Thursday, April 28, 2011

Luck and Social Justice: Rawls' Principles of Justice

Rawls thinks he is able to prove that procedural justice requires that we cannot choose utilitarian principles of justice.  When we consider what rules are just for society without considering how we could personally benefit from those rules, what rules would we pick?

Rawls does think we will accept the following principles of justice: a Principle of Equal Liberty, a Principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle.  The principle of equal liberty says that basic liberties are to be as expansive as possible so long as it does not interfere with others' liberty.  The principle of fair equality of opportunity says that positions high up in society (president, rock stars, etc) must be available to all groups (gender, race, age) and that everyone who has similar talent, ability and ambition has the same opportunity for success regardless of what class they are born into.  The difference principle says that the distribution of wealth and goods should be equal unless the inequal distribution benefits the people who are worst off in the society.  For example, we may give the president more power or more wealth, but this is only because this position is necessary to keep society going, so it benefits the people who are worse off.  Another example is that we give police officers more power but this is because we expect that because they have power, they can protect the weakest members of society. 

Rawls gives two arguments for the Difference Principle.  First is his formal argument.  This is the argument that when we are in the original position, it is only a matter of rational choice that we will choose the difference principle.  According to the maximin rule, which says that we should make the worst position in society as good as possible, it is only rational to choose the difference principle.  Second is is informal argument.  Because where in society we are born is arbitrary from a moral point of view, we should not give our rewards and benefits based on lucky facts about when and where we are born.  

Luck and Social Justice: Scanlon and Rawls

Last week and this Tuesday, we talked all about moral responsibility.  Today we shift directions to talk about social justice issues.  Social justice is a branch of theory that asks, "What makes a society good or just?"

Smart gives an example of a rich man who looks down on a poor person because he thinks, "We both had the same opportunities to be wealthy, but you chose to be poor".  This rich man thinks that it is just that some people are poor and have terrible lives because such people are responsible for their terrible conditions.  The basic idea is that people have freedom of will and adequate opportunities to succeed.  When we choose freely, we have no right to complain about the consequences because free choice legitimates outcomes.  Because society provided the poor man opportunities to succeed and the poor man chose instead to be poor, his poverty is deserved.  Along the same lines, someone might think that in a free market, everyone has an equal chance to succeed; this means that your actual condition (rich or poor) is deserved.  The freedom and opportunities available to everyone make the current socio-economic situation just.

Scanlon notes that there are flaws with the above argument. First, people often lack an opportunity to avoid their chosen condition.  People who are born into low-income families or neighborhoods have limited choices and opportunities, for example.  Someone who has to drop out of school at the age of 16 to work and help support his or her family certainly has less opportunity to attend college, for example.  Second, even when people do have opportunities to avoid poverty, free choices do not always necessarily make the outcomes legitimate.  It may be the case that individuals or societies still owe someone assistance.  For example, a person can freely choose to invest in the stock market and can be very careful but still lose all money because of an unlucky investment or a financial crisis.  This person may still be owed social support such as food stamps, health insurance or social security pension.

But let's get back to the basic questions of social justice.  Essential questions include, "When is a society just?"; "How much does a just society shape people's circumstances or hold people responsible for their choices?";  and (back to the main course topic) "To what extent does a just society reflect luck?"

John Rawls' A Theory of Justice was an influential book on the topic of social justice.  Rawls thought that social justice happens when we try to compensate for the lucky or unlucky circumstances that we are born into.  We can create principles of justice only when we set aside social and economic circumstances that "seem arbitrary from a moral point of view" (15).  Rawls notes that there are strong hierarchies that systematically shape our socio-economic status.  Where we are born into the hierarchy is a matter of luck.  A theory of justice should negate the unlucky circumstances that people are born into.

According to Rawls, justice is a kind of fairness.  Fairness is here means the same kind of fairness as we have when we play games.  For example, when you play pictionary with a group of friends, it will not be fair to put all of the good artists on one team.  Outcomes of social practices are fair if and only if we agree to the rules before we know whether the rules will benefit us more than they benefit others.  A social practice is just an activity that people perform together as a group for mutual benefit.  For example, if we play poker with a wild card, we will not choose the wild card based on what cards someones has in his or her hand.  We choose the wild card before the cards have been dealt.  In other words, we have to choose the terms of society in ignorance of our position of relative advantage (85).  Choosing the terms of a social practice without knowledge of how we benefit from those terms is a matter of pure procedural justice.

Fairness in the "basic structure" of society involves two things.  First, we must imagine that we are ignorant of our social position, class, gender or race.  This is what Rawls calls a "veil of ignorance".  Second, we then ask what rules or terms of society we would want (assuming that we don't know where in a social hierarchy we fall).  Because we don't know where we fall in the society, we will want to minimize risks about the rules of our society.  Rawls thinks we would want to follow the maximin rule, which means that we try to maximize the minimal position.  The thought is that you want to provide the best possible worst position.  Because it is possible that you will end up in the worst position, you will want that worst position to be as good as possible.  Such a society is a fair because the way of choosing rules and terms of society was fair.  Each person is represented as "free and equal" because principles of justice were chosen with everyone's interests being treated equally.  When we consider the interests of everyone equally from behind this veil of ignorance, this is what Rawls calls the "original position".

Now that we know how we can choose principles for a just society, we have to consider what principles we actually would choose when behind a veil of ignorance.

Rawls thinks that we would not accept utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is the view that we should maximize collective welfare.  In other words, utilitarians   Rawls thinks that utilitarianism will be rejected because it allows individuals to be sacrificed for the benefit of the majority.  For example, some people might lose freedom and liberty by being enslaved by other members of the society.  So long as slavery creates maximum pleasures for the most people, it can be justified by a utilitarian principle.  Another problem is that there is no limit to inequality in a society.  As long as the majority of people are happy and doing well, it will not matter if a few people are stuck with extreme poverty.  As long as the overall welfare is improved, a few individuals can be destitute or enslaved.  Because utilitarianism allows for the sacrifice of individuals for the benefit of the majority, Rawls does not think that we will accept utilitarian principles when behind a veil of ignorance.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Scanlon on the Ethics of Blame

When someone is blameworthy, to what extent can be blame them?  How much blame is justified?  Well, we can always choose to forgive someone.  First, it can be easy to forgive someone if we acknowledge the role that luck played in his or her actions.   Even if a friend hurts our feelings, we can forgive them, which is not to undermine the judgment that something wrong was done.  Forgiveness assumes that someone has acted wrongly.  Second, we can take on a sympathetic perspective.  We can try to imagine that we were in the other person's position.  "That could have been me" is a way that we can take on the other person's perspective as our own, which can also motivate forgiveness.  One question is whether we have to be sympathetic with someone in order to forgive someone.  Certainly there are limits to this kind of sympathizing.  It is hard to sympathize with strangers or with people that we dislike.

Scanlon puts the problem into the following form: can we be blamed for the way we blame someone?  Perhaps sometimes we blame too quickly or we blame someone unfairly.  Perhaps blaming itself is morally blameworthy, since it requires a judgmental attitude of superiority. But Scanlon does not think that blame is like grading someone or rating someone's character.  Blame as a revision of a relationship does not require an attitude of superiority  Perhaps we can also be morally criticized if we never blame.  If we unconditionally forgive people who do not acknowledge that they have acted wrongly or made amends, this means that either we (a) deny that a wrong was done, (b) deny that the person was responsible for the wrong action or (c) deny that you are justified to complain, which is a failure of self-respect.    Indeed, it could harm your relationship if you fail to blame a person who wrongs you.  To not blame someone is to tacitly accept a kind of abuse.

Scanlon also thinks that sometimes we should be morally critisized if we blame someone while we have no standing to blame.  For example, if we steal and lie yet we blame another person for those same wrongs, this is a case where the blame is not warranted.  Likewise, if you make someone do something wrong or you help them to perform a wrong action, you should not blame them.  If you help someone to murder puppies, you should not then turn around and blame that person for killing puppies.

Moral Responsibility Revisited: Scanlon

Last week we dealt with skepticism about moral responsibility.  One kind of skeptical argument was an argument from incompatibalism.  Because determinism is true and is also incompatible with moral responsibility, there is no moral responsibility.  The other argument was a causal argument.  Basically, you only have moral responsibility if you have chosen all of your choices and you are the cause of your ability to choose.  But humans are not the causes of themselves.  Scanlon claims that there is moral responsibility.  He explains moral responsibility in terms of blame.  We are responsible when we harm and change the relationships we have with others.  Because relationships entail certain expectations, when those expectations are violated, someone is blameworthy.  Blame is sensitive to personal fault and circumstances beyond our control.  Hence Scanlon can explain the role of luck in morailty; it matters.  Scanlon's theory is also consistent with determinism.

How is determinism consistent with moral responsibility?  Scanlon notes that freedom and control are necessary to moral responsibility.  There are two senses of freedom and control.  The first is psychological accuracy, which just means that when you blame someone, you are blaming a particular person.  We want to make sure that we are holding the right person responsible.  We blame a reckless driver because he or she has a bad habit or a bad tendency to drive recklessly.  It matters that a person is really guilty of the bad intentions or lack of care that we blame them for.  Indeed, sometimes we might find out that a person did not mean to perform the bad action that we blame them for.

Sometimes we lack freedom such that we cannot be blamed, such as when we act out of ignorance or we are forced to perform an action.  Such a notion of freedom and control is still compatible with determinism.  Just because we act according to causal laws does not mean that we act unwillingly.  The control and freedom that is important to psychological accuracy does not require deep control or total freedom.  Rather, a person just needs to have an appropriate psychological state such that they are blameworthy.  For example, if a person thinks that tying kittens to rockets is a fun, cool thing to do, then we can blame them, even if he or she was causally determined to actually perform that action.  Likewise, if a person has lots of reasons why they should kill the president, then we can blame them for that action, even if that person was causally determined to perform that action.  Psychological accuracy requires only that a person has a mental state that is blameworthy.  It does not require that a person causes his or her own actions.

The other important sense of freedom and control that matters for moral responsibility is adequate opportunity to avoid, which means that a person's control and freedom matters insofar as he or she has an adequate opportunity to avoid performing the actions that they did perform.  For example, if a person decides to climb a very tall rock without any safety gear and then falls and is hurt, we tend to hold that person responsible for his or her own injuries, since the person had an opportunity to avoid climbing the rock without safety gear.  Scanlon thinks that this is the kind of freedom and control that matters for Strawson's idea of responsibility that justifies either heaven or hell.  If people are going to be suffering hell, they must have an opportunity to avoid going to hell.  Scanlon does not think that this is an issue of whether a person deserves heaven or hell; this is not an issue of desert.  Rather, what matters is that you have adequate opportunity to avoid a harm.  If you have an opportunity to avoid a harm, then you are not justified to complain about the consequences.

Having an adequate opportunity to avoid an action does not apply to ordinary blame.  We can and should revise a relationship independently of whether a person could have avoided acting a certain way.  If a friend murders your puppy, it does not matter if that friend could have avoided doing that.  Ultimately, the harm to the friendship is done either way.  This second kind of freedom and control is not necessary for ordinary blame.

Scanlon thinks that this kind of freedom and control are compatible with determinism, but someone might object.  Someone might say that "I could not have done otherwise.  I was determined to act this way.  You can't hold me responsible!"  Scanlon will respond by saying that the issue is not whether you were the cause of your own actions but the issue is what we owe to each other.  It does not matter if you were causally determined, as long as your actions mean that you owe me something in return or your actions harm our relationship.  The real issues are (1) were there adequate opportunities to avoid the action, which is a matter of circumstances (not choice)  and (2) even if circumstances were adequate so that someone could have avoided an action, is there anything that we can reasonably be expected to do for someone.  For example, even if someone is poor and we can blame them for being poor, we may have other reasons to provide them with social support (keep the streets clean, maybe support children of this person.

Scanlon's "stronger view" is that choice can make the consequences of our actions morally relevant, but only if  our choices are not caused by factors beyond our control.

Caucus Q's Answered: 12 PM Section

1. If Scanlon's theory says that we are blameworthy then our relationships are changed, then aren't individual humans responsible for judging morality?  Aren't human beings too subjective to have this authority?

Well, for those who want an objective human-independent source of morality, perhaps Scanlon's view is not satisfactory.  But is it not that case that we do judge each other's morality?  When a friend violates your relationship, isn't it you that blames the friend?  I agree that humans may be too subjective to have such authority, but it seems that we do have this authority.  Also, we can guard against subjective biases by (1) thinking philosophically about morality and (2) discussing morality with lots of other people, to make sure that we are not being biased.  Also, Scanlon grounds moral responsibility not just in individuals but in the social practices made up of different kinds of relationships.  Individuals may create these relationships, but ultimately, friendship and families are social practices that go beyond individual human beings.

2. So if nobody can cause themselves, does that mean that we are not morally responsible for anything as long as you never learned from your parents?  

This is exactly what is at issue in Strawson's paper.  Strawson thinks that because we cannot cause ourselves, we are not morally responsible.  A compatabilist like Scanlon will say that we do have some ability to shape ourselves, so we are morally responsible.  Personally, I say that Strawson's argument does not show that we lack moral responsibility because even if there is one point where we did not cause our capacity for choice, it is sufficient to have every subsequent choice in order to ground moral responsibility.

3. Are "happiness" and "the good life" synonymous?

For Aristotle, yes.  For other authors, no.  Epictetus thinks that happiness is necessary for the good life, but he does not think that the two are the same thing.  For Kant, we can live well by being moral and we need not be happy in order to live a good life.

4. How is having a character flaw related to blame?  If an action is done by someone because it is a part of their character, are they not to blame?

This is another question that depends on the issue of whether determinism is compatible with moral responsibility.  If determinism is true and if determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility, then a person is not to blame for his or her character flaws.  But if determinism is false or if determinism is compatible with moral responsibility, then a person can be blamed for character flaws.

5. How much do external circumstances matter for moral luck?

According to Williams, it seems that moral luck depends entirely on external factors.  But for Nagel, who thinks that moral luck requires that a person must already be negligent or intending to do some bad action.  For Nagel, external circumstances are necessary for moral luck but they are not sufficient.  Someone also must be negligent or careless, for example.

6. What is considered incompatibalism and compatibalism?

Well, early in the quarter we talked about compatibalism and incompatibalism about luck and determinism.  Determinism is the view that all events are directly caused by prior physical events.  Compatibalists think that luck is compatible with determinism.  Incompatibalists think that luck is incompatible with determinism.  Now we are talking about compatibalism and incompatibalism about luck and moral responsibility or about determinism and moral responsibility.  Compatibalists think that moral responsibility is compatible with luck and/or determinism.  Incompatibalists think that determinism is not compatible with luck and/or determinism.  Incompatibalists think that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility because in order to have moral responsibility, we must have the chance to have acted other than we acted.  If determinism is true, then there is no possible way that we can act other than we do act.  Compatibalists think that we can be morally responsible in spite of determinism because of either (1) the reasons that we have for acting or (2) because we harm our relationships when we act.

Caucus Q's Answered: 11 AM

1. What are the implications for moral luck of Scanlon's relationship-based theory of blame?  Is Scanlon's view consistent with moral luck?

Moral luck is just luck that makes you morally better or worse.  According to Scanlon's theory, we are to blame when we harm and change the relationships that we have with other people.  Since unlucky consequences can harm and change our relationships, Scanlon's view can explain moral luck.

2. How can we avoid academic dishonesty when many of the paper prompts are addressed on the blog?  

Cite your sources!  Also, whenever possible, use your own words to explain ideas and arguments.  If you do use someone else's words or ideas, cite them.  Try to cite as far back as possible (citing the original texts will be better than citing my blog in many cases).  You can use many resources: this blog, Dr. James' lecture notes, lecture itself and the texts we read.  Be sure that you cite the sources you use.

3. What is Strawson's POV on moral responsibility?  What is his definition of moral responsibility?

Strawson is working with a notion of moral responsibility that could justify the ultimate punishment or the ultimate reward: heaven or hell.  Strawson thinks that we cannot have this level of moral responsibility because we can not be the ultimate causes of ourselves.  Even every choice we make requires that we have the capacity to make that choice.  At some point, we had to have a capacity for choice that we were not responsible for, since we cannot be the cause of an infinite chain of choices and the ability to choose that preceded those choices.

4. If a person is born with a bad characteristic, are they more or less blameworthy than a person who developed that same characteristic?

This would depend on whether the person who later acquires the bad characteristic is responsible for this development.  According to the control principle, we would only blame a person if he or she were in control of developing bad characteristics.  According to moral luck, we hold anyone born with bad characteristics responsible for that constitutive luck.  Compatibalists might say that as long as someone shapes themselves, they are responsible for his or her personality.  So either person can be held equally responsible for those bad traits if they have shaped those traits.

5. If we are not responsible for our nature but we are responsible for our actions, can we blame our actions on our nature?  Is there a direct correlation between our nature and our actions?

This is the exact question of whether determinism is compatible with moral responsibility.  Determinists think that nature is ultimately responsible.  Libertarians deny that determinism is true and say that we are responsible for everything.  Compatibalists say that determinism is true but that we still have responsibility.  I will say one more thing.  We are not concerned with mere correlation or association between nature and our actions.  The real question is whether nature causes our actions.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Moral Responsibility and its Skeptics, Day 2, Part 2

How does Scanlon's view of blame explain moral outcome luck?  Scanlon's view accepts that sometimes we are morally responsible for things that are outside of our control.  Sometimes people are responsible for unlucky consequences if they have negligent or apathetic attitudes towards those consequences.  For example, if a negligent babysitter ignores a child who later drowns in a bathtub, this person is to blame because they are uncaring and negligent.  Scanlon emphasizes that unlucky outcomes can also impact our relationships.  Imagine our careful truck driver who happens to run over a young child in spite of taking all safety precautions.  This driver may have done everything within his control to prevent any accidents, but the girl is still dead.  As a result, his manager may limit or change his work responsibilities.  Also, the family of the young girl may blame the man and shun him.  When we treat the truck driver as being responsible, Scanlon calls this "objective stigma".  When a person's non-negligent actions have unlucky outcomes, this still changes how we relate to this person, which "mimics" blame, although this is not yet a case of true moral luck.

Scanlon thinks that true cases of moral luck require that the lucky or unlucky outcomes result from an action that is negligent or careless.  Imagine a drunk person.  If the drunkie thinks about driving but ends up not, this person is not yet negligent.  This person is not affected by unlucky outcomes.  Now imagine a drunk person who decides to drive.  This drunk driver is acting carelessly.  In one case, this negligence could result with good luck if nobody is harmed by the drunk driver.  In the second case, the drunk driver is negligent and unlucky and kills someone.  In either case, relations to the drunk driver are impaired.  But even though both drunk drivers are equally at fault, we modify our reactions to each driver differently.  The  merely reckless but lucky driver does not have as much blame as the unlucky drunk driver.  How much we blame a person for driving drunk depends on lucky or unlucky outcomes because those outcomes lead to changes in how we relate to that person.

Moral Responsibility and its Skeptics, Day 2

This week we are talking about moral responsibility and whether humans are morally responsible for their actions.  In other words, can we say that people are good or bad based on their actions?  One version of skepticism about moral responsibility is the argument from incompatibalism, which says that we are not responsible because we do not have free will.  Because the world is causally determined by past physical events and we are part of the world, we have no freedom to choose actions.  Because we do not act freely, we are not responsible.  Another version of skepticism about moral responsibility is Strawson's causal argument.  He says that the kind of moral responsibility that we need to justify either heaven or hell is a very strong kind of responsibility.  In order to have such a strong responsibility, we must not only cause our choices but also cause the conditions for our choices.  In other words, we have to be the cause of our ability to choose.  This means that you would need to be responsible for every choice and for every capacity to choose and on and on; this means that there is an infinite string of choices that we have to be the cause of.  Since humans cannot be the cause of an infinite string of causes, humans cannot cause their choices in the way necessary for moral responsibility.

Scanlon denies skepticism about moral responsibility.  He notes that severe punishment such as hell is not the appropriate standard for moral responsibility.  We can blame people without punishing them.  Scanlon thinks that we should think about blame in terms of relationships.  We can blame someone when they detract from a shared relationship.  For example, if a friend lies to you, this hurts your friendship.  Because your relationship is modified in a negative way, you can blame your friend.  This version of blame and responsibility does not require strong freedom of control.  Because strong freedom is not necessary for moral responsibility, moral responsibility is compatible with determinism.  Another virtue of Scanlon's view is that it can explain moral luck.  We are morally responsible for unlucky bad consequences of our actions because those consequences worsen our relationships.

What is blame?  In order to define blame, Scanlon first considers what it NOT blame.  First,  not all wrong actions are blameworthy.  Some actions are "blameless wrongs".  For example, if someone were to have an epileptic fit and injure a friend, he or she would not be blamed because he or she was not in control of any of those consequences.  Also, some right actions can be blameworthy.  Someone might do a "right action" for terrible reasons.  For example, someone might be a very nurturing and caring Kindergarten teacher only so that they can fulfill a sexual desire to be close to young children.  Second, blame is not merely a negative assessment of a person's character.  This is because we can blame people for actions even if those actions are not indicative of a deeper character flaw.  Also, if we describe blame as a character assessment, this diminishes the importance of blame.  Other character assessments are not morally significant (he is shy or she is curious), whereas blame is morally significant.  Third, blame is not a sanction or mild punishment.  Galen Strawson thought that blame was associated with punishment, particularly the punishment of hell.  But this is wrong, since we lack the freedom to deserve that kind of punishment.  His father, Sir Peter Frederick Strawson, thought that blame was a reactive attitude such as resentment and indignation.  Resentment and indignation arises from the relationships that we have with other people.  Because friendships and other kinds of social relationships require good will, we blame people when they fail to meet the requirements of a relationships.  Scanlon thinks that this is wrong because if only feelings and emotions matter, then moral luck is inexplicable.

Scanlon agrees with P.F. Strawson that blame is the result of a violation of a relationship.  Unlike Strawson, Scanlon does not think that blame lies merely in an emotional response to a damaged relationship.  You blame a person when (1) he or she impairs the relationship you have and (2) you respond by modifying the relationship.  For example, say that you are in an exclusive romantic relationship and your significant other has sex with the whole soccer team.  This impairs your relationship because the relationship is no longer exclusive.  You may modify the relationship by breaking up with your lover or by limiting the scope of the relationship.  For example, you may stay together but you do not trust your paramour and so the relationship has changed.  Changing the relationship does not mean that you punish the person or that the person pays retribution.  You need not even get angry or upset.  The key elements of blame are that the relationship is impaired and in response, the relationship is modified.  But what about people who aren't friends?  What about strangers?

Moral responsibility and blame concern not only friendships but also interactions with strangers.  Indeed, even if we are all ecologically related as members of this planet, we certainly don't have special relationships with everyone.  Scanlon thinks that we do have relationships with all strangers.  We are all members of the human race.  Because we are all human, when we do interact, it is always an encounter between two humans, which is a very thin kind of relationship.  Although we had no relation with a stranger in the market until we actually meet them, once the interaction begins, it is a relation between two humans.  Because someone else is a human that you are in contact with, certain expectations follow.  For example, you expect that a stranger will not spit on you or push you over in order to get ahead of you in line.  When these expectations are violated, we modify our own behavior in response.  This does not mean that we punish the person.  Neither do we exclude this person from our "moral community".  What matters is that someone (1) violates the expectations we have for fellow humans and (2) we modify our response to this person.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Moral Responsibility and its Skeptics

Last week we considered the question of whether we are morally responsible for things that are beyond our control.  Since it seems like there are many things beyond our control, does this mean that we should be skeptical about moral responsibility?  This week, we move from the topic of moral luck to the larger issue of whether people are morally responsible for what they do.

Aristotle, Nagel and Scanlon all think that people are morally responsible for what they do.  Only in special circumstances are people excused from moral responsibility.  For example, if someone physically forces you to do something, you are not responsible for that action.  This supports the control principle, which says that because we excuse people from responsibility when they are not in control of their actions, we can hold them responsible on if they are in control of their actions.  Frankfurt objects to the control principle by providing counterexamples where we can freely choose actions that we ultimately cannot control.  One alternative to traditional views on moral responsibility is skepticism about moral responsibility.  This is the view that we are not morally responsible for what we do.  Nagel flirts with skepticism.  He notes that we paradoxically believe that the control principle is both true and false depending on whether we consider our actions from a personal perspective or an impersonal perspective.

There are a couple of ways to argue for skepticism about moral responsibility.  The first strategy is an argument from incompatibalism.  The argument has the following general form:
  1. Incompatibalism is true (determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility).
  2. Determinism is true (All physical events are directly caused by prior physical events).
  3.  Therefore, moral responsibility is impossible.  

This argument form follows the structure of Modus Ponens, which is a simple valid logical form (related to Modus Tollens):
  1. If P, then Q. (If determinism is true, then moral responsibility does not exist)
  2.  P (determinism is true)
  3. Therefore, Q (moral responsibility does not exist).

Here is another version of the argument:
  1. If you are morally responsible for an act, you must have been able to have acted otherwise.
  2. If determinism is true, then you can never act otherwise.
  3. So if determinism is true, then you are not morally responsible.

Responses to the Skeptic.  What is called the libertarian position claims that we must reject determinism.  Although determinism is incompatible with responsibility, determinism is false, so there is no threat to our moral responsibility.  An alternative view is a compatibalist reply.  There are a number of possible compatibalist responses to skepticism.  First, on can claim that to say that moral responsibility requires the ability to have done otherwise just means that we would have done otherwise if we had indeed chosen to have done otherwise.  For example, a drug addict may want to choose to not do drugs but he or she cannot actually choose to do otherwise.  If the addict could choose otherwise, then he or she would not do drugs.  Such an example shows that moral responsibility requires that a person has the ability to choose to do otherwise.  Second, one can reject that moral responsibility requires that a person could have acted other than he or she did.  The force of this second version of compatibalism are counterexamples where we freely choose to do something even though we lack control over our actions.  For example, say that I decide to drink coffee in the morning.  Now, a major coffee supplier has planted mind-controlling nanobots inside my mind that will cause me to drink coffee even if I decide to drink tea.  I still freely choose to drink the coffee even though I could not have done otherwise.  Third, a compatibalist can claim that we are responsible for actions that we "own", meaning that actions that we think we have good reasons to perform are the actions that we are responsible for.

Another kind of argument for skepticism about moral responsibility.  Unlike the above arguments, Strawson provides an argument for skepticism without referring to determinism or compatibalism.  His argument follows the logical form of modus tollens:
  1. Moral responsibility requires that you must be the cause of yourself (a "causa sui"). (If P, then Q)
  2. You are not the cause of yourself. (Q is not the case)
  3. So you are not morally responsible.  (So, P is not the case)

Strawson points to commonplace notions about the punishments of hell and the great rewards of heaven as standards for responsibility.  He thinks that our notion of moral responsibility must be strong enough that we can hold people responsible such that they deserve either heaven or hell.  Being responsible enough that we deserve either heaven or hell requires that we cause ourselves.  Strawson thinks that we do not cause ourselves.  To truly cause our own actions, we would have to consciously choose our actions for reasons.  In order to be responsible for our choices, we must also be responsible for being able to make conscious choices. Strawson thinks that even if we do make some choices freely, we are not the ultimate cause of our sources.  There must be a capacity that I have that allows me to make choices.  Strawson notes that we never choose genetic predispositions, such as those that allow us to make free choices.  Also, what happens to us as children greatly shapes our character and we are not responsible for what happens to us as children.  Strawson says that at best, we shape our given moral characters.  Being able to shape our character does not mean that we have the kind of moral responsibility that can justify either heaven or hell. Hence, we do not have the relevant and important kind of moral responsibility.

Possible replies to Strawson.  Kane, a libertarian, responds to Strawson by saying that we are causes of ourselves.  Although we cannot choose our birthplace or families, we can always choose to be different.  An alternative view is that we can be responsible for actions that we are not ultimately responsible for.  It is sufficient that we merely shape ourselves or have reasons for actions to make us morally responsible.  Also, Scanlon notes that we need not use severe punishment as an appropriate standard for moral responsibility.  We can hold people morally responsible without punishing them for their actions.  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Moral Luck Day 2: Nagel on Control

On What Grounds Do We Excuse People?  Nagel then considers what supports the control principle.  First, involuntary movements are usually not blameworthy.  Someone with Turrets, for example, is not responsible for outbursts of bad language because the outbursts are involuntary.  Second, actions caused by external physical forces are not blameworthy.  For example, if someone forces you to pull the trigger of a gun pointed at your mother, you are not responsible for that action.  Third, acts out of ignorance of circumstances are not morally bad.  In German, the words for "fog" and "fag" are very similar.  Now, say that I happen to be speaking with Germans in San Fransisco and I try to tell them that I hate all the fog.  Instead, I tell them that I hate all the gay people.  Because I said those words out of ignorance of the German language, I am not responsible for my words.  The control principle seems to be true not just about some special cases.  Rather, it is a general philosophical truth that agents are responsible only for actions that they can control.  

There is a problem with the control principle.  The control principle is at odds with the fact that ultimately, nothing is fully under our control.  This may lead someone to be skeptical about responsibility.  How can we ever be responsible if we are never in control?  It seems that even our desires and choices are often out of our complete control.  To deny that we have responsibility is to skeptical about moral responsibility.  Compatibalists about luck and responsiblity say that we must blame people not based on whether they were on control.  We blame them for doing "wicked" things.  Nagel responds to this by saying that this is still no explanation of why the control principle is true.

Nagel thinks that there are simply two standpoints that humans adopt.  Neither standpoint can be abandoned.  First, we have the internal and personal active self perspective.  Actions and people are considered as things that relate to people.  They are not mere events or mere physical objects.  Neither ourselves nor others are merely objects in the world.  Second there is the external, impersonal view from nowhere, which is the perspective that actions are mere events and people are merely things.  This view does not gives us reasons to be a certain way or to have a certain character because the perspective is entirely impersonal.  We must accept both moral luck and the control principle.  But are the two inconsistent?  No, because either is true only from a certain standpoint that is essential to moral evaluation.  The perspectives cannot be combined and neither can be abandoned.  

Replies to Nagel.  First, someone can argue that luck and responsibility are, indeed, compatible.  Harry Frankfurt is such a compatibalist.  He says that there are cases where events are beyond our control and yet we are fully responsible.  Imagine that John Wilkes Booth had decided firmly that he wanted to kill Abraham Lincoln.  Now imagine that aliens had also planted a chip in Booth's head that would cause him to shoot the president even if he decided not to pull the trigger at the last minute.  Booth could not have done otherwise.  Aliens made it so that even if he had chosen not to assassinate Lincoln, he still would have pulled the trigger anyway.  It was beyond his control whether he killed the president or not.  Yet Booth is still responsible for murdering the president. 

Why is Booth still responsible?  Well, Scanlon would say that Booth honestly thought it was a good idea to kill the president.  Because Booth thought he had good reasons to perform an action, he is responsible for that action.   Based on this, Scanlon gives a modified control condition.  He says that control is not the relevant feature of actions for which we are responsible.  We are responsible if actions are accepted, owned and approved by us.  We are responsible for actions that accurately reflect our character and our reasons for acting.   Scanlon also notes that luck does matter because the outcomes of actions do make a practical difference in the relations that we have with others.  Even when we are not blameworthy, the results of our actions affect our relationships with others.  

Moral Luck Day 2: Nagel on Moral Luck

Today we continue talking about moral luck.  The main question regarding moral luck is whether judgments about good actions and bad actions ever depend on luck.  Is a moral agent or her actions good or bad based on things outside her control?  Specifically, we are talking about Thomas Nagel, who identified a paradox in the arguments about moral luck.

The Paradox.  Nagel thinks that we believe both of the following things: (1) The Control Principle states that we are morally responsible only for things that are in our control and (2) there are many cases where a person is responsible for things outside of his control.  This is a paradox because the two statements contradict one another.  We should not believe both at the same time becuase they are inconsistent statements.  To believe inconsistent or contradictory things is irrational.  Yet Nagel thinks that we cannot plausibly reject either one.

Nagel thinks that he can explain the paradox.  He says the reason why we have contradictory beliefs about responsibility and moral luck is because we have two opposed perspectives on our actions.  First, we view our actions from our own personal perspective.  Second, we also look at our actions from the perspective of others.  While we cannot reconcile these two principles, we also cannot avoid believing both.

In order to expand on his argument, Nagel discusses the different kinds of moral luck.  He thinks that Williams has gotten some of his examples wrong.  Williams thinks that the regret that we feel for accidentally causing something bad (like accidentally running over a cat in spite of taking all safety precautions) is evidence for the existence of moral luck.  Nagel denies that this feeling of regret is sufficient to prove that moral luck is real.  Nagel thinks that such regret indicates the presence of moral luck only if there has been some negligent action.  A person performs a negligent action when he or she performs an action in a careless way.

For example, say that I leave the gas stove on in my apartment.  As a result, the apartment fills up with natural gas, which is toxic to humans.  Usually my roommate is gone during the day.  On this particular day, however, my roommate is at home in the apartment because her professor got sick and cancelled class.  It is a matter of luck that my roommate is home.  As a result of this luck, she inhales gas and dies in her sleep.  Because my negligence coincided with the unlucky fact that my roommate was in the apartment, this is a case of moral luck.  Therefore I am morally responsible for my roommate's death.  If the situation were slightly different, I would not be responsible.  For example, say that I had remembered to turn off the stove but that the oven malfunctioned and left the gas on anyway.  In this modified version of the scenario, I am not negligent so I am not responsible for the death.  Without negligence there is no moral luck.

In addition to negligent actions, actions that result from uncertain decisions can result in moral luck.  For example, Gaugin's choice to leave his wife and children would have been morally worse if he had not been successful.  Also, the American Revolution would not have been moral if England had won the war.  Although George Washington would have still made a noble attempt at revolution, he would be morally responsible for the deaths of his comrades.  Because the revolution was successful, Washington is a hero.  Had he failed, he would have been blamed.  Actions with certain results are not privy to moral luck.  But actions that have uncertain outcomes are subject to moral luck.  From a prospective view, when someone is trying to decide what to do, the morality of the choice is undetermined.  But from a retrospective view, when looking back on actions that have been performed, we can judge the morality of the action based on the outcomes of the action.

Nagel thinks that circumstantial luck can also be moral luck.  For example, German citizens in the 20th century had the circumstantial bad luck to be citizens of the Nazi regime.  Other citizens of other countries that did not have fascist regimes responsible for genocide had better circumstantial luck.  Although it was just a matter of luck that many Germans were complicit in the Holocaust and the Swedes were not, we hold German citizens responsible for Hitler's genocide and we do not hold Swedish citizens responsible.

You can also have moral constitutive luck.  You can have moral luck about who you are.  For example, imagine a racist, Reggie.  Reggie was raised in a racist household.  His parents made racist comments all the time and told Reggie that he was better than others because he is a certain race.  It's a matter of bad luck that Reggie was born with racist parents, but he is still responsible for his racist attitudes.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Moral Luck: Bernard Williams & Nagel's Objection

Bernard Williams thought that there is moral luck.

Imagine the following example.  Suppose that a young painter, Gaugin,  leaves his wife and children in order to become a great artist.  When he leaves, it is uncertain whether he will be successful.  The only thing that could justify the morality of his decision is success itself.  At the time of his action, he cannot justify his action to others.  Moral justification of his action is "essentially retrospective".  Because at the time that he left it was impossible to know in advance whether he would be successful, there is no possible justification at the time of his choice.  It is not as if he is following a rule that says "A person can neglect loved ones if he is reasonably convinced that he is a great artist."  Williams says that because we have no way to know if a person will be great in advance, such a rule would be ridiculous.  We cannot simply appeal to art professors or art experts.  Even if Gaugin was certain that he would succeed, such a belief could only be known after success was actually achieved.  Such a feeling or such a belief cannot justify Gaugin's decision to leave his family.  Williams says that if Gaugin would have failed, then his choice to leave his family was not justified.  Because Gaugin succeeded, his action was justified.

Williams thinks that evidence for this is that when we feel, we feel agent regret, which means that we blame ourselves.  When we succeed, we do not blame ourselves for how things turned out.  If we fail, we regret our actions, especially if we could have acted otherwise.  We feel this regret even if we were justified to act as we did at the time that we acted.  This is because there are sometimes unexpected outcomes to our actions.  Imagine a truck driver who is very careful when he drives.  He keeps his truck is good condition and obeys all traffic laws.  One day, he is slowly backing up when a young girl darts out into his path and is killed.  Although he was careful, the unexpected outcome of his action was the death of a girl.  The truck driver will regret his actions even if outside observers recognize that the truck driver took all necessary precautions.  The truck driver may even seek recompense or restitution.

Nagel objects to this.  Nagel says that perhaps the agent will regret his causal responsibility.  However, this regret has not been shown to be moral.  Just because a person's feelings are vulnerable to luck, this does not entail that morality itself is vulnerable to luck. If, for example, Gaugin's choice to leave his wife were actually moral, then this would, "...imply the truth of a hypothetical judgment made in advance, of the form 'If I leave my family and become a great painter, I will be justified by success'...", which is obviously ridiculous.  Williams responds that just because a choice is or is not justified at the time does not settle whether the choice is ultimately morally justified.  Another tack may be to say that if someone can be "sure enough" about the justification of an action beforehand, then the chance is justified.  Maybe Gaugin really did have good enough reasons to think that he would be successful.  If he was "sure enough", then perhaps his choice to leave his family could have been justified before he knew for certain that he would be successful.  Dr. James notes that in such a case, this looks no different than a person with delusions of grandeur.

Moral Luck: Basics & Kant

First we tried to give some sort of definition to luck.  Second we talked about the role of luck in the good life.  Now we turn to a particular kind of luck: moral luck.  Moral Luck is the idea that whether a person (agent) is morally good or morally bad can be influenced by factors outside of his or her control.  For example, say that I am hanging out on top of the Empire State Building with my friend.  We both throw pennies off the top of the building.  By chance, my friend's penny lands on the sidewalk whereas my penny hits an aging grandmother on the head and kills her.  If moral luck is real, then my action is morally worse that my friend's action.  If moral luck is not real, then both of our actions have the same moral value.  The general question is whether we can assess a people's morality based on things that are outside of their control.

There are four kinds of moral luck.  Outcome luck is just luck about the way our actions turn out.  For example, when I play Russian roulette, it is a matter of outcome luck whether I live or die.  Circumstantial luck is luck about what kinds of situations or circumstances are presented to us.  For example, it is a result of circumstantial luck whether I have access to a gun.  Constitutive luck is luck about what kind of person you are.  Namely, the temperament, capacities and inclinations that you have are the result of luck.  For example, the fact that I have a strong desire to play Russian roulette is a result of constitutive luck.  Causal luck is luck about how I have been causally determined by previous events and actions. This is really a mix of circumstantial luck and constitutive luck.  For example, it is a matter of luck if my unlucky desire to play Russian roulette and my access to guns both cause me to actually play Russian roulette. 

Immanuel Kant denies that there is moral luck.   Kantian Ethics,  or deontology, still makes up a large group of contemporary literature on ethics.  Like Epictetus, Kant thinks that happiness is subjective.  Unlike Epictetus, Kant says that happiness has nothing to do with morality.  Morality is determined entirely by our actions.  Kant provides us with a set of duties to perform certain actions rather than a set of virtues that we should embody.  This is called a deontological approach.  Duties to act are derived from the Categorical Imperative, which is a universal law that says that we should only act upon personal rules that can be made universal laws.  As long as we act on intentions that can be universalized, we will be moral.  The morality of an action does not depend on the consequences of an action.  The morality of an action depends only on whether we act for the right reasons, or from the good will.  Namely, we act for the right reasons when we act in a way such that our actions represent a universal moral law.

For example, Kant thinks that we have a duty to always tell the truth.  We must tell the truth because if we lie, we fail to according to a universal law.  Now, imagine that a person wants to lie.  She wants to follow the rule, "It's ok to lie when I want".  Now imagine that this rule were universal, and everyone lied whenever they wanted to.  In such a world, lying would become impossible.  Lying requires that we can deceive others.  If everyone says false things all the time, then nobody will ever expect to hear the truth.  If nobody expects to hear the truth, then nobody will be deceived by false statements.  In a world where lying is universally permissable, lying itself becomes impossible.  It is impossible to universalize the law "It's ok to lie when I want".  We cannot act according to that rule.  Hence we should not lie.    Certainly whether a rule is universalizable depends on how we formulate the rule.  Whereas "It's ok to lie when I want" is not universalizable, perhaps a rule, "It's only ok to lie in extreme circumstances where you can save someone's life from an evil fascist regime" can be made universal.

Kant thinks that the good will (acting for the right reasons) is the only thing that is unconditionally good.  Kant does not think that happiness is always good.  Kant says that happiness is only good if the person who is happy also has a good will.  First, he thinks that sometimes happiness makes people arrogant.  Being arrogant can make someone insensitive or greedy.  Also, when people are happy then they tend to think that they deserve to be happy.  Kant thinks that this is problematic because some people don't deserve to be happy if they have not earned their happiness (e.g. lazy people or people who are just really lucky).  The good will, however, is always good.   

The good will is good itself, not for any other reason.  The good will has three features.  First, the good will is necessary in order for other things to be good.  Second, the good will is the only thing that is always good.  Third, the value of the good will is much higher than the value of all the other goods combined.  

Kant even denies that constitutive luck exists for rational agents.  Kant says that because people are rational, moral knowledge and moral action is available to everyone.  In spite of what character or personality a person is born with, everyone has the opportunity to be good.  This differs from Epictetus, who thought that while  being happy is immune to luck for sage or wise people, it is a matter of constitutive luck whether someone is born to be a sage or not.    

Caucus Q's Answered: 12 PM Section

Hello!  If I have accidentally placed your question in the wrong section, please let me know!  I hope these answers help!

#1.  I disagree with Epictetus' view that we cannot control the world but instead we should control our minds.  I feel we can influence, for example, we can influence other people's opinions of us.  In honesty, I am inclined to agree.  I think we do have causal power in the world.  However, we can still find something true in Epictetus, which is that we can and should control our reactions to things that we cannot control.

#2. How much is virtue related to happiness?  The answer to this depends on whether we take happiness to mean pleasure or living well.  Aristotle thinks that happiness, which is better thought of as living well, consists in being virtuous.  To be virtuous is to be happy.  Now, a hedonist would say that one need not be virtuous to be happy.  A hedonist would say that to be good is to perform actions that maximize pleasure.  A satisfaction desire theorist would say that being virtuous is related to happiness insofar as a person who wants to be virtuous is able to achieve that goal. If a person does not want to be virtuous, then he or she can be happy without virtue.

#3.  In the case of slavery or oppressive regimes, would it be right to accept yourself as a slave as part of the divine order of things in order to be happy?  Or would Epictetus say that slavery is against the divine order of things and so happiness is not possible.  Unfortuntately, Epictetus lived in a world with slavery, so he would say that being a slave is a natural part of the world.  Yes, even slaves must accept their place in the world and find tranquility, even-mindedness and freedom in spite of it.  Perhaps this conclusion is a reason to reject or modify Epictetus' view.

#4. If you compare yourself to people having it a lot worse than you, would you consider yourself fortunate or lucky, would you consider those people unfortunate, unlucky or both?  I take it that we are talking not about a specific theorist but only in general terms.  In which case, it seems that all of these labels can be applied in a meaningful way by different people depending on their inclinations to find events lucky or unlucky.

#5. Is Epictetus a religious person?  Does he believe in the afterlife?  Epictetus believed in the gods, so he was a religious person.  However, he did not believe that there was life after death.

Caucus Q's Answered: 11 AM Section

Hello!  I think I have correctly separated out the Q's by section.  If I have by chance misplaced your Q, please let me know!  Enjoy!

#1. Does society define a "good life" as a person's own perspective?  Well, this will depend on what kind of a theory of the good life the people in the society have.  For example, if the view is a hedonistic one, then a good life will consist of experiencing pleasures.  What we find pleasurable differs based on our individual perspectives.  However, some versions of hedonism, such as utilitarianism, categorize some pleasures as better than others, which is independent of a person's own perspective.  If the view is a desire satisfaction theory, then of course what desires are being satisfied will be a matter of personal desires and perspective.  If the view is a substantive good theory, then the standards for a good life will remain stable across the population.

#2. Does Epictetus agree with the idea of being fortunate?  Well, he certainly thinks that the universe is divinely ordered.  In a sense, we are all fortunate because we are all living in the best possible world.  All of the events in our lives have happened just as they were supposed to happen.  He does not, however, develop a theory of fortune in the way that Aristotle does.  Whereas Aristotle defines luck and fortune as things that are either good or bad for us, Epictetus would reject this way of classifying events.  According to Epictetus, all events are good.  There is no  "bad luck" according to Epictetus.

#3. Can you go over blame, shame, impartiality, personal grace and the future?  Epictetus says that it is not events that cause pain and sorrow.  Rather, our attitudes towards events cause pain and sorry.  Blaming someone is blaming them for an event.  Feeling shame is feeling shame about an event that you were part of.  Because the events themselves are not bad themselves, we should neither blame others nor feel shame ourselves for the events that we take part in.  Being impartial means not thinking that events themselves are good or bad.  You should be indifferent about events.  You should only care about how you react to events.  Personal grace means accepting that the world is the way it is and finding happiness and tranquility in yourself rather than in the outside world.  With regards to the future, we should not expect the future to form to our desires.  We should accept that we cannot affect our future.

#4. How do you define a good or bad life depending on your perspective of events?  I think this question is essentially the same as #1 above.

#5. To reverse fortune and the good life, does it take big events to do so or are small events sufficient if a person is well connected to others, politically and socially.  This will depend on how we define a big or small event.  If we define the size of an event by the consequences, then any event with consequences that reverse fortune would be a large event.  But if we define event size by how it appears at the time the event happens, then it seems as if small events can cause reversal of fortune.  For example, say that Tiger Woods accidentally backs into another person's car.  Perhaps this other person is vicious and tricky, and they are able to feign injuries and sue Tiger Woods for millions of dollars, which also makes him look bad in the public eye and further deteriorates his financial wealth.  This seemingly small event and similar ones could certainly reverse fortune.

#6.  Counterexample to the substantive good theory:  Aristotle says that happiness comes from being virtuous.  A student is being virtuous when he studies though he may not be happy while studying.  In addition, his happiness afterwards is not guaranteed.  To answer this question, I must first clarify that when Aristotle talks about happiness (eudaimonia), this is actually better translated as "living well" or "well-being".  For Aristotle, pleasure will often accompany living well, but it is not a necessary condition.  He thinks that when we first start to live well, it may indeed be hard and painful.  He says that eventually, pleasure will accompany living well.  Aristotle does not deny that pleasure is part of the good life.  Rather, he thinks that satisfying our function as rational social creatures is most important.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Epictetus on the Good Life

Today we continue considering what role luck plays in the "good life" The good life means that a person is living well, which means that a person is doing activities that are proper to and worthwhile for human beings.  The happiness that results from the good life is also supposed to be not just any pleasure but some kind of happiness that is worthwhile.  Some things that make up the good life, such as friendship, are activities that make you vulnerable to luck, risk and chance.  Whereas Plato thought that we should minimize our vulnerability to chance by avoiding risky activities, Aristotle thought that we must be vulnerable to risk if our lives are to be worth living. Aristotle thinks that we must expose ourselves to risk but that we can manage the risks.

Unlike Aristotle and Plato, Epictetus did not think that happiness or living the good life were vulnerable to risk, chance or luck.  One lives well and achieves happiness by achieving an internal condition.  Being able to achieve happiness is entirely within our control because we are happy by choosing to respond to the world in a certain way. Epictetus was committed to doing philosophy that was applicable in practical, everyday life.  His Manual for Living was a how-to manual for how to live a virtuous life and to achieve happiness.  This is a quite different from contemporary philosophy, which focuses much more on argumentation rather than practical matters.  Yet Epictetus himself thought he was doing philosophy about the good life.  Hence we can and should take his words as philosophical theses to be understood and evaluated.

One theme in this book is to avoid certain kinds of pleasures, such as popular entertainment (64), luxurious clothing (67), fancy shoes, bragging (70) and casual sex (67).  His main idea is that we are bombarded by unworthy distractions.  Instead of being wrapped up in frivolous things, we should focus on the worthiest of goals: freedom, even-mindedness and tranquility.  There are steps to achieve these goals.  First, we must accept what is not in our control (9).  Only our inner life is within our control, whereas what bodies we have, whether we are born rich or "strike it rich" and how others view us are all out of our control.  Epictetus that we must accept that we cannot control the physical world and we can and should control only our minds.  This is not to say that Epictetus thinks that we should not try to be rich or successful or athletic.  Epictetus thought that when we have strong passion to pursue activities that are risky, it is good to be resolved towards goals.  Dr. James points out that it may be false to think that we can control only our minds and not the physical worlds.  For example, we can control our bodies through exercise and surgeries.  We also seem to have some thoughts and impulses are beyond our control.  Also, can we not influence the opinions that others have of us?

Consider the case of an gold-medal winning athlete.  Such a person seems to go against Epictetus' advice.  The serious athlete strongly desires outcomes that are not entirely within his control.  Michael Phelps probably has desires outside of his control.  On the one hand, one might think that this is an example of a person living a good life who does not follow Epictetus' advice, meaning that Epictetus is wrong.  On the other hand, one might say that such people do not really live a good life because after Olympic success, many athletes are depressed and no longer have anything to live for. Perhaps Olympians are a perfect example of why wanting things beyond our control is a bad thing.

Accepting that we cannot control the world means that we must accept events as they occur (22).  We should not wish that things would happen in a different way.  We must accept that things that we do not want to happen will happen and do happen.  We should only desire events and outcomes that actually happen.  We should want what we have rather than thinking about what we want to happen.  One thing that we must accept is death.  Death plays an important role in organizing our lives.  Many of us make choices because we either (a) fear death and want to prolong our lives or (b) we are too young or arrogant to care about our future deaths.  Epictetus thinks that death is not bad in itself.  We should not fear death.  Rather, we should fear being afraid of death (17).  Only our terrible idea of death is something bad.  Death itself cannot be bad because death is nothing.  There is no pain or suffering when we are dead.  Epictetus thinks that even suffering while dying is not bad, only our attitude towards suffering is bad.  Only in extreme cases (e.g. torture) can others actually harm us.  We should fear pain or death but we should only fear fear about these things.  Death is inevitable, according to Epictetus.  To fear death is to fail to have your expectations match the facts about the world.

In general, it is not what happens to us that makes us unhappy.  It is how we react to things that make us unhappy.  If a loved one dies, Epictetus thinks that we should just accept it as a natural part of the world.  Of course, Epictetus notes that we should be nice to friends who are grieving and we need not tell friends that they are wrong to be unhappy.  Rather, we should be silent out of kindness and politeness.

A large theme in Epictetus is how we should react to the opinions of others.  Especially women, he thinks, care about others' opinions of their beauty.  Epictetus notes that this means that many women try to look beautiful for others and put too much effort into their physical appearance.  Wise folks know that even though we may be rewarded for beauty, what really matters is who we are on the inside and who we are becoming.  This seems to be a denunciation of an obsession with beauty.  Granted, one need not be a slob.  Rather, we should not be preoccupied with our appearances.

When we stop caring about others' opinions and when we stop wanting the world to be other than it is, we gain freedom and achieve harmony with nature and the rational, divine order of the universe.  Epictetus thought that this is the best possible universe.  When we recognize this, we begin to observe the order of the universe.   Must we think that there is a natural order or organization in order to accept the world?  If the world is absolute chaos, must we still accept it?  Existentialists run with this idea and say yes, we must accept the world even if it is absurd.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine

One objection to hedonism is that if hedonism is true, then it must be the case that a person would prefer to live his or her life plugged into some "pleasure machine" rather than live a life int the real world.  Now I provide you with a connection between this philosophical counterexample to hedonism and a favorite song of mine.

In their song The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine, Simon and Garfunkel give a spoof in which they advertise a fictional product that can cure all of your woes.  I find it to be a cute and clever song that taps into escapist desires that can fuel a hedonistic ethical perspective.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aristotle & Nussbaum II: Luck and the Good Life

Aristotle thinks that while we do have control over ourselves, luck does play some role in "the good life".  He presents a moderate position between two extreme views.  The first extreme view is the "Luck is All" view, which states that luck is the only thing that determines whether someone lives a good life. Effort does not matter.  The second extreme view is that "Effort is All", which states that only effort determines whether a person lives a good life.  Luck does not matter.  Aristotle thinks that both luck and effort play a role in determinism whether a person lives a good life.

According to Aristotle, the "luck is all" view is obviously wrong.  First, living well is a kind of activity that we perform.  Since living well is an activity that we perform, then we must be active and must give effort.  If effort did not matter, then we'd all be as well off as babies, comatose folks and inanimate objects.  Second, the good life requires not just attempting activities but it also requires success at those activities.  A person who can play tennis well will not achieve a good life by playing tennis unless he or she actually gets onto the tennis court and play tennis.  Likewise, a person cannot live a good life if he or she is always asleep.  Aristotle thinks that evidence for whether a person lives a good life is whether a person receives praise and congratulations.  For example, a tennis star who plays often gets praise whereas the tennis player who is too afraid to play does not receive praise.  Third, the good life must be available to most people.  People who are ethically "maimed" or scarred or people who have extreme trauma that has made them bitter, dark and suspicious may not have a good life available to them because they cannot be morally good.  Sometimes people are abused as children or experience terrible things when young and this keeps them from developing a virtuous moral character.  Fourth and finally, the good life must be stable.  While you can lose the good life, this only happens if there are "big and numerous misfortunes".  Once you have a good life, it is yours and it is hard to take that away from you.  For these reasons, Aristotle thinks that effort does matter for a good life.

According to Aristotle, the "effort is all" view is also wrong.  First, one cannot do good things without resources.  Having access to resources is a matter of luck.  For example, Tiger Woods could not have been good at golf if he never played golf.  That he was able to have access to golf courses and golf coaches is a matter of luck.  Second, being successful at activities is also subject to luck.  While my effort controls how well I can rock climb, luck does impact whether I succeed at a climb.  If I am rained on in the middle of my climb or if a butterfly flies in my face, this may be a bit of bad luck that means that I fail.  Third, fortune and luck can also be reversed.  Even a good person can have his or her life turned upside down.  Aristotle thought that young people are more likely to live well because they have not yet been corrupted by seeing wicked and evil events.  Old people, who have had many bad experiences, are more likely to be suspicious, wishy-washy, too humble, stingy and cowardly.  For these reasons, Aristotle thinks that luck does matter for a good life.

Plato, the famous tutor of Aristotle, thought that living a good life required trying to be as self-sufficient as possible.  Plato thought that we should live well by pursuing activities that are as stable as possible and that are invulnerable to chance.  For example, a person is better off pursuing a life of studying in school rather than playing games of chance, including some sports.  Performing tasks excellently requires external conditions.  Some activities, like personal relationships, are less self-sufficient and are easily disrupted.  Friends and lovers can always leave you and all of them will eventually die;  these activities make you very vulnerable.  Other activities, such as writing poetry or doing philosophy, only seem to require thoughts and imagination.  While you may need something to think about or write about, you do not need to have actual things, people or places to think about or write about;  these activities do not make you vulnerable.  This is why Plato thought that the philosopher lives the best life.  

Aristotle disagrees with Plato.  Whereas Plato thinks that reducing vulnerability is the key to a good life, Aristotle thinks that the vulnerability that comes with relationships are worth it.  Aristotle thinks that the best human life is communal, not solitary (Nussbaum, 344). First, having good character requires a good upbringing.  Education is necessarily social.  Second, educated adults must be politically active.  Man is "by nature a political animal" (351).  Third, a solitary life is not choiceworthy for humans.  Aristotle thought that we naturally want to live with other people.  He also thought that a person without a city or community is not quite human; such a person is either greater to or inferior to humans.  Either way, it's not human to be solitary. Aristotle thought that non-romantic friendship was the best external good.  Friendship includes loving another person for his or her own sake.  In other words, a person is loved simply for being who he or she is.  Friendship also includes a reciprocity of love.  Friends have an ongoing mutual exchange of love.  

All in all, Aristotle thought that we can and should manage the risks and vulnerability of social relationships.  Mutual dependency does not mean mutual destruction.  There can be mutual thriving.  In order to manage the risks, we should also make sure that we do not have too many close relationships or close friends, since that spreads us too thin.  If you have too many friends, you spend too much effort on too many people.  It is better to focus your effort on a few close friends.

While Aristotle and Plato may disagree about a lot of things, they both admit that happiness is ultimately beyond our total control.  Epictetus, on the other hand, thought that happiness is entirely in our control.  So long as we have the right attitude and exert control over ourselves, we will be happy.   Epictetus himself was born a slave and then went on to be a leader among stoic philosophers.  Stoic philosophers believe in stoicism, the view that a person should do his best or her best to adapt to nature, not to control nature  

Aristotle & Nussbaum I: The Good Life

Eudaimonia means well-being or happiness.  The literal translation is "to live well".  Aristotle thinks that ethics should be based on realizing a good life, or to have eudaimonia.  There are many questions about the good life and about the role that luck plays in the good life.  For example, is having a good life in my control?  Aristotle and Plato thought that well-being was beyond our control.  Epictetus, however, thought that we have total control over whether we live a good life or not.  Another question would be whether we should try to limit the role of chance in our lives.  Plato thought that we should try to be self-sufficient from luck.  We should try to live cautiously and try to avoid risks.  Aristotle, however, thought that it is better to live with risk and to manage the vulnerability that results from risk, chance and luck.  Living the good life means taking chances and managing the dangers of risks.  Before we can address these questions, let's try to understand what a "good life" is.

One approach to defining the good life is hedonism, which is the view that pleasures are central to a good life.  The key to a good life is maximizing happiness and pleasure and minimizing pain and sadness.  Some might think that it matters what kinds of pleasures are being experienced.  For example, pleasures associated with reason such as learning, reading and listening to music might be better than pleasures that are based on senses alone, such as food, sex and warmth.  John Stuart Mill thought that pleasures that required thinking and use of the mind were better than pleasures that did not require using your brain.  Jeremy Bentham, however, thought that all pleasures should be considered equally.  Someone might be inclined to reject hedonism after considering the following example: Pretend there is a machine that you can use and that the machine provides you with lots and lots of pleasure.  Since hedonism is the view that we seek the most pleasure, then it would make sense to simply stay on the pleasure machine rather than to live life in the real world.  Because this kind of result of hedonism seems ridiculous and unacceptable, many reject hedonism.

Another approach to defining a good life is a preference-satisfaction theories, which say that a good life is a life where your desires are fulfilled.  For example, say that Britney Spears grew up always wanting to be a famous pop start.  Since she has satisfied that desire, she is living a good life.  Preference-satisfaction theories are also problematic because they allow for cases where I person may be satisfying his or her desires but we think that such a person is not truly living a good life.  For example, Britney Spears wanted to shave her head at one point.  Or say that in the future, Britney decides that she wants to overdose on drugs and kill herself.  Just because Britney satisfies desires does not mean that she is living a good life or that she is "truly happy".  Many people think that being happy is more than just getting what you want.  In addition, a person must also want the right things!  Britney may have satisfied her desire to shave her head, but this was not the right thing to want.  Because Britney did not satisfy worthy desires, she cannot be said to be living the good life.

The last kind of view that we discuss is a substantive good theory, which is a theory that provides specific elements that make up the good life.  Even if people do not actually want these things, they are objectively good, such as being morally virtuous.  Certainly experiencing pleasure and satisfying desires are also part of a good life, but they are not necessary to it.  Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus all thought that being morally good is not just part of a good life.  Rather, being morally virtuous just means that you are living a good life.  It is being moral that makes your life good.  To be virtuous is to live a good life.  In other words, moral virtue is constitutive of a good human life.


Caucus Q's Answered: 12 PM Section

1. How does physics relate to chance and spontaneity?
Certainly the laws of physics determine certain chances or certain probability.  For example, it is because of the laws of physics that a coin will land heads up 50% of the time.  Spontaneity, however, seems to be defined as something that works outside the laws of physics.  Whether luck can happen with our without spontaneity is a question that may be the result of whether you think that luck is compatible with the laws of physics and other natural laws (compatibalism about luck and determinism) or if you think that luck in incompatible with determinism (incompatibalism)
2. Why is the sun rising not a case of luck? Is it because we understand why it happens?
There seem to be two relevant and related features of this case that seem to make it not a lucky event.  First, we do understand and moreover predict that the sun will rise in the morning.  The event is not lucky because we predict it will happen with almost certainty.  Second, we predict this because we understand the underlying natural laws that cause the earth to rotate.  The event is not lucky because it happens in the natural course of events according to natural laws.
3. Fortune can include being raised a certain way, it is not just supernatural.
This question was the same as #5 in the entry Caucus Q's Answered: 11 AM Section
4. Skill and luck are not mutually exclusive. They are often combined.
This comment is well taken.  Indeed, some skills involve knowing how to apply and use luck and probability.  For example, a poker player can have skill by knowing which cards are good, but a different kind of skill involves knowing the probability that certain hands will occur.  This comment is well taken.  I do want to note that there are differences between skills that do not rely on luck (knowing how to shuffle cards) and skills that do rely on luck (being able to win at poker).  In either case, we see that while skill and luck are often combined, they are two different concepts or ideas.  
5. What are other philosophical views on being fortunate "by nature"?
Although Richard Wiseman is not a professional philosopher, certainly his claim that people make their own luck and fortune are philosophically relevant.  Here is a link to his article on luck.  In truth, this topic is not pursued by contemporary professional philosophers.  We will continue to read views on luck, which hopefully will help to answer this question
6. What is the difference between fortune and luck?
This question is the same as #1 in the entry Caucus Q's Answered: 11 AM Section

Caucus Q's Answered: 11 AM Section

1. What is the difference between fortune and luck?
According to Rescher, fortune is something that happens in the natural course of things. In other words, something is fortunate if it happens as part of a series of natural events. For example, it is unfortunate if I get rained on while on my way to class. Rescher thinks that lucky events are outside of the natural course of events. For example, it would be unlucky if I got rained on while on my way to class on the same day that I have a presentation in that class. Another example would be that it may be fortunate if while on a hike I come across a field full of dozens of butterflies, but it would be lucky if I come across the butterflies on my birthday.
According to Aristotle, fortune and luck differ in degree.  Fortune is a greater magnitude of luck over a long period of time.  I have a blog entry that details Aristotle's Views on Luck and Fortune.
2. Does Aristotle think that being born a certain way is lucky or unlucky or the result of being born that way is lucky or unlucky?
Aristotle would certainly think that being born rich is luckier than being born poor.  This is because rich people are more prone to things like wealth and health, which is not a matter of luck but just a matter of fact.  People with more money have better access to goods.  Certainly, though, the results of being rich (wealth and health) are the reason why being born rich is lucky.  In short, both (a) being born a certain way and (b) being able to benefit from being born that way are lucky.
3. How does perspective matter in deciding if an event is unlucky or lucky?
Certainly perspective matters a lot. Whether consequences are "good" or "bad" will depend on the character and life plans of a particular person. Also, whether consequences are unforeseen or unexpected will also differ based on different people.  People who have an understanding of modern science will perhaps think that certain things are expected and natural whereas other people may find these things lucky.  For example, say I find a field of butterflies while hiking on my birthday.  To me that would seem lucky perhaps.  Now imagine a scientist who tracks the migratory movements of butterflies and who has predicted that the butterflies would be in that field on my birthday.  To the scientist perhaps, this is not lucky.   
4. How can we define lucky if instances of 'luck' vary so much?
Good question.  It may seem like "luck" has no real meaning, since whether an event is lucky depends so much on the particular person who experiences that event.  We can still come up with definitions, however, that can include everyone's experience.  For example, Aristotle's definition of luck as being the unexpected and unintended benefit or harm that accidentally results from a purposeful action will apply to all people.  Sure, some events will still be "lucky" or "unlucky" depending on the time, place and person, but the word still makes sense.  Think of a word like "delicious" or "funny".  Instances of delicious things and funny things vary as much as examples of lucky events.  Although we may disagree with others about whether black licorice is delicious or whether Modern Family is funny, we know what someone means when they make claims like "Black licorice is delicious".  
5. Can fortune be explained by reason on the grounds that it is the result of "nurture", not nature?
According to Aristotle, no.  Yet we can ask whether Aristotle is right.  Perhaps we can think of a person who is born into a good family and who is raised to be smart, athletic and artistic.  This person succeeds in all areas of life, personal and professional.  Perhaps we are inclined to say that such a person is fortunate by nurture and not just by nature.  Now, imagine that another child is born to this family who has severe developmental disorders.  Can this second child be nurtured to be fortunate?  I leave this question open and ask that you comment if you think you have a response. 
6. What does "qua" mean?
"Qua" is just a way of saying "as".  For example, I can think about Kobe Bryant as a Laker or I can think of Kobe as a basketball player.  I can also think of him as a man.  Similarly, I can think of Arnold Schwarzenegger qua governor or qua actor.  I am thinking and talking about the same person, but I am focusing on features and characteristics that are relevant to one role or facet of the person.
7. What is the difference between a cause and an accident?
An accident is a kind of cause.  A cause is just something that causes something else.  Some causes are natural, like the sun causing the flower to bloom.  Some causes are intentional and use natural causes, such as when I put water in the freezer to make ice.  Some causes might be natural but are also accidental.  For example, if I accidentally lost my ring in the ice cube trays while filling them up.