Monday, November 23, 2009

Empathy and Moral Progress

Now, I have no problem with the idea that we humans are becoming better, morally. Anyone who denies this will have a lot of historical explaining to do. Wanton acts of cruelty, exploitation and deprivation just don't happen on the scale or percentage per capita today that they have in the past. We are kinder, more compassionate, less violent, and vastly less wasteful of both other humans and nature itself than our hunter-gatherer peers (and even our more recent peers). So, I accept the phenomenon. I just have hard time accepting the causal explanation given for this phenomenon.

Humans benefit from cooperation. The question is, why don't we cooperate in non-zero-sum partnerships more often? Why is it that humans have a tendency to compete and punish each other when both (or more) clearly benefit from cooperation? The answer recommended by Pinker and Wright is that our psychology isn't adapted to easily play non-zero sum games with strangers. But they both also observe that we as a society have gotten a lot better at this. The average American feels sorry for those who suffered in the 2005 Tsunami, and for the victims of protest in Myanmar and Iran, and for the poor in the inner cities. It bothers us when innocent Iraqis or Afghanis are killed because of our military action, and we are similarly disturbed by violence, like in Serbia, that doesn't really affect us other than morally.

Apparently, if Wright and Pinker are correct, this is all a very odd and recent phenomenon, to be explained by the fact that we have learned to expand the domain of our moral imagination. Our moral imagination, to give it a rough definition, is the ability to imagine ourselves in the circumstances of others, despite the fact that those circumstances might be very different from our own. Peter Singer has also recently championed this explanation. In short, we now include more people in our 'in-group,' where co-operative behavior is more likely and more rewarding. I went to talk just last Saturday where Frans de Waal also--albeit with scientific reservation--got in line, suggesting that humans as a whole are better learning to empathize with strangers, or to expand the in-group parameters, and that this explains in part better moral outcomes.

Again, I don't deny the phenomenon. To the extent that any of this is measurable, we are improving morally and we are also better at expanding the parameters of our 'in group,' to such an extent that most educated people, at least, have some inkling that they have a moral interest in the well-being of people not otherwise related to them beyond also being human. But Pinker, Wright et. al, want to explain the former by means of the latter, and this I just don't buy.

My basic argument is that cruelty is not the antithesis of empathy, but presupposes empathy. The moral imagination argument suggests a sort of moral blindness, relieved by an expansion of the moral imagination. Humans are cruel to one another because they do not see that the person they are victimizing feels pain, just like they do. When empathy is contracted, the victimizer is cruel to the victim because she is unable or unwilling to put herself in the victim's place, to understand the pain and suffering and humiliation that her action is causing. But this is precisely what cruelty does presuppose. In cruel acts, I take pleasure in the fact that I can empathize with your pain, helplessness and humiliation, I put myself in your shoes, understand that you are suffering, and delight in being the agent of that suffering. Such cruelty is not a failure of moral imagination or empathy, but a result.

One of the gifts left to us by the Ancient Assyrians is a trove of monuments and carved artifacts extolling the exploits of their kings. There is, for example, a monument remaining from King Asshuriziroal in the 9th century BCE that brags:
"Their men, young and old, I took as prisoners. Of some I cut off the feet and hands; of others I cut off the noses, and lips; of the young men's ears I made a heap; of the old men's heads I built a minaret.
Over fifteen hundred years after Asshuriziroal, an army of Goths savaged Milan, allowing the Byzantine garrison to depart unharmed but killing each and every male in the city while giving all the females over the Franks for slave labor and misuse. The siege of Milan is notable for not being particularly noteworthy at all, displaying the accepted mores, as it were, of siege warfare through most of human history. Such conduct, I believe, would not be tolerated today by even the most vicious of regimes. Only in the darkest depths of Hitler's genocide in Eastern Europe or Stalin's in the Soviet Russian Empire has anything approaching routine standards of ancient cruelty been witnessed by any living human.

I think it's clear that our 6th century peers were just as good at putting themselves in the heads of strangers as we are. The difference between our Gothic and Babylonian ancestors, I suspect, has less to do with an expanded moral imagination and more to do with the fact that we condemn what we experience in the exercise of our moral imagination. Perhaps it is true that an expansion of empathy is a necessary condition for treating strangers humanely, but it does not guarantee it. More to the point, perhaps, in-group/out-group distinctions are not drawn on the basis of who we empathize with. Humans can easily empathize with any other human. The difference that makes a difference to moral progress is not that we can imagine ourselves in the minds of strangers, but that we care about the strangers we imagine ourselves as being. This itself is not probably not a cognitve act, so I don't mean to suggest that in-group/out-group distinctions are drawn on a cognitive foundation (although that may be the case). I just think it unlikely that empathy alone explains that difference.

The morally disturbing fact about or predecessors were not that they couldn't put their heads into the minds of their victims, but that they could and were proud or honored by what they there imagined. Similarly, I think that the de-humanization argument often used to explain atrocities even today needs to be qualified: it's not that an SS officer simply did not understand that Jews and Slavs suffered, too, just like him; he did know that, he could visualize and imagine it--he just didn't care.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Refutation of Consequentialism? (I)

I'd like for someone to explain to me why the following isn't a sufficient refutation of consequentialism (at least of the maximalist or aggregative variety): One of the more over-reported anecdotes of the past century is Mao's retort to the question, "What was the significance of the French Revolution?" "It's too early to tell," Mao replied. Mao's point was partially tongue in cheek, but it managed to get across an important point: the effects of any action continue on into an indefinite, and at the limit, infinite, future. With that in mind, here's a refutation of consequentialism:

1) The right action in a given situation is a function of its net sum total consequences relative to alternative possible actions.
2) Sum net totals are calculated over total moments.
3) There are no total moments.
4) Hence, there are no sum totals.
5) Hence, there is no net sum total greater than all others.
6) Hence, there is no right action.

The key premise, obviously, is the third. It is also the least refutable. This is the insight captured in Mao's retort, and easily demonstrable: Let's take March 30th, 1794. You are Robesipierre, member the Committee for Public Saftey, deciding on the matter of Danton's execution. You think to yourself, What is the right thing to do? The answer, it is easy to demonstrate, depends upon what time frame is in question (and that, it should be stressed, is solely a matter of whim!). If the time frame is only through the end of the year, killing Danton will exacerbate the reign of terror (leading to your own execution!!), resulting in many more deaths. But, if your time frame is, say, up to 1814, it is precisely the excesses of the Reign of Terror and the Revolution that make Napoleon possible. Napoleon brings order finally to France, but he also harbingers war; yet without Napoleon there is no Congress of Vienna, which brings nearly a century of relative peace to Europe. But of course, without the developments that that century of peace engenders, there is no World War One and thus no World War Two. But without World War Two there is no United Nations....I could go on, but the point I take it is clear: whether it is right for you, Robespierre, to order the execution of Danton right now, in 1794, radically depends upon the time frame in question.

This is not an epistemic point. Of course it is hard to calculate out the consequences, and of course there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Robespierre could have made the considerations I just went over. But that is besides the point, which is that the consequentialist must be a realist about morality. The statement 'It is right in 1794 that Danton be executed' and its opposite, "It is wrong in 1794 that Danton be executed' must each have a determinate truth value. In general, any statement of the sort 'X is right' or 'X is good', if consequentialism is correct, must have a definite truth value, but no statement of that sort does. "It is right that Danton in 1794 be executed" is false in 1795, true in 1814, false again in 1816, true again maybe until 1914, false between 1914 and 1945, true again in 1946, and so on--which is just to say, "It is right that Danton is executed in 1794" has no definite truth value.

I suppose that one could argue that consequentialism is not a normative theory about what one ought to do, but is a descriptive theory that analyzes what we mean by statements of the sort 'X is right' and 'X is good'. But in that case, we have just shown that 'X is right' and 'X is good' have no definite truth values, and this, if any thing, speaks on behalf of error theory--and that, in turn, gets us to the same point: namely, that consequentialism is false.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Solution to Moral Luck?

Tomorrow I teach Nagel's 'Moral Luck' essay. I wonder if the solution to resultant, and perhaps circumstantial luck, is easily solved by the concept of moral risk. Winning the lottery is lucky, but it is not pure luck. Merely finding a winning lottery ticket in your coat pocket is pure luck. Playing the lottery and winning is something else. It is a risk one takes--deliberately accepting the cost of a few dollars for the low possibility of many thousands. It strikes me as perfectly reasonable to say that one deserves whichever outcome, even though that result is out of one's control. The outcomes may be widely divergent (a $2 sunk cost or $50,000 on the Pick 4), and yet equally deserved. Similarly, if I choose to drive over the speed-limit, I am taking a moral risk--and deserve whichever outcome, however divergent (getting to work on time vs. vehicular manslaughter). Not only is this a solution to resultant moral luck, but I believe that it's a fair exposition of our intuitions on the matter. Right?

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sandel on Justice on the Radio

I haven't read his book, and I don't do political philosophy very much, but it seems to me that there is a pretty clear fallacy in Michael Sandel's thinking, at least as it is expressed in this recent NPR interview. Sandel argues that many CEO's and sports stars are unjustly compensated. This is supposed to follow from his definition of justice. Justice he understands to be, roughly, 'to each what they deserve,' and then specifies that by 'deserve' he means what results from one's doing. In general, one deserves the results of what one has done. CEO's today make roughly eight times what they made in 1980 relative to the average worker. It is hard to believe that they are eight times more productive, or work eight times harder. Thus, the increase in their compensation has not resulted from what they have done, and hence, they have no special right to those proceeds. He makes a similar argument about A-Rod: A-Rod may excel at baseball due to his hard work and natural talent, but his talent is not the result of his own doing, nor is the fact that there is a high demand for superb baseball skills. I detect an illicit conversion in both cases. Sandel is arguing that from (1) 'All things we deserve are things we have a right to' it follows that (2) 'All things we have a right to are things we deserve.' That can't be right, even if we stick with 'right' in an exclusively moral sense. Surely there are things to which we have a right even though we do not deserve them in the sense that they result from something we have done. For example, even in a Rawlsian framework, where we accept that I do not deserve my talents, can it really follow that I do not have a right to my talents? Or is this a bad counterexample?

UPDATE: Let me turn the somewhat hazy intuition informing this post into a question (okay, several questions): Is there anything, in a Rawlsian framework, that an individual deservesqua individual? Or do I 'deserve' only what is consistent with minmaxing, the difference principle, etc., regardless of my labor, effort, talent, luck, etc? In other words, do I, this unique individual, Michael, deserve anything? Or is it that only my behind-the-veil self, interchangeable with anyone, deserves anything? If so, it seems that Rawls is in fact missing an deep intuition about justice and desert, namely, that it is individual. As far as I can tell, according to Rawls, I only deserve anything as that behind the veil self, not as me. Alternatively: I just have Rawls completely wrong.

I might add at this point that I'm sympathetic to Sandel's conclusion, I'm just suspicious of his reasons. I can imagine a more libertarian-inclined fellow replying: 'Even if we grant your conclusion--namely, that we do not have a right to what we do not deserve--it hardly follows from the fact that I don't deserve a benefit I currently enjoy that you have a right to confiscate it. And that is what we are talking about: a collective of agents utilizing the coercive power of the state to confiscate the fruits of a good enjoyed by A-Rod that A-Rod doesn't deserve.' It's clear to me that A-Rod doesn't deserve it (in this I agree with Rawls and Sandel), but a lot more has to be said before we can conclude from this fact that A-Rod has no right to it. In fact, it's not entirely clear to me that these two should be related at all.

Assume for a moment that there is only one fan, that this fan is extraordinarily rich , that she has earned her money justly by Sandel's standards, and that she is happy to pay A-Rod $30 million a year to play baseball. I wonder if taking A-Rod's money (say through excessive taxation, higher than an average rate for that income level) is not in fact a violation of the fan's rights. And in any case, I would argue that A-Rod has a full right to this money, even if he did not earn it in a moral sense (does not morally deserve it). Remember, it seems to follow from Sandel's reasoning that 'excessive' compensation has nothing do with absolute earnings ($30 million/ year just being too much) nor with relative earnings (12 times the wage of the average worker), but solely with undeserved earnings. So, a just taxation system, it would seem to follow, would be one that taxed A-Rod at a higher rate than our fan, even if, let's suppose, they have the same income.

I can see avoiding this conclusion, but only if we accept that no one really earns their wage; that there is no such thing as a just wage individually calibrated. In other words, we can avoid the above conclusion if we rule out a priori the possibility that someone could morally earn $30 million, and then acknowledge that if one cannot morally earn $30 million, one can't really morally earn $30 thousand either.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Are We Fascists Yet?

Brian Leiter links--rightly with some reservation--to this article trying to make a sober case for taking the threat of fascism, today, seriously. Her conclusion:
"We are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country is another day we're slowly creeping across the final line beyond which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return."
And after reading truly deranged and psychotic stuff like this:
"There is a remote, although gaining, possibility America's military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the Obama problem. Don't dismiss it as unrealistic.

America isn't the Third World. If a military coup does occur here it will be civilized. That it has never happened doesn't mean it wont."
it's no wonder that otherwise sane people really begin to wonder. Nonetheless, to suppose that we are actually flirting with fascism itself flirts with crazy; sober and silly are not mutually exclusive. I don't claim that we are definitely not anywhere near fascism, but I do claim that the entire exercise is misguided.

Discussions of this sort presume that Fascism is some sort of natural kind, and that there are antecedent conditions which, when met, will lead in a lawful or law-like manner to a fascist state. I'm willing to set aside the issue of whether or not it is appropriate at all to apply the concept of law to social and political phenomena. Let's assume that social and political phenomena exhibit regularities that, if not strictly lawful, are nonetheless sufficiently law-like. In either case, it's pretty standard to accept that lawful or law-like relations must be consistent over two variations:

1) Generalization: a lawful relation must obtain among a significant number of instances. Just because you caught the flu after getting a new pair of glasses does not mean that your glasses and the flu are in any way related. Similarly, just because Athens won the battle of Marathon after the Spartans failed to show up doesn't mean that in general battles go well when allies fail to appear. For there to be a relevant relation here, there would have to be lots of instances of armies succeeding after allies have failed to show.

2) Counterfactual Variation: Not only must a lawful relation obtain among a number of actual instances, that same relation must obtain over relevant counterfactual variations. So, it happened to be the case that Bismark was able to unify Germany by exploiting a mercurial French emperor. But knowing this doesn't mean that you could have inferred, in say 1866, from Napoleon III's mercurial nature to the likelihood of German unification. Chances are, Bismark would have been equally adept at manipulating a conservative and rigid Emperor of France, just as he successfully exploited Franz Josef. For Napoleon III's mercurial nature to have been causally and lawfully related to the unification of Germany, it would have to shown that had Napoleon III not been mercurial, Germany would not have been unified, along with many such other variations.

So let's ask, are there any relations that can survive these conditions applied to fascism? I don't think so. Most discussions I've had or read on the subject, from Robert Paxton's informative essay to Jonah Goldberg's silly book, get stuck on the generalization condition. Immediately there are problems that arise from trying to decide just what counts as the reference class for 'Fascist Regimes'. There's almost no way to answer this without begging the question. Hitler and Mussolini both represented movements angry about the loss of a purer past, whereas Stalin's USSR rejected the past for the sake of a communist future. So, is worry over a lost, organic past necessary to qualify as fascist? There seems no way to answer this without begging the question: if you really want to include Stalin among the fascists, then no, but if you don't mind dropping him from the list, then sure. No essence or natural kind is going to get in your way whatever you decide.

But what really makes predictions about fascism problematic is the second condition. There are probably no necessary conditions leading to any of the historically fascist states without which we could say with any credibility that fascism would not have emerged anyway. So Hitler's and Mussolini's fascisms were weirdly pagan, whereas Franco's was wed to the Catholic Church. But I see no reason why, mutatis mutandis, an ultramontane fascism could not have emerged out of conservative elements in Germany, nor why some charismatic anarchist leader could not have taken control of the Republicans in Spain and created a secular fascist state. The point is that there are simply no truly insightful comparisons, only superficially insightful ones. What we really mean by fascism is just 'tyranny,' or 'evil'--and so let's worry straightaway about whether any given regime is acting tyrannical or evilly, and not about whether they are rehearsing fascism's encore.

I guess the conclusion I would like to make, after this unintentionally long post, is two-fold:
1) Forget Fascism. It's not a useful concept. Instead of fretting over whether teabaggers represent an incipient fascism, let's just say that these people are really weird, willfully irrational, a little bit scary, and completely unsuitable as dinner guests.
2) More broadly, I think it's time to start a movement: I call on a MORATORIUM FOR ALL WWII REFERENCES. No longer will it be acceptable to think through any truly pressing political problem as if it were just a replay of the 1930's.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Thought of the Day: Possible Worlds and the Experience Machine

In the most recent Family Guy episode, Stewie and Brian take a journey through several multiverses. Mostly these are just quirky (a literal Disney World) and funny (a world where even Meg is hawt). But the world Merry-Go-round stops when they happen into a world where the man/dog relation is reversed. Brian, as fans know, is a dog who happens to be intelligent, somewhat full of himself, and a complete--pun intended--horn-dog. Immediately upon arriving a super sexy 'pet' woman jumps him and licks him down. He's found his perfect pleasure world: Being a dog, he is the master in this world, and liking human women, access to sex will be much, much easier. He decides to stay.

I started thinking about Noick's experience machine: what if the choice were, not between 'fake' experiences and 'real' experiences, but between possible worlds within an actualist framework? In other words, what if the choice were, not between a pleasant fantasy and hard reality, but between an equally real possible pleasure world, and the merely indexically-present world? The thought experiment would then be the following: suppose that you could leave this current world for an equally real alternative world that happened to be much more pleasurable--would you?

Stewie and Brian decide after a short while that they want to go home. They miss their 'real' friends--a mis-description, since the people in Dogworld are just as real as in the home world. I don't think that the creators of Family Guy were thinking through the metaphysics of possible worlds nor the concept of hedonism, but that makes their resolution of the scenario all the more natural. I'd argue that this amendment to the thought experiment shows that it is the status-quo bias, rather than the reality bias or an aversion to dupery, that is behind most people's preference for the present world.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Observation of the Day

On this bloggingheads, Robert Kagan makes the following argument against the effectiveness of international law for solving geo-political and geo-strategic problems: i) Law qua law requires that all parties be treated equally; ii) no nation ever has, nor ever will, treat all parties equally; iii) hence, no legal framework will be applicable to inter-state relations. Of course, I don't think we'd accept this argument at all if it were made on behalf of domestic law: i) Law qua law requires that all citizens be treated equally; ii) as a matter of fact, citizens are not treated equally (richer citizens afford better lawyers, more affluent citizens can affect the legislative process to their advantage more readily, many minorities are at a distinct disadvantage in lobbying for access to public goods and influence, etc.); iii) hence, no legal framework at all will be applicable to intra-state relations.

But I'm not going to make that point. Regardless of the argument's strength, isn't the first premise obviously false? I mean, before the age of Enlightenment, the idea that the laws must treat all individuals equally was, I'm pretty sure, non-existent. In fact, quite the opposite was true: a primary function of laws was to codify, legitimate and enforce the inequalities among parties by virtue of lineage, wealth, status, occupation, etc. And while very few regimes were what I would call admirably just, quite a lot of them were functional and did manage to advance their interests and values through a legal framework, both internally and externally. If I were forced to pin Kagan's basic mistake, it would be the assumption that law has to be naive and/or ignorant of real relations in order to function as law. In some cases, yes, but not all. Per the issue at hand in the bloggingheads, I see no reason legally why the Nuclear Club members can't just insist that they're better, they should have more say in shaping world nuclear policy, and then construct international law to reflect this (which, of course, is exactly what we do!). Now, there are good arguments for why this is an unjust arrangement, but that's not the issue: the issue is whether it's effective.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does the Possibility of Time Travel imply the Impossibility of Free Will? (I)

There seems to be wide agreement among theorists that while time travel is logically possible, altering the past is not. In other words, it's coherent to believe that you might travel into the past one day, but incoherent to believe that while on this journey you might kill your father. If that's right, it means problems for libertarian conceptions of free will.

The initial argument is simple: Let's say that

i) In 1966 George and Lorraine have a child, Marty.

ii) In 1985, Marty time travels to 1955 and runs his father, George McFly, over with a DeLorean, killing him.

iii) In 1966, George is dead and Lorraine is an alcohol-raddled spinster.

Thus, iv) In 1966 Marty is both born and not born.

(iv) is obviously self-contradictory, and therefore logically impossible. Furthermore, since Marty killing his own father is logically impossible, a fortiori it is physically impossible.

If this doesn't seem right, it helps to remember that Marty is a time traveler, not a world traveler. This is the point David Lewis stresses at the end of his important essay ('The Pardoxes of Time Travel'). There is only one 1955, just as there is only one 1966 and one 1985. Marty can travel from one time to another with about as much ease as you or I can drive from home to the supermarket, but just as when you or I visit the local supermarket it is always the same supermarket, so when Marty visits 1955 it is the same 1955 it has always been. Thus, in the 1955 in question, it is timelessly true that Marty was there, and that he was the instrument of his parents' romance, just as it is timelessly true that he is born in 1966 and travels back to 1955 from 1985. There is not one 1955 without Marty, and another 1955 with Marty. Marty is always there, in 1955, even though he is not born until 1966. This only seems to be paradoxical (How can he exist at a time before he is born?). Lewis recommends distinguishing between personal time and external time: For Marty, his arrival in 1955 follows his birth, whereas to an external observer, living through the normal course of time, Marty just appears one day in 1955, while his infant self is born eleven years later in 1966. (This of course poses problems for identity theory, but not for time). If the initial argument is correct, then Marty is, in the strogest sense--logically, physically--unable to kill George in 1955. If one nevertheless wants to insist the contrary, this would have to be in a different 1955, a 1955 which is followed by a 1966 in which no one is born to George and Lorraine, which in turn is followed by a 1985 in which no one identical to Marty travels back in time. In other words, we have here two worlds, not two times--a world in which George and Lorraine meet and have Marty who then time travels in 1985, and another world in which George is killed and no one identical to Marty is ever born. If Marty ends up in that 1966 where George has been killed and no one identical to himself is born, it has not been through traveling back and altering time, but by traveling between one world and another.

This suggests the following argument against libertarianism:

a) A free agent is able to cause one rather than another possible outcome.

b) Marty is not able to cause one rather than another possible outcome.

c) Marty is not a free agent.

d) Since Marty is not special in anyway, no one is a free agent.

Marty, we know, cannot kill George. He cannot do so by accident, but more to the point, he cannot do so intentionally. He may--perhaps overwhelmed by newly-blossomed incestuous longings--desperately want to kill George in 1955, but he cannot and thus will not do so, for we know that he is born in 1966 and that George is his father. But if Marty cannot alter the past and affect the present, so too neither he nor anyone else could alter the present and affect the future. For Marty's inability to kill his own father is not unique to Marty. If Marty is unable, despite the firmest of desires, goals and plans, to thwart George and Lorraine's consummation, then so too are George and Lorraine, whatever their desires, goals and plans, unable to alter that same consummation. George and Lorraine will give birth to Marty in 1966, and there is nothing George, Lorraine nor Marty can do about it. Suppose that Marty informs George that Lorraine becomes an insufferable alcoholic, that their kids are complete losers, etc.--no matter, George will not be able to avert that future, for if he does avert that future, then in 1966 Marty is not born, and so cannot time travel in 1985 and so will not be there to inform George in 1955 get the picture. Finally, if there is nothing special about Marty in 1955, and if there is nothing special about George and Lorraine in 1966, then there is nothing special about you or I today. Que sera, sera.

A libertarian might object at this point: even if we grant that it is impossible to perform actions today that are in contradiction to the future, surely we are free to do other things today not in contradiction with the future. For example, nothing is stopping Marty from moving the teapot in Doc's house from one burner to the other, because nothing about his later travel back to the past is inconsistent with that changed fact. Hence, Marty is free to move the teapot, even while he is not free to kill George. This objection misses the point. Nothing Marty does can change the future, not because the future is just somehow perfectly rigid, but because the future after 1955 results from whatever occurs in 1955, and Marty has always been in 1955, i.e., if Marty moves the teapot, then the teapot's being moved is just a timeless fact about 1955. What is compossible with moving the teapot is Marty's wanting to move the teapot. What is not compossible with the moving of the teapot is the not moving of the teapot. We can say that Marty is free to move to the teapot insofar as he is not stopped from doing what he wants to do, or insofar as his second-order intention towards his decision to move the teapot is an approving one, but we cannot say that Marty is free to move the teapot if by that we mean that Marty could have done otherwise.

Lewis' attempts to get out of this predicament seem only half-hearted. Lewis argues that, if we restrict the range of facts we are considering, then Marty is able to kill George. For example, Marty's killing George is compossible with Marty's desire to be his mother's lover, George's oafishness, the fact that George is weak and easily fooled, his ability to purchase a gun, etc., and insofar as we restrict ourselves only to facts like these, there is a sense in which it is appropriate to say that Marty could kill George . But as we expand the pool of facts that need to be included, the range of possible actions decreases, and once we consider all the facts, then it is impossible that Marty kills George. Lewis, in other words, does not really show that free will makes sense, he only manages to stipulate a use of 'could' or 'possibility' that is not baldly self-defeating; nothing Lewis says can be taken as proof that we really are free.

Anyway, I will address some further complications in a later post. I suspect there is something wrong or missing in the above argument, but I can't quite identify what it is. One point I will address is the following: the above account of time-travel certainly seems to suggest a four-dimensionist picture of time, and there have been attempts to make libertarianism compatible with four-dimensionalism. I don't find these persuasive. First off, I think the argument fails. Secondly, from what I have read, libertarian four-dimensionalists at best succeed in supplying a way in which we can think of choices as random events or points. I'm not persuaded: it seems to me that, even among libertarians, it's important not only that the agent be the cause of an action, but that s/he be responsible for that action, yet if an action is truly random, it may be the cause of some event, but I don't see why the agent would be responsible.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Privy me this, Hayekians...

A brief, somewhat sour, query: Opponents of Marx are fond of arguing that, whatever else might recommend him, surely it matters that Marx was, all in all, wrong. Marx predicted a falling rate of profit, the internal collapse of the capitalist system, the increasing enlargement and impoverishment of the Lumpenproletariat, the triumph of communism--none of which, in fact, actually happened.

Friends of Marx of course protest such allegations by pointing out that 'real communism' has never been tried. The Soviet Empire, Yugoslavia, Cuba, China, North Korea--none of these nor any other of the historically communist regimes resembled very much the sort of ideal candidate Marx had in mind in his prediction of the sublation of a capitalist into communist mode of production. Each one had been governed by a leader or party that was explicit about making theoretical and practical amendations to the program provided in books like Das Kapital. However, this sort of counter-argument basically never works. It's hard to find an opponent of Marx accede this point and agree that only historically existing communist regmies have failed, not Communism or Marxism. 'No,' goes the reply,'communism was tried; conditions weren't perfect, but they were enough, they all failed, and so maybe we should stop continuing to find excuses and just admit that Marx was wrong and that Marxism is false.'

Ok, I have no wish to deny the opponent of Marx his point. But what I want to know is this: Shouldn't we accept that Hayek, too, and other such 'social democracy is just the first step towards totalitarianism' theories, be chalked up along with Marxism under the 'wrong' column?I say this only because I recently re-perused Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and was struck by how many predictions he courageously offers, and how many of those have turned out to be--it has to be safe to say by now--wrong. Hayek viewed the fascists parties of Germany and Italy as not just successors to, but as the natural outgrowths of, earlier social democratic parties and policies. Social welfare policies will lead, even despite intentions, to serfdom and tyranny. Democratic conferral of such powers is no sufficient precaution against these eventualities. Any attempt to conflate economic with political liberty will ineluctably result in the negation of both. It's as clear to me at least that none of these turned out to be true. And there is no reason to think that they are just around the corner. In other words, most of the antecedent conditions that Hayek lays out have long obtained, and hardly any of the consequents have followed. That makes them false.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Aesthetics Lectures Online

For those who haven't seen this this yet, the Aesthetics Research Group at the University of Kent has put up their archive of lectures in audio format. Pretty exciting stuff; all I need now are ear buds for my mp3 player that can drown out the subway noise. Link here.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is addiction voluntary?

I'm pretty fascinated by this new book on addiction. The author (Gene Hyman), a psychologist and professor at BC (I think), argues that addiction is voluntary. I don't have anything profound to say about the matter, but I think that his framing of the issue is interesting.
He begins by pointing out that most addicts are ex-addicts, meaning that roughly 75% of addicts have stopped being addicts, and that among these, most have done so without clinical treatment. So it seems that most people who become addicts stop on their own. And why have they stopped? Heyman's answer: because continuing the addiction became too costly. Whether for financial, health or family reasons, addicts tend to quit when, to put it bluntly, it just ain't worth it anymore.

And yet, Heyman admits that addictive behavior is compulsive. So why call addiction voluntary? Because addictive behavior seems to be for the most part sensitive to the sorts of incentives that guide everyday choices. And this is just what Heyman means by 'voluntary': an action is voluntary not by virtue of its cause (whether by an unfettered will or by some antecedent brain state), but by virtue of its sensitivity to incentives. Schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, bipolar--these are utterly insensitive to costs and incentives, and are thus diseases. But addiction, Heyman argues, for the most part is sensitive to incentives and so is voluntary. Thus, it is not a disease. This conclusion seems to follow even if we acknowledge the truth that tendencies for addiction are heritable. (Many critics of Heyman seem to ignore this point, not realizing that his definition of 'voluntary' is consistent with voluntary behavior being both heritable and a function of the brain).

So my first question: Why can't diseases sometimes be voluntary? Here's something a philosopher might say: addiction is voluntary, but not free. Addictive behavior is the effect of first-order decisions, which, like all voluntary decisions (which is to say, decisions per se), are sensitive to costs and benefits and follow a preference structure (utility function). But the addict, usually, is not very happy with the choices s/he makes, and to this extent, is not free. Can we allow voluntary but unfree diseases? If so, would this neutralize the annoyance many people feel towards Heyman's thesis? (Incidentally, we might already have a name for such 'voluntary diseases,' viz., character flaw.)

A second question: Why does the label matter so much? There has been a lot of mean ink directed towards Heyman, often from recovering addicts. One obvious reason is that we as a community have decided that we don't want to blame addicts for their actions. It's important that we continue to refer to addictive behavior as a disease because it's important that we inoculate the addict against moral opprobrium and judgment. But why is that important? Because it's not effective. Expressing moral disapproval is not very likely change an addicts behavior.

And so a third question: What kind of costly, self-harming practices wouldn't be better influenced by treating them more like addictions than like moral choices? Deceit, thievery, infidelity, cowardice, exploitation--these sorts of behaviors are almost always in the end self-destructive, and so why not treat them also like diseases? The answer surely has something to do with the fact that by labeling something as a disease we undercut our right to moral indignation, which is usually a peculiarly pleasurable feeling, and therefore one which we will usually protect.

UPDATE: This is amusing. From Sunday's NYT Magazine:
"Our national weight problem brings huge costs, both medical and economic. Yet our anti-obesity efforts have none of the urgency of our antismoking efforts. “We should declare obesity a disease and say we’re going to help you get over it,” Cosgrove said.
Indeed. This article tells a story about the efforts to label alcoholism as a disease. Apparently, after the repeal of prohibition, a predictable surge in alcoholism followed. But alcoholics were told that this was a moral failing, and so was accompanied by a surge in just the same sorts of moralizing forces that had been responsible for prohibition in the first place. The doctors on the Research Council on the Problem of Alcohol needed to get convince the people to send alcoholics their way, and realized that calling it a disease was a good way to accomplish that. Notice that Dr. Cosgrove (from the Cleveland Clinic) in the quote above is advancing the same sort of reasoning: it's not that we care particularly whether or not alcoholism/obesity is a disease, we just observe that by calling it a disease we help to effect better results.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Random Thought About the Philosophy and Pop Culture Books

I wonder if anyone on this list has read enough philosophy and popular culture books, or has some insight or speculation, to answer the following thought I had. There are, as far as I know, three of these series (Blackwell, Open Court, University of Kentucky). (Those books must really sell well!) My impression is that Open Court tends to ask for paper submissions, whereas the other two ask for abstract + CV. (Is that right? Or is this up to the discretion of the individual book editors rather than series policy?) What I'm wondering is whether there is any consistent difference in quality produced by these two approaches and, if so, which way it leans.

My first thought was that requesting full papers rather than abstracts is likely to get better results. First of all, the reviewers are selecting among full works rather than partially thought out ideas, and this makes it easier to judge quality from the outset. And second, people are more likely to try harder if they are trying to get something published than when publication is certain. (Though I could be wrong on this.)

On the other hand, though, requesting abstracts might lead to better results. First, higher level scholars or more ambitious ones are probably less likely to submit papers than abstracts; after all, for most of these books, if your paper doesn't get accepted, then you've just wasted a lot of time on work you can't submit anywhere else without a more or less complete rewrite. The cost/benefit analysis will more likely favor abstracts than papers, especially for people who have more "serious" things to do. Second, if CVs are used as part of the selection process, this might lead to acceptance of papers by people with stronger records who are probably, on average, more likely to produce solid work.


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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Korsgaard, Reasons, and an Internalist Problem

Korsgaard's view of reasons is an interesting one. She formulates it explicitly as attempting to fix the problems of the two dominant views, namely, the view that reasons are psychological states of the agent and the view that reasons are facts, or the good-making properties of some action or state of affairs. In place of both of these views, Korsgaard wants to defend what she takes to be an intermediate view, one that incorporates the idea that agents must take something as a reason into the constitution of reasons themselves. Agents, on her view, must be active with regard to reasons. But I worry that her view leans too far in the direction of the psychological states account.

Korsgaard's view is basically that a reason is a consideration in favor of doing something. The consideration is provided by a proper combination of both the end and what one is to do in order to achieve that end. (In her terminology, what one does is an act, and the action as a whole involves an-act-for-the-sake-of-an-end.) In asking for a reason, then, we are asking for a description of the proposed (or performed) action such that both the act and the end are specified in such a way as to make the action as a whole appear worth performing to the agent.

As she writes in "Acting for a Reason" (printed in The Constitution of Agency):
If Aristotle and Kant are right about actions being done for their own sakes, then it seems as if every action is done for the same reason, namely because the agent thinks it's worth doing for its own sake. This obviously isn't what we are asking for when we ask for the reason why someone did something, because the answer is always the same: he thought it was worth doing. What may be worth asking for is an explication of the action, a complete description of it, which will show us why he thought it was worth doing. (221)
And later:
Aristotle and Kant's view, therefore, correctly identifies the kind of item that can serve as a reason for action: the maxim or logos of an action, which expresses the agent's endorsement of the appropriateness of doing a certain act for the sake of a certain end. (226)
Now I wonder if Korsgaard has any means at all of accommodating any sort of externalist view of reasons. Reasons are, on her account, entirely up to the agent: a reason gives a description of the action such that it makes the action appear worth doing to the agent (or, to put it another way, it gives a description of the action such that the agent is motivated to perform that action). But on her account, as far as I can tell, there is just no grounds at all for saying something like this: "John has a reason to push that button, even though he doesn't know it." That is, on her account--from what I can tell--a consideration can only be a reason if it is taken as such by an agent.

I suppose there is a way of fixing this. One could say that a reason is either a consideration that motivates A (or makes the action appear worth doing to A), or it is a consideration that would motivate A, were he fully aware of the relevant facts. Similarly, one would have to add: Even when A takes something to be a reason for him, it may still not be a reason. For example, John might believe that pressing the button will launch a bomb, and so he has a reason not to press it. But in fact pressing the button will stop the bomb from being launched, so what he takes to be a reason isn't a reason at all. But I suspect Korsgaard does not want to go in this direction: this is why she refers, in the second quote above, to "the kind of item that can serve as a reason for action." If I am reading this correctly, then, the fact that pressing the button will stop the bomb from being launched will enter into "kind of item that can serve as a reason" for John, but it is not a reason for John. And that seems wrong, for if John were aware of the button's function, he would recognize it as a reason, and this suggets that it is a reason for him, albeit one he does not have access to.

Her account, then, seems to be far more internalist than the one proposed by Williams ("Internal and External Reasons"). Williams, after all, recognizes that something is a reason for an agent so long as there is a path to it from the agent's subjective motivational set. But Korsgaard seems to reject this requirement: unless something is taken as a reason, it doesn't seem to be a reason at all.

In other words, I think Korsgaard's account as given is false: just because an agent takes something to be a reason does not make it a reason at all (and the fact that he fails to take something as a reason does not mean that it is not). What makes it a reason is that he could take it to be a reason, were he fully informed. (Like Setiya, then, Korsgaard portrays reasons as supervening on the agent's mental states, but she doesn't even add the proviso that none of his beliefs may be false, the way Setiya does.)

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Knowledge in Explanation : A Reply to Avery Archer

This is a somewhat lengthy reply where I respond to Avery Archer's criticism of my review of Jennifer Hornsby's paper where Avery attacks my claim that knowledge has a central role in psychological explanation of action. According to Avery knowledge can only serve a justificatory role in acting for reasons and is therefore, in a sense, completely irrelevant for reason-giving explanations. I sincerely appologize for the length of this post but this topic gets me going as it is something I work on and need to think about in my own thesis.

It's time to respond to Avery Archer's ardent comment to my Hornsby review, which he posted on The Space of Reasons blog last week (see his commentary to my review below). To begin with let me just briefly delineate the issues I want to bring up in this reply to his response. Avery's main challenge to my review seems to be his rejection of knowledge as an factor that has an explanatory role in action as opposed to a mere justificationary role. The difference between these roles Avery explains best himself and it goes as follows:

Explanatory reasons (or what I sometimes prefer to call “motive-giving explanations”) have to do with our attempt to make sense of or explain the purposive activity of intentional agents (rational and non-rational alike). By contrast, justificatory reasons have to do with our attempt to ascertain whether or not the actions of an intentional agent are rationally recommended (and is therefore limited to agents with rational agents). Both explanatory and justificatory reasons are normative (since they both allow for the possibility of error); but while the former answers to a why question (vis-a-vis the actions of any intentional agent) the latter answers to a should question (vis-a-vis the actions of a rational agent).

Thus, for Avery there is two senses in which something can be a reason for action: (1) the reason that explains why someone F-s and (2) the reason that justifies F-ing. Obviously, he thinks knowledge is a fair constraint and necessary requirement on the latter whereas he is opposed to admitting knowledge any explanatory force. Roughly speaking, he positions himself among the orthodox and thinks that what is responsible for the causal workings in the agent can always be explained in terms of more kosher mental states like beliefs and desires. Good, that means we can agree about justification and that we're halfway through to the promised land. Of course, Avery wants to jump off halfway but we'll see about that. For Avery the knower can retreat from the world of causality to linger in a world of rationality and justification. In other words, in the explanatory world knowledge does not belong. This claim about the explanatory futility of knowledge is what I want to focus on in this reply and, of couse, I seek to refute it.

Let me start by granting that Hornsby's paper does not make the case for knowledge's explanatory role to the extent that I would have wanted her to. So her argument may or may not be liable to Avery's criticism that the argument for knowledge's role in action confuses a false claim about its explanatory role from true and obvous claims about its justificatory role in action. Maybe so. But the claim that knowledge has such an explanatory role - and thus the claim that knowledge operates in the agent's mind as a psychologically relevant factor as opposed to some mere rationalistic chimera or ineffective ought - is central if one wants to buttress the view that knowledge sometimes must figure in an explanation of an agent's action. Here Avery and I are in agreement about what goes together with Hornsby's view then; we disagree whether we think her view is falsely bringing these things together. Now let's briefly see why Hornsby needs to commit to the stronger claim that knowledge is an explanatory factor as well.

Hornsby's claim is that in any case where an agent acts for an objective reason to F she must know that this is a reason to be F-ing. Hornsby therefore takes it as a substantial psychological claim that agents sometimes do act out of knowledge. That is to say, in some cases knowledge is psychologically relevant and responsible for the events initiated by the agent. Thus, Hornsby's claim implicates that knowledge makes - at least in some situations, namely those where one acts for objective reasons - a significant contribution to those events. If Avery's right she would have needed to supplement her story, though, since her original story would only concern how the agent is justified in F-ing. What is needed to explain what the agent does is a proper explanation and a psychological story about how the actual F-ing came about. And Avery thinks that knowledge plays no role in the latter.

For people like Hornsby and I, however, justification - or, better, what justifies - sometimes do have explanatory value. In other words, these features sometimes go together. The best way to argue for this intermingling I think one can find in that other source I mentioned in the review for thinking that knowledge is relevant in action explanations, namely Timothy Williamson (2000). What Williamson claims is that knowledge is sometimes relevant in action explanation because the attribution of knowledge to another agent provides one with the relevant generalization to explain the particular action (as well as other cases relevantly similar to this particular one but I'll return to this below). Basically, what is going is that Williamson wants to say that an agent F-es presicely because she knew that P was a reason to F and that this knowledge is essential for giving you the proper generalization for the case at hand. The important thing to notice is namely that in order to explain something - say, someone's action - one must also take account of the case's modale profile. When someone F-es because P there are certain events that could have happened that comprise the modale space surrounding the actual F-ing; and what a proper explanation seeks to do is to generalize and be sensitive to this modal profile. So suppose A would F if she believed that P is a reason to F. Likewise that she would F if she knew that P is a reason to F. What determines the attribution we ouht to make is the case at hand; that is to say, the modal profile we want to get a proper grasp of determines whether we need a belief attribution or a knowledge attribution to explain the case at hand. Williamson's claim is that in some cases, like in the burglar case I mentioned in the previous posts, only a knowledge attribution would do the job.

Let us see if we can get a firmer grasp of this at a more abstract level first. Start by noticing that there is a different modale profile function connected with the attribution of Bp and Kp. With this I mean that belief and knowledge have different properties and thus contributes differently to certain cases. Knowledge is, for instance, factive whereas beliefs admit of being mistaken. That difference is enough to give you a different function for knowledge than for belief, a function that would take you from a given knowledge attribution to a set of values or a structure in modale space for the case at hand; and, analogously, from a given belief attribution to a possibly different set of values.

Sometimes those functions will, of course, deliver the same modale space as a value to a situation. In these situations it would not make a difference whether one attributes Bp or Kp; so maybe conservatives would prefer to attribute Bp in those cases. However, in most cases Kp gives you a different modale profile than Bp. For one thing, Kp, besides from being factive, comes along with a certain required reliability relation: knowledge would not obtain unless all the epistemic alternatives for the agent are p-worlds. That is not the case with Bp. This difference will obviously influence the space of close worlds in a case at hand and thus influence the modal profile one can get by attributing Kp or Bp. If not for oher reasons so for the reason that the kind of reliabiliy associated with knowledge requires a certain ammount of epistemic credibility in terms of evidence. When one attributes Kp to an agent this required evidence follows suit, as it were, and their presence may make a difference to what goes on in this case as opposed to a Bp case.

Given that causality is, if not analyzed modaly, so at least sensitive to modal space, it is evident that knowledge as a cause would bring with it something that could turn out to be useful in certain instances of explanation. That is to say, knowledge as a cause could in some cases be what is needed to get a desired generalization or modale profile to a given case. The very existence of such cases is Williamson's crucial claim. Now that we have the general framework at hand we can perhaps better perceive this possibility and be tempted to use it. In any case, whether it is actually relevant or not requires a convincing case and it is here I think that the burglar case suffices.

Before we go on let me note in passing that what Avery's thinks is a point in favour of his dividing explanatory reasons from justificatory reasons is that he thinks knowledge fail to apply to non-linguistic animals who may still be said to act for reasons. However, this point could actually be flipped in Honsby's (or my) favour. Avery seems to think that animals could act for the belief that p whereas knowledge would require linguistic abilities in its possessor. Thus, Kp may be a justificatory requirement, which the animal cannot satisfy, whereas what moves the animal to act and thus explain its behaviour is Bp. I'm aware that there is such a view about knowledge; but one should be aware that there's also such a linguistic view about beliefs (e.g. Davidson, Dummett). None of which I would be inclined to give very much credit. More plausibly, in my view, beliefs do require certain language-like cognitive capacities since beliefs take propositions as their objects, which are object built up and grasped by the proper combination of concepts. They work much the same way as one would determine the meaning of a sentence from the combination of its constituent words; thus we get something like Fodor' postulation of the language of thought. That I think is needed for having a belief; and I hasten to add that animals who act for reasons they have beliefs about must have this capacity. For Hornsby, however, and I think I agree, knowledge is a non-linguistic relation to facts. So there really is no problem for Hornsby or me that animals can act for the objective reason that P; at least as long as this non-linguistic knowledge relation is available to us. On the other hand, the requirement of a language of thought for having beliefs could equally well support the presence of propositional knowledge, in the old-fashioned sense, in an animal. In any form, then, knowledge - either propositional or merely "factive" - could be applied to non-linguistic animals whom we are prone to bestow with a reason-giving explanation. Thus, the presence of these explanations does not pry apart explanatory and justificatory reasons in the way that Avery claims they do.

Back to the talk about modale profiles: I won't do the burglar case again but suffice it to say that Avery fails to pay sufficient attention to the generalization that comes with knowledge attributions in reason-giving explanations; although he poses a hallenge to my kind of view to say something about how one should do the generalization. For in order to prove the necessity of knowledge in action explanations two thoughts must be kept in mind: (1) that the Kp attribution matches the modale profile in the case at hand and (2) that Kp attributions is generalizable to a certain range of cases to serve as a unificatory explanation for those cases. Avery seems to agree that a Kp attribution can match the Burglar Case in the first sense; but then he goes on to provide us with a similar-looking case where it fails to apply since the burglar in this similar-looking case would do the same thing despite her obvious lack of knowledge. However, that knowledge lacks in Avery's case is no reason to think that knowledge is not the cause of the burglar's behaviour in the former. What would be required to show that knowledge fails to be the cause is a case where knowledge obtains without the desired effect and the additional argument that such a case is close enough and relevant to take down the claim of causation. Avery's case is more like saying that "Shakespeare did not write Macbeth since there is a doppelganger case where Macbeth gets written but by Marlowe." And even granted the presence of such a case Shakespeare surely wrote Macbeth and is the cause of Macbeth's existence. Likewise, there could be dozens of cases where the burglar acts in the same way but for other reasons than that he knew P. They say nothing whatsoever about whether Kp is the cause in our case for his behaviour (but maybe I'm missing something here?). And I think it is the cause in our case because it matches up with its modale profile. That is the claim to be challenged if one wants to turn down the burglar case.

One way to do that is to suggest, as Avery mentions, an alternative attitude. Suppose believing P with certainty matches the burglar case's modale profile. Then the question is why we should think of knowledge as the cause as opposed to the mere certain belief. Here one could cite certain rational constraints, of course, but not in order to slide away from explanation and over into a different topic, as Avery says we do, to begin discussing justification. The point is rather that we begin to pay attention to the other horn of our explanatory scheme, namely relevant generalization. We want to capture a certain range of cases by the use of our knowledge attributions. That range or class of cases is determined by considerations of rationality, I admit, but that's clearly different from saying that what we want to talk about is how the agent is justified to act. Rather, we want to explain this group of cases as they ar given to us by considerations about rationality.

So my final point is that Avery's certain belief that P may take on this-and-that particular case but surely would fail others where knowledge that P seems called for, i.e. those cases we get via considerations about rationality. We should, of course, wish for the richer and more general explanation and thus my claim is that knowledge will turn out to be more ammendable to the range of cases we want to explain. In the end this is what makes knowledge our candidate for explainging certain cases, namely all those cases where someone acts for the objective reason that P. Of course, that's a research project and not just for a single case or paper to establish. So we should definitely return to this issue.

The knower belongs in the world, I say. Otherwise there's is no way we can make sense of what we want to make sense of, namely those cases delineated by considerations about rationality where an agent acts for the objective reason that P.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hornsby's Paper : Section 2

I work myself through section 2 of Jennifer Hornsby's paper 'Knowledge, Belief and Reasons for Acting'. Here I remain fairly sympathetic to what she thinks is the connection between reasons, actions, beliefs, and knowledge. I conclude by summing up some of the problems we encountered in section 1 and indicate where one should go in future work to fix these problems and thereby be able to defend all the things that I'm sympathetic to in section 2.

As readers may recall Hornsby not only requires that we give an account of the objective and subjective sense in which someone can be provided with a reason for acting; one also needs to show how to connect these accounts. That is the topic for section 2 of her paper. To bring home such a story Hornsby starts out from the disjunctive principle (D) (which she claims is an analogous principle in action theory to McDowell’s (1982) disjunctivism in the philosophy of perception, a view she has discussed in further detail elsewhere (see ‘A Disjunctive Conception of Acting for Reasons’)):

(D) If A F-d because A believed that P, then EITHER A F-d because A knew that P (and (thus) A F-d because P) OR A F-d because A merely believed that P.

The first thing to notice about (D) is that it is a conditional and thus is consistent with a failure of the antecedent. For instance, it might be possible to act from knowing P and yet fail to believe P if knowledge does not entail belief (e.g. the unconfident student). In other words, (D) does not claim that one couldn’t act on knowledge without at the same time acting on belief. It is a problem that (D) fails to account for cases where an agent acts for knowledge without belief? Well, that depends on one’s views about the relationship between knowledge and belief. However, Hornsby is quite willing to admit the failure of accounting for such cases saying that (D) was never supposed to account for them: “(D) is designed to bring a wide range of cases of acting from knowledge under the head of acting from belief. And there is no need to deal with every possible case of acting from knowledge in order to do this.” That is, of course, a legitimate move since one is always allowed to restrict one’s own explanatory ambitions. Thereby she risks losing something that would be worth lumping under the same general account or principle but it might also be the case that no such phenomena is at hand here or; alternatively, one could contend that (D) takes care of all cases of acting from knowledge since it is arguable that intuitions concerning the unconfident student’s lack of belief vary greatly and that, at any rate, whatever state the agent is in when acting from knowledge it is one that is cognitively complex or belief-like enough to count as believing (Williamson 2000, p. 42). I won’t pursue the issue any further here.

Another thing worth noting about (D) is that EITHER is a conjunction. It says that A acts from knowing that P AND that A acts because of P. The reason is that the equation (E) from section 1 governs cases of acting from knowledge. When one does the latter one also acts from the objective reason that P given the equation between the two. In fact, knowing P is the only way one could act for the objective reason that P, according to Hornsby. (For problems about (E) I refer you to the previous blog post on section 1 of this paper).

An advantage of (D) is that it can accommodate cases like the following: A, who is neurotic, turns of the light and shuts the door. He now knows that the light is off and the door is shut. Still his belief that the light might still be on torments him so much that he reopens the door in order to turn it off. Such a case can be relegated to the second horn of the disjunction where the neurotic acts from a mere belief despite the fact that this belief conflicts with what he knows.

The connection between knowledge and belief that (D) relies on—and what it tries to keep track of—is the sense in which “knowledge sets the standard of appropriateness for belief” (Williamson 2000, p. 47). As Hornsby notes, the above cases (unconfident student and neurotic man) point to this appropriateness of believing only what one knows by displaying their agents as being somewhat less rational than what is optimal. Mere believing is, in Williamson’s words, “a kind of botched knowing” (2000, p. 47). To act on mere belief in the absence of knowledge or in the face of it could therefore be looked upon as a kind of botched rationality, which is an idea that Stanley, Hawthorne and Williamson explore in several places. After all, one who acts without knowledge, like our aforementioned skater, fails to act for the objective reasons there are—this holds, as we saw above, even when the skater skates at the edge of the pond for the Gettierized but true belief that the ice is thin in the middle—whereas the neurotic man has no objective reason for reopening the door and checking the light: on the contrary! Finally, there is a sense in which the unconfident student should behave as if he believed his answers; after all, he knows them and is thereby licensed by standards of appropriateness to believe them. The second horn of (D) therefore takes care of any number of cases where belief is found responsible for an act either in the absence of knowledge or in cases where beliefs are held and acted upon in the face of what one knows.

Let that suffice as a commentary of the advantages we get from holding (D) and let us turn to whether (D) also suffices to display the connection between the objective sense in which one acts for reasons and the subjective. Hornsby underlines the important role of beliefs in explaining actions. It is crucial that we attribute the neurotic with a belief to explain why he reopens the door whereas there are plenty of cases where agents act on the basis of mere appearances and false belief that could never be explained by applying only the objective sense in which one acts for reasons. These roles—acting in absence and in the face of knowledge—crucially rely on some fallible, non-factive state like belief so the extent to which reason-giving explanations or rationalizations are out to explain such everyday behaviour is the extent to which beliefs are needed in action theory. Some might object to this being within the scope of reason-giving explanations and they may argue as follows: that someone act because she believes P is no more the agent’s reason to F than the fact that a bridge collapses because it had a structural flaw is the bridge’s reason to collapse. Believing P is a mere psychological state, they may go on to argue, that may or may not cause the agent to act whereas the agent’s reasons—the reason they had for F-ing—is something different.

Properly speaking this is obviously wrong in a great range of cases: someone may come to F for the objective reason that she believes P, i.e. where she knows that she believes P. For instance, if A is asked “do you believe that Schopenhauer was the greatest heir to Kant?” the reason for acting—say, by nodding or exclaiming “yes!”—is precisely the fact that one knows in this case what one believes about the matter. This belief might be false—which it probably is in our case—but the fact needed to be known here is just that the agent believes the thing in question. In this sense beliefs sometimes do operate as objective reasons, as facts to be acted upon by knowing them.

Bracket that and we read that Hornsby agrees with the critics: in ordinary cases (where we’ve bracketed away the cases just mentioned) an agent believing that P is not the reason she has for F-ing. What she goes on to say is that when we ask someone for their reason to F they typically reply with P rather than saying they believed that P (except for cases where they retract their earlier evaluation due to being challenged and safeguards their answer by saying that “I acted on my belief that P”). Since ordinary agents know what their reasons are she suggests that we take their answer at face value. Their reason for F-ing is, in the ordinary case, P as opposed to Bp. Thus, it is the contents of one’s belief—those beliefs that are applied in reason-giving explanation of action—that give the reasons the agent had. But having a reason is not the same as there being a reason. The latter requires an objective reason to exist in order to be true whereas the former says something about what the agent takes to be her reasons for acting. What is crucial for understanding agency is, as Hornsby puts it, that it “is a matter of seeing what reasons they had.” That is in line with Davidson’s earlier contention that rationalizations lead us “to see something the agent saw, or thought he saw, in his action.” (1963, p. 3) [My emphasis] Thus, to understand agents we need also to focus on what agents treat as if they were objective reasons. One way to know what reasons agents have is by knowing what they believe. The point here reinforces something that Williamson thinks about the relationship between knowledge and belief, namely that “to believe p is to treat p as if one knew p” (2000, p. 46). In other words, believing something is a way to populate one’s cognitive landscape with something—a thought or a proposition—that one is disposed to treat as facts or as reasons to act because believing something is treated as if it was knowledge.

Hornsby’s take-home message is therefore that we can understand the role of beliefs in reason-giving explanations because, as she says, “the thought that p plays the role that the fact that p plays for someone who acts because they know that p”. In this sense, we actually revert the scheme since we seem to get a better understanding of what it is to act from beliefs by understanding how an agent acts from knowledge and thereby showing how beliefs are treated as if their contents were known facts. In the same vein Williamson thought that he could illuminate the nature of beliefs in an account of epistemology via the nature of knowledge and the appropriate relation which says that beliefs aim at knowledge (2000, p. 47). So, pace the belief-desire proponents—who think erroneously that beliefs and desires can explain the whole truth about agency whereas they do fail to account for the objective sense in which one acts for reasons—it seems as if we can only understand what it is to act for beliefs when we first understand what it is to act for knowledge. According to Hornsby then, the belief-account is not wrong in the sense that it generates any falsehoods but because it fails to account for the whole truth about reason-explanation.

So where are we? Well, it seems as if all that is said and done in section depends on the truth of the following two claims: (1) that knowledge is sometimes necessary to explain how someone could act for the objective reason that P; and (2) that there is no general way to distinguish between world-involving mental states and internal mental states. We saw that Hornsby fails to establish (1). Moreover, her principle (E) for how knowledge is involved with acting for objective reasons ran into problems of its own. Yet I think we can establish (1) by other arguments, probably drawing on lottery-type considerations where we show how the existence of a lottery-proposition—basically, a propositions that cannot be known despite immensely probably evidence which favours its truth by closing in, but never reaching, probability 1—precludes that the agent acts for this objective reason. When it comes to (2) I think we need to establish in order to preclude the proponents of a belief-desire account to come back and say that the objective kinds of reason-giving explanations fall outside the scope of psychology. Again, I can only refer to Williamson’s and Gibbon’s work on these topics but I do think that this claim is worth pursuing. In addition I think the kind of view that Hornsby is here championing would better suited if it could also prove and provide details from how we can understand the causal relevance of knowing. Basically what I’m asking for is to show how knowledge, as a causally potent mental property, better fits the explanatory goals of reason-giving explanations. In other words, I think pace the internalist belief-desire proponents that knowledge is operative in action. Allow this and we may be on our way towards a naturalistic conception of action, one that allows for externalist or world-involving mental states in psychological explanations.

Final words: as Hornsby notes at the end of this paper, plenty of philosophers and people thinking about actions and mind take it for granted that world-involving states - like knowledge - doesn't belong in a psychological explanation nor in rationalizations of actions. In another paper ('Agency and Actions') Hornsby quotes Strawson's old saying that it takes a really great philosopher to make a really great mistake (1974). Internalist reason-giving explanations seems to me to be such a great mistake. Or, as Hornsby goes on to say, "I can't help thinking that, these days, it takes a really great number of philosophers to contrive in the persistence of a really great mistake." At least Hornsby has by this paper positioned herself strongly on the right side of this divide.

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