Thursday, February 24, 2005

Late Night Link

I like this. I'm not saying more, because I'm about to go to bed, and can't be arsed. It's another good idea, although I can see the potential for backdraft (Lisa can be a little sanctimonious). Hat-tip to Avedon Carol of The Sideshow.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dolores, You Know It's True...

On a much less serious note, cats are, well, exactly like this

Hat-tip to my better half, who says it's from

Watching The Watchers

This piece by Russell Arben Fox is a little rambling and perhaps over-long, as is quite a lot of what he writes, but, again, as is quite a lot of what he writes, pleasingly knowledgable and suggestive. He argues that because the idea of legitimacy of a coercive authority presupposes some group for whom that authority is legitimate, political theorists should be more concerned about the creation of that group, and attacks social contract style theories because they suppose some universal human characteristic to draw the boundaries of that group, rather than being concerned with the historical creation of the group, its power structures and so on (he then goes on to talk about some bits of American history I don't know anything about really).

I'm suspicious of this: it confuses the proper tasks of history and of political theory, I think. Political theory is largely about laying out the conditions for the legitimacy of political arrangements, about the normative assessment of the structures of coercive authority imposed on individuals and groups. History is largely about describing how we came to be in the position that we are in. How we came to be in the position that we are in, the story of our predecessors, is not usually directly relevant to that position's legitimacy: the legitimacy of the current devolved government of Scotland, for example, does not depend on whether the Act of Union was binding on the Scottish people, but on whether the current devolved institutions fufill the requirements of legitimacy to its current citizens. There might be duties in the requirements of legitimacy that are historical - if African-Americans descended from slaves are owed reparations for their ancestors treatment, then the US government has a historically created duty to ensure payment of those reparations - but these strike me both as exceptional and as misleading. They fall under a general present-oriented account of duties - it's because there are harms now which these people are suffering from that we have, if we do, a duty to provide compensation - and a concern with history in the way I think Russell is advocating misses this.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A Good Idea

This is, I declare, a Good Idea.

Like The Murphy's...

he's not bitter. The extent to which I agree with him is rather disspiriting.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Anomalous Monism

Note: this is substanially drawn from an essay I wrote for a course on the philosophy of the social sciences last christmas.

The now sadly departed Donald Davidson was, in my humble opinion, a really bloody good philosopher (and not only in my opinion: Bernard Williams was, perhaps unsurprisingly given the similarity of their views on the embeddedness of human life in language and social practice, a great admirer according to Williams's Guardian obituary). Davidson worked on a number of areas in philosophy, but the most consistent theme through his work was a concern with the philosophy of language, of understanding how we communicate with and understand each other. This stemmed from a basically Quinean view of epistemology, holding that knowledge is bound together in a kind of web, and that this web is added to according to what it already contains. Originally developed in 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism', Quine's view turned on the idea that empirical evidence relating any theory never by itself refuted or proved the theory, because to make the empirical evidence relevant to a given theory itself required interpretation (this isn't quite the line he takes in 'Two Dogmas' but it is, I think, representative of his view more generally). For example, if I hold that all crows are black, and I see a creature which is like a crow in every respect but white, I have a number of options: I can believe that I am mistaken as to its likeness or hallucinating, I can hold that the creature is not a crow, and presumably, an indefinite number of increasingly bizarre things, or I can say that it refutes the claim that all crows are black. Which of these choices I make depends on which other claims in my belief-set I hold constant: faith in my perceptual equipment, most obviously.

Because such a theory makes all meaning contingent (or at least much more meaning that was conventionally philosophically assumed at the time of 'Two Dogmas'), it places a lot of weight on the contingent practice which gives meaning to things, language. Interpretation, in the broadest sense, of linguistic practice, then becomes the task of the philosopher. Davidson's work illustrates how what could be seen as a serious limitation on the work of philosophers should almost be seen as a liberation. He wrote on agency, events, and radical interpretation - what we have to do, what assumptions are necessary, to come to understand what someone whose language we have no understanding of - inventively and intriguingly. The part of his work I am most familiar with is his theory of anomalous monism, which claimed to reconcile three apparently contradictory intuitions about our mental lives, that they are not casually determined, that they interact casually with the physical world, and that all causes fall under general, strict deterministic laws. This triad appears incompatible because if, for example, my wanting an ice-cream causes me to get and eat an ice-cream, then it would seem to be the case that if causes fall under general, strict deterministic laws, then there must be such a law which explains my wanting an ice-cream, and my mental life must be determined.

Davidson’s solution to this problem, in his paper 'Mental Events', is to argue that any given mental event is identical with some physical event, and that this explains how the mental interacts causally with the physical world, but that there are no general and strict laws which link mental events qua mental events either to other mental events or to physical events. This means that the mental events do not themselves fall under any general and strict laws: the physical events which mental events are identical with fall under causal laws, yes, but the mental events do not. The argument turns on two points about linguistic practice, that the mental and the physical have distinct practices of property ascription, and that to fail to respect those practices of property ascription would be to fail to treat the mental qua mental, and that general and strict laws are themselves a form of linguistic practice.

He argues for this conclusion by showing that there are some properties which could not together be the subject of laws. The property of being ‘grue’, that is, blue until time t, and green after time t, would not go with the property of being an emerald, because physical objects like emeralds just do not suddenly change colour for no reason. The property of being an ‘emerire’, however, would go with the property of being ‘grue’, because it is the property of being an emerald until time t and a sapphire after time t. There could be law-like causal statements about ‘emerires’ and ‘grue’: there aren’t, as a matter of fact, because there are no ‘emerires’ and no things which are ‘grue’, but there could be. This makes it at least possible that properties might not be suited to be joined together in causal laws, because there.

What he further needs to show is that mental events and physical events fall into this class of things which are not made to be put together in strict, general laws. He does this through a discussion of length, the conclusion of which is that “just as we cannot intelligibly assign length to any object unless a comprehensive theory holds of objects of that sort, we cannot intelligibly attribute any propositional attitude to an agent except with the framework of a viable theory of his beliefs, desires, intentions and decisions”. If outside of this characteristically mental framework, attribution of propositional attitudes becomes unintelligible, then any attempt to attribute propositional attitudes on the basis of physical evidence, which would, of course, inevitably be in the framework associated with that vocabulary, would be unintelligible (and vice versa).

Davidson justifies this by asking us to consider what we would say if we were ever to come across a triad of objects across which length was not transitive, arguing that our whole theory of what length was, and what sort of objects we could apply it to, would in this case break down. This is because we do not have the conceptual tools to understand the idea that objects could have length without transitivity applying to them: the very idea of rigid objects only makes sense in terms of the idea of them having length and consequently being longer or shorter, and vice versa. Therefore, we can say that “the whole set of axioms, laws, or postulates for the measurement of length is partly constitutive of the idea of a system of macroscopic, rigid, physical objects”, that the two ideas are only intelligible in terms of each other. Davidson also makes the further claim that “the existence of law-like statements in physical science depends on the existence of constitutive … laws like those of the measurement of length” that we use to describe physical objects. Granted the first claim, it is unclear how this could not be true: if the very idea of “macroscopic, rigid, physical objects” is intelligible only with these “axioms, laws and postulates”, then the idea of laws governing such objects which do not depend equally on these must surely also be unintelligible at least, if not downright bizarre. Thus laws in physical science can only be suited to physical events and could not be used to describe mental events unless those mental events could be described in physical terms.

Not only does the mental not have these constitutive characteristics – it is clearly not a “system of macroscopic, rigid, physical objects” – it has another set of its own constitutive characteristics, because “we make sense of particular beliefs only as they cohere with other beliefs, with preferences, with intentions, hopes, fears, expectations and the rest”. The mental, because of this responsibility “to the background of reasons, beliefs and intentions of the individual” cannot be reduced to the physical: not only is it holistic and interdependent, subject to a degree of indeterminacy, but, crucially, since these could be, in part, resolved, by arbitrary choice of rules on which to attribute, it is also evolutionary. It grows and changes, and so, “we must stand prepared, as evidence accumulates, to adjust our theory in light of considerations of overall cogency”, with “the constitutive ideal of rationality” controlling this process.

Imagine someone who gave a false rationalization of their behaviour: if we at first accepted their explanation, what happens is that, because of new evidence about their motivations, we altered our assessment of their reasons, essentially eliminating some mental objects and replacing them with others. It can also be seen in the interactions of the mental with the physical, as the physical, by hypothesis, includes everything there is and could be, and so cannot interact with anything other than itself. Not only is this elimination and replacement elimination and replacement of objects in an indeterminate and holistic system, it is elimination and replacement which is itself indeterminate and holistic, and has no counterpart in physical theory.

Once we have measured something, its length does not change without some other physical object interacting with it, yet our attribution of a belief can change because we come to a new interpretation of an individual’s behaviour, without that implying that they have changed their mind. Mass and energy cannot be created or destroyed: these are fundamental laws of physical science, and yet, the mental apparently routinely accepts the destruction of its objects without dispersing its equivalents of mass and energy into its other contents. These features, the conservation of mass and energy, that length does not change without interactions with other physical objects, are crucial to the very idea of the physical – as we have seen, the physical is inconceivable without them (and they without it) – but the mental does not only not have them, it has their precise opposites and thus, speaking of the mental as physical is literally unintelligible.

This unintelligibility is created by two features of the mental, that it does not form a closed system in the same way that the physical does, and the constitutive role of rationality in governing that open system. This role is played for the closed physical system by theories like those of length, and the radical difference between the two constitutive theories, including the fact that the systems are respectively open and closed, is what means that there cannot be strict psycho-physical laws: to be indeterminate and holistic could be resolved by just deciding to do things in a particular way, but to be intelligible only under minimum constraints of rationality, and to have the ability to increase and reduce its size, cannot be arbitrarily settled in this way without changing the subject.

Further, given that the strict causal laws we do have are all couched in the vocabulary of the physical sciences, and the mental cannot be understood in terms of the vocabulary of the physical sciences, as we have just seen, it looks likely that the mental itself cannot have any strict deterministic laws. What is key, and makes it so implausible that there could be strict laws relating to the mental is again the fact that it does not constitute a closed system: to put the points expressed in the last paragraph in a different way, the possibility of causal laws vanishes once objects and events can appear and disappear under the influence of objects and events outside the system, because there is no possibility to exhaustively list the interactions of the various objects and events. This is because the interactions cannot be fixed, which is what causal laws are governing in the end, if the objects and events themselves cannot be fixed, which they cannot if they appear and disappear for because of interactions which are not themselves part of the system (interactions which could not themselves be specified under any causal laws appropriate for the domain in question anyway).

This has some implications for social scientists, because they can tend to see their project as attempting to articulate strict and general causal laws about human behaviour. Yet, if Davidson is correct, there are no strict and general causal laws about individual human behaviour, although there might be about social phenomena if they are not simply reducible to individual human acts. This bears on evolutionary psychology because it does seem to be attempting to, like psychology more generally, give strict and general causal laws about individual human behaviour. This is simply not possible if Davidson is right, which is of course not to say that evolutionary psychology is not useful or interesting, just that it’s not going to be giving us definitive answers to the questions it is currently trying to answer.

Update: It should of course also be noted that Davidson's argument leaves two avenues open. We could just stop talking about the mental at all: I understand that Churchland has proposed something like this, calling it 'eliminative materialism', and I think that Quine's own view about the philosophy of mind was something like this as well. If we're Quineans though, there might be a problem in that an epistemology which makes philosophy into a project of interpreting language needs to have room for interpretation. Stopping talking about the mental would seem to make it rather difficult to talk about interpretation, a definitively mental activity if there ever was one.

Leave It, He's Not Worth It...

As anyone who knows me will already know, I find it very difficult to let an argument that hasn't explicitly been settled go. This is partly an enjoyment of (relatively) polite argument, and partly, I like to think, that I and others ought to care about getting things right, being justified, and arguing to a conclusion is the best way to do this. So, in the interests of me ever getting anything else done, I decree that people shall stop disagreeing with me, at least until they actually have a response to what I said in the first place, because otherwise, all I do is reiterate the same point over and over again until I become literally insane with frustration. Yes, Matt G, I mean you in particular, although you are not by any stretch of the imagination the only offender against basic canons of good argument I have encountered (see update). I'm not sure whether this unwillingness to bother to think at all about what the people you're disagreeing with say is a particular feature of the blogosphere, or whether it's more general, and I just haven't noticed because I've spent a lot of time recently in the relatively cloistered environment of academia, where people tend to, because they are usually more interested in being right than winning the argument, take their disputant's points seriously. Either way, it's bloody annoying, not only for itself, but because it means I end up repeating myself over and over a-bloody-gain in a sometimes time-consuming and always boring manner. So, please, please, stop it. All of you.

Update: Matt G has now given a substantive defence of his view, which is what I was trying to press him for, so the reference to him above should be scratched (you should still at least have a look at the thread, because it's interesting). I still don't think he's right, because he is still stipulating that God is necessarily supernatural and thus non-existing (yes, I know, the ridiculous things that philosophers argue about...), which seems to me to be in fairly direct contradiction with his point about the flexibility of the category of existence, and his claim about existing things falling under laws should be read in light of what I say about anomalous monism above. Hopefully this shows that I'm not complaining about people disagreeing with me, which would be a tad dogmatic of me to say the least, but disagreeing with me without taking any bloody notice of a damn thing I say, which is just rude of them.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Bruce Ackerman On The Supreme Court

Jack Balkin has his colleague Bruce Ackerman's discussion of the forthcoming US Supreme Court appointments from this fortnight's LRB here. It's good. Also, I think I may try and write something on Donald Davidson's anamolous monism later this week in response to this over at Crooked Timber, the relevance of which will become clear if and when I write on it.

Whilst I'm At It...

Body and Soul is very good too. Particularly this. If you are inclined to vote in the Koufax poll, I'd vote for it: I think it's better than any of the other pieces I've read.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

I Love Fafblog

This is all that needs to be said. Apart, perhaps, from a mention of the dangers of posting once you have been drinking.


Chris Brooke has already started crowing, I see, but I really don't want to congratulate the French on their 17-18 victory over England this afternoon: I want to do something I would deeply regret to more or less each and every member of that England team. I want an explanation of how a France team with all the attacking verve and imagination of a tortoise on valium managed to score twelve unanswered points in the second half. I want an explanation of how England managed to miss so many kicks that they could have plausibly doubled their points total, and of why they carried on kicking for goal after it was obvious neither Hodgson nor Barkley had their kicking boots on.

England completely collapsed as soon as the French started to, God Almighty, keep the ball for more than a single phase. Pointless penalties were given away. Pedestrian attacks petered out. It was awful. They crumpled under a tiny bit of pressure. I don't think I've seen England play so badly in a competitive international since Kevin Keegan was allegedly managing the football team. Remember England - Romania in Euro 2000? Remember that pointless, stupid, ugly Phil Neville tackle on Moldovan to give away a penalty in the dying minutes when all we needed was an undeserved draw against mediocre opposition to go through? Remember how it was more or less entirely representative of the team's performance? No? Well, lucky for you. This was that bad in the second half.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

I Don't Want To Destroy The Sun, But It Could Do With Being A Little Less Bright

I'm going to try to express myself very carefully here, because this depends on a series of relatively fine distinctions, despite their validity, and apparently even obscure people on the left can be used to make a general smear (see Ward Churchill, all over the bloody place). Ted Barlow has a wonderfully titled post over at Crooked Timber, picking up on a right wing blogger claiming that the left is engaged in dastardly conspiracy with the despicable forces of Radical Islam to destroy all that is good and wholesome about the world. The left generally is clearly not in dastardly conspiracy with the despicable forces of Radical Islam: if they were, they'd be in prison, probably being tortured. The left - and I include myself here - does however dislike a lot of the things that US (which is explicitly what is meant by all that is good and wholesome about the world here) does, including in foreign policy.

A lot of the left - and there are exceptions: Harry's Place, for example - thought and continue to think that the Iraq War was a mendaciously justified, illegal, unnecessary, badly executed invasion, which will end up being completely unjustified, because its costs will vastly outweigh any plausible benefits. The left tends to think this about a lot of the foreign policy of the US, and in many cases, it's even clearer than in Iraq: the vast majority of its interventions in Latin America, for example. This means that the left can see some advantages to things which impose constraints on American foreign policy, things which raise the costs of foreign policy adventures for the political establishment in the US.

If you don't want the American corporate elite attempt to run erstwhile sovereign countries substanially for their benefit, then there is a prima facie advantage to things which make that more difficult. It is not necessarily an all-things-considered advantage, because there are other costs to be considered: the harm that could be caused to people, obviously including Americans, by the acts that make it more difficult to project American power around the globe, is an obvious disadvantage, which very often makes such acts just clearly vastly wrong in the all-things-considered sense. I seems to me that all acts of genuine terrorism have this character: terrorism, like torture or carpet bombing built-up areas, is just intrinsically wrong, and no matter what prudential considerations can be made in favour of it, it should never be done.

Still, to some degree, the prudential considerations remain, even though they should never be acted on. Thus, the left can see a prudential consideration in favour of Radical Islam insofar as it successfully opposes some aspects of American foreign policy: obviously, it's not a prudential consideration that means they support either the project as a whole or the means used to achieve the ends given by that project, since they abhor both the project and the means used to achieve its ends, but it is, to some extent, a valid prudential consideration. For example, assuming that the insurgency in Iraq is motivated by Radical Islam, which I don't think it is, if we also assume that once Iraq has calmed down, Iran is next on the list, and we think invading Iran would be at least as stupid and wrong as invading Iraq, the insurgency in Iraq is preventing that, which is something to be said for it. Again, obviously, the insurgents are a despicable group of people, with pretty uniformly awful aims and disgusting methods of attempting to achieve them, so the left generally despises them and certainly does not support them, but, the fact that they are preventing the US from projecting its power elsewhere is some kind of an advantage.

I've been quite careful to say that I don't support terrorists of any stripe, and that I abhor the aims and methods of Radical Islam, so, please don't accuse me of that. What I am saying is that, given that the left would generally prefer the US not to act in the way it does in foreign policy, things which make it more difficult for the US to act in the way it does in foreign policy have something to be said for them, specifically, that they make it more difficult for the US to act in the way it does in foreign policy. In lots of cases, that's all that there is to be said for them, and since these things are often fairly f*cking awful themselves, it doesn't really have any bearing on their all-things-considered moral status. But, in some restricted sense, it's something to be said for them.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Warning: Braying Sentimentality Ahead

I can't stand the Royal Family, and I think that that comes not from them - although they're fairly repulsive - but from the attitude of the population at large to them. Fawning like credulous peasants lining up to have the mystical power of the Monarch's touch to sanctify them through their God-given majesty and cure them of every ill just isn't a particularly appealing or appropriate attitude of citizens in a 21st century democracy. I want to shout: 'these people owe their status and wealth to the oppression and exploitation of the people of this country going back at least as far as 1066: you owe them nothing but rigteous ire'. When Diana died, I found the allegedly spontaneous welling-up of grief absolutely disgusting: here is a rich, pretty, stupid and rather troubled woman who died in a car crash (don't get me started on the conspiracy stuff, really, don't) whom none of you knew, who may have done a couple of good things in her life - God knows she ought to have, given that she had f*ck-all else to do - and we are supposed to mourn her like some kind of saint, to the exclusion of a genuine saint. It was a kind of mass hysteria, a purely emotional reaction to an icon that had no proper place in any iconography, and I hated it. So, the news that Charles and Camilla are going to get married does not fill me with happiness: although I suppose it's nice that they are finally getting married, it's no nicer than the marriage of anyone else, and since, as a general rule, no-one gets exicted about the fact that someone whom they don't know, never will know, and have nothing in common with beyond membership of the human race gets married, I don't think anyone apart from their friends and families should be getting excited about their wedding. But they will, and it will send me into fits of apoplexy.

Libertarianism, Value Pluralism and Rules

Timothy Burke has a post here about what he thinks is one of the sources of the libertarian idea - both on the left and the right - that the state has no business interfering in its citizens lives, arguing that the way in which a set of rules, necessarily general, will come to the wrong conclusion in some cases because they cannot take proper account of the complexity of our moral lives seems to bear against the state, which must act through rules (positive law, for example, is a set of rules). This bears some resemblance to my complaint against consequentialism below: as his example of the practice of clearing parking spaces shows (really: it's a good example), there are all kinds of competing consideration at work when we judge acts or persons morally, and rules, because they have to be simple and general to work at all, can't take all those things into account. I think we need rules, and we just have to accept that while they might seem arbitrary at the margins, they are justified if they catch an important set of cases most of the time, and that the state is not the only institution whose use of rules might distort our moral experience, so I don't feel the pull of the libertarian intuition. What I think is interesting is what gives rise to this feature of our moral experience. I think value pluralism, in the sense of competing and to some degree incommensurable values, gives rise to this feature. This alone can explain the thought that in the case of Jim and the Indians (see the post on consequentialism) Jim both ought to save the nine other Indians and ought not to kill the sacrificial victim: the duty to prevent harm and the duty to not cause harm conflict here, and we can't fulfil both.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Um, If It's So Obvious, Why Can't You Prove It In A Court Of Law


Also, on the off-chance that you're interested, I've done a re-write of the first chapter of my dissertation having met with my (new) supervisor for the first time this term yesterday, the upshot of which is that I need to make my arguments clearer and so on, with the aim that an educated layman could understand the structure of my argument. I think I've achieved this. But, you, the hopefully educated layman, are probably the best judge of this. So if you're an educated layman or woman, and would be interested in reading the first chapter of a dissertation on neutrality (not the IR sort, the political theory sort) and perfectionism, say so in the comments below, and I'll email you a copy (if I had any idea how, or access to webspace, I'd try and put it up on the site, but I don't and haven't, so won't).

Update: Pearsall from Pearsall's Books has put it up on some webspace he has elsewhere, for which, thanks, and so you should be able to get it at

Sunday, February 06, 2005


I'm in a foul mood, having just spent the better part of an hour arguing that, whatever the constitutional rights and wrongs of it, a group of less than ten percent of a community ought not to decide to spend significant proportions of that community's budget without consulting the rest of that community. Because, I mean, after all, the point of democratic institutions is to hand over all the power to nutcases like me who like arguing and haven't got anything better to do on a Sunday afternoon, isn't it? It wouldn't be to involve the people whom decisions effect in making those decisions: this is the sort of delusional radical idea entertained by lunatics and revolutionaries, who plot constantly to overthrow the natural order of things, as ordained by God and legislated by our forefathers, that only people who haven't got anything better to do on a Sunday afternoon should get to make decisions. That's a perfectly relevant characteristic for picking out who ought to get political power, isn't it: it's not at all like who are your parents, or are you wealthy, or are you sleeping with a member of the government or friends with someone who's sleeping with a member of the government. Not at all. Giving power to the people rather than some tiny subset of the people, letting them, the dangerous, unwashed, unattending masses, make choices over their money? You must be completely insane. Let me get the kind, gentle men in white coats for you...

Anyway, before I irritate anyone any more than I doubtless already have, and before my publication of largely private arguments reaches a totally unacceptable, rather than quite rude, level, this foul mood has clouded my judgement to the extent that I'm going to link to these two posts: Revolt of the Primitives and the one underneath the aforementioned at This Academic Life (the permalink seems not to be working: I'll try and remember to try and sort it out later). The Ward Churchill thing has been going round the internet for some time, and frankly the Right can just f*ck right off. Unless they want the House Committee for Un-American Activities back, since that was such a great publicity coup last time. Ward Churchill has a point - someone did something to piss off the people who flew planes into the World Trade Centre, and perhaps we ought to be thinking about what that was - and although the way he choose to express that thought is far from ideal, it's a valid point. Even if it wasn't a valid point, it's hardly grounds for firing him, which it seems is what they want. Thinking of un-American activities, Matt Yglesias has an interesting discussion of the important but rather neglected distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Remember, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel: what does that make nationalism?

Promise And Warning Fulfilled

A number of interesting things came up in the discussion about Scanlon on Wednesday, most of them quite meta-ethical - for example, if we assume that the Athenians and their slaves did not have the conceptual apparatus to see that slavery was wrong, an assumption which is totally factually unwarranted, does this prevent us from claiming that that particular instance of slavery was wrong in the sense that they had reasons not to do it? I think this is a very interesting question, because it forces us to think very hard about the consequences of taking the linguistic turn in philosophy seriously. If the claim that we cannot think outside of the web of concepts our language provides is true, then, if some group does not have the conceptual apparatus to conceive of something in a particular way, they cannot take regarding that thing in the way that they cannot as a reason to act in a certain way. Because of this, if the Athenians did not and could not see slavery as wrong, then there is at least some sense in which slavery was not wrong. I say 'some sense in which' here because I'm not sure about the precise rules about inter-temporal moral judgements on the Wittgensteinian view: I have every reason to believe that slavery is always wrong, but, ex hypothesi, the Athenians don't have any reason to believe it is, and so when I say slavery is wrong, that judgement of mine is timeless even though, for the Athenians, it is false.

There may in fact be some intuitions about what constitutes good grounds for moral judgements of moral agents, as opposed to institutions, doing some of the work here, but I'm not sure about any of these either: for example, the question of whether it is necessary to hold that some individual has acted unjustly to hold that an institution or outcome is unjust is not something I really have any firm ideas about, and that clearly plays a role here. Anyway, this isn't what I was going to write about, but if anyone has any answers, or even suggestions - I think the original question comes up in Joseph Raz's 'The Practice of Value', which I haven't read, and Gerry Cohen has apparently written on the problem of moral judgements - I'd be grateful.

The interesting thing that came up which I really wanted to write about was a type of moral theory called, in the philosophical jargon, consequentialism. Fairly obviously, consequentialism indicates a concern with consequences. That's rather vague though, because it’s not clear what we are picking out with the reference to consequences, and so we need a more precise definition of what we mean by consequences. The important question here is the question of what are consequences properties of, of what kinds of things have consequences. Two things have consequences, but in different ways: acts have consequences, in the sense that they cause certain other events to occur, and those other events are the consequences of that act, while consequences seem to inhere in states of affairs, in the sense that consequences are themselves events which are part of larger states of affairs, ways the world is. So when we talk about consequences, we are talking about events which are parts of states of affairs, but not the event which caused these other events.

This means that consequentialists must believe that events have moral character separate from their status as acts. Obviously, a consequentialist can think that the consequences of one act can include another act, but they are not interested in this act qua act, only as an event in a causal chain reaching back to the initial act, which is not itself assessed as an act, but again, as an event which started a certain causal chain (when I say causal here, I mean causal in a strict physicalist sense: there is a separate philosophical debate about whether actions qua actions – that is intentional behaviours of agents, where intentions matter – are causes, which I don’t want to get into). This distinguishes them from deontological views, which take the intention of an act as key, as in Kant’s Categorical Imperative – do not will a maxim such that you could not will it as a universal law – and virtue-based views, which hold that acting on the basis of the virtues – dispositions like courageousness, humility, fairness, honesty, and so on – is what it is to be moral.

I think that holding only this view about what kinds of things have moral character leads to some fairly bizarre consequences, and that holding a hybrid version of this view eventually comes down to adopting some form of virtue ethics, but this is on the basis of what I did as an undergraduate, and I’m not sure I can make those charges stick any more. So I’m just going to run it, and see if I can make it work. As with the musings about the Athenians and slavery, I’d really appreciate any comments.

States of affairs, the things that have events and so consequences in, are quite starkly depersonalized, especially if the events you are concerned with are bare events, and do not include events considered as acts. This is because states of affairs are necessarily global: the current state of affairs includes, banally, everything there is at the moment, but less banally, from a global perspective. They are a kind of God’s Eye or third person view, which is to some degree inaccessible from a first person perspective, and is purified of the bias which accompanies the first person perspective by being a kind of blank statement of the facts. This kind of blank statement of the facts can’t really accommodate events as acts, because events as acts are tied to the first person perspective of intentions and dispositions. This makes sense if you think about how consequentialism must view events, because if what matters about events is their event-ness, not their status as acts done by a particular actor with certain intentions and dispositions, then it would be odd for the things that events are themselves embedded in to be able to accommodate events as acts.

This depersonalization of states of affairs, of the things that bear moral character for consequentialists, makes consequentialism an incredibly impartial moral theory. Events are events, and have the same moral character, regardless of their location, because the depersonalization of those events means that any importance that their location might have is stripped away: from the impartial, third person perspective, it does not really matter whether an event happens here or there, because it is the same event as long as it has the same characteristics, and the kind of characteristics which give it its location are personal characteristics, which cannot be accommodated from the third person perspective. This impartiality gives consequentialism an awful lot of its appeal, but also gives makes it bizarre, I think.

It does this in two ways. It gives consequentialism a logic of maximization, and it makes the object of that maximization – whatever it is that gives events their moral character, whatever it is about events that consequentialists think is morally important – necessarily also impartial. These two implications of the impartiality of consequentialism are closely intertwined, because, if the bearers of moral character for consequentialists are events which are stripped of any connections they might have to agents, then those bearers of moral character are necessarily impartial, and if those bearers of moral character are necessarily impartial, then the logic of maximization follows remarkably quickly. Impartiality, in the sense outlined above, leaves one with moral goods and bads which do not have an intrinsic connection to any individuals, whose moral character is derived from the importance for the world conceived impartially, rather than because of their importance for particular individuals, and so it is not because we are doing something for a particular individual, or group of individuals, that we act morally. We are thus simply trying to make more good things, conceived of abstractly, not connected to any particular location, occur, when we act morally. Since we are simply trying to create more good events, and it must be irrational to create less when we could create more, we ought to be trying to create as much good as possible: we should maximize the good across all possible locations of the good.

This idea of maximization of the good, impartially conceived, across all its possible locations is what is morally bizarre about consequentialism, I think. It collapses a whole set of relevant moral distinctions between what is acceptable, praiseworthy and supererogatory, as well as between what is disappointing, wrong, and repugnant by demanding that we maximize, and accusing us of failure if we do not. It fails to understand that what is morally preferable or required and what is possible may come apart, as when we are faced with conflicting moral obligations: Bernard Williams’s attack on utilitarianism through the thought experiment of Jim and the Indians seems to be partly based around this intuition.

The thought at root here seems to be that moral reasoning involves taking the character of acts as acts seriously, the intentions and agency of the agents involved as having some moral import, because what Williams finds troubling about Jim and the Indians is that the consequentialist takes it as self-evident that the best thing for Jim to is kill one Indian to save the rest, despite the fact that Jim did not create the situation in which his committing what is undoubtedly a moral wrong will lead to the prevention of other moral wrongs. Jim replying that he refuses to take innocent life, and challenging the militia officer to do his own dirty work, is a legitimate course of action, if not the one we might necessarily advocate ourselves. By abstracting away from acts qua acts, the consequentialist denies the importance of responsibility: the militia officer created this situation, and he is responsible for it, not Jim, who has merely stumbled across it. To further illustrate this, think of vastly temporally distant acts and their consequences: allowing, for the sake of argument that Christianity has been a moral good, and that it would have died, not to be replaced by anything else with comparable effects, if Pontius Pilate had not crucified Christ, then that crucifixion must have good, the right thing to do. But crucifying people was a barbaric and disgusting practice, which no one ever ought to participate in. Pontius Pilate is not responsible for any unintended effects of any of his crucifixions, and we ought to judge all of them wrong.

Consequentialism, because of this abstraction, cannot account properly for what is of value either, I think. Values are connected to our status as agents, as purposive: this is why Pontius Pilate’s and Jim’s intentions in the two cases matter, because their purposes are morally relevant. If we do not consider purposes and agency, then an adequate theory of the good cannot be formulated, and so, because consequentialism rules out those as possible sources of the good, consequentialism cannot have an adequate theory of the good. This means that it cannot adequately explain why the allegedly good consequences it believes we should promote are good. The (philosophically) notorious problems of utilitarianism with hedonism are an exemplar of this, I think: it is a general problem of consequentialism that explaining why the pleasure of a torturer at torturing should not be considered as equivalent to my pleasure in writing lengthy philosophical arguments and posting them on the internet is impossible (or, if you are of that view, why they should be viewed as equivalent).

Yet, if consequentialism were to take actions, agency, as being relevant to our moral assessments, not just as producers of consequences but as examples of agency, then it would lose much of its distinctively consequentialist character, because consequences would not be bare consequences any more: morally relevant features of acts would include the agent’s intentions and commitments, which might outweigh considerations of the consequences of the act in question. The distinction between this and the virtue ethics view, that certain dispositions – the virtues – are what make a person moral, and that a moral act is done from those dispositions, would be very thin, because the virtues clearly mean caring about some of the consequences of your acts, in some broad sense: to be kind or benevolent is to be sensitive to the effects of your acts on others, for example, insofar as they please them or offer them help. The difference between the adapted consequentialism and the virtue ethics view would lie in the claim about where the importance of the consequences lay, either as abstractly as consequences, or as effects on rational individuals with projects and so on, I think. Naturally, given what has already been said, I tend to believe that the virtue ethics view is more plausible.

All this said, I’m a bit unsure of the necessity of the connection between consequentialism – the idea that the bearers of moral character are consequences – and the extreme understanding of impartiality I have linked it to. If consequentialism does have to endorse that strong concept of impartiality, I think my critique of it as excessively abstract and depersonalized does follow, but merely taking consequences to be the bearers of moral character may not be enough to do that. Certainly, a lot of forms of consequentialism have taken that view – all the versions of utilitarianism I’ve come across do – but it clearly does not necessarily do so merely because it has done in the past. This may just be a terminological dispute, that I want to reserve the use of the term consequentialism for a particular kind of theory which believes that consequences, in a particular sense, are the ultimate bearers of moral character, which not even philosophers have any legitimate interest in, but I’m not sure about this. I think there is something to the idea that thinking that consequences are of themselves morally important that drives such theories towards the extremes I have described, but maybe not…

Thursday, February 03, 2005

A Promise And A Warning

There were a couple of really interesting - that is, really interesting if you're an analytic philosopher, who's working in the field of ethics, which is kind of what I am when I am being a student - things that came up last night. I'm not going to be able to finish writing the post tonight, because, as philosophy should, it makes my head hurt, and I've got other things to do. It should be done by Sunday at the latest, and it probably will be frighteningly long if you don't care about fine distinctions in meta-ethics, so, both a promise - post by Sunday - and a warning - it might be a little abstract and dull, even if you do care about these things.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Housekeeping Again

I'm going to the Scanlon reading group again tonight, so perhaps something will come out of that. The chapter's on how well-being is at best a proxy for a disparate set of other values, and certainly not a master value, which might bring up some interesting stuff about hedonism or something. On the other hand, the Wilt Chamberlain example came up in a class I was at today, and Matthew Yglesias has been talking about Anderson and Hayek as well, which libertarians have predictably been drawn to, so I might have a go at a bit of libertarian bashing.

Also, someone else has linked to me. I don't know who they are but, reciprocity being reciprocity, here's their site, which looks quite good, even if they do appear to be a Man U fan. I'll stop doing this once the list of people linking to me expands to a proper size. It is, of course, entirely at my discretion what a proper size is.

How To React More Temperately To The Iraqi Elections

So that was my penny's worth on the Iraqi elections. Or, more accurately, my penny's worth on other people's reaction to the Iraqi elections. Mark Mulholland has what I think is a very considerate, reasoned and sensible post on them. I think he might be a bit sanguine about the prospects for the insurgency dying down, but his basic conclusion, that it's going to be very difficult to justify the war consequentially, seems reasonable.


Now, I like being able to say 'I told you so' as much as the next person, so it's hardly fair of me to mount an attack on people for saying 'I told you so'. In fact, I'm quite prepared for people to turn round and say 'you were wrong, we said you were wrong, and events have borne out that statement'. As long as events have borne out that statement, obviously. I mean, if you're going to crow about how wrong some group of people was, it better be true that what you're pointing to when saying they're wrong does prove them wrong. Otherwise, you're just being an insufferably insular triumphalist git. Take note, Harry's Place. When Iraqis have stopped dying in large numbers, from insurgent attacks, from indiscriminate Coalition bombing, and from the general breakdown of law and order, when they have stopped being tortured, held without trial and summarily executed, when the unemployment rate is not fifty percent, when their country's infrastructure is rebuilt, when we know whether the state is going to descend into full-scale civil war or not, and when we are sure that last Sunday's events aren't going to be the only time that most Iraqis get to exercise the right to choose their government, then we will be able to make some kind of assessment as to whether it was the right thing to do to go to war, because we'll have an idea of what the benefits of doing so were. Of course, we'll have to weigh that against the hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of Coalition service men and women and indeterminately large number of Iraqis killed and maimed, and fulfillment of every Jihadist's dreams that it cost to achieve that, so, the calculation might not come out the way you want, but then at least we'll have an idea. Until then, stopping crowing.