Archive: Ethics

On Schliesser on Glymour

This is a slightly amended version of a comment on one of Eric Schliesser’s responses to Clark Glymour’s opinions concerning philosophy.
How can you use “philosophical background to write insightfully and importantly about public policy” if there’s no background? I take it that the background is either (i) traditional ethics, including the “theoretical ethics” that is being consigned to the trash, or (ii) some formal-philosophical alternative. If (i), the proposal to save public policy ethics is incoherent when accompanied by a proposal to consign traditional ethics to oblivion. That leaves (ii). Is anyone actually doing public policy ethics in a formal way?
I think you’re right that there must be a supposition to the effect, not that truth-seeking entails liberal politics, but that there will be a consensus on that point among genuine philosophers, on the basis of which public policy ethics can be carried on by “formal” means, i.e. by means that themselves make no ethical presuppositions.
The justification of that consensus can only be a mystery from the standpoint of genuine philosophers themselves. How is it that agents who value, and therefore seek, truth should regard themselves as bound by (other) liberal values?
On that point there has been discussion, hasn’t there? —an “open society”, I take it, is supposed to be optimal for science, etc. It’s not clear to me why the argument has to be a priori, by the way. What bars appeal to general facts about nature and human nature?
Even if one waives the issue you raise, and grants that (i) there is a consensus and (ii) that consensus is liberal (both of which facts will be, as I said, mysteriously ungrounded, by which I don’t mean that there would be no natural scientific explanation of them, but that there would be no rational justification of it, for surely no-one thinks that ”Darwin makes right“), nevertheless what we agree on is not, so to speak, lying out in the open like the constitution of a state (and just mentioning consitutions suggests that even if they did, their interpretation would still be contentious). The route to an explicit version of the agreed-upon principles and from them to policy would require something other than “logic, mathematics and the theory and practice of computation”.

LinkDecember 29, 2011

Looking forward

The so-called “torture memos” released this week show that not only were prisoners in the hands of the CIA tortured again and again, but that their treatment and the issue of its legality was carefully thought through. No-one was acting out of anger or in haste—no “ticking bombs” here—; everyone made sure their acts were authorized.
Obama and his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have reassured those CIA personnel, including doctors and psychologists, who “carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice” that they “will not be subject to prosecution”—even though the US government seems to be obliged by treaty to prosecute violations of the Geneva Conventions and of the Convention against Torture whenever they occur, and whoever commits them.
The canard of the day is that we should look forward, not backward.
This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.
This is misleading and base. Misleading because the punishment of wrongdoing isn’t just “laying blame”. It’s doing justice, it’s an attempt to make public the crimes performed by the state and to expose the criminals who performed them, with the hope that no-one will be tempted to perform them again. It’s about the future: Never again should these things happen.
It’s base because Obama is turning an issue of justice into an issue of unity, and including those who urge the prosecution of war criminals among the “forces that divide us”. Instead we are supposed to unite around “core values” (whenever anyone talks about “core values”, look for the lie). Until now I would have thought that those values preclude torture and that they oblige us to punish those who perform or order others to perform it. The confidence Obama asks for is a confidence based on lies. We’ve been there before.
In addition to the sites linked to above, see Emptywheel, Talk Left, and Glenn Greenwald for more on torture and the legal issues raised by the acts of the Bush and now the Obama administrations.
I wrote about the legal memos in 2004. It was obvious then that the memos were not about whether or not torture is illegal under US and international law; they were about making it as difficult as possible for anyone to be prosecuted for whatever acts they performed. People who claim to be shocked only now were either not paying attention or deliberately ignoring the warning signs.

LinkApril 20, 2009


cactus, a contributor to the economics blog Angry Bear, objects to the use of the word ‘proportionate’ in discussions of the recent bombings in Gaza (11:18am 1 Jan 2009):
First, because very few people would advocate “proportionate responses” in non-military situations. Consider, for instance, Bernie Madoff. As I understand it, the man is in house arrest and many people wonder why he isn’t already in jail. However, putting Madoff in jail would not be proportionate — there is no indication that he imprisoned or otherwise directly interfered with anyone’s freedom of movement.
The reason it is important to imprison someone like Madoff, if he is indeed guilty of the offenses alleged (and admitted) is to prevent these offenses (and worse) from being committed again. Proportionate responses do not have a deterrent effect. We (through the state) could collectively seize all of Madoff’s assets, but that wouldn’t even deter Madoff from trying again, much less anyone else.
On the other hand, if police officers were allowed and encouraged to routinely shoot one out of every two people caught driving faster than the posted speed limit, and the odds of getting caught any time you were speeding rose to one in two, the average speed on the freeways would drop quite a bit. (Note — the issue of what level of response is needed to achieve a deterring effect is a different question than whether that level of response is worth applying to achieve that effect.)
Second, there is the issue of intent. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda clearly would like to kill us (i.e., and here, “us” amounts to “the West”) all. Every one of us. The fact that they only succeeded in killing a small fraction of us doesn’t mean that in combating Al Qaeda, the West only has the right to go after a small fraction of them. Incompetence is not a defense… and incompetents can succeed at their goals if given enough bites at the apple.
Third, a proportionate response often doesn’t exist. If Osama manages to get his hands on a bomb and next time around nukes New York, what is a proportionate response? His entire organization doesn’t have as many people in it as would have been killed in such an attack. Of course, if you include his fellow travelers, supporters (financial, material, and otherwise), and plain old well-wishers, you could easily end up with far more than enough people for a “proportionate response.” But is it proportionate to go after say, citizens of countries that are purportedly allies of ours who happily send money to Osama knowing full well that if he could, he’d nuke New York. Is it proportional to go after people who only provided money or material support without knowing precisely that it would be used to nuke New York? Perhaps not, but not doing so guarantees what you’re trying to avoid would happen again.
Considered as argument, cactus’s three points fall a good ways short of conclusive.
First point
The imprisonment of a con artist is indeed not “proportionate” to the losses incurred by his victims. But that is because is no common measure between years in prison and dollars lost (I think cactus agrees: imprisonment can be proportionate only to imprisonment). On the other hand, a person convicted of fraud is often required to make good the losses of his victims, if he can; that penalty is proportional to those losses.
The first point, therefore, shows that some penalties meted out as punishments are not proportional to the losses incurred by the victims, but only because they are not commensurate with those losses. That does not tell against proportionality in cases where it could be applied.
Proportionality fits best with theories according to which punishment consists in restitution to the victim of what was lost to them in the crime, or in depriving the perpetrator of goods commensurable to those lost by the victim (retribution). Whether the penalty should be proportional (when that makes sense) to the losses incurred by the victims when the penalty is intended to deter the person penalized (or others like him) from committing the same crime again is unclear. There’s no reason why it should even be commensurable; the intention is to change behavior, not make good a loss. This is one reason why retribution and deterrence don’t sit easily together as aims of punishment.


LinkJanuary 2, 2009


Ethics · Psychology ·· More from January 2008
A New Year’s Eve post by Matt Yglesias describes quite well the mental dynamics of giving up the habit. It’s not all sweetness and light—not even if you want to quit and succeed in quitting.
There are, I suppose, people who come to hate smoking when they give it up. I don’t. I do dislike the taste of it in my mouth now. That is my primary device to turn away the urge when it comes. But I don’t think that smoking is evil. It harms the body: that much is certain. For that reason I prefer having quit to the alternative.
Smoking also makes you more or less completely a slave. The means, often time-consuming, sometimes self-abasing, by which dedicated smokers overcome the inconveniences put in their way testify to that. As do the rationalizations for continuing to smoke. Which is not to say that there isn’t some merit to the thought that disapproval of smoking is part of an increasingly repressive culture, one in which perceived risk provides a pretext for greater surveillance and control.


LinkJanuary 2, 2008


Brian Leiter was here last week. His talk was on Nietzsche’s theory of the will, which is, according to Leiter, in line with certain results in current neuroscience. In brief Nietzsche’s view is that the mental acts traditionally called acts of will or volitions, which were held to be the necessary determining causes of voluntary acts, are only correlates of those acts; the volition and its accompanying act are joint effects of a underlying force or drive, which alone causes the act; but we mistakenly take the volition to be its cause.
I’ve read Nietzsche, but I claim no expertise. Leiter’s reading rings true, although any reading that makes Nietzsche too sensible is in my view suspect. Leiter notes that in the 1870s Nietzsche read up on materialist psychology. The view that our acts and thoughts have unconscious determinants was common property, especially on the Continent, in the late 19th century. Our conscious mental life is spume riding the waves of a great sea of impulses, drives, habits, and so forth, inaccessible to introspection, among which are to be found the true causes not only of our acts but also of conscious thoughts themselves—including volitions.
One of the targets of Nietzsche’s critique is the view, held by Descartes and many others, that for some, if not all, volitions the will, or the mind itself, is the proximate undetermined cause. Desmond Clarke, in his recent book Descartes’s theory of mind, rightly emphasizes the limits of Cartesian will.
Added 5 May: A précis of Descartes’ theory was just published in the Times Literary Supplement.
But he goes too far, I think, in holding that according to Descartes the will is supervenient upon the body-machine(). Descartes is quite conventional in that respect: our freedom may be less than we think, but we are free; and no machine is. Nevertheless the scope of a Cartesian agent’s freedom is, as Clarke says, hemmed in by sensations and the passions that result from them. It is more like an embattled Freudian ego than like God—whose freedom in acting is absolute—even though the freedom of the will is that aspect of the mind with respect to which we most resemble God.
The Passions of the soul promises entire mastery (empire, imperium: sovereign rule) over the passions. But that aim is achieved, in the end, by inculcating in oneself the passion of générosité, a self-esteem resting upon true knowledge of the mind—in particular, that the will is free, that only our thoughts are within our control, and that we have ordered our acts according to our understanding of the good. Générosité, well nurtured, will dominate all other passions, as in Spinoza the love of God subdues every passion contrary to it, and incline the will to good and only to good acts. The Passions aim not to show that the will can be released from determination but rather that we are capable of acting according to the good as represented in the understanding: autonomy, not spontaneity, is what Descartes promises us.
To act freely is, on one understanding of freedom, to have the power of acting according to one’s nature as a rational being, that is, according to one’s understanding of the good or of the moral law. Kantian autonomy is just one chapter in a long story. The will is also sometimes understood to be an uncaused cause, an initiator of causal chains; this can be reconciled with autonomy understood as determination by reason so long as one distinguishes determination from the exercise of active power.
It is on that point that Spinoza, for example, can be distinguished from Descartes (and perhaps also from Kant). For Spinoza, every mode of thought belongs to an infinite causal chain of such modes; there are no originations in Spinoza's world. For Descartes, acts of will are never, or at least need not always be, necessitated by antecedent modes of thought (the texts leave room for uncertainty on this point); in that respect the will remains an uncaused, or spontaneous, cause.
Nietzche, then, aided by his readings in materialist psychology, and guided by a contemporary fascination with the unconscious, continues one strand in modern thinking about the will, according to which being spontaneous, or an uncaused cause, is relatively unimportant. What wisdom advises instead of an impossible originality is to aim for a limited autonomy, which consists partly in acquiring habits of feeling. Having the capacity to acquire them is itself a matter of having a temperament, and living in circumstances, conducive to doing so—which is to say a matter of luck. Some people have, Descartes says, strong wills; some have mediocre wills; and some, perhaps, have wills so weak that they are best off putting themselves under the guidance of others; the allocation of wills depends on chance, on the inscrutable decisions of God.
The novelty in Nietzsche’s view, seen in that light, is the denial of efficacy to volitions; but even that one can find, for example, in Malebranche, argued for not on psychological but on logical grounds. God’s will is known with certainty to be efficacious because the inference from “an omnipotent being wills p” to p is valid, given what omnipotence is. The inference from “Dennis wills that p” to p cannot be demonstrated; experience proves only too often that it fails. The common cause of volitions and acts is God, the only active cause, even though common sense attributes efficacy to the will as to other second causes. The unconscious drives inferred by Nietzsche as the common cause of volitions and actions are functionally equivalent to Malebranche’s God, and like God they are incomprehensible to the agents determined by them.
() An essay-review by me on Clarke’s book is forthcoming in the Oxford studies in early modern philosophy.

LinkApril 2, 2006


A recent essay by Randolph Nesse, “Maladaptation and natural selection”, is part of a tribute to George Williams (link from Zimmer 2005). Nesse teaches and does research in “Darwinian medicine”, the study of the evolution of susceptibilities to disease (broadly construed so as to include, for example, aging). He and Williams have co-authored two books on the subject. “Maladaptation” is a helpful summary of the background to Darwinian medicine for the non-specialized reader (of which I am certainly one). Among many passages that struck my eye, the following stand out.


LinkJune 30, 2005

Nil nisi bonum

Ethics · Society ·· More from January 2005
You have only to inhabit for a little while the stacks of a library to realize that the fate of most of what we write is oblivion. The act has its moment and is gone. Though its traces remain, the odds are high that no-one will revive them. Historians have come to resist the assimilation of history to memory, and for good reason. Nevertheless history remains, for the public at large, first of all memorial or commemoration. The dead, but for continued recollection, would cease to be altogether. In this world, if not in the next.
Edward Lutyens, Thiepval Memorial to the Missing
(1928–1932). Source: The Great War
Remembering can present itself as an obligation. A disaster, once it has followed its course, brings with the emptiness of loss the desire that the dead must not be forgotten. Whether they are one or many makes little difference. Near our house, at the corner of Grand and Magnolia, a lamppost was for at least a year adorned with flowers and the picture of a young man—a memorial to Dejuan Banks, a blind 16-year-old killed on that corner by a hit-and-run driver. Someone’s duty it was to remember him.
The memorial was testimony to his continuing presence in our world—a presence “by power”, to borrow a phrase from theology. God is immensum by virtue of his presence everywhere; that presence consists not in his being located everywhere (which would imply that he is extended), but by his acting everywhere to conserve all created things. Action here entails existence, because an immediate cause must coexist with its effect. A remote cause need not. It is as a remote cause that the deceased can be known to retain a presence in this world, a presence that depends on the living, and first of all on remembrance.


LinkJanuary 5, 2005

Psychopathology in everyday life (“press gaggle” edition)

What would your diagnosis be if in conversation someone responded to you as Scott McClellan does to the press? (The rest is below the fold because I must quote at length to exhibit the phenomenon I’m interested in.)


LinkAugust 16, 2004 | TrackBack (0)

Sandwich Theory of Mind

From the inimitable Fafblog. Bonus: a serious discussion of utilitarianism and deontology.

LinkJuly 1, 2004