Philosophy: April 2008 Archives

I wrote before that my proposal for a chapter on mutants and the nature of race was accepted to The X-Men and Philosophy volume and that I'd submitted three other proposals for two other volumes. I haven't heard anything one way or the other about my submission about The Hobbit, but I found out today that one of the two proposals I wrote for Harry Potter and Philosophy was accepted. They liked what I submitted about the limits of authorial intent, but they had a number of good submissions on that topic, and they decided they'd rather go with my proposal on destiny in Rowling's series, so they accepted that one. You can see the blog version of my initial thoughts on the matter here.

Before I even started graduate school, I hoped to be able to write popular-level philosophical discussions about questions that I thought needed serious philosophical reflection that science fiction and fantasy often raise, and I guess now I get to write about two topics I care a lot about in two fictional worlds that I've spent a lot of time in. These will be my first publications besides a book review (although it was a book review that made several substantive points, some of which I thought were genuine contributions to how to think about the issues). That means I need to work hard to submit some parts of my dissertation to journals pretty quickly to avoid giving the impression that I'm a lightweight when it comes to publication. Still, I'm glad to have the chance to contribute to these volumes.

Rights to Ourselves?

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I've discussed the relation between rights and obligations before. One thing that a lot of people seem to think is that you can have responsibilities or obligations toward someone who doesn't have any right to you doing what you do. On the other hand, others thing that any obligation you have toward someone implies that they have some right to you doing it.

One thing that affects how you think of this is whether rights are explanatorily prior to obligations or the other way around. I'm not at all attracted to the view that rights are fundamental and that obligations are derivative from them, but that's a view that a lot of people have. I'm much more inclined to think my rights arise because someone has an obligation toward me.

If rights are prior to obligations, then here's a funny result. If an obligation requires that there already have been a right, then what about my responsibilities to myself? I think Immanuel Kant was right in taking us to have such obligations. If I seek a bad life for myself, that's immoral even if I don't harm anyone else in the process. If I do things that harm myself but don't affect anyone else negatively or positively, I have still done something wrong. I have violated my obligations to myself. But how can this be if every responsibility is based on a right? What right do such obligations rely on? Do I have a right to myself doing this? That's an extremely odd way of talking. Do I have a right to certain behavior on my own part?

The Bible study group that I attend has been studying Exodus, and we're nearing the end of the plagues. I've been thinking anew about Pharaoh and the hardening of his heart. People holding to a libertarian view of freedom like to point out that Pharaoh hardens his own heart before the first time it says God hardens it. It isn't a simple progression. Sometimes his heart is simply hardened in the passive, and I don't think there's a neat order to it. The passive formulation occurs in what I believe is even the first instance (Exodus 7:21), and that occurs three times in ch.7 before 8:21, where Pharaoh is first said to harden his own heart. But it is true that Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart before God is said to harden it.

On the other hand, compatibilists about freedom and predetermination notice that God predicted long before the encounter even happens, when Moses hadn't even returned to Egypt, that he would harden Pharaoh's heart and that Pharaoh wouldn't let him go. (Exodus 4:21) This may not require a compatibilist view, but there's one view that I think doesn't fit well at all with this whole sequence, and that's open theism.

First, God predicted that Pharaoh would not to let them go. He even predicted that he would harden Pharaoh's heart. He told Moses to ask for a three days' journey to sacrifice and return. But he promised to Moses that Pharaoh wouldn't let them go and that it would lead to their permanent freedom from Egypt. What needed to happen for God's prediction to come true? Pharaoh needed to resist Moses, something open theism doesn't allow God to predict. Yet God had predicted it, and it was at least in part dependent on Pharaoh's hardening of his own heart.

As libertarians like to point out, God hardens Pharaoh's heart only later in the series of plagues. God nevertheless predicts that he'll do it to Pharaoh before Pharaoh even hardens his own heart. There's only one way I can make sense of this is open theism is true, and that's that Pharaoh is one unusual exception of someone who simply isn't free. In order to predict that Pharaoh would refuse to let them go, God must have forced him to do what he did. Why, then, does Pharaoh harden his own heart before God hardens it?

Open theists often go the Exodus narrative because of Moses' interaction with God after the golden calf incident, saying that the classical view of divine foreknowledge doesn't fit well with the plain sense of that text and others like it (although there are problems even with that claim). But it seems to me that open theists are the ones that have a problem with the plain meaning of this narrative.

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