must apply evenly to all US nationals, including those who vociferously opposed it but had no clue what to do to stop it. That's what "collective guilt" means (as opposed to a large cohort of guilty persons, which is perfectly plausible). We could assume that there is a smaller group of US nationals--say, white US nationals--who bear a culpability that is greater, by virtue of greater privilege, greater influence, greater personal safety; their collective guilt is g', where g' > g.

But then, what logical grounds is there for not allowing the creation of a new category of culpability? Say, the set of all English-speaking whites (since we're assigning collective guilt here; can Tony Blair be wholly absolved, while Daniel Ellsberg bears g'?). Now, the set of ESW's has a culpability of g'', which may be > g (since non-white Americans can hardly be blamed for the actions of a racist establishment) but certainly is < g' (since white Americans are obviously more responsible than randomly selected members of ESW). However, the proliferation of categories makes any stable value of g': g'' impossible.

Rob Jubb said...


it wasn't so much that I opposed the notion of collective guilt, although what you say about that seems perfectly sensible, but that bombing civilians seems, in principle, un-mitigatable. I'd be a bit careful about ruling out collective guilt totally - I can think of two cases, which, off the top of my head, seem reasonable: the German Officer Corps for second world war battlefield casualties, given that they supported the war initially and then prosecuted it fairly vigourously; and, to some degree, clearly less than any individual directly responsible for it, but nonetheless to some degree, Germany as a whole for the Holocaust (say to the extent of granting some sum from government funds to all Holocaust survivors and relatives of those who died). I'm not sure that it's not sometimes possible to pick out groups who can be held responsible for actions or failures to act, although Yglesias is clearly not doing so.

Anonymous said...

I just thought I'd inveigh with a Private Eye realised appreciation of your assertion about North Londoners.

Extended philosophical musing fails me at this point.

Anonymous said...

Hmm you want to think more about what these books and big words you have been reading really mean than spouting amateur philosphical w*nk about them.