Thursday, August 30, 2007

More Anti-Consequentialism

Any moral philosopher will be familiar with the objection to consequentialism that it demands unreasonable sacrifices from individuals, the thought being that just because some benefits, dispersed very widely over time and space, will flow from some act massively detrimental to some individual's interests, it is not unjust for that individual to refuse to perform that act. Rawls' argument about the separateness of persons is of this sort, for example. I'm broadly in agreement with this objection, but I was thinking that consequentialism has another problem with sacrifices as well. Unless a sacrifice is maximally beneficial, consequentialism condemns it as unjust. But if someone wants to sacrifice themselves, it hardly seems to be an issue of justice, unless by sacrificing themselves they are violating other obligations - to care for someone, or something. Part of the problem here seems to be about identifying the victim of the injustice: unless some other obligation is violated, it is hard to see how there could be anyone who is wronged by a chosen sacrifice, since the person who suffers chose to. This is a general problem for consequentialism, of course, but it seems particularly obvious here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

This is, I'd guess, potentially quite amusing (via). I'm going away for a fortnight, and I expect lists in the comments by the time I come back.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lasciate Ogni Speranza Indeed

The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Eigth Level of Hell - the Malebolge!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
LevelScore
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Moderate
Level 2 (Lustful)High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Moderate
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)High
Level 7 (Violent)High
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)High
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Moderate

Take the Dante Inferno Hell Test

Obviously, you wouldn't expect it to take very much to be judged lustful or heretical by the standards implied by a 13th century work of literature notable amongst other things for its use of the explicitly religious moral code of a seemingly particularly vindictive and self-righteous ancient desert tribe in order to settle personal and political scores. The violence and fraudulence is a bit surprising though, not least because you'd expect that you'd only get high scores for vice if you also had the virtue of honesty.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

It's All In The Game

I'm not sure I really want to say very much about The Wire, beyond that it's amazingly good. If we were trying to pick holes, we might ask exactly how long a shadow Tamanay Hall casts over American municipal politics; for The Wire, like Skunk Anansie said, everything's f*cking political. I'm not sure that's quite true, but then I don't know just how screwed Baltimore's politics is, and that people aren't totally self-serving is a kind of prior for me. It might also be a bit willing to show nudity, for no real reason. We get that people have sex; showing us them having sex is rarely the most efficient way of telling us anything about them, either together or as individuals, or the plot. This really is picking holes though: the writing - Omar's response, when testifying against muscle to get back at the people who killed his lover and fellow stick-up artist, to the defence lawyer who accuses him of making a living off of the drug trade, that the lawyer'd know all about that, it's just different tools of the trade, a briefcase and a shotgun, is brilliant - the plotting - the recurrent '9-11 buggered the FBI's institutional priorities' line, the questions about dirty hands raised by the Sobotkas - the characterisation - the way Ziggy is, and knows he is, always the butt of every joke, and how that makes sense, as the boy they couldn't fire, and makes sense of what he ends up doing - it's all brilliant. Buy, beg or steal.

Update, 22/08/07: It's going cheap on Amazon people. You don't need to beg or steal.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Shouting At The Radio Again

So, Frances Lawrence, widow of Philip Lawrence, the murdered headmaster - and apparently a whole load of other people, judging by the PM blog's comment section - thinks her family's human rights are violated by the government's refusal to deport her husband's murderer after he has finished serving his sentence. Without wanting to be cruel to Mrs. Lawrence, you do have to wonder, exactly what human right she thinks is violated by the refusal to deport? The human right not to encounter people whom you'd rather not encounter? In that case, I demand a police escort to shield me from about 95% of the British population, and in particular anyone who thinks that someone who has finished serving a prison sentence should be deported to a country where they have not lived since they were six, more than twenty years ago, and where they do not even speak the language. And whoever it was that was arguing with George Monbiot, obviously, that environmentalists not only periodically go on holiday but also communicate with each other by methods other than carrier pigeon clearly indicates that actually, they are disgustingly preachy, hypocritical neo-Luddites who hate our freedom, and want to blot out the sun, plunging us all into a new, literally, Dark Age (except for them; they'll build their own sun from the corpses of all those who die from broken hearts when petrol becomes too expensive to justify popping out to the shops in the 4x4, dahling, to get some more milk). Jesus. And some people think the Beeb is dangerously liberal.

Calexico Do Arcade Fire's Ocean Of Noise

Quite good, really. Found via; the Foo Fighters cover isn't as good, I think.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Another Not-So Innocent Question

So far as I can remember, G. A. Cohen's defence of the ethos he claims, against most Rawlsian egalitarians, is demanded by Rawlsian egalitarianism, when pressed on the claim that the basic structure is the proper subject of theories of social justice, has been that the ethos could be a part of the basic structure. Assuming that the basic structure is the proper subject of theories of social justice, even if Cohen is right that the ethos would be a part of the basic structure, that does not seem to exhaust the potential objections derived from that claim. This is because the lack of an ethos may not be a part of the basic structure, which, if the basic structure restriction is well-motivated, would mean that the lack of an ethos could not demand an ethos as a matter of social justice. The lack of an ethos might not be part of the basic structure because the absence of co-ordinated behaviour is not generally a public political institution. The question, then, is whether it is important for Cohen's defence of his ethos that the lack of the ethos, as well as the ethos itself, is a part of the basic structure.

Not Immediately Personally Worrying, But Nonetheless...

When I saw this, I first thought this is probably not good news for future graduate political theorists at Oxford, because they are likely to be in the politics department, and so may get left out of a block grant as they are ostensibly social scientists (as if a social science is even possible; bah). Then I remembered that the AHRC has funded at least two studentships in the political theory DPhil intake alone - so not including any at masters level - in each of the past two years, and was comforted, since presumably the university will include and also get some studentships for the politics department in its bid. Still, it is presumably not good news for graduate political theorists in other politics departments, since they will almost certainly lose much of their access to one source of funding, as Thom points out. It seems likely to me to also have the effect of concentrating decent political theory in a smaller number of departments, since any department which does not have guaranteed studentships is going to be at an obvious disadvantage in attempting to attract graduate students and so presumably also faculty. This would not be a good thing, I think, since it would mean less political theory would be taught, and there would, all other things be equal, consequently a smaller population moving into graduate political theory. I do not want my field to shrink because it falls between the stools of the two potentially relevant funding bodies.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Kind of Honourable Dishonour

I've long had a little bit of a soft spot of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, basically because I slightly misremembered this incident, the only red card of his career so far as I can see. My memory of it was of Solskjaer making the tackle, and then not even bothering to wait for Uriah Rennie to card him but just walking straight off, whereas he walks away from the prone Rob Lee, maybe towards the touchline and maybe just away from the prone Rob Lee, then stops and turns to see Rennie dismissing him. Whatever exactly Solskjaer is actually doing, if he had done what I thought he had done, that somehow seems much less terrible than both lots of ways in which one could get sent off, and lots of ways in which one could react to having done something which got one sent off. I was thinking about this sort of thing because, in quite another context I was thinking about different ways in which breaking contingent, not absolutely justified, rules can be wrong.

Someone who made the kind of tackle Solskjaer did in the centre-circle during typical midfield play would have done something much worse than what Solskjaer did, I think, even though they would hardly have denied the other side a goal-scoring opportunity in the way that Solskjaer did. I suppose the lack of protest was amplified by the fact that Manchester United hardly then had the best reputation for accepting referees' decisions, but nonetheless Solskjaer did, in my memory, accept his punishment with at least public good grace. The difference between what Solskjaer 'did' - where this stands for what I remember him doing - and making that kind of tackle in the centre-circle and then arguing with the referee seems to be something to do with the attitude towards the way that the rules of football constitute the activity of playing football, and what breaches of those rules say about your attitude towards the other people playing football with you. Perhaps spitting at another player, or racially abusing them, makes it clearer than the example of a pointlessly reckless tackle. That kind of breach of the rules of football is a breach for the sake of a breach; whatever advantage, if any, is gained by breaking the rules is an advantage which cannot easily be understood within the rules of football - at best, intimidation, and at worst, enjoyment of an attempt to dominate - and indeed depends on being the kind of thing you are not supposed to do to generate that advantage, whereas in the Solskjaer case, the advantage is easily comprehensible within the rules of the practice itself - you stop the other side (from having a chance to) score.

A breach of the rules for the sake of the breach seems worse because it is destructive of the activity at all, in a way that breaches of Solskjaer's sort are not; having people whose actions on the football field are not motivated by and not consistent with the aim of playing and winning football games is, to some degree, to stop playing football. That in turn seems a kind of disrespect of the other participants in the activity; they are there to play football, and by participating in the activity without abiding by the rules that make it that activity, it becomes much more difficult for them to play football, much more difficult than if whoever is disrupting their game had not participated at all. As a universal attitude, it even seems to disrespect one's own agency; if one is not prepared to respect the rules that constitute a practice which one is engaged in, it becomes difficult to see how one is capable of doing anything at all. Think of how annoying Robbie Savage can be; you wonder why he bothers, since it often seems like all he does is stop other people from playing football by niggling at them. This, of course, is just another example of the reflexivity of agency, and perhaps of normative considerations in general. All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football, indeed.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Veritable Flurry Of Activity, Or, Facts in Cohen's Facts and Principles

Some of my readers may be familiar with G. A. Cohen's paper, Facts and Principles. In it Cohen argues that facts can only serve as part of the justification for some action-guiding principle in light of some further principle in virtue of which they support the first principle. For example, if you ask why you should keep your promises, and I say, because it allows people to form and pursue plans, then I seem to need a further principle that we ought to do things which allow people to form and pursue plans in order to explain why that fact should play a role in the justification of the first principle, that promises should be kept. If however, the way in which facts play a role in the justification of action-guiding principles is dependent on there being some further principle which explains how the consideration the fact points to is relevant, then facts cannot by themselves justify any action-guiding principles; they must be supplemented by some principle, which, likewise, if it has a justification in which a fact plays a role, will therefore also have a justification in which a further principle explains the role that that fact plays. A regress is thereby generated, and facts cannot be the last items in a chain of justification, since their role in any justification itself requires justification in light of some principle.

This argument matters in political and moral philosophy because if it is correct, it may show (some versions of) a particular kind of political and moral theory to be incorrect, since that theory relies on certain facts to generate principles. It only may, because it seems possible that there is a principle that says that all further principles are to be generated in light of facts. The argument may of course be incorrect: it seems to appeal to a remarkably rigorous version of the fact-value distinction - is 'he was rude' a fact, and if it is, is it really neccessary for justifying censuring him afterwards to appeal to a principle 'censure rude people'? - and relies on a distinctly foundationalist notion of justification - why, when an appeal to some facts and principles is made in order to justify some other principle, should justification proceed in transitive, one-to-one relations, and not some kind of web, where the kind of regress and eventual reliance on bloody-minded insistence on self-evident principles that Cohen's model of justification must lead to can be avoided? What interests me right now, though, is a question about why it should be facts, and not falsehoods, that play this role in the justification of principles, although if I am right, it bears both of the just-mentioned issues about the correctness of Cohen's argument.

Clearly if keeping promises frustrated people's ability to form and pursue projects, then saying that appealing to the claim that keeping promises enabled people to form and pursue projects could not be justificatory of the principle that we ought to keep our promises. Why is that though? Presumably it is a fact that it is falsehoods cannot play a role in our justifications of principles. Then the question becomes what principle explains that fact. Any plausible candidate for such a principle looks like it just restates the fact, that falsehoods cannot play a role in our justifications of principles, because there seems to be nothing else to say about why it is crucial that premises in that kind of justification are true. If that is the case, though, that any putatively explanatory principle merely restates the fact that they are supposed to be explaining, then we have both an example of the breakdown of the fact-value distinction - the fact simply is normative - and a kind of example of justificatory holism - whatever it is that is important about facts and their role in justification, that cannot be captured by asking for one-to-one, directly transitive justifications. Of course, it is a while since I actually read Cohen's article, so it may be that he has an answer to this.

A Poem, For No Particular Reason

This wasn't originally meant to be about what it ended up being about, and by the time I got round to trying to write something about what it was meant to be about, I couldn't really be bothered.

On The Memory of Don Paterson’s ‘Imperial’

So, it turns out there are acts
Consent cannot redeem:
La Poverella rages at DC.
This is not quite a joke. She
She goes beyond words,
Leaves the privacy of speech behind,
Turns herself inside out, like an animal in a trap,
Is a kind of rupture,
A tear rending itself wider and wider,
A sign bereft, an empty cry.
The world is cruel, she demonstrates.
What news.

The Paterson poem is in either Nil Nil or God's Gift to Women, both of which I liked rather more than his most recent collection, Landing Light, probably because they are significantly nastier.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The General Requirement That Writing, If It Is Going To Be Truthful, Should Listen To What It Is Saying

I have been reading Bernard Williams again; this time, Philosophy As A Humanistic Discipline. Williams is, as usual, a wonderful stylist, although one sometimes feels that that ability to apparently effortlessly locate a cutting aside elides, glazes over, holes in the argument. I suppose he would think that the fact that his ability to find easy ways to reinforce prejudices is probably a good indication that for all that they are prejudices, they are well-founded; we must always remember that we must live after the reflection. There's one essay in particular, 'The Human Prejudice', where Williams manages to bring home very nicely the sense in which we look at the world from a particular place, which brings with it a set of ways of relating to that world, a set of ways which is, in some sense, unavoidable. Discussing, in the context of what might be said in favour of anthropocentrism, how we - and of course for Williams the point is that it is we - might relate to aliens, having noted the way in which in popular culture appearance tends to track intention, he immediately tries to complicate the issue:

However, we can imagine situations in which things would be harder. The arrivals might be very disgusting indeed: their faces, for instances, if those are faces, are seething with what seem to be worms, but if we wait long enough to find out what they are at, we may gather that they are quite benevolent. They just want to live with us - rather closely with us. Some philosophers may be at hand to remind us about distinguishing between moral and non-moral values, and to tell us that their benevolence and helpfulness are morally significant whereas the fact that they are unforgettably disgusting is not. But suppose their aim, in their unaggressive way, is to make the world more, as we would put it, disgusting? And what if their disgustingness is really, truly, unforgettable?

Part of the way that this thought that philosophy had better be for some people, at some time, rather than sub specie aeternis comes across is in the demand that it be done with an awareness of how the people who are doing it came to be in the particular place, have the particular understandings, that they do. This is not just because those who do not know the history of philosophy will be doomed to repeat it - not just to "reinvent the wheel, but reinvent the square wheel", as Williams puts it - but because otherwise they are liable to reify local understandings in ways which both fail to do justice to those understandings and will cripple their ability to deal with those who do not share them. My resistance to this thought, as what seems like an instance of conservative apologia for failure to probe hard enough - or of willingness to accept the results of probing - I suspect turns on the thought that the we of at least my branch of philosophy is more or less all humans living in reasonably stable social groups: the problems of politics are eternal, as Williams' own Basic Legitimation Demand suggests, even if his problems are much less thick than mine.

Where I am quite happy to agree with him is about the reflexivity of philosophy - a point where he acknowledges Rawls' change of heart, albeit in a footnote. I take his point here to be a kind of vulgar Hegelianism; Hegel with the really crazy metaphysics taken out, which is to say, Kant1. We had better think philosophically about what philosophy is doing, what it is for, whom it is for. Once we understand (better) whom philosophy is for, and what it might be trying to do for them, we will be able to avoid certain kinds of traps into which philosophy can be prone to falling, most usually those posed by supposing that an absolute - in the sense of being stripped of any local peculiarities - conception of the world is something it would make sense for us to aspire to over any other conceptions2 - reductionists, he is talking to you here3. The real point to be made here, of course, though, is that if philosophy is for us, to help us understand how our lives work, are structured, might be better structured, then one would expect that reflexivity to extend into them as well. It's not just that you have to live after the reflection, it's that you have to live after the reflection. Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, and that kind of thing, at least where Socrates is understood as standing in for lives, which, if we think of those who live them out as their authors, are aware that they are written; novels, almost, with beginnings, middles and ends; with a past and hopefully a future, all of which interact with each other, not necessarily in obviously pleasant ways.

1. I now, on the basis of absolutely no (Hegel and not much Kant) scholarship whatsoever, have a well-developed sense that everything sensible which Hegel said, is actually Kant. Because of the lack of scholarship, I have no idea whether anyone else - or at least anyone else who might matter - finds this view compelling. But, for starters, think of Kant's view on suicide; that it is wrong to commit suicide because it disrespects one's own agency. That is clearly a view about how one's own agency should reflect on its own normative significance, and as such, not that different from all that stuff I understand, without having read, that Hegel wrote about the master and the slave. Or something.

2. Now that's a bit Kantian too, isn't it? Synthetic a priori, unknowable noumena, and all that. See?

3. Most obviously utilitarians, who have the arrogance to think the universe cares about their happiness, as opposed to it being a matter for them, and maybe, but probably not if they're utilitarians, some other people who happen to care about them, but also some other people as well.