Sunday, November 22, 2020

Nov. 22, 1963

 Aldous Huxley died on this date in 1963. So did a couple of other famous people.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Abortion: Something to shout about?


It seems to me that there are a lot of situations in which a woman might make a decision to get an abortion. They could be doing it because having a baby would compromise their party lifestyle. They might be doing it because they were raped. They might to do it because they don't want to put off their college degree. They might do it because they know they can't afford to care for the child once it's born, or because they won't be able to afford to get the prenatal care they will need to complete the pregnancy. Or they could choose abortion because they don't want to bring a disabled child into the world (implying that disability makes a life not worth living). The only way you can argue that abortion is OK across the board is to maintain that the fetus, prior to birth, is a blob of tissue that has no intrinsic value. Many people who might not be prepared to equate all abortion with murder might nonetheless think that in an abortion you cause the loss of something of considerable value, and that decision to abort, at minimum, should not be taken lightly. (But others actually think abortions are something to shout about).

Soft Determinism and moral responsibility

 Soft determinism says that even if (and even though) determinism is true, we are still responsible for our actions. What does that mean exactly,  that we are responsible for our actions? Moral responsibility seems to have two distinct meanings, and you might answer the question of soft determinism differently depending on which one you mean.  One meaning it might have is that, even if determinism is true, our motives cause our actions, therefore actions that attempt to correct our motives in order to change our future actions are warranted. Whatever might be causing me to contemplate  committing a cold-blooded murder, if you don't want me committing that cold-blooded murder, then whose motive needs to be modified? Well, mine. So you may want to attach penalties to cold-blooded murder so that have a countervailing motive to whatever my motive for murder might be, and not commit the act. If I do commit the act, then you are going to want to find out who did it, and maybe do something to me that will deter others from doing the same thing. But what if determinism is true, and the fact that I am a murderer and you are a law-abiding citizen is, in the final analysis, the result of factors beyond my control, or yours. If you are trying to correct someone's motives and change their behavior, pushing the question of "responsibility" further back like that doesn't make sense. But what if what you are doing is first and foremost trying to give me what I really deserve, to approximate in human terms what presumably God, if there is one, will be doing at the Final Judgment? Then it seems to me that being concerned about determinism is more plausible, since it seems to be a matter of cosmic luck that I happened to end up on the end of a causal chain that made me a murderer, but made you a law-abiding citizen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

In what sense are we responsible for our actions?

An interesting aspect of the free will controversy has to do with the kind of moral responsibility that is at stake. Is it the kind of moral responsibility that can justify retribution, or maybe even eternal retribution? Or is it something else, such as knowing who to motivate through reward or punishment. I first encountered the free will problem in the context of debates of Calvinism. Calvinists and their opponents agree concerning the sense in which we are responsible for our actions--if someone goes to hell because of sin, they deserve to go to hell because of sin. So, in that context, you have to ask whether being predestined by God to, say, commit murder renders you still responsible, sub specie aeternitatis, for committing that murder. And it seemed to me that if determinism were true, and circumstances, (such as a divine eternal decree) rendered it impossible for me to do otherwise from commit a murder, I am not responsible for that murder, but that whoever issued that eternal decree, as the ultimate source of my action, would be.

Consider the fact that "the devil made me do it" is considered an almost comic example of a lame excuse. The reason we are usually given for this is the idea that the devil tempts us, but we have the free will to resist the devil, in which case the devil will flee. This seems to assume that we have libertarian free will. No one made you do anything.

Later, when I wrote my master's thesis on free will, I realized that many compatibilists were secularists, and who were not ascribing responsibility to agents in the same sense that Christians were. They were asking questions, perhaps, of the utility of punishment in ascribing moral responsibility. And here, I thought, their "compatibilist" position was at least consistent. They weren't saying that people were responsible for their actions in some "last judgment" sense, they were saying that we need to know who to motivate and how when we punish, and that the question of ultimate moral responsibility need not be asked.
However, weakening the sense of moral responsibility can have some potentially dangerous consequences that Lewis notes in his famous essay on the humanitarian theory of punishment. What happens if we say that what someone deserves doesn't matter, and what we must do is simply do what will protect society, deter crime, or rehabilitate the criminal. Will this give us the license to reform criminals any way we see fit, regardless of their freedom and dignity? Do we have the right to brainwash people into not committing crimes? Do we have the right to "fix" people we might think will commit crimes for the benefit of society? Does the abandonment of free will lead to fundamental changes in who we think we are?

This is related to the essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment."

Was the election stolen?

At the risk of sounding like Loftus, Let's look at this from the point of view of an outsider. Suppose I come here from a foreign country. I am not a Republican or a Democrat. There are all the sources of information out there. I am trying to figure out whether the election was stolen. How would I assess the evidence on this matter? By what neutral criteria should I take, say Sean Hannity seriously and Rachel Maddow not seriously? Both, no doubt, have an axe to grind. But you can grind your axe with facts, or with "alternative facts." Or are we stuck with the Nietzschean conclusion there are no facts, only interpretations of facts. (Is that a fact?)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Compatibilism, the devil, and Jeffrey Dahmer


Free will, along with the existence of God and perhaps the mind-body problem, is one of the philosophical issues that is of great interest to a lot of people. One idea that offends many of us would be the idea that someone should be treated differently, or even punished, because of the color of their skin. Martin Luther King’s dream was that his children would one day be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Judging someone by the content of their character is not arbitrary in the way that judging someone by the color of their skin is. But why?

            Well, because arguably, our character is, to a large extent, a product of the choices we make. We do not choose our race, but we do choose our actions. Thus, we treat bank robbers differently than we treat non-bank robbers, and that’s not discrimination, because people chose to rob a bank, but did not choose to be white or black.

            Or did we? A well-known African-American comic from my youth, Flip Wilson, used to have a character who frequently used a punch line, “The devil made me do it.” A country song entitled “Speak of the Devil” includes the following lyrics:

Speak of the devil
He took me out again last night
He got me drunk and he got me in a fight

He was chasing women
I was just there for the ride
Speak of the devil
He took me out again last night

            I won’t here attempt to adjudicate the question of whether or not there is a devil. But I would ask why this might be perceived by its intended audience as a lame excuse, even if people in the audience believe that the devil is real. Those who believe in the devil normally think that while the devil can tempt you to do something, he ordinarily does not make you do it. You could, and should, have chosen to resist. The devil may highlight in your mind the attractiveness of wrongdoing, but he cannot by his temptations guarantee that you will do the wrong thing.

            But we can imagine the devil doing a great deal more than just tempt. Suppose the devil were to literally cause your body to engage in numerous acts that you believe to be evil, while your mind watched helplessly in horror, unable to prevent your body from committing a series of horrible crimes. If that were true, then surely you would not be responsible for those crimes, it would really be the devil.

            But now suppose that what the devil does is something different. He finds an eight year old boy, Little Jeff, and alters his brain chemistry in such a way that it guarantees that  he will grow up to be notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Jeffrey forms the desire to commit the horrible murders he committed, and those desires cause him to commit those murders. The devil made him do it, in that the devil’s actions guaranteed that he form the desires and commit the murders. But there was not Real Jeffery inside thinking that he was being driven against his will to commit crimes. So if this is true, who is responsible for the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer? The devil, Jeffrey, or both?

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Is religion for me?

 If you say religion is not for me that seems odd in the following way. Religions make assertions about God, Christ, how one comes into relation to God through Christ (or some other way), etc. Now it seems to me that either God is real or not, either Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity who rose from the dead or he is not, and either Christ has established the Catholic Church and sacraments as the way to be in relation to God. If these things are all true, then everyone should be a Catholic, and if they are false, then no one should be a Catholic. I don't see how these things can possibly be a matter of personal preference. These are claims that something is true, and these claims are either true or false. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Abortometrics, or what is the real pro-life goal?

 Is getting abortions as close to zero as possible the pro-life goal, or is it something else?

From the point of what I would call abortometrics, the idea of trying to figure out what policies will produce the most nonabortions, it is not clear to me that the Republicans are any better than the Democrats. Democrats supported the idea that employers don't have the right to fire employees for getting pregnant, allowed for unpaid medical leave in the Family and Medical Leave Act, and try to make sure that everyone, including pregnant women, get health care. They support paid medical leave, and that would give women a reason not to get an abortion. All Republicans try to do to produce nonabortions is to prevent access by reversing Roe and allowing states to ban abortion. In other words, they think the only way to get rid of abortion if to use force to prevent women from having access to abortion. But because we are a nation governed by the people, this would only be possible in a few red states. In other words, the attack the supply side of abortion. On the other hand, they seem contemptuous of any policies that would decrease the number of abortions by decreasing the need for them. Many pro-choice people in the Democratic party strongly dislike abortion (Biden certainly, though I am not so sure about Harris). Historically, abortion rates don't go down any faster under Republicans than under Democrats. The old slogan for Democrats was safe, legal, and rare, although there has been some, to my mind disturbing backing away from this perspective. But, in practical terms, a safe legal and rare strategy might in fact produce fewer abortions that a strict pro-life position, given the impracticality of getting anything close to an across-the-board prohibition of abortion. So, if the goal is to get the abortometrics as close to zero as possible, (a goal shared by pro-lifers and anti-abortion pro-choicers and no, that's NOT an oxymoron.) Now, maybe pro-lifers think that the abortometric approach is the wrong way to approach abortion. I suppose they think that pro-life laws and the supply strategy are more deontologically adequate even if they are infeasible and less effective abortometrically than the demand strategy. But if the goal is to get as close to zero on abortions as is feasible, then it is less that clear which party is really more pro-life.

Controversial claim?

Either God exists or God does not exists. If God exists, then the people who say that God exists are right, and the people that say that God does not exist are wrong. On the other hand, if God does not exist, then the people who say that God does not exist are right, and the people that say that God does exist are wrong. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Originalism and Judicial Activism

The Constitution says I have the right to bear arms. Does that mean a) a musket (which is what the Founders surely had in mind, 2) a handgun, 3) a machine gun, 4) an assault weapon like an AR-15, or 5) a hand-held nuclear device? We are supposed to look at the original meaning of the words and just go by that. But the founders had no idea what types of weapons would be in existence 200 + years after they wrote. So, no matter what we decide aren't we stuck with some damn activist judge, liberal or conservative, deciding what is in the spirit of the Second Amendment? Originalism offers no answer that I can see.