Philosophy: June 2007 Archives

I've had two encounters recently that have led me to want to put together a post on a basic ethical distinction that I wanted to use in my responses to those two different issues. In this discussion, Brian Trapp looks at two different approaches to what conservative pro-lifers should do if Rudy Giuliani gets the GOP nomination for president. James Dobson says he couldn't vote for Rudy against Hillary, and I argued that someone with Dobson's moral views has a moral obligation to vote for Rudy against Hillary. Brian's presentation classified Dobson's view as emphasizing duty and principles and mine as emphasizing consequences and utility. There's a sense in which that's true, but I don't think it's quite right.

Second, in a comment on this post, Alan gave an argument in favor of Ron Paul's candidacy for the GOP nomination for president. His portrayal of Paul is that he is principled rather than pragmatist, that he doesn't allow the ends to justify the means the way all the other candidates do. Again, I think there's a way to look at Paul that way, but I also think it's inaccurate to what's going on, particular to how other candidates would think about what they're up to. I think I can show that the kinds of views the other candidates hold in contrast to Paul are not, in fact, merely pragmatist as opposed to principled, and I think the reason is the same reason that I don't think my argument for supporting a Rudy Giuliani presidency over a Hillary Clinton presidency (should Giuliani get the GOP nod) is purely pragmatist or consequence-based. But my reasoning in both cases depends on an important ethical distinction that I want to spend some time developing first. I'll develop the ethical background in this post, and then I'll look at the two issues that brought me to this in separate posts.

The distinction raised by both Brian and Alan is between two kinds of ethical theories. Consequentialist views consider consequences to be the only thing of moral importance. The right action is the one that leads to the best consequences or that leads to good enough consequences, depending on how the view fleshes itself out. Deontological views are probably best captured as saying that there are moral constraints that go beyond consequences. Sometimes another factor can play a role to make an action wrong even if it leads to the best consequences or right even if it leads to less good consequences. Now if you follow the arguments of Alan or Brian, you might think that the views I would defend depend on consequentialism, and the views of Ron Paul and James Dobson rely on deontological considerations. But I am no consequentialist, and I don't think you need consequentialism to argue against either of the two views I would resist (i.e. Dobson's and Paul's).

Deontology is often thought of as having to do with absolute principles or duties. What I mean by that is that there are moral principles that are always wrong to violate. In Immanuel Kant's presentation, lying and breaking promises are always wrong, no matter what. I've written about the particular issue of lying before, defending the view that the prohibition on lying is not a moral absolute. There are some times when lying is in fact morally obligatory. It's just that there's normally a presumption against lying. I would say further that there are times when lying leads to the best consequences, and yet it's not the right thing to do. This means that I'm neither a moral absolutist nor a consequentialist. So what I am I? I would say that I'm still a deontologist but not of the absolutist sort. At least not every moral principle is an absolute.

Marty Lederman raises an interesting inconsistency argument against two opinions the Supreme Court handed down yesterday, both touching on free speech and both written by Chief Justice Roberts. If you want to read the opinions themselves, they are Morse et al v. Frederick and Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. Here are the quotes Lederman compares:

From Wisconsin Right to Life: “Because WRTL’s ads may reasonably be interpreted as something other than an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate, they are not the functional equivalent of express advocacy,” the Chief wrote. In defining what qualifies as “express advocacy,” "the court should give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship."
From Morse: ''The message on Frederick's banner is cryptic. But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one.''

I think the key would be to distinguish between different contexts for the two statements. If the context, the kind of case, and the circumstances of when it might be ok to act on the speech in some way differ in the right ways, then there's no inconsistency. In the school case, the issue wasn't whether it was a criminal act to say it. It was whether the school had the right to make a rule against it and thereby punish him in a non-legal way. It could outlaw that kind of speech within certain contexts, the Court concluded.

The other case didn't involve disciplining a student in a school for violation of a speech code or some such thing. It was about whether certain actions violate a law prohibiting a certain kind of speech.

I can understand why someone would think the burden of proof is much higher for establishing that someone has broken a law than it is for establishing that someone has broken a school speech code.

The other issue is that express advocacy seems to be a narrower concept in the Chief's mind, and there's no such narrower concept at work in the Bong Hits case.

I haven't read the opinions, so I don't know what Chief Justice Roberts would actually say, but I think I can make sense of why someone might view both cases differently even though both involve free speech. An interesting question is whether the dissenters, who also took opposite views on the two cases, can also provide a justification for wanting to restrict free speech in the campaign finance case while allowing it in the school case. They probably can, but I haven't read the opinions, and I haven't given it much thought.

I do think it's noteworthy that when people make such inconsistency claims they often forget to apply them to both sides. If conservatives favor restricting abortion but oppose animal rights, that has equal potential for inconsistency as favoring animal rights but opposing fetal rights. If conservatives have to explain how it's consistent to oppose abortion but favor the death penalty, then liberals who oppose the death penalty but favor legal abortion also need to explain how those positions are compatible. In any these cases, there isn't necessarily an actual inconsistency, but the charges are often made without considering that the opposite views might also have the same potential inconsistency.

I've just finished Jorge Gracia's Surviving Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century, which I've blogged about briefly before. Overall, it's an excellent treatment of the metaphysical issues about race, ethnicity, and nationality. Gracia's primary focus is defending the existence of all three, explaining what they all are, distinguishing amongst them, and responding to objections against using such categories.

It's carefully argued and very clear. I can't see how someone can think through the ethical and political issues involving these three categories without having first thought about these more fundamental issues, and this is the best treatment of them that I've seen. It's treating an issue usually covered by continental philosophers but with the tools of analytic metaphysics, which is a breath of fresh air for me, since I'm trying to do the same thing.

I'm actually a little worried about what sort of positive view I'm going to end up with in my dissertation, because he's already come up with a similar enough view, and I think he's basically right. I'm sure I'll come up with something distinctive as I go, but this is the best discussion of the metaphysical status of race that I've seen yet, and I've been immersed in this literature for some time now. The other issues aren't my area, but I found his discussions of them helpful, particularly his arguments for what the differences are and why it's important to distinguish them.

I came across a nice little quote near the end that doesn't relate at all to my dissertation, but I found it both insightful and intriguing, and I thought readers of this blog might find it interesting as well:

The common idea that colonialism is responsible for the conflicts that afflict some parts of the Third World because colonial powers carved out states without regard to racial and ethnic differences assumes that it is a good thing to have states that are ethnically and racially homogeneous and divided along ethnic and racial lines. I am not going to defend colonialism, or the way colonial powers created states in the territories that once they controlled. I do not believe these are defensible causes, and their defense appears to be morally repugnant. It is quite clear that colonial powers created artificial states without nations. But their mistake was not neglecting ethnic or racial boundaries, but rather forming states without regard for nationality. Instead of helping to develop nations out of disparate ethnic and racial groups based on a common will to live under a system of laws with the aims of justice and the good of their members, they mostly drew lines on a map based on expediency and their own national or state interests.

I've always just accepted this argument whenever I've heard it. There really have been all manner of problems appearing in parts of the world where the boundary lines have been redrawn by colonial powers, separating ethnic groups down the middle and forcing them into states with other ethnic groups. But the solution wouldn't be making ethnic groups line up exactly with nations. That's a recipe for making every ethnic disagreement an international disagreement, and it makes outsiders of anyone who happens not to be in that ethnic group who is in the state. But as Gracia notes, the problem isn't arbitrary dividing lines, as if different ethnic groups couldn't form a nation and thrive. The problem is that those who colonized and drew the lines didn't engage in nation-building, i.e. they didn't work toward bringing these people to be part of a nation seeking a common system of laws to govern them for their own best interests.

I received a very interesting question via email from Patrick Chan:

According to the theory of evolution, why couldn't future man be materially different from present day or modern man, such that he is no longer distinguishable from modern man (by "materially," I include genetic and biochemical differences which may or may not manifest themselves physically)?  As far as I can tell, it's possible according to evolution.

And perhaps as a result of such differences, why couldn't future man differ markedly from modern man in other ways?  Maybe future man will have a different psychological makeup and emotional life, for instance, and thus be subject to and experience different temptations, sufferings, etc. than what modern man experiences.

What I'm getting at is that it's possible Christ himself might not share with future man what he shares with modern man.  It's possible Christ would no longer be "one of us" in the sense that he would no longer be able to share in future man's "humanity," assuming future man can at least still be considered part of the mammalian species homo sapien.  (Of course, if future man is so different that he can no longer be classified as a homo sapien, then that raises other questions.)  This would undercut Scripture (e.g. Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15-16).

In other words, if it's possible for man to evolve into something different than he is today -- whether it's only a slight difference or whether it's as jarringly dissimilar as depicted in a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which man is a different species) -- then what would that make Christ in his incarnation as a man?  On the evolutionary tree of life, modern man, and therefore Christ himself since he came as a modern man, could very well be to future man what an ape-man might be to us.  Evolutionarily speaking, Christ in his incarnation would be a different being than future man.  I'll not mince words: as far as I can tell, it's possible that the evolutionary equivalent of an ape-man might have died for your sins.

My response (addressed to him, since I first wrote it in an email response to him):

As I've discussed before, Sam Brownback recently penned an editorial that The New York Times ran, clarifying his views on faith and reason, particularly with regard to evolution. I've seen several people discussing this response by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, but nothing I've seen details just how far off the mark the Coyne piece is.

It contains several philosophical mistakes and demonstrates serious ignorance about the subject matter under discussion, which happens to be philosophy (not science), as I hope will become clear shortly. But, most disturbingly, it drastically misrepresents Brownback's view. This post consists of an almost-fisking of the piece. I do not quote the entire piece, but I've selected out quite a number of important excerpts. My not discussing something doesn't mean I agree with it. I'm simply focusing on what I do know, and I don't really know any biology, which though it's not the main subject does occupy an important part of his argument. I'm thus sticking to what I do have some expertise in, something I think Coyne ought to do in the future rather than doing bad philosophy while calling it science.

I'll start with one bit toward the end of the piece, because it illustrates the biggest misunderstanding Coyne relies on, and then I'll work through the piece in order.

According to Brownback, we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they're compatible. But the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago. Are we supposed to reject this as "atheistic theology" (an oxymoron if there ever was one)?

This is a clear fallacy:

1. Brownback says we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith
2. the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago
3. Therefore, Brownback says we should reject the claim that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago

I'm missing the crucial premise that it conflicts with the faith to hold that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago. Since Brownback doesn't assert that claim, the argument doesn't apply. He does say that he believes microevolution is true, and he does say that he doesn't think macroevolution could be true in a way that requires a materialistic, deterministic metaphysic. What he doesn't say is that macroevolution without a materialistic, deterministic metaphysic is false or incompatible with his faith. He is perfectly silent on that issue. Only if he did say that would Coyne's argument even get going.

Trinitarian Survey

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I know someone who is doing some work on the Trinity from a philosophical point of view, and he's currently running a survey about Trinitarian belief. You do have to register, but it's a fun quiz for those who like theology, and you get the results of everyone who's taken it at the end. He's trying to learn what Christians think about the Trinity, so it's primarily for those who do consider themselves Christians. He's particularly interested in targeting seminary students or others who study theology of some sort. If you can help spread the word to seminarians or other students of theology, he would greatly appreciate it.

Pejman Yousefzadeh has been posting at Right Reason about his reconciliation of Nietsche with conservatism. His latest post looks at Nietzsche and Nihilism, and he asks for others' thoughts on this issue that divides Nietzsche scholars. I haven't spent a lot of time reading Nietzche, but I did spend some time reading him recently to prepare for two hours devoted to him in a Human Nature course I just taught, and I do have some thoughts on the different ways to take him. My understanding is that there are Nietzsche scholars who take all three approaches I'm about to outline, and I have no view on which is correct. I'm not even going to find textual support for any of them. I just want to outline the three ways of taking him in response to Pejman's request for how people might take him on this issue.

Nietzsche does state in several places that there are no moral truths independent of which things people happen to call good and bad, right and wrong. This is the position that philosophers usually mean by the term 'nihilism'. Nietzsche speaks of the master morality, which involves the strong and noble arbitrarily assigning their own characteristics the category Good and slaves' characteristics the category Bad. In response, the slave morality responds by doing the reverse. In his initial discussions, it sounds as if he thinks both master and slave morality are these artificial constructions that society has arbitrarily assigned value to, with no inherent moral value in anything.

But then in other places he talks about how bad Christianity is, and certain characteristics of both master and slave morality get negative evaluations from him. He speaks of how good certain characteristics he likes are, e.g. being strong and not submitting to others' wishes, setting one's own path and defining one's life autonomously, and so on. He then speaks of a position he calls nihilism as bad and worth avoiding, and he sometimes sounds like he's condemning the position that there is no good and bad when he does that. But he does this while saying Christianity and slave morality are versions of nihilism, which makes me wonder if nihilism for him isn't not valuing anything but just not valuing what's really good as good. But if that's right, then there is something good in itself.

The question, then, is how to fit these two together. I'm not going to put it past him just to be inconsistent. He eschewed systematizing, and saying contradictory things might fulfill his desire not to allow people to put him into systematized categories. But there are two other ways to deal with this. One is to take him less seriously in his nihilist claims, and the other is to take him less seriously in his denials of nihilism.

If we take him less seriously in his nihilist claims, then he is perhaps saying that <i>moral</i> notions like right and wrong are arbitrary, and <i>some</i> claims to good and bad are also arbitrary and artificial, but there are some things that are good and bad in other, non-moral senses. Some Nietzsche scholars take him to hold that there is aesthetic value but no moral value.

If we take him less seriously in his denial of nihilism, then he really does think nothing is good or bad in itself. When he denies nihilism, he denies claims that something is bad or wrong, and he sees that as negative thinking, while really anything can be positive or good. Nothing is good in itself. We just assign such values. If this is right, then Nietzsche really is a nihilist, and his denial of things he calls nihilism is just a denial of particular views about which things are bad and wrong. If nothing is good or bad in itself, then anything can be treated as good if we want to, and there's nothing inappropriate about that.

The 48th Philosophers' Carnival is up at Common Sense Philosophy.

Jonathan Adler is belittling Sam Brownback's relatively nuanced (for a politician) position on evolution. The comment thread is getting pretty heated, almost entirely in a direction that seems to me to miss the most important factor in interpreting his position. I would go so far as to say that most of the commenters are immorally taking Brownback's position in the least charitable way possible.

Roughly speaking, the problem seems to be that Senator Brownback is using language that leaves the issue wide open, where what he says is consistent with anything from theistic evolution to six-day creationism. The charge is that he is using coded language that's supposed to tell six-day creationists he's with them, while also using coded language to tell theistic evolutionists that he's with them, or something like that anyway. The assumption is that he couldn't be genuinely conflicted on this issue in a way that's consistent with rationality. I want to suggest that the most plausible interpretation of his comments is not the political coded language one but that he really is conflicted in such a way and that it even results from rational conflictedness.

Given that many people do think the most reasonable interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis is that the world was really created in six days 10,000 years ago (note: I don't think this is the most reasonable interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3, given its poetic elements, but I can understand how an intelligent, rational person might think it is), I can understand why he might genuinely feel conflicted, resulting in the following views:

1. Whatever the Bible teaches is true.
2. The Bible's teaching can be interpreted in a way that's consistent with the consensus among contemporary scientists, but some interpretations are more reasonable than others.
3. Science isn't infallible and has often been very wrong, even when scientists are correct at the time to think their best information leads them to that view. Most of the time these are minor variations, but sometimes they are major overthrows.
4. The most plausible interpretation of the Bible conflicts with the contemporary consensus.

I can easily see why an intelligent, informed person who knows all the science and understands why the consensus holds what it does might still refrain from holding any belief whatsoever on whether speciation occurred in the way the consensus says it did. The key is to insist both that (a) our interpretation of the scripture might be wrong and (b) our science has at least some chance of being wrong, while insisting that (c) whatever the Bible does say is true (whether our interpretation is correct or not) and (d) whatever a perfect scientific study would result it will almost certainly be correct.

Only if you assume from the outset that divine revelation about such matters is impossible could you end up concluding that such a person is irrational.

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