Philosophy: November 2007 Archives

Rowling on Destiny

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J.K. Rowling did an interview recently with a Dutch newspaper, and it included (among a lot of other things) her thoughts on destiny and free will. (For those who care about spoilers, you might not want to look at the interview or read the rest of this post.)

I have to confess that I'm a little disappointed in her response. She's very smart and well-informed about intellectual matters. But I have to wonder if she presents a false dilemma on this issue, and I'm not even sure the view she expresses here fits well with the books she wrote.

Your books are about the battle between good and evil. Harry is good. But is Voldemort pure Evil? He is also a victim.

He is a victim, indeed. He is a victim, and he has made choices. He was conceived by force and under the influence of a silly infatuation, While Harry was conceived in love; I think the conditions under which you were born form an important fundament of your existence. But Voldemort chose evil. I've been trying to point that out in the books; I gave him choices.

So far so good. It's important to distinguish between being forced into good or evil because of what happens to be true about your conception and making choices. This still doesn't say anything about the metaphysical status of free will. A libertarian will hold that these choices can't be caused by prior events if they're to be free, and a compatibilist will allow that they might be caused by prior events while still being free, because the distinction here is between being forced into something no matter what your own choices would be (merely because of the circumstances of your conception) and making choices (which doesn't yet say anything about whether those choices have explanations and if so what the explanations are).

But where she goes from here is what I find problematic: 

Torture: Some Moral Issues

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There's been a resumption in the discussions of torture with the Michael Mukasey attorney general hearings. I haven't had much chance to say anything about these issues, but I've been thinking that there are two questions people I've been hearing and reading have been sidestepping. Some of the questions are legal. There are international treaties that weigh in on the issue, and there are explicit laws and policies that may have a bearing. I'm not interested in those issues for this post, but I hope to come back to them later this week. For the moment, I want to offer some moral considerations apart from whether any law or treaty applies to any particular technique.

Here is a plausible moral view (which I've tried to motivate a little more in general here and here). There are lots of things that are generally immoral that in extreme circumstances might be morally justified or at least excused. This is almost uncontroversially true of killing. Hardly anyone will oppose killing in self-defense or defense of others. It's also not that controversial to say it's true of causing lesser degrees of pain for the sake of achieving some further goal (e.g. cutting off someone's arm to amputate it when their arm would otherwise cause them to die from gangrene). It might be true in cases of causing one person pain in order to prevent a great harm to many people, as happens with interrogation methods that cause some psychological discomfort but are not controversial.

Given all that, it's at least an option on the table to consider more extreme methods of interrogation as different only in degree and not in kind. It's a greater amount of discomfort, pain, and distress. So it should take a greater amount of seriousness in the situation for it to be morally allowable. But I don't see how it's going to follow automatically from the greater amount of discomfort, pain, and distress that we should have an absolute moral prohibition on it. Maybe some techniques are so awful that the moral seriousness of the situation needs to be so high that it's almost certainly never going to occur. But that's still not an absolute moral prohibition.

Notice that I haven't used the word 'torture' in any of that discussion. I've been using more precise terms that actually mean something. If this view is correct, and I haven't argued that it is but simply claimed that it should be on the table, then techniques like waterboarding may well be immoral in almost any case that someone might propose to use them but not necessarily immoral in every case.

Leaving aside any actual laws and policies, what does this mean for what the ideal law or policy should say? I'm not sure it follows that any particular law or policy is the right one, but it does suggest that there should be extremely strong safeguards against using such techniques except in very extreme circumstances, and it seems perfectly fine given such a view that there would nevertheless be some way such techniques could nevertheless be used in extremely rare, extremely serious situations. I have no idea how such a policy would work, but it seems to me that absolute prohibitions and blanket allowances would both fail to capture the correct moral view if what I've been outlining is correct.

Again, I haven't argued that this view is true, but it seems to me to be one of the views we should have on the table, and that means absolute prohibitions and blanket allowances should not be the only options on the table. Meanwhile, the opponents of waterboarding aren't allowing anything but a blanket prohibition to be on the table, and many of the supporters of extreme interrogation techniques have not shown much willingness to figure out how to have safeguards to keep these techniques rare. I think that's unfortunate.

I was discussing a piece of my dissertation with a group of other people from my department at a dissertation workshop last night, and some of the attendees raised some interesting cases that I'm curious how people would respond to.

Case A: Suppose an evil geneticist decides to play around with people's racial intuitions. One way to do that would be to modify the DNA of a human embryo who is the product of two white parents to give the genetic characteristics that would typically cause the visible characteristics commonly associated with black people. Would the child be black? This isn't a case of egg-switching, baby-switching, or anything like that. The child's biological parents are both white. Is the child therefore white?

Case B: God decides it would be fun to have two versions of Michael Jordan in the world and thus creates an exact duplicate of him. Is the duplicate black?

If the answer in either case is that the resulting person is black, then descent from black people isn't necessary for being black. One has only white ancestors, and the other has no ancestors. I think that would be pretty significant given that most people working in the philosophy of race think descent is a necessary condition (and many think it's even a sufficient condition).

Corpse = Person ?

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IIn Genesis 46:4, God speaks to Jacob to reassure him when he's about to go down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph after about 22 years of thinking he was dead. Part of this reassurance includes a point-black statement by God, "I will bring you back."

Jacob dies in Egypt. His body gets brought back. Assuming the author and/or final editors of the text weren't complete idiots, they had to be aware that Jacob didn't go back to the land while he was still alive. So complex theories of different sources being conglomerated seem unlikely if we're to give even a modicum of charity to ancient Hebrew reporting.

What do we make of this, then? If we take the text at face value, then Jacob's bones being brough back to the promised land counts as Jacob being brought back. Does that mean Jacob's bones are Jacob? Can this fit with Paul's view in II Corinthians 5:1ff that we are naked until we get our heavenly tent? It's unclear if Paul is saying that there's an intermediate, disembodied state in which we are naked or if our current state is what's naked, and we will be clothed with the resurrection body. But either way it seems that our body is a tent.

Another thought worth considering is that God might have meant something more spiritual. God would bring Jacob back to the spiritual fulfillment of the promised land. But that seems to go against the natural reading of the text in light of what happens in Exodus, which is that God's statement would be fulfilled when Jacob's bones were brought back with the Israelites 400 years later. So even if there's some spiritualized meaning on top of the more obvious immediate one, it still seems as if there should be something to the more fundamental meaning.

So here is the question. Can we read any metaphysics of the human person off God's statement to Jacob? If not, why not? If so, what sort of metaphysics is at work, and how is it consistent with Paul's statements (because the metaphysics that seems most natural for Genesis 46:1 is a materialist one that seems flat-out inconsistent with Paul's statements).

Racialicious links to a post asking how racism harms white people. It's a good question that I think whites and non-whites should spend a lot of time thinking about, and I don't think most of the comments on that post have really gotten to the most fundamental issues. The question does assume that there is never any anti-white racism, which would be a mistake. A question that would better express the original intent is "How does white racism harm white people?"

I would think that the primary way racism of any sort harms the racist themself is that it is bad to be a racist. It's just bad to be bad. It's bad for you, not just because it has bad consequences but merely because it's bad to be bad. You harm yourself intrinsically by being a bad person.

But there are all sorts of bad consequences of racism on those who are exhibiting it. One is that much of what's excellent in the culture that surrounds us, including things racists appreciate and rely on, is due to those racism harms and victimizes. So there's a kind of inconsistency in any kind of racism that names things as bad in the person one isolates as "other" while recognizing any of those good effects as good. It's bad to be inconsistent, because it's irrational. So that's another negative impact of racism on racists themselves.

We need to distinguish between racists as evil people with evil intent and other kinds of racism, which don't all involve racists. Lots of people contribute to institutional or structural racism by taking part in practices that in effect harm people along racial lines, even if the people involved aren't racists. Also, virtually all white people are affected by residual racism, which affects our unconscious responses and attitudes to non-whites, all the while not constituting what it is to be a racist. Both of these have similar characteristics with being a racist, in that it's bad to take part in bad practices and to have bad unconscious responses to people, even if such things don't make someone a racist.

More generally, and perhaps most fundamentally, we're all morally and socially interconnected, and harm toward an entire community of people is thus harm toward an entire segment of humanity, and we're all part of humanity. Thus harm toward other human beings of any sort (including racism) is thus harm to ourselves inasmuch as we are all human. Crimes against humanity are crimes against ourselves. So even any racism that I have nothing to do with causing or perpetuating is a harm to me, even if I'm not the immediate victim. All racism is harmful to all human beings.

It's only after all that that I'd bring in things like how our lives will be better off externally when we interact in a moral way with those who are different. It seemed to me that most of the comments on the post that started this were focusing on those questions, and I thought it was worth taking some time to reflect on some deeper reasons.

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