On Philosophy

July 13, 2007

The Philosophy Of Dexter And House

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

Both Dexter and House are in the business of saving lives, in one way or another. And both are individuals who are somewhat nasty. And both operate by breaking the rules on a regular basis. Does the fact that they save lives excuse Dexter’s and House’s faults?

Before we consider the question properly we must clearly understand what their faults are. It is not reasonable to blame them for doing something that, by itself, is bad in order to bring about a good outcome. Of course some would blame them for doing just that, but they would be wrong to do so. Some would see justifying the means by the end as ethically unsound, and on those grounds would not excuse what they do because of the good that it brings about. Such objections are often justified by appealing to the many times when a good result has been used to justify evil actions, and the fact that we would prefer to ethically condemn people who act in that way. But the examples brought up in such an argument almost always involve an end which is thought to be good by the person acting, and portrayed as good to others, but is actually evil, or involve situations in which the evil actions being taken won’t actually yield the desired good end. So to meet this objection half way we can further stipulate that the end only justifies the means when the means are known (in a strong sense) by the people acting to bring about that end and that they know that end to be good. Even given that restriction both Dexter and House are still justified in acting as they do, since they both know that what they do is likely to work, and they know that the end result is more people alive.

What is questionable is the fact that they both break justified rules to act as they do. Obviously not all rules need to be obeyed all the time, but there are good rules, rules that make us all better off when we follow them. And the legal (specifically the ones prohibiting vigilantism) and medical rules involved in both cases are such rules. Breaking such rules can itself be considered a bad outcome. If people break them then the rules have less force, and are thus less effective, and so we all end up less well off. And there is also the problem that they are both motivated primarily by selfish reasons. And we can’t praise selfishness or we run the risk of encouraging more people to be selfish. Thus we are moved to condemn them because they exemplify patterns of behavior that we wouldn’t want to see adopted by other people.

But, on the other hand, it is pretty clear that their fictional worlds are better off with Dexter and House in them than they would be without them. And partly this is because neither character is the kind of person that encourages others to act like them. Dexter is secretive and House is abrasive. So their existence doesn’t encourage other people to be like them; to break the rules like they do or to be as selfish as they are. And thus the problems mentioned above are to some extent negated; if your breaking the rules doesn’t make other people want to break the rules then you have done nothing wrong (assuming the results of the action that broke the rules were good).

So Dexter and House could probably justifiably consider themselves to be good people. But we are in a trickier situation. If we describe them as good people then we are encouraging other people to be like them, to break the rules and to be selfish. And so it seems like we are forced to condemn them, despite the fact that they make the world a better place. But actually there is a way out. We can condemn people like Dexter and like House while consistently holding that Dexter and House themselves are good people. This is much like claiming that theft is wrong while admitting that there are occasional examples of theft that are acceptable. Similarly then Dexter and House are the exceptions, the two selfish rule-breakers who we tolerate while condemning the rest.

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June 13, 2007

The Philosophy Of Proust: Habit

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

Note: here I am not trying to explicate the philosophical positions that Proust himself may have had, rather I am using In Search Of Lost Time as a jumping off point from which to investigate various philosophical issues.

Many of Proust’s characters (perhaps all of them in some way or another) are ruled by habit in some aspects of their lives. The aunt, for example, is so locked into her routine by habit that she never leaves the house. And the narrator as a boy has a habit of receiving a goodnight kiss from his mother, a habit which makes him extremely upset when it is broken. Thus we are naturally moved to question whether habit is a good or a bad thing. Should we try to avoid being ruled by habit in any way?

On a first examination it would seem that habit is something that is to be avoided. As is illustrated most clearly by the case of the aunt, habit tends to reduce our freedom. By this I mean to say that it reduces our options, since some options become ruled out by habit, as they would break with it. But, as I have argued elsewhere, having options is important to leading a well-lived life. The well-lived life is one in which we are able to pursue that which brings us satisfaction. And that pursuit requires us to have as many options open to us as possible, since we never know where it will take us, and because the object of our pursuit may change over time. Thus habit is likely to interfere with the well-lived life.

Another problem with habit is that it can be a source of unnecessary misery. This is best illustrated by how bothered the narrator is when his bedtime ritual is broken. Clearly if he hadn’t had this habit then a change in the routine wouldn’t have bothered him. And thus he would have been much happier, at least for that night. So again, it seems that habit just creates problems, and thus that it should be avoided whenever possible.

But of course we haven’t considered the advantages of habit yet, and there must be some, otherwise we would have all given up habit long ago. The first of these advantages is a converse of the previous disadvantage. Although habit can lead to pain that wouldn’t otherwise have existed it can also create pleasure that wouldn’t otherwise have existed, specifically the pleasure of being able to act in accordance with habit. It is true that the narrator would have been able to avoid being upset had he not cared about his bedtime ritual, but if he hadn’t cared about his bedtime ritual then we wouldn’t have taken any joy from it when it had been fulfilled on all those other nights. And given that the ritual is fulfilled much more often then it is broken the habit may thus bring more pleasure than pain, overall.

A second advantage of habit is that it makes people more predictable. Of course predictability can be bad in some situations, because it is possible for predictability to be taken advantage of. But usually we find ourselves in situations where people desire to cooperate with us. And it is easier to cooperate with someone if you can predict how they are going to act. For example, if you know that a person will always be at a certain place at a certain day you can use that knowledge to meet with them without having to go through the trouble of making arrangements. It also reduces the chances of accidentally coming into conflict with someone you wish to cooperate with; if you know that someone always prefers one of two kinds of cookies, and you are both presented with one of each, then you, having no preference, can take the one they won’t choose, and thus the both of you will be better off. In economic terms we could say that habit reduces the barriers to cooperation.

Finally we come to the possibility that habit adds something to life. Proust says of habit: “that skillful but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds suffer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our minds are none the less only too happy to discover at last, for without it, reduced to their own devices, they would be powerless to make any room seem habitable.” Here Proust seems to be saying that without habit we would be in some way lost. Now I don’t know whether Proust is right about this, that we couldn’t feel at home anywhere without habit. However it seems likely that we need some amount of habit simply as a psychological fact. Habit relieves us of the need to think through our actions, and we can’t go around all day thinking about everything we do; it would be mentally exhausting.

Given that there are both good and bad aspects of habit it would seem then that we should neither completely embrace nor reject it, rather we should try to strike some kind of Aristotelian balance. A balance between how many habits we have, and a balance as to how strong those habits are. Sticking to weaker habits makes them easier to break when necessary, and less painful when frustrated. But having some habits allows us to be somewhat predictable to other people and to derive the psychological comfort we need from them.

June 9, 2007

The Philosophy of Proust: The Person

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

Note: here I am not trying to explicate the philosophical positions that Proust himself may have had, rather I am using In Search Of Lost Time as a jumping off point from which to investigate various philosophical issues. Obviously then what I have written here is just one part of an ongoing project.

There are three natural candidates to identify the person with: the process of consciousness, the inner personality (a.k.a various properties of that conscious process), and external personality. Of these three we can immediately rule out the process of consciousness as a candidate for being the person. Consciousness may be interrupted, for example, it is reasonable to suppose that at night there are times in which we are not conscious, or when we suffer a blow to the head, or if we are frozen only to be thawed at a later date. If it is interrupted obviously the conscious process before and after the interruption aren’t the same process, although one might be seen as the natural continuation of the other. Thus to adopt it as the person would be to accept that people are constantly dying only to be replaced by imposters, over and over again, and that you yourself have only really existed for perhaps a day, and that the memories you have of existing previously are really the memories of somebody else. Clearly then the conscious process is not what we meant to talk about when we talk about the person.

The inner personality is a much better choice. The inner personality is the way in which a particular conscious process works (how it thinks, feels, its dispositions, memories). Numerous conscious processes could in theory have the same inner personality; even though the same conscious process isn’t present when I go to sleep and wake up the same inner personality is. (Of course there are complications dealing with how the inner personality changes and when the inner personality of one conscious process can be considered the same as, or the natural successor of, that which was present in another. But we will leave these considerations aside for now.) The inner personality is, I think, how we define the person that we think of as ourselves. Drastic changes in our inner personality make us feel like we have become different people. And because of the consistency (as far as we know) between going to sleep and waking up we feel that we are the same person as the one who existed yesterday. So it makes sense to identify the person with the inner personality some of the time. However it doesn’t quite capture what we intend to refer to by talk of the person in most cases. Certainly we don’t have access to the inner personality of anyone but ourselves, except in a very indirect and unreliable way. Thus when we talk of this person or that person we must mean something slightly different.

This brings us to the external personality. The external personality is how a person interacts with others. When talking about the person in the context of thinking of other people it seems natural to define them in terms of our relations to them. How else could we define who they are? (see also) In his book Proust calls this the social personality. He says “… our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act which we describe as ‘seeing someone we know’ is to some extent an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose our minds those notions have certainly the principle place.” But, if we define the person in this way, a given body may house more than one person, because if people run in different social circles they may interact with people in one circle differently than they do in another. In Proust’s book Mr. Swann is an example of this. With Proust’s family Swann is one person, but there is also a second Swann, who lives in the highest social circles. And in fact learning about the other Swann is like meeting a second person, according to Proust. Now of course there is a sense in which me might say that these two Swanns are in fact “the same person”. Such a claim, I think, mixes the two definitions of the person. Specifically it is invoking the idea that there is only one inner personality between the two, because we know that except in the most abnormal cases there is only one inner personality per body. It is not that the claim is wrong, but rather that it brings the two ideas together while using only one word, perhaps confusingly.

Distinguishing the two definitions of the person can be philosophically useful. When thinking about psychological continuity, survival conditions, what things look like to a given person, and so on, the first definition of the person, as the inner personality, is the most useful, since in these areas we feel that the first person perspective has some authority. However, when it comes to social and ethical matters I think we are best served by the second definition, first of all because that is the only kind of person we have access to when deciding these matters. And, more practically, it allows us to leave the philosophy of mind aside and to worry only about how that person acts without delving into any sticky issues regarding their inner state.

June 2, 2007

Is Godzilla Evil?

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

Is a volcano or an earthquake evil? No, since they don’t have minds. Because they don’t have minds they can’t make choices, and so there is no sense in which an earthquake or a volcano be held responsible for its effects. But what about Godzilla? Godzilla must have some kind of mind, given that it is some kind of giant reptile (dinosaur?). Perhaps Godzilla is even intelligent, but interacts with the world in a different way than we do, such that neither of us perceives the other as intelligent. Does any of this give us the right to hold Godzilla responsible for its actions, and judge Godzilla as failing ethically?

Of course some will object to entertaining the possibility that Godzilla is ethically responsible on the grounds that Godzilla isn’t a rational agent. Now I will grant that it is likely that Godzilla is not supposed to be a rational agent. But objecting to entertaining the possibility on these grounds is a bad idea, because it supposes that we have a good way to tell who is and who isn’t a rational agent. For all we know Godzilla is rational, but is following a Godzilla-logic that we don’t understand, and which makes Godzilla unable to understand the way we reason. So to object on those grounds alone needlessly cuts off worthwhile ethical speculation; and unless you have a infallible way of determining who is and isn’t a rational agent then developing some other way of determining who is ethically responsible is probably useful. And if it still bothers you then simply assume that Godzilla has some kind of Godzilla rationality, as I will for the rest of this post (because honestly rationality is probably required to hold someone ethically responsible for their actions).

One possibility is that Godzilla is ethically responsible because both Godzilla and us can suffer, and hence we both have ethical responsibilities toward each other. This is the reasoning that some people use to argue that we have ethical obligations towards animals, although in this case we are arguing that Godzilla has ethical obligations towards us. But I think that this line of reasoning is a poor one. It seems reasonable to insist that ethical obligations always go both ways. That person A is ethically responsible for their poor treatment of person B if and only if person B is ethically responsible for their poor treatment of person A. If we extend ethical responsibility just because the other party can suffer this violates this expectation. We would have an ethical obligation to treat animals well, but they couldn’t have any ethical obligations towards us, since they aren’t rational. And if they could have ethical obligations to us then every carnivore would be an evil beast, because they would be constantly neglecting their ethical obligations towards other animals.

But let us just assume for the moment that Godzilla is ethically responsible for his poor treatment of us, assuming that he has Godzilla rationality. Wouldn’t that mean that we would have ethical responsibilities towards ants, assuming that they had ant rationality? It would certainly seem to. But how do we know that ants don’t have some form of ant rationality? Since we don’t have a complete theory of mind we can’t say for sure who is and who isn’t rational. Thus the ethical course of action is to err on the side of caution, and assume that ants (and other animals) are rational in their own way, until proven otherwise. But this means that our mistreatment of ants, and other insects, is unethical. But that is absurd. Simply by resisting disease we kill other organisms, and so we would all be necessarily evil.

Such considerations move me to think that there is more to ethical responsibility than who can suffer and who is rational. As I have argued for elsewhere, it seems to me that ethics emerge only because we can form societies, and interact in other ways that are mutually beneficial. Godzilla clearly cannot form a society with us, or even co-exist with us. If we encounter each other Godzilla will try to stomp on us, and we will try to kill it with mecha-Godzilla. Thus Godzilla, even if rational in its own way, is not ethically responsible for his treatment of us, and we aren’t ethically responsible for our treatment of it. And so Godzilla is not evil, but rather more like a natural disaster, despite the fact that Godzilla has a mind of some kind.

May 25, 2007

The Philosophy Of Making Money

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

It may surprise you to hear me say this, since I am not exactly a fan of pure capitalism, but usually making money is ethically positive. Of course it is not earning money itself that is positive; you don’t do anything good if you inherit money or find it lying on the ground. But I would say that earning money is often correlated with something that is ethically commendable.

Let us suppose that you run a business and that you make some product X. X is of different value to different people, but of course you can only sell X at a fixed price. This means that the majority of people who buy X from you came out ahead in the transaction; despite paying you they are better off then before the transaction. Thus by selling X you are making a lot of people better off then they were before. And increasing the wellbeing of many people, and thus of the community, is ethically good. So if you run such a business, or are paid by one, the fact that you are earning money is an indication that people want to buy the product you make which is an indication that they are benefited by it. And so earning money is often correlated with doing something good.

However how much money you earn is probably not correlated with how much good you do by working. The engineers probably get paid more than the people working at tech support, but that is because there are fewer qualified engineers. Strictly speaking how much good you do is roughly correlated with the value your work adds to the finished product, and that is definitely not correlated with pay (and also really hard to determine in any objective way). Similarly people in a risky business, like those founding a startup, may be paid more, in order to compensate for the risk, but again, that doesn’t mean that they contribute more.

And not all paying work comes from businesses that are good for society. There are basically two ways in which a business may be able to make money and yet still be harmful overall. One way is by generating enough negative externalities (costs passed on to third parties) that they outweigh the value of the products sold. For example, a byproduct of the production process may be nuclear waste, which the business stores in cheap containers underneath the factory (or perhaps in another town). They stay in business for a few years, make some money, and then leave. It is true that people have enjoyed the products they made, but the nuclear waste they produced negates this benefit. Of course if the world was a perfect place then the purchasers of the product would have had to pay for the harm the nuclear waste would result in, thus making the product too expensive, and preventing the company from making money. But the world is not a perfect place. A second way a business may make money and still be harmful is by producing products that are deceptively valuable. In such a situation the consumer buys a product thinking that it will be worth more to them than they pay, but in actuality it turns out to be worth less, and thus most consumers actually end up harmed by the transaction. Obviously such a company can make plenty of money, so long as consumers continue to be deceived about the value of the product, but that doesn’t mean that it, or the people who are employed by it, are contributing positively to society. Cigarettes and exercise machines are examples of this.

Given these considerations it is actually hard to say whether making money is usually an example of positively contributing to society or not. But I choose to be an optimist in this case, and will believe that it does. Now let us apply this thinking to an example of making money that some people claim is close to fraud and some think is just good business: domain name squatting. Domain name squatting is when someone buys URLs (like onphilosophy.wordpress.com) cheaply from the people who are responsible for giving them out, and later resells them for much more when someone wants to use them, often for a business. Is this way of making money ethically good, bad, or indifferent? Well a URL is like a product that businesses choose to buy. Like in the case of products that individuals buy, having a particular URL is of some value to a business. By selling these URLs the people who are responsible for allocating them are thus doing something good for businesses, since most businesses get more value from the URL than they pay for it (assuming that URLs aren’t of deceptive value). Domain name squatters effectively increase the price of URLs. Thus businesses will have to pay more for them or pick a URL of lesser value. In either case businesses are benefited less. Assuming that most businesses are beneficial to society and URLs aren’t of deceptive value this means that domain name squatters are in fact detrimental to society as a whole, and thus domain name squatting is ethically wrong. Now some might defend domain name squatting by pointing out that the domain name squatter benefits in direct proportion to the harm done to the rest of society. That might be a fine utilitarian defense, but utilitarianism sucks. We all admit that many inequalities are unproblematic when they are at least somewhat beneficial to everyone, but making one individual better off at the cost of the wellbeing of others is not desirable, even when that trade is an equal one.

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