On Philosophy

May 9, 2007

The Philosophy Of Protests

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

Protests are a form of political expression that meet with mixed approval. Certainly governments don’t like them, because protests can force an elected government to change its position on an issue, and governments in general resist any form of outside control, even when it comes from the people they are supposed to represent. Some also feel that protests, especially effective protests, give small vocal minorities too much power. And protests are of course disruptive, effective protests can affect the economy of the country, interfere the operation of the government, and occasionally lead to violence. But despite these drawbacks I think that protests are an essential to guaranteeing that a democratic system of government remains just, meaning that in the long run they encourage harmony within society rather than interfere with it.

The problem with democracy is that it marginalizes minority groups, and allows the majority to put unjust laws into place. Now most democracies guarantee certain rights to their citizens in order to supposedly prevent these abuses. However such checks are only partially effective. It is always possible that the majority will choose to infringe on some form of expression or desire that is not explicitly protected. And if the majority is large enough it can choose to effectively ignore these restrictions, either by revoking them, fulfilling them only to the letter of the law, or simply refusing to enforce them. Effective protests correct this problem by forcing the government to put laws into place that are acceptable (or at least not protest worthy) to everyone. Such laws are more just, and hence in the long run promote harmony in society, even though the protests themselves are not manifestations of that harmony.

Of course protests are often needed in non-democratic systems as well. A government that is unresponsive and uncaring about its citizens’ interests can be motivated to do better by widespread protests. And if it isn’t so motivated those protests can easily transition to an overthrow of that government. Even under a government that is designed perfectly (meaning that the government is constructed so that it always does the best possible by the people it rule) the occasional protest may still be required. Although the laws may compel the government to do right by its citizens corrupt officials may still ignore those laws, and given that said government is the one in charge of enforcing those laws it may not be inclined to punish itself. And thus action by citizens will be required to reform or get rid of the corrupt officials.

Now not every protest ends up being effective, but simply by looking at current affairs we can see two facts. First is that protests aren’t necessarily harmful to a nation, as some might claim. And secondly that protests are sometimes necessary. An example of a modern nation in which the citizens are very active in this way is France. I hear that right now many of the French are on the streets protesting/rioting about the outcome recent election. And protests in France regularly make the news. Now admittedly many of the French aren’t thrilled with these protests. Some feel that the minority groups protesting are exercising undue influence on the government and subverting the democratic process. But these protests don’t seem to have done France much harm (minus of course the property damage). It is on par with its European neighbors, has a decent standard of living, has an impressive nuclear power gird, and so on. So whatever the protests are doing they don’t seem to be dragging the country down (unless we suppose that without these protests France would be a superpower among superpowers).

In contrast to France we have the US, whose citizens rarely protest, and when they do, do so ineffectively. (An ineffective protest is a brief one in which people march up and down waving signs for a few days, in contrast to an effective protest which involves interfering with the day to day operations of the nation, so that the concerns of the protesters must be addressed.) As a result the US is involved in an extremely unpopular foreign war that its government shows no inclination of getting out of, despite the fact that the vast majority of its citizens want the war to end; and its officials are notoriously corrupt, with new scandals making the headlines on a regular basis, but who nevertheless keep their jobs. Indeed given this it is natural to wonder why the US citizens don’t protest. Why doesn’t everyone who opposes the war simply stop working until the troops are recalled? Certainly a nearly complete shutdown of the nation would force the people in charge to take some corrective action. One possibility is that its citizens are simply too apathetic. Although they care about these issues they care more about maintaining their lives the way they are, and protesting has the potential to disrupt that. Or it is possible that what we are seeing here is a kind of collective action problem. Each person realizes that no particular action of theirs will have any noticeable effect, and thus decides not to protest. And thus no one protests. The French then must have something that the Americans have lost which allows them to overcome this problem. I hope they find it again.

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 5, 2007

The Philosophy Of Revenge

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

Is revenge ethical? The status of revenge seems to depend closely on how we define what is ethical, on the weight we place on results in comparison to how and why they were brought about. And, perhaps more importantly, it highlights the tension between what we think of a just versus what we thing of as right. However, with the proper approach revenge can be suitably handled by ethics; what our confusion about it reveals is a problem with our ethical intuitions.

The group most likely to categorically deny that revenge can ever be ethical are those who define ethics in terms of what the virtuous person would do. And they would argue that the virtuous person would not act from feelings of anger, and thus would not seek personal revenge, but at best an impartial judgment against a wrongdoer by a third party. But this account of ethics is missing something, specifically a justification as to why the virtuous person should never take revenge. Why does the virtuous person prefer impartial judgment? Clearly not because that course of action is the right thing to do; we have just defined that in terms of how the virtuous person should act. So all this definition of ethics has done is exercise our intuitions about what a good person is like, but it hasn’t placed ethics on a solid foundation, and hence isn’t the best starting point for ethical deliberation.

In contrast consequentialists, those who think that the results are what matters when determining whether something is ethical, are more open to the possibility that revenge may be ethically acceptable on occasion. Of course even consequentialists are going to deny that revenge is the ethical option most of the time. Revenge is basically flawed; because the person seeking revenge has a personal interest in the matter they are unlikely to take only the vengeance they should, and are likely to go overboard. Thus the best results, in most cases, are achieved by allowing wrongdoers to be tried by an impartial system (assuming that punishment is itself justified). However, the consequentialist may accept revenge as the ethical alternative when such an impartial system is missing or ineffective, reasoning that over-punishment of wrongdoers is a better alternative than no punishment whatsoever.

So here the consequentialist position seems to be a one that places more emphasis on justice, because revenge may occasionally be the option that is most just, or perhaps because the person seeking revenge has proper self-control. On the other hand this is opposed by our intuitions that mercy and goodwill towards others are essential to ethics, as revenge has little to do with either of those. Really this division goes back to our fundamental reasons to act ethically, namely that ethics is for the benefit of the community as a whole. And most of the time this involves being nice to the other members of the community, and lending them a helping hand from time to time. And hence most of our ethical intuitions are centered around being nice, respecting their property, ect. But sometimes what is best for the community involves harming one of its members, in order to discourage others from acting unethically. And this is where our intuitions about justice come from, they reflect the need to discourage people from benefiting unethically at the expense of the community.

So really the conflict is only in our intuitions, since our intuitions about justice and goodness are usually developed separately. Since they arise from the same fundamental source there can be no real conflict between them. In fact in more primitive societies revenge might have very well been the best option for dealing with wrongdoers, given that there was no official justice system, and something has to be done to discourage unethical behavior. And in such societies revenge was usually considered ethically acceptable. In fact I suspect that our strong intuitions against revenge are really a reaction to that fact, because when a society adopts an impartial justice system revenge is no longer preferable. And to get people to stop seeking revenge, since revenge is naturally more satisfying than impartial judgment, it was necessary to teach people that revenge was wrong. And this was taught as a universal truth (revenge is always wrong) simply because that was the easier lesson to get across.

It is possible then that our intuitions against revenge are too strong, that they are an overreaction to the previous social systems and to our natural inclinations. While we can all agree that revenge is less than optimal when wrongdoing can be handled by the justice system there are plenty of cases that the law can’t deal with. There are many “conventions” that cannot be enforced by law, such as that you are obligated to pay back even small sums of money that you borrow, that you must pick up your own trash, ect. It seems reasonable that revenge may be an appropriate reaction to small infractions such as these, assuming the revenge is kept small as well. But because we have such strong intuitions against revenge there is little incentive not to act unethically, and take advantage of people who do act ethically, on a small scale. And the fact of the matter is that people do tend to abuse ethics on a small scale; while people obey the larger laws a fair percentage of the population tends to treat people outside their circle of friends relatively poorly. And I think it is fair to say that the fact that ethics has a weaker hold on people when it comes to these smaller matters is because there is no enforcement mechanism, even though we have as much reason to act ethically with respect to these minor matters as we do to act ethically in the situations that the law does consider. Thus I think it is reasonable to say that we should be more open to revenge, at least some of the time.

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.

February 2, 2007

The Philosophy Of Prophecy

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

Disclaimer: This post is really about the philosophy of information from the future, not about prophecy strictly speaking, since prophecy generally has religious connotations. However, it made for a better title.

How we deal with information from the future depends, at least in part, on how we conceive of the progression of time itself. Basically there are two possibilities: one is a deterministic universe, in which events unfold, by necessity, in only one possible way, and the other is an indeterministic universe (surprise surprise), which for this discussion means either a universe in which events are controlled by probabilistic laws, genuine free will exists, or where all possible futures exist and are equally real. Obviously if you can get 100% reliable information about the future by any means you must live in a deterministic universe. (Side note: this means that if god exists and knows everything that will happen then the universe is deterministic. Now this doesn’t mean we lack free will of any kind, many people think that free will is compatible with determinism, for example Leibniz, but it does rule out the kind of free will in which the choice could really have gone either way.)

If the universe is deterministic and you have a 100% accurate method of getting information about the future then there are certain constraints about what information may be received. Specifically the information must be stable, meaning that the information received may not prevent that future from coming about. For example, if you resolved to do the opposite of whatever the information said you would do then you would not be able to receive the information about your future actions, unless events are in motion that will force you to change your mind or act against your will. Of course in a deterministic universe time travel isn’t necessary to have information about the future, you could simply take the physical laws and all the physical data and then compute what must necessarily happen in the future. However, this computation cannot take into account what will happen as a result of the computation itself (it must make its calculation based on all the facts except the ones describing the system performing the calculation), except possibly in cases where the predictions about the future contain stable information (this follows because of the impossibility of solving the halting problem).

In an indeterministic universe of course we can never have a 100% accurate method of determining information about the future. Even if we traveled back in time with the information events might still unfold differently than they did the first time. However, depending on the nature of the indeterminacy, certain information may still be impossible to receive. Specifically if the universe is one that unfolds based on statistical laws or genuine free will, but in which not every future is possible, then the information from the future cannot be such that it makes the future it is from impossible. Of course, in the case of the universe in which every possible future exists and is equally real this is not a problem.

But, in an indeterministic universe information from the future is much less helpful. Even if the information was the best possible, meaning that it comes from the most likely future, it is only reliable if it is about the near future. In even a moderately complex system possibilities tend to diverge over a short amount of time, and the smallest differences about they way events unfold (such as the way a butterfly flapping its wings) can have substantial long term effects. I don’t know exactly how fast the possibilities diverge in the real world (versus some idealized mathematical model), but I suspect that information about even a few years in the future would be extremely unreliable, enough to be worse than useless. (Of course the content of the information has some bearing on this as well, certain trends are less susceptible to divergence than others; information about what you will have for breakfast may be good only for a few days, but long term economic and political forecasts, which depend on many relatively stable factors, may be more reliable.)

Obviously pondering about information from the future doesn’t have any practical value by itself. As far as I know no one is getting any such information, or if they have been they aren’t sharing it with me. But, on the other hand, such considerations do have some bearing on the value of our predictions, which in turn has a bearing on our ethical considerations. A prediction is somewhat like information about the future, except much less reliable. But ideally when we predict we are learning something about what is likely to happen (if we are good at predicting), and so we could consider it information from the future in an indeterministic universe. And the fact that in an indeterministic universe information about the future is reliable only for short periods of time means that when we decide what to do we should weigh the short term consequences most heavily, and only pay attention to the longer term when a) it is extremely worrisome, or b) part of a trend that is unlikely to be changed (for example, if you kill someone they are likely to stay dead, although it is hard to say what other long term effects their death will have).

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