Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Punishing the innocent by mistake

Is it better for a hundred guilty criminals to go free than for an innocent person to be wrongfully convicted and deprived of their liberty? Why do you think this? Does this affect how you think when it comes to the death penalty?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A poor criticism of the cosmological argument

From John DePoe's blog. I wonder if Dennett could explain the difference between a kalam cosmological argument and a Thomistic cosmological argument.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Aristotle's doctrine of the Mean

Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean
Keeping things in balance
I. What does the mean mean?
Back in grade school we learned to distinguish the mean, the median, and the mode. The mean is the average, the median is the middle number, and the mode is the number the occurs most frequently.
Aristotle says that virtue lies on the mean, which means that an level of activity can go beyond what is virtuous or less than what is virtuous. In other words, it can be analyzed in terms of a deficiency, virtue, excess.
II. Aristotle’s analysis of virtue as the mean between extremes--example: inthe activity of confidence in facing danger, courage is the mean, rashness the excess, cowardice the defect.
Remember the Song of Sir Robin sung by his minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? The brave knight described in the beginning of the song isn't courageous, he's rash. Of course, we discover after the encounter with the Three-headed Knight, in which Robin buggers off, that he's really a coward. Run Away!

III. Other virtues that can be charted
There seem to be other things that can be similarly charted. For example, let’s take the tendency to "hold on" in a troubled primary relationship. The excess would perhaps be called co-dependence (or stalking) the mean would be commitment, and the deficiency would be fickleness.
Or again let’s take the activity of making peace. The deficiency would be combativeness, the excess would be the ‘peace at any price" attitude.
IV. The mean is relative to us
It should be re-emphasized that Aristotle, just as much as Plato, is a believer in objective moral values. One can have erroneous ethical beliefs.
However, what is right is to be determined by looking at the situation closely. The principles are objective, the application is relative.
V. Examples
A child putting his head in the water who is afraid of it is courageous. For a lifeguard to do so is not courageous.
A well-balanced diet may be different for a football player and for a much smaller person.
Giving $1 to charity may be virtuous in a poor person, but be stingy for Bill Gates.
VI. The mean determined by practical wisdom
Even though the mean is person-relative, given there is a right degree to which on should give money, hold on in relationships, etc.
However, this involves a lot of "judgment calls." It’s more like riding a bicycle than like doing math.
VII. The best form of life
The best form of life is a life of contemplation, because
A. Reason is the part of us that most fully expresses our humanity.
B. We can engage in reason continuously.
C. Rational contemplation is a self-sufficient activity.
D. When we reason we imitate the Unmoved Mover, who is pure thought thinking itself.

Aristotle on Virtue and Choice

Virtue and Choice
Voluntary and Involuntary Actions
There are two types of actions, voluntary and involuntary.
Good actions are the result of good choices. An action must be voluntary in order to be the proper object of praise or blame.
Compulsion and Ignorance
Acts you are compelled to do and acts that you do by reason of ignorance are acts you are not responsible for.
If I slip on a rug and break your favorite vase I am not blameworthy.
There are gray areas and mixed cases. What if I deliberately do some immoral act because a gunman is holding my wife and kids?
Not all ignorance excuses
If I murder someone, I can’t avoid blame if I say I didn’t know murder was wrong.
But if I in good faith offer someone water and it turns out to be poisoned, my act is unfortunate but not blameworthy
Acting in ignorance and acting by reason of ignorance
Sometimes blameworthy ignorance causes harm. If I ought to have known the gun was loaded, but I didn’t bother to check to see that it was, then I can be blamed for killing my small child.
If a 5-year old shoots himself with a gun that I left on the table carelessly, then that’s my fault, not his. He acted by reason of ignorance, I acted in ignorance.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Killing to save others

Suppose you were a prisoner, and your captors told that you had to kill an innocent person, because if you didn’t, your captors would then kill 100 other prisoners. Would you do it?

Platonistic Metaphysics and morality

XA: A non-theist need not be a naturalist in such a crude sense that all entities are physical or reducible to the physical in some sense or another (e.g., in terms of logical supervenience). One could hold a gazillion different views here. Here's the one I hold at the moment: all *contingent* being is reducible to the physical, but since abstracta exist (including moral properties), and exist of metaphysical necessity, then they need no causal or explanatory ground in terms of the physical; nor, for the same reason, need they be caused or explained in terms of a god (being the necessary beings they are). If this is plausible -- and I think it obviously is -- then (2) is implausible. On the other hand, if you're just dead set on characterizing physicalism so that it requires the reducible of everything to the physical, then since the alternative view I mention is plausible, then (1) is implausible (well, it's implausible anyway; this is just an extra reason for thinking so).

Here's the problem I have with all of this. You have the physical world, which is a closed system of physical causes. I take it that all contingent states, on this view, can be explained from the stand point of the closed and mechanistic physical order, and by whatever supervenience relations obtain. And there are the necessary moral truths, which do not rely on anything, God or the physical, for their existence. The trouble is that for Plato himself, we have a soul, which had a previous existence, and had a direct awareness of the Forms, but now that we are encased in fleshly bodies, we forgot all that knowledge of the Forms, unless it is somehow brought out of us through midwifery of some kind. In other words, Plato postulated some kind of interconnection between the world of forms and how our thoughts get caused in the real world. The Augustinian doctrine of divine illumination is the Christian replacement for the Platonistic doctrine of recollection. But this view you're propounding doesn't have any conduits from the truths of morality to the real world of our experience. If our duties are determined by the abstracta, then we may be able to act in accordance with duty, but we certainly can't act from duty, as Kant would say. If we act morally, the morality of our actions is at best epiphenomenal. Our state of acting rightly would be determined by whatever state the physical was in, and would not be determined by the state of what is morally true. I think this makes the position thus sketched wildly implausible.

A DI2 discussion

While I haven't been over on Dangerous Idea 2 much lately, there has been a very interesting discussion related to the argument from reason which has the comment count up to 48. (I think you guys on ethics without metaphysics broke the record for DI with 53 comments).

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The future of godless ethics

Is atheism demoralizing? Does it undermine morality? Of course, there are plenty of atheists with robust ethical codes who try their best to live up to them. But is this enough? Layman at Christian Cadre thinks not.

A quote from Gary DeMar's essay "Why Atheists are Theocrats"

Quoted in Christopher's Price's post on CADRE

If atheists get their way, they will be running the world in terms of some ultimate principle. At the moment, atheists have the benefit of a vibrant Christian worldview where they can borrow moral plugs like compassion and kindness to keep their hole-filled materialist boat afloat. Given time, future generations of atheists will logically throw off these moral precepts that at one time had been mined from "ancient literature." Consistency will lead these newly empowered atheists to conclude that "kindness" is a superstitious remnant of an ancient book-led religion that once proposed that immaterial entities exist. Science will show that there is no way to account for these religion-defined virtues given naturalistic assumptions.... When atheists no longer have Christianity to borrow from, from what bank will they draw their moral capital?

Are moral atheists borrowing their moral capital from Christianity?

Ethics with and without God II

I'm redating this post.

I think there are two cases of atheistic morality that would have to be considered. Some world-views are not theistic per se but believe that there is a given purpose for human existence. If you accept something like Aristotle's inherent purposes (Aristotle had the unmoved mover but the UMM is not a personal God), then what is right fulfils that purpose and what is wrong fails to do so. I'm not sure that the idea of inherent purpose makes sense without the idea of intended purpose, but if you bought that it looks like you can get an objective moral standard out of it.

A theistic account of morality would, I think, combine the idea that as creatures of God we are created in such a way that our intended purposes and our inherent purposes are identical: we fulfill our purpose as human beings by doing what we were made to do. (How that solves particular problems like abortion, for example, may be more difficult, but right now I'm just working on the general idea of a moral life).

If you're going without God and without inherent purpose, then I think Hume is about the best source. He pointed out that a lot of ethical behavior can be justified by enlightened self-interest or social utility, and that we have feeling of sympathy for one another. But with his system, I have trouble seeing why we should do the right thing when it isn't in our enlightened self-interest and when we are feeling a lot of other feelings a lot more strongly than we feel sympathy. Why should sympathy trump other, stronger, feelings?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lewis's essay "Bulverism" is online

Ed Babinski on morality: Interesting stuff, but what follows?

Moral Objectivity, Victor Reppert, Edward T. Babinski
Dear Vic (Victor Reppert for the sake of blog search engines *smile*),

I enjoyed reading your discussion at your blog on moral objectivity, along with comments left by others.

Is it me, or are you asking more philosophical questions concerning moral objectivity than you have in the past? Asking questions and analyzing the answers (interminably so, especially when such questions are large overarching ones) appears to be what philosophy does best.

VR: I have never stopped or slowed down in asking philosophical questions. It’s what I do. Though, if we have no prospect of getting an satisfactory answers, at least satisfactory enough to help us in making choices that guide our conduct, I’m not sure what the questions do for us. There are some things that I think are true philosophically; this does not mean that I ask any fewer questions than those who don't hold to any philosophical truths.

EB: On the question of "moral objectivity," I think that the most objective thing any of us can say with anything near certainty as fellow philosophical debaters is that we each like being liked and hate being hated.

We certainly like having our particular thoughts appreciated by others. And we are a bit perturbed when others don't "get" what we're saying, so we continue trying to communicate our views in ways we hope others might understand.

I also assume each of us generally prefers not having lives nor property taken from them, and generally prefer not being abused either psychologically nor physically.

I also assume that when one person has something in common with another, be it a love of a game (chess, golf, soccer), a song, the sight of a sunset/sunrise, a philosophical point of view concerning the big questions, or a religion, that liking the same thing tends to bring people together and increase their joys.

Therefore, I'm not sure that "objectivity" is necessarily what I am primarily after, nor what most people are primarily after.

VR: You were doing fine until you said therefore, and committed a huge non sequitur. We have a good deal to gain from appearing to me moral, appearing to be concerned about the welfare of others, etc. We are also “after” other things besides moral objectivity. The question I am posing has to do with whether moral values can be objectively true. If a society practices, say, female genital mutilation, can we say, not just that we don’t like the practice, but that it is really wrong, if in their society it’s thought to be a good thing. Is there some standpoint overarching us and those who approve of this practice that we can appeal to so that we can say that what they are doing is really wrong.

EB: But I will say that there is a marvelous article in this week's Discover about animals with feelings. One anecdote from the article involved a magpie (freshly deceased from an accident with a car) that lay by the side of the road surruonded by four live magpies that went up and pecked gently at it, then two flew off and came back with some tufts of grass in their beaks and laid it beside the dead magpie. Then they stood beside it for a while until one by one the four magpies flew off.

VR: None of my philosophical projects requires maintaining that humans are uniquely rational. As I said when I was interviewed on Infidelguy, for all I know there may be a whole colony of dolphins off the coast of Miami that make rational inferences, or make moral judgments. (The true Miami Dolphins!) There is nothing especially Christian about the Cartesian idea that animals are just machines. Bill Hasker, for example, is not a materialist about animals either. You simply are not going to get an argument going against any of the positions I have been defending over the years by telling me all the things Koko the gorilla can do.

EB: This anecdote sparked my own memory of another one that I read in a turn of the century book titled Mutual Aid by the Russian evolutionist, Kropotkin (his theory of evolution emphasized the benefits of mutual aid & cooperation). Kropotkin cited Australian naturalists and farmers who observed the way parrots cooperated to denude a farmer's field of crops. The parrots sent out scouts, then rallied the other birds, and they would swoop down quickly and devour the crops, but sometimes some of them got shot, and rather than simply fly off altogether the birds "comrades" (remember, this is a russian biologist speaking) would squawk in a fashion of bereavement, trying to remain as long as possible fluttering near the fallen friend and group member.

I also have read stories about the intelligence of crows, even their sense of humor. One naturalist mentioned seeing three crows on a wire, and one of them slipped, seemingly intentionally, and held himself upside down by one claw, which apparently amused the others. (I'd also read about experiments and anedcotes involving birds with amazing memories and vocabularies, even speaking and acting in ways one would consider appropriate for brief human-to-human exchanges.)

Elephants and llamas were some of the other animals mentioned in the Discover piece that reacted strongly to the death of members of their own species. Elephants have come back a year later to the spot where another elephant has died (as seen on Animal Planet) and they react strongly to the bones. I also recall reading in a Jan Goodall book about a young chimp (fully grown, not a baby) reacting so strongly to the death of his mother, that he simply climbed a tree and wouldn't come down and eat until he himself had died, apparently of grief.

The works of Frans de Waal (a famed primatologist), contain some touching stories about the compassionate behaviors of primates, notably of the most peace loving chimp species, the bonobo. When Frans took his own baby son (who was sitting in a forward facing harness strapped round Frans's chest) to visit some chimps at a zoo where Frans had gotten to know the chimps well, a mother chimp with her own young one saw Frans holding his baby up to the viewing glass, and the mother took her own baby's arms and twisted her baby around in a single movement so it was facing outward, and held her baby up to the glass so that the two babys could eye each other. Frans and the mother chimp also exchanged glances. Frans mentioned a case of a female photographing chimps on their little chimp island that had a moat around it. They were bonobos, a female dominated society, and food had just been given them, and they were portioning it out amongst themselves. The photographer wanted to get a shot but the chimps had their backs to the camera and were facing the food that had been delivered instead of facing the moat with the photographer on the other side, so the photographer started to wave her hands and scream and jump up and down to get the attention of the chimps. The other chimps looked round, except one who was suspicious and didn't turn around. So the female photographer continued waving her hands and shouting until finally that last female chimp turned around, and tossed the photographer a handful of food! The chimp apparently thought she was being asked to share her food! And well, she did.
In another case I've read about, Washoe the chimp was on a chimp island with other chimps, one of which climbed the fence and started wadding out into the moat surrounding the island (chimps can't swim, they sink, their bodies are denser than human beings since they have far less body fat). This chimp started to flail around in the water, drowning. Washoe saw this, clambored over the fence, and held onto some tall grass with one hand while extending the other to the drowning chimp, who was saved.

Meanwhile Robert Hauser (Harvard prof and author of Moral Minds) has asked a lot of people a lot of tough moral questions and found out how similar their responses were across the board regardless of whether the person was religious or not.

VR: This sounds really interesting. Gosh, science magazines can be a fun read. However, you seem to think I have defended some kind of human uniqueness doctrine, when I haven’t done any such thing. Where, in anything I have written, have I said anything that is precluded by any of these observations. Is there anything in Christianity that requires that animals just be machines.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Why be Moral?

Most people like it when other people are moral, but do we have good reasons for being moral ourselves. an ancient Greek philosopher once said that we work best to our own advantage when we act as though we regarded morality in high esteem when people are watching, but when people are not watching, we should follow nature rather than the code of society. Is he right? And if he is, do we nonetheless have a good reason to be a moral person, as opposed to just appearing to be moral.