Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wittgenstein's Vienna

I remember picking up my copy of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue once, thinking I should really read it some time, and then finding that I obviously had read it already, since it was full of my marginalia. So I can't be sure whether I really just read Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin's Wittgenstein's Vienna properly for the first time (rather than just reading in it, which I'm pretty sure I have done), but I think that's what happened. I should have read it years ago, decades ago.

It's not exactly easy going. The book deals with science, music, history, politics, philosophy, architecture, journalism, art, and more, requiring a fair amount of knowledge and sophistication in the reader. I went into it hoping that I might be able to assign it to undergraduates and quickly realized there was no way that would ever work. Which was disappointing. As was the authors' tendency to use phrases from Wittgenstein in describing the views of others, which seemed to me at first to be an attempt to make various figures appear more proto-Wittgensteinian than they really were. And their reading of Wittgenstein is a little more mystical, perhaps a lot more, than mine.

But what a good book!  Or what an impressive confirmation of much that I already thought about Wittgenstein, his interests, and the connections between them. (Hmm. That sounds arrogant. I mean a) that the book is impressive, and b) that one thing I like about it is that it confirms things I already believe (as well as doing much more besides this). People who taught me have been influenced by it, I suspect.) It even suggests a connection between Wittgenstein's remarks on private language and ethics (see p. 235), which I had thought was a new idea. It would be good reading for anyone who intends to read James Klagge's Wittgenstein in Exile or Clive James's Cultural Amnesia. Klagge discusses the fact that Wittgenstein's belonging (as he felt) to another time and/or place should be expected to make his work difficult for us to understand, and gives some examples, but he says little about this other time/place and its concerns. Janik and Toulmin do that in spades. James emphasizes Vienna but, from the little I have read so far, he is a little superficial. Certainly his essay on Wittgenstein is not satisfying. On the other hand, Coetzee has called it, "'Aphoristic and acutely provocative: a crash course in civilization," which sounds like praise.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


I recently watched the documentary of Freakonomics, which I recommend, if only to save yourself reading the book. That makes it sound bad, but it isn't. It's actually good and interesting. But it does not, to my mind, live up to this kind of hype:
Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.
Assuming that the movie is a fair reflection of the book (perhaps even the best parts of the book) then I would say it will definitely not redefine (or even change) the way we view the modern world. Unless we are idiots.

Here are some examples. Some kids in high school work hard and get good grades but others don't, even though getting good grades is an important means to making more money (something these kids want) in later life. How might this change if kids are given financial rewards at the end of each month in which they get good grades? Get ready to have your view of the world redefined: some of them work harder, but by no means all of them do. Maybe if the incentives were larger, or given even more immediately, or both, they would make more of a difference. Who knows? That's it.

Example number two. After some scandals in the world of sumo wrestling, including insiders whistle-blowing, some people were still not convinced that there was widespread cheating going on. Wrestlers who win 8 out of 15 bouts are rewarded, and it was alleged that those who had already won 8 but still had a bout left would allow their opponent to win if that would bring him up to 8 wins. A statistical analysis suggested that this was indeed what was happening. Economics saves the day and blows the lid off sumo corruption? Not exactly. For one thing, those needing to win that last fight have much more of an incentive, all cheating and bribery aside, to win than do those who already have the 8 wins they need. Lacking motivation is not cheating. For another, many disciplines use statistical analysis. It is not a win for Economics every time this proves useful.

What else is in the movie? People with the kinds of names that poor people have tend to do badly in life, but because they start off poor, not because of their names. On the other hand, people with names associated with black people are less likely to get interviews (in the USA at least) than are people with white-sounding names. Is this really all that surprising?

I don't mean to overdo it. There are interesting findings here, and some that are hardly surprising nevertheless do contradict what some people have thought. So they are worthwhile too. But "statistical analysis confirms common sense" more often sums up what the 'freakonomists' have to say, it seems to me, than anything about turning conventional wisdom on its head or making you gasp in amazement. One idea that is repeated in the film is that incentives matter, people respond to them (but not all in the same way or to the same degree, as the high school incentive scheme shows). If that rocks your world then you should definitely strap yourself in for a bumpy ride and read as many of these books as you can. Or else just watch the movie.       

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Blogger goes on holiday

Blogging is likely to be light for the next couple of weeks. I'll be travelling to upstate New York and then to the Grand Canyon (via Las Vegas). I'll try to post something tomorrow and/or Tuesday of next week, assuming I have something to say, but don't hold your breath otherwise.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The end of wonder

Justin E. H. Smith writes that:
false theories are an important part of the puzzle that we as philosophers should be trying to complete: that of determining the range of ways people conceptualize the world around them.
The implication is that philosophy is about (i.e. the goal of philosophy is) determining the range of ways people conceptualize the world around them.

This is, at least superficially, quite different from Mark Linsenmayer's claim that:
we live in a culture where “conservative” means “go out and get a job and be useful, and screw all this knowledge for knowledge’s sake and art for art’s sake!” Philosophy is by definition in opposition to that. 
The implication here is less clear, but one way to read it would be as a rejection of instrumentalist thinking. Philosophy is opposed (or even is opposition) to the idea that the good is the useful, that there is no such thing as intrinsic value, as in art for art's sake.

Smith approaches Linsenmayer's position though:
Scholarship in the history of philosophy must not aim to contribute to the resolution of problems on the current philosophical agenda. What it must do instead is reveal the variety of problems that have in different times and places been deemed philosophical, thereby providing a broader context within which current philosophers can understand the contingency, and future transformability, of their own problems. In this way, historians of philosophy contribute to the vitality of current philosophy, but on their own terms, and not on the terms dictated by their non-historian colleagues.
He rejects one kind of call for relevance, the demand from philosophers that work in the history of philosophy have a payoff, but seems to offer a different kind of relevance instead. The history of philosophy, as he sees it, ought to provide something for current philosophers, although what it provides them is a context, not the kind of thing that they actually want.

Smith clearly cares about other things too, such as respect for the dead and the possibility that our current thinking might in some ways be too narrow. And these things seem to be part of the point of providing a broader context. So he isn't really thinking instrumentally here, at least not in a crude way. What I'm tempted to say he wants to offer is a (broadened and respectful) sense of possibilities. Which I think you might call informed wonder.

Linsenmayer's association (not identification) of philosophy with knowledge for knowledge's sake and art for art's sake is actually quite similar to this. Very roughly speaking, the art part might provide the wonder while the knowledge part provides the being informed. Although talk of aspects might be better than parts here.

What both Smith and Linsenmayer oppose is something that it would be nice to be able to call utilitarianism, a narrow- or closed-minded "practical" approach to life. I suppose philosophy is opposed to this in spirit, but it doesn't stop actual philosophers wanting philosophers to provide not understanding of the dead or of possibilities, but answers to questions, solutions to problems, or at least something neat to entertain them. Bread and circuses.

I'm also tempted to see this as a problem that belongs to mainstream philosophers who therefore fail to appreciate the good work of others ("What do you mean you don't see the value of my musings on some obscure remarks of Wittgenstein's?"), but actually it's probably just human nature. I like having questions answered and to be entertained too.

Whether this idea of philosophy as being about wonder is anti-conservative I don't know. It is in one obvious way anti-conventional, but there needn't be anything political about that. Or rather: it is political, but not necessarily aligned with any particular part of the political spectrum. A philosopher is a member of no thought community. Including the thought community of philosophers. 


Friday, May 20, 2011


Jean Kazez argues that having children can add meaning to one's life (ht bookforum). Along the way she says that:
In his book How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, Peter Singer describes the sense of emptiness that people suffer if they invest all their energy in such things as making money, getting promoted, sports, and shopping. Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are people like animal activist Henry Spira and Paul Farmer, the extraordinary doctor and global-health leader so fascinatingly described in Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, 
Peter Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are not focused on their own children, but on all children – ideally, on all people and sentient beings. They deliberately limit their focus on their own children, at least striving to live by the notion that “each counts for one, none for more than one”. This is the real life practice of Paul Farmer. As Kidder tells it, he devotes most of his time to saving the lives of poor patients in Haiti and around the world, seldom even visiting his own daughter, who lives in Paris with her mother,
(which makes Farmer sound terrible, I think, but how old is his daughter?, and how rarely is "seldom"? He might not be so bad at all, despite his saintliness), and that:

A team led by psychologist Douglas Kenrick recently proposed a revision to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which pictures self-actualization at the top of a pyramid. Maslow thought the consummately mature human being found his calling, whether it be art or music or poetry (his examples), after taking care of more basic needs (for food and sex, safety, love, and esteem). The ultimate activity, the end of the line, was creative self-expression. In that pyramid, parenthood doesn’t have its own specific level. It’s part sex, part love, but lower in importance than finding your personal calling. In the revised pyramid, parenthood is at the top, with mate selection and retention right below.
Kazez argues, against the suggestion that parenthood is the acme of human life, that many things can provide meaning in one's life:
I suggest that to have meaning in one’s life is (1) to have overarching goals that organise one’s time and energy, making life not just one damned day after another; and (2) to be wholeheartedly committed to those goals – durably, and without constant doubt; and (3) for those goals to be well enough grounded in reality to survive reflection.
This is intended as no more than a rough definition, but it still gives me pause. What's wrong with taking life one day at a time? Why must one's time be organized to be meaningful (if that's the implication)? What do goals have to do with meaning?

I'm involved in raising children, but this is mostly a matter of doing what needs to be done at any given moment. If there is a goal it is ensuring that our children grow up happy, well, and decent, or something like that, but a) the goal is not something I have clearly in mind, and b) it does not organize my time or energy in any clear way. Maybe it dictates how much of my time and energy are spent, but it doesn't add order to my life in the way that the word 'organize' seems (to me) to imply. If anything organizes my time it is the school calendar (my own school and my kids'), not my overarching goals.

It seems to me that the two parts of criterion number 1 come apart. The first suggests something like a hobby or a book project, the second relies quite heavily, I think, on the word 'damned.' What is really at issue is that life not be hateful, not that it be organized. The second criterion, the one about wholehearted commitment, is pretty much the reverse of this: you need to love someone or something. The third criterion looks like a sanity clause: what you love must be a sane enough object of affection that your love will endure. All in all what Kazez seems to me to be talking about is love, and it is perhaps for this reason that her breaking it down into numbered parts or criteria seems off to me. And, yes, having children certainly does give you something to love. So really I think I agree with her, despite these misgivings.

I also agree with her that one can love things other than children. I really wonder how Singer knows that people who invest themselves in making money, going shopping, or sports, feel empty inside.

I hope that some of them do, but I don't see any inevitability that they all will. Nor does self-expression necessarily seem like such a great thing. Some artists are tortured, and some are not that good (although artistic failure might often be a result of failing to express oneself truly--who knows?).

I also wonder whether it is possible for human beings to focus on "all people and sentient beings." I'm sure one can feel a kind of love for all people and all sentient beings, but all the time? In a focused way? It seems more like a momentary experience or else a kind of background to everything else, amounting to something like being happy or being nice. But it doesn't seem possible to have that kind of generalized happiness as the love that gives meaning to your life, perhaps because it gives you no direction, nothing in particular to do. (Providing medical care to children in developing countries is doing something in particular, of course, but that one should do this does not follow from an unfocused love of all sentient beings.)

Surely most of us need other, more immediate, things to love, like particular individuals. And maybe something intermediate for the times when those individuals (they could be animals as well as people, I think) are not around or don't need your attention. This could be some other set of people, or a hobby, or an art, or a sports team, or anything else that you can love.

But by now I suppose I am getting very banal, which I take it is a sign that what I'm saying is probably about right. And if Singer and Maslow have got it wrong, then the banal truth is worth saying. 

As for the banner above (suggesting that Manchester United Football Club is more important than one's children and that Douglas Kenrick's team was right about the relative priority of children and one's spouse), it's the kind of thing that people say is funny because it's true. But it's also a joke. It's doubtful that its owners would actually sacrifice their families for their team. But I suppose we don't really know our priorities until they are tested, and that happens, thankfully, rarely. One last thing that might be worth saying is that the idea of having to prioritize might be a mistake. That is, if loving all sentient beings is roughly the same thing as being happy then part of being a good parent might be having this love. An angry or hateful parent is probably not a good one. And loving one's partner is probably ideal if one is to be a good parent too. Equally, loving one's children, I would think, makes one a better partner. And so on. Life, United, Kids, Wife: in no particular order. And with whatever substitutes you prefer for kids and/or wife.   

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Experimental philosophy update

My effort to see whether I could write a paper in one semester has now reached a successful conclusion. The paper, "Philosophy and Poetry," has been accepted for publication in Essays in Philosophy. Hooray! Thanks to  everyone who gave me feedback on the first draft I posted (or linked to) on here.

I don't intend to make a habit of writing quite so quickly, but I'm glad that I was able (with help, of course) to transform a paper from rubbish to adequate in so little time. I learned some philosophy along the way, and with luck someone will read it and be pointed towards Cora Diamond's and Alice Crary's work, which I talk about in the paper.  

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wittgenstein's Aftermath

In the days before blogs there used to be a very active Wittgenstein discussion via email, but it seemed to die out for some reason. As I remember the level of discussion was very high, and Lars Hertzberg would appear from time to time, which tells you something (unless he is just a glutton for punishment, but I doubt it). Now there is "Wittgenstein's Aftermath," which features some of the same people. (I see that there is some discussion of my work there, so I'd better take a look some time.)  

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Prejudice and fun

Not the fun of prejudice, but two separate notes about recent posts at New APPs.

In this post, I was struck by the quotation from Hume (it's from Book I, part III, section XIII of the Treatise, according to a quick Google search):
to use another of Hume’s examples, common prejudices such as an “Irishman cannot have wit, and a Frenchman cannot have solidity.” 
If wit means intelligence then these exact prejudices are still around (or were when I was growing up) almost three hundred years later. (I assume that having solidity is the opposite of being a cheese-eating surrender monkey.) Which all ties in with the idea here that "we still seem to be up to our necks in the slavery heritage." That kind of heritage dies hard. 

And now for some good news: fun. Or funsterism. Here is a defense of philosophers who boldly go against common sense. It's weird (not exactly unusual, but disorienting) to see things from that point of view. In comments there, dmf writes that "If memory serves Rorty reads Davidson, after Kuhn, on "living" metaphors as non-sensical creations (perhaps provoked by encounters with the unassimilated)that evoke paradigm shifts and then are slowly incorporated into everyday use and slowly “die”."  I don't know whether Rorty would have liked calling such things nonsensical (maybe that's just the word that Davidson uses, I don't know), but otherwise this idea sounds fine to me. It's hardly the same thing as philosophers claiming that possible worlds are real, though, or that nothing is a part of anything. Or so it seems to me. If only because this kind of metaphysics is not likely to appeal to the people who turn nonsense into dead metaphors.

That post links to this one, which says that philosophers create concepts. Of course this is true (qualia, anyone?), but it's hard to think of any good concepts that philosophers have created, or ones that have caught on with non-philosophers. Newton and Einstein have been influential in fruitful ways, but have any philosophers? I suppose they have, but the names that come to mind are either hundreds of years old or else in the continental tradition. If contemporary analytic philosophers think that what they are doing is being creative in the way that, say, Einstein was, then I suspect they are mistaken. But even as I type I'm becoming more and more aware of how ignorant I am about the subject.  

Finally, speaking of lumping things together, here's a new blog to check out: Lump and Split, by J. Jeffers.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Don't stop believing

In comments here, Matt Pianalto said, "Maybe my forthcoming article on W in Inquiry [...] will spur the needed revolution...we can dream, right?" And what should show up in my Google reader just now but a link to this? My initial reaction was: "Fame!" I suppose that's an overreaction, but the dream is definitely alive and well right now. Congratulations, Matt!

Encouraging students to join the military

When I started teaching at VMI in 1995 only about one third of our graduates went into the military, and fewer than 10% made a career of it. Today more than half serve after graduation (or, in some cases, before that), perhaps because they believe that their country needs them and perhaps because the economy reduces their other options. Perhaps it's some combination of the two in some cases. But certainly many of my students go into the military and many do so believing that it is the right thing to do. I don't think I should try to change their minds about this, but I'm not sure that I should actively encourage them to go off and, most likely, fight. This article suggests otherwise.

Jonathan Hillman, the author, writes:
Universities already embrace national service programs like Teach for America, encouraging students to apply and reporting with special pride the numbers of their alumni in such programs. They should do the same with military service. 
VMI does encourage its students to embrace military service, but the ethics of doing so are not clear to me. Not because I'm anti-military (I'm not), but because of what it might mean for the students. I used to teach a course on military ethics (I stopped because it proved relatively unpopular, not because I thought it was a bad course) and one of my students went off after taking it (I don't know whether there was a causal relationship or not) to help keep the peace in the former Yugoslavia. Good for him!, I thought (and still think). But when he came back he showed me his photograph album, including pictures of the minefield he was nearly driven into by mistake. That's when it hit me that I might have encouraged him to risk his life, and I was not at all sure that I had any business doing that.  

Another questionable passage is this:
 When possible, faculty should collaborate with ROTC instructors. Imagine how an East Asian politics class might benefit from the experience of a naval officer who has been deployed throughout the region. Knowing only about the military as a fighting force, many students will be surprised by the intellectual firepower wielded by America’s men and women in uniform. 
The key word in the second sentence there is "might." There's a reason why the Navy brings politics professors in to brief its officers and why politics professors rarely return the favor. The classroom is an academic place, and the Navy isn't. I don't mean this as a slam. Naval officers have a job to do and is not an academic job. Might some be able to teach students something that a professor couldn't? Of course. Are many of them likely to be able to do this? I doubt it. A friend of mine who was in the US Navy for a few years said she rarely left the ship. My next door neighbor had a career in the Navy. I doubt he learned much about East Asian politics on his submarine. As for the intellectual firepower of men and women in uniform, well, I've had veterans in my classes, including this past semester. They are no dummies, that's for sure. But they aren't geniuses either. Their intellectual firepower is exactly what you might expect, unless you have some prejudice according to which everyone in the military is a numbskull.

If you want the academic elite to consider joining the military then you should be happy that so many of them go to the famous military academies, e.g. West Point and the Naval Academy. Some go to VMI. But I'm not convinced that other universities should be doing more to push people toward the military who don't want to go of their own accord.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How should I feel?

Scott McLemee provides a link to a YouTube video of someone trying unsuccessfully to get a chant of "USA!" going on the New York subway after bin Laden's death and writes:
As someone living near enough to the White House to take the mission of the Flight 93 hijackers rather personally, I did not wish Osama bin Laden well. But celebrating his execution as a rite of closure seems both barbarous and bad magic; the spirit of revenge, once summoned, is hard to control. If the people in the subway car don’t start giving each other high-fives, that’s because some are already preparing themselves for the worst.
So people who won't join in such chants are fearful of future terrorist attacks (and/or, presumably, not barbarous in that way).

According to Jean Kazez:
Barack Obama succeeded in eliminating Osama bin Laden from the world stage.  You'd think that liberals would be wildly celebrating.  I'm amazed -- really, really amazed -- that some have managed to find something to feel bad about.  The first thing they felt bad about was being happy.  I don't know how many articles I've seen -- and conversations I've had -- about whether happiness is appropriate.  But what a strange question.  There's so much to be happy about, all above board.  A just mission ended successfully.  (Dayenu!)  And Barack Obama led the way, vanquishing stereotypes about him, his ethnicity, and his political party.  And we shouldn't be happy?
Ah, but we're celebrating a death -- naughty, naughty.  But are we, exactly?
So people (or at least liberals) who don't celebrate are really happy but feel guilty about feeling this way.

I don't know what conversations Kazez has had, so I can't say that she's wrong about some people having reacted this way. In fact, I think some of my friends might have described their own reactions as being along these lines. But I really don't think either McLemee or Kazez describes my reaction, and I doubt I'm alone in feeling (and having felt) as I do. I don't feel a happiness about which I then feel guilty, and I don't feel much fear. Nor do I think that any of this is because I'm so non-barbarous. So what is it? What do I feel and why?

Mostly I don't feel much at all about bin Laden's death. I didn't take the 9/11 attacks personally, no doubt partly because I wasn't in any of the places attacked and I'm not a US citizen. For the same reason I'm not likely to feel great pride in my country for getting bin Laden, since I only half think of the USA as my country. If Britain had got him instead I might have felt some patriotic pride, but I don't know. Patriotism in Britain has been pretty much hijacked by racists, or at least a certain kind of patriotism has. Exhibit A (the EDL is the "English Defence League"):

There is a strong enough sense of national identity in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland that the idea of British patriotism scarcely makes sense. What claim do I have to be proud of the achievements of the Scots, say? English patriotism is more understandable to me, but much more in terms of love of a place and the best parts of its culture than in pride in any alleged superiority, past or present. That kind of pride seems stupid (how can I take pride in the achievements of Shakespeare?), misplaced (England has hardly always acted well), and borderline racist (is English pride significantly better than white pride?). So I guess this all explains why I don't feel any patriotic glee at the death of bin Laden. Is that all there is to it? I don't think so.

Kazez also brings up the question of whether killing bin Laden, rather than arresting him, was wrong, and the matter of justice. She writes as if the SEALs who got him might have wanted to arrest him but shot him rather than risk his getting away or, more likely, any harm to themselves. My sense, though, is that the plan all along was to kill him. He wasn't armed, after all, when he was shot. That's an understandable plan, but I would think that the ideal would have been for him to be arrested and tried (and found guilty and seriously punished). If the reality falls short of the ideal, however inevitably it does so, then my inclination to celebrate, or just feel happy, is reduced. Should I be happy that he is not living the life of Riley in a mansion somewhere? It would rankle if he had got away with his crimes to that extent, but he wasn't living a great life. He seems to have been bored and alone, not much better off than he would have been in prison. Maybe death is closer to what he deserved,  but not so much closer that it makes a big difference to how I feel about it. (My ideal punishment for him would be something like life in prison with a growing sense of guilt about what he had done. This was hardly likely to happen, of course, but that would have been my ideal. Death almost seems too little.)

Finally, I think my feelings (or lack of feelings) partly reflect a sense that evil, at least in this case, has no positive existence or, to put what I think is the same basic idea in other words, a sense of the banality of evil. (I don't mean that these are the very same idea, only that in referring to them here there is only one thing that I am trying to get at.) Bin Laden's ideology is dangerous, but it is also vacuous. It is not interestingly wrong. Al Qaeda seems to me to be an expression of ignorance, malice, and frustration. It is understandable to fear it, but it would be a mistake to be impressed by it. The killing of bin Laden is a bit like the squishing of a spider. Perhaps a relief. Perhaps necessary. Certainly understandable. But not something to celebrate. This sense that it is not such a big deal is partly a matter of thinking that he was no longer much of a threat, that he no longer posed a clear and present danger. But it is also partly a kind of moral judgment, an expression of contempt. (Is this expression of contempt a symptom of not-fully-conscious fear or resentment? I.e. is it somewhat phony? Maybe. Which is one reason for me not to get preachy about what attitudes others take. But I just don't know.)

I don't mean to preach about how anyone should feel though. I don't mean that Kazez or McLemee or anyone else is wrong to feel as they do. I'm just trying to describe my own reaction, if only because reactions like mine seem to have been misunderstood.

Friday, May 6, 2011

More on Korsgaard

Korsgaard likens moral obligation to the obligation to think logically. But she says what seem to be two different things about the latter. On p. 67 she discusses the case of George, who does not reason according to modus ponens (this pattern of reasoning: If A then B, A, Therefore B):
What obligates George to believe B in these circumstances is not merely his belief that "if A then B" and also that "A," but rather modus ponens itself. And it is not his belief in modus ponens that obligates him to believe B, for that [...] is irrelevant. What obligates him to believe B is that, if he does not reason in accordance with modus ponens, he will not have a mind at all.
It seems to me that the first and third sentences quoted here make different claims, one consequentialist in form and one absolutist.

The consequentialist claim is that if you don't reason in accordance with modus ponens then you will not be reasoning at all, so you had better reason that way or lose your mind. Illogical thought is not thought at all. But someone might not care about this, so the "obligation" looks problematic.

The absolutist claim is that modus ponens itself obligates George to believe B. That is, it tells him to do so. (It doesn't make him do so.)

This all reminds me of Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics, in which he contrasts someone who plays tennis badly but does not care to play better with someone who behaves morally badly and does not care to behave better. The former is understandable, but the latter is not. His attitude is unacceptable, that is to say. So Wittgenstein's view seems to be that moral obligation obligates in roughly the same way that modus ponens obligates, i.e. it tells you what to do. It does not force you to do it, though, and it does not threaten you with any dire consequence if you disobey. If it did, then your obedience would be self-interested, not moral. That is, if the force of moral obligation consisted in the fact that dire consequences awaited the disobedient, then there would be no moral obligation at all, only questions of self-interest. But telling someone what to do (without any threat attached) is not obligating them in any clear sense. Hence Kant's odd idea that we command ourselves, and Wittgenstein's suggestion that talk of moral obligation is nonsense.

What would the moral parallel be to the consequentialist claim about modus ponens? You must not behave immorally or else you will not be moral? That isn't much of a threat, or reason to change your ways. Korsgaard might want to argue that you risk losing yourself in some way, but a) do you really?, b) must you care about this?, and c) is this the reason why immorality is bad?       

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book recommendations

I'm halfway through Christine Korsgaard's Self-Constitution, which I'm finding surprisingly congenial. She develops an Aristotelian Kantian theory of agency and integrity, and hence ethics, which I think I disagree with only here and there (so far). She is pretty dismissive of Mill (not without argument), but actually I think Mill could be read as being closer to Aristotle and hence closer to Korsgaard than she recognizes. For instance, she quotes Mill saying that, "All action is for the sake of some end," which I tend to read as a conscious echo of Aristotle, and then goes on (immediately, as if merely glossing the quote) to say that, "According to Mill, action is essentially production," and to contrast this with Aristotle's view that virtuous actions are chosen for their own sake or for the sake of the noble. I think Mill would agree with Aristotle on this, but perhaps I'm misremembering what he says. Doing something for the sake of some end does not necessarily mean doing something in order to produce something else. If I could play the violin, for instance, I might play it for the sake of the music. The violin might be said to produce the music, but we might also say that I am playing music for the sake of playing music. Mill might call this an instance of producing (or trying to produce) happiness, but I think he says that music is happiness in cases like this. See this, for instance, from Chapter 4 of Utilitarianism:
What was once desired as an instrument for the attainment of happiness, has come to be desired for its own sake. In being desired for its own sake it is, however, desired as part of happiness. The person is made, or thinks he would be made, happy by its mere possession; and is made unhappy by failure to obtain it. The desire of it is not a different thing from the desire of happiness, any more than the love of music, or the desire of health. They are included in happiness. They are some of the elements of which the desire of happiness is made up. Happiness is not an abstract idea, but a concrete whole; and these are some of its parts. And the utilitarian standard sanctions and approves their being so.  
Anyway, what strikes me about Korsgaard's book is the way it is written: it's learned, intelligent, and careful, but also sort of chatty. One sentence reads: "Be patient with me." You feel as though a real person is talking to you. Not what you might expect from a Kantian!

Secondly, one I've mentioned before, How to Live, Sarah Bakewell's book about the life, work, and reception through history of Michel de Montaigne. I haven't finished this one yet either, but I'm nearly there. It might seem a bit meaningless to use the word 'masterful', but I don't know how else to describe the amazing control she seems to have over her material and her presentation of it. Why would I care how Montaigne's essays have been thought of in past centuries? Really I don't, but she makes receiving this not-very-wanted information painless, and mixes it with all sorts of stories about Montaigne's life, ideas from his essays, and pictures, so that the whole book is a delight. I wonder whether more philosophy could be presented this way, although the philosophical content of this book is probably too slight for it to be a perfect model for how to teach or write about philosophy.

And finally, one that isn't out yet. This interview with Lee Braver says that he has a book on Wittgenstein and Heidegger (Groundless Grounds) coming out from MIT Press in January. He describes the content thus:
I wrote 5 chapters, each taking on a central topic of their work: their views of philosophy, their main candidate for bad philosophy, holism, the nature of thinking, and anti-foundationalism.
Wittgenstein presents an interesting test for classification.  Imagine that he wrote his works in private, and there were just published today without their implication in the history of analytic philosophy.  What impression would they make on eyes unaware of their history?  The Tractatus obviously has a great deal to say about logic and the philosophy of language with the clear influence of Frege and Russell, but equally prominent are elements of Kant and Schopenhauer.  Indeed, like Kant’s treatment of science, Wittgenstein is clear that despite its length, the logic is there to limit language, to set off what lies beyond, the mystic which is far more important.  And the later work can be just as easily read as a deconstruction of metaphysical conceptions of knowledge and the self as, say, a work of ordinary language philosophy.
 Sounds like a must read to me.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Avoiding the problem

I keep talking about David Benatar without reading his book, so I was sort of glad to find that he has an essay online that is short enough for me to read. But I still can't bring myself to read the whole thing. Here is one part that caught my eye:
This problem would be avoided if everybody took their own lives at roughly the same time, but that is not going to happen.
He is referring to the fact that saying that life is bad does not mean we should all commit suicide, because (in part) the resulting grief in those who survive would make their lives even worse.  (It's my inability to take such thoughts seriously that prevents me from reading the whole thing.)

Another eye-catcher is his claim that there is no such thing as chronic pleasure. The comments by Nick Smyth and Jennie Kermode ("No such thing as chronic pleasure? Have you never been in love?") are worth reading. 

NPR on Korsgaard on bin Laden

Thanks to Brian Leiter, I found this article about the reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden, which quotes Christine Korsgaard:
Is there moral philosophical justification for rejoicing over the demise of someone like bin Laden?
"Most people believe that the killing we do in war is justified as the only way to disable an enemy whose cause we believe to be unjust," says Christine Korsgaard, a philosophy professor at Harvard University. "And although it is more controversial, many people believe, or at least feel, that those who kill deserve to die as retribution for their crimes.
"But if we confuse the desire to defeat an enemy with the desire for retribution against a criminal, we risk forming attitudes that are unjustified and ugly — the attitude that our enemy's death is not merely a means to disabling him, but is in itself a kind of a victory for us, or perhaps even the attitude that our enemy deserves death because he is our enemy."
It is important, Korsgaard says, "not to confuse the desire for retribution with the desire to defeat an enemy. But because terrorism partakes of both crime and war, it is perfectly natural, and perhaps legitimate, to have both of these attitudes towards Osama bin Laden: to think that we had to disable him, and to think that he deserved to die."
The two sentiments should be kept apart, she says. "If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead."
I wonder what Korsgaard actually said, though, because it doesn't seem to make much sense to say both that it is perfectly natural and perhaps legitimate to think that bin Laden deserved to die and that if we have any feeling of triumph it should not be because he is dead. If his death was deserved then why not be glad that  justice was done? (I'll return to this below.) Or is the idea that a feeling of victory or triumph is not the same thing as the feeling of satisfaction one legitimately has when justice is done?

Or is Korsgaard's idea that it is OK to have both attitudes as long as they are not mixed together? That seems a bit strange too.

My guess is that either Korsgaard thinks that there is an important difference between a feeling of justice having been done and a feeling of victory, or that part of her thinking has been omitted, in which she actually rejected the "natural and perhaps legitimate" (emphasis added) combination of attitudes that she describes. 

Let's look more closely at what she is quoted as saying. If we feel a sense of triumph, she says, this should be at our having successfully disabled an enemy. Apparently this would be OK. We may also, acceptably, feel that justice has been done. But we may not mix or confuse these sentiments, lest we start to think that our enemies deserve death just because they are our enemies. I wonder how far sentiments work, or can be got to work, like this though. If we mix them will they make each other grow? Maybe. If we are rational and keep them apart, will this prevent us from singing "We Are the Champions" in the streets? Maybe. It's not really clear whether the issues here are empirical/psychological or ethical or conceptual or what, at least to me.

I do agree that a feeling of triumph is out of place here. A chapter (not a book) has ended, but it's not a good chapter. A lot of people get killed in it. Some of the people who killed bin Laden probably lost their lives too. (They didn't, according to the official reports, but I have heard that this might not mean much, since it was a covert operation, and that a helicopter was reported to have made a "hard landing" after receiving heavy gunfire. "Hard landing" (at least sometimes) means crash.)

I have always thought of Al Qaeda as a terrorist organization rather than as a genuinely military enemy, so I thought of bin Laden much more as a wanted criminal than as an enemy combatant. Korsgaard is probably right that he is somewhere between the two, or both, but my sense is that he was no longer much of a threat, so his status as a criminal is probably more important than his status as a threat. And so, perhaps, justice has been done. I don't believe in capital punishment, but it may well be that bin Laden was killed in a firefight rather than in an execution, and he could hardly complain that he had done nothing to deserve being killed. None of it makes me feel like singing in the streets though.


  1. Apparently bin Laden was unarmed when shot, so it sounds as though it could have been an execution.. Of course I don't know what happened though.
  2. This is well worth reading too.
  3. Rupert Read gives his opinion, and others respond, here.]    

Monday, May 2, 2011

The royal wedding

Jean Kazez asks whether the royal couple must breed and suggests that we all have a prima facie duty to reproduce. I agree that reproducing is a good thing, but it seems to be going too far to say that we all have a duty (of any kind) to have children. It seems unfair to people who cannot do so, or just don't want to. In fact, not wanting to do so might make someone a bad parent and therefore someone who ought not to have children. But why talk about a duty that doesn't apply if you don't want it to? Perhaps that's too quick. Is there perhaps a duty to have children even for those who do not want them? That just doesn't sound right to me.

The original argument she is responding to was that the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William was paid for at public expense and so the public is owed an heir or two. But that seems wrong for the reasons Kazez gives:
Charles Foster says, "Most people have no obligation to reproduce." Wills and Kate, though, are a special case. Millions of pounds were spent on the wedding, and now they owe the British people a couple of little heirs to the throne.

The money has been spent primarily to ensure dynastic continuity. By accepting our money for their Bollinger and bobbies, William and Kate are impliedly accepting our commission to use their best endeavours to breed. They have taken the People’s Shilling, and have become, first and foremost, breeding animals. Their gametes are held in trust for the nation, and they should guard them.  Kate must marinate her eggs in the finest organic nutrients that Fortnums has to offer: William must never wear tight underpants, and always wear a box when he plays cricket.
Forgive me if I don't understand the phrase "Bollinger and bobbies" and don't know what Fortnums are, but I really would have thought the People payed for a wedding and got a very fine wedding.  They can hope for little heirs, but it's understood that babies are not for sale.  So William and Kate do not owe the British people anything.
(By the way, Bollinger is a kind of champagne, bobbies are police, and Fortnum and Mason is a fancy food store in London.) "Babies are not for sale" seems to hit the nail on the head to me. But what about the idea that the royal couple owe something in return for all that expenditure? I think in having a monarchy, and a monarchy of a fairytale type at that, the British are accepting a kind of trade. The royals get things like this wedding and palaces to live in, etc., while the people get this kind of spectacle, a speech on Christmas Day, and so on, plus whatever profits there are to be made from the tourism thus generated. Those who don't like the deal can try to end it in the usual way, by voting for politicians who offer to end it.

It has been odd to see so much excitement about the wedding among my American friends and so much aversion to it from my British friends. But then the Americans aren't paying for it and don't have to live with the deal the British, for now and as a whole, seem to accept. Those who object seem to dislike not so much the expense as the symbolism of the whole thing, the idea, roughly speaking, that rich and powerful people are better than everyone else and deserve to be loved even by strangers. It is the myth of aristocracy (i.e. the myth that we are ruled by the best people). Those who enjoy it enjoy it as a kind of myth or fairy story. In short, no one thinks it is true, but some people enjoy the fantasy while others see it as dangerous or evil (because false).

So it's a bit like some of the debates over religion, with anti-monarchists playing the role of the atheists. It also seems like an issue where fictionalism might be worth taking seriously. If Britain keeps its monarchy for the sake of the tourist industry or out of Burkean caution then it might be a good idea to enjoy it rather than rage against it. And the enjoyment is likely to be greater if we engage in a bit of make believe. This is not my view, but it's one I could imagine a reasonable person taking.