Tuesday, August 7, 2012
There is much to say about this interesting idea, but my first thought goes to the implications for just war theory: if democratic citizens are properly culpable for the external injustices of their governments, does that affect the rightness or wrongness of treating those citizens as military targets? Are democratic citizens, because of their responsibilities for acts done in their name, properly liable to be targeted in just wars against their state? Of course we generally feel that we ought to resist the idea that it is ever right to violently target citizens themselves. We even have a moral word to describe such targeting: "terrorism." But it seems to me that Beerbohm's suggestion really pressures any categorical condemnation of terrorism. This possible implication is probably one to worry about or be concerned about in some way.
Friday, July 27, 2012
This paper argues that the critics' best case fairly stated against plea bargaining fails in its own terms to show that plea bargaining is necessarily unjust or injustice-tending. Critically, this paper argues against plea-bargaining's critics without resorting to the typical pro-plea-bargaining arguments about efficiency or the value of choice. Plea-bargaining may be efficient as a means of deterring crime and saving prosecutorial resources, but, even if so, those facts simply would not answer the moral charge which plea-bargaining's critics lay. Or, plea-bargaining may realize the defendant's rational choice, but where it is sensible to ask whether those very choices should be forced upon the defendant, an appeal to choice in this way begs rather than answers the moral question raised by the critic. Avoiding these morally suspect arguments, this paper seeks to do better by way of defending plea-bargaining. If it is to be answered at all, the moral case against plea bargaining must be answered in the terms of the critics' real moral concern without resort to the usual poor arguments, and this paper provides that moral answer by focusing on several key critical arguments. Specifically, this paper refutes the claim that plea bargaining leads to the conviction of too many innocents; that it is necessarily coercive or tending towards coercion; and that it inequitably leads to the unlike treatment of like cases.
I think I still stand behind all of the substance of the piece, but I think it could bear compression stylistically. Substantively, in fact, I think it is probably the best non-collaborative piece of philosophy I've ever written. It is pretty good as legal scholarship, too, I think. Of course, I would.
Monday, June 18, 2012
[Stanley] Fish ... argues against the advisability of any general program of "making up your own mind independently of any external authority" (or of helping students to do such things). Such a program is simply impossible, Fish argues, and ought to be abandoned as any kind of goal guiding educational policy:
If exposure is indoctrination, in the sense that an idea introduced into the mind becomes part of its equipment, one of the lenses through which and with which the world is processed and configured, then the declared goal of liberal education, the goal of preparing students for 'autonomous decisions making,' is not achievable and in fact has been rendered unavailable in the first moment of consciousness.
[Cite omitted.] [The hypothetical "if" is not actually Fish hedging; the broader context makes clear that Fish thinks the antecedent condition obtains.]
With this, Fish seems to suppose that there is something—he says not what—about merely having pre-existing conceptual "equipment" which is antithetical to being autonomous, or to "autonomous decisions making," at least. (Or if Fish does not mean to identify autonomy essentially with being in a conceptual vacuum, then why in denying the possibility of "autonomous decisions making" is it relevant at all to suggest that ideas become part of our mental "equipment" as a consequence of our being exposed to them?) But taken as a theory of autonomy, at least, such a view hardly seems credible. Of course autonomy is not about lacking any received conceptual equipment; surely only a being with some initial concepts could be autonomous. And surely the backers of "autonomous decisions making" did not actually have the idea of decision-making by actors without concepts. In which case, Fish argues against a straw man.
If the problem for Fish and his convinced readers is his or their failure to have imagined any alternate view of autonomy, then a suggestion or two meant to help prime the pump of theoretical imagination might be in order. Perhaps autonomy is about (or partially about) being reflective. If so, then why should merely having a conceptual framework, however received, make reflection, even reflection on that very conceptual framework, impossible? (Certainly Fish finds himself able to reflect on theoretical frameworks despite the handicap of possessing received conceptual equipment.) Or perhaps autonomy is about (or partially about) being appropriately sensitive to reasons, as, for example, in guiding actions or theorizing about the world. If so, why should being thus appropriately sensitive to reasons be impossible for someone with "lenses through which and with which the world is processed and configured"? (Could someone without any such "lenses" be sensitive to anything at all?) Here, I mean merely to point out some other possible ways of proceeding before dumping the concept of autonomy on the trash heap of intellectual history—a radical step which, one might hope, would only be an ultimate last resort. Certainly, if autonomy is understood in either of these ways (or maybe others), then Fish's foundational attack on the "goal of liberal education" fails, insofar as children can be taught to be reflective and sensitive to reasons (and why should that not be possible?).
* http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/students/groups/oslj/files/2012/03/70.6.Young_.pdf, fn. 173. ;-)
Friday, March 23, 2012
As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath.I agree with Harris halfway: given the truth of causal determinism, were he to trade places "atom for atom," he too would be a depraved criminal. But then, like the criminals, he too would be properly blameable and punishable for his crimes.
What could Harris say to this? If Harris means to dismiss or rule out this response (and he does), then an independent argument is needed in support of the substantive philosophical position that causal determinism categorically rules out moral responsibility. So far as I can tell from the above excerpt, Harris has only assumed this critical principle, not argued for it.
To be fair, I haven't read his book. Maybe he has the right sort of philosophical argument for the 'causal determinism rules out free will' background principle there. But I doubt it. From what I have read, he gives the impression that he thinks the issue is simply one of showing causal determinism to be true. But it is not enough simply to assume that if causal determinism is true, then moral responsibility is impossible. That premise of the argument is substantive and controversial and not at all obvious. Moreover, this philosophically substantive premise could not be established on empirical grounds; moral responsibility as such, if it exists at all, wouldn't be the sort of thing that exists as an object of empirical investigation or scientific study. If moral responsibility exists in some possible world, then, in that world, try as you might, you're not going to get moral responsibility into a test tube, or into an fMRI.
So then, a challenge for Sam Harris, and for anyone else tempted to his position: why in the first place should we think that if casual determinism is true, then moral responsibility is impossible?
Saturday, March 17, 2012
A is better than B just if A has more units of goodness than B.Suppose also that better-than judgments are transitive. So, for example, if A is better than B, and B is better than C, than A is also better than C.
Given the idea of "units of goodness,' I think that these all seem like very minimal and natural assumptions. It is natural to think that we would prefer A to B if we thought that A had more of the good stuff than B.
Surprisingly, however, when we apply this schema for better-than to some actual example cases, we can derive some repugnant conclusions. Before I give an illustrative example, it helps to define goodness in some intuitively appealing way. So let's say that goodness is pleasure; we might just as well have said it was preference-satisfaction, or utility, or even human happiness so long as human happiness can be understood to be quantifiable along a single measure. (Human happiness units?) I will stick with pleasure in my example, but you could substitute 'pleasure' for anything else you like.
So now picture and compare three possible worlds to see which is better than the other:
Mass Poverty World: 1 trillion people are born and inhabit planet earth, and, over the course of their lives, they each have a total of .1 units of pleasure, a very, very small amount of pleasure for each person to have by our present standards of pleasure-expectancy.On the present schema for better than, we must say that Pig Prince World (101 billion total pleasure-units) is better than any other world. Also, we must say that Mass Poverty World (100 billion total pleasure-units) is better than Happy Medium World (99 billion total pleasure-units). But this just seems to be the wrong result! What we really want to say is that Happy Medium world is better than both of Pig Prince World and Mass Poverty World. The conclusion we are driven to is repugnant.
Happy Medium World: 1 billion people are born and inhabit planet earth, and, over the course of their lives, they each have 99 units of pleasure, a normal amount of pleasure to have by our presents standards of pleasure-expectancy.
Pig Prince World: 1 person is born and inhabits planet earth, and, over the course of his life, he has 101 billion units of pleasure, an unimaginable amount of pleasure for him to have by our present standards of pleasure-expectancy.
(These examples are my own take on a problem which goes by the name of the "Repugnant Conclusion" in the philosophical literature, and which was first articulated by Derek Parfit. Incidentally, Parfit tells a different story than I do here, and it might be debatable whether the problem I'm on about here is actually parallel to his. I think it is (we just need take Parfit's unit of goodness to be "life worth living"), but, if it isn't a parallel, then please just take the present problem in its own terms, for whatever it is worth.)
So, what has gone wrong? The assumptions we started with seemed so natural!
To solve this problem, I think that we should reject the idea that "better than" is an idea of measuring and comparing quantities of stuff. We surely don't have to understand "better than" as "greater than" for some defined unit of goodness. But then we don't have to say that Pig Prince World and Mass Poverty World are better than Happy Medium World.
However, we may still want to know why it seemed natural to us to think, initially, that more units of goodness are better than less units. The answer, roughly, is that in our actual world and in nearly possible worlds, increases in the quantity of goodness-units often enough are moral ('better-than') improvements. (And, generally, we only pay attention when they are such improvements.) The mistake is in taking this rough correlation to be an identity of the quantity and moral better-than notion; the mistake is in thinking that increases in goodness-units necessarily means improvement overall.
Just for fun, here's an alternate picture of 'better-than': 'better-than' is the idea of a kind of distance from some Ideally Perfect World--for short, let's say Heaven. A is better than B if it is closer to Heaven. A is worse than B if it is further from Heaven. A is neither better nor worse than B if A and B are, within the possibility space, equidistant from Heaven. So, we could say: Happy Medium is closer to Heaven than either Pig Prince or Mass Poverty.
I suppose I might be asked how we should measure distance from Heaven. The answer is: I'm not sure. (Nearer-my-God-to-thee units?) But also, I'm not sure it really matters to be able to say.
Metaphors aside, the deeper question really is one of how we make sense of the idea that something can be better or worse in terms of a standard or ideal. (And, incidentally, we shouldn't assume that standards couldn't be multi-faceted: an ideal pencil both holds its point and leaves an appropriately dark mark.) We want to say: surely there is something it is to think that something is better or worse in relation to a standard. What that is, I don't know. But I doubt it is going to turn out to be, at root, some measurement of a quantity of stuff.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Korsgaard draws a pair of distinctions between a) intrinsic/extrinsic goodness and b) instrumental/non-instrumental goodness. (For my COW readers: it helps to picture Thomson's grid pairing off absolute/relative and objective/subjective, and then substitute these category pairs on that sort of grid, and you'll get the picture.) This distinction makes a new concept of value possible: the extrinsic, non-instrumental good. The essential idea of this category is that of things whose goodness depend upon meeting certain conditions, but which things, if goods (if meeting those conditions), are not instrumental goods for any further purpose. So, Korsgaard gives the example of a painting: a painting can be a good, but it is not a good that is for something-- if it has value, it has value just as the aesthetic object that it is. So its goodness, if any, is non-instrumental. But a painting's having its particular goodness is nevertheless, Korsgaard thinks, conditional on its being viewable, or on not being hidden away forever in a dark closet, or some such (or so Korsgaard would say--not sure I would articulate the condition quite as she does, but I'm giving her example, not the half-dozen of my own I've thought of since).
1) How it could be proper that people can have inconsistent personally chosen ends (people rationally choose differently, and rationally choosing differently is the ultimate sufficient condition of something's being good)
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Particular reasons have particular normative force which we are bound to respect. So, will each reason's particular force be a constant between all people, contexts, and times?
Suppose not. Then a reason's force may vary in different contexts, for different people, or at different times. Will this variation of force be arbitrary or not?
If it will be arbitrary, then how could the force which a particular reason has in a particular context bind us to respect it? In any cases where a reason appeared to us to have force, we would have to think that the force in that case was merely arbitrary, and if there is anything we don't respect, it is the arbitrary. But we are bound to respect the force which particular reasons have, for the people, and in the contexts, and at the times at which the reasons have that force. So the variation in a reason's force cannot be arbitrary.