Thursday, September 29, 2016

Self-Help Philosophy

333 days until my first classes and, as promised, a blog post on self-help philosophy.

A couple of posts ago, I distinguished between moral philosophy (How moral-ought I to live my life?) from what I will call here self-help philosophy (How practical-ought I to live my life?).

The distinction rests on whether one is evaluating a life relative to the desires one ought to have (moral-ought) or the desires one does have (practical-ought). For the virtuous person there is no conflict between the two. For everyone else, there is. Yet, even for the virtuous person, moral-ought leaves a lot of room within which one can roam - and decisions to be made about how practical-ought one to live within those moral boundaries.

Recently, I have encountered three examples of philosophies that sought to give advice on how one should practical-ought live one's life.

Two appeared in the more recent episodes of the Philosophy Bites podcast: Graham Priest on Buddhism and Philosophy and William B. Irvine on Living Stoically.

Both of these episodes spent some of their time discussing how to handle disappointment.

Actually, "disappointment" is too mild of a term. One example they both used involved the parent's loss of a young child - in my opinion, one of the most painful events a person may have to endure. Yet it is still only one example among a great many possibilities. At the very least, old age and death bring the promise of forcing us to endure some loss, either of friends and family, or our own faculties.

The Stoics and the Buddhists also have similar ways of addressing these problems - solutions (or, at least, mitigations) that promise to remove some of the emotional pain out of life.

Buddhists, at least according to Graham Priest, state that this distress is caused by wanting that which one cannot have - or that one cannot have reliably. The world is constantly changing such that even if, at the moment, you have that which you want, it will not last. The more tightly one tries to hang on to things in this world, the stronger the sting will be when reality takes it away. Consequently, the wise person does not attach great importance to such things. They enjoy that which they have, but not in a way that they suffer greatly when it is gone.

Stoicism also tells us not to value something to such a degree that we are torn up by its loss.

Desirism would state this as, "Insofar as you have a reason to avoid great emotional pain and suffering, do not cultivate a desire that P that is so strong that one cannot endure a state in which 'P' is false."

William Irvine said that the stoic can, in a sense, immunize himself against the potential death of a child by taking the time each night to consider the fact that the child could be dead tomorrow. One should not dwell on this potential loss - that would be a recipe for misery. However, one should at least face the possibility. This gives the stoic a double blessing of being all the more grateful for having just one more day with that child should the fates allow it, and being psychologically prepared for the state in which the fates did not allow it.

I found the third example of this type of self-help philosophy in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Although Smith talked about the loss of a child, most of his discussion concerned the hypothetical loss of a leg by a cannon in a wartime battle.

Smith's suggested remedy to the problem of suffering some great disappointment or loss was to get out more - to meet people and share their company. Furthermore, the company that one is to seek is the company of strangers or, at least, more distant acquaintances. Friends and close family are going to be too sympathetic and indulgent of the person feeling sorry for himself. More distant acquaintances and strangers, on the other hand, have less of a tendency to be so indulgent.

More generally, Smith argued that the proper measure of the sentiment one should have to some object is that which "everybody" would have who is at such sufficient distance from the object so as to be impartial. Such a hypothetical agent would still carry a common amount of human sympathy, and thus will not be entirely unfeeling towards the person who has suffered such a loss. However, they would not allow their lives to be torn up over the fact. Through them, the agent can learn not to allow such a loss to destroy his own life.

I want to repeat that this is not a suggestion to join the company of people who care nothing about us. Smith argues that sympathy is a powerful and important sentiment - one that grounds all of morality - and one that "everybody" shares. Consequently, his advice to seek the company of others who are somewhat removed from one's loss is still advice to seek the company of people who have some measure of natural sympathy. However, it would be a sympathy that held the loss in its proper context - as one tragedy among many in a universe filled with tragedies and joys. Through their example, and with the benefit of time, one can learn to see their own loss in something near the same way.

Ultimately, the goal here is little different from that which the Buddhist and the stoic suggests - to temper one's 'desire that P' such that one can tolerate living in a world in which 'P' is false. It is to lessen the importance of 'P' being true, in order to lessen the pain that is consequent upon living in a universe in which 'P' may end up being false.

It is a type of advice that desirism, too, can recommend to anybody who has an interest in avoiding such pain.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Emerita Steinbock on "Designer Babies"

334 days until the start of class.

I tried to get a posting on self-help philosophy in yesterday, but I failed to finish it.

Not enough time.

I will likely post it later today.

One of the reasons I failed is because I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder to attend another lecture. Dr. Emerita Steinbock wrote on "designer (genetically enhanced) babies."

She began with some technical accounts that suggested that, with a few exceptions, genetic enhancement would be hard to come by. Genes do not have just one effect - they effect many different body functions. Altering a gene to bring an enchancement to one function may have detrimental effects somewhere else.

Similarly, few traits are controlled by just one gene. One may seek an enhancement by modifying Gene A, only to discover that Gene B has reversed the effect.

We can add to this the environmental and social effects on genes. Chemicals - from hormones to environmental toxins - can alter the way a particular gene expresses itself. Furthermore, social and cultural factors may have an influence. A child given the height and coordination to play basketball may discover that she enjoys philosophy instead.

There are some things that parents can select for - such as the sex of a child. And we do know of some genetic determinants of disease, such as Downs' Syndrome. In these areas, early tests allow parents to determine if the child has traits that the parent or parents value. We can expect that our ability to predict the effects of genetic manipulation will increase - though the above complications suggest that this will be slowly with great difficulty and potential for unforeseen consequences.

There is also the question of what counts as an enhancement. Steinbock brought up the fact that there are genetic factors that dispose certain people to extreme shyness. She spoke of this as a defect - something that a parent may wish to prevent passing on to future generations. As somebody who is extremely shy, I resent that description. Yes, being extremely shy has certain drawbacks (e.g., desirism would probably be the leading moral theory if I had a disposition to actually sell it and promote it), but, I believe, it also makes me sensitive to certain facts about the world that a less shy - and, in some areas, less observant - person would be. This speaks to the difficulty, in some cases, to even knowing whether a change actually counts as an enhancement.

Still, Steinbock thought it would be useful to examine the moral arguments concerning genetic enhancement.

She seemed to think that there were no good arguments against it. For example, the argument that it somehow violates the authonomy of the child can be set aside because being genetically entineered or having random genetic traits has no impact on a child's autonomy. It is not as if the parents are overriding the child's decision regarding its genes - the child lacks the capacity to make any decision.

On the matter of consent, the fact that a child lacks a vote in its genetic makeup also fails to provide an objection to genetic enhancement. Because the child lacks a voice, it is the duty of the parents to do that which is in the interests of the child. This actually provides an argument in favor of enhancement rather than against it. If there were a genetic enhancement that would give a child immunity from a particular disease (e.g., malaria), would that be any different than giving the child an immunization shot as protection against polio?

There was one objection brought up by a member of the audience that I had a particular interest in - and that became the subject of an email that I sent to Dr. Steinbock after the event. Writing this email was another reason I was unable to finish the posting on self-help philosophy yesterday.

As I understood the argument - and attempting to put it in the best light I can think of - it asked us to consider the psychological harm that may be done to the person who discovers that she is not a "natural" child but, instead, a genetically enhanced child.

Dr. Steinbock's answer to this objection was that there is no good reason to hate oneself for being a genetically enhanced child. The child who discovers this fact about herself, according to Steinbock, should just "get over it".

At this point I attempted to put the argument in a stronger light - as well as suggest an objection against even this stronger version of the argument - by pointing out that these types of arguments have been used in the past. People, trying to present their racism as altruistic, have argued against interracial marriage in virtue of the psychological harm that the child would suffer as a result of being a "mixed race" child. Similarly, people have used "psychological harm" as a reason to oppose allowing same-sex couples to raise (or to adopt) children.

I was attempting to imply that we can imagine a case in which a culture adopted the attitude that designer babies, though perhaps mentally or physically superior to most "natural" children, were still considered to have less intrinsic worth - as being less "human" in the moral sense. We could imagine "designer baby" becoming a cultural slur - an insult hurled with venom aimed at communicating that the genetically enhanced child was, by that very fact, worthy of contempt. In this way, a genetically enhanced child can come to suffer abuse and psychological harm.

After all, there are a lot of people who view "natural" as intrinsically more valuable than "artificial", and humans are disposed to attack and belittle minorities, as well as have an incentive to put down in other ways those who they may have to compete with for jobs and public acclaim.

Steinbock responded to these points by saying that research shows that there was no psychological harm that resulted from being a mixed-race child or being raised by same-sex parents. This implies that we can expect no similar harm to come from being the a "designer baby".

That may well be true (I later told her in an email), but it does not actually address the argument in its strongest form. What if there was psychological harm? Would preventing this harm count as a good reason to prevent an activity? Should the possibility that genetically enhanced children are the subject of ridicule and abuse in virtue of that fact could as a reason to condemn the parents who would bring such a child into the world or raise the child in such a way?

My argument is that, even if there is real psychological harm, the fault lies with the abusers, not with the parents of that child. The cultural or social denigration of mixed-race children would not count as a reason to condemn the mixed-race parents, it counts as a reason to condemn those who express bigotry towards - who, in a very real sense, abuse - the mixed race child in virtue of its being mixed-race. Similarly, if children were being harmed as a result of social ridicule for "having two mothers" or "having two fathers", the fault rests not with the mothers or fathers, but with the society that allows and inflicts that abuse.

Along these same lines, any abuse that a "designer baby" may suffer as a result of being targeted as something lacking the intrinsic worth of a "natural" human would be the fault of those who would have and express bigotry against such a child. It should not count as a reason to condemn the parents of a child.

I did not express in my email an objection to this argument that has always concerned me. Let us say that I knew that the man living up the street had a disposition to murder women. When my sister comes to visit, I send her up to the neighbor's house to borrow a tool, expecting that he she would be murdered. I can make the same argument that the fault rests with the neighbor who did the murder, and the decision to send my sister to get the tool is and remains a totally blameless activity. Yet, this seems not to be the case. Similarly, in each of the three cases above, we can, perhaps, hold out some measure of condemnation against the mixed-race or same sex couple bringing a child into the world where she will suffer abuse at the hands of bigots. We can extend this moral judgment to the couple bringing a "designer baby" into a world where people would condemn and denigrate that person.

An important difference between these two types of cases is that there are many and strong reasons for society to abolish this prejudice against mix-race children or children raised by same-sex couples. Those same kinds of reasons also apply to "designer babies". There is no similar argument to be made for tolerating murderers. In order to promote tolerance where intolerance is unjustified, we need to condemn the intellerant - and deny them a "heckler's veto" over that which they do not tolerate. This argues for giving a pass to the parents being discussed in this posting, but not to the man who sends his sister to barrow a tool from the murderer.

Well, now that this is behind me, I can get back to that posting on self-help philosophy. It is nearly done, and I anticipate no other interruptions - except work, exercise, family time, and some social obligations.

*sigh*

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How Practical-Ought/Moral-Ought I to Live My Life?

The first day of class is now 335 days away.

The final episodes of Philosophy Bites exposed me to a pair of interviews that brought up the idea of "Self Help Philosophy". This is the idea that philosophy exists to improve the quality of one's life - to make life go better for those who engage in its practices.

I am going to divide this discussion into two parts.

First, I want to look at the idea that philosophy is supposed to answer the question of how we should live. Second, in the next post, I will look at how Buddhism and Stoicism attempt to answer one interpretation of this question.

I specify, "one interpretation of this question" because the phrase, "how one should live" contains an important ambiguity. The term "should" has two related meanings - "moral ought" and "practical ought". In other words, the question, "How morally-should we live" is distinct from "How practical-should we live."

Desirism distinguishes between these two uses of the word "should" by asking how the object of evaluation (possible lives) stands in relation to what an agent does desire (practical ought" versus what he should desire (moral ought). "Should desire" in this case looks at the desires and aversions people generally have reason to promote, not at the desires and aversions the agent actually has.

There is no inherent irrationality in immorality. In fact, the true villain is somebody for whom it is rational to do the immoral. Given his desires, the practical thing for him to do is that which fulfills his own desires in ways that thwart (harm) the interests of others. You cannot argue a person out of immorality. You can only threaten him, and try to change his desires so that immorality no longer tempts him.

Some do not see a distinction here. Plato and Aristotle, for example, seemed determined to show that living as one practical-ought is the same as living as one moral-ought. Immanuel Kant also sought to show that immorality is irrational.

G.E. Moore objected to John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism that it fails to distinguish between what we desire and what we ought to desire - which is exactly where I place the distinction between practical and moral ought. This is not true. Mill wrote, for example, that the love of virtue does not come naturally. It must be taught, and we have reason to teach it that is grounded on its good consequence. Insofar as one acquires a love of virtue, practical ought comes into alignment with moral ought.

There is only one type of person where the answer to the question, "How practical-ought I to live?" and "How moral-ought I to live?" are in harmony, and that is in the case of a person with perfect virtue. It is the person for whom what she desires and what she ought to desire are the same.

Yet, the boundaries of morality encompass a large territory where morality says nothing about what an agent should do in any sense of the term. The choice of career, of friends, of a mate, of what to eat and what to wear, within limits, are not determined by morality. The agent is free to make choices, and to find separate answers to the question, "What practical-ought I to desire?"

Even if one lives a life entirely within the boundaries of morality, one is bound to suffer hardship. Personal injury or illness, the loss of livelihood or property, the suffering of cold, thirst, hunger, and the want of good company, becoming the victim of wrongdoing or injustice, or even receiving just punishment, can threaten to knock an agent off of her feet. At the very least, age guarantees some upset.

This is where self-help philosophy comes in. This is where the question, "How practical-ought I to live?" takes on a measure of importance. I will address that in a future post.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Recent Encounters on the Purpose of Punishment

336 days until classes start.

I have finished Philosophy Bites podcast.

The last podcast episode that I listened to was Gregg Caruso on Free Will and Punishment.

Caruso argued that free will does not exist; consequently, moral praise and condemnation are illegitimate - as is moral reward and punishment. Nobody has a choice over what they do - they are merely acting on the effects of their environment on their genetic material. Consequently, what they do is not to their credit, and they cannot be praised or deserve any reward. Nor can a person be blamed or punished for what they did wrong.

Caruso argues that there are two legitimate reasons for punishment. One is deterrence - to prevent a person from doing that which is harmful to others by threatening them with a cost. The other justification for punishment, which is the primary focus of this podcast episode, is to treat a wrong-doer as somebody who has an illness that makes that person a threat to society. He compares the confinement of prisoners as comparable to putting a patient under quarantine - something that can be done to a person without their consent, but which carries no implication of blameworthiness or being such as to deserve this harm.

This episode, posted on April 16, 2016, still makes no mention of the possibility that praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, might have a purpose. That is to say, the reason we have selected rewards as a response to some activity (and use praise as a type of reward), and punishment as a response to others (with condemnation working as a type of punishment), is because these activities have certain effects on the human brain, and people generally have reasons to create those effects.

That idea still seems to be unique to the philosophy that I present here in this blog.

On a related note, I am now about half way through Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. He, too, fails to see that praise and condemnation have a function - an effect - that explains and justifies their use. Smith wrote that gratitude is the natural response to benevolence and resentment the natural response to causeing harm. The impulse to reward comes from the attitude of generosity and to punish comes from resentment. Specifically, these responses are appropriate when impartial observers (not the agent who is actually harmed, and not the agent doing the harm) would have this response under normal circumstances to an act of benevolence or resentment.

Smith, however, does not investigate why it is the case that resentment and punishment is an appropriate response to wrongdoing as opposed to, let us say, clucking and flapping one's arm as a chicken. We look simply at the descriptive fact that people are disposed to respond to wrongdoing with feelings of resentment and an impulse to punish and judge, from this fact alone, that it is appropriate that they do so.

Where philosophers do look for the reason to reward or punishment only in their effects, they see this as providing an incentive or a deterrant to the evil action. That is to say, they are to enter into the agent's calculations before the fact as reasons to do that which will earn a reward, and as reasons to avoid that which will be punished. Yet, as Smith argues, we hold the agent who acts for the sake of reward much less favorably than we would hold the agent who provides a benefit out of simple generosity or a desire to help somebody in need. Similarly, Smith argues that the agent who acts like a properly motivated person would act merely to avoid punishment will get his wish in being undeserving of punishment, but one who warrants no praise either - as a person who acts in the pursuit of justice or forbears from some action because it is wrong.

Oh . . . I should mention as an aside . . . one of the provessors at the University of Colorado that I hope to study under, David Boonin, has a book out on The Problem of Punishment which may serve as an opening for presenting some of these ideas. I should add that book to my reading list.

Too little time!

And too little money. This book costs $110.00.

Okay, where was I before I digressed? Oh, yes, with the idea that reward and punishment work on the brain to alter desires and, thereby, to cause people to do that which is good or refrain from that which is evil, even when no actual reward/praise or punishment/condemnation can be expected.

NOTE: John Stuart Mill has this idea in his writing, in Utilitarianism, as I recall, though I cannot find the precise reference at this moment.

I have been giving thought recently to papers I may write in order to introduce some of my ideas to the philosophy department. Reading Boonin's book with an eye to writing a paper on the idea that reward and punishment - praise and condemnation - have a purpose in reorganizing the mind/brain to promote desires for that which is useful and aversions to that which is harmful - could be one of those papers.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"Dieting" and Evaluating Desires in Context

339 days until classes start.

This morning, I listened to the nautical philosopher Jimmy Buffett - a collection of works on The Good Life of beach-combing, sailing, and the drinking of margaritas.

Actually, I was celebrating the fact that, after months of hard work, I got my BMI number from 31.6 (Obese) to 24.9 (Normal).

That took work.

It also provides a case study concerning reasons for intentional action.

I have long had many and strong reasons to lose weight. My weight thwarted many current desires (mostly regarding appearance to others). However, it mostly threatened to thwart future desires. Unfortunately, a future desire (a desire that does not currently exist) cannot motivate current action. Current action depends on the desire that my future desires not be thwarted. This desire and the desire to look better could not outweigh the current desire for another slice of chocolate cake.

What tipped the balance was that somebody gave me a Fitbit Blaze activity tracker.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my interest in computer games - an interest I called a vice because it motivated me to waste time in unproductive activity such as talking my avatar Hedgerow Shrewburrow (former clerk to the mayor of Michel Delving in the Shire - Lord of the Rings Online) and accompanying a group into The Rift of Nûrz Ghâshu - only to suffer defeat at the hands of the troll boss Barz.

Well, the activity tracker turned weight management into a computer game. The rules are easy. I needed to record everything that I ate (at least its calorie value). The object of the game was to burn more calories than I consumed. I could accomplish this objective in one of two ways - by reducing the number of calories I consumed, or by increasing the number of calories burned, or (ideally) a combination of both. Every day in which I win, I lose a little fat. The high my score (the higher the difference between calories burned and calories consumed), the more fat I lost.

There are a few other technicalities to consider to maintain good health - see your doctor for details.

I have played this game every day since I got it, and I have won this game every day for 143 days in a row now (except on my birthday). Currently, I have a string of victories where my score has been greater than 1000. Last night, my score was I win with a score of at least 1000. Yesterday, my score was 2683 - but that required spending nearly 3 hours on an elliptical. (There are reasons not to recommend keeping such a high score for an extended period of time.)

This brings up something about the value of desires that perhaps does not get the attention that it should. Desires are not good or bad in themselves. They are good or bad in terms of their tendency to fulfill other desires. Their tendency to fulfill other desires depends on their context - the situations that occur in which they are relevant. We cannot simply say that a desire is good or bad. We have to look at the situations that the agent will likely find herself in, and the way that the desire will manifest itself in those situations.

This stands at the root of my objections to Trolley problems. They take the sentiments that are engineered to work in situations where people are likely to find themselves, and puts them into a highly unusual (in fact, an impossible but imaginable) situation, and looks at the results. Whenever I hear a trolley problem, I simply roll my eyes and wait for the topic to turn to something relevant.

This fact is also relevant to the many counter-examples to act-utilitarian theories. Desires that produce good consequences in the normal situations in which we find ourselves will not produce good consequences in all situations imaginable. Counter-examples to act utilitarianism almost always (always?) involve cases where sentiments that produce good consequences in everyday situations produce anti-utilitarian consequences in some unusual situation. These are effective arguments against act-utilitarianism, but they are explained by the fact that we cannot completely divorce any act from the motives that caused it, and we have to look at what consequences those motives will produce in normal circumstances.

In an earlier post, I argued that my interest in computer games counts as a bad desire, because it motivates me to waste my time. However, by modifying the context, I have changed the consequences of this desire to produce a personal benefit - weight loss. There is probably a consequence in which this same desire could produce good consequences - something that is generally useful for others. If this is the case, others may not have as much reason to condemn the desire as they would to alter the circumstances in which the desire operated.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Blood Oil" and the Real-World Implications of Moral Philosophy

339 days until I am sitting in my first class.

I am down to eight (8) Philosophy Bites podcast.

One of the recent set of podcasts that I listened to, Leif Wenar on Trade and Tyranny discussed changing international law to prohibit the purchasing of raw material from sources where the resource was not controlled by the people.

Wenar identified four criteria for determining if the people controlled the resource.

(1) Were the people able to discover what is happening with the resource?
(2) Were the people able to talk freely among themselves about what is happening with the resource?
(3) Were the people able to petition those who controlled the resource to change what is happening?
(4) When the people petitioned those who controlled the resource for change, were those wishes carried out?

Wenar's proposal was that, where these conditions were not met, trade with that entity would be prohibited.

He compared this to the project of ending the slave trade and ending colonization. In both of these cases, entrenched instances were up to their neck in an activity that was determined to be immoral and unjust. A difficult political struggle resulted. However, the result of that struggle was finally to change international law and to end the immoral activity.

He gave a specific example in which this was actually done concerning blood diamonds. Blood diamonds were diamonds from mines that criminal warlords controlled in Africa. Their purchase was being used to finance these criminal overlords. Through public pressure, companies that market diamonds developed a system for registering diamonds and to restrict their purchase from places that these criminal organizations controlled. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme has been criticized for its failure to guarantee that diamonds do not come from a prohibited source, but it does increase the costs and difficulties of selling those resources.

Wenar wants to apply the same system to "blood oil". "Blood oil" refers to oil resources controlled by warlords or terrorist organizations, as well as by tyrannical governments. Each oil well has a unique chemical fingerprint that can be used to determine the source of oil, allowing us to set up barriers to the sale of oil by organizations such as ISIS, which are using it to fund violent and oppressive regimes. Wenar would also include the government of Saudi Arabia in his list of sources of "blood oil", since it fails to satisfy the four crtieria for a legitimate source of oil outlined above.

Interviewer Nigel Warburton asked about how this is a philosophical topic. Wenar answered by identifying many political philosophers in history who took on important political institutions of their time; Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau. He could have added Socrates and Aristotle - both of whom antagonized the government of Athens to the point that they had reason to fear for their lives. Socrates was executed. Aristotle fled Athens to avoid the same fate several years later.

That part of the interview has made me wonder about the degree to which I have applied my political philosophy to the issues of the day - and what it would look like if I took on a more activist role.

I have used it to criticize the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both campaigns were built on a foundation of hate-mongering bigotry, identifying a social group as "them" who are the source of "all of our problems" and, thus, legitimately made the object of hatred. Trump targeted Muslims and immigrants, while Sanders targeted billionaires, but the logic of their arguments was identical.

I have also spoken repeatedly against the derogatory overgeneralizations of atheists who fail to distinguish between "criticizing an idea" versus "promoting hatred of a people". These are atheists whose tribal instincts are such that it blinds them to the difference, so that they convince even themselves that their instances of promoting hatred of a people is actually criticism of an idea.

If I were to identify an issue that I think I should devote more time and effort to, it would be the issue of intellectual recklessness. It is a meta-issue that has implications to everything from climate change to the shooting of unarmed black men because they are "perceived" to be dangerous. We live in a society that allows Republican nominee Donald Trump to lie repeatedly with impunity while unfounded accusations against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are embraced with the flimsiest of evidence. It supports "alternative medicine" and other forms of pseudo-science that do more harm than good, and is the foundation for the types of derogatory overgeneralizations that I mentioned above.

Intellectual recklessness, of course, is not, "You disagree with me; therefore, you are guilty of intellectual recklessness." It is an evaluation of whether the conclusion actually follows from the given premises. Donald Trump lied when he said that the Clinton campaign was responsible for the Birther movement. It was a false claim, and Donald Trump had to have known that it false because he, in fact, made his reputation as the spearhead of the Birther movement. This actually goes beyond intellectual recklessness - this is intentional wrongdoing.

Yet, it does not draw near the condemnation it deserves.

If we can build up some degree of intellectual responsibility in our communities, we may be able to get a better handle on some of the other issues that we confront.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Desirism and the Duty to Keep a Promise

One of the recent Philosophy Bites podcasts that I listened to interviewed David Owens on Duty..

Desirism has some specific things to day about duty. Namely, that duties have to do with aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to create, using the tools of praise and condemnation. Specifically, the duty to keep promises means that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to breaking promises by praising those who keep promises and condemning - perhaps even punishing - those who break promises.

Near the beginning of the episode, Owens mentions the two dominant theories for the justification of duty. The first is the intrinsic value theory - it is "just wrong" to break a promise. The second is an instrumental account that holds that the institution of promise keeping provides certain benefits, and the benefits justify the institution.

I hold that there is no such thing as intrinsic value. I understand intrinsic value to imply intrinsic end-reasons for intentional action, and no such entity exists. Desires exist, and can be expressed in the form "agent desires that P". In this case, the desire gives the agent a reason to realize any state of affairs in which "P" is true. Those states of affairs have no intrinsic merit, they just happen to be something that the agent has come to value.

This leaves us with an instrumentalist account of promise keeping. However, we are not talking about the instrumental value of an institution. We are talking about the instrumental value of promoting a particular desire or aversion. In this case, it is an aversion to breaking promises.

We can see some of the importance of looking at desires and aversions rather than institutions by looking at objections that Owens raises to traditional defenses of the duty to keep promises.

First, Owens examines the idea that there is a duty to create promises because other people build expectations on our promises - they make plans expecting us to act in certain ways (keeping our promises). Consequently, when we break our promises, we harm others. Harming others is a bad thing to do. Consequently, breaking promises is a bad thing to do.

Against this argument, Owens brings up the fact that not all cases of promise keeping harm others. It may be the case that the other person has forgotten the promise and, consequently, has made no plans based on that expectation. Alternatively, it may be the case that the other person never believed that one would make good on the promise and made no plans on that account. This defense for promise keeping says that if others do not believe that one would keep a promise, then one has no obligation to keep a promise. This odd result raises flags for the "harm" argument.

Next, Owens mentions an argument that states that the institution of promise keeping produces good benefits. Thus, there are reasons to bind ourselves to and obey the requirements of this institution. Failure to keep a promise damages the institution - which, in turn, would deprive society of the benefits that the institution would otherwise bring about.

However, it is clearly not the case that every act of breaking a promise causes the institution of promise keeping to utterly collapse. Breaking a promise to meet somebody for lunch, for example, will not imply that every contract and agreement currently in force will become worthless.

Owens says that we should see promise keeping as good for its own sake - and not for its instrumental value. He also links the moral value of promise keeping to desire by saying that it is something we care about for its own sake. It matters to us that others keep their promises. Because we care about our duties, we have reason to care about controlling our duties. The institution of promise keeping gives us this control. We decide what duties we have by deciding what to promise and what not to promise. We decide what duties others have by deciding whether to keep others bound to a promise or to release them from their promise.

In linking the morality of promise keeping to "reasons to care", Owens says something that desirism would certainly agree with. What we are after is making people care about keeping their promise - promoting desires in people to keep their promises and aversions to breaking them.

Owens does not mention the fact that this interest in creating certain desires and aversions to others explains why we praise and, in extreme cases, reward those who keep their promises while we condemn and sometimes punish those who break promises. These rewards and punishments reinforce the desire to keep promises and the aversion to breaking promises respectively. They work not only on those rewarded or punished, but on the community generally - even where the story of the reward or punishment does not even describe a real event.

To say that people have an obligation to keep their promises - even where it would do no harm to the person who was given the promise, or to the institution of promise keeping - is to say that people have many and strong reasons to condemn those who break promises, even under these circumstances. They have many and strong reasons to condemn the breaking of promises because they have many and strong reasons to establish a general aversion to breaking promises - an aversion that will motivate agents to keep promises even when they have other reasons that would motivate them not to, and when they could get away with it.

However, people generally have no reason to motivate others to keep promises under conditions where changed circumstances or new information means that the person to whom the promise was made does not want it kept. That is to say, we want our aversion to breaking promises to dissipate when the promisee releases the promise. Owens is correct to argue that we have reason to seek this level of control. Consequently, we have reason to build it into the desires and aversions we create through praise and condemnation - refusing to condemn the person who fails to keep a promise that he was released from.

This, then, is how desirism handles the institution of promise keeping.

341 Days Until Classes

341 days until the start of classes.

I am assuming, of course, that I will have a class on the first day of classes. This is certainly not guaranteed, but it does admit to an error bar in my calculations.

The latest London School of Economics public lecture broadcast was a waste of time. in Signals and Social Consequences from Shrinkflation to Fighter Jets, Dr. Pippa Malmgren argued for using "narrative" and "signals" in economic analysis, as opposed to math-driven economic models and more empirical evidence. She draws significant conclusions from the price of fish or a shipment of olive oil. All of this predicts the end of civilization as we know it.

The problem is - as is always the problem with this type of evidence, one can always find the signals that one wants to find. I have endured advice to prepare for the coming economic collapse for over 40 years. There is no way to remove confirmation bias, cherry picking, and "just-so" stories from this type of work.

To top it all off, she adds a layer of conspiracy theory - of the form, "Officials are hiding the truth from you but you can figure it out for yourself if you just know how to read the signals." Yet, she accompanies this with self-promoting claims about how she seems to be the only person on the planet looking at the right signals and drawing the right conclusions. She literally said at one point that the number of people in the world watching one of her signals and drawing the relevant conclusions is, "just me".

It is true that economic modelling is a seriously flawed business. When it comes to people making predictions as to whether the stock market will continue to go up, go down, or flatten, I substantially ignore all of them as being nothing more than throwing darts at a distant dart board. However, we know how cognitive biases corrupt less rigidly defined evidence, and we have know reason to believe that an amateur looking at "the signals" can do a better job than an expert looking at hard numbers - even if the expert cannot do very well.

On the Philosophy Bites front, a new episode showed up. I am now down to 12 episodes left.

There are several episodes recently that I would like to comment on. There is an episode on epistemic responsibility, an episode on duty (using an example the duty to keep promises), and episodes on Buddhism and stoic philosophy. Each one of these raises an interesting subject of discussion, so I intend to devote a separate post to each.

I also ventured into the Philosophy department site for the University of Colorado at Boulder and found some class materials for the graduate level Ethics Proseminar. The department has a requirement that all incoming PhD students take certain general classes in ethics and metaphysics that will give them a common history regarding these subjects. The ethics courses involved taking some classical readings in ethics and discussing them.

I had a thought of adding a project of reading some of these assignments in advance. However, I do not have any reason to believe that the course I am required to take will be taught the same way by the same people, and there is far too much potentially relevant literature for me to have any hope of getting through it all. Therefore, I will wait until the course descriptions are posted next spring and spend the summer months trying to get a head start on those materials.

A specific note of disappointment was that the readings on Henry Sidgwick did not include Book III, Chapter XII of the Methods of Ethics, "Motives or Springs of Action as Subjects of Moral Judgment". This, clearly, would be a chapter that I would like to write a paper on. If, per chance, when I take this course it involves the same reading assignments, I wonder if I will be able to get away with petitioning to include this chapter so that I can give a presentation on it. Chapters II, III, VIII, and IX are also not on the reading list. Being chapters devoted to virtue, they would certainly be ways of entering into a discussion of motives (desires) as subjects of moral judgment.

Perhaps I will write a separate paper and turn it in anyway.

Too much to do. Too little time. I think I have said that before.