Sunday, April 6, 2014

Good-bye to Libertarianism

I find the hardest part of a political philosophy course to teach is the section on libertarianism because I can’t take it seriously. It is a philosophy for the 19th century age of the robber barons and 21st century Silicon Valley billionaires who want a gloss of theoretical respectability to cover their vast wealth. But for the rest of us it has nothing to offer.

One central pillar of their theory is that property rights are natural rights, but they have been completely unsuccessful at making a plausible case for such a claim. Locke’s attempt has been subject to withering criticism and Nozick doesn’t even try to prove there is a natural right to property, he just assumes it is a fact. Much of their case for a minimal state whose functions are limited to enforcing the criminal law, torts, property and contract rights rests on the assumption that property ownership is a natural right and therefore any taxation for purposes other than maintaining the minimal state are invalid without the individual consent of the property owner. Hence, any state regulation of private enterprises is unacceptable. This puts us back in the Lochner Era of a century ago when the courts agreed that state efforts to impose health and safety regulations for workers violated the rights of the property’s owners, as did labor unions (collective bargaining) and minimum wage laws. Nor could libertarians support, consistent with their theory, a progressive income tax or a tax on stock sales (like the Tobin Tax) and other forms of capital because they would violate property rights. Moreover, curbing extreme inequality of wealth is not part of their conception of justice.

As for the second pillar of their theory – the natural right to liberty – it is loosely understood as the absence of coercion, deceit, fraud, extortion and other sorts of deliberate effort to control the behavior of others, i.e., negative liberty. Libertarians appear to hold that a society with extensive negative liberty is all a person needs from the state to be self-determining. People are entitled to only as much self-determination as they can attain within the institutional framework of an unregulated free-market. But liberals look at it differently. They draw a distinction between the allocative function of markets and their distributive function. 

Liberals like me agree that market systems – when properly regulated – can do an effective job of producing goods and services efficiently; their allocative function. But they often fail quite dramatically at distributing income and wealth – the rewards of work – in a just manner. Markets distribute incomes in response to supply and demand. Wages and salaries fluctuate in response to the relative supply of workers and demand for the product or service produced, factors that are largely independent of the worker’s merits. Nor, as the historical record shows, does a market economy always guarantee employment for all who want it. So to ensure social justice, liberals see a need for fair equality of opportunity for all. Once again, that would require transfer payments in the form of taxes from the haves to the have-nots and that would violate the libertarian’s sacred natural right to property. So we can immediately see one of the ugliest features of a libertarian society: the only children who get an education are those whose parents can afford the tuition for private schooling or who benefit from charity. Nor would there be any public colleges or universities, still less, universal pre-school education or subsidized day-care for the children of working parents. So how serious are libertarians about the right to self-determination? 

One last point: Libertarians are well-known for objecting to governmental rules and regulations as yet another unnecessary restriction on people’s liberties. Sometimes they make the empirical point that regulatory bodies are open to capture by the very parties they are supposed to be regulating. No liberal would deny the point but that hardly shows regulatory bodies are necessarily bound to fail. More interesting is the conceptual point they sometimes appear to make: that regulations per se are restrictive of liberty. This is a dogma. Rules can liberate, provided they are intelligently made and judiciously administered. Just to take one example out of many, consider consumer protection laws. Given the technological complexity of the products consumers buy and the food and drugs they consume, it would be absurd to expect everyone to be their own safety control officer. Life is way too short for that. The information provided by properly done consumer protection laws can be highly liberating.

Contemporary libertarians may regard these arguments as shopworn and out of date. Maybe so, but I still hear them in political campaigns and the speeches of Congresspersons.

Clifford Anderson
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Weirdness of Thinking Contraception Weird

This musing is intended as a playful, though serious, response to Russell DiSilvestro’s recent blog post, which I view as playfully inviting us to think about contraception in a new light… perhaps as weird. Reading broadly, I take Russell to be inviting us to consider weird any determination that something is good but which we opt not to pursue, some of us, for the entirety of our lives. No, he wasn’t speaking of broccoli or abdominal crunches. He offers that we’d view it weird for a community in some possible world, exactly like ours, to take sexual pleasure worthy of preventing, much like many of us view preventing sexual reproduction. Not that we or they would not engage in sex; just when we and they do, some of them prevent the pleasure it ordinarily brings just as some of us prevent the reproduction it ordinarily (heterosexually-speaking) brings.

So, here’s my suggestion – this, better than most, shows the limitations of thought experiments. Don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot for thought experiments. They are among the few truly creative and inventive opportunities in a discipline ordinarily bound by the rigors of logic. Thought experiments, at best, get our intuitive juices flowing, and offer insight into our conceptual frameworks, ideological commitments, and sundry biases. It was in this spirit that Russell offered his thought experiment about contraception. At worst, though, they distract, distort, allowing biases or ideology to creep into our analysis.

One problem with Russell’s thought experiment has already been pointed out in the subsequent comments from Randy Mayes– that this community’s wanting to prevent sexual pleasures requires some explanation, as it seems too far from what we understand about pleasure as to stretch the credulity of the claim that theirs is a world exactly like our own except for this one difference. But, let’s put that aside. I’ll grant that their world is exactly like ours, with this one difference.

What my concern hinges on is the apparent equivalence of the goods of sexual pleasure and sexual reproduction in a world exactly like our own. We need an account of what makes each good good, since in this world, they are not self-evidently equivalent. One way to do so is to consider their likely effects. On closer examination:

The Good of Sexual Pleasure

1.       Entails nothing beyond the reciprocal, consensual, experience of the pleasure itself.
2.       Lasts the duration of the experience, and can be enjoyed in memory thereafter.
3.       No risks normally arise from pleasure (laughing ‘till you cry excepted).

The Good of Sexual Reproduction

1.       Entails the creation of a child, which is a being with moral worth.
2.       Entails the creation of a being with material needs of care, which someone will have the obligation to meet.
3.       Brings into the community another member, toward whom others, otherwise uninvolved in the act of reproduction, will have some moral and other practical obligations.
4.       Economic responsibility lasts, at least, for the duration of the child’s dependency. Moral responsibility lasts, typically, for the child’s entire life.
5.       Risks reproductively related illness, including the possibility of death. These risks are born entirely by the woman, and the fetus.
6.       Risks economic repercussions for lost time at work for birthing and related medical care, which may extend for the duration of the child’s dependency. These may be extensive as the birth/rearing parent loses work-related experience and the economic benefit that normally accrues thereto. These risks are born in large part by the woman, child, and any other dependents she has.

Even granting the belief that both pleasure and reproduction are good – both in the practical sense of being “good for you” for those who participate, and in the moral sense of being “worthy of pursuit” universally – it seems clear why one might be interested in limiting the frequency and the timing of the good of sexual reproduction. It’s also pretty clear why a community would be interested in everyone being able to do so. The implications of pursuing this good are born not just by those pursuing that good. The morally and practically significant responsibilities of bringing a child into the community affect everyone in the community, directly or indirectly. It’s also clearer what is so weird about preventing the good of sexual pleasure, since doing so seems to have no down-side for anyone (except, maybe, for an ex).

Clearly, sexual pleasure and sexual reproduction play fundamentally different roles in people's lives, and have dramatically different effects.  These two goods are incongruous in important ways, such that concluding their practice is weird for its prevention of the good of sexual pleasure tells us absolutely nothing about our own practice of preventing the good of sexual reproduction. The thought experiment at best misses this significant difference. At worst, it obfuscates it. What’s weird here is the thought experiment.

Reproduction is serious business. Pleasure is decidedly not.  In a world exactly like our own, reproduction is not to be undertaken lightly, at least not without planning, without attention to one’s own and others’ willingness to assume the responsibility it creates. The downside of failing to do so is significant and grave not merely for those who reproduce, but for the product of that reproduction – the child – and the community into which that child comes as a new member. Perhaps this is why women, and men, have been so concerned to try to find reliable contraceptives… for millennia… no, that’s too short a time… for ever-since-we-figured-out-that’s-not-a-stork-bringing-those-bundles-to-the-cabbage-patch.

“Hey, cutie, how about a little reproduction?”
“Maybe in a few years, when we’re economically stable.”
“Right, when I’ve finished my degree?”
“Sure, when we’re not living in my parents’ basement.”
“Oh, when my life is in order?”
“Yeah, let’s enjoy the pleasure of sex… at least for now.”
“OK, pass the condom…”

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, March 17, 2014

Is Contraception Ever Just a Little Bit Weird?

“My aim, I hasten to add, is not to argue for policing people’s procreative motives or for creating disapproval (or approval, for that matter) of particular procreative decisions. I’m not interested in being a moral disciplinarian. Nor am I interested in telling people what they ought to do or what I think is right for them to do. My aim is simply to explore some ways in which we might think systematically and deeply about a fundamental aspect of human life.” --Christine Overall, Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, The MIT Press 2012, page 8.

My aim in this short post is the same as Christine Overall’s aim in her excellent book (which I’ve been reading recently thanks to the recommendation of my colleague Christina Bellon).

But here I hope to “test the waters” for an idea I might weave into my talk next month at our department’s Nammour Symposium (which I’m doing thanks to the invitation of my colleague Randy Mayes—and that’s the last collegial shout-out of this post, I promise).

Imagine a land where all think sex has two main purposes—pleasure and reproduction—but most think it is always permissible and usually wise to deliberately thwart exactly one of these purposes—namely, pleasure.

This land is just like ours in every single way, with only one inversion: they treat sexual pleasure and reproduction the way we treat sexual reproduction and pleasure.

The result is that most people in this land use some methods at least some time in their life to intentionally avoid having pleasure while still having sex.

In this land such methods are called “contrahedons.”

(The term comes from Greek hedone, “pleasure”; at least since Bentham, a hedon is a unit of pleasure to supposedly measure your happiness.)

Some contrahedons are known as “barrier methods” and involve wearing or inserting artificial devices during sex whose sole point is the prevention of unwanted sexual pleasure. Other contrahedons chemically alter the bodies of men and women to prevent pleasure from occurring during sex more reliably than barrier methods. Still other contrahedons are surgical procedures whose only goal is to prevent a person from having any sexual pleasure for the rest of his or her life.

One somewhat disputed method of “contrahedon” (there is debate whether it even counts as that) is popularly known as “natural pleasure planning,” and works by a couple being careful only to have sex during those periods of time least likely result in pleasure, like after reading Bertrand Russell. (Sorry, inside philosophy joke.)

Some people in this land point out that the easiest and least invasive way of not having sexual pleasure is to just not have sex, but they are widely dismissed as the lunatic fringe.

The philosophical thinking the people in this land engage in about contrahedons might surprise you.

They say they do not think that sexual pleasure is inherently bad. Indeed, most people in this land would agree that each of the two main purposes of sex—pleasure and reproduction—are “good” things. But one of these good things—reproduction, of course—is the sort of good thing that no sane person would ever want to have less of; whereas the other good thing—pleasure, of course—is the sort of good thing that only some people want at all, and which every sane person realizes must be had in moderation.

The people in this land debate whether the main “purposes” of sex are evolutionary or divine (or both). But this debate makes little difference to the actual practices of this land. (While a few thinkers in this land, typically of one particular religion, argue that deliberately thwarting the pleasure of sex is bad in itself and will lead to other bad things, these thinkers are usually just ignored, even by their co-religionists.)

As a result, the dominant public culture of this land—its education, its entertainment, its governmental and religious institutions—all take on the character that would be expected by this cluster of ideas. Advertisements for contrahedons boast of “taking the joy of sex away”; access to and state funding of contrahedons is a platitude of progressives; and so on. Of course, people still allow themselves some sexual pleasure; but usually only after having sex for a few years, and then just once or twice, and after that, never again.

Now, then. Most of the people still reading at this point are surely struck by something. It’s the weirdness of this land, and the weirdness of contrahedons. Of course, this weirdness does not automatically translate into the badness of contrahedons or the wrongness of using them. Still, contrahedons strike us as weird.

But what, precisely, is weird about them?

My initial explanation is this: the people are taking something that is so evidently good—sexual pleasure—and they are deliberately trying to prevent it from happening, while still saying that they think it is good.

This explanation does not rely on any special sense of “natural.” The weirdness of preventing the natural good of sexual pleasure is not from it being naturally good but from it being naturally good; put differently, the weirdness of stopping it comes from its goodness, not from its naturalness.

But if that is why contrahedons are weird in their land, is contraception weird in our land?

Most of us think of our own lives as so evidently good as to not need mentioning.

Most of us with children think that their own lives are so evidently good as to not need discussing it.

But those are precisely the sorts of things that we are deliberately trying to prevent from happening, while still saying that we think they are good.

Isn’t that just a little bit weird?

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State University

Sunday, March 9, 2014

What's something simple it took you too long to figure out?

Christina Bellon:  Reasonable people can disagree

For too long, I believed this was a cop-out, a rationalization to avoid the hard work of getting to the truth of the matter or about ourselves. If reasonable people disagree, it could only be because at least one of us (not me) is mistaken . You need to be better informed, clarify concepts, self-assess for biases or, worse…emotion.

I came to this simple truth after spending sustained amounts of time disagreeing with otherwise reasonable people. That disagreement, when not due to error, was due to differing commitments to important related matters. This attempt to integrate what looked, from our own points of view, to be incompatible or irrelevant is an indication of our respective efforts to be reasonable. Acknowledging these commitments is a matter of respect for each other’s intellectual and emotional dignity. Only then can we resume the shared task of building truths from disparate sources of knowledge and live together such that we can engage in the deliberative project at all.

Written into the dysfunction that characterizes Congress is the failure to appreciate that legislating, as reasonable discourse, demands respect, mutually. If I can claim that our disagreement is the result of your failure to be reasonable, I don’t have to do anything – you must change for progress to be made… and we get no gun legislation, no revision to the tax code, no marriage equality, and everyone in Florida gets to stand their ground or die trying... or while eating popcorn.

Jonathan Chen:  Philosophy actually is worthwhile

It’s always nice to remind ourselves of why we do philosophy and how it contributes to our well-being. This is perhaps the simplest truth that I often overlook, but one that I take joy in when I am reminded of it.

Authors like Arthur Clarke, Philip Dick, and Isaac Asimov have given us futuristic worlds that spark our imagination with scientific developments such as satellites, space travel, cyberspace, and a coexistence with robots. And with our rapid technological advancements, these science fiction writers seem all too prophetic. Their fictional worlds have become our reality.

As magnificent as these inventions are, however, what they entail is what really saturates me with fear and awe. In Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man,” we are given a futuristic world where anthropomorphous robots live among humans, existing solely as their instruments. When one of these robots, Andrew, acts contrary to its deterministic programming by showing a sign of creativity (entailing self-development), we are challenged with how we should identify it. Afterward, Andrew decides he wants to be free. When asked what difference it would make, he responds, “It has been said that only a human being can be free. It seems to me that only someone who wishes freedom can be free.”

This can be seen as an exercise to point out our general prejudices towards others. As Bertrand Russell suggests, sometimes the world tends to become too obvious for us, and we go through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from our habitual beliefs.

Matt McCormick:  We reason to defend the things we believe

I took an embarrassingly long time, like years, maybe decades, to realize that people, including philosophers, typically don’t gather evidence, reason carefully about it, and then draw the conclusion that is best supported. I think I sort of knew this intuitively but it took me a long time to really put my finger on it; we are all guilty of what psychologists call motivated reasoning regarding a lot more of our beliefs than we think. This is the mistake of criticizing new information that is inconsistent with our prior beliefs more severely, and then relaxing those skeptical standards when the information is “preference consistent.” Put another way, we have a belief first, and then we generate reasoning to support or defend it instead of making a better effort to gather all of the relevant information, and then accepting whatever conclusion is indicated. You’ve seen this in action when the fans of rival football teams all watch the same game and both groups are utterly convinced that the referees are making calls that are biased against their personal team. And the really deceptive thing about this cognitive quirk is that when we are doing it, it doesn’t really feel like we are doing it. When I’m defending that view that I hold dear and that I’m emotionally and psychologically invested in, it really feels like I am giving a powerful, compelling, rational argument for it. I have resolved to distrust that feeling whenever I have it.

Brad Dowden:  It is possible to go back in time

I eventually came to realize that in principle we can travel back in time and participate in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. I once mistakenly believed that doing this is impossible.

If you want to travel to the future year of 2114, scientists know how. According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, if you travel close to the speed of light away from and back to Sacramento, then you can be gone for only a few months according to your clock that flies with you, but you can return to Sacramento in the year 2114 long after your friends have died.

The situation required for travel to the past is much more exotic than merely having a fast spaceship, but scientists do know how you could get back to Hitler’s office in Berlin in a manner consistent with the laws of science. Unfortunately, you cannot do anything that hasn’t already been done, or else there would be a contradiction. In fact, if you did go back, then you would already have been back there. So, you can participate in a Hitler assassination attempt, but you cannot change its outcome.

Since you would have participated in the assassination attempt long before you were born, we philosophers should make some changes in the usual idea of personal identity. Philosophers need to accept the physical possibility of death before birth.

Randy Mayes: The tads accrue

That's a saying I made up to obscure its embarrassingly simple meaning: Little things add up to big things. There is so much that interests me, which I have simply not pursued (or, worse, begun to pursue and then simply quit) because the time to fruition seemed so onerous. Are you, like me, still angry that your parents let you quit guitar or dance lessons? Look where I would be now if I had stayed with it, practicing just a tiny bit each day! Why did they knuckle under to that whiny brat who just wanted to play baseball and watch The Three Stooges? Yep, This Be the Verse. Of course, the tads accrue to the bad as well. Obesity, drug addiction, credit card debt, ocean acidification, extinction.  They seal our fate in painless, even soothing little baby steps.

Economists call it hyperbolic time discount. Resisting it requires us to be able to defer gratification, an ability which, in children, turns out to be a depressingly accurate predictor of life outcomes. Our inability to imagine what can be accomplished in tiny steps is the subject of timeless allegories. It is also what has made it so difficult for us to comprehend the universe, which evolves at a pace so slow that until recently we were certain that it did not evolve at all.

Maybe this video will inspire you to believe in the power of baby steps. But that's really the problem in a nutshell: Inspiration doesn't last.

Russell DiSilvestro: Apparently atomic things can be molecular 

An example: when I was a child, for a long time I thought that the title of the movie "A Miracle on 34th Street" began with the single word "Amiracle." Eventually, someone pointed out to me (over my repeated protests) that it's actually "A"—an indefinite article—plus "Miracle"—a common noun.

I don't recall how someone figured out that I needed the lesson—"Daddy, is the Amiracle in that story like the Amiracle in the Santa Claus movie?"—but one thing it impressed me with, even then, was how an apparently simple thing (on the surface) could actually have a deeper structure that is more complex (even if its complexity went unrecognized for a long time).

The philosophical payoffs of this “simple” (!) truth took a long time for me to learn, and I am still learning. I can have a concept and use it for a long time—justice, or God, or science, and so on—without anyone noticing that it is not a simple concept but a complex concept; not an atomic (not divisible) thing but a molecular (divisible, with interlocking parts) thing. I think this explains where some of our beliefs do not fit together well, or do not agree with the beliefs of others. One small part may be to blame (or praise!) for the perplexing situation. 

By the way, I also think that apparently molecular things can be atomic. But that’s a “simple” truth for another post…

Kyle Swan: Property rules are coercive

Many like me have libertarian views because they take seriously liberalism's presumption against coercion. When you coerce others, you interfere with them and force them in ways that violate their agency. Ordinarily, and other things being equal, these are things you shouldn't do. Therefore, if coercion is legitimate, it requires special justification. Whoever is advancing a coercive policy undertakes a burden to justify their interference and, according to libertarians, this is a lot more difficult a burden to discharge than many people seem to think. "Taxation is theft," libertarians sometimes say. "How do you get to take my stuff?" But this just means that libertarians want their (rather strong) interpretation of property rules to be enforced coercively. Is the coercion of these rules justified? Well maybe not if holding everyone accountable to them would lead to some people’s ruination. For a property-rights regime to be justified as legitimate, for it to be reasonable for me to demand of everyone that they comply with the coercion of its rules, it should work out reasonably well for everyone. What kind of property regime is necessary for that in the world we live in? I’m not totally sure, but whatever it is it’s unlikely to perfectly match the libertarian ideal.

Scott Merlino:  True love and truth telling are uncorrelated

There is, probably, never a good, rational reason to believe with certainty that whatever someone tells you is true. This is not true merely because people lie or that we cannot reliably detect truth from falsehood, or because cynicism is true. Sometimes people speak falsely, unintentionally. Of course we know that people in power, figures of authority and alleged expertise, and people trying to sell us stuff will spin tales or allow us to be deceived. But these people do not have our best interests in mind, and we learn quickly that they are not to be trusted. Doubt first the veracity of what anyone tells you - especially if they love you and even if they intend genuinely to help you in some compassionate or measurably practical way, because they might be mistaken or they might be just trying to make you happy. Perhaps it is not selfishness that causes parents to lie to their children about Santa Claus, or for the lover to say to her beloved that she promises with all her heart to love him forever. Intentions are fine things, but they are useless indicators of truth. The point is that however much you love and seek the truth, without weighing evidence for yourself, you have insufficient reason to believe what people tell you. Credulity erodes in proportion to the deceptions we endure. It took me a long time to appreciate this.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A dialogue for the dance: on the enforcement of moraltiy

I overheard this exchange outside my office last week.


Ned: Yeah, but you can’t legally enforce morality and it’s a big mistake to try.

Enzo: I disagree. Obviously, it could be a mistake to try to enforce certain moral rules. Enforcement is costly and sometimes ineffective. I even agree that sometimes trying to enforce morality with the law creates problems even greater than the immorality the rules are targeting. So, for pragmatic reasons, I can see that it could be a mistake to use the law to enforce certain moral rules. But surely, Ned, the state should enforce the “no murder” rule.

Ned: Well, duh. Murder, though, violates Mill’s harm principle. Governments don’t enforce it because murder is wrong. They enforce that rule because murder causes harm.

Enzo: Wait a minute. Murder IS wrong, isn’t it?

Ned: Sure.

Enzo: Causing people harm is wrong, right?

Ned: Yes.

Enzo: So…

Ned: Oh! I see. Sure, if you want to think of it that way, then fine: Mill’s view would be that moral rules that protect people from harm are legitimately enforced. But that’s it. Apart from pragmatic reasons, there are principled reasons not to enforce other parts of morality. It would be illegitimate for the state to express blame or impose punishments against people who violate certain moral rules.

Enzo: What are those principled reasons? Because, a moral rule just is a claim or directive for which there are such strong reasons to act a certain way that it is legitimate to express blame or impose punishment against people who don’t comply. We can hold people accountable to moral claims and directives.

Ned: Yeah, but not every claim or directive counts as moral in that sense. The claim has to be verified from the point of view of some principle – a “critical” principle that determines that the claim has the sort of standing necessary for it to be legitimately imposed on everyone in the society.

Enzo: What, like utilitarianism?

Ned: Well maybe. I guess that’s Mill’s view and Hart defends it in his debate with Devlin.[1] But many deny that utilitarianism is the right critical principle. Maybe it isn’t appropriate to hold people accountable to claims and directives that can be justified in terms of utilitarianism. Many people take themselves to have decisive reasons to reject utilitarian requirements. And it seems impermissibly sectarian to hold people accountable to claims that they can’t see the point of or that are incompatible with their own beliefs, values and commitments. Imposing utilitarianism on everyone in a society might be just as bad in this sense as imposing Christianity on everyone in a society.

Enzo: So what’s the principle?

Ned: Public reason liberals, like John Rawls and Charles Larmore have proposed a kind of public justification principle. The idea is to eschew sectarianism by requiring that everyone have reasons of their own for endorsing a coercive rule. It’s a test to determine whether the rule has the necessary “public” character for the state to legitimately coerce everyone’s compliance.

Enzo: You mean everyone has to agree? That’s crazy. It would mean we could legitimately enforce exactly zero rules.

Ned: No, the principle isn’t that demanding. First, it just requires that everyone have reason to endorse it, not that they all actually do, consciously and explicitly endorse it. So it could be that all have reason to endorse a coercive policy, but for one reason or another, not all of them see that they do. The mere fact that they don’t see it doesn’t make the rule illegitimate.

Enzo: Oh. But doesn’t anyone who does explicitly disagree with a rule have reason to reject its legitimacy? Say a proposed rule isn’t strictly incompatible with someone’s beliefs, values, commitments and the like, but her values dictate a different rule.

Ned: No. Generally, the fact that a rule doesn’t live up to her vision of ‘the Good’ isn’t sufficient to show that she has reason to reject it as unjust. We’re looking for a test of legitimacy – rules that you have sufficient reason to endorse – and requiring that they precisely match your personal ideals seems extravagant. In fact, very often the fact that many other people you have to interact with are observing a rule will be reason enough for you to observe it, too, even if you would prefer a different rule.

Enzo: So you’re saying that, according to this public justification principle, to determine whether a claim or directive is legitimately enforced, we must adopt the point of view of the public, rather than the point of view of our own personal ideals or some other sectarian doctrine.

Ned: Bingo! It’s in that sense that the legal enforcement of morality is wrong-headed. “Moral” rules that don’t pass that test aren’t legitimately enforced.

Enzo: Huh. But I…


That’s all I heard. Enzo still seemed to want to defend the Enforcement thesis.  I found myself persuaded by Ned’s Non-enforcement thesis. What about you?

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State University

[1] H.L.A. Hart, Law, Liberty and Morality (1963).

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Science, technology, and the meaning of life

by Dan Weijers

From each of our perspectives, our own lives are extremely important. We compulsively check our phone or email accounts for that life-changing message (“did I get accepted or not?”), and we celebrate accumulating 1000 “friends” on Facebook (“I’m probably the most connected person I know!”).

Yet, from an objective, third-person, perspective, e.g. the point of view of the universe, our lives seem to be meaningless. No matter what we accomplish in our lives, it seems like our actions will have no discernable impact on the universe as a whole. You may have already given up hope of being a famous singer or sports star. Maybe you are striving to be a scientist, so that you can cure cancer or discover a new renewable energy source. But, from the universe’s point of view, even these esteemed careers and achievements will not earn you a meaningful life.

Thomas Nagel and others have discussed this absurd contrast between how meaningful and significant our lives are from the inside when compared to an objective viewpoint (usually referred to as the absurd). Nagel would have us embrace the irony of the situation and enjoy a cosmic giggle at our own expense. Of course, many religions provide explanations for our Earthly existence that resolve this absurdity. For example, eternal reunification with the creator of the universe might be offered as a reward for an Earthly life well lived.

The absurd, then, is only a potential cause for concern in the non-religious people who cannot find humour in the meaninglessness of their lives apparent from an objective perspective. Leo Tolstoy, as recounted in his My Confession, was in this situation. Tolstoy was a beloved family man, famous author, and wealthy landowner. Despite these advantages, Tolstoy became paralyzed by the objective meaninglessness of his life. He questioned the ultimate significance of his actions, but could not find any satisfying answers.

Based on a firm belief in science as the method for learning about the universe, Tolstoy was convinced that the universe would eventually die and that all humans and their legacies would be completely annihilated. As a result, he believed that it was impossible for him to leave his mark on the universe. In his words, and from his scientific outlook, he thought it impossible to connect our finite lives with something infinite or permanent.

Just when Tolstoy was about to abandon all hope of breaking out of his paralyzing depression, he realized that the vast majority of people did not share his dismal view of life. Recognizing that it was religious faith that allowed others to feel connected to something infinite, Tolstoy buried his earlier opinion of religion as “monstrous” and became a Christian of sorts. Fortunately for Tolstoy, this enabled him to break free from the grip of the absurd.

What I’d like to do here is propose a naturalist account of the meaning of life that could have provided Tolstoy with another option (and provides another option for anyone currently in the situation he was in). As such, this account is only intended to appeal to people who don’t believe in Gods and souls, and find the absurd distressing.

I call the account Optimistic Naturalism, and it entails belief in these two principles:

Infinite Consequence: performing an action that has infinite consequences for life is sufficient to confer True Meaning on the life of the actor, if the actor finds those particular infinite consequences to be subjectively meaningful (in part) because they are infinite. 

Scientific Optimism: continual scientific and technological advancement might allow our actions to have infinite consequences for life in a purely physical universe.

Following Susan Wolf’s view of the important kind of meaning, I take True Meaning to mean the meaning that arises from the right kind of connection between the subjective and objective points of view. For example Infinite Consequence is the view that performing an action that has infinite consequences for life is sufficient to confer True Meaning on the life of the actor, if the actor finds those particular infinite consequences to be subjectively meaningful (in part) because they could be infinite. For example, if I develop a technology that enables humans to avoid the supernova of our sun, and I find this meaningful partly because I believe it will help enable life to continue for infinity, then, if life does persist continuously, I will have lived a truly meaningful life.
Here is a brief defence of the main principles.

Is having an infinite consequence really objectively meaningful? First, realize that most objective viewpoints are multi-subjective standards, which are unavoidably tainted by the socio-cultural values of the individuals involved. By taking our standard as the point of view of the universe, we can step back until all residue of subjective value has disappeared. Our finite lives and legacies become so small from this vantage point that they pale into insignificance. But, infinite consequences are not quite like this. No matter how far we step back, and no matter how distant the objective viewpoint is, infinite consequences will never vanish into insignificance. When all the values and finite consequences have disappeared into the distance, actions with infinite consequences remain, ineluctably influencing future events.

Is Scientific Optimism too optimistic? How can we avoid the big chill (when the universe effectively becomes inert)? One live theory in cosmology, Eternal Inflation, predicts that new parts of the universe will always bubble out from our existing one. If this theory is correct, then the right kinds of advanced technology might enable some form of life to escape into new parts of the universe whenever the existing parts are becoming uninhabitable and thereby persist for infinity. Of course, great advances in science and technology would be required to enable us to take advantage of these ‘bubbles’ in this way. But, until recently, humans couldn’t even fly, and now we can fly to space and back!

Dan Weijers
Philosophy Program
Victoria University of Wellington

Monday, February 24, 2014

Instrumental technology and the responsibility problem

by Arthur Ward

Some people view technology as simply a means to an end. The user has a set of goals and a technological artifact can help the user achieve those goals, for better or for worse, but does not alter or introduce new goals. Call this the instrumental view of technology. A difficulty with this view is that it contradicts our own experiences: working in a beautiful library can help one focus, holding a weapon can make one bolder, and driving a powerful car can lead one to be reckless, etc. Interfacing with technology, it seems, does sometimes have the power to change us in various ways.

An alternative view, call it the non-instrumental view, is that some technology is more than a means to an end, and can actually alter some of the ends that a user wants to pursue. Technology can change us. A difficulty with this latter view is that it appears to lessen the moral responsibility of a person who uses a piece of technology for an evil end. “It wasn’t entirely my fault,” they might exclaim, “I was influenced/lured/tempted/seduced by technology X!” Call this the Responsibility Problem.

Here I will argue that the Responsibility Problem can be dealt with, and the non-instrumental view adopted. I will look at two technologies, controversies over which might gain clarity by adopting this analytic scheme: guns and social networks. Both, I argue, are clear examples of non-instrumental technologies that can affect some users in a negative way, influencing them to act wrongly when they would not have erred in the absence of the technology. Recognizing this fact, I think, will not lead to letting evil-doers off the hook, but will facilitate very necessary precautions and regulations with the technologies.


The stakes of the debate over guns are nicely laid out by Evan Selinger in his Atlantic article on guns. As he describes, the Instrumentalist view of gun technology is summed up by the familiar slogan “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” This proclaims the ethical neutrality of guns, placing any blame for evil acts committed with a gun solely onto the person firing the gun and not the technology itself. Selinger argues that this position is untenable if we observe that people act more bold, reckless, or aggressive when holding a gun (at least some kinds of gun: if not a hunting rifle, perhaps a handgun or an assault rifle). I think Selinger is clearly right about this. This isn’t to say that merely holding a gun is enough to turn any decent person into a maniac - the claim is more modest than that: sometimes some guns in some cases impact some people in such a way as to affect their personality and alter their goals. I daresay it’s unlikely that George Zimmerman would have stalked and picked a fight with Trayvon Martin had he not been armed.

Social Networks

Looking at social networks brings forth a more pervasive example that many undergraduates have experienced: cyberbullying. There will always be bullies, but the technological advances of social networks like Facebook and Twitter have allowed for the proliferation of anonymous, venomous, bullying that can occur 24/7 online instead of being limited to the “schoolyard.” There are good reasons to think that cyberbullying is such a problem specifically because of features of the technology, namely the ability to instantly communicate in an asynchronous way from a distance without getting visual or other sensory feedback from one’s actions. In other words: it’s easy to trash-talk someone when you don’t have to look them in the face. There is a mountain of research demonstrating that our sympathetic response as humans is highly sensitive to immediate feedback such as a smile, frown, or grimace. When this interpersonal connection is severed, through distance or anonymity, we become less sympathetic towards one another. The Non-instrumental view of technology helps us see the import of this finding: Facebook is making some of us meaner! Some people who are normally kind and thoughtful can become colder and ruder online. This is an empirical claim, and research on this is in its infancy. Though, I think if we’re honest, many of us have caught this tendency in our own online behavior, and we surely recognize it in others.

The Responsibility Problem

Does the non-instrumentality of technology lead down a slippery slope away from personal responsibility and towards something like the twinkie defense? I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m convinced it’s the correct view, and where it leads we’ll just have to deal with that reality. But that aside, I don’t think we should worry about people dodging responsibility and foisting it on technology instead. While the external effects of technology can be powerful, the internal effects on our own personality and goals are usually very subtle, so much so as to often go unnoticed. “I didn’t realize I was speeding, I just felt kind of excited!” he exclaimed. In the vast majority of cases, the threat of technology to our free will is negligible. And note that if a technology did have a noticeable powerful effect on our will (consider a strong psychotropic drug), people would be very comfortable with lessened moral responsibility.

So, if we shouldn’t worry about the Responsibility problem, what are the stakes of being an instrumentalist versus a non-instrumentalist in the first place? I think the answer to that is non-instrumentalism should lead to cautious oversight, regulation, and education surrounding technologies such as guns and social networks. Their very minor effects on us can lead to enormous impacts further downstream, and for that reason it would be folly to take a Laissez-faire attitude towards them. What exactly those regulations look like is obviously where all the action is, and I don’t touch that here. But to protect each other, especially those more vulnerable to the lure of some technologies, taking a “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is unwise and unsound.

Arthur Ward
Lyman Briggs College
Michigan State University