Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The violinist analogy improved

Judith Jarvis Thompson famously put forward an analogy between abortion and someone who suddenly finds themselves hooked up on life-support to a famous violinist, and told that they cannot disconnect the life-support apparatus linking them to the violinist because it will take the life of the violinist. (The analogy is described in the fourth paragraph of the article I linked to above.)

I think her analogy is seriously flawed, and here I will offer what I believe is a much more accurate one. However, in honor of the loyal reader who recently brought this analogy up, I change the musical instrument.


Srinivasan is a famed and beloved sitar player. He is so good, and so pleasurable to listen to, that many people have paid very large amounts of money to hear him play. But a tragedy has struck: his kidneys are failing. However, medical researchers are on the verge of perfecting artificial kidneys. In fact, they predict with confidence that in nine months, these will be completely viable for transplants.

But Srinivasan does not have nine months. He needs help now, or he will be dead in weeks. So his management team cooks up the following way to save him: He will give a concert for free, open to as many people as will fit in the arena in which the concert is to be given. But there is a condition on this free admission: someone from the audience, based on genetic screening, will be selected to keep Srinivasan alive for the nine months necessary to get him through until the artificial kidneys are ready for transplantation, by being hooked up to him in just the way that Thompson describes.

This condition is so well-publicized that we can say "ignorance is no excuse." Every person who accepts the offer of free admission to the concert ought to know that there is a chance that he or she will be hooked up to Srinivasan in this way, and will be obligated spend nine months supporting his life.

The venue is filled to capacity as the concert begins. Some of the attendees love Srinivasan so much that they would not mind if they were selected as the one to give him life support. Others just find his concerts so pleasurable that they attend despite hoping that the roulette wheel will not pick out their number, given that his concerts are so pleasurable. Some of them even come wearing prophylactic devices, intended to make their kidney functioning look worse than it is.

The concert ends, and I see a number of security guards approaching me. One of them taps me on the shoulder and says, "Gene, you are the one we need." They then sedate me (since the hook-up procedure is painful), and I awake to find myself hooked to Srinivasan, the only thing keeping him alive.

But this was not what I had bargained for: I had thought the roulette wheel would not pick my number, and I could enjoy a free concert at no cost. I invoke my "rights," and complain that I am now being used as a mere means to keep him alive.

Does anyone agree that my complaint is valid?

And to be fair to Thompson, she does make a hand wave at the issue of rape, only to declare that this can't possibly make any moral difference. But that conclusion only follows if one holds that rights are absolute. But I don't: all rights must be balanced against each other. In fact, I am not even a strict abortion prohibitionist in non-rape cases. Simply because I recognize that argument X is invalid does not mean that I accept the completely opposite argument Y as being entirely valid.

"Blaming the Victim"

Bob Murphy puzzles needlessly over two stories. Here is the thing about cries over someone "blaming the victim": There is a sense in which victims can be partially to blame for what happened to them: blame for something bad happening can be shared among several people. This becomes objectionable when it is used to excuse the perpetrator, but there is nothing wrong with advising people to protect themselves.

So: Let I say that I drive into a rough neighborhood and park my car there. I leave my windows down, and a $20,000 diamond bracelet laying in plain view on the dashboard. I then go shopping for a half an hour. When I come back I am shocked to learn that the bracelet is gone.

Is there anything wrong with someone telling me, "Well, Gene, you were being somewhat of an idiot there"? I think not. But this doesn't mean that it was okay for someone to steal the bracelet!

Similarly, there is nothing wrong with advising women to wear protective nail polish, or to obey traffic laws. Sexual predators are part of reality, and while culture certainly must have some influence on their frequency in the population, short of the coming of the Kingdom on earth, they will always be with us, just like thieves and murderers. While we wait for the Kingdom, it is sensible to do what we can to protect ourselves.

Now, as I noted above, this certainly does become objectionable if the person giving this advice starts to excuse a crime if it is not followed. Women are not "asking for it" if they fail to wear date-rape-drug-detecting nail polish, or if they roll through a stop sign. And if someone implies that, it is right to call them out on it.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Idealism is a defense of objective reality

"There are difficulties enough, no doubt, in the way of accepting such a form of 'idealism,' but they need not be aggravated by misunderstanding. It is simply misunderstood if it is taken to imply either the reduction of facts to feelings... or the obliteration of the distinction between illusion and reality...

"On the contrary, its very basis is the consciousness of objectivity. It's whole aim is to articulate coherently the conviction of there being a world of abiding realities other than, and determining, the endless flow of our feelings." -- T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 41-42

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Cheese-eating surrender monkeys?

This was this sort of smear that the neocons liked to hurl at the French when they refused to go along with the American attack on Iraq in 2003. (I recall Jonah Goldberg using that very phrase.) In retrospect, they might have just instead called them "sensible." I have criticized this nonsense before, but, in listening to some lectures on World War I, I just came across a fact that highlights how ridiculous it is:

Half of French men between the ages of 20 and 32 were killed in that war. And, of course, France never surrendered.

Can you even imagine Americans' response if half of our young men between 20 and 32 had been killed in the Iraq war that started in 2003? Think about this carefully before you insult the French for their "cowardice."

As someone who was a software engineer for 18 years…

I always find it shocking to see someone who has been in the trade declaring that, for instance, "Siri often makes mistakes."

When my software went wrong, I always knew that *I* had made a mistake. The software was simply performing the way I had programmed it to. I don't know how I even could have performed my job if I had thought for a second that it was my program that was making a mistake, rather than me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The implications of Locke's dualism

"No one is more emphatic then Locke in opposing what is real to what we 'make for ourselves,' the work of nature to the work of mind. Simple ideas or sensations we certainly do not 'make for ourselves.' They therefore and the matter supposed to cause them are, according to Locke, real. But relations are neither simple ideas nor their material archetypes. They therefore, as Locke explicitly holds, fall under the head of the work of the mind, which is opposed to the real. But if we take him at his word and exclude from what we have considered real all qualities constituted by relation, we find that none are left. Without relation any simple idea would be undistinguished from other simple ideas, undetermined by its surroundings in the cosmos of experience. It would thus be unqualified itself, and consequently could afford no qualification of the material archetype, which yet according to Locke we only know through it or, if otherwise, as the subject of those 'primary qualities' which demonstrably consist in relations. In short, the admission of the antithesis between the real and the work of the mind, and the admission that relation is the work of the mind, put together, involve the conclusion that nothing is real of which anything can be said." -- T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 24-25


"The terms 'real' and 'objective,' then, have no meaning except for a consciousness which presents its experiences to itself as determined by relations, and at the same time conceives a single and unalterable order of relations determing them, with which its temporary presentation, as each experience occurs, of the relations determining it may be contrasted." -- T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 17

Friday, September 26, 2014

T. H. Green on evolutionary ethics

"In Hume's time a philosopher who denied the innateness of moral sentiments, and held that they must have a natural history, had only the limits of the individual life within which to trace this history. These limits did not give room enough for even a plausible derivation of moral interests from animal wants. It is otherwise when the history may be supposed to range over an indefinite number of generations. The doctrine of hereditary transmission, it is held, explains to us how susceptibilities of pleasure and pain, of desire and aversion, of hope and fear, may be handed down with gradually accumulated modifications which in time attain the full measure of the difference between the moral man and the greater ape...

"...the theory of descent and evolution opens up a vista of possibilities beyond the facts, so far ascertained, of human history... Such enquiry, it is thought, will in time give us the means of reducing the moral susceptibilities of man to the rank of ordinary physical facts, parts of one system, and intelligible by the same methods, with all the natural phenomena which we are learning to know...

"It has generally been expected of a moralist, however, that he should explain not only how men do act, but how they should act: and as a matter of fact we find that those who regard the process of man's natural development most strictly as a merely natural one are as forward as any to propound rules of living, to which they conceive that, according to their view of the influences which make him what he is, man ought to conform. The natural science of man is to them the basis of a practical art…

"Now it is obvious that to a being who is simply a result of natural forces an injunction to conform to their laws is unmeaning. A philosopher, then, who would reconstruct our ethical systems in conformity with the doctrines of evolution and descent... if he has the courage of his principles, having reduced the speculative part of them to a natural science... must abolish the practical or preceptive part altogether...

"[This theory] logically carries with it the conclusion, however the conclusion may be disguised, that, in inciting ourselves or others to do anything because it ought to be done, we are at best making use of a serviceable illusion." -- Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 7-12

The above was published in 1883. What is interesting to me in the passage is:

1) Evolutionary ethics had already been propounded by 1883 in a form very close to the one it has today. It is not some new discovery of the sociobiologists of the 1970s or the later evolutionary ethicists of the present day.

2) Idealists such as Green (and Bosanquet and Collingwood and Oakshott) understood the theory perfectly well, and even acknowledged its genuine achievements in partly explaining how we have come to have the ethics we do have.

3) The chief problem with the theory was already well understood: while it might explain, in whole or in part, why we do behave the way we do, it cannot possibly recommend how we ought to behave, and fact renders such recommendations otiose: they are like recommending to amoebas that they stop reproducing asexually and get on with having sex like us more advanced beings. Genghis Khan was every bit as much a product of evolution as St. Francis of Assisi, and was, in fact, fantastically more successful at passing on his genes. It is hard to see how something calling itself "evolutionary ethics" could argue, with a straight face, that capturing women and using them as sexual slaves is "wrong," so long as one is fairly certain to be able to successfully implement that strategy. (Of course, a society where every single male tried to do this would not turn out too well, but if someone was certain that he would be as successful as Khan, how could the "evolutionary ethicist" say anything other than "Help yourself!"?)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colbert Pounds the Krauthammer

Is there an uglier figure in our public discourse than Charles Krauthammer? Oh, yes, I forgot: Ann Coulter. But is there a second-uglier figure than Krauthammer? Here Colbert dismantles his ridiculous psychoanalysis of Obama:

Collingwood on Berkeley

Thus we get a wholly new metaphysical position. Taking the elements of the traditional seventeenth-century cosmology and simply rearranging them, Berkeley shows that, if substance means that which exists in its own right and depends on itself alone, only one substance need be asserted to exist, namely, mind. Nature as it exists empirically for our everyday perception is the work or creature of mind; nature in Galileo's sense, the purely quantitative material world of the physicist, is an abstraction from this, it is so to speak the skeleton or armature of the nature we perceive through our senses, and create in perceiving it. To sum up: we first, by the operation of our mental powers, create the warm, living, coloured, flesh-and-blood natural world which we know in our everyday experience; we then, by the operation of abstractive thinking, remove the flesh and blood from it and are left with the skeleton. This skeleton is the ‘material world’ of the physicist.
In the essence of Berkeley's argument as thus restated there is no flaw. He often expressed himself hastily, and often tried to support his contentions by argument that is far from sound; but no criticism of details touches his main position, and as soon as one understands the problem which confronted him one is bound to realize that he solved it in the only possible way. His conclusion may seem unconvincing, and the difficulties in which it places us are undeniable; but there is no way of escaping the admission that, if the conceptions of mind and matter are defined as they were defined by the cosmology of the seventh century, the problem of discovering an essential link between them can only be solved as Berkeley solved it. (The Idea of Nature, 1960: 114-115)

Responding to Stove's critique of Berkeley

Another excerpt from my forthcoming paper:


David Stove, in his essay “Idealism: a Victorian Horror Story (Part One),” begins by at least granting Berkeley his historical context, as we saw Hegel also did:
Berkeley is one of those philosophers who are always arguing, and he gave a number of arguments for abridging the Cartesian world-view to the exclusive benefit of its mental half.  Once he had done it, everyone could see, even if they had not seen before, that Cartesianism had begged for an idealist abridgement, and that it had got it from Berkeley. (1991: 102)
But what he gives with one hand he immediately takes away with the other: “There was only one catch; but it was a rather serious one.  This was that no one could believe the world-view to which those arguments of Berkeley led.” (1991: 102) Stove is certainly correct here in so far as his depiction of Berkeley’s world-view strains credulity, as it is as follows:
You cannot expose yourself to even a short course of Berkeley’s philosophy, without contracting at least some tendency to think, as he wants you to think, that to speak of (say) kangaroos is, rightly understood, to speak of ideas of kangaroos, or of kangaroo-perceptions, or “phenomenal kangaroos.”  But on the contrary, all sane use of language requires that we never relax our grip on the tautology that when we speak of kangaroos, it is kangaroos of which we speak.  Berkeley would persuade us that we lose nothing, and avoid metaphysical error, if we give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos: in fact we would lose everything.  Phenomenal kangaroos are an even poorer substitute for kangaroos than suspected murderers are for murderers.  At least a suspected murderer may happen to be also a murderer; but a phenomenal kangaroo is a certain kind of experience, and there is no way it might happen to be also a kangaroo. (1991: 110)
Once again, we find Berkeley’s case being badly misconstrued, in this instance in order to make it appear crazy. Berkeley certainly does not want us to “give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos.” In fact, the very view he is criticizing is the Lockean one that drives a wedge between the real world and the phenomenal world, that, indeed, creates the idea that there is a phenomenal world separate from the real world in the first place. Berkeley is insisting that the kangaroos you see in front of you are not “phenomenal kangaroos” at all: no, the kangaroos you are perceiving are the real thing. For Berkeley, we directly perceive reality, and we can do so because reality is a world of ideas. It is by first adopting a view that idealists reject, that ideas are “just in our heads,” and then reading idealist metaphysics through this anti-idealist filter, that misunderstandings like Stove’s are generated.
Stove goes on to attribute more denials of reality to Berkeley: “...his idealism... denies the existence of human beings.  Indeed, there are no land-mammals at all in Berkeley’s world.  In fact there is not even any land” (1991: 111). Again, it is only necessary to point out that it is the very reality of all of these things that Berkeley set out to assert to see that Stove has seriously misinterpreted him.
To Stowe’s credit, he does avoid one frequent error committed by Berkeley’s critics:
People think, that is, that Berkeley maintained a causal dependence of physical objects on perception: that things go in and out of existence, depending on whether or not we are perceiving them… [this view] is certainly not Berkeley… The benevolence and steadiness of the Divine Will, and nothing else, ensure that the ideas produced in the various finite spirits are, on the whole, in harmony with one another. (1991: 108)
But as before, having gotten that much right, Stove immediately goes very wrong, claiming that it follows that “there are no physical objects Berkeley’s world” (1991: 109). Once again, we must point out that Berkeley never denies the existence of the physical world of common sense: the wall you see in front of you is really there in the exact way common sense thinks it is, as a solid, say red, flat surface, which, if you try to run through it, you will fail and be hurt in the process. As Laird put it, “[Berkeley] gloried in being a realist because he affirmed and proved the full reality of what any sane man regards as real, just as he regards it before he allows himself to become debauched with learning” (1916: 309). What Berkeley is doing is trying to get at the source of why the common sense world is the way it is, and his answer is, “Because God wills it.” One may not like that answer, but it is far from the nonsense Stove attributes to Berkeley: there certainly are physical objects in Berkeley’s world, just as God willed there to be.
In part two of the “Horror Story” essay, Stove accuses Berkeley of having reached a contingent conclusion from a tautological premise. As he puts it, one of Berkeley’s central arguments for idealism, which he calls “the Gem,” runs: “You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind. Therefore, you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind.” (1991: 139) This is basically a rehash of Russell’s critique, discussed above, of this contention of Berkeley’s, and it is flawed in a similar way, but let us address this particular formulation of it: Stove had to add a step to Berkeley's argument to make it appear so bad: “without having them in mind.” The actual argument is that you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, period. What Berkeley is noting in the passage Stove cites is that when you attempt to have trees-without-the-mind in mind, you fail. And that failure is inevitable. “Trees-without-the-mind” is a mere abstraction, and to mistake mere abstractions for things that actually exist is what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The universal explanation

I was just telling Nelson, my friendly neighborhood bodega operator, about my close encounter with a bear at my house in Pennsylvania. A woman at the counter said, "You're the second person I've heard today talking about a closing counter with a bear!"

"Well," I said, "they are moving into populated areas more and more."

"It's all a part of climate change," she replied.

As I have mentioned before, I am not a climate change "skeptic." But ma'am, no, just no. Not every single circumstance that alters in the natural world is due to climate change. Bears disappeared from populated places after European settlement because there were people in those places who had guns and would shoot them. They are now repopulating those places because they are less likely to be shot. (Not that I think they are consciously calculating the odds here: no, this is a marginal process like so many other range of population changes.)