On Philosophy

April 30, 2007

The Philosophy Of The Glory Of War

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

To many war seems glorious, which is to say that people are often envious of the soldiers who fought in justified wars, like the first and second world war. Partly this could be because of the dramatic music they play during war documentaries. But I suspect the feeling has other roots as well. Specifically I think it has its basis, in part, in peoples’ longing to have a meaningful life. As I described previously we might mean any one of a number of things by a meaningful life. But one of those things is to be part of something larger. And a war is definitely something larger.

But of course we don’t feel the same way about an office worker, even though they too are part of something larger. I think this is because of the perceived importance of the war. A company is important to some people at some times, but it isn’t important to everyone, and it isn’t usually remembered as being important after it has gone out of business. In contrast wars seem more important. Everyone is affected by the outcome of the war, and the war is remembered for a long time. Thus the war seems really significant, and thus the people who participated in it may be seen as important too, via their contribution to something of real importance.

Now we could debate whether the contributions of a single soldier really contribute enough to the war as a whole to make the average individual soldiers important, but let us just grant that this is the case. A more interesting question to ask is whether it makes sense to be envious of them. In other words, we might grant that individual soldiers are important in some sense, but that leaves open the question of whether their lives are desirable. Is the life of a soldier really a good life, or are their lives really no better, on average, than ours?

Let us set aside the possibility that going to war has some beneficial secondary effects on the character of the individual person (for example, making them more self reliant). These secondary benefits may lead to living a better life after the war is over, but considering them here is a distraction from the real question. First of all we have no way of determining what those secondary benefits are. And secondly we could very well have those character traits already, or the ability to acquire them through different means, and could still ask whether going to war is part of a life that is more likely to be a good one.

Given that we are setting those secondary effects aside the only thing that matters about being a soldier is whether it gives the individual what they want out of life, or, in other words, satisfies their desires. Now it could be that someone wants to be part of something that is universally recognized as important, and a war is one of the few things that is. Or someone may deeply desire to defeat that particular enemy. In their case then being a soldier may be an essential part of leading a good life. However, I do not think most of us share these desires. Certainly most people don’t wish be part of the defeat of some foreign nation. It may seem more plausible to hold that many people want to be part of something important, but I think this is a bit of a misjudgment. I think people want to be recognized as important, not just to be part of something important. Now let us assume that being part of a war does actually make you important. Even so it will not help you in being recognized as important; most soldiers who participate in the war are basically anonymous, only a select few end up featured in documentaries. On the other hand this does explain, to some extent, why people envy soldiers; because the soldiers they hear about are, by being remembered, recognized as being important. But this is a misconception; for most people becoming a soldier will not result in them being remembered as important.

So, for most of us, it seems reasonable to conclude that going to war will not in fact help us lead the good life. And in turn this means that it isn’t rational to be envious of soldiers. Going to war wouldn’t help us fulfill our desires, and actually reduces our chances of satisfying them, since it is rather hard to satisfy your desires when you are dead. Of course we might still admire soldiers, just as we admire anyone who sacrifices in order to give us something. But, despite admiring them, it seems foolish to want to switch places with them, unless you want to be the kind of person who is admired in general (instead of being admired as an individual).

April 29, 2007

The Force Of Ethics

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

The normative power of ethics is not an independent fact. Ethics is normative because of our other desires, because acting ethically helps us achieve those other desires. The reason this is important is because of a certain popular misconception about the normative force of ethics. Specifically some think that if ethics gives you a reason to do or not to do something then that reason rightfully outweighs all other considerations; that if ethics tells you not to do something then there is never a case in which you should do that thing. I think this is wrong.

The proper view, in my opinion, is that ethics gives us a reason to do and not to do certain things. But our other desires give us reasons too. Thus ethics is but one source of reasons among others, and thus there are times in which we will have reason to go against the recommendations of ethics, just as at other times ethics gives us reason to go against the recommendations of our desires. But for some reason people tend not to consider this possibility; many approach ethics as though the only alternatives were for the recommendations of ethics to be absolute or for the recommendations of ethics to have no normative force. I see this as a false dichotomy. Certainly there are many other situations in which something is normative, and yet which we may rightly choose to ignore on occasion. For example, going to sleep at a reasonable time is normative, but on occasion we may choose not too, in order to satisfy some of our other desires.

I see this middle position, viewing ethics as only one source of reasons among others, as the most compelling because of the source of the normativity of ethics, which I mentioned above. Namely that we have reason to act ethically because in most cases acting ethically is the best way to further our desires, at least in the long-term. But there may very well be cases in which the best way to satisfy our desires, in both short-term and long-term, will be to act unethically. In such cases we may have reason to act unethically. And, besides seeming to follow from an understanding of the source of the normativity of ethics, there are other reasons to favor this view. For example, it resolves certain ethical conundrums, such as why it seems right to prefer the well-being of the people you care about over the well-being of people who are strangers to you. The traditional response has been to try and show how such favoritism is really the ethical thing to do, or at least ethically neutral. But if we understand ethics as simply one source of reasons then we can deal with these situations by admitting that ethics gives us reasons to treat everyone equally. But we can also admit that our other desires give us reason to favor those we care about, and that these reasons override the recommendation of ethics to treat everyone equally.

Of course we also have to factor into these considerations the fact that different people are motivated by ethics to different degrees. Now everyone has reason to act ethically, regardless of their desires. But some people, in addition to this, desire to act ethically for its own sake. And this is a desire that has different force for different people. Obviously the more a person desires to act ethically the fewer situations there will be in which they have reason to ignore the recommendations of ethics. And, in addition, this explains why some people are willing to give up their lives due to ethical motivations. If a person only acted ethically because it helped to fulfill their other desires then they would never follow an ethical recommendation that would lead to their own demise, because you certainly can’t fulfill any of your desires when you are dead. But if your desire to act ethically is strong enough you could be led to follow the recommendations of ethics in such a situation, because by dying you would be fulfilling your desire to act ethically.

Of course this leaves the question open as to how much weight ethics carries in comparison to our other desires. That is not a question I wish to address here. I merely want to point out that putting ethics on a pedestal, treating its recommendations as overriding all others, is a mistake. Holding such a view would only lead to problems, because if you actually followed it you would at times frustrate yourself unnecessarily, and would be engaged in the kind of internal contradiction that prevents people from leading the good life. And your ethical theories would always fall short, because you would never be able to justify a system of ethics which had that strong of a normative force.

April 28, 2007

Equality Is The Best Justice

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

A few days ago I defined justice as that which makes a society harmonious. Although in our society justice usually means equality, because people become unhappy when they are treated unequally, equality isn’t necessarily what is just for every society. For example, in a feudal society where everyone, peasants and aristocrats alike, believes that the feudal structure is desirable, the feudal structure is just. In fact imposing equality on such a society would be unjust; although the peasants might be satisfied the upper classes wouldn’t. And so we would be exchanging a completely harmonious society for one that is in fact less harmonious. And this may seem to contradict certain strong intuitions, namely that equality, and only equality, is just.

But our intuition that justice means equality isn’t completely mistaken. Given certain facts about human nature we can conclude that in the long run what will be just for any society will be as much equality as possible, constrained by the other functions of society. Of course the other functions of society, specifically economics and politics, usually require some deviations from complete equality. In every modern political system some people have more political power than others (even if they are elected into that power), and thus we cannot be completely equal without sacrificing our political system. And capitalism requires that some people have more wealth than others, again a deviation from complete equality. In my personal opinion we should expect even these inequalities to disappear in the long run. Political systems will eventually arise that distribute power more evenly, and as the world becomes wealthier we will be able to gradually move away from capitalism.

But why should we expect that what is just for every society to gradually move towards greater and greater equality? Well, let’s consider our theoretical feudal society in which everyone is satisfied with their place. In reality it is never the case that everyone is satisfied. There are always some who will question why various inequalities exist. Society may or may not have a way to answer their complaints. It may be that no one has thought up, or knows of, a practical way to structure society more equally. Or it may be that the existing equalities are justified in some way. (For example, we justify economic equalities by pointing out that the existence of such equalities is required for the economy to function at its best.) When such responses exist it is hard for these complaints to get much traction. Some people will always complain, but they will remain in the minority. However, it may be that certain inequalities have no justification. The majority may not be unhappy with them, but they aren’t necessary. For example, as technology improves the way in which war is waged will no longer necessitate the existence of knights. And thus some aspects of the feudal structure become unnecessary. In such a situation more and more people will come to criticize that inequality. The people who are disadvantaged by it will of course be happy to see it go away, no one opposes an improvement to their lives. And since it doesn’t benefit society it is hard to convince them to keep it around. And some of the people who benefit from the inequality may also disapprove of it, out of sympathy. And so it becomes just for that inequality to be removed, because at this point doing so will increase the harmony of society by resolving these numerous complains.

As technology and society progress more and more inequalities become unnecessary (eventually all of them, I would hope), and thus will be eliminated. But how do we know that certain unnecessary inequalities won’t spontaneously be adopted? Well, I certainly see it as possible for new inequalities to be introduced, perhaps through religious fervor. However, we shouldn’t expect such new inequalities to have much staying power. A few generations after they are accepted they will seem unnecessary, again and hence there will be pressure to do away with them. And to introduce an inequality implies that we are making some people worse off, and it is generally pretty hard to get people to agree with that.

So, although it isn’t completely correct to describe justice as equality, there is some truth to the idea. In the long run equality is justice, for any human society. And thus it makes sense to always push for as much equality as possible (without sacrificing the other functions of society), because in the long run that will make society the most harmonious, even if there is some opposition in the short term.

April 27, 2007

Good And Bad Theories

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

The purpose of a theory is to explain some aspect of the world. Thus many kinds of explanations are rightly called theories, not just scientific ones. I contend that philosophy too, if it is to be of any value, must consist of theories, about subjects that are not captured by any science (here). And by improving our understanding of what makes a theory good we can thus improve our philosophy.

A good theory must have content, it must assert that things operate in one way and rule out other possibilities. Now just because the theory seems like it is saying something doesn’t mean it actually has content. The simplest, and best, way to determine if a theory has content is to see whether it can be refuted. If a theory can’t be refuted then it implies that it either does a very poor job of explaining, or that the objects of the theory are disconnected from the real world. And both of these faults imply that the theory only seems to explain, only seems to have content. So, even if we don’t plan on systematically testing the theory, whether it can, in principle, be falsified is one way to judge the quality of the explanation it provides.

A good example of a theory that isn’t able to be falsified, even in principle, is Freudian psychology. Freudian psychology fails to be falsifiable not because the theory is unclear but because the objects of the theory don’t seem to correspond to anything real. Freudian psychology posits an ego-superego-id structure to explain human behavior. How the ego superego and id interact is pretty clearly spelled out in the theory, so the problem is not that the theory doesn’t say anything definite about the theoretical objects it posits to explain phenomena. The problem lies in the way judgments about the ego superego and id are made. The psychologist observes the patient and then, on the basis of the patient’s behavior, creates a story about the interaction of their ego superego and id that seems to explain those observations. It would seem then that once the doctor has arrived at a hypothesis about the patient’s ego superego and id that Freudian psychology would then be testable, by comparing future behavior to the kind of behavior the theory says should be displayed by someone with that combination of ego superego and id. And this is where problems arise, because if the patient does act in unexpected ways it does not prompt the psychologist to question Freudian psychology. Instead they simply alter their story about the patient’s ego superego and id to fit this new behavior, and Freudian psychology can provide a story for any combination of behavior. The problem then is that the ego superego and id themselves don’t correspond to anything definite; there are no observations we can make that allow us to say something definite about the state of the patient’s ego superego and id, we can only infer facts about them by deduction from their behavior and psychological theory. But if future behavior doesn’t fit we are led to modify our deductions, not challenge the theory. And this is why I say that the ego superego and id are disconnected from the world, because the theory doesn’t allow us to make any definite observations about them.

Of course this is a bit of a problem for every psychological theory. Psychological theories in general posit some facts about the internal life of a person based on their behavior, and then predict future behavior on the basis of those internal facts. So we might think that, like Freudian psychology, they would be free to simply revise their guesses about internal facts in light of disagreements between predictions and actual behavior. This problem has not gone unrecognized by psychologists, and has prompted some rather extreme reactions, such as behaviorism, which attempted to deal with the problem by assuming people had no inner life, and that all of psychology could be handled by statistical predictions of behavior alone. But behaviorism isn’t the only possible solution. Another possibility is to make the revision of guesses about a person’s internal behavior harder. For example, our psychological theory might posit that if a person systematically prefers one kind of thing to various alternatives then they have a conscious or unconscious desire for it. And our theory has, in addition to this, rules that govern how desires can change over time or be suppressed by other desires. Furthermore let us suppose that we have observed a group of people, all of whom show a preference for chocolate ice cream. Thus our theory motivates us to say that they all desire chocolate ice cream. Now let us also suppose that one day a large percentage of this group suddenly started preferring a different flavor. Our theory says that if this happens then their desire must have changed or been suppressed, in one of an enumerated number of ways. And so we go through that list. One by one we rule out the possibilities, including chance, since too many of them changed their preferences at once. If we rule out all the possibilities then we are indeed forced to admit that our theory doesn’t satisfactorily explain this situation. Either the theory was wrong in assuming that they had a desire for chocolate ice cream, or the theory was wrong by omitting some way in which desires can change.

So to be falsifiable a theory must have two properties. It must provide a way to determine the status of its theoretical entities (whatever is posited by the theory to explain events that isn’t directly observable; egos, trade, liberties, ect) with a fair degree of certainty, and it must say how those theoretical entities interact and explain various events. Obviously good science meets both these criteria easily. Physics, for example, ties its theoretical entities to reality by holding that certain measurements on certain devices indicate their presence. And physics predicts how those entities interact very precisely, by describing them mathematically.

Now let’s apply this standard to philosophy. Let us first set aside the truly analytic philosophy, the work that primarily investigates what we mean by the use of a term. As I have argued (here) such work is best understood as a precursor to a philosophical theory that serves to clarify how that theory relates to our common sense understanding of the world. Consider a possible philosophical theory of ethics. Let us say that ethics is defined ostensively in the context of this theory as “that which we have reason to do regardless of the nature of our other desires” (the actual ostensive definition of ethics is probably more complicated than this). The ethical theory then will itself describe certain kinds of actions as ethical and unethical. And this theory is falsifiable, assuming that we have an independent understanding of when people have a reason to do something. To falsify it all we need to show is that in some circumstances the theory recommends some action that we do not have reason to do, modulo our other desires. Note that possibility of falsification does not consist in disputing whether the theory begins with a proper ostensive definition of ethics. Such a dispute cannot falsify the theory, all it can show is that the theory is really a description of something else, and not what we commonly call ethics. Another example of such a falsifiable philosophical theory is the description of society I provided a few days ago. In that description I outlined five functions that society must perform well if it is to fulfill its purpose. And thus the theory can be falsified by showing that society can best fulfill its purpose in some situations by ignoring or going against one of the functions I described. In contrast the philosophical theory that all the world is an illusion (either a dream or a simulation of a world) is not falsifiable, and hence a bad theory. (Although its opposite, the theory that the reality we know is not a dream or a simulation is falsifiable, and hence a decent philosophical theory.)

Of the two ways in which a theory may fail to be falsifiable I am concerned more with the possibility that our philosophical theories may not connect the theoretical entities they posit to the world in a sufficiently determinate way. Certainly some philosophy does consist in muddled and vague theories, but the people who like such theories certainly won’t be reading this. There is a real danger that some of our philosophical ideas, such as universals and intentionality and qualia, become disconnected from the world, such that we don’t have a way of telling when they are and aren’t present that is separate from our theories. Or, in other words, that we might fall into the Freudian trap; we have a theory that we think explains reality, but instead of checking the theory against reality to see if they agree we instead check reality and then arrange our theoretical entities so that they do agree, and so our theories can never be falsified.

April 26, 2007

Society And Ethics

Filed under: Ethics,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Last time I described several functions of society, each of which had to be preformed well in order for society to achieve its purpose. I described one of those functions as ethics. Unfortunately that terminology is a bit misleading, and there are other complications as well, so here I will elaborate more on the connections between ethics and society.

Saying that society has a particular function, such as to create wealth, is to say that society needs to be organized in accordance with certain principles in order to best achieve that goal. So, for the sake of clarity, we can talk about the principles of society that lead to the fulfillment of its functions. The principles of economics create wealth, the principles of liberty give the members of society liberties, the principles of justice organize society so that it can resolve and prevent internal disagreements (create harmony), and the principles of law/politics structure society so that large-scale projects can be implemented. Of course I have left off the principles of ethics. This is because if I say “principles of ethics” it sounds like I am talking about acting ethically. Obviously though societies can’t act ethically, to describe a society as being ethical is a category mistake, only the people who make up a society can be properly described as ethical. So, for lack of a better description, I will describe this last kind of principle as principles of ethical attitudes.

So what exactly are the principles of ethical attitudes? Well, they are a way in which society is organized so as to promote positive attitudes towards ethical behavior in its members. This is partly reflected in the culture of the society; a society that has successful principles of ethical attitudes has a culture that celebrates ethical behavior and denounces unethical behavior. And partly it is reflected in the legal system, which punishes unethical behavior in order to discourage it. Of course it is important to keep in mind that the principles of ethical attitudes are not the only reason that culture and legal system of a society are structured the way that they are. The legal system, for example, also exists in order to enforce the direction given by the political system, which in turn exists because of the principles of politics.

It is important to keep in mind that ethics and the principles of ethical attitudes are distinct. Most societies are imperfect, and so society may promote a flawed ethics, meaning that it may on occasion promote unethical behaviors and try to discourage ethical ones. This is what I think yesterday’s post was most unclear about; by describing the principles of ethical attitudes as ethics I may have given the impression that ethics was dictated by society, which isn’t true. Note that it is in society’s best interests for people to act according to the ideal ethical principles, and not the flawed ethical principles it may actually promote. However, society does not have a guiding intelligence, it can’t realize that the ethical attitudes it is promoting are flawed, which is why there can be a disconnect between real ethics and the ethics promoted by society.

As I have described them the principles of ethical attitudes may make the principles of justice seem superfluous. The principles of ethics already guarantee that we will promote ethical behavior by punishing criminals, and if we are successful in promoting ethics then it would seem like harmony would be guaranteed by that, and thus make justice redundant. This might be an accurate assessment if human beings cared only about ethics, and if they were always perfectly informed as to what the right action is in a given situation, but neither of those is the case. People don’t just care about ethics, people have other desires as well. And the point of society was to allow them to pursue those desires, not to ignore them. And of course we can’t all get what we want, sometimes our desires will pit us against each other. People may also become dissatisfied if they feel they are being treated unfairly, if society is taking advantage of them so that the desires of other people are given more attention than theirs without good reason. Obviously the idea of what is and isn’t fair will vary between different cultures. In our culture we seem to think that it is fair for someone to be better able to pursue their desires because of wealth; in other cultures birthright has been seen to grant that advantage. Obviously we need a way to resolve these problems. Society needs to be structured so that when people are brought into conflict by their desires those conflicts can be resolved without giving either of them a reason to be dissatisfied with society. And similarly with the overall structure of society; the principles of justice exist to ensure that the overall structure of society is acceptable to everyone. Of course my point here is not to elaborate on the principles of justice, but merely to point out that there is work for them to do in addition to the principles of ethical attitudes.

The final point I would like to make is that ethics is thus doubly normative. It is normative because the principles of ethical attitudes encourage individuals to value ethics. This makes acting ethically about as normative as everything else society promotes, for example specific standards of dress and language and so on. So this is somewhat weakly normative. Ethics is also normative for internal reasons, which are separate from the pressures society puts on us to be ethical. We have reason to act ethically because we realize that we are part of society, and so that what is in society’s best interest has the effect of furthering our own desires. And we further realize that our actions are not disconnected from the rest of the world. If we act unethically it encourages other people to act unethically. So in terms of normativity this pull is much stronger, and this why when the ethics promoted by society and ideal ethics are in conflict we should prefer ideal ethics.

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