Philosophy: May 2007 Archives

In a discussion on the Trinity, Trent Dougherty at Prosblogion rasies the question of whether President Bush is his own president. There's a sense in which Bush is the president of those who voted for him, i.e. they (at least at one point) identified with him as the person they wanted to be president. There's a broader sense in which he's the president of every U.S. citizen, i.e. he's the president who governs over them. That's the sense Trent has in mind. In that sense he is Ralph Nader's president as much as he is James Dobson's.

But is he his own president? Trent thinks yes, and I agree. Mike and Dale in the comments say no, and they offer two reasons. First, he can't pardon himself, which means he doesn't have that particular authority over himself. Second, he's not under his own authority, because as the top executive he's not under anyone's authority. I've adapted what follows from my comment on that post.

I think it's helpful to compare the president's authority with authority in other branches of government. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi obviously has limited authority, She needs on her side either (1) the president, at least 50% of the House, and at least 51 senators (and in the event of a filibuster at least 60 senators) or (2) at least 67 senators and 2/3 of the House. It's fairly easy to see how her authority is fairly limited. But is she her own speaker? She speaks for the House. She leads a body of which she is a member. In the UK system of government, there's a similar position held by someone who isn't a member of the body in question, but she actually is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She votes for the speaker along with the other members, and if she sets up rules she then has to abide by them or go through the normal process of changing them. So I'd say that we should consider her to be her own speaker.

The Supreme Court doesn't have to treat its precedents as binding in the same way that lower courts have to (but all of the justices except Thomas treat precedent as having some relevance for any case before them, differing only in terms of the degree of importance they place on precedent). Still, if Justice Breyer as a private citizen breaks a law that the Supreme Court declared binding he has broken the law. He is in this sense a member of the final judicial panel that is over him. In many cases directly bearing on him, he might recuse himself from the decision-making process, but lots of cases will come up that could have a future effect on him as a private citizen (including a famous decision not too long ago that would have changed the outcome of a presidential election had things gone his way). In that sense he is one of the Supreme Court justices whose authority does count in some ways as being over him as a private citizen.

The only difference with the executive branch is that the president is one person. If he issues an executive order about a certain practice, he does have the authority to remove the order or replace it with a contrary one. However, while the order is in place it is binding on him. He is thus under the president's authority, although he is also the president who can change dictates issued by that authority.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion] Elliot Sober has a new paper, "Intelligent Design Theory and the Supernatural: The 'God or Extra-Terrestrials' Reply", in the latest issue of Faith and Philosophy (January 2007). I received my copy today, and I was amazed that this paper could get past the reviewers of a top philosophy of religion journal without serious modification, even from such an important philosopher of science as Sober.

Sober makes the following argument. Defenders of intelligent design often point out that ID arguments are not religion, and one support for this (a relatively less important one, in my view) is that the conclusion of ID arguments is silent on what the designer is like other than that the designer is intelligent and must have worked purposes into nature somehow. Sober's paper is a response to that argument, and his response is extremely strange. He argues that supernatural assumptions are implicit in the ID argument, and thus the ID defender is committed to a conclusion that there is some supernatural being.

Suppose that's all true. I'm not invested very seriously in whether that part of his argument is correct, since I happen to believe there is a supernatural being. I don't even care whether ID defenders are committed to the existence of a supernatural being, since I know no one who accepts ID who doesn't also accept a supernatural being. So I'll assume for the sake of argument that Sober is correct, and ID arguments do involve a commitment to the existence of some supernatural being. My question is how this helps Sober. His point in the paper is to show that ID arguments involve a religious conclusion. The only way he should be able to conclude that is if he thinks being implicitly committed to the existence of a supernatural being is somehow itself religious. Yet it isn't.

Lots of people think moral evaluation commits you to the existence of a supernatural being. They don't necessarily think that calling an action wrong is a religious practice. So it doesn't seem that being implicitly committed to the existence of a supernatural being is the same as practicing a religion. What's worse is that plenty of people accept theistic arguments on philosophical grounds without being religious practitioners. I personally know several people myself who do exactly that. Their theism is merely a philosophical view. It is not religious in any sense. It doesn't even affect their life. They are areligious. So how can implicitly being committed to the existence of a supernatural being amount to religion when even being explicitly committed to theism doesn't count as religion?

Ann and Bob's cooperation is jointly necessary for doing something that both are morally obligated to do. Ann and Bob can't agree on how they should go about doing that thing. Ann refuses to do it Bob's way, and Bob refuses to do it Ann's way. In both cases they believe they are morally required not to do it the other's way. So Ann sets out to do it her way, and Bob refuses to cooperate, because he believes her way is immoral. Ann then complains that Bob is refusing to fulfill his moral obligation. Bob complains that Ann is refusing to fulfill hers. The obligation does not get fulfilled.

Can Ann claim that Bob (and Bob alone) is refusing to carry out that responsibility? Can Bob say the same of Ann? My impression from the case as I just explained it is that neither is any more or less responsible than the other for not completing the obligation. Both are equally to blame, and both are somewhat to blame. But consider a slightly altered example. Ann and Bob can fulfill their moral obligation by cooperating, but it would mean Ann does not do something that she also thinks is morally required. Bob wouldn't be sacrificing any moral obligation he believes he has to fulfill the one, but he thinks he'd be doing something wrong to cooperate in the other.

In this case, Ann refuses to do it, because she thinks she ought to do both, and if Bob won't let her do both then she'll do neither. In this second case, then, Ann is morally to blame for not doing the obligation that both agree they have, and Bob is not to blame for not fulfilling that obligation. The fact that Ann thinks there's a further obligation that Bob doesn't think he has does not give her the moral freedom to abandon the one obligation she can fulfill, since it's better to fulfill one moral obligation that you can fulfill even if there's no way the other person will let you do what's necessary to meet the other obligation that you think you have.

Now consider the Congressional leadership and President Bush on the issue of funding of troops in Iraq. Both parties agree that they have an obligation to fund the troops in Iraq right now. The Congressional leadership thinks they have a further obligation to get the troops out of there very soon with an explicit deadline. Bush disagrees. He in fact thinks he has an obligation not to allow that. He thinks they have no such obligation. Now they fashion a method of doing both at once, but he considers that meeting one obligation (temporarily) while violating another. If they followed his recommendation, they would be meeting one obligation while not meeting what they consider to be another one.

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