Monday, February 20, 2017

Some Thoughts on Moral Luck

189 days until classes start.

I have not been posting to the frequency that I should. I need to be writing more - even if it means reading less. Though writing is not the absence of learning. I have learned that trying to explain my ideas forces me to make more sense of themselves myself. I get more from my writing than anybody else does, I think.

I fear that I have been having some doubts about my ability to do this philosophy thing. It's standard self-doubting, something that I am certain many people experience. I just have to keep plugging away and see what comes of it. If I am unable to do a decent job at this, at least I have not been so foolish as to think I could do a decent job at something on which the lives of others depend, like being President of the United States.

Imagine having an incompetent self-important person in that position. The consequences could be catastrophic.

I recently posted another paper on the Desirism forum of Facebook. This one concerns the moral failings of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Even though the election is long past, this topic still comes up, particularly by people who think that Sanders would have defeated Trump and brought into existence a new golden age of global peace, harmony, and understanding.

The paper does not concern the question of who would have won the election. These types of questions are outside of my area of expertise. Instead, it concerns a question that I have addressed a few times in this blog - the moral failings of the Sanders campaign.

There were three that particularly concerned me.

(a) Sanders' preference for political ideology over scientific fact, particularly in the areas of nuclear power, genetically modified foods, alternative medicine, and fracking.

(b) Sanders use of an "us versus them" political message to rally a group of supporters against "them" who he branded, as a group, as the enemies of "us". Trump used this technique targeting immigrants. Sanders used this technique targeting billionaires.

(c) Sanders' total disregard for the well-being of the global poor.

As I mentioned, I discussed this issue in some previous posts. However, in the paper I posted I put in more work in finding sources and in producing complete arguments. You are invited to find the posting on the Desirism facebook group if you want to know the details of the argument.

In the mean time, I have had an opportunity to attend the Phil 5100 class at the university twice and see three other presentations.

In one of these class lectures, I acquired a new and different perspective on the issue of moral luck.

Moral luck concerns the fact that a person can be condemned and punished for things that are not their fault. The example used in class concerned two friends who shared some drinks and tried to drive home. Both were intoxicated. One of them left the road and crashed into a tree. The other left the road and crashed into a young child, killing the child. We declare that the second person deserves more punishment, even though both agents are equally culpable. No difference can be found in their character - in their desires - yet one deserves more punishment than the other.

I have long thought that this was a problem. What we should do is determine what the normal amount of harm is by taking into account the cases in which there was extreme harm and the cases in which there was no harm at all, average the harms, and punish each person according to the amount of this average harm.

However, in this class I realized that all of the effort to average these cases is unnecessary if we only punish people for harms done.

Let us assume that there are 10 such accidents, and the amount of harm they inflict is: 0, 10, 2, 0, 0, 1, 9, 5, 0, and 4, for a total of 21 units of harm. We could add this all together, come up with the number "2.1 units of harm per accident" and punish everybody we catch according to this average risk of harm.

However, if we punish each person for harm done we get effectively the same result.

The "0" values represent people who made it home safely and do not get caught. I am assuming that they will get away with their crimes. The others got caught - some of them inflicting minor damage, and a couple inflicting extensive damage. Punish each person according to the damage done and, in the end, one would inflict punishment according to an average of 2.1 units of harm. The difference is that, instead of each person being punished as if they had inflicted 2.1 units of harm (including those who did not get caught), this represents the average punishment which, in some cases, is 0 and in others is quite high.

This option saves society the effort of determining what an average harm is. Yet, one still inflicts an average punishment that is proportional to the average harm, even though some of the perpetrators (those who made it home without incident) do not get punished at all.

Another benefit from this type of system rests in the fact that there may be ways of reducing the risk of harming others or the amount of harms inflicted. Such a system invites people to search for and follow those procedures. Doing so will reduce the chance or the amount of harms they inflict on others, and would reduce their level of punishment. We may not be able to consciously identify those factors, but that does not mean that they are not out there to be considered.

We allow for luck in a number of areas. An example of moral luck with respect to credit can be seen in the case of two soldiers who rush out of their shelter to assault an enemy stronghold. One of them, in our example, gets shot right away, while the other manages to get up to the strong hold, throw in a couple of grenades, and neutralize the stronghold. The former person becomes just another casualty. The latter becomes a hero. Yet, in this example, there is no difference between the individuals that determined these different outcomes. It is just that one of them happened to get in the way of a bullet, and the other did not.

And we allow for luck in a number of cases of actions that are neither heroic or blameworthy, but which are morally permissible. Some people buy a lottery ticket and enjoy a great reward. Most others get nothing for their effort. Here, too, their rewards are not based on any difference in their moral character, but we allow the differences in luck to stand nonetheless.

Concerning the other presentations I attended, I fear two of those presentations did me little good. One of them concerned the existence of sets and, I am afraid to say, the discussion went past me. It is as if the speaker was speaking a foreign language. Another presentation on corporate responsibility was given by a speaker whose accent was difficult for me to understand. This made his argument difficult to follow.

The third presentation, on the other hand, concerned conceptions of free will. It concerned two different conceptions of free will I have been trying to find time to write up some comments on that presentation, and hope to at least post something here in the next day or two.

I have spent much of today working on my paper on the basics of desirism. I am up to 15000 words at the moment, and it is still growing. It will likely be 25000 words when I finish, then it will go up on the desirism forum. According to my self-imposed deadline, I need this submitted by the middle of March. I should be treating this like a school assignment with a deadline.


Monday, February 13, 2017

The Value of an Interest

196 days until the start of class.

Nervousness abounds.

In my continuing work in the one class I am "auditing", I have continued reservations about the idea that neuroscience or evolutionary theory can debunk moral claims in the ways in which some people claim. I am still looking at Joshua Greene's work, “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul,” and responses to it.

I find a frequent frustration in philosophy to occur in cases in which philosophers are involved in a dispute focused on some specific premise or conclusion, where, at least, the people seem to agree on the truth of one of the relevant premises. Then somebody comes along and questions that mutually agreed upon premise, throwing the whole discussion into chaos. It is enough to drive a person to scream and run from the room.

Yet, that is what I am going to do here.

In discussing trolley cases, researchers seem to agree that whether a person harms another in an “up close and personal” way (e.g., by physically pushing that person onto the tracks in front of an oncoming trolley), or remotely (by pulling a switch that opens a trap door that drops the person onto the tracks) is morally irrelevant. This does not represent a morally significant difference. However, there seems to be a number of people who would not push an individual in front of a runaway trolley to prevent it from running over five others but who would drop that person onto the tracks through a remotely operated trap door.

Honestly, I do not think that this is a morally relevant difference, and those who see it as a difference are making a mistake. However, the way that Greene handles this mistake does not seem to work.

Greene explains the difference between the two in terms of an emotional reaction that, itself, has an evolutionary source.

The rationale for distinguishing between personal and impersonal forms of harm is largely evolutionary. “Up close and personal” violence has been around for a very long time, reaching far back into our primate lineage (Wrangham & Peterson, 1996). Given that personal violence is evolutionarily ancient, predating our recently evolved human capacities for complex abstract reasoning, it should come as no surprise if we have innate responses to personal violence that are powerful but rather primitive.

However, we can say the same thing about our aversion to individual pain. I tend to pay far more attention to my own pain – finding it much more important to avoid or to relieve my own pain than an equal pain suffered by any other person. This stronger reaction to my own pain than that of any other person is “evolutionarily ancient” and “predating our recently evolved human capacities for abstract reasoning.” Yet, I am permitted to treat this as morally relevant. I have a moral permission to give my own pain a priority over the pain of any other person.

Similarly, a parent’s interest in the well-being of their child – or our general interest in the well-being of children generally – probably has an evolutionary component. The physical features of children (and puppies, and kittens) likely arouse in most people protective sentiments that urge us to put the interests of children above those of adults. Yet, we are comfortable with the idea of arguing that whether the interests in question are those of children – and, in particular, one’s own children – is morally relevant.

If this evolutionary account is at all relevant, it seems that we should dismiss the distinction between our own pain and the pain of others, and the distinction between the well-being of children (and, in particular, of our own children) over the well-being of others as well. On the other hand, if our own pain and the well-being of (our own) children retains its moral relevance in spite of this evolutionary explanation, then providing an evolutionary account of the distinction between up-close and personal harm versus remote harm should not debunk that moral sentiment either.

There are consequentialist who would, in fact, argue that we should treat all three of these cases the same. A person ought not to consider their pain more important than anybody else’s claim and ought not to put the interests of children (even their own) above those of any other person. This is the type of consequentialism I wrote about in my previous communication – the type that implies that any interest other than an interest in general utility is a temptation to do evil.

At the same time, we cannot argue that all interests where we can provide an evolutionary account must be respected. Perhaps we can give an evolutionary explanation for a disposition to favor those who “look like us” (for example, with respect to skin color) since they are likely to share more of our genes, or a genetic disposition for males to be less concerned about consent in seeking sex. This would not argue for the moral permissibility of racism or rape. If there is a moral difference to be found here, the fact that we can tell an evolutionary story about a sentiment neither supports nor debunks the moral relevance of that sentiment.

I tend to think that the secret formula concerns the tendency of an interest to fulfill or thwart other interests. But that's just me.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Impossibility of Consequentialism

198 days until the first class.

Work has gotten exceptionally busy these days, and I am coming to resent its ability to cut into my ability to spend time studying moral philosophy.

I have been able to keep up with my readings . . . and I have continued to send comments to the professor. (And I have continued to fear that this is a poor way to do this.)

Nonetheless, in my most recent comments to the professor I opted to give a slightly detailed argument on the impossibility of consequentialism.

[I]We are all deontologists.

I am sorry for the length of this. Even with this, I fear that I cover some things far too lightly.
 
Joshua Greene, in “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul,” argues that deontology is merely a confabulation – a make-believe explanation – that attempts to account for moral judgments that are actually the product of evolved sentiments. Evolution has made us so that we are disposed to object to - for example - “up close and personal” assault. The deontological claim that this violates some right or duty or some aspect of human dignity is a made-up explanation to try to justify these evolved sentiments. But, in reality, they were nothing more than evolved sentiments.

Greene provided an analogy whereby a friend – who goes on multiple dates – offers a number of reasons for preferring some individuals over others such as sense of humor. However, hypothetically we notice that all of the people she likes are exceptionally tall (above 6’ 4”), and those she does not like are shorter. Since height is a better predictor of who she likes or dislikes, we draw the conclusion that she is really judging these people on the basis of height. The other issues she brings up – such as sense of humor – are mere confabulations.

Of course, he must assume that there is no correlation between a sense of humor and height.
 
Yet, as I see it, consequentialism cannot exist without at least a little deontology.

According to Greene, consequentialism involves the cognitive portions of the brain as the individual goes through the effort of evaluating the consequences of various actions. But what does one do with this answer? For example, let us assume that an agent goes through a cognitive process to determine the effects of various actions on the overall number of paperclips in the universe. Even after he computes that one action will produce more paperclips than the other, he still has to care about how many paperclips there are in the universe before this conclusion has any significance.

Admittedly, I am assuming that internalism with regard to reasons for action is true.
 
Now, let us invent an agent who cares about how much overall utility he creates. The more utility he creates, the more he cares. In this case, the agent has an option to do something that will produce 104 units of total utility. Let us further assume, for this agent, producing 104 units of utility has an importance of 4. I use this number only for illustrative purposes. The only thing that matters for the sake of this example is that higher numbers represent greater importance to the agent, and lower numbers represent less importance.

In this example, the agent cares about more than just overall utility. Our agent also has an aversion to personal pain. The more severe the pain, or the longer it lasts, the more important it is to that agent to avoid that pain.

Now, let us consider a couple of cases.
 
Case 1: Let us imagine that the 104 units of utility that the agent will produce has the following distribution: 105 units for everybody else, and -1 unit for the agent's pain. In this case, producing the utility has an importance of 4 while avoiding the pain, let us assume, has an importance of 1. Finding utility to be more important, our agent chooses to bring about utility.
 
Case 2: In this case, the action will also produce 104 units of utility. However, its distribution consists of 109 units of overall utility and -5 units due to the agent’s pain. The agent, in this case, assigns a value of 5 to avoiding this much pain. It is very important to him. It is so important, that the agent will sacrifice the opportunity to create 104 units of utility.

In the second case, how are we to judge this person who sacrificed overall utility for the sake of this competing interest?

The consequentialist response seems to require that we understand his aversion to pain as a temptation to do evil. Without it, he would have given his service to realizing the greater overall utility. However, the aversion to personal pain motivated him in this case to sacrifice this greater good for something that was personally important to him.

In fact, many of our interests other than the interest in overall utility will turn out to be temptations to do evil. With any other interest, we are likely to encounter situations where the importance of this interest will be greater than the importance of the utility one can create. Utility will find itself outweighed most often in cases where the increase in utility is small, but it can also happen where a particularly strong interest goes up against a larger amount of utility.

In contrast, the deontologist will tell us that it is perfectly acceptable to sacrifice overall utility under some circumstances - that other values have a greater priority. We may not subject a person to a great deal of pain, even if it would bring about some small increase in overall utility.
I think I can make this clearer by applying this to some of the "moral dilemmas" that Greene refers to where deontological thinking seems to override consequentialist thinking.
But, first, I wish to look at another sort of case.

At the end of the movie "Mad Max", Max handcuffs a man by his ankle to an overturned vehicle about to explode. He then gives the man a hacksaw. He tells the man that it would take him about ten minutes to cut through the handcuffs, but five minutes to cut through his leg.

It would be useful to have some empirical research to back this up, but I suspect that many people (like the villain in the movie) would be reluctant to cut through their leg, even to save their own life. It would simply be very difficult to do. A person who finds it difficult to cut through is own ankle even to save his own life would generally find it even more difficult to cut through his ankle for the sake of overall utility. Overall utility just is not important enough to most agents.

Now, I would like to compare this to some of the moral dilemmas that Greene mentions in his studies.

For example, there is the case of the mother who is reluctant to suffocate her child to keep the child from crying and drawing the attention of a murderous gang. The "pain" of suffocating one's own child would be like the pain of cutting off one's own foot. In fact, for many, it would be worse. Cutting through one's ankle would be easy by comparison. This is a situation like Case 2 above where an interest in something other than overall utility outweighs the interest in overall utility, motivating the agent to sacrifice overall utility for some other end.

Both types of pains can be explained by appeal to the same types of evolutionary forces. Greene wrote:

The rationale for distinguishing between personal and impersonal forms of harm is largely evolutionary. “Up close and personal” violence has been around for a very long time, reaching far back into our primate lineage (Wrangham & Peterson, 1996). Given that personal violence is evolutionarily ancient, predating our recently evolved human capacities for complex abstract reasoning, it should come as no surprise if we have innate responses to personal violence that are powerful but rather primitive. (P. 43)

The aversion to pain, or to cutting off one's own limb, or to suffocating one's own child is open to the same type of explanation.
 
However, Greene goes further and says that this is something more than a simple desire or aversion. Instead, he claims to be explaining a "moral sense" that something is good - or bad - to do. In the case of "up close and personal" battery, he wrote:

Nature doesn’t leave it to our powers of reasoning to figure out that ingesting fat and protein is conducive to our survival. Rather, it makes us hungry and gives us an intuitive sense that things like meat and fruit will satisfy our hunger. Nature doesn’t leave it to us to figure out that fellow humans are more suitable mates than baboons. Instead, it endows us with a psychology that makes certain humans strike us as appealing sexual partners, and makes baboons seem frightfully unappealing in this regard. And, finally, Nature doesn’t leave it to us to figure out that saving a drowning child is a good thing to do. Instead, it endows us with a powerful “moral sense” that compels us to engage in this sort of behavior (under the right circumstances). (P. 60)

Insofar as a "moral sense" that something is good or bad to do is different from a simple desire or aversion, Greene actually needs to do a little more work to give us an evolutionary explanation for this moral sense. In the same way that nature can motivate our behavior with a mere desire to eat without a "moral sense" that eating is a good thing to do, and a simple desire to have sex without a "moral sense" that having sex is a good thing to do, it can motivate us with to avoid suffocating our own children, to avoid committing battery against another person, and to rescue a drowning child without a "moral sense" that these are good things to do.

However, I do not think that would be necessary. Instead, Greene can give up his idea that we have evolved some type of moral sense and simply acknowledge that we have evolved to have certain preferences, and that those preferences might, in some circumstances, outweigh an agent's concern for overall utility. That, at this point, we must either brand all interests temptations to do evil, or acknowledge that there is a moral permission to pursue interests other than an interest in overall utility. There is a point at which any of us who value things other than overall utility will sacrifice overall utility for one of these other goods.

Since all of us have an interest in at least one thing other than overall utility, and since none of us think that morality requires that we view that interest as a temptation to do evil, it follows that we are all - at some point - deontologists. Sometimes we can sacrifice overall utility for the sake of something else that we value.[/I]

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Belief, Justification, and the Coming War with China

208 days until classes start.

If we live that long.

I have been spending the last day contemplating the proposition that a war between the United States and China is highly likely.

This, in turn, got me to thinking about beliefs and the justifications for beliefs.

Do you know that the vast majority of complex facts that people claim to know are false? Consider, for example, religious beliefs. There is a wide variety of beliefs about the nature of a God, or even whether God exists at all. Furthermore, many of these beliefs are mutually contradictory. Not only is there a large number of different religions, there is a wide variety of beliefs within any religion. Consequently, at best, only a small handful of people can have true beliefs. The vast majority of people must have false beliefs – regardless of how certain their beliefs are.

Many atheists mock theists on the grounds that, “With all of the various religions out there, isn’t amazing that you got the correct religion and that everybody else is wrong?”

Of course, if you simply add atheism to this set of beliefs, we can make the same claim.

However, this also applies to secular matters. It applies to beliefs about the nature of morality. Of all of the various ideas out there – none of which are actually held by more than a small number of people, “Isn’t it amazing that you managed to pick the correct one?”

So, in considering the proposition that a war with China seems likely, I consider it more likely that I would not be able to make a correct judgment as to what is likely. This is one of those complex beliefs that would benefit from a lot of specialized knowledge that I do not have.

Still, let’s consider the evidence I do have for this belief.

If the Trump administration establishes a blockade of the islands in the South China Sea that China claims is their sovereign property, then war is almost certain. So, the probability of war is to be determined by the probability that the Trump Administration will establish a blockade around those islands.

Let’s examine the evidence for this claim.

If the United States were to establish such a blockade, the Chinese people will force the Chinese government to stand up to the American bully. The government must either challenge the blockade or appear to be weak and unfit in the eyes of the Chinese people. They would not want to do this. Therefore, they will challenge the blockade.

When China challenges the blockade, the American government will either have to use violence to enforce the blockade (attacking the ships or airplanes that attempt to run the blockade), or back down. The United States will almost certainly not back down. Therefore, the United States will almost certainly shoot at those shops and planes.

When the US shoots at those ships and planes, the Chinese will shoot back. And the war begins.

Each of these steps is highly likely – virtually certain. Therefore, if the US sets up a blockade, it is virtually certain that the US will be at war with China.

So, what are the odds that the United States will set up a blockade?

President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have already spoken positively about setting up a blockade. (See, Trump Vows to Stop China Taking South Sea Islands). There is a distinction between talking about something that will cause a war and doing it. However, talking about it has no value unless others believe that one will actually do it (otherwise, they ignore the talk as irrelevant).

However, such an attitude can lead to action – which leads to war – in two ways.

The first way is bungling incompetence. That is to say, the Trump administration announces a blockade under the assumption that the Chinese will not dare to challenge them and will back down. I consider this to be a stupid assumption – the people of China themselves will demand that their government stand up to the American bullies or will insist on replacing them with somebody who will.

The second way is if the Trump Administration wants a war. If it did, this would be an easy way to start one short of naked aggression. But why would the Trump administration want a war with China? The main reason is to bolster support for the President. If one wants to improve a leader’s popularity, one proven and effective way of doing so is to start a war. History shows us that leaders tend to be overconfident to the point of delusion in thinking, “They can’t stand up against us. We’ll be home by Christmas.”

Given the way Trump has handled its executive orders and other decisions to date, the first option seems likely. And given Trump’s verbal cruelty, and his eagerness to use the courts against those he has not liked in the past, the fact that he prefers bullying to negotiation and compromise, and the fact that he has created an image that he is a person of strength, it seems reasonable to believe that he will be quick to do something that will start a war and will not back down from that outcome.

By accident or by intention, there is reason to believe that Trump is likely to establish a blockade of the South Pacific islands and, from there, the laws of nature (including human nature) dictate that war is the necessary outcome.

But, then again, though a great many people have an attitude of certainty about such conclusions (even though only a small percentage of these types of conclusions can be true), each person is almost always wrong – I can draw some comfort from the fact that though this chain of events appears likely to me, it is almost certainly wrong.

I hope.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Hitleresque Plan for War with China

209 days until class . . .

I have been distracted somewhat in the past week - studying the history of events that lead up to the Civil War and World War II.

There seems to be a good chance that we are currently living in the years that future generations will see either as the years leading up to World War III, or with a second American civil war.

Many people compare Trump to Hitler, but Trump is no Hitler. Hitler had a plan, and worked with almost single-minded devotion towards the realization of that plan. Towards that end, he carefully manipulated others.

Trump, on the other hand, is mostly just making things up as he goes along. He wants to be loved and admired - to be the person that everybody is talking about, the center of attention. He also, it seems, wants to set up his children to be the leaders of the next generation. He wants the Trump name to be like the Kennedy's name - an American dynasty.

Everything else is a means towards this end.

Somebody once said to me that Trump is more of a Mussolini than a Hitler, and this seems accurate.

Steve Bannon, Trump's advisor, on the other hand may well be a Hitler admirer. This does not mean that he shares Hitler's hatred of Jews - though he likely is aware of the fact that a "self/other" narrative is useful when it comes to consolidating political power. He recognizes the value of having a "them" to vilify, and sees a useful "them" in Muslims and Mexicans (immigrants).

He also likely knows the usefulness of war and conquest in getting a nation to rally around its President and to consolidate power. In this case, Bannon likely sees that it would not be particularly difficult to start a war between the United States and China.

Hitler gained a great deal of popularity as a result of both his successes in annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia. While these made Hitler hated by foreign governments, it rallied the people - and that made it politically impossible to overthrow Hitler.

If Bannon/Trump want a war, they have already told us how they will start it. They will announce a blockade around the islands that China is developing in the South Pacific. If they announce a blockade, China's next step will be to ignore the declaration and send another shipment of supplies to the islands. Now, America is in a position of starting the war by firing the first shot at the blockade runners - and a war with China begins.

In contrast, the Obama plan has been to challenge China's claim to control over the waters by sailing American warships through those waters and daring China to take the first shot. Using this technique, China has to fire the first shot. Peace is preserved until China decides to try to take control of those waters by means of military force. Building up the islands just isn't going to do any good.

Both Trump and his Secretary of State nominee Tillerson have spoken in favor of a blockade. In doing so, they have already spoken in favor of an act that would play will in a hypothetical Bannon plan to consolidate power around the President by getting the United States involved a major war.

The best immunization against this plan would be simply to have people become aware of it. The more people who realize - as quickly as possible - that a blockade of those islands is possibly a part of a Hitleresque plan to consolidate Trump's power by starting a war, the less of a chance that it will succeed.

Monday, January 30, 2017

What Does Evolutionary Theory Debunk?

210 days until the first class . . . .

As I have gone through the readings for Philosophy 5100 - Contemporary Moral Theory - I have expressed my problems with the discussion of the relevance of evolutionary theory to moral realism. I simply do not think that the concepts of "realism" and "anti-realism" are particularly clear.

After mentally struggling with this through the weekend, I came up with another way of asking the question which, I hope, would make the answer clearer.

That question is:

What does evolutionary theory debunk?

I think it is less confusing to suggest that what evolutionary theory actually debunks are external reasons. In other words, it vindicates Bernard Williams' thesis:

A has a reason to φ if and only if A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing. (Williams, B., 1979. “Internal and External Reasons,” reprinted in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 101–13)

I think that Sharon Street's argument (Sharon Street, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value," Philosophical Studies 127 (2006): 109-66.) is actually a Darwinian dilemma for the external reasons thesis. The argument basically boils down to the claim that we do not need to postulate the existence of external reasons to explain any aspect of intentional action.

Evolutionary theory shows that much of what philosophers have attributed to external reasons (because they do not directly benefit the agent) can actually be explained in terms of evolved internal reasons. Because external reasons have no role to play in the explanation of real world events, we have reason to treat them like unicorns, ghosts, and gremlins. They might exist independent of our ability to detect them, but we have no reason to believe that they do.

There seems to be some dispute as to whether this is a metaphysical claim (external reasons do not exist) or an epistemological claim (external reasons might exist but we have no reason to believe that they do) - but this question is just as applicable to unicorns, ghosts, and gremlins.

(NOTE: There are those who claim that we must also postulate an irresistible illusion that there are external reasons - e.g., Michael Ruse, "Morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes." However, this "illusion" might be like the illusion that the sun goes around the earth. It is not so much an illusion foisted upon us by our genes as a misinterpretation of what we perceive.)

There is one sense in which external reasons do exist. In the same way that all of the fingers that I have is a small portion of all of the fingers that exist, it is also the case that the (internal) reasons that I have is a subset of all of the internal reasons that exist. Other beings exist, and they also have their own (internal) reasons to act in particular ways.

There is reason to believe that evolution has created in each of us - to varying degrees - internal reasons to act in ways that benefit others. For example, evolution has given parents internal reasons to care for their offspring. We do not need to postulate any type of external reason to explain why parents do this.

The fact that another person has a reason to avoid being in a state of pain does not imply that I have a reason to avoid creating a state in which that person is in a state of pain. For me to have an reason to avoid putting that person in such a state, I have to have a desire that would be served by avoiding the realization of such a state.

However, the fact that the other person has an aversion to being in a state of pain does imply that he has a reason to cause me to avoid actions that would put her in a state of pain, and to perform actions that would prevent her from being in a state of pain. She can do this in two ways.

She can reward me for acting in ways that make it less likely that she will be in pain, or threaten to punish me if I should act in ways that put her in a state of pain. In other words, she can link my φ-ing to serving the desires that I have in such a way that what serves my existing desires is that which makes it less likely that she will be in a state of pain.

In addition, she can attempt to alter my desires so that the actions that serve those desires are those that make it less likely that she will be in a state of pain. She has a reason to cause me to have aversions to actions that would tend to result in her being in pain, such as (most directly) an aversion to causing pain for others. She can do this, for example, by praising those who refrain from actions that put others in pain or perform actions that reduce the chance that others will experience pain, and by condemning those who act in ways that tend to result in others being in pain.

What evolutionary theory actually debunks, then, is the hypothesis that there are external reasons that are independent of all internal reasons. What impact this has on moral realism depends on one's views of morality and realism. If one equates moral realism with external-reasons realism, then evolutionary theory creates a problem for moral realism. If, on the other hand, one is comfortable with the idea that internal reasons are real, and that the internal reasons one has is a subset of internal reasons that exist, we may have moral realism without external-reasons realism.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Right to Freedom of Speech: The Case of Punching a Nazi

On or near January 20, 2017, Richard Spencer was speaking before a camera when an activist punched him in the head and walked away. This set up a discussion - mostly online - of whether it is morally permissible to punch a Nazi.

Dan Arel argued that it was morally permissible to punch a Nazi. Actually, he said that people should punch Nazis. This is a type of moral command stronger than a mere permission. It is one thing to say that smoking is morally permissible - but quite another to say that one should smoke. It would be one thing to say that it is permissible to punch a Nazi - quite another to say that one should do so. Yet, Arel states explicitly that the answer to the question, "Should a person punch a Nazi?" is "Yes."

(See Danthropology, Should We Be Okay with Punching Nazis?"

We are going to have to say something about what "the right to freedom of speech" entails.

I argue that having a right to X means that it is wrong for anybody else to use violence or threats of violence as a way of preventing a person from doing X. Dan Arel, on the other hand, seems to think that only the government can violate a right to freedom of speech.

Spencer has the right to speak on the street corner. He did, and he paid the price for it.
The government did not arrest him for his speech. No violation of his speech was had. Free speech is not free of consequences.

This makes me wonder if Spencer thinks that only the government can violate the right to own property such that, if a citizen takes the property of another, then no moral violation has taken place. Or if he thinks that only the state can violate a person's right to life or against sexual assault, such that if a private citizen kills another or sexually assaults another the rights against murder and sexual assault are not violated.

Arel also exposes another inconsistency. He wrote:

Was it legal for the AntiFa activist to punch him? No. Does it make it morally wrong? I say, no.

That the punch was illegal is a descriptive fact that has little relevance to the discussion. It was illegal, at one time, to help fugitive slaves escape. This does not imply anything about whether one should help slaves escape. The real question is whether it should be illegal to punch a Nazi. Arel's moral statement is relevant to this question.

To claim that an act is not wrong, implies that it ought not to be illegal.

Saying that an act is not wrong does not imply that it is not, in fact, illegal. Many actions that are not wrong have been illegal.

Nor am I saying that everything that is immoral should be illegal. The law is a large and clumsy weapon, which simply should not used in all cases of immorality. For example, it would be foolish to say that every petty lie or breaking of a promise - though immoral - should be made illegal.

The claim here is that being immoral is a necessary condition for it to be the case that something ought to be illegal. The immorality of an action is a necessary condition for the act to be declared criminal. It is not a sufficient condition - but it is necessary.

Which means, if punching a Nazi is not immoral, then it ought not to be illegal. We should write into our laws against assault an exception with respect to punching a Nazi, as we include exceptions for (other forms) of violent self-defense. It says that our laws should be written such that, if a person is arrested for assault, "He was a Nazi" would be a legitimate defense against criminal prosecution.

For Arel to make his claims consistent, he has two options. He could say that punching the Nazi was wrong and that the assailant should be punished. Or do we say that it is permissible and that he did nothing that deserves punishment?

Should we write into the law of assault an exception in the cause of assaulting a Nazi?

In his article, Arel takes on two arguments against the punching of Spencer. One was a slippery slope argument - if we allow people to punch Nazis then this will start us down a slippery slope where people become justified in punching Christians, Muslims, union organizers, liberals, conservatives, anybody they disagree with. This is an unacceptable conclusion, so we ought to prohibit people from punching Nazis.

Arel objects that this is no slippery slope - we can easily distinguish between punching a Nazi (who advocates Genocide) and punching an atheist (who does not). Indeed, this seems to be the case - there is a distinction here that would make the slope a bit less slippery.

The other argument that Arel responds to is a "moral high ground" argument. This argument states that we should show how we are better than the Nazi by condemning those who would punch a Nazi.

The problem with this argument is that it is question-begging. The very point under dispute is, "What counts as the moral high ground?" If it not the case that punching the Nazi is wrong, then it is not the case that refusing to punch the Nazi is taking the moral high ground.

I share Arel's opposition to both of these arguments. However, I see two other arguments that are harder to handle.

The argument from consistency.

An argument from consistency is not a slippery slope argument. If somebody were to say, "Jim is a bachelor because he is an unmarried male," I might respond, "Well, Steve is an unmarried male. Your statement would imply that he is a bachelor as well." There is no slippery slope that takes us from Jim being a bachelor to Steve being a bachelor - they are both at the same level.

Arel states that what justifies punching Spencer is self-defense.

If you punch a Nazi, especially if you’re one of those marginalized and threatened by their ideology, you’re acting in self-defense.

This means punching somebody because, if one does not punch him, then something of value that one has a moral permission to protect with violence may be lost. My right to defend myself from the person who comes after me with a machete is grounded on the fact that, if I do not, I am at risk of suffering the loss of my life or limb. If there is no real chance of loss, then I cannot claim self-defense.

So, what are the odds that if Spencer had not been punched, somebody would have actually lost something of value that they have a right to defend using violence?

The odds actually seem quite small.

However, whatever the chances of somebody actually coming to harm if Spencer had not been punched is above the threshold of acceptable risk, then anything else that is above that same threshold justifies a violent assault on the grounds of self-defense.

This would include, I would argue, the business owner who is facing a protester who is arguing for an increase in the minimum wage. If the protester can convince enough people to get a law passed that increases the minimum wage, he is going to lose a lot of money. One has a right to self-defense to defend oneself from a robber demanding money, so, it seems, one would be justified in defending oneself against a protester advocating a law that would cause just as much financial harm.

In fact, given that nearly every political debate concerns the passing of a law that benefits one person at the expense of another, then nearly every political debate justifies violence against those who defend the law that would cause the harm. When debating a law that would imprison those convicted of drunk driving, potential drunk drivers have a self-defense claim in favor of violently assaulting those who defend such a law.

As it turns out, the person who punched Spencer proved that he was actually more dangerous than Spencer himself. In fact, if Spencer (or, say, a bystander - perhaps a friend of his) saw the blow coming, then that person would have been justified in pulling out a gun and killing the assailant. The killer, in this case, would have been able to claim "self-defense", and would have had a much more plausible claim. The killer would have actually been somebody protecting an individual from immediate violent harm.

This exposes another implication in Arel's position that reveals the flaw. To say that one is morally justified in punching Spencer is to say that Spencer has no right to defend himself from such an attack. Arel's moral position would obligate us to pass a law that not only states that, "The person I punched was a Nazi" be considered a legitimate excuse from criminal prosecution, but would make it a crime to knowingly defend a Nazi from such a punch. You have no "right to self-defense" to prevent an action that was, itself, perfectly legitimate.

On a related matter, the nation recently debated the merits of "stand your ground" laws when those laws lead to the untimely deaths of a number of people who would not have otherwise been killed. "Self defense" not only requires that the threat of imminent harm to persons or property by a violent assailant, it also requires that the agent escape if possible. The person claiming self-defense also had to show that he could not have escaped the attacker.

"Stand your ground" laws, in contrast, do not require that those who are defending people or property from a violent attacker retreat if possible. It gives them a moral permission to "stand their ground" and use violence against the attacker even when one could escape.

In this debate, many people argued that "stand your ground" was too liberal - that it justified violent defense of people or property under conditions where it should not be permitted. Ironically, many people who argue in defense of punching a Nazi (I have no idea if Dan Arel is among them) are people who argued against "stand your ground" laws. At least with respect to those people, one can levy a clear charge of inconsistency.

Causation

My second objection against this sort of violence is based on the issue of causation.

For an example of the type of argument that I am using here, I invite the reader to think back to World War II. In World War II, there was an argument against the use of chemical weapons on the grounds that, "If we start to use them, then the enemy will start to use them. We want to avoid a situation in which the enemy is using chemical weapons. Therefore, we have a practical reason not to use chemical weapons ourselves."

Note that this is not a slippery slope argument. This is not an argument that says, "If we permit the use of chemical weapons against Nazis, then we will start down a slippery slope where we will eventually come to judge it to be legitimate to use chemical weapons against enemies who are not Nazis." That argument is clearly flawed. However, the claim, "If we use chemical weapons then others will use chemical weapons" or "If we use nuclear weapons then we open the door for others to use nuclear weapons" remains a valid concern.

The issue is much more broad than the narrow threat of, "If we allow violence against Nazis then we open the door for Nazis to use violence against us." The problem can be more accurately stated as, "If we use violence against Nazis, we make it more likely that others are going to use violence against those they disagree with." The problem with using chemical weapons is not that one's opponent in this conflict may use chemical weapons in return. The problem is that it opens the door for people generally to use chemical weapons in any current or future conflict.

Arel points out that Germany has laws against Nazi speech, yet it has not suffered from this more general violence as a result.

Should Nazis have free speech? The US basically says yes. Germany says no. Now, I don’t think Germany is less free because of this, and I doubt its non-Nazi citizens do either.

However, that is not the end of the story. The fact remains that there are others who are denying the right to freedom of speech - to atheists, to political dissidents, to 'opposition parties' that the dictator wishes to outlaw - who point to Germany to justify their actions. When told that they are doing something immoral, they point to Germany and claim to be doing what Germany is doing. As a result, people lose their lives and freedom - in part because Germany refuses to respect a principle of freedom of speech.

In other words, there is atheist blood on the hands of those who defend Germany's laws against Nazi speech. That atheist blood may not come from the German, but it does come from people who find it easier to kill atheists, apostates, and political opponents because Germany asserts that it is legitimate to restrict the free speech of Nazis.

In fact, Arel's own appeal to the German denial of freedom of speech to defend acts of violence provides an example of the very thing he asserts does not exist - the appeal of German denial of freedom of speech to defend other acts of violence elsewhere.

On this matter, I would argue that Dan Arel's posting presents a much greater threat to my safety and the safety of other innocent people than Richard Spencer. It is much more likely that one will listen to Arel, take from it an attitude that a particular act of violence is justified, and engage in an act of violence than that Spencer's words. This is because more people are more likely to listen to Arel and conclude that an act of violence is justified than will draw that conclusion from Spencer.

This would make Dan Arel a threat - a more significant threat then Spencer. This, in turn, would justify the use of violence against him - to get him to shut up - before some innocent person is harmed as a consequence of his words. However, I would argue against such use of violence since I hold that Dan Arel has a right to freedom of speech that grants him a moral immunity from violence for mere words. The only legitimate way to respond to Arel is with a counter argument - which I present here.

On the Beliefs that Evolutionary Theory can Debunk

In 214 days, classes start.

Yes, I am nervous.

I have been focusing on my faux taking of Philosophy 5100: Contemporary Moral Theory - keeping up with all of the assignments and doing some writing on them.

The third assignment was Eric Weilenberg, "On the Evolutionary Debunking of Morality", Ethics 120 (April 2010), 441-464.

As I have been trying to do, I wrote an email to the professor with my notes on the reading - that went as follows:

As I said, it is not my intention to be a burden.
I write this, in part, to get back into the mindset of being a student - to keep up with the readings and to be prepared to discuss them.

In my previous emails, I asked why "I have an aversion to pain" cannot be considered as objective and real as "I have an appendix" or "I have a body temperature of 37 degrees."

I also suggested that authors have not been clear in distinguishing between a value judgment (a belief) and a desire - such as what I called an "appetite for cooperation".

Actually, I found more of this in Weilenberg's article.

I recognize that Weilenberg's intention was to argue that we can have a "moral judgment" that (1) has an evolutionary explanation (2) is not directly related to the truth of what the person believed, but (3) still counts as knowledge since the belief and the truth of the proposition have some kind of common origin.

In making his argument, he tries to give at least a plausible story about how a "moral judgment" can provide evolutionary fitness.

I see a problem with that story.

In defining the concept of rights as a judgment that an individual possesses a moral boundary that others may not legitimately cross, Weilenberg wrote:

Viewing ourselves as possessing boundaries that may not be transgressed no matter what provides a distinctive kind of motivation to resist such transgressions by others. Holding such beliefs disposes one to resist behavior on the part of others that typically dramatically decreases one’s prospects for survival and reproduction.

But we do not need these beliefs to motivate this behavior. The aversions themselves do this. My own aversion to pain gives me a reason to cause other people to refrain from acting in ways that would lead to me being in pain. My concern for family members and friends gives me reason to cause others to refrain from acting in ways that would lead to their harm - and motivates me to act in ways that would promote others to behave in ways that are beneficial.

If I add Weilenberg’s own “Likeness principle,” I can conclude that people generally have reasons to provide others with a disincentive to causing pain or to acting in ways that will tend to cause harm to them and those they care about. I do not think it would be difficult at all to go from this fact to the conclusion that people generally have many and strong reasons to provide others with reasons to refrain from act-types such as lying, breaking promises, vandalism, theft, assault, rape, and murder.

Note that I am not talking about the wrongness being derived from a sentiment that one has or would have under some ideal conditions (e.g., the Humean criteria of knowing all relevant facts of the case and of human nature, and imagining a situation in which none of my own interests or the interests of people I care about are involved). Even a being that lacks any sentiments at all can determine that there are act-types that people generally have many and strong reasons to discourage others from performing. That truly impartial observer will not care about such a fact, but can know it. And part of what he knows is that people generally have many and strong reasons to realize such a state - and that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause others to care about this fact (if they can).

Ultimately, whether evolutionary theory can debunk a moral belief depends on what a person believes. The belief that people generally have many and strong reasons to discourage people from act-types such as lying, breaking promises, vandalism, theft, assault, rape, and murder is not the type of belief that evolutionary theory can debunk.