On Philosophy

May 31, 2006

An Introduction to Ethics

Filed under: Beginning Philosophy,Ethics — Peter @ 11:18 am

Many people find it hard to read professional philosophy. This is not because philosophy is necessarily harder to understand than physics or art, but because the writings of professional philosophers are generally aimed at other philosophers. They tend not to explain their terms, and make use of copious references to earlier works, and both these tendencies can make their writing inscrutable to those new to the discipline. The best solution is to take introductory courses in philosophy, but many people do not have the time to devote to such a class, and yet are still interested in ethics. Hopefully by reading the books I recommend here you will be able to better understand moral philosophy without having to invest too much of your time in it. Even so you might still have questions, in which case posting them online to a forum, or sending them to a local professor are possibilities.

The first book you should read is The Ethics of Star Trek (amazon). I know it may sound juvenile, but it is actually an excellent book, even if you aren’t a Trekkie. This book focuses on introducing the reader to various ethical theories by applying them to situations drawn from the Star Trek series. It also gives a good explanation as to why philosophers are still searching for objective ethical truths if they aren’t motivated by religious reasons. Why not just be a conventionalist or a relativist? (I won’t spoil the book by telling you here.) Most importantly it is written to be understandable by anyone, even if you haven’t read even a single philosophy book before, which makes it an excellent introductory text.

After you have finished with The Ethics of Star Trek, which should be a quick read, I recommend Moral Discourse and Practice (amazon). This book focuses less on the practical application of ethics and more on understanding the foundations of ethical theories and the practice of moral philosophy. Instead of presenting theories on how to act the book gives theories that explain why we should act ethically, why we should be convinced that ethics are real, and how we could ever hope to formulate an accurate ethical theory without special powers / divine inspiration. Unlike The Ethics of Star Trek, this book is a collection of essays published by professional philosophers. This can make it a slow read at times, and occasionally there may be the need to look something up, but in the end the rewards are worth it.

After reading these two books you probably know enough to make your own choices about what to tackle next. If an essay in Moral Discourse and Practice struck you as particularly interesting or insightful then you might want to read other essays or books by the same author, or alternatively read the works that they cite in their notes. At this point it is more important to follow your own investigations than someone else’s reading list.

May 30, 2006

Better Than Democracy

Filed under: Ethics,Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:36 am

Often we evaluate a system of government based on how effective it is, or how many liberties it gives to a people. So to be different here I will evaluate systems of government based on how ethical they are. Just as we often judge an ethical standard by the worst kind of behavior that is possible under it, so will I judge political systems by the worst kind of laws (ethically) that can be passed under them.

Before I begin however I must note that the following arguments assume we all agree that there is some objective ethical standard to which all societies and people can be held. If one believed that ethics were simply a matter of convention then it would be meaningless to say that one government was ethically better or worse than other, since the ethical standards of a society are partly determined by its government and laws, and thus every society would have to be considered ethical.

Anarchy then is probably the worst political system, since literally anything is possible under it; the limits of behavior are simply the limits of the least ethical person in that society. Second to last is monarchy / tyranny. These systems are slightly better than anarchy since the laws passed can only be as bad as the ruler is, but since people can be extremely unethical it is only a little better in the worst case. Slightly better than monarchy is rule by a small group of people selected by some standard other than popular opinion (aristocracy, oligarchy, plutocracy, theocracy, ect). Generally the group will have somewhat of a moderating influence on the most extremely immoral proposals, but once again history has shown that groups such as these can still enact horrible laws. One step better than these systems is the republic, a small group of rulers regularly elected by the people. Having the population involved curtails some abuses, but it is still possible for the body of elected officials to act unethically, especially if they don’t care about re-election.

A significant improvement over the republic is the democracy. A democracy removes the possibility of corrupt officials by giving all governing decisions to the people as a whole. Still majority rule does not prevent unethical laws from being passed. Simply the fact that the majority of people share a desire does not make that desire right (since we aren’t conventionalists). It is easy under a democratic system for laws to be enacted that are unfair to small groups of people who are disliked by the majority. Even guarantees of rights cannot fix this potential problem, since it is always possible for those guarantees to be voted out of existence, or to simply be ignored. Of course these same criticisms apply to the republic as well, but generally bad rulers are more responsible for immoral laws than bad voters.

This pretty much covers all the political systems which have been put into practice, but this doesn’t mean that a better system is impossible to conceive. Let us work with Scanlon’s definition of an ethical action, namely that an action is ethical if it can be defended on the basis of principles that no one can rationally reject. If we apply this definition of what is ethical to the government then we should conclude that a government acts ethically when it passes laws that no one can reasonably reject. Therefore we might conclude that a system like the following would be ethical: every citizen who can pass a basic competency test (to prove that they are rational) is allowed to veto any proposed law. A law then can only be passed then when all citizens agree to it. You might think that this would make some kinds of laws impossible to enact; after all it is a fact of nature that people have irreconcilable differences of opinion on many issues. To get a law actually passed then the creators of possible laws would have to include benefits to groups that disagreed with the law in order to get them to stop vetoing it. Thus every law would become a compromise, where every person in society gets something they wanted out of it. This also agrees with an ethical principle I proposed earlier, that one should not take unless something of equal or greater value is given in return, because to pass a law that would take from anyone you would have to promise them something better in that same law or they would simply veto it.

Of course such a system probably isn’t workable in practice, but then again neither is democracy. Just as we settled for a republic instead of true democracy it might be possible to construct a system where elected representatives did the vetoing for us. However such considerations are outside of the scope of the arguments presented here.

May 28, 2006

The Philosophy of Taxation

Filed under: General Philosophy,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 9:24 pm

I’m not here to argue big government / small government with you. What I am here to talk about is how we can justify taxation as right, while, for example, a protection racket run by the mafia is wrong.

Unlike protection rackets taxation gives us something in return, namely public goods which benefit all citizens. Studies have shown that it is unlikely for people to organize to provide public goods by themselves (see the free rider problem), and thus it is in everyone’s best interests for the government to provide these goods and to support them with mandatory taxation. The protection racket of course promises to give citizens something as well, namely safety, but because the problem is created by the people collecting the money the whole enterprise cannot be defended in this way. (Of course a second group would be able to justify collecting money in order to stop the mafia; generally we call them the police.)

A more interesting question is “how should we tax people?” Since we all receive basically the same benefits from public goods it might seem reasonable to make us all pat the same tax. After all we both get the same benefit from interstate highways, so why should you have to pay more in taxes simply because you earn more? Such taxation systems have been proposed before for just these reasons. However uneven taxation based on income can be justified in two ways.

One way to justify it is to hold that the rich are in debt to the poor (ethically, not financially), and thus progressive taxation (taxing the rich more) is justified because it helps correct this moral problem. Of course not many people feel that the rich actually owe the poor anything, so it is rare to hear progressive taxes justified in this way.

Alternatively we can suppose that money is worth more or less to different people; that the rich value money less and the poor value it more. Thus progressive taxation “costs” everyone about the same even though they pay different amounts of money. We could then defend this practice on grounds of fairness, since the real costs to everyone are the same as the value they receive (since being rich doesn’t diminish your appreciation of roads or national defense). Or if we were utilitarians we might say that the total happiness of society is maximized by progressive taxation, since a flat tax would make the rich only a little happier but would make the poor much less happy.

Of course just because we can justify progressive taxation doesn’t mean that we can justify all aspects of real tax systems. One flaw in the US tax system is the IRS. Of course we need to have someone to collect the taxes, but the size and cost of maintaining the IRS is excessively large because of the unnecessarily complicated tax system. It seems reasonable to suppose that society would be better off with a simpler tax system which would allow us to have a smaller IRS and pay less in taxes.

A more significant flaw in the US tax system is the uneven distribution of government spending. Ideally since we all pay the same taxes to the government we should all get the same benefits from those taxes. Unfortunately government spending doesn’t work that way and some states receive more from government spending than they paid and some sates receive less, for example California gets approximately 90 cents back for every dollar last time I checked. The only way to defend this inequality would be to suppose that people living in some states valued money more or less than those living in other states, which seems unlikely.

In conclusion taxes in principle can be justified, but since reality is often imperfect no actual tax system, to the best of my knowledge, is perfectly just.

May 27, 2006

Rationality and Morality

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 1:42 pm

Unlike purely descriptive endeavors ethics is not only meant to describe what ethical behavior is but to provide us with reasons to be ethical (in technical terms we would say that an ethical theory should be normative). Many ethical theories claim that our desires are enough to motivate ethical behavior; meaning that if we want to satisfy our desires we should behave ethically. However many feel that theories such as these are lacking, for example it is hard to see how altruistic behavior could be mandated by an ethical theory, since by definition to act altruistically is to aid someone else when there is not benefit to yourself.

To address these concerns philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and Kant have constructed theories that demonstrate that it is irrational to act “immorally”. The sense in which rationality and irrationality is used in the context of these theories may be more restrictive than the common use of these terms. In short rational action and thought are based only on the principles of reason (such as deduction) and facts that are known or are likely to be true (their likelihood being deduced from other facts). Thus a rational person, defined in this sense, would not act on their intuitions or beliefs unless they had good reason to believe that they were true. Conversely to act on an unfounded belief or desire would be irrational. Below I will often use faith as an example of irrationality. This is not done to offend people, but because of the restrictive definition of rationality given here, faith, which is not based on evidence, fact, and deduction, cannot be classified as rational. Kant’s and Nagel’s theories build on this definition of rationality by showing that there is no rational reason to set one’s self above other individuals as a special case, and from this they derive their specific conclusions. For example Nagel defends altruism as moral because since we are treating all people as equal there is no reason to care more about your personal desires than those of other people, and thus helping other people to fulfill their desires, even if you aren’t benefited by it, is rational, while fulfilling your own desires while ignoring those of others is irrational.

As compelling as these theories are however their foundation is somewhat shaky, specifically they have a hard time addressing why one should be rational. Even if someone agrees with Nagel’s theory it is possible that they have no reason to prefer rationality to irrationality, in which case then it is expected that they will choose to act irrationally by satisfying their own desires at the expense of the desires of other people. Thus if these theories are to be truly normative they must provide a universal reason why rationality is preferable or motivating.

One possibility is that we, by our nature, prefer rationality to irrationality. Just as everyone is born with a survival instinct (well, at least in the vast majority of cases) it is conceivably possible that everyone is born with a rationality instinct. In some ways this account seems to fit with our experience, since psychological experiments have demonstrated that people have a natural need to give explanations for their actions. For example a person given a command under hypnosis will attempt to explain their later unusual actions rationally, even though there is no rational reason for them to have acted in that way. However, for the most part, people seem perfectly happy being irrational at least some of the time. For example the majority of the population is religious, but any belief justified by faith is irrational, as I mentioned above. Thus it seems unlikely that people are naturally driven to be rational since so many people seem happy being irrational.

Another possibility then is that rationality is necessary for the fulfillment of our other desires, meaning that rationality allows us to meet our wants better than irrationality does. Under this theory peoples’ desires in general will mandate that they be rational, even if they have no specific desire for rationality. For example let us say someone has a craving for sweets. It seems reasonable to suppose that rational thought will better aid them in finding and having some sweets than irrationality would. The problem with this account though is that, even if it was true that rationality was the best way to fulfill our desires, there is nothing that mandates that we be rational all the time. People could simply be rational when it was needed, behaving irrationally whenever their behavior isn’t directed at satisfying a want.

If we can’t show that there is a need to be rational perhaps we can show that people are motivated not to be irrational. Clearly there is no natural penalty for irrationality, since as mentioned above many people are happy to act motivated by faith instead of by reason. If nature doesn’t punish irrationality perhaps society does, for example our society might equate rational behavior with being human and irrational behavior with our animal nature. This would imply that there would be social sanctions against irrational behavior, thus providing a strong motivation to be rational. Unfortunately this account doesn’t reflect our actual society, where rational and irrational behavior are treated fairly equally in most cases.

It seems then that we can’t actually show how people are intrinsically motivated to be rational. If this is the case then an ethical theory based on rationality is not universally normative, and thus not really an ethical theory under some accounts of what ethics is. Of course if the idea of a conditional ethical system seems acceptable, that is an ethical system that only applies to people with certain motivations, then such accounts can be seen as an ethical system that applies only to rational people. This would explain why many philosophers are naturally drawn to such accounts, since most philosophers feel a strong desire to be rational, but unfortunately it doesn’t justify insisting that anyone else should act in this way.

You can read more on Nagel’s rational morality in The Possibility of Altruism (amazon).

The Philosopher’s Zone

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 1:15 pm

You can listen to several radio programs featuring famous philosophers of our time here.

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