Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Perfect Duties in Kant

In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant presents a hard and fast standard for how to determine whether something is a duty. There are duties which apply in all cases, "perfect duties," like for example never lie. Then there are duties which one should follow unswervingly, but one can choose when to apply, "imperfect duties" like cultivating one's talents. The measure of a perfect duty is that when you make it into a universal law, it leads to a conceptual inconsistency, leading you to conclude that you should never do it. The measure of an imperfect duty is that if you make it into a universal it would somehow lead to an empirical inconsistency, in that it violates your natural instincts. I'll explain the empirical inconsistency first, since it's a bit more unclear. We'll use his example, cultivating your talents (4:423). Kant basically says that you couldn't possibly spend your whole life not cultivating your talents since it would violate your natural instincts. It seems like, if you were to try to do this, something deep inside of you would scream that it's wrong or that it's undesirable or substandard for a human or something like that. Though I think Kant has greater confidence in the rationality of our usual moral instincts and he and I probably would disagree on the details of what things are imperfect duties, I nonetheless think this seems like a sound idea. There're certain habits that just seem less admirable or worthy of respect and we should try to do their opposite when we can--like cultivate our talents, help others, share, learn, create, etc.

The one that seems to me most crazy is the perfect duty and the conceptual inconsistency. The example he uses is the lying promise (4:422). If I'm tempted to make a promise I know I can't fulfill (like borrow money I can't pay back) should I make such a promise? Kant says that we have a perfect duty not to make a lying promise because if we were to make it a universal law that all people should always make lying promises, then no one would be able to promise anything because people would know it always to be a lie. We would have a conceptual inconsistency of lie and promise, which shows us that one should never make a lying promise.

The first limitation one should notice, is perfect duties can only be "thou shalt nots." The conceptual inconsistency is the measure of a perfect duty, but it only shows when something should never be done. The next thing is that the conceptual inconsistency doesn't work well for many things that we would assume to be perfect duties, like don't kill for example. If I were to make it a universal maxim that I should kill anyone I don't like, then there would be a lot of people getting killed. But where's the conceptual inconsistency? Also, why do you even need to universalize it to see the inconsistency? Isn't a lying promise already inconsistent? The other thing is that, this rubric of determining what is a perfect duty is based on the seeing the consequences of universalizing a rule. But consequences are uncertain. This is one of the reasons why Kant strays away from consequentialism, why the morality of an act is based on the act itself, not its consequences. Also, the consequences that Kant envisions as the result of universalizing these maxims seem rather superficial and static. If we were to universalize the rule that people should make lying promises whenever it is convenient, then wouldn't people try to find ways to make contracts without having to rely on people's unreliable promises? Sounds something like the world we live in, doesn't it? Don't people already avoid breaking many promises for selfish reasons? Do people keep promises with their friends out of duty, or because they don't like to take advantage of their friends and don't want to lose their friends? Do people avoid violating business contracts out of duty, or because they want to make future contracts with the same people or because they're worried about the legal repercussions of violating a contract? We already know that promises can be unreliable, so we invent techniques and create institutions to force people to keep their promises. The problem is far more often reneging on promises rather than making them falsely to begin with. People are creative and dynamic, and Kant's consequences of universalizing maxim assume people are static and simple.

The ground of the perfect duties seems quite flimsy. Maybe one could accept this imperfect duty, and the almost inevitable subjectivity of it, but to think that reason gives us access to universal rules is foolish.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Love desires the good

In Plato's Symposium, after a series of speeches praising love, Socrates comes along, and in dialogue with Agathon, demonstrates that love is neither beautiful nor good (200a-201c), which basically all the previous speeches had assumed. How does Socrates go about proving that love is not beautiful? Well, he first sets up the assumption that things desire what they lack. In other words, if I have a hunger for food, it's because I lack food in my stomach. Of if I desired friends, it would be because I don't have any friends (because philosophers are uncool). So, all desire is due to a lack. Well, we might question this and say, "don't people who have stuff desire to keep their stuff? Like a guy who has a car who desires to continue to have their car," or "don't people who have stuff sometimes desire to have more stuff? Like a guy who has money but wants more money." Well, Plato says, these both still express a lack. One is due to a future lack--the guy lacks a car in the future (since you can only have things in the present)--and the other is due to a lack in terms of shortage--the guy doesn't have enough money.

Socrates then defines love as a desire for beauty. I think if we define "beauty" broadly enough to include physical beauty as well as all of those other non-physical and intangible things we find attractive (like, perhaps, personality, sense of humor, kindness, intelligence, gobs of money, and so on) then I think most of us could accept this. True, we get other things out of love, like companionship or the feeling of being loved, but let's not worry about this. It seems like a good definition: Love desires what is beautiful. But if love desires the beautiful and things only desire what they lack, then love lacks beauty. And since beauty is a form of goodness, then love isn't good. That's a striking conclusion.

Oh, but not so fast Plato. Something sneaky is going on here. I think the technique Plato used here might be appropriately called a bait and switch. He has told us the desire entails a lack. In demonstrating this, he effectively responds to an obvious counter-example, that people can desire things they have. This, shows us that there is more than one type of lack: 1) where you simply don't have it and 2) where you have it but don't have it (either because you don't have enough or you lack it in the future). But then, when he turns around and speaks about love desiring beauty, he forgets about the second type of lack. In other words, it's possible that love desires beauty because love is beautiful but lacks future beauty or it's possible love is beautiful but lacks enough beauty. In fact, since things can only possess what they have in the present, then all things can have a future lack. Thus, anything could potentially desire what it has. I guess Plato could claim that since love is timeless then it doesn't make sense for it to lack things in the future, since time doesn't apply to it. Still we could say that love is beautiful but desires to be more beautiful. Many beautiful people desire to be more beautiful. It's not unheard of. He couldn't probably find a way out of this problem too (something about how as a timeless thing it doesn't admit of more or less beauty, or something like that) but now where just creating ad hoc assumptions to preserve a pre-established conclusion. That's not reasoning. Oh well, I guess love might be beautiful after all.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Stentor's voice

In the Politics of Aristotle, at the end of Book VII ch 4, Aristotle sets down limits to how big and small a well-functioning state should be (1326b7-25). He thinks the ideal population is at least enough people to provide for the necessities of life, and the ideal land area is no larger than can be taken in a single view. Aristotle sees practical limitations to an oversize state, first of all, that foreigners and resident aliens could take advantage of the rights of citizens. Second of all, there is a limit to how many people can be communicated to at once. In Aristotle's day, communication to large audience was mostly through public speaking, since print was too expensive for bulk communication. And since there was no means of amplifying speech, one had to rely on the power of one's voice. If there are too many people, then those in the back won't be able to hear you, unless you have Stentor's voice (Stentor was a herald for the Greeks in the Iliad [cf V, 780], famous for his strong voice). The minimum population is simply enough for self-sufficiency, presumably so you don't have to depend on neighbors for basic necessities, like food.

The first part about foreigners, seems to continue to have relevance today. For example, in the US, foreigners can come here, have children, and then send them to free public schools, and they can show up at the Emergency Room and get free medical treatment (if they just never bother to pay the bill), as well as being able to take advantage of everyday things like free roads, military protection and fire protection service. Even such an innovation as ID cards and large databases to keep track of citizens don't settle this problem. The vast size makes anonymity, a boon for illegal immigrants in particular, possible. The second concern Aristotle has seems at first blush outdated, since we have technology of mass communication. But is it? Can a presidential candidate really address the needs to tens of millions of people? Maybe candidates resort more to vagueness and double talk and are less clear about their platform because they really can't and they want to leave it up to the voter to fill in the vagueness. Certainly presidents nor even Federal representatives, maybe not even local representatives can represent that many people. Trying to address so many different needs is impossible and thus blanket solutions that help some people pretty well, and many people poorly, and many people harms have to be resorted to. Maybe the number of people someone can speak to at once and the amount of land one can take in in one viewing is a good upper limit.

Over large states can be unwieldy. Rome had to be broken up into four units under Diocletian to keep from collapsing, and eventually settled into two distinct states. Many a large empire has simply fell into decline, heading quickly towards collapse (Akkadian, Hittite, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Holy Roman Empire, Ottoman, USSR). Even today, most of the places with the highest standard of living and the highest level of prosperity per capita are small states (places like Hong Kong, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Andorra, UAE, Singapore and so on).

The lower limit that Aristotle sets, being able to be self-sufficient, seems unhelpful. An individual person can be self-sufficient, making all their food and clothes and such. In addition, an individual would be much poorer for being self-sufficient. I can afford my own apartment with lots of food and clothes and books and computer, etc, because I don't have to make them all, but can trade my services for them. The same applies to the state. A state is more prosperous by trade. Many of the examples I listed of prosperous small states are preeminently un-self-sufficient, like Hong Kong, with no natural resources whatsoever to offer and no agriculture. Trade has the additional benefit of reducing the likelihood of war, since countries mutually dependent on each other through trade, are disinclined to start pointing the guns at each other (is it a coincidence that the two countries the US is currently at war with are countries it has been openly restricting trade to, imposing economic sanctions on Iraq for years, and trying to prevent the only substantial trade with Afghanistan, recreational drugs, especially heroine, from entering the country). I guess as soon as we start to say things like "could there be a state with only one person, or two people, or four people?" that it seems feasible that there could be a lower limit to the size of a state. If you're too small it seems unnecessary to declare yourself independent. So what would the minimum size of state be?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mixed Pleasure in Plato

In Book IX of Plato's Republic, Socrates makes a distinction between mixed pleasures and pure pleasures which is somewhat curious (583c-587a). The mixed pleasure is pleasure that is only really caused by the cessation of pain, for example if you've been holding it for a long time and then finally get to go the bathroom, it can be very pleasurable. Plato sets up three levels of pleasure: pain, a middle state of neither pleasure nor pain, and pleasure. This mixed pleasure would be reaching the middle state after previously being in pain. On the other hand, there is pure pleasure which is pleasurable in itself. Plato thinks the only things that would be fall under this category are reason and virtue. A person with unclouded access to true good and true virtue alone can experience pure pleasure. Mixed pleasure really is just the middle state between pleasure and pain that only seems pleasurable by contrast to pain, and pure pleasure is actually true pleasure and really is only something that the rational part of us will reach. Thus, all bodily pleasures are necessarily relegated to the realm of mixed pleasure, and thus only fall in that middle state between pleasure and pain and only seem pleasurable because they are preceded by pain. This requires one to assume that everything in the realm of the bodily is pain, except those treasured moments when we move up into the middle state, and only think it is pleasurable by comparison.

As one might imagine, this is a controversial position. Even just looking at it on the surface before reflecting on whether it is correct, it seems like Plato's general philosophical values (praising the rational and denigrating the bodily) has clouded his judgment and tainted his whole interpretation of the world. Plato of course, thinks that paying too much attention to the physical and turning away from the purely rational is the road to ignorance, but he is here showing that paying too much attention to the rational, can also lead to ignorance.

Admittedly, there are some pleasures which frequently do follow on pain, like the pleasure of relieving oneself, or the pleasure of eating when hungry or sleeping when tired, but certainly not all are like that. Unless one frequently mixes sex with spanking or whipping or torture or something like that (maybe Plato was really into BDSM), then orgasm is actually usually reached in fact after considerable pleasure. Unless Plato is going to argue that an orgasm is some sort rational pleasure or some form of true virtue, then I think he might have a problem. Even eating is pleasurable when you're not hungry. And going to the bathroom and sleeping have undoubted independent pleasure beyond just the cessation of pain. Pleasure that is merely the cessation of pain is distinct and discernible from true pleasure to anyone who pays attention and requires no special philosophical aptitude. Plato's motives of denigrating the bodily are clear, but this is a good case of being clouded by your values.

And the pleasure of thinking I'm suspicious of. It seems to me, that the only pleasure in thinking is in figuring things out, the pleasure of ending the pain of unsated curiosity, the pleasure of Eureka! moments, the pleasure of solving difficult problems; in short, the pleasure of overcoming a difficulty. I like it, but it has its limitations.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What were we given Reason for?

In Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he presents an argument that we were given Reason for the cultivation of a good will (4:395-396). Kant had come to the conclusion that the only thing good in and itself is a good will, since all the other supposed virtues (like courage, moderation, wisdom, etc) can be used for unvirtuous ends. In order to get Reason a part in the construction of his moral philosophy he needs to prove that it is Reason that is there for the purpose of creating a good will. He starts by arguing that for any living thing, it is provide with no instrument (or tool or faculty) that is not best adapted to its end. In other words, if the end of my eyes is to see, they must be best constructed for the purpose of seeing. He then argues that our Reason, insofar at has a practical component, can only have been for the purpose of either preservation, welfare, happiness or the cultivation of a good will. Since the first three are best served by instinct, Reason therefore (by reductio ad absurdum) best serves the cultivation of a good will. Thus, it must have been given to us by our designer (God, presumably) to cultivate a good will. Thus, this is his plan for us, and we do best to abide by it, to develop this ethics here using Reason.

The first big assumption Kant makes is that all parts of us are best constructed for their ends. This was a frequent assumption at the time before Darwinism, but it is simply not well supported by empirical evidence at all. Animals aren't that well constructed, and humans certainly aren't that well constructed. We are amazingly complex and well-designed things, but to go out and argue that we are the best designed for our functions is obviously wrong. We've got imperfections and vestigial features and genetic disorders and so on. This is enough to dismantle Kant's argument, but the next argument is more interesting.

He next argues that instinct serves welfare, preservation and happiness better than Reason. That Reason is not the best faculty for ensuring preservation seems dubious. Instinct has that problem of being inflexible and not adapting well to unexpected circumstances. Reason is dependent on past experience, but it has the possibility of creative and surprising responses. Kant might respond, Reason requires a large brain, which is expensive in terms of time and resources, which might suggest it might not be best for survivability. We might respond, that the most Reason-heavy species, humans, is thriving through a wide range of environments on this planet, suggesting that the added expense may be more than compensated by the increased adaptability. And we could make similar argument for material welfare - Reason is better at maximizing material welfare for oneself and others.

But Kant also includes happiness as also better served by instinct than Reason, and he has some arguments. There is the argument about how thinking too much about how to attain happiness can get in the way of happiness. Or that looking too closely at one's happiness, can bring too much attention to the flaws. Or we might add to Kant's arguments that the ability to better consider alternatives increases the likelihood that you'll conceive of alternatives that are better than your current situation and be dissatisfied. In addition, Kant has to make the other side of the argument, that instinct would serve happiness better. If our instincts were specifically designed to only lead us toward things that would make us happy, then that certainly could be the case. It might not best serve material welfare or preservation, but perhaps instincts would lead us to greater happiness. Certainly, we don't seem like we are a species specifically designed for happiness, and that we could be better designed for that purpose if that was our end, and in such a case Reason would be superfluous.

Ultimately, the full argument falls flat, since living things are definitely not best designed for their ends, and Reason does seem to serve preservation and material welfare better than instinct. But Kant does raise an interesting possibility, that instinct and not Reason is the best road to happiness. Could Kant be in fact right?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

One Single Architect

At the beginning of Part Two of Desccartes' "Discourse on the Method of rightly conducting one's reason and seeking the truth in the sciences" ("Discourse on Method" for short) he lays out an argument that a building constructed by one architect or a city laid out by the singular vision of one singular designer is far superior to on assembled from a hodgepodge of different designers or architects (CSM I 116, AT 11-12). What Descartes is after with these arguments is to contend that a philosophical system is better when one starts from scratch and builds it all oneself. Descartes is responding to Scholastic tradition, which approached philosophizing with a build-on-your-predecessors approach, in which argument from authority is an important part of their argumentation style. Descartes thinks his predecessors are unreliable, and so he wants to start over from the beginning. And he uses this argument as a further justification. The overall thrust of this section is that the guiding mind of one architect, whether it be an architect of buildings or of philosophical systems, is superior.

The problem is that empirical evidence doesn't bear Descartes' argument out. Let's take buildings for example. Let's compare some museums (and we'll try to make the comparisons fair, so we're comparing apples with apples): the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a single building that's been expanded through numerous additions so that it's the work of a hodgepodge of architects vs. The Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, of a piece and definitely representing one vision. You may have your preferences between the two, but neither is clearly superior. Or, if you compare the Louvre versus the Gehry Guggenheim in Bilbao it again is inconclusive. But let's look at more mundane examples of urban design: urban housing projects in the US vs. squatter communities in Brazil, India and Turkey. We're comparing apples with apples here: two communities from relatively equal socioeconomic classes. But the squatter communities are far superior: bustling, growing, rich with business and innovation, with a promising future. As opposed to American urban housing projects, which are crime-ridden dens of poverty, drugs and despair. Despite that these housing projects are in a far wealthier economy than the economies of Brazil, India and Turkey. Let's look at other examples. How about literature. Epic poetry: the Homeric epics, compiled by Homer from extant myths in a bardic tradition, and later refined through generations of spoken performance, vs. Virgil's Aeneid, written by Virgil, co-opting some Roman legends, but adding many stories of his own. To me, there's no comparison; Homer is far better, but maybe some would disagree. Or let's take movies: Casablanca, an extremely collaborative film with many contributors vs. The Clockwork Orange or Raging Bull, both considerably less collaborative (films are almost inevitably collaborative, considering the complexity of creating them). With films it's easy to come up with tons of exceptional highly collaborative films, but good examples of less collaborative films are fewer. But the real killer is when we try to look at scientific theories: science thrives by accumulation and the body of knowledge in any field is the work of many minor researchers and theorists alongside a handful of great ones. Maybe a nice unified set of theories, like Freudian psychology for example, has aesthetic appeal, but it can hardly compare in therapeutic success, explanatory power and predictive accuracy with the hodgepodge of psychological theories that now define contemporary psychology.

The reason the hodgepodge constructions are superior is because there is a selection and elimination process going on. The bad are weeded out, and that which is retained is retained because it is better. If one lives in a city with lots of old and new architecture, one can't help notice that the older architecture is better. This is not because people built things better back then. It's because the stuff that's still around is the stuff worth keeping. The shabby wooden hovels that most people used to live in have been weeded out, so that only the nice stone and brick houses that are sturdily constructed with lots of detail work are retained. Over time a city or any sort of work begins to accumulate the worthwhile stuff and thereby improves. The best of them are retained, and over time these hodgepodge works will supersede even the best designed works. So, despite what Descartes' says, we should be wary of the visionary architects of the future bearing grand plans.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Experts on axiology

Continuing on the theme that I began with my last post, where I evaluated Plato's arguments in the Meno that virtue can't be taught, I'm going to look at whether there are experts on virtue. Or in fact, experts on any values in general. Can one really be an expert on axiology? There are people with expertise in areas of axiology, but these people have more historical knowledge. They know about various theories, their strengths and weaknesses, arguments against them, history of debates, etc. But the question is can one be, for example an expert in ethics, or in beauty. Can someone be an expert on what is the best way to live, or what is the most beautiful.

This issue does also come up in Plato, in particular in the Protagoras, where Protagoras in his great speech basically makes the argument that all people are teachers of virtue and that a young person that needs to learn virtue, learns from the community in general, from the great many experts around. Similar to the way that you learn language: every native speaker is basically an expert and you learn how to speak your native language from a great many of these experts. Nonetheless, Protagoras wants to justify his position as an instructor in virtue, for which he charges fees and earns his livelihood, by saying there are some people that are somewhat more knowledgeable of virtue and thus qualify as teachers. The parallel with language is useful. Despite that all native speakers know how to use the language correctly, some know it better: some know the written language and understand punctuation better, some have a wider vocabulary, some use the language more artfully, some can better explain the nuances of grammar that most of us employ without understanding. In short, there's sort of a baseline of proficiency at which nearly all people attain, but some outstrip the rest. Someone learning a language can use any of these people to reach this baseline, but if one wants to go further, one needs the assistance of a better expert.

But this parallel, can mislead us. There definitely are people who live more virtuous lives, but yet all of us recognize that they live better lives. Would Mother Theresa be an expert on virtue? All of us can clearly see that she is a moral exemplar. All of us understand virtue well enough to know it when we see it. The difference is a matter of self-determination, discipline, will-power, a willingness to make sacrifices or such. It'd be reasonable to say that Mother Theresa could be a good expert on how to do these things and thus better actualize the virtue we already recognize, but is she an expert on virtue more than the rest of us.

This is relevant as some foist themselves forward as experts on virtue, or take effort to espouse their theories of virtue. But when it all comes down to it, despite that they prop themselves up as the experts, their ideas are juried by the masses and many of these so called experts are found wanting. Kant achieved an incredible achievement in forming his detailed systematic ethics and very carefully integrating it into his elaborate system. But no one really lives by his ethics. Consequentialism and virtue ethics are more a part of the moral choices of the average person, and deontology is mostly regarded as lifeless and inflexible. The important thing is that it really is the collective opinion of the masses that is the expert opinion.