Tuesday, September 26, 2017

God, virtue, and moral absolutes

This sounds good. Here's the call for papers:
I am currently organizing a conference celebrating the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth Anscombe's seminal paper "Modern Moral Philosophy." Our four confirmed keynotes speakers are:

Alasdair MacINTYRE, University of Notre Dame
Cyrille MICHON, University of Nantes
Rachael WISEMAN, Durham University
Jennifer A. FREY, University of South Carolina

While we, the organizing committee, have a preference for submissions from current graduate students, we will consider abstracts from anyone interested.

Please feel free to pass on this information to anyone interested in ethics, moral theology, political philosophy, legal theory, etc. More specifically, please consider spreading the word to departmental grad student lists. See here for details:

All presenters will receive a private hotel room for two nights during the conference as well as a small stipend of up to $150 to help defray documented transportation expenses. There is also a limited fund to further assist those who may be traveling from abroad. Such funds will be awarded upon request, based on availability. 

Submissions received by the October 1st deadline will receive full consideration, but we plan to continue considering applications until November 1st, or until all spots are filled.

Best Wishes,
Kevin M. Scott
University of Notre Dame

Friday, September 22, 2017

Augustine and Wittgenstein on the Will

I have a draft of a paper on this subject at academia.edu. Comments (or constructive criticism, anyway) are welcome.

Here's the gist:

In Wittgenstein: Mind and Will (p. 593) P. M. S. Hacker writes that:
one cannot will voluntarily, cannot will to will. But that does not mean that willing is like the subsiding of the thudding of one’s heart – something that just happens to one. What it means is that willing is not the name of an action at all. And to say that one cannot will voluntarily, or will to will, is not to say that it is beyond one’s powers, as wiggling their ears is beyond most people’s powers, but rather that it is senseless to speak of willing.
The last part of this ("it is senseless to speak of willing") strikes me as clearly wrong. And the idea that willing is not the same of an action seems pretty dubious too. At least it sounds like a claim that might be debated. And I don't think of Wittgenstein as being in the business of putting forward such claims. So the questions that motivate the paper, although I don't present it this way (maybe I should), are really: How has Hacker arrived at this point? Does his thinking match Wittgenstein's? And what, if anything, does this have to do with Augustine, whom Wittgenstein mentions in connection with some of the thoughts that Hacker is attempting to explain.

The questions I have about my paper are mainly these (in order of concern, from most to least):

  1. Do I misrepresent Hacker, Wittgenstein, or Augustine?
  2. Is what I say comprehensible and easy enough to follow?
  3. Is this of any interest? 

Scanlon on inequality

[Warning: this could become part of a series.]

T. M. Scanlon has some interesting thoughts about why inequality might be bad. In looking for reasons, though, I wonder whether he doesn't overlook an important idea: that significant inequality is intrinsically evil. "The great inequality of income and wealth in the world, and within the United States, is deeply troubling," he says. But he seems somewhat suspicious of this intuition, as if there is no way it could be a direct perception of injustice. That is, his response to the feeling that there is something wrong with great inequality appears to be that either we must be able to explain what is wrong with such inequality or else reject the feeling as irrational. But nobody would say this about, for instance, the feeling that murder is wrong. And it is very hard to explain why murder is wrong. ("It violates the right to life" is a restatement of its injustice, not an explanation of what makes it unjust.) 

I'm not suggesting that all inequality is evil. I accept Hume's point that ensuring strict equality would require totalitarianism. And overall utility is probably increased by an incentive system that requires inequality. But beyond a certain level (which is inevitably hard to specify) inequality certainly seems evil to a great many people. Why rule out the possibility that this appearance is not deceptive?

Scanlon does not explicitly do this, but it seems implicit in his essay. I say this partly simply because he does not explicitly consider the possibility that serious inequality might be intrinsically evil, but partly also because just when I expect him to consider it he goes off in another direction, as if refusing to confront what is right before him. Here are three examples:
Many people in the United States seem to believe that our high and rising level of inequality is objectionable in itself, and it is worth inquiring into why this might be so. 
The inquiry that follows focuses on such things as the ability of the rich to dominate news media rather than anything about inequality in itself.
[Some] reasons for eliminating inequality are also based on an idea of equality, namely that, as Singer puts it, “every life is equally important.” This can be seen as a combination of two ideas: the general principle of universal moral equality, that everyone matters morally in the same way, and the idea that, because all people “matter morally,”  there’s a good reason to bring about increases in their well-being if we can. 
If everyone matters morally in the same way why is this not a reason for eliminating inequality rather than simply increasing the well-being of the poor? Yet Scanlon sees it as the latter only, and this is part of the motivation he offers for a new inquiry into why inequality matters. What I'm thinking is roughly this: since we are all morally equal, we should all be equal in our standard of living. This argument, such as it is, could be criticized on various grounds, but it would not be plausible to object that, while it is a decent argument for improving the well-being of the worst off, it is not, as such, an argument for increasing equality. So far as it is an argument at all that's exactly what it's an argument for.

Finally, this:
It is easy to understand why people want to be better off than they are, especially if their current condition is very bad. But why, apart from this, should anyone be concerned with the difference between what they have and what others have? Why isn’t such a concern mere envy?
But why think that it is envy in the first place? Especially when we are thinking of comfortably-off people like me saying that the less-well-off should have more? A poor person who wants to trade places with a rich person might seem envious, but appeals for greater equality don't have this appearance. Unless, perhaps, one rules out a priori the possibility that equality itself might have value.

I wonder whether Scanlon and I have different ways of thinking about what it means for something to be objectionable in itself. When you accuse someone else of blindness it's always a good idea to consider the possibility that the mote and/or beam is in one's own eye. But it looks like he's missing something.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


Tolstoy (War and Peace First Epilogue, Chapter IV):
A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that it exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who has studied the life of the hive more closely says that the bee gathers pollen dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilizes the latter, and sees in this the purpose of the bee’s existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes, that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.
All that is accessible to man is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life.
Wittgenstein (Culture and Value, p. 29e):
I can say: "Thank these bees for their honey as though they were kind people who have prepared it for you"; that is intelligible and describes how I should like you to conduct yourself. But I cannot say: "Thank them because, look, how kind they are!"--since the next moment they may sting you.
Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations 119):
We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Economy

Since this has already been covered by The New Yorker it is probably pretty well known, but I'd like to do what I can to spread the word about this online, interactive introduction to economics.  It looks fantastic.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Throwing away the telescope

One last (probably) bit of Tolstoy:
The very question that had formerly tormented him, the thing he had continually sought to find—the aim of life—no longer existed for him now. That search for the aim of life had not merely disappeared temporarily—he felt that it no longer existed for him and could not present itself again. And this very absence of an aim gave him the complete, joyous sense of freedom which constituted his happiness at this time.
He could not see an aim, for he now had faith—not faith in any kind of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in an ever-living, ever-manifest God. Formerly he had sought Him in aims he set himself. That search for an aim had been simply a search for God, and suddenly in his captivity he had learned not by words or reasoning but by direct feeling what his nurse had told him long ago: that God is here and everywhere. In his captivity he had learned that in Karatáev God was greater, more infinite and unfathomable than in the Architect of the Universe recognized by the Freemasons. He felt like a man who after straining his eyes to see into the far distance finds what he sought at his very feet. All his life he had looked over the heads of the men around him, when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.
In the past he had never been able to find that great inscrutable infinite something. He had only felt that it must exist somewhere and had looked for it. In everything near and comprehensible he had seen only what was limited, petty, commonplace, and senseless. He had equipped himself with a mental telescope and looked into remote space, where petty worldliness hiding itself in misty distance had seemed to him great and infinite merely because it was not clearly seen. And such had European life, politics, Freemasonry, philosophy, and philanthropy seemed to him. But even then, at moments of weakness as he had accounted them, his mind had penetrated to those distances and he had there seen the same pettiness, worldliness, and senselessness. Now, however, he had learned to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything, and therefore—to see it and enjoy its contemplation—he naturally threw away the telescope through which he had till now gazed over men’s heads, and gladly regarded the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked the more tranquil and happy he became. That dreadful question, “What for?” which had formerly destroyed all his mental edifices, no longer existed for him. To that question, “What for?” a simple answer was now always ready in his soul: “Because there is a God, that God without whose will not one hair falls from a man’s head.”

Playing along with the art school boys (and girls)

His mother bought him a synthesizer
Got The Human League in to advise her
Now he's making lots of noise
Playing along with the art school boys

The Undertones, "My Perfect Cousin" 

It's striking how many musicians and former musicians are successful visual artists. I have no theory about this, but I feel like pointing out some examples, as well as drawing attention to some work that I like a lot. The example that inspired this post is Billy Childish, who I had read about before because of his involvement in The Delmonas (he seems to have been in dozens of other bands too). Via the magic of Twitter, I found that he is also a painter. I like this one:

Image result for billy childish jackdaw  

But there's also Elizabeth Price of Talulah Gosh, who won the Turner Prize. Anja Huwe of Xmal Deutschland is now an artist. Aggi Pastel (formerly of The Pastels) is artist Annabel Wright. Edwyn Collins draws birds too. 

Some people have too much talent.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Analytic Philosophy: An Interpretive History reviewed by NDPR

The review is here. Thankfully, even though it does mention me, it doesn't say anything bad about my contribution. (Perhaps tactfully, it says almost nothing at all about it.) Here's a taste of the review:
This volume is a valuable addition to this growing literature, with a lucid introduction by the editor and seventeen contributions by distinguished scholars, all of which demonstrate a high quality in content and are written in excellent prose.Although each chapter has its own agenda, a common theme runs through the book. The authors combat a narrow-minded, but still popular, conception of analytic philosophy based on a simplistic interpretation of the revolt against idealism, the linguistic turn, and the neo-positivist rejection of metaphysics.

Friday, September 1, 2017

War and Peace and Wittgenstein

These are all just coincidences, I suppose, but there are some striking similarities between some of Wittgenstein's acts and ideas and elements of War and Peace. Here are three.

The Tractatus contains seven main propositions, which are to be overcome in order to see the world right. On his journey towards enlightenment, Pierre passes through Freemasonry, which makes  much of the number seven:
our talk turned to the interpretation of the seven pillars and steps of the Temple, the seven sciences, the seven virtues, the seven vices, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Wanting to test his fear of death, Wittgenstein volunteered to serve at the front-line during World War I, where he made observations to help the artillery hit the enemy forces. In War and Peace, as Wikipedia puts it, Pierre "decides to leave Moscow and go to watch the Battle of Borodino from a vantage point next to a Russian artillery crew. After watching for a time, he begins to join in carrying ammunition. In the midst of the turmoil he experiences first-hand the death and destruction of war."

Here is Tolstoy on a proclamation made by Napoleon regarding the occupation of Moscow:
But strange to say, all these measures, efforts, and plans—which were not at all worse than others issued in similar circumstances—did not affect the essence of the matter but, like the hands of a clock detached from the mechanism, swung about in an arbitrary and aimless way without engaging the cogwheels. (Book Thirteen, Chapter X)
And here is Wittgenstein on private sensation and nonsense: "Here I should like to say: a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism." (PI 271)

None of this is hugely significant, but I wonder whether Wittgenstein thought of Pierre when he was an artillery spotter. Even if not, both were involved in a Schopenhauerian project.