Philosophy: March 2009 Archives

I was reading way down my list of things I wanted to blog about that I never got to, and I found Kenny Pearce's Five Favorite Philosophers post from December 2006. (Sadly, this was only 60% of the way down in my huge file of things to be blogged about that I haven't gotten to, and the latest stuff is at the top!) I'd started the post but hadn't completed it, and I thought it was a worth task to be completed, so here we go:

1. Augustine: On every test checking one's views with actual philosophers, I come out closest to Augustine. When he disagrees with Aquinas, I usually side with him. He was one of the most intelligent Christian thinkers to interact heavily with philosophers in a systematic way, and I think his criticisms of his contemporaries, if occasionally exaggerated, are nevertheless accurate enough assessments of the problems with those philosophers' positions. His emphasis on ordinary language is similar to one of my own complaints about many influential philosophers. He rightly rejected the high-standards view of knowledge endorsed by Plato, the ancient Skeptics, Descartes, Locke, Hume, and most philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries up until the 1980s or so. After all, such views use the terms for knowledge in ways that simply don't match up to ordinary usage. He adopts a view on the passions that's very similar to the Stoic view but denying their strange definition of emotions as faulty reasoning, again emphasizing ordinary language over philosophers' arbitrary redefinitions. I'm not sure his view of freedom is coherent, unless he changed his mind when writing <i>City of God</i> between the single-digit books and books 12-14, but his view is one of the better ones in the ancient world. His view that ethics is primarily about rightly-ordered love of what's best seems to me to get closer to the heart of what's most important than any other ethical thinker.

2. G.W. Leibniz: Leibniz was by far the best of the early moderns. He retained much of what was good from the medieval philosophers, a lot of which had been rejected by his contemporaries. He's the first I know of to use the philosophical device of possible worlds, but he does it better than contemporary philosophers by recognizing that worlds are what God could have created (and thus God isn't in any possible worlds but is existent for all of them). I go back and forth on the Principle of Sufficient Reason as he states it, although something like it has got to be true, and a lot more of what he derives from it is true than most philosophers accept today. His systematicity and careful attention to detail place him as one of the greats, and it's too bad much of his work is barely studied today. A significant portion of Saul Kripke's game-changing work in the 1970s and 1980s was present in Leibniz's responses to John Locke. He (and not Locke, as some claim) was responsible for the first modern discussion of personal identity that I can find. Everything halfway decent that Hume had to say about free will and compatibilism (one of the few issues Hume has anything to say about that's worth paying attention to) was anticipated by Leibniz.

3. David Lewis: Dean Zimmerman joked at Lewis' memorial service that when you cross David Hume and Gottfried Leibniz, you get David Lewitz. Lewis was more responsible than anyone else for bringing metaphysics back to its rightful place as the central branch of philosophy in the 1980s and 1990s. There's far too much of David Hume in Lewis' views for me to get too excited: e.g., on causation (facts about causation depend merely on what happens and not the obvious truth that it's the other way around), the ontological status of possible worlds (they all exist in the same way our world exists), the existence of God (for him only in other possible worlds, but that sort of God isn't God, since he doesn't necessarily exist), consequentialism in ethics (consequences are the only morally relevant consideration for how we should live). But his approach is much more Leibnizian, in that he actually gives arguments for his views, something Hume rarely does (at least not while accurately representing the views he criticizes and not in a way consistent with all the things he wants to say). Lewis was in many ways (but unfortunately not in some important ones) a model philosopher. The entire field of metaphysics today has been shaped by him in ways that are largely good, and the ways that aren't are ripe for response from those who have views that are closer to the truth. It's hard for me not to admire the comprehensive and systematic work that his career produced, and I'm glad to have been able to meet him shortly before he died. In my view he's by far the most important philosopher of the 20th century.

4. The Stoics: This is a bit of a fudge, but I can't pick one. I really like Chrysippus for his comprehensive presentation of canonical Stoic thought, but he had some really weird views about time. Cleanthes was never viewed as quite as good a thinker, but he was the first person to give the correct solution to foreknowledge problems and related issues about time. Other than that issue. Chrysippus is my favorite, but when I discovered that about Cleanthes my opinion about him went way up, because it took until Aquinas to get that right in a more explicit way than what Cleanthes had come up with centuries earlier. I don't like every way the Stoics express their compatibilism about freedom and determinism, but it's closest to the truth of any view I know of before Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, whose views capture something not present in any Stoic work I know of but may also go too far in distancing themselves from the Stoics. Their insistence on final causes in nature in a stronger way than even Aristotle acknowledges (because they do believe the divine universe has a providential plan) makes them the closest thing to Christian views on nature among the ancient Greco-Roman philosophers. They come the closest in their time to anticipating reliabilism in epistemology, a view that I find absolutely obvious once it's considered and understood but is difficult enough that it has few predecessors in the history of philosophy (although Augustine is another exception).

5. Plato: I'm not usually impressed by his arguments, at least in terms of their convincingness. He regularly presents arguments that rely on premises his opponents wouldn't grant. But unsupported premises don't mean the arguments are unsound, because the premises are often the sort of thing that I find intuitively true, and I can't understand how anyone can deny them, even if I know that many have denied them. Most of Plato's arguments are like this, and his presentation of a great many issues seems to me to show a good deal of wisdom in thinking through things in ways that make many more recent philosophers seem to have regressed. Even when he seems extreme, I think it's because he's presenting things in a mode of thinking ideally, and he often takes it back once you introduce more ordinary considerations for how things will work in real life (e.g. his <i>Republic</i> view of government that amounts to benevolent dictatorship gets presented in the <i>Statesman</i> as ideal if it worked but unworkable in practice, a view that I find absolutely compelling and quite welcome to a theist, for whom the unworkability with human government is easily removed with a divine ruler. When he and Aristotle disagree, I tend to be more often on his side. His picture of virtue as moral health seems to be to ground a much broader view of what morality includes, especially moral obligations to oneself, and that seems right to me.

Kenny Pearce hosts the 88th Philosophers' Carnival.

There's a movement right now in the American Philosophical Association to prevent schools that have a code of conduct restricting sexual behavior to within heterosexual marriage from advertising in the main job market publication of the field, which is run by the APA.

Before I look to what I think is the key moral issue here, I want to make a few things clear. One is that the current APA policy allows de facto discrimination on the part of participating institutions. The proposed change would mean the APA is actually engaging in discrimination, because they would be excluding schools with a statement of faith or moral code of a certain sort. If you have a choice between allowing someone else to engage in de facto discrimination and engaging in discrimination yourself, then other things being equal you ought to do the former. Aside from pure consequentialists, most philosophers should be willing to count that in favor of retaining the current practice, other things being equal.

The second is that the discrimination in question is merely de facto, not facial. I've seen people calling it facial discrimination, and it's plainly not. This distinction is found in legal discussions, including court decisions going all the way up to the Supreme Court. Facial discrimination is basically discrimination that wears its discrimination on the surface or on its face. Facial discrimination on the basis of race is discrimination for the obvious reason of the person's race. De facto discrimination, on the other hand, is simply an effect of diminishing the likelihood of inclusion by someone of the group in question. A policy of giving priority to people you know when you hire a new employee has the effect of giving white employers more likelihood of white employees, and since white employers are more often interviewing for top jobs you will see a racial effect given that people's friends more often than not are disproportionally one's own race compared to the percentages in the general population. Courts have consistently refused to tolerate de facto discrimination claims as legally problematic for obvious reasons. There has to be intent to discriminate on the basis of race for a race discrimination claim, and it pretty much has to wear it on its face.

In this case the kind of discrimination we're dealing with is not sexual orientation discrimination on its face. The discriminating element is a choice to hire people who share one's views and/or practices. These schools are hiring only those who will sign a statement of faith or conduct that includes either the view that same-sex sexual relations are immoral or a commitment not to engage in such practices. This will indeed certainly have a disproportionate effect of eliminating gay people more than straight people, but it's not discrimination according to sexual orientation. It's discrimination according to moral viewpoint or behavior.

Third, some people in this discussion are simply insisting on consistency with the APA's existing policy on discrimination. They want the APA to change their discrimination statement if they're going to allow these institutions to participate. If these people are being honest, then they wouldn't mind one way or the other if the APA (a) stops allowing these schools to participate or (b) removes their language against discrimination from their official stances. I tend to doubt that this is a very large group who care only about consistency. I suspect most of the people signing this thing are advocating just (a) and would disapprove of (b). But I think those making the consistency argument should not use it alone to favor (a) over (b).

But I don't think any of those concerns gets to the heart of the central moral issue here. The main difficulty I see is that the APA has to decide between (1) allowing schools that de facto discriminate and (2) enacting their own discriminatory practice. They need a clear argument why their own discrimination would be much less bad than merely tolerating someone else's. I think we in fact face the opposite situation, but that's what's going to take some argument. The rest of the post is my reasoning for that claim.



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