Friday, April 25, 2008

Neural Antecedents of Decision: Some Phenomenological Skepticism

Web-happy philo-types are by now familiar with the recent study on “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” by Soon et al., published in Nature Neuroscience. The study, which expands on the famous experiments performed by Benjamin Libet, purportedly demonstrates a seven second gap between the onset of neural activity involved in making a choice and the subject’s awareness of the choice. The details are discussed, among other places, at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Mixing Memory, NeuroLogica, and Conscious Entities; some interesting comments also at Alexander Pruss's blog. Essentially, participants were asked to press one of two buttons, and to take note of the letter showing on a screen in front of them at the instant they first become aware of having made a decision (Libet’s original experiments asked subjects to remember the position of a hand on a clock); all the while, fMRI scans were recording their brain activity. The comparison, then, is between two heterogeneous sorts of things: neural events, and conscious awareness.

One problem I have with these experiments is that they seem to assume a temporally thin notion of consciousness. Neural processes take time, which is why you can measure how long they go on before an action is carried out. They are temporally thick processes. But conscious awareness is apparently assumed to be instantaneous: we know the exact moment we become aware of something. This is a temporally thin notion: there is no gap in time between the instant we become aware of something and the instant we become aware that we are aware of it or, as in the set-up of the experiment, between the instant we make a choice and the instant we become aware of having made the choice. One obvious reply is to deny that there is any problem here, given a basic assumption that “becoming aware” and “becoming conscious” are synonymous. Surely there is an instant when I am conscious of my decision, say, or conscious of the position of the hand on a clock face (or the letter on a screen). And there is no real sense in which we can speak of something like being aware of such things without also being conscious of them.

But this sounds dubious. What these experiments measure, after all, is not simply when the subjects become aware of a decision. Instead, they measure when the subjects become conscious of that awareness. This is a reflexive process. But is there reason to think that the reflexiveness itself does not take up time?

To complicate matters, there are two reflexive processes going on. On the one hand, the subjects must become conscious of making a decision. On the other, they must become conscious of the letter on the screen at the instant that they become conscious of making a decision. This sounds like a fairly complex process to me, though maybe I am wrong. In any case, though, the process has got to take at least some time to perform. (That there is likely also some temporal gap between seeing the letter on the screen and registering that one has seen it complicates this even further.) What I am suggesting, in other words, is that there might be two temporal gaps that the experiments do not address sufficiently. First, there might be a gap between becoming conscious of a decision and becoming conscious of that consciousness. Second, there might be a gap between becoming conscious of that consciousness and associating this second-order consciousness with the awareness of a particular letter on a screen.

I worry about this, particularly, because the reflexive process is not involved in normal decision making. I either continue typing, or I stop to scratch my nose. But I do this without the second-order consciousness. I cannot, looking back at my action, pinpoint the exact instant when I decided to scratch my nose; normally, I cannot upon reflection even establish that I ever made such a decision, but this fact does not undermine my experience of having made the decision nevertheless. (This suggests, to me, that we may be better off not treating decisions, choices, or volitions as if they were events, and instead recognize them as interpretative abstractions.) So what I am questioning here is the idea that being aware of making a decision—in the normal way in which we experience making decisions in everyday situations—is really connected to the sort of consciousness of deciding that these experiments look at. What they are looking at is the process by means of which we thematize our decisions in consciousness; but this is neither something we normally do, nor is it something that seems central to our awareness of ourselves as deciding.

To top it off, I wonder to what extent the results of these experiments are even transferable to our everyday decisions. The subjects are specifically asked to pay attention to their decision and note the instant when they become conscious of it. But this is not something we normally do. Try it. Right now. Decide to scratch your nose, and then scratch it. When I do this, it feels weird: there is a doubling effect going on, as if I am performing the same action twice. In Searle’s terminology, the decision to scratch my nose is a prior intention, while the mental process involved in the actual nose-scratching is the intention in action. The prior intention in such simple actions is completely redundant. So if you are specifically looking for it, this seems to just distort what it is you normally do when you make decisions. When we ask people to locate the temporal instant at which they make a decision, we are asking them to do something extremely unusual, and the experimental data obtained from such exercises seems unlikely to be telling us very much about normal human decisions making; it might be telling us not what is going on in the brain when we make decisions, but what is going on in the brain when we try to catch ourselves making decisions, which is going to be a very different and very slippery task.

I am not just trying to be skeptical. What I am curious about is just the claim the scientists performing experiments like these seem to be making, i.e., the claim that we can scientifically study the relation between neural processes and consciousness or, at least, that we can do this given current technologies without either distorting or oversimplifying the precise thing we are studying. I am perfectly sure that we can study the neural processes. But it is not at all clear that we have the tools for scientifically studying consciousness. Why, then, should we think scientifically studying the relationparticularly the temporal relationbetween the two a currently plausible proposal? These experiments are certainly interesting for all sorts of reasons; I am uncertain that the light they claim to shed on conscious choice is one of them.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cheating, Belief in Determinism, and Rationality

A new study has just appeared, showing that students are more likely to cheat if they believe in determinism than if they believe in free will. You can read a good summary of the setup and results of the study here. These results are interesting on all sorts of levels, but of course they are generally likely to be taken as indicating a link between belief in free will and moral behavior. I want to question that link here. My question rests on the following worry: is cheating in this experiment actually immoral?

Those who know me might know that I am actually fairly obsessed with cheating—rules against cheating and lying tend to control my behavior. But there is nothing obviously moral about this: I may avoid cheating just because I am uncomfortable with it, or worried that I’ll get caught, or concerned that if I get caught, I won’t be able to account for my behavior. That is: I find it easier not to cheat. And since I’ve internalized this rule, I tend to get angry when other people cheat. In other words, and pretty obviously, one’s reasons for not cheating are not necessarily moral ones; they are probably likely to not be moral, at least in any strong sense. (Some consequentialists, of course, might not buy this distinction between moral and non-moral rejections of teaching; if so, that would just show that they don’t quite get morality.)

Significantly, also, “cheating” is not necessarily immoral. As with most other types of behavior, its morality or immorality is contextual. In most situations—like those involving classroom work—cheating seems to generally be unethical. But what about an experimental setting? You are in a setting—as the students in this experiment were—where you can quite easily cheat on a test and walk away with some extra cash. So there is—as is often the case—an immediately obvious benefit to cheating, and virtually no risk of negative consequences if you get caught. From the standpoint of instrumental rationality, then, you should cheat.

But are there moral considerations that militate against the instrumental ones? Are you somehow violating justice? Or causing someone harm, by cheating? Perhaps: you are walking away with money that those who didn’t cheat also didn’t get, so you are outearning them by dishonest means and you are also, perhaps, slightly ripping off the experimenters, whose money you are taking. But the most significant consideration, it might seem, is that you are messing up the experiment, since you’ve been led to think that your honest performance, not your cheating, is what’s necessary for the experiment’s success. And this is where questions arise:

First, would you really be messing up the experiment by cheating? The experimenter has said she must leave the room, and you are to score yourself. If you know anything about psychology experiments, you should then assume that this experiment is already fatally flawed, and its data will be useless in any case. Second, if you know a little more about psychology experiments, you might suspect that such blatant opportunities for cheating are somehow factored into the experiment. If you suspect this, it seems to cancel out your moral objections to cheating; and since you know that cheating will get you more money, your instrumental rationality gives you an overriding reason to cheat. In other words: cheating might well be the most rational course of action in this experiment, and most rational not just in the sense of instrumentally more rational, but instrumentally + normatively more rational, since the normative considerations have essentially been cancelled out. In this case, if you refuse to cheat, you are not actually sticking to moral principles. You are sticking to habits that you mistakenly take to be moral—mistakenly, because in this context there is nothing clearly moral about them.

Of course I could be wrong on this; maybe cheating in this case really is immoral. But it is at least not obviously so. And if you stick to your (normally) moral principles even in situations where they are not moral, then you are not acting morally. You are just acting irrationally. And this, then, is the upshot: belief in determinism might simply make people more rational.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dignity and Death in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court issued its opinion on Baze v. Rees yesterday, marking an uneasy victory for supporters of one of those remaining cultural deficiencies that keeps the U.S. from proudly marching among the ranks of civilized nations, i.e., the death penalty. It is uneasy because the Justices could agree on fairly little, and their disagreement is likely—according to analysts—to lead to increased and welcome wrangling with the issue; but nevertheless a victory because, following the moratorium, our State slaughterhouses are once again free to open for business. The decision, which ruled that lethal injection does not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment,” has been beautifully though too briefly analyzed by Jody Madeira at the Neuroethics and Law Blog. Madeira’s analysis brings to the foreground the Justices’ struggle with the central, though somewhat unlikely, role played in the deliberations by the concept of dignity. (Disclaimer: I know next to nothing about law.)

I must admit that I have trouble seeing how dignity has anything whatsoever to do with the decision; it is hard to abuse a word as badly as any sanction of the death penalty must. Its appearance, I think, has something to do with Justice Brennan’s 1972 opinion "that a punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity." And so anyone who wishes to uphold the status quo—that the death penalty or any particular means of carrying it out is constitutional—must struggle to fit the grand idea of dignity into the hangman’s noose. But does, or can, the word “dignity” possibly mean what the Justices want it to?

Dignity has different meanings, to be sure. Someone might have dignity merely by virtue of their awareness of the moral law within. Or someone might have a sort of inner dignity, a strength of character. Alternatively, we most commonly describe someone as having dignity based on their outward behavior. And in this regard one might think that the concept of dignity applies most naturally and correctly to external appearance: you lose dignity, for example, when you get ice cream all over your face (incidentally, this is why I prefer cups to cones), or when you trip down the stairs. Or one might go on to extend this use of word, pointing out that one also loses dignity when screaming in pain or expressing one’s fear of death. It is this latter sense that the Court seems most interested in. The problem, though, is that this notion of dignity seems derivative: we take one’s outward appearance to be a sign of their dignity, not to be mistaken for the real thing. The man who calmly faces a firing squad has dignity; the man who stands before the firing squad calmly because he has been injected with a paralytic agent, on the other hand, only appears to have dignity. Taking the appearance of dignity for the real thing shows the utmost disregard for dignity.

What Madeira’s treatment brings out, then, is that the Court’s views on dignity in allowing lethal injection (and the death penalty) do not merely use the word in an overly broad sense, losing the literal sense (i.e., the sense that makes dignity valuable in the first place) behind. Rather, the Court isn’t concerned with dignity as such at all, but uses the word as a smokescreen for something else: the comfort of the people who show up to see the execution. (Of course this is not a concurring view—concurring views were rare in this trial—and Justice Stevens rightly takes the others to task for this abuse.) That is, what the Court is concerned with is not the dignity of the condemned at all, and for good reason: it isn’t clear why they would be. After all, if you’ve already determined that someone ought to be killed, and even exposed to the excruciating pain one requires of retribution (Scalia), it would be rather odd to worry that the condemned might embarrass himself by flailing around in his death throes. Personally, I’d prefer humiliation to death as a mode of punishment, since only the latter clearly violates human dignity in the sense that has value. (C.f. House: “You can live with dignity. You can’t die with it.”)

So no, the Justices concerned about preserving dignity in lethal injection aren’t all that worried about the dignity of the condemned. They are worried, instead, that the audience, seeing what the suffering of violent death looks like, might be made uneasy by their complicity in and support of this ancient barbarism. It is the feelings of those who support State-sanctioned killing—not the subjects of their sentiments—that are paramount. The worry, then, is that those who support execution, by witnessing it in its bare, unaestheticized state, might feel uneasy. The horror! And, feeling uneasy, they might—even worse—reconsider their position. Historically, of course, this shouldn’t be much of a concern: people have spent a great deal of time in the past watching violent executions without a worry. But we are more sensitive today, and our sensitivities must be protected at all costs, even from the consequences of our own choices. And moreover, there may be a deeper fear: that we have reached a state of civilization that really is incompatible with the continuation of these ancient rituals; to hold on to those rituals, then, we must do all in our power to keep that disjunct from getting a visceral grasp on witnesses. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I cannot keep from seeing the Court as saying, essentially, that we must preserve the death penalty, even at the cost of hiding its true nature from its supporters. (See Dahlia Lithwick’s “Barely Lethal” for an analysis along these lines.)

I want to single out Justice John Paul Stevens: “I have relied on my own experience in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contribution to any discernible social or public purposes.” In recognizing this, Stevens expresses not what he holds to be the sentiment of the population, but the sentiment that the population ought to have, the one compatible with our supposedly “evolving standards of decency,” about which there too has been much debate. Most commonly, at least from what I’ve seen, the Court in such debates is concerned about whether it ought to legislate on the basis of what best fits the currently prevalent attitude, or the direction in which the attitudes seem to be shifting.

What we come to in the end is a particularly American view of the State. The notion of a Republic—a State that serves the interest of the people—can be taken in two markedly different ways. It can serve the interests the people actually happen to have, or it can serve the interests they ought to have, as a people worthy of a civilized State, and thereby make them more worthy. Americans tend toward the former view, and there are, undoubtedly, things to be said in its favor: when Governments attempt to impose morality on their citizens, they rarely do it well, and so the greatest difficulty plaguing comprehensive liberalism is the difficulty of deciding whose standards should serve as the moral aim toward which the State seeks to bring its citizens. We should not, then, want the State to legislate morals except in the clearest of cases. So, for example, the requirement that every citizen have at least a basic education is not much contested (except, at least, on the grounds that real education might somehow conflict with religion). But what case could be simpler, more clear cut, than this one? The wrongness of murder is even less contested than the value of education. What is contested, of course, is the idea that all human beings deserve to live. It is here that the question of human dignity becomes central; the view that some human beings ought to be put to death and yet must be allowed their dignity is, then, one of the major intellectual stumbling blocks on the path to civilized decency.

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Aristotle and Spinoza Were Primarily Analytic Philosophers. Haven't You Heard?

Alexander Pruss presents a fairly silly line of thought on his blog, in which he attempts to assimilate much of the history of philosophy under the analytic wing. To be fair, his goal is not to denigrate continental philosophy, and he does admit complete ignorance of it. Yet this does not prevent him from thinking that continental philosophers might also be able to trace themselves a philosophical history—he just thinks that history would be a bit different. But a bit of analytic re-colonization of history is clearly behind his thoughts, particularly when he says without basis that, “By and large, continental philosophy strikes me as a more recent development.” Oddly enough, continental philosophy also strikes me as a recent development. But then again, it is exactly as recent as analytic philosophy. An excellent response to Pruss is offered by Michael Pakaluk at Dissoi Blogoi. Readers of this blog, on the other hand, may be familiar with my response to such exercises in selective historical forgetting.

Pruss writes:

It seems to me that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sextus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, ibn-Rushd, al-Ghazali, Maimonedes, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant and Frege all practiced analytic philosophy for a significant part of their philosophical lives—some of these, indeed, for just about all of their philosophical lives. When I read these people, I find them kindred souls, clearly engaged in the same rational pursuits, using pretty much the same tools, as I am.
There is a sense in which I always smirk when analytic philosophers claim to see Plato and Socrates as “kindred souls.” This isn’t because I think they are closer to continental philosophy, but because seeing Socrates and Plato as analytic philosophers involves overlooking much of what motivated those thinkers, and the way in which they understood philosophy. Wisdom is not exactly the concern of most philosophers today, and the ancient invocation of self-knowledge hardly involves a directive to study the first-personal mode of access to certain kinds of propositional knowledge. Plato’s use of myth, too, is hardly akin to the contemporary myths about zombies and fission. I am reminded of a former student of mine, who wrote that he enjoyed reading the Phaedo because “it was pretty damn easy.”

Nor does the claim that continental philosophers are likely to have a different history all that cogent: Scotus, Descartes, and above all Aristotle, via both Hegel and Heidegger, are indispensable. And given the much more prominent role accorded to the pre-Socratics in the continental tradition, the idea that continental philosophy has a later history goes down the drain. There are perhaps some pre-20th century philosophers who play a greater role in the analytic than the continental canon, but such impressions often turn out to be illusory. Heidegger had nothing but contempt for the empiricists, but certainly both Husserl and Deleuze were lapping it up. Mill is a far more important figure for the analytics than the continentals, largely because utilitarianism never caught on across the pond (with good reason, I tend to think), and yet Mills influence surfaces in the social science interests of Dilthey, Gadamer, and Habermas.

What really bugs me, though, is the attitude we find in Pruss’s comment that,

most of the great medieval figures (especially Aquinas, Scotus and Ockham) are clearly primarily analytic philosophers and analytic theologians. Likewise Sextus and Spinoza. Since obviously continentals consider these figures as part of their history, it follows that a part of the history of philosophy for continentals does include some very analytic thinkers.
It is almost as if the Fregean legacy traveled back in time to claim large swathes of the history of philosophy, so that continental thinkers who took up these figures were secretly drawing upon an Anglophone heritage. The problem with this sort of thinking should be clear: Pruss treats “analytic” as describing not a 20th century approach to philosophy, but as a methodology, which he unsurprisingly finds (given that he has a broad enough conception of it) throughout the history of philosophy. But since he does not know the continental side of things, it turns out that there are no distinctive continental methods that those past thinkers might also have been drawing on. Historical figures are “clearly primarily analytic philosophers” in much the same way that the Earth is clearly flat.

By the way, I've made this point before, but it bears repeating: if you've been trained in a particular way of doing philosophy, and have studied historical figures as the precursors to this way of doing philosophy, of course you are likely to find them engaged in an enterprise similar to your own! And if certain figures have been left outas Hegel is often left out of analytic versions of historyit is no wonder that one will see them as belonging to a very different mode of doing philosophy. One value of the continental obsession with difference, as I see it, is precisely this: if you pay attention to the sorts of things in historical figures that you've been trained to pay attention to and recognize as continuous with your projects, your reading will be infected by confirmation bias. The more you focus on the surprising aspects of historical textsthose points where the thinkers say something you really have trouble wrapping your brain aroundthe more you are likely to learn something from them that you didn't already know. (Yeah, I happen to think that everyone, regardless of philosophical orientation, has a great deal to learn from Gadamer, if not with regard to concrete problems, at least with regard to how one can understand a philosophical text without turning it into a mere projection of one's own prejudices. Chunks of Truth and Method really should be standard reading in any graduate philosophy program.)

Lastly, these attempts at historical colonization always remind me of a passage from Walter Kaufmann, with which I leave you:

Existentialism without Nietzsche would be almost like Thomism without Aristotle; but to call Nietzsche an existentialist is a little like calling Aristotle a Thomist.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Qualia, First-Person Experience, and the Missing Black Hole

Defenders of reductionism have a tendency to make the following argument, to which I referred in my last post: Science has made all sorts of progress that was previously thought impossible. We therefore have good historical grounds for thinking that, with further progress, science will eventually resolve the remaining problems. At the very least, we have solid grounds for being skeptical about any a priori arguments to the effect that there is some domain of human experience that remains inexplicable from the standpoint of the sciences. There are two candidates commonly presented for such irreducibility: the raw-feels, or qualia, in our experience, and normativity. (In a later post I will discuss a third candidate, introduced by hermeneutics, which is in principle clearly irreducible, i.e., the horizon within which any scientific enterprise takes place.) Both candidates are sometimes grouped under the heading of first-personal experience, which is taken to be in principle irreducible. I want to question this grouping.
One common response to this line of thought is concisely stated by Richard, over at Philosophy, Etc, who argues that we cannot argue for the likelihood of successful reductionism on the basis of past scientific success because, “there are principled reasons to think these cases different. All those examples [that the reductionists] point to are instances of third-personal empirical phenomena. I grant that science is supreme in that domain. But, to turn the tables, it's never had any success outside of it. So there's no general reason to think that normativity or first-personal subjective experience are susceptible to purely scientific explanation.” (Similar arguments abound: Ricoeur points to something very much like it in the first conversation of What Makes Us Think? where he appeals to the first-personal lived body experience as irreducible to a third-personal one.) I absolutely grant that there is no reason to think that scientific cognition can fully grasp normativity. In fact, I seriously doubt that it can, since normativity governs the operation of scientific research. I am not sure the same goes for phenomenal properties.

It strikes me that one reason qualia are so mysterious and so dubious is precisely that they are not subject to any normative constraints whatsoever. Whether my mental state is one of jealousy or envy, fantasy or belief, malice or gratitude, is a question that might involve some normative factors. But I am tempted to think that qualia are entirely dissociated from such considerations. That I have a raw feel of some sort just tells me that I am having some sort of mental experience; what that experience is, on the other hand, will be determined by all sorts of other considerations, including normative ones. So I have trouble with questions such as “what is it like to have a belief,” or “what is it like to be outraged,” insofar as they are looking for a phenomenal description of these mental states. My problem is that I am not at all sure that there is anything “it is like” to be in such mental states. What there is, rather, is some sort of awareness that, within a normative framework of my psyche as a whole, becomes a mental state of a particular sort. But what makes that mental state a state of a certain sort, in turn, is normative.

So what do we do about something like the inverted spectrum argument, which would insist that there is also a first-personal raw feel that in turn is incorporated into a normative framework? For example, there is something it is like to see red, and it is only when I have that experience that I know that I am having an experience that falls under the concept of red experience. But Michael might, whenever he sees a fire hydrant, have a very different qualia—a qualia like the one I have whenever I see grass. And it is possible that, even when our brains are functioning in roughly similar ways, and we have roughly similar normative frameworks, my red and green experiences are completely reversed for him. The conceivability of such a scenario is supposed to show that something—qualia—is missing from whatever account of the world we have, even once normative factors are incorporated into the picture. But is it?

Here is what is suggested: you could have all the physical and normative conditions necessary for my seeing red, apply them to Michael, and, while he would be perceiving the same wavelength and processing it in the same way, something would be different. Does this make sense? Or does it make exactly the same sense as the following: We know all the necessary and sufficient conditions for creating a black hole. We reproduce these conditions. But it is conceivable that, although we now have a mass sucking up all forms of energy around it, behaving exactly like a black hole, yet we do not really have a black hole. I would submit that the two cases are virtually identical, and the second—the black hole case—makes no sense; nothing is missing, we have a black hole, not something identical to a black hole. The first seems to make sense, however. What has gone wrong? Could it be that the first case seems to make sense not because there is something over and above the physical and normative properties, but simply because we are still overly wedded to a view of the soul as a substance of an entirely heterogeneous kind?

What is the role of the first-person here? Well, I don’t think normativity is first personal: the entire point of norms is that they must apply intersubjectively. What about the supposed qualia? The first-personal aspect is supposed to be this: whatever third-personal knowledge we have about seeing red or feeling pain, there is a first-personal aspect we are missing. Is this irreducible? The idea is that when we know all the conditions for seeing red, we still don’t have the experience of seeing red. Similarly, if we know all the conditions for a black hole, we still don’t have the black hole. When we reproduce those conditions, on the other hand, we will have a black hole, and it is just odd to say that something—e.g., a real black hole—is still missing. Similarly, when we reproduce all the conditions for seeing red, we should be hard pressed to say that something is still missing from seeing red—because if we say that something is still missing, what we are saying is just that we haven’t produced all the conditions. What is inherently first-personal is just the result of reproducing all the conditions, just as the black hole is the result of reproducing all the conditions necessary for the existence of a black hole.

When we have all the natural (and normative) pieces needed for first-personal experience, we have first-personal experience. When we have all the natural pieces needed for a black hole, we have a black hole. The objection is: No, no! That’s just where you’re missing the point! When we have all the pieces needed for a black hole, we just have a black hole. But when we have all the pieces needed for first-personal experience, the experience is something superimposed on the pieces. What can this mean, I wonder?

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Joining the Herd by Bleating About Zombies

The philosophy blogosphere has been abuzz with zombie talk recently (Siris helpfully compiles some of the recent discussions here; and here are some I especially like), so I’ve finally decided to conform and throw a couple of thoughts out there, though I can’t promise they’ll be coherent. For those who don’t know, zombies are imaginary beings exactly like us in every physical respect, but lacking our phenomenal consciousness. And the zombie argument is supposed to go from the alleged conceivability of such beings to evidence that the phenomenal cannot be reduced to the physical. My own stance is roughly that zombie thought experiments are silly, as well as seriously problematic. They are problematic, on my view, not simply because (like too many thought experiments) they are set up to pump our intuitions about imaginary cases about which we don’t really have clear intuitions, but also because, by giving the illusion of clarity, they are designed to convince us that we really do have intuitions, reliable ones, about things we in principle cannot have reliable intuitions about. So here are a couple of thoughts.

I. Zombie arguments seem to me to presume that we have intuitions about what counts as physical. Atoms, apparently, do. The experience of redness or pain, on the other hand, does not. But what is the physical? Presumably, the physical domain is just the domain of that which can be studied by the physical sciences. If we grant that, however, then it turns out that our intuitions about what counts as physical are entirely dependent on which sciences we consider physical sciences, and what our understanding is of what those sciences do. In other words, the intuition that the domain of the physical cannot accommodate phenomenal properties seems to rest on the idea that the physical world is composed of little particles bouncing around in accordance with laws. Since physics has moved a bit beyond Newton, however, I wonder whether those intuitions really make sense.

Importantly: the counter-intuitiveness of quantum mechanics is frequently mentioned. At the very very micro level, physical entities don’t behave the way we would expect them to. So we know that our intuitions about how physical things behave are just wrong, according to what the physical sciences tell us. And it isn’t like there are no unresolved questions. Given this, it isn’t clear that we can or should trust any intuitions about whether or not the phenomenal is or is not reducible to the physical, because we cannot trust our intuitions about the physical. And this thought seems to me to undermine a basic presupposition of the zombie argument: that zombies are conceivable in some more robust way than square circles. Quite possibly, zombies seem conceivable to us just because we have no idea what it is we are conceiving. And the zombie argument, by pushing the possibility of this conceivability, makes its point by making us further confused about what it is we are conceiving.

II. Even if we do grant that zombies are possible—that the physical as we now understand it (again, assuming that we do understand it)—does not include phenomenal properties, this is hardly an argument against reductionism as such. That is: what it gives us is an argument that phenomenal properties (if they exist) are irreducible to the current subject matter of the physical sciences. But this point can just as easily be turned around. The point of the physical sciences is to provide confirmable theories with predictive power that apply to whatever sorts of things we encounter in reality. If our current physical theories cannot do this for phenomenal properties, that can only be taken to show that our current physical theories are still a far way off from giving us absolute knowledge. But we already know that, and it doesn’t give us grounds for a priori arguments that they cannot go beyond their present boundaries.

I once heard Chomsky make a remark that went something like this: At the end of the 19th century, scientists were convinced that chemistry was entirely irreducible to physics. Today, it is more or less common sense that this view is false, because a paradigm shift in the physical sciences made the move from physics to chemistry possible. Why, then, should we think that the same cannot be done for phenomenal properties and physics? There is one answer, which has to do with distinguishing between the third-personal methods of science and the first-personal features of qualia. I will save discussion of that thought for my next post.

III. As I understand it, the phenomenal realist’s claim is that there are two sets of laws in our world. First, there are laws that govern the behavior of physical entities. Second, there are laws that govern the relation of physical and phenomenal entities. The zombie world looks the same as ours from the outside because the first set of laws is the same there. But they don’t have the second set of laws. Implied is a metaphysical view according to which the universe is composed of some substances, like elementary particles, together with a bunch of natural laws. But I am not sure that is right. Speaking of substances and laws implies that both are contingent. One might have the exact same laws, but completely different substances. Alternatively, one could have exactly the same substances but different laws. This may be useful as a shorthand way of speaking about reality, but I doubt it makes much sense. Instead, it seems more likely that substances and laws are co-constitutive. Here is what I mean:

How do we know anything about fundamental particles? Well, we know what they are like because of the effects they have on other things: other particles, our instruments, and our brains. And it is not clear that there is anything else to these particles than their effects, or dispositions to bring about certain effects, with a marked regularity. My point is not the idealist one, that since we can only know anything about reality through our perception of it, there is nothing to reality aside from our perceptions. Rather, the point is that we have no grounds for attributing any properties to substances other than causal ones, and these causal properties are nomological. We know what a particle is like because of the law-like effects it produces, and we have no warrant to say anything about it other than that it produces such effects. (That the laws are sometimes probabilistic ones does not change this picture.) And the reverse is true as well. Our knowledge of natural laws depends on the actions of particles (or macro-phenomena composed of particles). Again, I am not trying to argue that laws are nothing apart from the behavior of substances. My point is that we have no warrant to speak of laws as literally something apart from substance. From the standpoint of the sciences, it seems to me, laws just are the formulae according to which substances behave, whereas substances just are what behaves in accordance with laws.

And this is why it seems strange to me to think that the very same substances could exist in two universes with radically different sets of laws. If qualia stand in nomological relations to matter, we have three options. (1) Qualia are different substances, and the second set of laws is missing from zombie world because there is nothing for physical substances to stand in relation to. (2) Something about the physical entities in zombie world really is different, since the entities don’t have the same effects. (3) There are no nomological relations between physical substance and qualia. I doubt anyone would accept the third option these days; the parallel clock argument has had its day. The first option is also not very tempting—once we start talking about two heterogeneous substances, we run into all sorts of problems about how nomological relations between them could be possible at all. So that leaves option two: zombie world is not composed of the same physical substances as our world. And this, of course, is what almost everyone (aside from the few hardcore zombie-philes) has been saying.

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Diderot, the Will, and the Self

For those who think that counterfactual arguments in discussions of free will are an invention of the twentieth century, here is a bit I just came across from Diderot’s D’Alembert's Dream:

What is this free will? … The latest impulse of desire or aversion, the latest result of all that a man has been from the time of his birth to the moment at hand…. You were reduced to a single point; you acted, but did not will. Can we will, all by ourselves? Will is always born of some motive, interior or exterior, of some present impression, or reminiscence of the past, or passion, or future project. That being so I have just one word for you about free will, which is, that the latest of our acts is the necessary effect of a single cause—the self; a very complex cause, but single.

This is an interesting account. On the one hand, Diderot accepts the Hobbesian view of the will: every action is the effect of the latest impulse in a causal chain. At the same time, however, Diderot adds to the Hobbesian doctrine: Instead of simply identifying the will with the last impulse before the action, he tries to avoid the disappearance of the agent; instead, he insists that these impulses are just part of the agent. The acting self is not supplanted by the desires to which it is reduced; rather, the self just is the complex cause consisting of the causal circumstance that causes an action. This doesn’t solve the disappearing agent problem, of course, but redescribes it in a way that makes the real problem more tractable. The question is not whether we can replace the agent by a chain of causes, but rather whether we can reduce the agent to them. These arguments, of course, are still very much around today.

Now here’s the kicker:

Since I acted thus, anyone who acted differently is no longer me; and to assert that at the moment I do or say anything, I can do or say something different is to assert that I am both myself and someone else.

Note the elegance of the argument: having defined the self as a complex deterministic causal circumstance, Diderot simply points out that, since a different action could only have resulted from a different causal circumstance, had I acted differently, I would not have been me. Libertarians who assert that an ability to do otherwise than I really do is a human power are thus committed to something incoherent: the claim that I can be both myself and not myself, both the causal circumstance that caused my action, and at the same time a different causal circumstance.

Libertarians typically deny the assumption that the causal circumstance involved is deterministic. But the argument is, of course, also massively question-begging on another count, since no libertarian (for that matter, almost no compatibilist today) holds that the self is reducible to the entire set of mental and physical states that make it up. There is nothing especially odd about the idea that, although at a particular moment in time I preferred steak to pork chops, I could just as well have preferred pork chops to steak without ceasing to be me. Even if the self is reducible to its character traits, it is not clear that every character trait, or every causal relation between those traits, is constitutive of the entity we call a self. But working out this kind of account, according to which the self, or what is crucial to it, is separated out from more incidental desires, has proven no easy task. Attempts at working out a notion of a “real self” (involving endorsement or wholeheartedness or some such), as well as of a functional self (where the self is identified with some function, such as selecting among motives, or just deliberative processes) have yet to yield anything like an uncontroversial picture.

One difficulty is that, given some commitment to holism, it is unclear how our “wholehearted” states might be demarcated from the “peripheral” or “external” ones. And with this problem in mind, we might also question whether the deliberation involved in establishing a self might somehow be a mental process over and above those peripheral motives—they must, after all, play some role in the overall economy of the self, and so it stands to reason that they, too, will play some role in influencing our deliberation.

Diderot’s challenge, which I have suggested extends not only to libertarianism, but also to most of the compatibilist approaches developed in response to libertarian criticisms, is thus still alive today. Although his positive view might strike many of us as crude, developing an alternative account has not proven easy, and I think his account concisely phrases one of the key problems at the heart of agency theory and free will.

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Who's Afraid of Idealism?

Today, it is usually enough to refute a theory just to demonstrate that it in any way implies idealism. There was a time, of course, when the reverse was the case, when it was enough to refute a theory just to show that it was close to empiricism, or possibly psychologism. Carnap seemed to regard pyschologism as just another of the basic informal fallacies, a sort of category mistake. One could go straight from, ‘This theory is psychologistic’ to ‘This theory is false’ without needing to go through the premise, ‘Psychologism is false,’ in the same way that one may go from ‘This theory begs the question’ to ‘This theory is false’ without needing to go through the premise ‘Begging the question is false.’

The problem with idealism seems to be that it violates a deep-seated intuition we all have, namely, that most of the universe (outside of fiction and imagination and maybe mathematics) is real, by which we mean, independent of the mind. However, transcendental idealism a la Kant admits this much. The apparently obviously false notion in Kant’s philosophy is that we have no access, period, to this really real world, and thus, in a certain sense, everything that we believe is false. Of course, Kant would reply that truth-predicates only make sense as applied to the phenomenal world, so in fact our basic picture of the world is true—but still, this is hair splitting. We are compelled, as it were, by this deep-seated intuition to believe that not only is there a reality out there independent of our own mind, but that, by some means or other, we must have access to this reality as it is really is an sich. As I mentioned at the start, I’m not convinced that this deep intuition results from anything more profound than a particular cultural milieu, but I admit that it’s there.

Let’s not forget that there are equally compelling, if not as deep-seated, reasons for thinking that some sort of (transcendental) idealism is correct. For however one explains it, it certainly also seems as if we bring pre-fabricated structures already to each receptive experience, and only after these structures have done their work do we have anything like objective perception or thought. Whether these structures are transcendental in the way that Kant suggested, or whether they are genetically encoded neurological protocols, or the existenielles of Dasein, or Gadamer’s tradition, is in some sense beside the point.

Can we do justice to both of these intuitions? Can we be both transcendentalists, in the sense just described, and realists, also in the sense just described? I think we can, so long as we are Husserlians.

Whether our transcendental intuitions can do justice to our realist intuitions depends in no small part on how we understand ‘transcendental.’ Kant explained his concept of transcendental through the concepts of universality, necessity, and a priori synthetic judgments. The categories, while not separable from experience in fact, are notionally separable, and must be deduced from the conditions for the possibility of full, objective apperceptive consciousness. Baldly put, Kant’s transcendental arguments have the form:

Given S
M is a necessary condition for S (If S then M)
Hence, M.

This gives rise to the problem that objective perception results only after (in a transcendentally logical sense) the categories have structured some non-categorically structured stuff, and thus, the objects that result are not the objects that, really, are there. Kantians don’t like this description, but there is no getting around the fact that, for Kant, consciousness in some sense creates the objects it is aware of. This is why Kant is an idealist. Ultimately, Kant’s idealism is incompatible with realism because it comprehends the ideal structures of transcendental consciousness as the condition of possibility for the real world objects of objective perception and thought.

The hardest methodological notion of Husserl’s to make sense of, but also the most promising, is his theory of phenomenology as an eidetic (or ‘formal’) descriptive science. Husserl is not interested in discovering or deducing the a priori conditions of possibility of objective experience; he simply wants to describe that experience as it manifestly is for us. This experience, let it be noted, is directly realist. I do not experience red sensations, or retinal stimulations, or the workings of my cerebellum. I see the red stop sign. Husserl has no interest in denying this obvious feature of phenomenological experience, nor of deducing its possibility; he just wants to describe it.

This notion of describing experience no doubt makes many uneasy, so let me say something about it. Of course, there is a very wooly notion of description, such as if I were to ask you to describe your favorite painting. You would not be communicating to me any fact, but rather your impressions (I like the theme; the colors are pretty; it makes me feel grand). If this were all there were to phenomenological description (as some phenomenologists unfortunately seem to think), then phenomenology would be silly. And yet this does help to expose what I think it is that really causes the unease among many for phenomenological analysis, namely, that we should expect there to be some way, objectively, to police our phenomenological descriptions, and it does not seem like we can do so in any way like one would expect from a proper science: by the use of publicly available evidence, by repeatable experimentation, by direct modeling, and so forth. Now, I cannot make the point often enough, that this same criticism would equally apply to each of the formal sciences. Mathematicians, too, cannot make appeal to public evidence (I cannot observe you observing the square root of two), nor can they perform repeatable experiments (perhaps they could, but what would be the point?). Husserl understands phenomenology as precisely this sort of formal science. Phenomenology is a transcendental science insofar as it seeks to describe the invariant structures of whatever type of experience (perception, memory, imagination, mathematical and logical thinking). Transcendental means for Husserl invariant, rather than condition of possibility. Thus, while Husserl does argue that transcendental structures are a priori, they are not prior to experience; they are a priori in the sense that they are independent of any particular experience, and not built out of any particular elements in experience, in just the same way that our concept of three is independent of any particular set of three objects and is not built up out of any particular experience of sets of three objects. If we apply this lesson globally to the problem of idealism, we see how one might, from a phenomenological perspective, be both a (transcendental) idealist as well as a realist: just as our concepts of arithmetic are invariant among and independent of all sets of actual objects, but in no way are conditions of possibility for those objects nor somehow inconsistent with the belief that these objects exist in full-blooded sense, so too for all the invariant structures of every sort of experience whatever.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Langton on von Herbert's Challenge to Kant (II)

Continuing from the previous post, I want to address three broad points on which I think Langton is at least partially misguided, or at least the situation is not as clear-cut as she makes it out to be. First, should we really think that Herbert’s letters represent a moral saint’s criticism of Kantian moral philosophy? Second, is there a feminist objection to that moral philosophy contained here, or only a criticism of the sexist prejudices of Kant’s time? Third, did Herbert really raise purely philosophical issues that Kant failed to address, or was she also raising psychological issues that Kant could not be expected, and was in no position to address?

I. Langton is wrong, I think, in taking Herbert’s claim to being a moral saint at face value. What Herbert describes is an apathy to worldly pleasures; having no desires, she finds the moral law too easy to follow, and she complains that in the absence of struggle, morality loses its worth. This is an important point. But one might wonder whether there is not a difference between the value of a virtuous disposition reached through struggle, and one reached through heartbreak. Langton describes Herbert as doing her duty from the motive of duty; but it is not clear that this is the case. Herbert does her duty because she has no temptations to avoid it. But does this show—should we take it to show—that Herbert really has no non-moral motives and so must be acting from the motive of respect for the moral law? Langton interprets respect as having the purely negative function of silencing non-moral motives; and she insists that respect is neither itself a motive for moral action, nor a feeling. While the second of these claims is slightly debatable, it is almost certainly wrong (see Andrews Reath and Daniel Guevara on this point). The first claim is simply false—respect has a positive aspect, namely self-esteem. That Herbert does not feel self-esteem, in turn, might cast some doubt on her moral sainthood. For one thing: apathy of this sort might well itself be a passion, a passion that blinds one to its true nature.

Langton is also wrong, I think, to interpret apathy (at least as Herbert describes it) and nihilism as either products or correlates of the virtuous disposition. I see no reason to think that Herbert’s letter indicates a freedom from pathological impulses. And in this connection, it is not entirely clear that Kant was wrong to accept his friend’s diagnosis of Herbert as having suffered a romantic shipwreck. Let me suggest a possible diagnosis, based on the evidence, though without claiming that it is accurate. Imagine that you have been raised to fulfill moral norms. You have read a great deal of Kant, and this has reinforced your sense that it is important to follow those moral norms. But something goes wrong in your life: your great love goes sour. (It is true that there are all sorts of other issues, issues of gender inequality and the de-personification of women, that are involved in Herbert’s love loss. That does not, however, change the psychological effect of it as a heartbreak.) And so you lose interest in life. The things that once you enjoyed, you no longer enjoy. Nothing holds any interest for you. By the time the possibility of love is rekindled, you no longer care—you have become dead to it. But you still go on living and moving in the world, and so you live and move based on those rules, those moral norms you have always followed. Now that you want nothing that tempts you away from them, they are easy to follow; but you follow them simply as learned responses, acting on auto-pilot. If this is a feasible picture—and I submit that it is more feasible than the idea that Herbert was a moral saint, as such are rare, if even existent—then the state she describes is pathological, it is feeling laden, and it is a derangement (though not in the patronizing sense Kant seemed to have in mind). This apathy is not the strength not to be tempted by one’s sensible inclinations that Kant describes; it is, rather, a complete surrender to them.

II. I suspect that Langton unhelpfully conflates two issues. First, Kant’s commitment to treating persons as ends in themselves. Second, Kant’s views of women. There is no doubt that Kant thought women were inferior, that patriarchy was the proper form of society, and that relations between the sexes are not pure relations between persons. It is true that these views likely influenced Kant’s behavior in this situation. (It goes without saying that Kant was not exactly unusual in this regard, which is obviously no excuse, but also not a condemnation of his philosophy.) It is true that, had Kant been committed to treating all persons, regardless of gender, as ends in themselves, he would have acted differently. But this means it is also true that, had Kant fully worked out the implications of his moral philosophy in opposition to his social prejudices, he would have been a better man. If anything, though, this is a point in favor of his moral philosophy, if a large point against his anthropology. (But admittedly, this seems tied to a deeper feminist criticism of Kantian-style ethics, which I never fully understood.)

Langton argues, in a deeply evocative manner, that Herbert was struggling with a society in which, as a woman, she faced the constant threat of losing her status as person in the eyes of others. I fully agree that this kind of society is not a good society; that all human beings deserve the chance to be judged on their acts regardless of gender. And so there is much to consider in Langton’s further argument: if Herbert had to lie in order to go on being treated as a person, then her lie may be justifiable. Perhaps this is so—I do not think Kant’s prohibition against lying should be taken as universal, and were he better attuned to the gender politics of the time, and their wrongness, he may have recognized this as a problem case. But this is also not so clear cut. The lying in question is lying about a former relationship to a person with whom Herbert has developed a deep mutual trust. Herbert is right to fear that telling the truth would undermine her status as person in the eyes of the other. But we might note also that she tells the truth, and does so because she cannot bear withholding it and violating the trust. And this is precisely as Kant says it should be: to withhold the truth would corrupt her soul. Her situation may be a lose-lose one, and one that is perhaps not best framed in terms of the negative consequences of the truth (loss of personhood before the other) versus the negative consequences of the lie (corruption of the soul). But for Herbert, certainly, the situation is already in those terms. And Kant is not entirely wrong to point out that, if her love does not finally come to respect her, then perhaps he never really loved her, or at least not enough.

III. Langton is wrong, I think, in the criticism that Kant’s failure to offer a compelling reason to live—Kant’s failure, in other words, to reply to Herbert’s initial question—is a failure of his philosophy. Herbert writes to Kant—a man whom she asks whether he never thought it “to be worth the bother to marry, or to give your whole heart to anyone, or to reproduce your likeness”—with a mix of request of moral guidance and relationship advice. That Kant had no idea how to deal with the latter—or how to deal with the former as applied to the latter—was to be expected.

I am aware of many students—perhaps some readers of this are or were such students—who, when encountering a particularly impressive professor, start to think of that professor as having the answers to all of life’s questions, as a person that they can come to with all their problems. In the student’s mind, the brilliant professor becomes sage, psychologist, counselor, friend, parental figure, etc., all rolled into one. Such a feeling appears in the background of Herbert’s letters. Kant failed to live up to this standard; most of us do. Perhaps it is not wrong to expect philosophers to have better thoughts about “the meaning of life” than others; but few really do, and it is certainly wrong to expect philosophers to be able to give answers with the proper degree of sensitivity and psychological insight. It is fairly apparent—especially from her second letter—that Herbert is hoping to learn something specific from Kant: how his philosophy, particularly his moral philosophy, can act as substitute for love and marriage. But certainly Kant never offered it as such a substitute. It is reasonable to assume that if Kant remained a loveless bachelor, this was not as a result of his moral views, nor was it seriously aided by them. What Herbert wants from Kant, Kant the man cannot give, and Kant the philosopher has no grounds for giving.

Let me note a brief analogy: Langton might reply that I, like Kant, am simply trivializing Herbert’s serious philosophical objection to his moral philosophy through a patronizing dismissal of her letters on psychological grounds. I hope that I am not doing that. But I am recognizing something fairly obvious—that there is a psychological level to Herbert’s letters that Langton simply leaves out. Keep in mind that today, philosophy professors are given clear instructions: if a student comes to you with suicidal tendencies, you should refer them to the Mental Health office; the people there are trained professionals (yeah, ok, universities also have legal concerns). I suspect that, had he had such an option, Kant would have taken it. But he did not have this option, and he failed to deal with the situation appropriately.

But it is also true that Kant did not offer psychoanalytic tools. And the moral law is not a complete prescription for living a full life. That it fails in this regard is hardly a good criticism; morality places limits on the interests we ought to pursue, and it imposes some positive duties on us, but it does nothing else. It does not tell us how to spend a Saturday afternoon any more than it tells us how we are to find pleasure in life, or a positive reason to go on living, after having lost it. Why should we expect this of Kant? If anything of this is to be found in his moral philosophy, it is only in the sense that morality offers self-esteem as its own reward. Herbert felt none of this. Should we conclude that Herbert’s apathy was pathological, and so blinded her to the proper feeling for the moral law? Or should we rather conclude that Kant was wrong in thinking that virtue does reward us? I leave the question open, but I do not find evidence in Herbert’s letters to support the latter interpretation.

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A Feminist Critique of Kant? Langton on Maria von Herbert (I)

A few years ago I glimpsed Rae Langton’s “Maria von Herbert’s Challenge to Kant” in some ethics reader, but did not have time to read it then. Today I encountered a link to an online version of the paper. Here I want to throw out some of my initial responses. Mainly: while I agree with much of what Langton says, I wonder if she is not conflating the critique of Kant the man, one who failed to recognize women as equal partners in dialogue, with a critique of Kant the philosopher who demanded the treatment of all persons as ends. Certainly there is a deep tension here, but I am not convinced it is a threat to Kantian moral philosophy, as opposed to a (justified) criticism of Kant’s application of that philosophy. Second, in building her critique, Langton more or less canonizes Herbert as a saint, based entirely on Herbert’s word. Third, Langton seems to want from Kant something he never claimed to offer nor should have been expected to, something akin to existential psychoanalysis.

To save space, I’ll refrain from summarizing too much. I would certainly advise those interested in Kant’s ethics to read Langton’s paper (and I certainly would advise against taking my word on all this: I can only address so much here, and my reading is no doubt biased). Basically: Maria von Herbert wrote to Kant, whom she has read, studied, and deeply admired, asking for help. She had chosen to confess a lie to someone she loved, and this person had turned cold to her. She asked Kant why she should go on living. Instead of addressing this last point, Kant went into the moral importance of not lying, suggesting that the truth now told, the one Herbert loves will either return to her with greater respect or, if not, well: you can’t always get what you want, and such is the way of the world. Herbert wrote back, a year later, saying that indeed the man had offered her, after a period of coldness, his intimate friendship. But she no longer cared: she had turned cold to worldly pleasures. She lived now only for the moral law, but she found the moral law too easy—she could do everything it demanded, but she had no pleasure to live for. And again she inquired why such a life should be worth living.
Kant inquired with a mutual friend, and was told that Herbert “has capsized on the reef of romantic love”. She told her lover about a previous lover, and things did not go well. Kant’s response: instead of writing Herbert again (as far as we know), he passed on the correspondence to another female friend with a note that this should remind her to guard against “the wanderings of a sublimated fantasy.”
Langton is certainly right: Kant seems to base his final (to our knowledge) judgment not on Herbert’s second letter, but instead on the friend’s evaluation of Herbert as having suffered a romantic misfortunate. Langton interprets the friend’s letter as providing an evaluation of Herbert in the traditional terms of “feminine hysteria”, but this strikes me as wrong. It is rather Kant who refers to “the lady’s curious mental derangement.” The friend says nothing of this sort: he simply gives the background for Herbert’s letters. If Kant, in turn, takes the background as fully undermining Herbert’s own thoughts, this is an error. But Langton simply makes the reverse error: she seems to think that the romantic circumstances behind the letters should not even serve as explanatory material. This is clearly wrong. I myself have certainly written—under the influence of romantic disappointment—certain things that I firmly believed at the time were true and justified independently of my particular mental state. Obviously such judgments are mistaken. We need not resort to interpreting Herbert’s letters as signifying “feminine hysteria”; being driven to despair and apathy by a failure of a relationship is hardly unique to women, as the novelists of Kant’s time well knew. To be clear: I am not defending Kant’s “derangement” account; and I am fairly certain that this analysis itself was likely prompted by Kant’s awareness that his correspondent was a woman. Nor do I deny that there were extremely interesting points in Herbert’s letters—particularly concerning the apparent dependence of moral worth on the desires it battles—that Kant fails to take seriously. My point is merely that the other extreme—one on which Herbert’s mental state is to be evaluated independently of the situation that gave rise to it—is also untenable.
Thus I agree with many of Langton’s points: Kant certainly fails to address some of the pressing issues in Herbert’s letters. He does not deal with suicide; and he reduces the problem to a simple moral dilemma of whether honesty is morally required, and dishonesty morally reprehensible; a dilemma which, given the content of Herbert’s letter, is neither here nor there. And I agree with Langton that Kant absurdly and improperly ceases to treat Herbert as a person (in the moral sense), reprehensibly passing on her personal correspondence to a third party as a cautionary tale, a case study of a woman led astray by her imagination. All this I grant. But having set this up, let me address the other part, the part where I disagree with Langton, in my next post.

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