On Philosophy

March 31, 2007

The Philosophy Of Death Note

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:00 am

In Death Note the ring of Gyges story is presented with a twist, not only does having power corrupt, but that same individual, upon losing that power is shown to return to being a good person, and when they get it back they return to being corrupt. Of course such stories are only stories, we can’t say for sure how anyone will react to receiving such powers. But they seem believable because we often witness for ourselves how having simply political or economic power has the tendency to drag otherwise good people down.

So why does an increase in personal power result in unethical behavior? One possible explanation is that an increase in personal power results in the individual worrying less about being punished for their actions, and that without the fear of punishment holding them back they will follow their natural inclinations to act unethically. This is the explanation most often given for why power corrupts, but although it certainly it seems like a reduced fear of consequences might contribute somewhat to unethical behavior it seems unlikely that it can be completely responsible for the corrupting effects of power. Although people will act unethically some of the time when they think they can get away with it, they don’t in general try to get away with unethical behavior whenever possible. Rather it seems that people try to act ethically for the most part regardless of whether they will be punished, and that they only take the possibility of punishment into consideration during the occasional ethical lapse.

Another possibility is that increased personal power decreases the person’s fundamental motivations for acting ethically. Ethical motivations, I assume, come from the nature of belonging to a community; when you belong to a community you want what is best for the community, because you are a part of it, and hence you should act ethically. Thus ethics can be seen as a triumph of we-thinking over I-thinking. Increased personal power, we might hypothesize, has the effect of distancing people from their community, and increasing I-thinking at the expense of we-thinking. They might not feel like part of their community anymore, or that the community can do anything for them, and hence might cease feeling obligated to it, which would result in unethical behavior. But even this explanation seems incomplete, because it would seem to imply that people are more conscious of their reasons for acting ethically than they actually are. It is true that being part of a community does provide a reason to act ethically, and in fact some people may act ethically because of such reflections. But most people act ethically simply because they have been taught to act that way, meaning that acting ethically has become one of their motivations without them ever having an explicit reason for ethical behavior. Thus it seems dubious that their realization that they are not as closely connected to their community as they used to be will have much of an impact, since they probably don’t realize that it is their community that is the ultimate reason for acting ethically. In fact people who deeply believe that the reason to act ethically is because of divine command and divine punishment seem just as easily corrupted by power as other people are, and it is unlikely that they think that their increase in personal power allows them to escape the divine command or divine punishment.

The third possible explanation is that an increase in personal power gives the person new goals that seem ethical to them, but lead to unethical behavior. Certainly this seems to be what happens in Death Note, as the protagonist decides to eliminate crime by killing every criminal. Now these new goals may or may not be ethical in themselves, but they are generally more grandiose and more important than the goals the person had previously. And thus such goals may seem to justify acting at least slightly unethically, while the more limited goals that they had before did not. For example, in Death Note the protagonist ends up killing some of the police who are after him, because he realizes that if he is caught he will be unable to continue killing criminals. Since I am a consequentialist I admit that a sufficiently worthy goal may justify some amount of unethical behavior. The real problem lies in how people reason about the costs of their new long-term goals. If someone has a goal that they think of as being worth 10 positive units of goodness then they will see any acts valued at less then 10 negative units of goodness (unethical acts) as justified, given that they are done with the purpose of reaching this goal. And this may be acceptable reasoning. The problem is that over time such goals often require a steady stream of unethical acts. Each unethical act by itself may seem minor, and thus justified, but in total they may overshadow the positive results of the goal when reached. And this is aggravated by the fallacy of sunk costs, which in this case means that after having committed some unethical acts in pursuit of their goal people will continue to act unethically in order to reach it, even if the later unethical acts overshadow the positive effects of the goal, because they don’t want their earlier unethical acts to be wasted or unjustified. And thus the fact that an increase in personal power leads to the adoption of larger and seemingly more important goals means that it also leads to unethical behavior.

March 30, 2007

What is Art?

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

People have a strangely hard time defining art, and in separating art from obscenity. I think this comes from conflating, erroneously, the definition of art with some aesthetic standard. In fact there probably is no objective standard for what makes something beautiful or moving; beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, which is just a poetic way of saying that it is subjective. And because it is subjective it is best handled by psychology, which is better prepared to discuss how a person’s unconscious mind moves them to judge something as beautiful than philosophy is.

To explore what matters when judging something to be art or not consider a painting by Picasso, which everyone agrees is art, and an identical painting created by a very unlikely paint spill. Although both have the same aesthetic qualities, since they look identical, the first is art while the second is not. Which reveals that judgments about art involve something about the way the piece was created. I propose that what matters is the intent of the creator. If the creator intends to create a piece that conveys something to the viewer or expresses some idea (or, in other words, if they intend to create art) then what they have created is art (although not necessarily good or successful art). Anything created in another manner, no matter what aesthetic qualities it has, is simply an object, perhaps pleasing to look at, but not art. (This is why beautiful landscapes aren’t themselves art while photographs or paintings of them are; the landscape was not created with the intent to convey anything.)*

Art is not alone in being defined by intent. Whether an action should be punished (is criminal) also depends on intent. This is because the point of punishment is to deter people from doing the wrong thing, and thus there is no point in punishing people who have done the wrong thing without intending to, because it isn’t an effective deterrent. You simply can’t deter people who don’t intend to do the wrong thing from actually doing the wrong thing, because they are already doing their best to avoid it. Of course this fact tends to be obscured by the actual criminal code, which takes intent into account only sporadically, but that just shows that actual criminal codes are imperfect.

Which tells us something about both art and criminal acts, namely that they are things that exist only in virtue of our existence. In a world without people there is neither art nor criminality, not because bad things can’t happen without us, and not because nature can’t be beautiful without us, but because they are ways in which we categorize the products of other people, a categorization not based solely on the result but also on the way the person brought it about.

Which in turn illustrates that our conceptualization of the world is closely connected with our intentional stance towards it, as Dennett would call it. Which is a fancy way of saying that the way we look at the world is colored by how we think other people have and will interact with it. For example, something is seen as dangerous because it is likely to cause harm, a judgment not made solely because of its objective properties, but also on the basis of how we expect other people to interact with it. While such judgments are practically useful, since much of life involves dealing with other people, they are much less useful philosophically, unless we can establish by some other route that intent is relevant. Which is one of the many reasons it is a poor decision to make criminality the basis of morality, because it presupposes that a certain kind of intent matters.

* Of course here I am engaging in the kind conceptual analysis that I hate so much. But in the case of art it doesn’t matter, because art doesn’t really exist. Art is our invention, and so it is wholly defined by our conception of it; our conception of it can’t be in error because there is nothing more to it. Which is not the case when we are dealing with things such as causation, mind, ect.

March 29, 2007

Socrates And Conceptual Analysis

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

There is an approach to philosophy that understands philosophy as an investigation of our concepts. And it is this approach to philosophy that is sympathetic to appeals to intuition, and to understanding logical or conceptual possibility as relevant to questions of identity, supervenience, dependence, causation, ect. Such philosophers understand philosophical inquiries and problems as simply vehicles for investigating their relevant pre-existing concepts, with the idea that we already know the answers in some sense, since they are our concepts, and that philosophical investigation is thus just a way of getting the answers out.

I am opposed to this approach to philosophy, and I see an investigation of our concepts as basically a pointless task, since our concepts may not reflect reality, and thus may not be useful, and it is a different kind of investigation that investigates whether our concepts are decent approximations to the real world. But I have already given arguments against this approach in other places, so today I will look at the issue from a different perspective, that of the first systematic philosophers, the ancient Greeks, specifically Socrates.

Socrates is famous for showing through his pointed questions that people knew less about things than they pretended to. For example, he might ask a respected priest what piety was, and then by his pointed questions show that the priest could not in fact form a coherent definition of piety. Which seems to indicate that the priest doesn’t in fact have a coherent concept of piety; rather he has an incomplete and contradictory one, which he only pretends is coherent. And I think the same thing can be said about most of our concepts, that they contain contradictions, and are really only rough approximations to reality we have come to have almost haphazardly.

But how would a philosopher who treats their work as an investigation of concepts react to Socrates’ revealing that the priest is in fact ignorant of what piety really is? Obviously if they accept that the priest really doesn’t know what piety is, and only thinks that he knows, then their entire approach to philosophy must be discarded, as they can’t guarantee that they are better off than the priest, all they can be sure of is that they haven’t met a Socrates who can reveal their ignorance. So they probably interpret Socrates’ encounter with the priest as revealing only that the priest didn’t have complete access to his own concept of piety. And perhaps this is the way Socrates himself viewed the issue, since he (or possibly Plato) thought that people already had known everything at some point before they were born, but that when they born they forgot these things, so that learning was really a process of recalling what was already known. Thus the priest already knows what piety is, it is just that access to that knowledge is in some way blocked.

But if this is what our philosopher thinks then we must ask where this knowledge comes from. Hopefully our modern philosopher doesn’t believe that there is some universe of forms and that the individual forms have imprinted themselves somehow on the minds of everyone. Given that we are constrained to some degree in our speculation by science there are really only three possibilities, if we are to assume that everyone’s concepts are coherent and complete, if not fully accessible to them. The first is that we are explicitly taught concepts at a young age in a way that is consistent and complete, and that we simply forget this teaching later. Obviously this isn’t a live option, because then we could simply appeal to our teachers or a dictionary when there is some question as to, for example, what knowledge is. Secondly, there is the possibility that we are simply born with our concepts, perhaps due to genetic knowledge. Although this option is at least possible (or more possible than the last one) the empirical evidence doesn’t support it. Perhaps we are born with certain ideas about three-dimensional space, and what people look like, but certainly not about things like knowledge. And finally we have the possibility that we learn our concepts form our real world observations of the content of our concepts, for example that we might lean what justice is from our observations of real justice. If this were the case then our concept of justice could be consistent and complete for the same reason that our concept of red is consistent and complete; because it is based on something real and error simply doesn’t have room to creep in. But this possibility, although better than the other two, is still not a viable option. No one ever observes justice itself; people observe situations that consist of various moving colored objects, which they are told are just. This doesn’t bring justice to their attention in the way red is brought to our attention by such demonstrations. Rather, they must construct an idea of what justice is on the basis of these examples. And this means that the concept is likely to be inconsistent and incomplete, just as someone would be poor at math if you only showed them some sample sums, told them that those sums were addition without ever telling them the rules of addition, and then let them come up with their own ideas about what addition was.

So, given that pre-knowledge is out of the question, I think that the fact that people couldn’t answer the questions posed to them by Socrates, and that philosophical problems are problems and not immediately answerable simply by introspection on our concepts, reveals that our concepts are incomplete and inconsistent. Now it is possible that the kind of philosophical investigation that attempts to investigate our concepts actually improves them, making them more consistent and more complete. But I fail to see how that matters. It certainly won’t make them better reflections of reality, nor will it put us in a better position to deal with disputes arising from different conceptions of something like justice. And so conceptual analysis and its associated kind of philosophy still seem pointless.

March 28, 2007

Reduction

Filed under: Metaphysics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Assume that physical facts are causally complete, meaning that every physical fact has a physical cause, and that, in addition, this physical cause completely explains the result. Saying that it explains the result of course implies that nothing else has a causal influence on the result, since otherwise that external influence would also be needed to explain the result. In such a world are all regularities, for example the regularities expressed by economic laws, reducible to physical laws?

It seems obvious to me that in such a world everything must reduce to physics simply because there is no room for other explanations of events. But some disagree. One reason put forward to defend the idea that the special sciences, like economics, cannot all be reduced to physics is that the laws of economics have exceptions. Logically if the economic laws were really a very complicated kind of physical laws then they couldn’t have exceptions, since by hypothesis the physical laws are prefect descriptions of the world, and thus they aren’t really physical laws, or at least aren’t not reducible to them. All this seems to indicate, to me, is simply that the so-called economic laws are not really laws at all, or if they are laws then they are false laws. Perhaps they are better seen as statistical predictions over general kinds of situations, so that if there is an economic “law” that asserts that situation A is followed by situation B then what it really means is that a certain large percentage of the situations that can be described as A result in situations that can be described as B. But so phrased there is no obstacle to reducing such laws to complex physical laws; A could be reduced to a class of physical descriptions, B to another class, and then the physical laws could be used to deduce that a certain percentage of the first class of situations resulted in members of the second class.

A better objection is to deny that the situations that economic laws operate on (such as “high demand for a product”) can be characterized as a certain class of physical descriptions. After all “high demand” only requires that there be a large number of rational agents who want something in comparison to the amount of that thing available to them. But there are a vast number of ways in which a rational agent could be constructed physically. Not only are there many possible organisms that could be the rational agents described in economic laws, but there could be rational agents made of non-organic substances as well, and the laws of economics are supposed to cover all of them. How could this class possibly be reduced to a physical class?

I think that this argument rests on a bit of a misunderstanding about what reduction is supposed to be. Reduction is not supposed to be an identification, but rather an explanation. When we say that a system of laws, X, reduces to a system of more fundamental laws, Y, all we are claiming is that anytime our X laws predict of a specific situation that it would result in another specific situation that our Y laws could have made the same prediction, and in addition that knowing the Y laws allows the complete prediction of the system.

So, in the case of economics, when we claim that it can be reduced to physical laws all we are claiming is that the changes of the prices of goods, say in a situation of high demand, can be in any specific situation predicted, in principle, by knowing all the physical facts and laws. And that is indeed the case, in virtue of the hypothesis that the physical word is completely causally closed. And we can also claim that we can completely predict what will happen in any economy by use of the physical laws alone, which again follows from causal closure of the physical world. So at least under this understanding of reduction the economic laws do seem in principle reducible to the physical laws.

Now in these terms the supposed difficulty for reduction come from our claim that the physical laws can be used to predict certain economic outcomes, like the prices of goods. My imaginary opponent will concede that I can predict all the physical facts, but they will deny that I can thus predict the economic facts, because I don’t have any further laws that tell me what economic facts are implied by a situation described in terms of the physical facts. And furthermore they will deny that such laws exist. The best way to counter this objection is simply by inquiring in virtue of what then a particular economic fact truly describes a situation. There are only two possibilities. One is that economic facts can only be defined in terms of other economic facts. If that is the case then no one knows when any economic facts hold, since we don’t have an economic sense analogous to our visual sense. That is clearly absurd, and thus we must concede that economic facts hold in virtue of some more primitive facts, say facts about rational agents. And then we can ask in virtue of what those facts hold. At every level the facts must hold by virtue of some more primitive facts until we arrive at facts that we do sense directly. But those facts can all be reduced to the physical facts (since what we sense directly are things like the position of bodies, how they change over time, what wavelengths they reflect, and so on). Thus if we are able to know economic facts about a situation they must reduce to the physical facts in some systematic way, otherwise we couldn’t know what the economic facts were, and it was just this connection which we needed in order to complete our reduction of economics to physics.

Of course no one actually knows ho to construct this entire chain of definitions. But that isn’t because it doesn’t exist, it is because we think about economic facts without ever formally defining them. At some level, probably at the level of rational agents and their behavior, we don’t consciously infer these facts from our individual observations. Instead we have learned what a rational agent is by demonstration, by learning in various cases what is and isn’t a rational agent, and then deciding further cases by similarity. This doesn’t mean that a definition of what a rational agent is in physical terms doesn’t exist, it just means that the definition we actually use is buried in our unconscious, and thus not readily available to construct the desired definitions.

So I conclude that if the facts of special sciences are really facts, meaning that it is a matter of objective reality whether they hold of a system or not, then they must reduce to physical facts, since if they didn’t we could have no knowledge of them (and if they aren’t facts then we needn’t concern ourselves with them, since no one has ever claimed that facts which hold only in opinion can be reduced to physics).

March 27, 2007

Feelings Of Entitlement And The Purpose Of Society

Filed under: Political Philosophy,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

When it comes to taxes some people have very strong feelings. They think that they are entitled to the money that they have earned, and that the government is basically stealing some of it from them. This implies that they think that somehow their work entitles them to that particular sum of money, and thus by extension that they are entitled to more than other people if they are working harder than they are. But why should that be? There is no law of nature that states that the people who work more will receive more. Nor does ethics require us to treat those who work harder better than others; in fact it is the other way around, ethics requires us to treat people more equally. The only way to justify such differential treatment is to argue that somehow they are giving more to society, and thus that society owes them more in return.

This attitude rests on two poor assumptions. The first is that there is some level of rewards that your work automatically entitles you to. I don’t know about other economic systems, but that certainly isn’t the case with capitalism. Under capitalism you are only entitled to the money that someone is willing to pay you. That sum can be reduced by many factors such as an oversupply of workers and taxes. But just because there is some factor that is reducing that sum doesn’t mean that you are entitled to the full sum. From a free market perspective if that sum isn’t what you deserve then don’t work for it, do something else less demanding. Then the reduced supply of workers will force employers to offer more money, which in turn will result in more money to take home after taxes. Or, in other words, the market has decided that the amount you take home after taxes is the amount you deserve. If taxes were reduced, and all other factors were held constant (which obviously they couldn’t be, since elimination of taxes would have innumerable consequences) people would simply be paid less. Thus you are not “entitled” to your pre-tax earnings under capitalism, you are only entitled to what you get.

The second poor assumption that people make is that somehow what they are doing is beneficial to society, and that by working harder than someone else they are benefiting society more, and this probably rests on a misconception about what the point of society is. Most people are paid to make or sell some kind of product, and ideally these products make the people who purchase them happier. But the point of society is not to make people happy, rather the happiness of people is simply a by-product of a healthy society. Instead I think the point of society is to allow as many people as possible to lead the good life, which varies from person to person. This view can be defended simply by considering why people participate in society. If people choose to participate, or want to participate, in society it can only be because society facilities some goal of theirs, and fulfilling these goals leads to living the good life. If society didn’t offer people a better chance of leading the good life they would cut themselves off from it. Of course for some people the good life is a pleasurable one, and so society should spend some effort towards making people happy, but not everyone is so focused on happiness, and even someone who is usually has other goals. Thus the point of society is not to make people happy, or at least that is not the primary concern of society.

If the point of society is to allow people to live the good life then society’s primary concern should be with giving people the power and opportunities to do so. Obviously giving people opportunities means increased freedom, and power usually comes from the availability of tools and resources, with better technology usually giving people more power. And in order to do those things society must survive, which in the long term means expanding, or at least being able to support more people. And so society must develop technologically and intellectually in order to provide people with more power, in the form of better tools and knowledge, to develop better social systems, and to survive and expand.

Of course there are a few people whose work does better society, specifically successful scientists and social leaders, who give the rest of us more power and more opportunities. But I am not one of them, and I doubt that many of the people who feel that society owes them something are either. For the rest of us anything good that we have is thus better viewed as a benefit of society, a gift that society gives us. The opportunity to have money and the ability to buy what you want with it is such a gift from society, and thus we don’t have grounds to complain if society gives us less than we would like it too; and if society is really holding you back from leading the good life by taxing you then you can always leave (perhaps to be a hermit?).

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