Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Academia and New Technology (I)

I've been prompted to think about the question of how teaching in the university today can be, and is, connected to the rise of the Internet and new media outlets by a couple of things. On the one hand, there is my own practice, which has begun to engage with the rise of such new outlets. Evidently I write this blog. I also run a website which has a number of links to further resources additional to those distributed during the course and which presents pieces of mine that have not been published elsewhere. All of this material is open access. Similarly I Twitter. The combination of these three elements surely indicates an engagement with new technology, an engagement intended both to ensure that there is further material available for my students and to enable greater engagement with a community beyond my university and its students.

Additionally, however, I am aware both that my standard activity as a lecturer remains stubbornly locked in the past in a manner well parodied by Michael Wesch. More importantly, however, I have been awakened to the need to think through these questions by a series of postings from David Campbell, including this one and the article form of it he has made available as a link to a more recent posting. There are so many questions that emerge from these postings of Campbell's that it will take at least a couple of postings to respond.

One of the key components of Campbell's analysis of the impact of the new information technologies is that they have ensured a break between information and distribution. In relation to the general mass media this is fairly easy to see since there is no need for one specific form of distribution of information any longer. Newspapers, TV, radio, cinema, all, as specific mediums, have clear limitations and the rise of networks of information that can go through and beyond them has inspired widespread talk of a "crisis of journalism" and campaigns by Rupert Murdoch, in particular, for the re-introduction of firewalls around information, effectively imposing a tariff on its circulation. Campbell is, not surprisingly, both sceptical as to the potential success of this attempted re-imposition of tariff walls and, furthermore, committed to the importance of open source information, not least because it ensures that each part of information circulated can, thereby, attract commentary, potentially in the process enabling contributions that can enrich the original.

The discussion of the old forms of media and how they are impacted by the rise of new networks of information is one thing, and something that will certainly keep the contributors to such media busy. However, it is quite a different thing to try and assess the impact of these new media on the activities of academia. There are two specific areas that Campbell addresses and which are worthy of further discussion and analysis. On the one hand, and this was also the point of the contribution of Wesch, there is the impact on teaching and learning. On the other, there is the impact on research and production of new academic content. In this posting I'll concentrate initially just on teaching, leaving the impact on research for the next posting.

In the area of teaching and learning the break between distribution and information that Campbell is speaking about is very evident. Lectures, as a form, are increasingly threatened. Jeff Jarvis points out that, for example, there are now many excellent lectures available free on-line in relation to a whole host of subjects. Some are distributed on YouTube, others freely available on the web-sites of the universities where the lecturer is employed. In this situation, Jarvis suggests, perhaps it would be better simply to allow students to access this material and then try to add value on top of it. The availability of lectures on-line is not the only problem. There are also reference works, of very differing quality out there. In the area of philosophy there is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and, as we are all well aware, Wikipedia. Along with such services there is an epic increase in plagiarism since, if information is what is required from the students, there is every incentive for them simply to find sources that already possess it and simply reproduce it.

What this disconnect between information and distribution at the academic level of teaching and learning suggests is two things. On the part of the learner, something needs to be given to them that is different from what they can just pick up elsewhere without the lecturer or university having really contributed anything. They need somehow to be engaged with a process that is specific to their encounter with the university and the lecturer, something that they cannot find just "out there". On the part of the lecturer, there needs to be developed some kind of strategy of engagement with the students. It isn't simply a problem with the students if they don't engage. There must also be, in some sense, a problem with the lecturers and with the universities.

Addressing this situation is, naturally, much more difficult than diagnosing it. The attempt to resolve the problems by talking about, for example, distance or on-line learning, does very little. Partly because, as Campbell acutely points out, it tends to mean little more than re-designing the university web-site and even viewed in such a minimal light is typically less than effective. Engaging students with producing on-line material, as is sometimes suggested, is potentially better but still leaves them treating existent material in much the same way as traditional books and articles. Given these problems it is not that surprising that there are multiple cases of argument for what amounts to the abolition of the university both from the standpoint of business and from Marxists and even reached the pages of the New York Times. Whilst these positions are, unsurprisingly, very different in terms of the point of their criticisms of the university as it stands at present, there are some important points in common between them. There is, on the one hand, the clear view that the structured separation of teacher from learner is one that belongs, in some sense, to the past (as Jarvis puts it to the mass production era). Secondly, there is the sense of a crisis in disciplinarity (particularly marked in the NYT piece).

The reasons why there is a perceived "crisis" in the university model of teaching turn out to be very similar to the reasons why there is taken to be a "crisis" in journalism. There are, on the one hand, the effects of the circulation of information bypassing points of distribution (so the lecturer no longer possesses a privileged role in relation to the student). On the other, the ability to line up teaching and learning with the new technologies is effectively being by-passed in most institutions though, intriguingly, this is not so in the most prestigious ones which are quite happy to allow open access to lectures in the form of videos, mp3 files and iTunes U. Jarvis' argument that universities generally embrace the best material already extant and then add to it is one means by which this teaching and learning situation could be addressed. The other way is for lecturers generally to engage more widely in more diverse forms of distribution of information themselves rather than simply relying on the passive setting of lectures. This does, however, require two things from universities: firstly, time for training and engagement of lecturers in new means of communication and, secondly, reward structures that engage those prepared to do this. It would also be helpful to engage lecturers who are really involved in research and to take seriously the commitment of teachers to produce good research so that they are not simply adding to the material of others but producing good material of their own. That, however, would be the topic of a separate posting.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Moral Realism

A recent talk by Sam Harris addresses the problem of moral relativism and posits a basis for a certain kind of moral realism. The onus of the talk is around two axes. On the one hand, he claims that we can say as a matter of "fact" that acting on certain beliefs can reliably be said to lead to greater human suffering. This basis of the claim for moral realism is one that is not further differentiated by Harris which is a clear difficulty since we could understand this to be an argument for utilitarianism or, at least, consequentialism. Certainly there are consequentialist elements to what Harris has claimed since the evaluation of the beliefs in question is being understood to be grounded on what they will bring about. Further, since what is being brought about is determined in related to pain and pleasure the recourse is being had to understanding well-being in a hedonic way.

The other main axis of the argument is that the question of determination of moral beliefs is one that we should, in a globalised world, aim to fix through an understanding of where permissible disagreement will be found. The grounds of permissible disagreement, in other words, will be fixed in some sense in relation to what is going to bring about the better outcomes. 

Harris' argument is one that is well illustrated, as when he points out that we don't trust the Taliban to have a reliable guide to physics and that we should regard their view of morals in much the same way. Certainly there are very good grounds for saying that moral beliefs formed from fundamentalist convictions are broadly not ones that will produce good results even though saying this seems to move one towards a certain kind of consequentialist position. However if well-being is comprehended in relation to what John Rawls called basic goods then we need not see this admission as one that simply supports consequentialism. On a broader level it is interesting to relate the point about the "convergence" that Harris speaks of that should be at work in reasonable views of the good with the Rawlsian notion of "overlapping consensus" and ask whether the view of Harris may not, rather than simply buttressing the consequentialist view of morality, in fact support a Rawlsian one. I will return in later postings to the difficult question of how much either view relates to the Kantian position. It is also worth thinking through the relationship between the argument advanced by Harris and the position of Ralph Wedgwood that there is a certain tendency of moral philosophy to generally narrow the scope of moral disagreement. If Harris' position is allied with that of Wedgwood then perhaps the solution to the global problem Harris mentions is more moral philosophy! Now that, surely, would be a good outcome.

Harris' overall position of endorsing a sense that there are "moral facts" is also one we might wish to consider in relation to the positions that are at issue in moral philosophy. If we view the appeal to the notion that there are "basic goods" in some sense to be alright then perhaps a certain kind of moral realism can be adopted in a number of different types of moral position though there might well be serious differences concerning how the status of these goods is considered. As I have suggested in previous postings there are definite problems with simply assuming that certain givens are, in themselves, that is, without reference to rational willing, to be taken to be "good".

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Fodor/Sober Argument on Darwinism

For an interesting case of how there might be an argument concerning Darwinism from a philosopher that poses some interesting questions whilst not rejecting the phenomena in question see the exchange between Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Animal Suffering, Conditioned Goodness and Rational Willing

In a recent posting over at Pea Soup there is another set of questions raised concerning Kant, this time from Michael Cholbi. These questions are meant, though, to follow partly from the arguments raised against the view that the only unconditional good is the good will. The question Cholbi raises is not specifically one that involves objection to this argument concerning the good will but, instead to the apparent exclusive disjunction between the unconditioned goodness of the good will compared to other goods that are taken to be only conditionally good. Cholbi wants to suggest that there are some goods that don't fit this exclusive disjunction.

The example concerns the pleasures and pains of animals. Cholbi wants us to think that the pleasures and pains of non-human animals are in themselves normatively significant regardless of their relationship to questions of rational willing. When presenting this case Cholbi moves on slightly from the understanding of the state of animals in terms of pleasure and pain and speaks instead about animal flourishing suggesting that the flourishing of animals is good regardless of relation to the will. In presenting this claim for an intrinsic value Cholbi neglects to ask what would be involved in making this claim concerning the flourishing of the animal. Are all non-human animals here in the same situation? If so, then an animal that best flourished through feeding on and destroying many other animals would presumably manifest this good in the same way as an animal that had lesser effect on the general bio-sphere in which case there would be no normative grounds for producing conditions that led more easily to the reproduction of one than the other. But this seems wrong so presumably there is something involved in the normative state which doesn't just attach to states of inclination of the animal in question. Again, the bio-sphere itself could evolve in directions that ensured the survival of the more destructive creature so if the normative value belongs to the bio-sphere itself then this should still be regarded as a good outcome.

If, by contrast, the normative value of the flourishing of the animals is taken to be one that resides in some kind of "balance" of the bio-sphere and a way to ensure that destructive predators are not the life-forms that have the greatest potential of survival are in question then this comes back to the conditions under which there can be willing to ensure this outcome as more likely than the opposite. But whilst we might want to claim this is due to the conditions of the animals themselves it is important to point out that these conditions are ones that we have to take to prefer in some situations rather than others and that this taking is one that has to be justified to us not merely in relation to the animals but also in regard to rationales as to why we should particularly interest ourselves in them. Since the latter has to address rational wills generally and not merely ones that might have a predisposition to think there is value in the conditions of the animals then the best strategy to persuade others should be to adopt a position that conforms to conditions of universally possible willing which would be the Kantian argument.

The reason why Cholbi seems unwilling to follow the argument in this direction is due to his commitment to the view that willing cannot be the source of the goodness or badness of the state of the animal. But this needn't be the claim concerning the animal itself it would be the claim concerning our relation to it. And that is sufficient for us to adopt the point in question in Kantian terms.

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Good Will and the Categorical Imperative

In a recent posting over at Pea Soup there are presented some arguments for thinking that Kant's view of goodness is "profoundly wrong". The author, Ralph Wedgwood, has difficulty in particular with the suggestion, made at the beginning of the first part of the Groundwork, that the only thing good without qualification is a good will. Wedgwood correctly views this opening claim of the Groundwork as closely related to the general formalism of Kant's ethics. The arguments presented in response to Kant's claims concerning the absolute status of the good will consist partly in suggesting other candidates than the good and partly in arguments for not taking Kant to be consistent in his general commitment to this view concerning the good.

The argument concerning other candidates for the "good" than the good will is presented first and consists in a general claim, not itself supported by argument, that there are things that exist that are intrinsically good. Included under this heading for Wedgwood are the value attaching to ecological systems, the value of pleasure by contrast to pain and the value of cognitive achievements. This is a somewhat diverse list and presupposes a commitment to a basic form of moral realism. In response it is worth asking whether this list of things of intrinsic value is meant to indicate that these things are of value regardless of relations to persons or not. A strongly realist position would suggest that the answer was in the affirmative. In which case the value of the ecological system would always exist regardless of the types of organisms it produced. Following that claim further it is hard to see how disvalue could attach to an ecological system that evolved in such a way that it produced certain life-forms that sustained themselves directly through the destruction of most others. Since the value is intrinsic to the system itself there is no ground for moral evaluation of any product of it. Similarly, if pleasure is an intrinsic good then it shouldn't matter intrinsically how it is distributed since the possession of the pleasure that can exist for some in torturing others to death might well be very great and surely it would require some standard extrinsic to the pleasure itself to find grounds of difficulty with this? Finally, whilst cognitive achievements may well be fine things in themselves they can be used for any number of types of ends and if those ends are irrelevant to the question of the goodness of the achievements then they could be used for any given end at all.

The argument listing independent goods seems to be clearly to fail if taken in the strongest realist sense. If, however, these things of intrinsic value have that value in relation to qualities of persons then the need for a discussion of will, and good will, follows.

The second argument Wedgwood gives concerns the supposed internal inconsistencies in Kant's defence of his conception of the absolute status of the good will. As examples of this Wedgwood suggests that Kant appeals to natural teleology, as in his condemnation of suicide. The condemnation of suicide does indicate that the basis of self-love, is, for example, to help further life by giving some basis for its continuation. However, the basic rationale of the argument concerning suicide doesn't last really on this claim as this claim is part of Kant's "hedonism" rather than part of his argument for the disvalue of suicide. The argument concerning the disvalue of suicide is that it involves a contradiction in that affirming it is part of affirming the value of willing itself. After all, how does a potential suicide support their own action other by saying that it is a right they should possess since it is their own life that is in question? So the potential suicide appeals to a value alleged to be intrinsic to their life and their power over it. The latter is the real point since this power resides precisely in their taking their own will to have value, a value however that is nullified in the affirmation of the act in question. That shows a contradiction, one that is opposed by the categorical imperative.

Wedgwood's subsequent points concern whether Kant justifies his claims concerning benevolence on the one hand and the relationship between the formula of humanity and the formalist foundation on the other. These are separate topics that have treated extensive treatment in literature on Kant. Whilst the notion of benevolence is not one he justifies through a notion like that of a "contradiction in conception" there is a case for saying it has something to do with "contradiction in the will". The argument concerning humanity, by contrast, is relatively short if humanity is essentially identified with practical rationality as it is by Kant. It's not that these two latter points aren't worthy of deeper treatment but simply referring to them as knock-down points against Kant is surely simplistic on Wedgwood's part. Finally, Wedgwood suggests that if you see value in the empirical natural world that you should reject Kant's view. If, however, we do see such value then surely it is related to conditions of being able to relate in the right way to things that are thought to have value. See again the point concerning cognitive achievements! 

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Kant, Objectification and Feminism

In a further response to the piece mentioned a couple of postings ago that denigrated Kant on the basis of some "bad arguments" he makes in a few places, not least with regard to matters sexual, it is worth pointing out how widespread the references to Kantian analysis are in feminist writing. See, for example, the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia on Feminist Perspectives on Objectification, a piece that makes clear how often views drawn from Kant's accounts of sex are implicitly and explicitly made use of in contemporary feminist philosophy. The fact that such use can be made of Kant's analysis of sex suggests that this analysis is less subject to being only seen as a cause of contemporary condemnation than might have been thought by anyone who only focused on Kant's views on masturbation and homosexuality.

In fact, the situation is even more complicated than this since it is partly elements of what might be problematic in some of Kant's points that also show how valuable his analysis is. So, the author of the Stanford article doesn't make explicit that the "Kantian" analysis in much contemporary feminist philosophy is itself partially traceable to the same line of thought as underlies Kant's negative view of masturbation. Take the following passage from the Doctrine of Virtue for example: "Lust is called unnatural if one is aroused to it not by a real object but by his imagining it, so that he himself creates one, contrapurposively" (Ak. 6: 424-5). This argument finds the problem with unnatural lust to reside in preferring an imaginary object to a real one. Compare the analyses of pornography by such writers as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon and one will find the allure of Kant's analysis resides precisely in a point of this kind. So, whilst this point may well not persuade many now to adopt the attitude towards masturbation in particular that Kant argues for, the manner of his argument might nonetheless be part of a motivation for a case that indicates the contemporary relevance of the form of the argument. And, after all, it is the form of the argument (in relation to the comprehension of ultimate Kantian principles) that is most of interest.

Again, Kant's general problems with sexuality itself reside in areas that have clear parallels with contemporary feminist analysis of much that is taken to be problematic about heterosexual conduct. In Kant's suggestion that sexuality involves a kind of "objectification" for example, something that he views as grounded in treating the other only as a thing so that moral relations between persons cease and the other is, effectively, no longer seen as a person at all. The motivation of his argument in favour of marriage is to ensure that a protection is given by it to each person through a mutual adoption of a position: "while one person is acquired by another as if it were a thing, the one who is acquired acquires the other in turn; for in this way each reclaims itself and restores its personality" (Ak. 6: 278). Mutual relation of possessive acquisition enables reclamation of personality by nullifying the one-sided and obsessive claim on the other's body. By means of the rules that are at work in the contract that is marriage there is a means to escape the condition of objectification, a means that requires, however, a mutual recognition in the contract itself. In some respects the idea of this undercuts other elements of Kant's account since, on the basis of the mutual recognition alone, there is no serious ground for treating women in the marriage relation differentially to men.

The suggestion that marriage as it exists embodies in an obvious sense Kant's notion as expressed in the above citation would be as foolhardy as viewing existent states as expressive in a comprehensive way of the notion of Kant's state of right. However, just as the imperfection of these states does not prevent it from being possible to see the existence of them as part of the move towards the state of right so the existence of marriages whilst not a sufficient guarantee of mutual recognition may well be a necessary ground for its emergence. And that claim, after all, might well be thought not to be one of Kant's "bad" arguments.


A posting on the subject of heterosexism on the Christian blog Parableman got me thinking. In it the author objects to the conflation apparently at work in a book by Elizabeth Meyer between attitudes that express a) a bias that denigrates gay people; b) a presumption of heterosexual superiority; c) prejudice, bias or discrimination based on either of a) or b).

Whilst the author of the posting is resolutely opposed to a), he regards b) and c) as potentially more problematic and, at any event, to be morally distinguishable from a). The up-shot of this is that the uses suggested for the term "heterosexism" by Meyer are far from equivalent to each other and thus that the blanket term in question might well be less morally useful than it first seems.

Prior to examining the specific arguments here, and disregarding whatever case Meyer may or may not be making, I should first state that the term "heterosexism" despite having an ugly look and being pretty difficult to say (since it is so close simply to "heterosexual" and "heterosexuality") is, nonetheless, in many respects an improvement on "homophobia". Whilst homophobia expresses well the notion that there is active hatred of gay people that is being expressed by many people it tends towards the view that such hatred is an expression of a kind of pathology, thus in a sense moving it out of the realm of moral condemnation to a kind of failing that is instead one of having fallen victim to a sort of sickness. In not having this connotation and in having the proximity invited to "racism" and "sexism" the term "heterosexism" is a distinct improvement on "homophobia".

The first and least obvious point being made against the three claims brought together here under the heading "heterosexism" is against the assumption that there is something inherently "wrong" in b). The reason why this is presented is due, I think, to the point I made above, namely, that the term "heterosexism" has the signal disadvantage that it implies to many hearing it that the problem is with heterosexuality itself. So, the poster over at Parableman wants to say that there's nothing wrong in saying heterosexuality is "superior" in some sense since all you might mean by saying that is either a) that it's better for you (since you are heterosexual) or b) that it's better for some things (e.g. a simpler way to lead to the production of off-spring). This kind of point is not, despite what the guy at Parableman thinks, really a very good one. Take, by analogy here, the cases of racism and sexism. In those cases b) would be mirrored by the claims that b1) white people are superior to other races or b2) men are superior to women. The case of b1) is pretty obviously offensive and it is hard to imagine anyone trying to motivate on similar grounds to those alleged to make b) potentially alright. What about b2)? It's true that, if what you meant in that case was something like men are generally physically stronger than women you wouldn't run into an argument, but that, quite evidently, isn't what would be meant in making the assertion and nor can one imagine anyone ever seriously suggesting it would be. So what it would really mean, like the similar racist claim b1), would be a moral, intellectual or general civilizational claim of superiority. And that would be pretty clearly offensive. Just as clearly it is the analogy with this that is at work in the point being made by alleging that b) is a moral fault.

The first reason, then, for supposing that b) is less "wrong" than a) and c) doesn't exactly hold up well. The next point that is made by Parableman is a slightly different one where a sliding scale is introduced with the suggestion that the term "heterosexism" is too broad to recognise the kind of slide needed. So, to use the case given in the posting, the fact that Catholics (or any other religious denomination) don't want to recognise gay marriage isn't sufficient to condemn them in the same terms as those who would allow no kinds of rights at all to gay people and would wish to treat them in ways that were absolutely inhuman. Again, imagine here the analogy with the cases of racism and sexism. So, there are some people who we call racists who treat people of other racists with absolute inhumanity and others who "only" want to assert that they should be given inferior facilities and an unequal place in the general society. Surely the first is much the worse and the second doesn't really deny all rights as such? It's only necessary to present the comparison to imagine what the response here would be. A similar case with regard to women in the case of sexism is obviously relatively easy to construct. In one sense, clearly there are differentiations here and no one would wish to deny them, but the suggestion that the second set of people don't wish to denigrate the group that they are discriminating against is false. This kind of suggestion was in fact made just this week in the UK where a Catholic charity took a case to court because they didn't want to allow gay couples to adopt children that their agency was in charge of. The spokesperson for the charity stated that this didn't mean he wished to denigrate gay people or deny them rights. But the charity does denigrate gay people in its actions and does deny them rights, rights, for example, to care for children and adopt them. Again, imagine a charity that said it wouldn't allow black or yellow people to adopt children from it but that this didn't mean it was denying them rights. Would anyone find this acceptable? Or a charity that denied that men could adopt children as only women had nurturing skills? This case further shows that the use of doctrines that purport to recognise the "dignity of the human person" whilst denying equal treatment are morally objectionable in just the same way as doctrines that promoted a notion of "separate but equal" with regard to race.

The next point made by Parableman concerns the different kinds of motivations that might lead someone to a view like b) with a suggestion that these might produce different kinds of moral evaluation. So, some evolutionary psychologists allege that homosexuality is "less good" at such things as perpetuating the species. In fact, this kind of claim is simply empirically false. The only basis for it would have been that there is only one way to ensure reproduction takes place but everyone knows that this is untrue so that there is no effective need now for heterosexual coitus in order for children to be produced even though this is evidently a much "simpler" way to achieve the purpose in question than any others. It's a gross exaggeration of the writer over at Parableman, however, to suggest that this is the main purpose of heterosexuality. The numbers of times heterosexuals copulate compared to the numbers of children produced is pretty clear evidence of that!

The suggestion that others make is that homosexuality is not part of "God's design", a view that, in its hubristic comprehension of the nature of that alleged design, is, frankly, breathtaking. Based on a couple of random passages from certain selected Scriptures whose status is, in any event, far from secure for most of us, it hardly merits consideration as the basis for a moral view, let alone a legislative one. The implied suggestion that those adopting it are somehow in a "better" moral class than childish or brutal gay-baiters is one I simply can't see.

The final suggestion of the piece is that you could, for example, be a Christian who didn't want bullying of gay people and hence opposed a) and c) but still wanted to affirm some version of b) and were, perhaps, sullied by being associated in the definition with people with whom you wished to have nothing in common. Again, there are nice parallels here. So, some racists don't want bullying of other races or necessarily support laws against other races but they do think their race superior to others. Isn't it unfair to tar them with the same brush? I'll leave that to readers to decide!

Moral Philosophy and Moral Disagreement

In a recent posting over at Pea Soup there is a discussion, set off by Ralph Wedgwood concerning whether there is significant disagreement amongst moral philosophers concerning specific moral judgments. The argument Wedgwood makes is to the effect that there is not a general disagreement amongst moral philosophers and, in the process, he argues that moral philosophers have frequently been in the vanguard of liberalising attitudes, citing, as examples, the cases of homosexuality and capital punishment. The general case Wedgwood makes is that there is something in the nature of philosophy's fostering of a critical attitude that leads philosophers to be specifically agents of such liberalisation. 

The posting by Wedgwood raises thus two related but distinct questions: is there general agreement between moral philosophers regardless of their adherence to different meta-ethical views and does this alleged agreement lead to a convergence on positions that promote liberalisation? These are good questions though rather difficult to answer. Part of the problem here is that much of the debate amongst moral philosophers is not strictly about specific judgments, at least that is so outside the specialist area of practical ethics. When moral philosophers engage in practical ethics they are, by contrast, exhibiting bases for disagreement on concrete questions.

The question of the disagreement that does exist strikes me as more interesting than a suggestion of a convergence on a liberalising view. If we take the central areas of practical ethics on which such disagreement currently centres they include the wide areas of bio-ethics and ethical questions connected to war and peace. On these topics the disagreements that exist often cross liberal/conservative lines inasmuch as such lines are stable in philosophical terms. For example, in the area of war and peace, there are reasons for disquiet about "just war" doctrines that can be voiced both by those on the pacifist side of an argument and on the side of those who feel that conduct of soldiers is too tightly constrained by such arguments. The former would tend to be "liberal", the latter "conservative". But the "centre ground" of the debate, if there is one, would draw out the difficulties of the terrain in a more general sense. It is far from clear to me that the ensuing discussions and clarifications have produced a liberalising consensus though it is true that when philosophers join explicit public debate on these issues they tend to urge positions that require some sense of legality to be brought to bear on war so most philosophers, on grounds related to that, had problems of one sort or another with the second Gulf War.

However, the general claim for a liberalising effect of the discussions that take place within the area of moral philosophy is not always so clear. For example, the area of abortion has tended to encourage both a view that there are rights here that accrue to women as those whose bodies are, in some sense, at issue. But this has not prevented there being some general sense, that has be weighed in the balance with this, that there are considerations that attach to the fetus, that it is not, as John Locke once put it, merely a "vegetable". If Locke's position was generally adopted there wouldn't tend to be any basis for restrictions on the "right" to abortion but few legislatures view that as correct and the philosophical discussion has not tended toward that view though it would be a "liberal" one.

The cases on which Wedgwood relies, those of homosexuality and the death penalty, seem less contentious. Certainly few philosophers tend to support the death penalty today despite the evidence of previous centuries in which philosophers did think there were grounds for support for it. Kant, for one, certainly does present arguments in favour of capital punishment though the question of his general position on punishment is a very difficult one to interpret. The argument for capital punishment, though, does indicate a basis for respect for the criminal as a ground for capital punishment, something that would tend, today, to be regarded as counter-intuitive, though this is partly due to the fact that how "respect" is understood in contemporary moral philosophy is not evidently Kantian. The question of homosexuality is one where there are strong grounds presented by some philosophers for notions that do not support the view of treating it in a way that produces outcomes of clear equality for gay people. Whilst the latter is certainly what I would hope would prevail I am less than convinced by the conception that there is a solid philosophical consensus here.

Without getting too far into the discussion of specific issues, however, the question of whether moral philosophers tend to agreement on specific moral issues is not as evident to me as it seems to be to Wedgwood. On the separate question of whether philosophy tends to promote liberalisation I am also not entirely convinced that we can make such a claim in a general way. Set against Wedgwood's point that philosophy promotes criticism is the opposite tendency of philosophy to find reasons for why things are as they are. The latter is also a key focus of philosophy (think here, for example, of Aristotle). So I suppose the weight of how I am thinking here does not tend to support Wedgwood's view.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

On Kant's "Bad Arguments"

A recent posting made over at The Splintered Mind makes great hay out of the view that Kant makes a number of "bad arguments" by which is meant that he defends or attacks a number of things, particularly in The Metaphysics of Morals that would not, now, generally be viewed as acceptable. Pretty sweeping things are thought to follow from this, including that it is quite possible that Kant is generally indulging in what the author refers to as "gobbedly-gook". (Like the reference to "bullshit" in the citation given in the previous posting it is intriguing to find philosophers using such terms as if they were, in some sense, state of art, that is, defined something.)

There are a number of things at issue here which are rather odd even assuming, as very likely, that Kant did make a number of "bad arguments" and defended things that should not have been defended as well as attacked a number of things that should not have been attacked. The first thing at issue concerns whether something of philosophical value arises when Kant, or any other confessedly "major" philosopher says something that, on reflection, seems clearly wrong. In the cases at issue in the posting there are remarks Kant makes concerning wives and servants, masturbation, organ donation, homosexuality, the killing of bastards and tyranny. Now, even before attempting to go into any detail here, the first point would be that the cases at issue here are quite varied. So, whilst the status of wives and servants has undoubtedly changed considerably since Kant was writing, the nature of that change has, amongst other important elements of it, reflected a sense of how "property in one's person" should be understood. This is no small change and grappling with the nature of that change might well be worth some philosophical time rather than simply thinking that the citation of a passage from the history of philosophy on this topic was sufficient to close down consideration of the question of whether this philosopher has made an important contribution to the area of philosophy in question. 

Masturbation is a topic that concerns "duties to oneself" and, on this, I hope I am not immodest if I point to the discussion of this in my book Kant's Practical Philosophy as indicative of a way a serious approach to this topic can both bring out the means by which Kant's response here does draw on deep resources of his practical philosophy that point to the conclusions he draws whilst also enabling discussion of how a different conclusion could have been drawn. Without work of that kind I struggle to see how we can learn at all from the history of philosophy unless, that is, name-calling is thought an appropriate response to a position on which disagreement with historical positions is pretty manifest.

Organ donation remains a subject on which there are varied and serious philosophical options open and when Kant here tries to tackle the question of the boundaries of the self he is surely doing something important even should the way that he does it be thought problematic. It is hardly, in any case, a settled business this topic. No more is the topic of homosexuality even though the stand adopted here by Kant is one that would not tend to be adopted by Kantians today. That serious work on this area is decidedly necessary is manifest today and whilst I would certainly not want Kant's view here to become one widely adopted I would hope it worth attending to the rationale for what that view was. The question of resistance to tyranny and rebellion is a decidedly complex one that, once again, we do a disservice to if we simply reject Kant's position since here he does raise a serious problem about the basis of right.

Going through the cases is one thing, however, adjudicating the charge of "gobbledy-gook" quite another. This does, again, partly come back to questions of what "clarity" involves. The author of the posting I am here replying to seems to think it is "elitist" to write in a way that many people find difficult though it is hard to think of any philosopher who is not seriously difficult quite a lot of the time. That would, after all, be part of the point of being a philosopher! Another element of the charge made in the posting in question is that Kant can attain no greater insight on moral topics than anyone else, as is shown by his "bad" judgments on the topics in question. Now here there is surely some serious conflation. On the one hand there are the "judgments" of Kant, the guy. On the other, there is a question about what, if anything, is enduring in the body of works signed by this person. To infer from the view that the former misjudged things that the latter is untrustworthy is a sure fallacy. Secondly, the arguments cited from the Metaphysics of Morals are not all equivalent within the logic of the work since the discussion of homosexuality has no place in the strict position of right for example whilst that on tyranny and rebellion has a very important role there. Given this difference insight into the structure of the work and the basis of the positions in this structure would be of signal help in evaluating the results achieved. Amongst other points here would an assessment of how far Kant has followed his own guidelines for procedure in reaching his conclusions and what the general alternative positions, considered within that procedure, might well be. In fact, without work of that sort it is only by reference to previously assumed standards that the arguments can even be viewed as "bad". 

Two last points. Even if none of the above compels conviction it would still be surely bizarre to find an extension from the passages cited to a general conclusion about Kant's work. There is no way any body of work can be treated in such a summary fashion. Finally, if there is any point to a notion of "common sense morality" then the relation of philosophy to it needs to be evaluated from both ends. That is, whilst philosophy should surely attempt to make such morality more explicit it should also provide a critical riposte to it. On the other hand, if there is a robust sense to such morality then it should, in its turn, provide an image by which to test philosophical criticism. So the relation should be mutual without it following that nothing particular has come from the philosophical end of the argument.

Clarity and Philosophy (III)

My previous postings on this topic have tended to concentrate on responses that have been made, and thought justified, in response to works of Jacques Derrida. For some reason, his "style" is thought to be irritating by a number of people and this irritation has been rationalised by means of allegations of obscurity and, with this, an allegation of "wilful" attempts to mislead by means of such alleged obscurity. Previous postings gave short shrift to this reaction.

A thoughtful posting over at Pea Soup pursues this question from a slightly different angle, though, once again, taking off from a response to the writings of Derrida. As is pointed out here the canon of philosophical writings includes many, not least Kant, who are writers whose work is by no means evidently "clear" and yet who we take to be worth the effort required to try to work out the sense of the texts they wrote. This does instantly show that if clarity is a mere synonym for "accessibility" then there would be a serious problem with defending quite a considerable number of works in the history of philosophy. The fact that this attitude is generally not adopted does suggest that standards of what should be understood to be examples of "clarity" in philosophy can also be very varied. Is Aristotle, for example, more or less clear than Kant? Even if "clarity" is taken as a synonym for "accessibility" then there would be varied answers here depending on which works were focused on and, even within the works, which passages and stretches of argument. Also, given that the reputations of philosophers rise and fall at different points it would seem that the basis of appreciation is not clearly tied to standards of "clarity".

A second point made in the piece referred to above is that the irritation some feel when reading Derrida is one that rises from what the author calls: "the posturing, the pretense, the thin layer of bullshit that covers such exercises of coded insider-talk". Whilst this may well indicate sentiments felt the notion of the writing in question itself containing something that clearly corresponds to this attitude is disavowed by the author of the posting. Since the writing in question is effectively "innocent" of such "crimes" then what is it that lies behind such responses? After all, some of us might feel that the prose of, say, Quine, is rather more rebarbative than that of Derrida and that it certainly addresses an "in-crowd" through its own mode of "insider talk".

The sense of "insider talk" might well get at the problem better as it suggests a feeling of exclusion on behalf of certain readers when confronted by certain types of writing. Again, that exclusion can hit different readers differently since I, for one, feel much more excluded from the writings of Quine than those of Derrida. So this sense of exclusion might well have something to do with a certain kind of expectation when confronted with philosophical prose, an expectation that is at issue in the demand for "clarity". What this expectation would refer to is a model of writing that has been picked up from certain types of philosophical writing that the reader has grown habituated to such that when a different type of style is presented the search for comprehension of the piece gets disappointed. In this case, however, the problem surely lies with the reader for importing an expected standard that might well be the right one for getting published in journals of academic philosophy and for being taken seriously at conferences held in certain places with certain types of people attending. However, surely that reflects the generalisation of a certain model without accompanying argument for the basis of this model and simply assumes the greater transparency of this model based on the experience of a selective group? In which case the standard of "clarity" has itself, as I suggested in previous postings, been significantly left under-determined.

Digital Economy Bill

Here in the United Kingdom the government is busy pushing through a bill that will affect internet service providers as well as endangering the supply of internet to households in which a sole "offender" is deemed guilty of violation of copyright. This bill is known as the Digital Economy Bill and has been going through some very odd changes during the course of passage, including proposals that would tighten up the censorial elements of it, coming, from all people, from the Liberal Democrats! To read an analysis of the bill that includes linkage to a useful YouTube campaign video against it see a recent posting over at David Campbell's blog.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Ethics and Undergraduates

Over at Crooked Timber right now there is a good thread listing possible articles for undergraduate ethics courses though, as one of the contributors points out, a lot of the initial suggestions really fit more in the area of political theory. Nonetheless, the thread lists a lot of interesting pieces, some of which are linked to copies of the articles that can be downloaded on-line.

Reading the list and thinking about the difficulties of teaching ethics to undergraduates brought two things to mind that don't appear to be registered in most of the suggestions. On the one hand, whenever I have taught ethics to undergraduates there has been one persistent problem. This is the amazing endurance of lazily relativist views of the subject. This is especially apparent on first year introductions to the area, it is really the major difficulty in teaching the subject since relativism tends to get reinforced by the problems with the major ethical theories and the difficulty, in an introductory course, with bringing out why theories that have major difficulties are nonetheless worth paying sustained attention to and are, one and all, more worthwhile than any "relativist" view. The consequences of relativism are untenable as can be easily shown whilst the internal contradictions of it are not difficult to find. However, if a course opens with a discussion of relativism then it is all the more likely that its ghost won't get put to rest. If any readers out there feel like commenting on occasion the question of how to address this problem is one I would be most interested in hearing about as it is the single one that most puts me off the very idea of teaching ethics.

A second point not addressed in most of the contributions set out in the list from Crooked Timber is the absence of discussion of the notion of "common sense morality". There are quite a number of good reasons why this topic needs to be addressed. 1) It is a central notion in intuitionist views of ethics and also a version of it motivates the argument of the first section of Kant's Groundwork. 2) Criticism of it is a major motivation of utilitarian views of ethics. 3) Some idea of it is important in terms of relating ethical theory to moral practice since the latter frequently appeals, implicitly or explicitly, to the notion. 

Not sure why this second topic is missing from the contributions so far to the discussion over at Crooked Timber but perhaps, if any readers of this blog also read that one and notify others of its absence from the debate over there it will help to put it on the map!

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Gender Justice

The latest issue of The Economist is leading on a topic related to the last posting, what they term "gendercide", meaning by this the problem of abortion of female fetuses in many countries of the world and especially in China and India. This general phenomena is based, as the leader article correctly argues, on a confluence between tradition and modernity since the traditional preference for boys is reinforced by the rise of technologies that enable the status of the fetus to be understood well before birth. The result: skewed sex ratios that are producing increasing numbers of males and decreasing numbers of females, something that is not only in itself problematic but has many troubling consequences. The key point made in the leader article is: "all countries need to raise the value of girls". As is stated in its argument one central way this can be accomplished is by means of encouragement of female education so that the economic thinking behind the attack on females can be combatted. Certainly the placing of value on girls in a world-wide way is one of the central questions of current global justice.

Monday, 8 March 2010

International Women's Day, Camfed and Entrepreneurs

It is the centenary of International Women's Day today, an occasion that has led to its being marked in a more general way than is common and reported widely across media which usually ignores the occasion. On the occasion of it this year I would like, as I did when it came to the Seasonal Appeal I made just prior to Christmas, to commend specifically the work of Camfed.

Before there are women there are girls and it is the welfare of girls that is one of the paramount questions currently for anyone interested in international justice. Foremost amongst the considerations of the welfare of girls is education since education is routinely denied girls in many places in the world. Camfed works in Africa, a part of the world where the education of girls is of particular significance since it is of major importance for the possibilities of development there. In the latest films Camfed have released there is a clear emphasis not just on educating girls but, most importantly, on educating them to be able to be leaders and, significantly, entrepreneurs. 

Despite the economic downturn producing a general sympathy for anti-capitalist sentiments the truth is that development of countries still requires a culture in which entrepreneurs are encouraged and, along with this, a culture in which the qualities of such entrepreneurship are cultivated amongst a wide section of the population, not least the female half. So please look at the films, support Camfed's effort and consider donating to their key aim of promoting the empowerment of girls in Africa.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Universality, Humanity and Rationality

One of the most basic disputes concerning the interpretation of Kant's ethics concerns the relationship between the different formulations of the categorical imperative presented in the Groundwork. One of the problems, mentioned sometime ago by Paton, concerns the question of how many such formulations there are with Paton favouring five but most commentators now content to think there are three. A rather more substantive concern has been with the practical implications of the distinct formulas with a wide variety of thinkers wishing to suggest that there are different implications relative to which version of the categorical imperative one adopts.

In particular there is a general felt need to choose between the formula of universal law and the formula of humanity. The partisans of the formula of universal law are, for various reasons, on the defensive though the major gain of this formula, relative to others, concerns its implicit appeal to a neutral standard separate from the "matter" of moral commitments. This is bought, allege the critics of this formula, at a cost, namely, the vacuous nature of what the formula is taken to state. This argument can trace its ancestry to Hegel and consists in a claimed "empty formalism" of the formula of universal law. Confronted with this type of attack on Kant's ethics it has been a generally adopted defence to argue that the formula of universal law is not the central Kantian principle.

So, on these grounds, the appeal has often been made to the formula of humanity by preference to the formula of universal law. There are advantages to stressing this formula, not least the intuitive appeal of the contrast it involves between ends-in-themselves and ends that are only relative. This contrast is connected to a conception of humanity that effectively equates humanity with rationality. Since this line of thought hence moves from humanity to rationality to a stress on "objective" or non-relative ends it has the makings of an incipient theory of practical reason. However, there are compensating problems with this stress, though these have not been at the forefront of much discussion. To begin with, the equations involved in the formula are ones that are far from obvious and call out for detailed defence. Secondly, the formula of humanity is itself described in such a way that it is evidently meant to be understood as universal in scope. So if there are thought to be problems with universality itself then these problems would apply also to the humanity formula. Thirdly, the resort to it as a defence against the "empty formalism" objection is one that threatens to turn Kant's ethics into one that asserts a need for an end or even a substantive conception of the good. In other words, the conflict, should there really be one, between these two formulas of the categorical imperative, is one that can re-stage within the terrain of Kantian ethics, the division between "teleological" and "deontological" views of the general area of ethics. In subsequent postings I intend to trace this division and debate it further in order to see whether it is possible to get a view of both Kant's ethics and the area of ethics generally that can move past this divide.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Morality and Rationality

I was reading today about attempts in various US jurisdictions to bring in laws that will force schools and educational institutions generally to have "open debate" on such matters as climate change and the theory of evolution and, after calming down, considered the nature of what irritates me so much about such an approach, not least to law. There seems to have grown, particularly on the right in the US, a generic kind of irrationalism that is based on the view that all kinds and types of belief are effectively equivalent to each other and hence that there can be some kind of "neutral forum" in which they can all present their case before the public.

This belief is in fact a masquerade since the kinds of people who think that there are grounds for serious debate concerning the "theory" of evolution have very little conception of what a theory consists in and what kinds of considerations are relevant for evaluation of it. So it appears "reasonable" to some to appeal either to Scripture or to a set of apparent "evidences" of design in nature as if either of these appeals was somehow evidentially on a par with the accumulative work of natural science. In responding to such people one tends to lose one's patience simply because they have such a peculiar view of what counts as an argument. So the kinds of evidence of "design", to take the most respectable version of this kind of view, that are supposed to count are either versions of an anthropomorphic fallacy or they are clearly accounted for within the scope of evolutionary theory in any case which is based on a comprehension of adaptation to environment that would predict such effects of design as emergent. Further, any serious rational person is aware that the use of Occam's razor commits us to accepting that the simplest explanation that accounts for the phenomena in question is, by virtue of its simplicity, the best one.

Since the kinds of people one is arguing with, however, systematically flout all considerations of evidence and rational grounds of belief these types of appeal are unlikely to persuade them. At which point one finds that effectively there is no kind of rational ground that would persuade them of anything. So, to move over to climate change, apparently some "religiously" motivated critics of it argue that we can't be affecting the climate in this way as the climate was designed by God. Again, since it is apparent that any and all aspects of the climate are susceptible to harm by us, there is no ground at all for thinking it per se impossible that we could be responsible for damaging the climate. But anyone who thinks that you can invoke God in this kind of way in an argument has so little conception of argument that one is at a loss how to begin with them.

At this point I tend towards the view that the real problem in these cases is a moral one. Irrational people of the sort who deny the intrinsic possibility of climate change or think that the theory of evolution is "just" a theory are people in a grip of a conviction and this conviction is one that has corrupted their reasoning powers. This doesn't entail that they are generically incapable of reasoning but that, with a range of subjects, there is a moral fault when it comes to being able to practice the skills of reasoning that they undoubtedly are capable of using. In this sense people of this sort are morally corrupt persons, persons that is, who prefer a belief to be adopted because it suits them and feel no responsibility to see how such a belief may relate to the myriad kinds of considerations that are appropriate for its evaluation. In this sense the fault they have is not, in the first instance, one of reason but of morality and the kind of fault it is involves submitting to inclination in the sense that certain kinds of beliefs strike them as "looking" better than others. Hence, though it seems ugly to say it, these people are guided by a kind of corrupt aesthetic that has taken charge of their morals and atrophied their reasoning capacities.

There is a moral basis to reasoning correctly which involves acceptance of rules and canons of argument, understanding of what kind of thing counts as evidence and agreement to engage with others in a common discussion. In the absence of this there is moral irresponsibility based on abdication before presumed "facts" that have an absolute status and yet get defended by means of a perverse relativism.