Monday, February 26, 2007

Confused? I Wish I Was

So, some people have accused David Cameron of hypocrisy for having smoked cannabis in his youth and more or less got away with it when now he is advocating returning cannabis to being a Class B drug, rather than a Class C drug, which would have the effect of re-criminalising possession, rather than just possession with intent to supply (I think). More than that, some people have accused of Cameron a particularly pernicious form of hypocrisy, because he is not only a hypocrite, but a hypocrite who would coercively require others to live up to the standards he himself could not meet. I am quite hostile to the thought that there is something particularly despicable about this, which, as I have been at pains to point out through, implies nothing about the wisdom or otherwise of the policy he is advocating.

The reason I am quite hostile to it, I think, is perhaps best explained through a response I gave to the claim that Cameron is, by virtue of advocating the policy, required to think it would be better if his teenage self had been punished as he would now require. Although I object to the idea that a relevant test for general rules is that every instance of their enforcement is better - think how horribly fine-grained rules would have to be, in order to really be better in every case of their enforcement - and have further objections to the idea of maximising the good lurking in the background of the betterness claims, that is not what I want to highlight. What I want to highlight is a further claim I made, that I couldn't even really make sense of the idea that Cameron would have to think it would have been better for his younger self to be punished. I really don't think I can make sense of that claim. Better for whom? Surely not better for Cameron now, who is surely a quite different person with quite different aims and commitments from whoever he was more than twenty years ago, and surely not better for his now non-existent teenage self, since non-existent entities cannot have things made better or worse for them.

Think about the idea of a statute of limitations. I'm not sure whether British law incorporates such a thing, and I'm not sure that it ought to cover all crimes, but the idea that there is at least a class of criminal activity which, if the offender is not charged for some relatively lengthy period of time, ought to be forgotten about is, I think, quite plausible. I'm not sure exactly what justifies that kind of attitude, but I'd guess it has to be something to do with the thought that most of the time, it isn't the same person - or at least, the same person in a morally relevant sense - being punished as the person who committed the offence however many years ago. As Phil points out, if Cameron had 'fessed up to getting away with shoplifting in his youth, we'd hardly think that he would be a hypocrite, let alone a particularly pernicious hypocrite, for suggesting that we ought to punish shoplifters. We accept that people can change their mind about, can adopt different attitudes to, shoplifting and that past behaviour may not be good evidence of present conviction. Why should drug-taking be any different?

That's not, though, the point of raising the issue here. What I'm interested in here is the relevance, more generally, of the thought that the same actor, in a moral sense, isn't necessarily present in the same body over time. The problem of personal identity, in this sense, is a vexed one in philosophy, and not one that, in general, I am remotely qualified to comment on. However, Derek Parfit has in his 'Reasons and Persons', I understand, argued that his solution to the problem of personal identity, which I think is roughly in line with the thought that the same person is not present in the same body over time, defuses the separateness of persons objection to consequentialism. The separateness of persons objection to consequentialism is roughly that consequentialism is a false moral theory because consequentialism holds that the good ought to be impartially maximised, but if that is true, sometimes we ought to sacrifice individuals for others in ways that seem morally repugnant - by torturing them, for example.

Parfit's thought, roughly, is that because the boundaries between persons are blurred - more than one person can occupy the same body over time, for example - it cannot be that important to respect their separateness. These thoughts about whether Cameron is a hypocrite, though, indicate, I think - and this is just a thought - that that would be wrong. The thing which makes it true that different people occupy the same body over time is human agency: people have intentions and projects, which they periodically re-evaluate or otherwise change, and as these change, they become different people, in the sense of who the moral actor is, at least. Consequentialism, though, because it demands impartial maximisation, denies that that kind of agency can be morally legitimate, because demanding impartial maximisation means requiring a particular outcome, the one that happens to impartially maximise the good.

That would mean, though, that consequentialism would deny that the ways in which different people came to occupy the same body over time are morally legitimate. Presumably, then, we would in an ideal consequentialist world then be the same person all the time. That, though, would mean that Parfit's attempt at a response to the separateness of persons objection could not work: if persons are or should not be separate in the sense he denies, then it would be because it would be legitimate for processes consequentialism denies should occur to occur, and, if consequentialism were true, then the separateness of persons would be true, which would mean that consequentialism would have to be false. Or something like that at least.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Fairly Random Thoughts

Two things, both relatively briefly. First, a query which I take to mostly be about the Decent left, but probably extends further than that. In this post discussing Nick Cohen's analysis of where it all went wrong on the left, with which I broadly agree, Stumbling and Mumbling mentions how ridiculous he finds the 'Not In My Name' slogan. Jonathan Derbyshire approvingly reproduced Ian McEwan's criticism of the same slogan commenting on the post. As I noted in the comments at Stumbling and Mumbling, I just don't get this.

The criticism is supposed to be, I gather, that stating that your government doesn't act in your name is a piece of self-indulgence typical of a left that has lost its sense that the objective wrongs of oppression, injustice, exploitation and the like is what it ought to be concerning itself with. It is "cloyingly self-regarding", a statement of the view that "evil [is] tolerable as long as one's own conscience is clear". Quibbles about whether toleration can be about anything other than letting at least something you regard as bad carry on as long as your own conscience is clear are not directly to the point here.

Rather, it strikes me the accusations of self-indulgence just miss the point of the slogan. The point of the slogan is that the most direct attack it is possible to make on the legitimacy of a democratic government is to deny that it respects the will of the people it governs. Making the claim that someone does not act in your name is to deny that it is doing your will; it is to distance yourself from their acts, and in the case of a government, or indeed any other agent, that they are any longer your agent.

I suppose perhaps there are questions about how far the will of a democratic majority must be respected on the side of the self-indulgency critique here, given that most Britons supported the war when the largest marches were going on, but then presumably there are equally relevant questions about how legitimating that majority was given that it was clearly lied to. There are probably also issues about the limits of what a democratic will can legitimate, but these don't clearly settle the issue either way: the Iraq War was a war of choice, and that would seem to be a paradigmatic case of something a democratic will should legitimate, if it can be legitimated at all. But more generally, WTF? It's self-indulgent to think that a government should get its people's consent before acting?

Still vaguely on the topic of rugged individualism, I liked this commentary on the UNICEF report from Blood and Treasure. According to Stumbling and Mumbling, it turns out that the ways in which British children are terribly off are mainly to do with not trusting their friends, drinking, taking drugs, shagging, and not seeing very much of their parents, since the relative poverty figures are partly a historical artefact, and the educational ones reflect the fact that more children leave school at sixteen here than elsewhere - the UK does better than average at 15, for example. This strikes me as indicating then that children in the UK are - bar teenage pregnancy, which is both unfortunate and pretty stupid - either more wise to the ways of the world - would you trust another teenager, for example, or deny that drinking, taking drugs or having sex is fun, or indeed want to eat with your parents every evening - or honest than their OECD counterparts. Possibly both. This has nothing to do with my hostility towards southern European family structures, which has nothing to do with any hostility towards anything else at all. Nothing at all.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Is It Because I Is Black, Or, An Orientialism Of The Past?

First, apologies for the appalling post title. Hopefully, the temptation to make jokes which are both bad and in bad taste will be explained and even vindicated by the actual content of the post. Probably, though, this will remain just a hope.

More substantively, I went to see an excellent presentation on early twentieth century British liberalism, and particularly Hobhouse - about whom I know basically nothing apart from what I learnt from the presentation - yesterday. Part of the point of the presentation was to suggest that the approach which Hobhouse and other so-called 'New Liberals' took to issues of disagreement are potentially fruitful resources for contemporary liberals to draw on in thinking about how to deal with disagreement now. One of the questions suggested that this was a mistake because the context in which the disagreement which Hobhouse et al. were concerned with was quite different, in particular that it didn't involve widespread, visible, ethnic difference.

I'm not sure the British Edwardian society was actually any more internally cohesive - party politics was conducted on significantly religious lines, with the temperance movement an integral part of one political party's appeal, and that's without even mentioning the Irish problem - or any less worried about immigrants - I understand that contemporary debates about asylum seekers are not very dissimilar to early twentieth century ones about Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe - than we seem to be, so I'm dubious about the historical claim. I'm also dubious about looking at contemporary liberal debates about toleration and state neutrality through the lens of the last five or so years: Political Liberalism is a text about dealing with the American Religious Right, I think, rather than Islamists, and even Brian Barry's somewhat hysterical Culture and Equality is at least as much about the Amish as anyone else, neither of which would have necessarily been problems alien in their basic structure to Hobhouse.

It's not just that I am dubious about this specific claim about the difference between contemporary and historical conditions, though. I think I am dubious about most claims that current problems - and I suppose perhaps particularly the problem of Islamist terrorism - are problems which have no documented historical counterparts. I suppose we could put the worry like this: is it Orientalist to think that Islamist terrorism poses a unique problem, without any historical analogies at all? I mean, the past may be a different country, but the basic problems of securing an intelligible and humane political order don't change across national borders - no-one thinks with DeMaistre anymore that there are only Frenchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards and so on.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Whereof We Cannot Speak, We Must Remain Silent

Looking through these collections of photographs of philosophers (via), which are pleasant enough themselves but made all the better for the little epigraphs the philosophers have been asked to write for themselves, I came across this quote from Ned Block's 'The Trouble With Functionalism', which I vaguely remember from doing the Philosophy of Mind as an undergraduate:

You ask: What is it that philosophers have called qualitative states? I answer, only half in jest: As Louis Armstrong said when asked what jazz is, 'If you got to ask, you ain't never gonna get to know.'

What would Wittgenstein say? On the other hand, I remember seeing a quote from a philosopher at the University of Auckland, saying something like

Philosophers have claimed support from Wittgenstein for a wide variety of views, some of them directly contradictory. This means that claiming support from Wittgenstein for a particular philosophical position is rather like asking for a reference from your mother.

Less amusingly, in sixty photos, there are ten women and two people who aren't white
. Depressingly, I rather suspect this reflects the nature of the discipline.