Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Petty Resentment Theatre - Liveblogging 'Invictus'

A film-buff friend of mine encouraged me to watch the new Clint Eastwood movie Invictus, largely to see my reaction to it. Well, here it is. I made a log of the various states of outrage I reached as I watched the movie, which I now post here .


Dear god, this is hammy.

For heaven's sake, they take almost ten minutes in the first scene where the black and white bodyguards rub each other up the wrong way.


Now they're talking about changing the sport emblem, and Madiba's refusal to do so, the way other movies talk about launching the h-bomb. For fuck's sakes.


Wait, and now Mandela is supposed to be wearing a South African flag pin? Dear god in heaven, why? I can understand Morgan Freeman not getting the accent right (and he doesn't -- it's quite distracting) but there's no fucking reason to give Nelson fucking Mandela ostentatious symbols of dedication to his nation. Anyway, they're really anachronistic, and have never been common in South Africa. I've certainly never seen Mandela wear one. It's a really asinine little zit on this hairy asscrack of a movie.


 The Mandela character talking about Afrikaners: "They treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away from them, we will lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be."

Actually, Afrikaners (and the white English -- anybody remember the English? Put in place racial segregation, disenfranchised and dispossessed blacks, still to this day own most of the economic capital in SA's vital industries?) feared that the blacks would rise up and kill the whites in their beds, but never mind that. I'm sure a game of football is constitutive of a healthy nation, and this movie as stirring a portrayal of nation-building, as you make it out to be.


Chester... Chester... Chester... yet throughout all the many (many, many) references to the Sprinboks' one player of colour, nobody dignifies Chester Williams enough to mention his surname.


"It means 'God Bless Africa', which you got to admit, we can use."

And with that touching evocation of pure truth, Francois Pienaar calls knowing glances to the eyes of the racists who, just five second earlier, were throwing away the song sheet to the national anthem. (It had been the anthem for over a year by then, so it would've been hard to find anybody in South Africa who didn't know what 'Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrika' meant).


"Are those the judicial appointments for the Free States?"

Free State. State, not States. I know you come from the Unified States of America, Clint Eastwool, but realise that these things really stand out to anybody who knows anything about the thing you're making a movie about.


Also, Jonah Lomu the New Zealander gets named more and gets more screen time than any Springbok other than Francois Pienaar and Chester Token.


Another strange thing the movie does: it has given more mention to the NZ team's pre-game traditions than it has on the South African coach, Kitch Christie, who took over a team in shambles and transformed them into a world champion team. He had an unbeaten record in his tenure, starting in 1994, through the World Cup and for some time later, until cancer forced his retirement and killed him. I'd have thought that was worth him at least getting named.

Another strange fact: Mandela's PA in the movie is black, whereas in real life it was a white woman. I wonder why they changed that, given that this train stops at every other Transformation Station on the Track to Reconciliation.


Oh Jesus, this is just stupid. In the build-up to the World Cup Final, a 747 did a flyby of the stadium. Everybody knew about it, it was scheduled, part of the airline's intensive PR campaign tied to the tournament, etc, etc. But the movie makes it out to be some maverick pilot who decided to buzz the game on his own prerogative, shocking everybody and putting security into a panic. (What would he be doing in the air in a 747? Is he making a pass over the stadium with a fully loaded commercial liner? Whereupon he personally prepared a supportive message on the undercarriage?). It's another example with Hollywood's abusive relationship to real-life stories: it wants to tap into the drama of actual events, but it never resists the temptation to embellish reality in the most pointlessly showy, grandstanding ways.

Petty Resentment Theatre - Final verdict on 'Invictus'

Yeah, so Invictus is a piece of shit. It likes to have lots of side-stories showing the different South African races growing into camaraderie, each more predictable and contentless than the last. Each of these act as support for the main theme of racial reconciliation, which is itself suitably shallow, signfying nothing. There's nothing here to engage with the story that's supposed to be told, we're just shown a series of images which are apparently meant to invoke all the storytelling inside of us. 'What just happened?' 'The domestic servant also got given a ticket to the big game.' 'And what now?' 'The brave knight killed the dragon with his sword.' Because the movie is in a rarefied air floating over the actual story, we are never touched by the difficulties shown and unmoved by their easy resolutions. There is a succession of inconsequential and largely made-up dramas thrown on the way, but the movie is so single-minded in its portrayal of Reconciliation that I find it incredible that anybody would be impressed by little insets that are so obviously beside the point.

Freeman is also very unconvincing as Mandela. I find his very frequent mistakes in the accent really distracting, but I can forgive that. But perhaps the direction is at fault: Mandela never gave great speeches, whereas the movie makes him out to be someone who solves his problems through rousing oration. Don't bother looking for examples of that in the real world: there aren't any. The film does try to highlight Mandela's more noted characteristics of character and humility, but again its lack of connection with any believable and filled-out story hamstrings this effort. Because we are just given images but not story, there's nothing to add flesh to Mandela's characterisation, and we're given nothing but assurances that he's a great man. Not good enough, I'm afraid: at some stage you need to stop making promises and start delivering on them.

Matt Damon does a much better job with the accent. Too bad he's directed to play a quiet, halting, apparently insecure pretty boy. There's nothing in the character for the actor or the audience to grab hold of.

Oh yes, and as someone who has watched and played rugby all my life, I found the rugby match sequences incomprehensible and pointless. Most of the time I was busy noticing how most of the players looked like underdeveloped schoolboys rather than world-class athletes, or wondering whether the bits of play they were showing conform to the rules of the game. That is how little that sequence captured my imagination.

I liked the movie best when it quietly showed scenes from the actual South Africa: the shots of the townships, and so on. They are believable, and tell quite enough of a story on their own. I very much did not like it when these scenes were artificially augmented with cinematic themes written in letters ten feet tall. Given that it's supposed to be the telling of an actual story, and the poignancy of said story is supposed to be what drives the message home, the film's continued deviation from retelling into embellishment is not only asinine, but self-defeating.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Metal interlude - Pig Destroyer

Even the most casual reader of this blog will have noticed that new posts have ground to a halt. It's due to the pretty demanding schedule of readings and assignments that my current course presses on me, added to the soul-sucking uncertainty and tedium of applying to graduate programmes. Since most of my philosophical attention is currently being given to my academic commitments and chewing on Bernard Williams's Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, I'll make this my first non-philosophy related post on here. I always intended to have a few of them. They might even become a majority.

My first musical post on here is on something abrasive and disturbing: grindcore, that acrid mix of metal and punk which seems, as far as anybody can make out, to be invocations to have all life eradicated from existence. I've listened to a lot of it the past few hours. I don't know how much longer I can keep this up: today I have subsisted only on vending machine coffee, a chocolate bar and grindcore. Man was not meant to live this way. There is no way which is the way man was meant to live, but if there was a purpose, this certainly wouldn't be working toward it. There is a certain perverted pleasure to be taken out of living this much in conflict with basic human interests, throwing the pointlessness of it all irreverently into the face of an uncaring world.

Pig Destroyer - Terrifyer

There are some very significant ways of counting up the scores in which it turns out that Pig Destroyer are the best band working in metal right now. They have chops, they have passion, commitment and energy, they have thrown themselves onto an artistic endeavour which, from the outside at least, is damned thankless, where their families don't likely understand what they do and wish that they'd stop. They also have a unified vision, which some few metal bands do, but, what's more, they have the focus and the insight to pull it off. Focus is something which tends to seperate the really worthwhile musicians from the also-rans. Actual, honest-to-God insight is a quality so rare that it's hard to recognise, simply from lack of examples. Pig Destroyer, for instance, are a metal band with real lyrical strength. It's not that their lyrics are effective at what they do or check all the usual boxes for the genre. It's that they write songs which contain strong, evocative, well-written texts on their core, with lyrical themes that inform the music and are born to fruition in the format. Even though nobody can make out what J.R. Hughes is screaming. Especially because nobody can make them out. When you realise what the lyrics are the surprise of what is lying beneath is a real kick to the guts -- nobody expects lyrically sophisticated metal, especially not in the harsher extremities which Pig Destroyer live and work in. But there you are: the songs are small, tight meditations on a world fucked up in ways that one can barely stand thinking about: the more you look, the more fucked up things you see. Nobody has an easy time of knowing how to react to writing like this -- people have been wringing their hands about the literature of Céline for decades now, as a case in point. But this discomfort is largely Pig Destroyer's point, and one that they forcefully drive home. It's a remarkable achievement.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The experience machine objection as a wrong order problem

This is the first of a planned series of posts wherein I try to place attacks on utilitarianism within a more general framework I'm developing, the wrong order problem: properties that could work to aggregate all our morally relevant concerns, like happiness or desire satisfaction, are too high an order of property to count as good-making features, and can instead only indicate goodness.

There is a long-standing and enticing tradition of considering happiness as the most valuable good that a human life can attain. It can hardly be denied that a life containing happiness seems better than one without. There have been no shortage of people who try to build an ethical viewpoint from this foundation in one way or the other. One popular and influential approach is to consider happiness to be the only good, from which everything else draws its value, and therefore what we should do is to maximise the amount of happiness in the world. This is hedonism in a straight-forward and non-perjorative sense.

Against hedonism, Robert Nozick asks us to consider the possibility of an 'experience machine', to which a person could be connected and then live through exact and entirely convincing replicas of whatever experience they like. The question is whether these ersatz experiences, which perfectly recreate all the sensations you would have had if it really happened, make somebody as well-off as the real counterparts would. They would if hedonism is true. If that is the case, the experience machine would be a key to a perfect life, seeing as how you could undergo any experience you like, believing all the time that these things are really happening to you. But, as Nozick presses us to admit, plugging up to such a machine for life would be uncomfortably close to suicide: the pleasures might be real, but the events they relate to aren't, and by plugging into the experience machine you give up engaging with the world.

The problem that the experience machine objection latches on to is that happiness stands in the wrong relationship to the facts of someone's life to be identical with well-being. A judgement of how well someone's life is going is a judgement on the state of affairs that person finds themselves in. But happiness isn't a part of that state of affairs, it's what I call a *reflective stance* towards it, and like any reflection you can have towards something, it can be misled, as the experience machine tries to show. The problem is that any reflective stance property, like 'brings happiness', is a higher order property of what is being judged, the condition of someone's life, that is, it's the wrong order of property to count as what is being judged. There is a relationship between the two, but it's not an identity relationship. This means that we should consider reflective stance properties like happiness as part of the epistemology of good-making features, rather than the ontology. That is, happiness indicates a good life, it's not what makes a life good life. This doesn't mean we should discount happiness – it can be a good indication, perhaps even a perfect one (but were that the case, there must be something wrong with the experience machine case) – but it means that we must look for the good-making features elsewhere.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The start of my European adventure

I made my last post from Hong Kong, and this comes from Frankfurt, as I keep coming ever closer to Utrecht and the start of my study in Europe. My arrival at the Erasmus Mundus Masters of Applied Ethics programme has already been delayed by almost three weeks, as I have been subject to a number of delays. I even had a last round of drama at Auckland airport as I tried to depart. But all of that draws to an end, and I am ever so close to getting down to the real business. Somebody joked that I should use my (copious) time travelling from Auckland to Utrecht to write a book about all the trials that beset me as I tried to get here, instead I wrote a technical minded-little piece on meta-ethics (the previous post) and read Bernard Williams's Morality, An Introduction to Ethics twice. This gives you some indication of what type of person I am, a request somebody else made of me and my blog.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Euthyphro problem as a wrong order problem

Lately I have given a lot of thought to and become tremendously impressed by the Euthyphro problem, presented by Plato in the dialogue of that name, which makes life distinctly uncomfortable for a particular kind of moral view. The Euthyphro problem drives us to distinguish what makes something good from how we know that it is good. I want to suggest that this points to a general problem, to do with what type of property could count as a good-making feature. I think problems of the Euthyphro form give reasons to believe that many higher order properties of the targets of a moral theory. I have in mind what I call 'reflective stance properties', like attitudes toward something, some function you have in mind for something, and so on. I want to suggest that they can only indicate goodness, not be good-making features, and the Euthyphro problem is a paradigmatic example.

The Euthyphro problem simply is a knockout objection against divine command theory, and can be usefully introduced as such. Divine command theory claims that everything that is ordained by the divine are by that fact things we should do, setting aside all questions of what counts as 'ordained by the divine'. As Plato remarks, there are two ways this could go: either those acts ordained by the divine are good just because they are so ordained, or they are good independently of what the divine might have to say on them. But the first options is simply crazy: how could it be that anything, anything at all the divine might say goes, and not only goes but is demanded by morality? There are simply too many things a divinity might conceivably ask of us for that to be the case. There is no shortage of people who try to find ways in which 'divine sanction' is necessarily a good-making feature, but we must conclude that this is an industry of piety rather than good judgement. It must be that divine sanction indicates goodness, rather than ordains it. Not that managing 'mere indication' is a small feat: we value a compass even if the needle tracks north rather than north the needle. Believers should do as their divinity proclaims because it is so wise and compassionate and smart and so on that it will never be mistaken. But there is a lot of ground to cover between never being mistaken and the fact of the matter being at your behest. What the Euthyphro problem does, and does with great force, is make us distinguish between moral ontology and moral epistemology: divine sanction can't make good, it can only indicate the good.

The question is: what is it about the Euthyphro problem that delivers this result? Notice that divine saction of X is an attitude towards X – this is clearer in Plato's formulation, where the target of the attack is the view that the good things are those 'loved by the gods'. The fact that some party A has an attitude towards X is a higher order property than those aspects of X that invite the attitude. That is, there is some properties P, Q etc. of X which leads to A having that attitude towards X for the reason of it having P, Q, etc. This relfective stance property R, 'being the target of some attitude of A's' (for reasons of having P, Q, etc.) , is a product of properties of X (P, Q, etc.) and is thus a higher order property than P, Q, etc. To apply this schema to the Euthyphro case: For R 'is loved by the gods' there are the properties P,Q, etc, that the gods love X for, whatever they might be, and R is of a higher order than P,Q, etc. The problem is that R isn't the good-making feature, P,Q, etc. are: R indicates their presence in some way or the other, and P,Q,etc. constrain R's application – in this case, what the gods could rightly love. R is a property of the wrong order to count as a good-making feature. This shouldn't be a surprise. 'Loved by the gods' tells us more about the gods than it does what it attaches to, and this is the same for all reflective stance properties. But discovering which items in the world are moral goods isn't a project to do with us or any other audience, it is a project to do with the goods. If such unanchored properties such as attitudes we have toward something were to be the good-making features, without any restriction, then we would find such absurdities such as intractable moral disagreement about whether or not to run around trees clockwise, as Phillippa Foot points out. And if there are such constraints on what these reflective stance properties could rightly attach to, then the wrong order problem kicks in, and these reflective stance properties aren't the good-making features, but merely indicate them.

More can be said, and a lot more needs to, but I believe that this problem has some power and can tell us a great deal about how we should go about ethical reflection. A strong consequence is that the wrong order problem makes a nonsense of almost any utilitarianism, especially ones concerned with happiness, desire satisfaction, and so on. This I'm sure is the right result, and in the near future I will give a few examples where I cast famous objections to utilitarianism as cases of the wrong order problem. Because the wrong-order problem concerns moral goods, the objections I have in mind are to do with the aims that various forms of utilitarianism aim at: Nozick's 'experience machine' objection attacking hedonism and Sen's 'dominated housewife' example against desire satisfaction in particular. I also want to work up to Williams's subtle and devestating attack on utilitarianism for being unable to make sense of what it is for someone to have a project. The reader might anticipate how these might go, and this is right and good.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Brom - 'Expressive-Communicative Function of Legislation'

Frans Brom asks us to consider the expressive-communicative function of legislation, where what some law does is to give voice and legal standing to some commonly held moral value, in contrast to two other ostentive roles for legislation, as a way to codify the dominant morality of a society, and as a way to modify behaviour in certain ways the legislators deem necessary. I will respond that I'm unconvinced that this expressive-communicative function (ECF), as Brom's short piece presents it at least, is distinct from the two other functions.

It is worth quoting Brom on the ECF at a bit of length:
"The interactive paradigm of legislation shows that law can form a point of reference in moral discussions. This is especially the case when legislation is based upon a societal agreement the impact of which is not sufficiently conceptualised in moral terms. Once this agreement is restated in legislation, the law becomes an authoritative source fr the concrete normative implications of this agreement. One could even say that the societal agreement is recreated into a moral framework for the public domain."
This is all well and good, but I think Brom needs to do more to seperate the ECF from legal codification and modification. His view seems to be that the ECF of a law is to give a moral framework wherein some value is given creedence, which in turn provides normative guidance that would be lacking if we were still arguing about what that value comes down to. I say that the first part of this falls under codification and the second under modification, that is, the ECF reduces to the cases where the codification of some moral position is such to modify behaviour in the jurisdiction away from other positions, which is hardly a strange effect of codification.

If codification happens, it is always the codification of one position among many. That position needn't be one which is actually endorsed by anybody (nor is it likely to be exactly like any non-legal framework, but never mind that). The fact that such-and-such a framework is the product of a code of laws carries with it the consequence that that framework now works upon everybody in the jurisdiction. Being under the effect of some law can't help but modify behaviour in its jurisdiction to the effect of encouraging actions in line with the codified framework (leaving aside the interesting case of dead-letter laws, which don't concern us here because they also fail to authoritively express the position of anybody, because they fail to carry authority). And so much the worse for different frameworks to the extent that they differ from the one enshrined in law.

So the normative implications of ECF are covered by the classical codification and modification views as well. There still is an issue of what exactly the target of the codification is, especially in the type of cases Brom draws attention to, where there isn't widespread agreement on exactly what the endorsed value consists in, like the intrinsic value of non-human animals in Dutch animal welfare law. An important point about vague concepts like these, which David Lewis reminds us of, is that while it's unclear where their applications start and end, it isn't that anything goes. Just as the boundary between blue and green is unclear and yet there are blues that aren't at all green and vice versa, so there are many things that might be an animal's intrinsic value and things which clearly couldn't. Pointedly, the type of view where animals have ethical value only in as far as they are valuable to people simply couldn't qualify. Thus, the position being codified is actually a range of what could count under the vague term. This means that you can still have sensible disagreement in the courts about, say, whether a law protecting the inherent worth of animals prohibits conditions where they are kept in good health but in extremely restrictive settings, since it's vague whether an animal moving in its distinctive ways is part of its inherent worth. But it stops acts which egregriously disregard the well-being of the animals involved. Once again it is important to note that the view in law needn't be the view anybody had prior to the passing of legislation, so the fact that the law covers a range of positions rather than any single one isn't a problem. It can gain support from everybody across that range (though that support is likely to be qualified) in that they agree that something like the law needs to be enacted.

Thus, the classical functions of codification and modification can do everything Brom recommends the ECF for: it can posit an authoritative framework with normative implications, and can do so in a way to accomodate vague values rather than precise positions.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Verweij - 'Moral Principles and Justification in Applied Ethics'

As is usual in this introductory collection, this entry by Marcel Verweij is very compressed and yet covers a lot of ground, so I'll do what I've done mostly and offer a comment on a particular aspect of the discussion I think can do with some expansion. Verweij concerns himself with laying out some reasons to believe that general principles can't do all the work that needs to be done in applied ethics. Be that as it may, I believe that there is some work which principles of the most straightforward and forceful sort can accomplish, and that is to put constraints on what courses of action we could rightly pursue. Vermeij's presentation gives the impression that this wouldn't be the case, because principles are supposedly too abstract to give clear guidance in concrete cases. However, a thickly developed concept like 'always be honest' can do exactly that, I argue.

The main difficulty with working with principles, as Verweij rightly points out again and again, is that it isn't always straightforward to see what they would entail. However, this is a problem of vagueness rather than one concerning a principle's normative force: if you could be clear about exactly what the content of a principle is, this problem would disappear, or it would become clear that it wasn't as useful as it at first appeared. Perhaps the latter turns out to be true of every principle, but we should hesitate before we conclude as much. If we could determine what would count as fulfilling the demand of a principle, and what a clear failure would be like, that would meet the challenge to provide concrete guidance. Perhaps the principle wouldn't tell you which course of action would be uniquely right, but it would filter the options by rejecting a number of candidates which would simply be unacceptable on account of that principle: that is what I mean with principles placing constraints on what we should consider right action.

The principle of 'be honest', by which I mean 'never intentionally deceive someone so that on your account they reason from false grounds' is an excellent example of how this can be done, because it is a principle which is established in a number of independent ways. Firstly, it is a principle with enormous standing. It is the one clear success of Kant's categorical imperative, for instance: it is simply inconceivable to have a situation in which people communicate without most things they say being true, because that would only lead to a failure in communication. Doing the same but in an entirely different way, David Lewis gives an analysis and vindication of a convention of truth-telling, that is, the regularity of people telling the truth and expecting others to do so, on game-theoretic grounds. And, different again, Elizabeth Anscombe held that there simply are no situations in which it is right to lie, though not as an absolute prohibition, but as a matter of fact which drops out of the fact that each of us rely so heavily on what we tell each other that the goods we might gain from deceit could hardly be goods of moral worth. Secondly, what honesty demands of us is perfectly clear in almost every case. We know very well what it means to tell the truth, and because deceitfulness is predicated on deceitful intent, we can't help but know when we lie. That is, there are clear success conditions on being honest, and a precise way to tell when you're being deceitful. There are debates and difficult questions about how far you should pursue it: Kant's insistence that you should tell the truth even to an enquiring murderer might not impress most people, but everybody can (or damn-well should) agree that it is not good in itself to deceive other people, and that it is not bad in itself to furnish people with the truth. The degree to which a course of action demands deceit is the degree to which it is to be avoided, and the contrary: this isn't a complete decision procedure, but it is an informative and concrete constraint on action.

Perhaps it is a mistake to appeal to principles to settle the question of what you should do in such-and-such a situation, but it would be too quick to move from that to a conclusion that principles can't offer guidance in real cases. They might not tell you everything, but given the appropriate success and failure conditions, principles can tell you to some extent at least what it is you should do.

Thorseth - 'Ethical Pluralism'

May Thorseth's contribution to the collection is a piece on ethical pluralism, which she presents as a more substantive alternative to relativism. I agree that distinguishing the two positions is a very worthwhile thing to do, but here I will quickly argue that teasing pluralism apart from relativism is probably harder than Thorseth's piece makes out. Like the other pieces in the collection, this one is very compressed and covers a lot of ground quickly, and I don't imagine it's meant as the least word on the subject. Still, as presented I believe there is a form of relativism which can manage everything Thorseth gives as a reason to prefer pluralism. Then I make a suggestion which I hope can serve as a way to pin down the difference Thorseth is gesturing at.

Her case, following Charles Taylor, is that a purely formal approach such as relativism can't pick out the goods which are connected to import-attributing feelings, for which only a substantive engagement with a position can suffice. I will make the rather obvious reply that you can conceive of a relativism which is up to task, one of the form 'it is right for X to pursue those goods which promote import-attributing features'. Because this is really boring I want to instead say something about why I think it is a mistake to place too much weight on what someone might feel when you're trying to pin down concrete goods.

The idea behind import-attributing feelings is that not everything a person does is something they consider a matter of integrity: people often feel that it is of critical importance that they get to practice their religion or live a particular lifestyle, while it is decidedly odd for someone to tie how well their life is going to whether they around trees clockwise. The challenge for relativism is supposed to be that, from all the candidate goods available, a purely formal approach can't see whether some good is the target of import-attributing feelings. For instance, cultural membership is very important for many people, but there are others who attach no importance to it, so a relativism which makes cultural membership be the deciding factor in what is and isn't moral is inappropriate.

However, there is nothing that stops a relativism which determines rightness by way of which goods are the targets of import-attributing feelings. It would go something like: if X is the target of an import-attributing feeling of A's, then it is right for A to pursue X - let's call this relativism from import attribution (RIA). This is no different in form to the paradigmatically relativist position 'if members of A's culture typically pursues X, then it is right for A to pursue X'. You could complain that you can't determine what those feelings target without a substantial engagement, but nor could you see what someone's culture membership is. Furthermore, there is something right about RIA: cultural membership is a paradigmatic concern of relativism, but only because people typically consider it to be a central feature of your identity, and likewise for other candidates of the formal property that the relativism concerns itself with.

Concentrating on feelings leaves the door open for relativism, because feelings are feelings about things, that is, they are higher-order properties which can attach in various ways to more immediate goods. The problem, which RIA shares, is that such feelings can attach to almost anything, leading to Phillipa Foot's complaint that even a sophisticated relativism like Richard Hare's can lead to such absurdities as irresolvable moral disagreements about running around trees clockwise. To prevent this, there needs to be some restrictions on what could rightly be a target of such feelings, that is, propriety conditions, like which Foot's own 'natural goodness' account tries to deliver. However, doing so is very difficult, and Thorseth makes no attempt to do so, so pluralism as she presents it is in the same muddle as RIA because anything could potentially count among the variety of goods.

Nonetheless, we can establish that there must be such propriety conditions through the use of the Euthyphro problem, much like I presented in an earlier post (such uses of the Euthyphro problem are something I've written about and continue to work on). The dilemma goes as follows: either the feelings are just a way to know what goods are involved (how Thorseth, Taylor et al present it), or being the target of such a feeling is the good-making feature (as RIA has it); but it can't be a good-making feature, because then anything whatsover can be an ethical good, such as looking at rabbits under moonlight (another example of Foot's), which is just absurd; thus, the targets of these feelings are good independently of the feelings; thus, those feelings are only appropriate when they rightly target those things which are good. And now we have the task laid out clearly: to identify what the things are to which one rightly assign importance.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

It's hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of academic philosophy...

As I said a few posts ago, I'm currently using this blog as a place to comment on the articles I should be discussing with my peers in Linköping, Sweden, as I start the course of study I've been invited on. I'm not in Sweden, or the Netherlands, or anywhere connected to that study, because I do not have a visa to enter Europe. I've spent the past few days wrestling with the various authorities as I try to change this regrettable and rather silly state of affairs. I'll be trying to catch up in the next few days, because I need to hit the ground running once I'm finally over there, and because I need a productive way to pass my time other than working up passive aggressive attitudes towards bureaucracy.

Futher comment re: reflective equillibrium

Thinking back on my previous post, a comment on Collste's introduction to applied ethics, I've decided my treatment suffers from the same problem I see in Collste's piece. The discussion is too short to clearly distinguish two different uses of reflective equillibrium, one where RE serves as a structure for argument, the other where it acts as justification. So let me try that again.

First, RE as a formal tool: If a suitable course of action has been picked out, or one that you believe is suitable, you can try to explain why by showing how that action sits in a reflective equillibrium. That would consist in stating the various relevant factors, drawing out the conflicts between them, staking out a suitable give-and-take between these factors and indicating how the chosen course of action fits appropriately between them. To say it in a different but equivalent matter: for relevant facor X, determine how the other relevant factors Y, Z, etc. impact on the demands of X to determine X', being the demands X makes in this case compared to Y, Z, etc, and do so for Y, Z, etc. as well; the appropriate course of action C is one which fits X',Y',Z' and so on. The fact that the appropriate course of action is so is explained by it respecting all the demands of the relevant factors as measured against the others.

Of course, not every candidate course of action can fit in such a reflective equillibrium. If it doesn't, you could try to use RE as a method to find the right course of action. Let us say the most attractive candidate course of action C meets demands X' and Y', but not Z or even an appropriately modified Z'. There could be a change to C to make a C' which might fit the bill, or if no such change is forthcoming, perhaps a further modification to the apparent demands of the various factors, maybe making a X'' which leads to changed demands on Y' which makes a Y'' and a Z'' which a C or C' could meet. Because you have made moves to change your approach to the case, and have done so based on RE, RE has done substantive work here. This is different from the former case, where RE does just formal work.

So, to sum up in conclusion: where the course of action one picks is picked independently of RE, and RE is used to explain why that is the right thing to do, there RE only does the formal work of structuring the argument; however, you might be tempted to change your approach based on what would bring about an RE, and that would be to use RE substantively, to choose to do this rather than that, and even (in what Rawls calls cases of 'wide reflective equillibrium') to modify your approach in other relevantly similar cases.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Collste – 'Applied and Professional Ethics – an Introduction'

Göran Collste contributes to the MAE handbook with a bit of an overview off the field of applied ethics. There is a point about reflective equillibrium I am a little uncertain about, which I'll discuss here.

In discussing RE, Collste remarks that it can be used either as a structure for debate, or a form of justification, but not both. As I understand it, this is because if it is used as an organisational schema, anything contributed by RE to the argument can't be informative, but can only be a different way to portray the content of the various positions. I don't think that Collste's severely compressed discussion distinguishes the two positions sufficiently, so for my purposes I'll try to do so. From what little I know of him, RE in applied ethics seems to be a particular interest of Collste's, but I have only this short article of his to work from, so that is all I'll try to engage.

Collste's example is of introducing an expert opinion (a doctor's considered judgement) and a general principle (the principle of utility) into a discussion of how to respond to a particular problem (suitable treatment for neonates). He chose an intuitionist and principlist disagreeing with eachother to bring out RE's features, he tells us. I'm a little worried about his characterisation of the intuitionist approach and what that entails, which is the point I'll work from towards my characterisation of the two different uses of RE.

Collste first introduces the doctor's judgement as an intuition, and then as a considered judgement, but there is a lot of ground to cover between the two. A considered judgement is a mere intuition (a snap judgement) that has been supplemented with careful attention to the specifics of the case and what the various options entail, and so on. A considered judgement is the type of thing you can have in hindsight, whereas a mere intuition is the product of a moment's sensation. Collste is welcome to pick out considered judgements, the least flighty type of intuition, as what he means to contrast with a deduction from a general principle, but he then proceeds to give them short shrift in what follows. He states that if the doctor were asked to back up his conclusion, there would be nothing to point back to other than their own “intuition and practice, but not much more” (p. 80). But more than intuition and practice goes into a considered judgement. 'Intuition' in the sense of 'sensation' can pick out salient dimensions of the case (the quality which intuitionists claim makes expert intuition indispensable), but what makes an intuitive judgement considered is exactly the careful attention that is given to the possibilities along those dimensions. The precedents an expert can draw upon have content, after all: in a similar case this happened when such-and-such was attempted; thus, in our case, this or something relevantly similar will happen again; and so on. If nothing else, it includes the weighing up of consequences that experience has taught one to expect. When deciding between uncertain consequences, it's hard to deny the power of an appeal to a precedent, especially one where the implications are drawn out with an expert's sensitivity. Knowing what will happen in such-and-such cases is after all exactly what we have doctors for.

On my view there is still a clear difference between an intuitionist line and a principlist one. An intuitionist one is a product of the specifics of the case, whereas a principlist one abstracts over specifics and makes proclamations of general scope. For the utilitarian of Collste's example, no other dimension other than expected happiness is relevant, whereas the doctor's intuition can draw on every aspect of every suitable precedent. When both views are given a place at the table, then, they pull in different directions: the principlist insistence that everything can be decided on some general considerations, while the intuitionist brings the intricacies of the case to bear. One can see the different sides being argued as a gauntlet that some candidate response to the problem has to run through. As I see it, if the response can satisfy every side, then RE functions as an organisational schema, and if it doesn't, it serves as a decision making procedure. In the former, the response is cast as the product of an equillibrium between the demands of ones principles and the realities of the case, and in the latter, the promise of an equillibrium motivates revisions to the candidates and the various sides to the debate until an equillibrium is reached.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Pettersson – 'A Beginning' / van Tongeren – 'On the Beginning of Ethics'

To start off proceedings, we have a little piece of meta-ethics: Paul van Tongeren writing on the birth of ethics in ancient Greece with Socrates, looking in particular to the first book of Plato's Republic, and Bo Pettersson trying to come to grips with what van Tongeren is saying. Pettersson's article is the important one (that is, it's the one that the course administrators took the trouble to print in a collection and mail to me), but it spends all of its time attempting to make sense of exactly what van Tongeren is saying, and I'll do the same. van Tongeren is doing meta-ethics in that he is investigating the conditions needed for ethical reflection to start in earnest. However, I'm unconvinced by his attempts to present two approaches as ones which end ethical reflection if we accept them. I find both of his targts, traditionalism and relativism, to have versions which contribute to rather than strangle ethical reflection.

van Tongeren's line as I understand it is as follows: the practice of ethics properly-so-called is ethical reflection; reflection is needed to navigate through uncertainty to some appropriate end; thus, for something to count as doing ethics, it needs to convincingly question whether some course of action is the right one. This requires the rejection of at least two approaches which could be taken to answer the question 'is this the right course of action?': traditionalism, which responds 'the right course is that which our ancestors would follow'; and relativism, which goes 'there is no matter of fact which course is right'. Keeping with his focus on the Republic, he identifies the former with Polemarchus, and the latter with Thrasymachus. He rejects the former because it denies that there is ethical uncertainty, and the latter because it gives up on seperating the right course of action from the wrong.

However, Thrasymachus does have a way to seperate right from wrong, as Pettersson rightly notes: what is right is what is to the advantage to the stronger party. I say he confuses a descriptive state of affairs for a normative one. I'm sure we can all agree that there is no end to situations where what people call justice is in fact that which is in the interest of the stronger party. The mistake is to think that what gets called justice actually is justice. People can be wrong, of course, and are perhaps especially likely to be wrong when those calling the shots have a conflict of interest, as it is if what gets called justice is what is in favour of the most powerful. But there is scope for an alternative, which Thrasymachus misses. Socrates refutes his position exactly by developing the alternative, that there are constraints of justice on what interests the powerful can pursue, and Thrasymachus leaves in a huff.

It is worthwhile to point out one version of relativism which is simply confused and would render ethics to nonsense were we to accept it: what counts as right for some group is what is considered right by that group. As Bernard Williams points out, this is simply a contradiction: if what is right for A is what A believes is right, then it is wrong for B to interfere with A, but this is an equivocation on 'right', because from the former relative use for A we have moved to a non-relative, inter-group use for B. This vulgar relativism is a contradiction because it gives both relative and non-relative scope to 'right'. Notice the difference between this position and that of Thrasymachus: he gives a way to pick out what would count as justice, and thus the correctness conditions for calling something right, whereas in vulgar relativism there are none. Because Thrasymachus's position makes an informative and falsifiable claim, it is a substantial ethical position. I must conclude that van Tongeren mischaracterises his target.

Matters are a little more interesting for van Tongeren's other target, traditionalism. I find van Tongeren's claim, that ethical reflection wasn't done in archaic conditions of extreme conservatism and a rigid caste system, simply incredible. I contend that you can accept the premise of van Tongeren's argument, that under a traditionalism every ethical question is answered by reference to established practice, and deny the conclusion, that accepting traditionalism makes an end to ethical enquiry. This is because I believe that there remains a question for ethical reflection if you accept traditionalism, and that is extending the traditional courses of action to novel situations. The type of widespread upheaval through war and intercultural contact van Tongeren points to would count as novel situations, but so would any state of affairs which isn't identical to some previous one which one's ancestor's faced and their response to which you do not explicitly know, thus, even under the archaic conditions of an entrenched caste society that van Tongeren considers, there still remain ethical questions which demand attention.

Traditionalism must be a theory about how to discover what is right rather than a theory of what rightness consists in: van Tongeren seems to say as much, and Pettersson is clear about it, but most strikingly, the Euthyphro problem makes it impossible for it to be otherwise. The Euthyphro problem concerns moral authority, and motivates this split between moral ontology and moral epistemology, so it is strikingly relevant: if some authority A says that X is right, it either is that A saying so makes X right, or that X is right independently of A saying so. In this case, as I imagine it is in every Euthyphro case, taking the first option is untenable: that would make traditionalism out to say 'whatever your ancestors did counts as right', which is a vulgar relativism and liable to the same objection. So considering what your ancestors did must be a way to learn what is right, rather than definitive of right.

What you learn through this traditionalist method is a list of actions which have been identified as right in virtue of your ancestors having done them. Let us set aside the issue that not everything your ancestors did would carry their seal of approval, because it is easy to make a set of traditionally approved actions, which would include the considered judgement that some things done by your ancestors turns out to have been wrong. I think this considered traditionalism gets much closer to what the view is supposed to be. An obvious consequence of this position is that if you ever are in a situation just like one your ancestors faced, you should do what they did. This, however, doesn't go very far. You never come across a situation exactly like a previous one, simply because your situation is later and thus has a different history at the very least. So there remains the question of what counts as similar in all the relevant ways. That is a tremendously weighty question. Any attempt to answer it means settling issues about what counts as morally salient facts, what dimensions those facts are found on, how to measure significant differences on those dimensions, and so on. Remember that it isn't that your ancestors had the power to make something right or wrong by fiat, it is just that you trust their judgement. What you need to do to make use of the store of precedents they gave you is to recreate, to some degree, the judgements they made, and see how your situation is relevantly similar and different from that of the precedent. Not only is this to embark on ethical reflection, it quite likely is paradigmatic of what ethical reflection consists in.

In entertaining traditionalism there is again an opportunity to slip from descriptive to normative states of affairs,which again would be a mistake. It isn't just that whatever your ancestors might have done, it is right, it is that there were constraints on their actions, and that in deciding on whether this or that is the right course of action, we are trying to decipher what those constraints are. This, again, is paradigmatic of ethical reflection.

There is of course a way in which Socratic debates show an innovation, but that seems to me to be in how ethical reflection is articulated, rather than the rather bizarre idea that only the type of questions Socrates asked counts as being reflective. Such articulation sharpens the debate, but it can't be all there is to the debate, because ultimately what is judged in ethics isn't what we say, but what we do.

In conclusion, regarding van Tongeren I believe that he has made a mistake in how he characterises Socrates's opponents in the first book of the Republic: he thinks there is a difference in kind between the type of position Socrates is after and the type his opponents offer, that only the Socratic one counts as suitably reflective; but instead I think that what is happening is that Socrates takes these commonly held views seriously and tests their mettle exactly as products of reflection. They turn out to fail, but no matter: almost every theory is false, after all. I think that relativism and traditionalism are not necessarily threats to ethics, but are to be entertained seriously. We can learn valuable things from considering them, like seeing the inconsistency of vulgar relativism which points to impotant issues about the scope of our judgements, and reflecting on the difficulties in following precedents even if we accept their authority.

There is one point in Pettersson's piece that I want to quickly draw attention to, where he admirably draws out certain tenets of the traditionalist and relativist strategies. Pettersson's conclusion is that there are two relativist tenets we should reject: we must deny that there are no true and definitive answers to ethical questions, and also deny that there is no method to discover such truths. I think relativism can get off the hook here, because it can join Petterrson in rejecting the former and still consistently maintain that there is no method to discover truth in ethics. To make this point, I want to distinguish between first- and second-level ethical concepts, much like Gottlob Frege does in his logic. The rightness and wrongness of actions and other such typical objects of ethics are first-level concepts for my purposes, and concepts which concern ones on the first level are second-level concepts. We can consistently embrace relativism as a second-level concept: it is an informative claim about the status of first-level concepts, that is, rightness and wrongness, which says that there is no fact of the matter about being right. It is informative, because it has implications and there are ways you could show it to be false. It is also a definitive answer to an ethical question. Given relativism, it is true that there is no fact of the matter on what counts as right and wrong. Thus, it's a substantive position which is appropriate to ethical reflection.

There are objections I can consider, but this post is already very long, so I'll rather stop here, and address further issues as they might arise in comments.

It doesn't do to complain

I say in the sidebar that I'm currently studying in Europe, but I'm getting slightly ahead of myself. I should be in Europe, attending the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Applied Ethics (MAE) introduction in Linköping, Sweden. Instead, I'm stuck in Auckland, New Zealand, for another week, sorting out visa trouble. You see, I've been invited to this course of study by nobody less than the European Commission, but I can't actually enter Europe. It's a tremendous inconvenvience, and a very expensive one, but there's nothing I can do about it. So, instead of sitting on my hands, I'll be using this blog to post a few comments on the articles that are being discussed at the introduction week, articles which constitute a first pass over the applied ethical literature.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Waka Huia

I'm Marinus, a South African who is a graduate student in philosophy and has lived and studied in New Zealand for a number of years.

I've created this blog at the start of my study in Europe in pursuit of a scholarship in applied ethics, largely to have a place to record various things relevant to my year of study there.

The name comes from a type of artefact made by the Māori, where waka is a canoe or container, and huia a type of bird whose feathers were and remain very valuable ornaments, though it is now extinct. A waka huia is an oblong, richly carved wooden box in which head-ornaments are kept, and is the most valuable type of treasure-box for the most precious items, on account of the head being the part of the body that garners the greatest respect. I'm hardly a New Zealander, and not Māori at all, but the image of a canoe for the treasures of the head as a chronicle of my study abroad is simply too fitting to resist.

My screen-name comes from a little short story, They're Made out of Meat by Terry Bisson, which does as good a job as anything else I can think of to drive home what it means to deny that there is anything more to human beings than our physical material.

The image in the header is of a waka huia in Te Papa (the national museum of New Zealand).