Philosophy: July 2008 Archives

Vague Joints

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I was reading through a section of my dissertation that I haven't looked at in a while, and I found myself reading about vague joints. I didn't remember using that expression, so it was kind of interesting to notice it there.

It doesn't exactly sound like the kind of thing you'd see in a Ph.D. dissertation. Of course, neither do gunk or stuff. Metaphysicians come up with some great technical terms sometimes. Of course, metaphysical discussions of holes really are about holes.

Oh, and if you don't have a sense of what vague joints might be, here's a hint.

Moral Luck: Responses

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This is the 46th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post presented a problem related to freedom and moral responsibility, one that philosophers have called moral luck. According to Immanuel Kant, you not be responsible for things you have no control over, and yet we constantly evaluate people according to things they have no control over, as the many cases in the last post show. Now I'll turn to some ways people have responded to the difficulties raised by such cases.

Some try to keep a view like Kant's by giving responses to Nagel's arguments, and some of the responses seem ok when you focus in on only one kind of case. Once you look at another case, the response doesn't help. For example, you might insist that your genetic tendencies only make it likely that you do certain things. You still have control. This is what you would expect from a libertarian. Nagel will still insist that there are people who wouldn't have done what they did if they had had less of a tendency. This means their genetic tendency did make the difference. This may not be true for everyone, but it does seem to be true sometimes. That's all Nagel needs, since then you have a case when we hold someone responsible for something outside their control. Similarly, the twin in Argentina may have been able to resist what his brother didn't resist. But the point is more that there are cases when people do things simply because they're placed in the environment that allows it. If Hitler had never had the opportunity to do what he did, he wouldn't have been responsible for all the evil things he did. Then we wouldn't consider him a monster. So he got unlucky in one sense. Maybe he would have been a hero if he'd been in situations that prevented him from being the way he was.

Even more important is that this kind of response doesn't help with cases like hitting someone (or not) while driving under the influence or with the consequences of starting a war. You can choose not to drive or drink, and you can choose not to go to war, but you can't choose everything that happens as a result of your choices. Yet we still praise and blame based on what happens after your choice is made, not always for things you could have predicted.

Even someone's actions when drunk are under one's indirect control, since, as Aristotle points out, you can choose to start drinking. Kant may be fine with that, yet some of Nagel's cases don't even seem to be as much under our control as someone who is drunk. Do his cases show that Kant is wrong? If so, what do we say about the argument for free will based on moral responsibility and having control over what we do? Or should we affirm Kant's view and insist that we shouldn't hold each other responsible for these sorts of things? That would require serious revision in our moral thinking. Or is there some other response? Is our moral thinking just confused? Do we have conflicting moral beliefs? Nagel just says it's a mystery. Peter van Inwagen says something similar about free will. He says any view anyone takes on freedom will involve some mystery, and the goal is to find the view with the least mystery (which he thinks is libertarianism on the issue of free will). What would that be in this case?

You might think of this issue in terms of three claims:

When I was looking for information on the X-Gene for the mutants and race piece I'm working on, one website I was looking at wrongly cited X-Men (the 1991 series) issues 2-3 as one place the X-Gene comes up. I was immediately suspicious, because I'd just read those issues when I was thinking about submitting a proposal for Magneto's moral philosophy for the Supervillains volume (which in the end I decided not to do, even though it would have used material I've put some work into both from the political section of my ancient philosophy teaching and the just war and terrorism section of my applied ethics teaching). I hadn't seen anything about an X-Gene in my recent reading of those issues, but I decided to read them again anyway, and it led to an interesting thought process about the story, something I hadn't spent as much time thinking about the first time through.

The main plot involves Magneto discovering he was genetically re-engineered by Moira McTaggart when he was reduced to a baby. She decided to figure out how the close friend of Charles Xavier could do the things Magneto did, and she discovered an instability in his brain due to the power he was channeling. This did explain how Charles Xavier's friend could become a terrorist. She apparently saw this as hindering who he really was, so she sought to give him a second chance by removing the instability. Many people might think she was preventing a power outside his free choice from influencing him.

What generates the conflict in these issues, though, is that he has a different view. He sees it as her playing God and making every choice he made since then suspect. It's as if he thinks his choices are only free if they go naturally the way they would have without interference from someone changing his internal structure as he existed naturally. I have to say that whether she's right or not, he certainly isn't. How does removing an instability resulting from too much power being channeled through him count as behavior modification of the sort that undermines free will?

But then he forces her to apply the same process (removing an instability particular to him?) to some of the X-Men so that they will follow him and not Xavier. She does it, and they do. Huh? How can removing the instability particular to him from the X-Men who don't have it make them loyal to him and not Xavier? If they do have it, won't it stop their powers from doing the same thing to them and clouding their moral judgments? So removing it wouldn't make them like Magneto. I'm not sure what Chris Claremont was thinking with this one.

Then they snap out of it eventually, because the process only works if the subject never uses their powers. The use of powers undoes it, because somehow the powers are tied into the way the brain has naturally developed, and the genetic re-engineering gets forced back into its natural state somehow by the powers in order to ensure proper functioning. This is also a little strange, because it sounds as if the re-engineering is messing with nature and proper functioning, except the original explanation with Magneto sounded like it was restoring a natural balance that the powers were interfering with.

This was Chris Claremont's last story on X-Men, and in some ways it was a nice send-off to its longest-running writer to end on a battle with Magneto that hits some of the main themes Magneto has always differed with the X-Men on, but it's too bad that a very important premise of the story is so confused, both on the theoretical level about what's going on in this hypothetical scenario and in terms of ethical reflection on that situation. I remember not really liking this story all that much when it came out (seventeen years ago now!), as hyped as it had been with Claremont returning to start off the new X-Men teams and the new book and my favorite new artist Jim Lee rendering the visuals. The first issue is still the highest-selling comic book ever. I don't remember my reasons, but it didn't strike me as worth the attention. I wonder if this was part of the reason.

Moral Luck: the Cases

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This is the 45th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post finished up the compatibilist account of freedom, and this post moves on to a perplexing problem related to freedom and moral responsibility, one that philosophers have called moral luck.

Immanuel Kant thought it obvious that we're not responsible for things not under our control. Why hold people responsible for the workings of fate? Shouldn't we be responsible just for what we intend to do, or at least what we can reasonably, foreseeably expect given what we intend? It's irrational to evaluate each other based on things not under our control. Yet Thomas Nagel points out that we do it, and we will continue to do it, since it's part of our way of thinking about morality. It seems fine to us until we think more deeply about it. Nagel argues that we can be morally responsible in circumstances we have no control over. His cases involve moral evaluations that depend on things outside our control. He calls this phenomenon moral luck (I think it was actually Sir Bernard Williams who came up with the term). These are cases in which something outside my control affects our moral judgment of my actions, usually by affecting the action or its consequences.

Some of Nagel's cases might fit into different of these categories, depending on how you think of it, so keep in mind that these are loose categories. Also, Nagel has four categories, but I think the difference between two of them is not worth the time it takes to distinguish them, at least for the purpose of these notes, which come from my lecture notes for an introductory philosophy class.

1. constitutive luck: my inclinations, capacities, and temperament aren't fully in my control. Significant aspects of who I am are from genetics, experiences, etc. Yet I often act in certain ways because of these. I may have a genetic tendency to be more violent, or maybe I'm good largely because of a good upbringing. This doesn't stop moral evaluation. We still blame the violent person or praise the good person, and it seems right to do so. (Note: determinists admit this. What's important is that libertarians have to admit a large amount of constitutive luck, which on their view means freedom is a lot more limited than you might have wished.

On Thomas Aquinas' view of natural law, law is written into the fabric of the universe. On one level, everything that happens is part of divine law, since God's plan of providence includes every single event that happens across all time. Aquinas calls this eternal law. On a second level, certain things are good for us or bad for us according to our nature, according to what kind of thing we are and what would make for contributing to our welfare and the internal purpose within us as organisms and as God's creations. That's the natural law. Then human beings can issue legitimate rules that fit with what's best for us and seek the general welfare. If it meets all these criteria, then it's a human law. If it's issued by someone without care for those it includes or if it's not for the general good or reasonable, then it's a real law. Otherwise, it's just a rule. He's got high standards for when a purported human law really is a law.

One of the aspects of this that I hadn't seen until this summer, when I covered a more extensive part of his treatment of this in what's called the Treatise of Law (but is really just a section of the Summa Theologiae, and he gave it no such title) is that he also allows for custom to generate laws. When he introduces the notion of legitimate authority to make laws, he says there are two ways this can happen. One way is that someone (singular or plural) God has placed in care over a group issues a rule that really is for the common good. The other way is that people issue a regulation over themselves. In contemporary times, we hear that and think he's talking about democracy. He surely knew of the ancient democracies, since he education would have included quite a bit about the ancient world. But that turns out not to be his primary concern when he says this. He actually means custom.

We have lots of rules by custom rather than by what we ordinarily call law. I'm pretty sure there were men's and women's restrooms before there were any laws about who can go in which in public buildings. If I'm wrong, there are lots of examples that are like that. It's not illegal in the U.S. to call people ordinary insults, but it's often immoral, and it's against custom if it's a certain kind of insult or a certain kind of context (in the middle of a job interview, say). We as a society have standards not to do things that aren't illegal. They're just frowned on, and you get ostracized or socially penalized if you do them.

What I found interesting about Aquinas on this subject is that he thinks this can go the other way too. If a certain action is worth prohibiting for the common good and is made a law (a genuine law) but then becomes against the common good, what was a law becomes merely a rule. But what about when no one follows a law, and those in authority tolerate such behavior? The movie theater in the mall near us hasn't allowed backpacks in the theater since a little after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. At least that's their official policy. But no one enforces it, and lots of people don't keep it. I think Aquinas would see that as custom determining what the real human law is, and I think that's a very interesting view. It also has implications for speed limit laws in a jurisdiction where the police don't stop people for going 5 over or 10 over, and everyone drives that fast because they know where the threshold for being stopped is. On Aquinas' view, it's as if the law really is where they practice it as being, not where it's written to be. (Of course, all this depends on the custom's practice being consistent with the common good. If not, then custom couldn't modify written law in this sort of way.)

X-Gene

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My mutants and race piece is in its second draft now, which I'll be sending off tomorrow. I do have some questions that I hope some familiar with recent X-Men occurrences might be able to help with. One of the comments I got back from the editors is that I was taking mutants to be literal mutants, which would mean genes mutated and led to their powers, and these genes would be different genes, genes having something to do with the abilities they end up getting. Nightcrawler's fur would be related to the kinds of genes that produce body hair. Cyclops' force beams would have some connection to genes that affect the eyes. Wolverine's healing factor would come from mutated genes that ordinarily relate to the immune system.

Well, the problem with this, according to my editor, is that the third X-Men movie has a completely different explanation of mutants. They're aren't literal mutants in the sense the term is usually used in biology. Instead, they have this one gene in common. In the movie, they call it the Mutant-X gene. At least that's how it sounds. I later found out this actually does appear in the comic books after I stopped reading them in the mid-90s, and they call it the X-Gene. So maybe it's not the Mutant-X gene in the movie but the mutant X-Gene.

This explanation is just downright stupid. How is it that this one gene explains the variety of powers across all mutants? Also, how did one gene just suddenly appear in all these unrelated people? Whoever came up with this idea knows pretty much nothing about genetics. I did some looking around in Wikipedia, and I found some blog posts about the mutant gene (including this one, which was somewhat helpful). Apparently the Beast, in House of M #2, says the X-Gene is technically a cluster of genes. That's a little better, I suppose, because it allows for different genes to be part of the cluster. Also, the X-Gene was supposed to be scattered throughout humanity but only activated in certain people, and those are the mutants. That's how humans can produce mutant children.

Given that mutants sometimes produce children with the same powers and sometimes end up with children with different or no powers, it seems to me that the X-Gene must not guarantee any particular powers but simply means there's a potential for powers. Without the X-Gene, there will be no powers. When the Scarlet Witch removes the X-Gene from the majority of mutants and the entirety of non-mutants, all the mutants without the gene end up becoming normal humans. So my suspicion is that this would have to be an activator gene (or cluster of genes), and what determines the specific powers is something else. The X-Gene itself is simply an activator, one that probably just isn't turned on in normal humans but is turned on in mutants.

If this is the official explanation in the comic books and the movies, then it changes significantly how my argument in this chapter will work. I think my conclusion still holds, but the argument for it is completely different from what it was in the first draft. So what I'm wondering is if this seems to fit with the recent comic books, since I haven't read any of them. I may have some of them, since I continued to buy them for a little while after I stopped reading them, and I did inherit some more even later from my brother that I haven't read. I don't think I have any House of M, though. I just looked and didn't see any, even though I thought I had some. So what I'd love is if someone could direct me to specific issues where this stuff is discussed, and then I can see if I might have them or if someone could confirm that this is pretty much the official explanation of mutants at this point. If it is, I need to focus on this. If it's not, and it's still sort of up in the air with the more traditional explanation still possible, then I can keep most of what I've written and just add some more on the new explanation.

Update: Someone else has arrived at a similar view, but it assumes one X-gene. If we trust the Beast's analysis, you could make it much more complex, with several genes contributing to activation of the powers, and perhaps all or a certain number of them need to be present. Also, the Celestials, in seeding the human populace with the necessary genetic material for mutations of this sort, might not have included anything like the latent genes to be activated or the activation genes but might simply have placed the necessary genetic materials, with the necessary factors for those eventually to reach a point where they do what happens later on. This would explain a few isolated mutants throughout history and a much more concentrated appearance of mutants in the late 20th century. I like the suggestion that mutates (who get powers later in life due to some stimulus like radiation) have something else activate their latent powers in the way that the X-Gene does with mutants.

Last Monday, while driving back from Pennsylvania, we were listening to a previously-recorded Diane Rehm Show episode with James Carse, an NYU professor emeritus of religion. You can listen to the show here.

Carse seemed to advocate a religion-without-God approach, or at least he didn't think we should be confident about the existence of God. This was the first time I've ever found Diane Rehm extending complete incredulity toward someone who was left of her on an issue, but she really gave the guy a hard time with some of his outlandish biblical interpretation and eventually his admission that he'd rather die ignorant than arrive at any knowledge about ultimate realities. After a while, he got frustrated with her and her callers continuing to call him on his pick-and-choose out-of-context methods of interpretation, and he decided to try a new tactic. He decided to call into question the idea of correct biblical interpretation to begin with, with the following argument.

He cited that at one point there were 15,000 members of the Society for Biblical Literature and claimed that they all have to have a Ph.D. and thus have to have argued for some new interpretation, because no one can get a Ph.D. in biblical studies without a novel interpretation. Such a large number of experts continue to produce novel interpretations, and so there's no reason to be confident of any interpretation (or perhaps he was suggesting something stronger, that there's no right interpretation to begin with; I'm not sure which, so I'll take the weaker claim as the more charitable one, since the argument is much more fallacious if it's the stronger one). He calls it very willful ignorance to claim that you understand something in the scriptures.

There are several problems with this argument:

1. The argument actually undermines itself, because it ignores the very fact it relies on. There's tremendous pressure in academia to come up with novel interpretations in order to have a career. So the multiplicity of interpretations tells you less about the subject matter than about the culture that produces those interpretations.

A while ago (June 5, to be exact), NPR's All Things Considered had a piece on punishing kids in school by making them learn Robert Frost. It was intended partly as a way to make the kids learn more. They included several responses to the policy. One response caught my interest. It said that such a policy ends up agreeing with all the high school dropouts that education is bad. After all, it can't be a punishment unless it's bad. The problem with this punishment is that education isn't punishment.

This is a common enough view, and it has interesting implications for theories of punishment. In particular, it seems to undermine restorative, rehabilitative models of punishment. It doesn't undermine the view that we should seek to restore and rehabilitate criminals. It does undermine the view that we should call it punishment when we do so. It seems to me that the main assumption lying behind this slogan is that education isn't punishment, because education isn't retribution.

Given some of the stuff Wink is working on, I thought this was an interesting presentation of a popular intuition about punishment that runs counter to how he's trying to think about punishment.

Gorgias has argued (see here and here) that there isn't anything and (see here) that, even if there were anything, you wouldn't be able to think about it. Now he argues that, even if there were anything and you could think about it, you wouldn't be able to communicate it to anyone.

1. We communicate with language. Language about things that are is not the things that are. So we don't communicate the things that are. We communicate language. The only thing that gets transferred to another person isn't the thing we saw but our words about it. We can't make perceptual images into sounds and vice versa, so we also can't make external objects into language. So the things that are, even if they could exist and be thought of, could not be communicated.

2. Language comes to us just as flavors do. It's an external thing we perceive with senses (visually or aurally). We might be inclined to think of this as language revealing some external object, but that's backwards. We have the language, and we posit an external object to explain the language just as we posit an external object to explain the image we see or sound we hear. (We posit a Grand Canyon when we hear someone tell us they went there.)

3. Language isn't really an object the way visible and audible things are. Even if it is, it's not similar to visible objects. It's grasped by a different organ. So language doesn't reveal these objects that are dissimilar from it.

4. Objects can't reveal each other's nature. So language, which is even more different, can't reveal other objects.

Responses:

1. Couldn't there be something in our mind when we hear them describe something that's similar to what's in someone else's mind when they see it?

2. We do posit an external object when we hear about it or read about it. We also posit an external object when we see it or touch it. How does that mean the object doesn't exist? How does it mean we can't communicate about it?

3. Language is distinct from the things it is about, but that doesn't mean it doesn't represent those things in a way that it can cause us to think about them. It doesn't mean we can't communicate something by using it.

4. Language doesn't connect us with the very essence of the things it's about, but it does communicate something that allows us to envision some features of those things.

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