Wednesday, July 30, 2008

First Blog Meme

So I've seen these meme things float around, but never have I posted one (or been tagged, I guess you'd say, thanks Harry). Unlike Harry over at CT, I do have quite a few guilty pleasure songs. The problem is picking just 5, and not embarrassing myself too much...

So I guess here are my 5 most recent ones:

1. See you again, Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana)
2. Cold as Christmas, Elton John
3. Camisa Negra, Juanes
4. Le plus beau du quartier, Carla Bruni (yes, France's first lady)
5. Last name, Carrie Underwood

Beat that randomness. I think this is where I tag 3 people, but Harry is the only blogger I know, so.... if you want to be tagged leave a comment! (I'm a failure at blogging, I tell you)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Part Two: History vs Philosophy

Here continues my debate with a history graduate student about the merits/disadvantages of using history and philosophy for studying justice. Please read part one (if you haven't already), before reading this section. My apologies, I didn't split the two parts very well, so this post is rather long (though hopefully you'll find it interesting). Again, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

HISTORY STUDENT: Ah, dear. No, I am neither a consequentialist nor a utilitarian. What I am saying, however, is that (a) within any moral system, an examination of consequences of behavior is necessary in order to flesh out the details of a just society, and (b) human thought is itself inherently historical.

As for (a): Only rarely can I identify a behavior or system as a clear-cut violation of a moral law. In the case of slavery, for example, the Bible allows it, and so does Aristotle, and so have most societies, even philosophically inclined ones. There are abstract arguments to be made against slavery, but these are relatively new and (especially from an old-fashioned biblical perspective, which doesn't put much stock in self-ownership) far from conclusive. So I mostly condemn slavery not because it inherently violates an unchanging moral law, but because it has been shown to make many clearer violations more likely. I look at the history of how different slaveowners have treated their slaves. That record suggests that slavery typically -- though not always -- involves various moral crimes such as murder, torture, and rape. However it is that I have reached the conclusion that these are indeed moral crimes -- there are many different ways I could have -- their relationship with the social practice of slavery is revealed to me through historical thinking.

Or to take another example, the example of torture: Even if everybody in America today accepted that torture is wrong, we would still be left arguing about whether "waterboarding" specifically is torture. It is very difficult, apparently, to convince some Americans that having water poured on their face is terribly painful. There's nothing in the words themselves to indicate that it would be: "simulated drowning," "a wet cloth placed over the face with water poured over it," or (as Dick Cheney put it) "a dunk in the water" -- it sounds sort of soothing. What might help out in the debate is testimony. And no, not everybody would agree even then. But at least we could start to make sense of our fine words about not-torturing people.

As for (b): Everything I do or think has a context. There is a reason -- aside from mere biology -- that our thought typically becomes more sophisticated as we get older. We have more information, more experience, more understanding of real-world cause and effect, more awareness of different kinds of pain and joy. We have a better sense of who we are and how we respond in different situations. And we have a better idea of what other people are like. This is just history writ small.

So when I was 12, for example, I probably had the vocabulary and the raw processing power of a lot of people older than I, but I lacked other qualities necessary to sound judgment, qualities that I could only get through greater experience. I would jump to conclusions about life based on what I had read in books -- conclusions that made perfect sense logically -- or based on how I would behave, not recognizing that other people behave differently. That is how, for example, I came to be a libertarian for several years. On paper, libertarianism often looks great; it prescribes a very pure, purposeful, tidy sort of government that strictly follows its own founding law. It also claims to maximize general prosperity, minimize arbitrary transfers of wealth, and maximize personal freedom. I could easily have become a communist or a theocrat the same way, had I read different books. All three of these systems put great stock in purity of principle, in logical application of moral law to every aspect of life. All three, in other words, are based on fanatical consistency with moral principles that I pretty much agree with. And in practice, all three systems are likely to have terrible consequences -- "terrible" according to the same moral system that would lead me to embrace them. I base my analysis of that likelihood on history.

You seem to think that humans vary a great deal in their underlying conceptions of justice. I do not think so, on the whole. The communist is not always so very different from the libertarian; both are likely to share a great deal of moral intuition and usually a great deal of acknowledged moral law. Their morality may be terribly sloppy, but it is rarely diametrically opposed except artificially, that is, as a result of being too attached to their respective dogmatisms. Committed Christians from similar churches can be libertarians, communists, or theocrats without too much trouble. Or to take what might be a more persuasive example: I could favor the invasion of Iraq or I could oppose the invasion of Iraq, for exactly the same primary moral reason (wanting to minimize the violent deaths of innocents). This fact astonished my conservative friends in college; in almost every respect imaginable, I agreed with them, yet I was fiercely opposed to their politics in the end because of what I knew about Iraq's past and the history of similar experiments. If anything, my pro-war friends were the ones most concerned about following through on moral principle. They mounted impassioned pleas for liberty and humanity, while I argued that justice is not always attainable, and that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Both of us agreed on what the perfect and the good were ... and although the conservatives refused to believe it, we were pretty much on the same page as most of the liberals and the French as well.

ME: Okay, let me be clear about something: I do think history is important. I agree with you that there is an underlying commonality in our moral intuitions (in basic form), and I believe this because I don't think that each person can make her own morality. I believe morality is an independent thing from human agents, something above us. Your examples illustrate what I mean. When you talk about history/slavery/communism/whatever --you are making value judgments. Sure, you try and make them based on life experience and common sense, and that's fine, but it is still a judgment about value, and that (in essence) is the role of the moral philosopher. So we think morality is too complex/difficult to fully understand based on our intuitions --well that seems to be what you're saying anyways. Only we don't look just to events, but rather look at those events and then beyond them. Sure, you judge slavery because of the murder, rape, or whatever else that tends to accompany it. Well, on what grounds is murder/rape wrong (you do admit that these are moral crimes, but why?? what makes them morally wrong)? That's a moral judgment, not a historical one (though that doesn't mean history has nothing to say about it). You could answer: societies that are rampant in this don't last long, well that's a utilitarian (or efficiency) concern --belying that you value the durability of a society over other considerations. You could answer: it violates respect for other moral agents...well that is a claim that needn't be tied to history (I could claim that we ought to respect aliens from Mars if they have the sort of moral capacities that we do –even if that's only a hypothetical event with no history at all). In the end you have to make judgment calls, and in the end those calls can be messy and complicated, though based on some underlying agreement about principles. Philosophers look to society, past and present, and work through the tangled web of morality --hoping to guide future action. Sure, some things seem evident, but isn't it cool to study why certain evident moral precepts are valued the way that they are? And it's important to remember that some things that were "evident" and "agreed upon" by past societies are now looked at as wrong. We can't rely solely on consensus or what seems to be obviously true.

If a principle cannot be put into place (at this time) without morally bad consequences, that is not always a reflection of the principle itself --but rather our method of applying it. Communism's principles weren't the problem, it was the method used to "implement" them. Equality isn't bad just because some political party got it wrong. Equality can be good regardless (I use that as a blanket term for other justice values, though I don't think it's the most important). So I agree that people differ in their plans of implementation (though they also disagree on the priority of principles, and even on the principles of justice themselves). But that doesn't mean they didn't at some point make a decision about which principles to adopt (whether this decision was made consciously or not).

A woman at a talk I recently attended said, "A moral claim must be wrong if it comes from a morally suspect source." But if Hitler says murder is bad, does that make murder good? No. If communists failed to put their principles into practice, does that mean the principles are themselves wrong? No. They just didn't have the right way to go about it OR there are other, more important, principles. Yes context is important, and it can help enlighten us to moral truths, but it's not the authority on morality. Ultimately, you have to make a value judgment that goes beyond context, and that is moral philosophy, whether you like it or not.

You seem to think I that I want to ignore history, but I don't. It is important. But it's not what solves moral dilemmas, because in the end you appeal to something beyond the immediate circumstance (or even collective history) to some greater principle(s). Whether you notice that you're doing it, or whether you care that a whole field of people spend lifetimes working on these problems, is beside the point. Yes, history helps us get a grasp on the bad consequences of certain institutions or practices. But no, history doesn't tell us why those consequences are bad to begin with. There is always something more to it.

This is where you come back in with: well if it can't be implemented, why bother? Because no matter what you can't escape the type of philosophy I do. You do it yourself, you just underestimate what it is you're doing.

HISTORY STUDENT: For my part, I think you underestimate the importance of historical context (broadly defined) in the conclusions that philosophers reach and their methods of getting there. The thinker is not prior to historical inquiry; being a thinker is historical inquiry. To ask what rape is, is to ask what form it has taken in the past or else how it relates to other past things. To define lying is to describe what lying has or has not been. Even Kant, as far as I can tell, in trying to identify his universals, could not escape the locatedness of immoral actions; he simply tried to locate them everywhere. Intuition itself is largely a product of experience, immediate or vicarious, from which we subconsciously draw inferences. Jesus and his chroniclers induced us to love our neighbors by telling us stories -- and living out a story for us. And even an authoritative moral text has to be interpreted in light of past interpretations and past known uses of the terms in the text.

Now, I am of course saying that history and philosophy are inseparable -- indeed, that history and everything cognitive are inseparable. So perhaps we're not that far apart. But I do not accept the idea that philosophy or any other method of discovering a moral principle is in any way prior to history.

Yes, it is quite true that many people have, in the past, excused (e.g.) rape. I suspect that this favors my way of looking at things more than yours. For it suggests that nobody has ever actually transcended her historical context when reasoning about these things. Generally speaking, the people who first turn against a particular moral evil aren't the people who have attained some sort of intellectual detachment. Instead, they are people who have noticed historical evidence that others have not -- or more likely, who have lived through things that others have not, perhaps by living among the homeless, tending the wounds of war victims, or listening to a former slave. It is probably through hearing the testimony of rape victims, not through abstracted speculation, that we came to condemn rape. And it is through publishing victims' stories that we are likely to persuade others. History makes it possible for those who have not experienced various evils to imagine them clearly.

As a discipline, in other words, history can help us get a little closer to context-transcendence by showing us how things could be different from the way they are for us -- which is essential to minimizing the danger of subjectivity. Without extensive historical knowledge, we tend to assume that everybody is like us; we, or our local sources of information, become the universal standard. This severely limits the value of any rational inquiry. With historical knowledge, however, we can tune our moral intuition to the experiences as well as the common moral sense of others.

ME: I think I see where our paths cross. You want me to recognize, more so, the importance of history as something prior to our transcendent philosophizing. I agree. I just want to make sure you realize that after you study the context, you do make judgments that (in essence) transcend that very context you're studying. So I agree with you that I can't think abstractly until I can understand my reality, even my history. To understand what rape is, I have to understand it's history, other people's stories, etc. This touches on philosophy of language, where the meaning of words (or utterances) is not divorced from circumstance, but rather springs up from our real experiences. That's okay by me. Where I differ is not in our need to understand what things are (or how things were), but in how we understand the way things ought to be. Moral philosophers like to invoke the constraint of "ought implies can." If I ought to do something, then I better be capable of doing it. I think history can play an important role in answering what we 'can' do. We can't begin to understand what we ought to do until we understand what we're doing now, what we have done, what we are capable of doing. But then there is another step, a step that goes beyond historical context. That is the ought. Among the various options for what we 'can' do --and other humanities disciplines are better at getting to these-- we need a mechanism for choosing which ones are better, which ones we ought to do. How do we understand what better is? We need some sort of standard for what is best, or some way to compare the options available to us, even if what is 'best' is not in our grasp.

How do we begin? Well you're right in that we begin after already operating within a historical context/understanding/familiarity or whatever. But then we try and rise above with what's called the reflective equilibrium. The reflective equilibrium takes our context, our intuitions, our history and tries to make a coherent principle that adequately captures our values, and is compatible with our other beliefs (about morality, about reality, etc). The reason I'm okay with relying on intuition about moral judgments (and many philosophers aren't okay with this), is that I believe we were specifically equipped to tap into moral knowledge. I attribute this to the divine, others attribute it to our capability to reason (the same capability that lets us discover mathematical and logical truths, truths I think are akin to moral truths ---though again, not all philosophers would agree). So objective? Yes, because I believe moral principles like "respect fellow moral agents" is as evident as 2+2=4. I think we can all see that when we boil it down. And I think that a moral principle is true regardless of time/location. In a similar way (though probably not entirely the same), the mathematical fact that 2+2 will equal 4 is true here and in China and in back in the year 1500 and even in the year 3500. Yes, we use context to understand those truths (like counting m&ms to figure out the solution, but if you used apples, you'd reach the same answer!). Once we're there, the principles can apply to a multitude of contexts. In the case of the moral truth, it's application can and will vary in appearance dramatically --and it's application will be aided tremendously by understanding historical contexts and such. Take “respect fellow moral agents” as an example. Respect in a Western society will vary quite a bit from respect in an Eastern society (though in some ways it won't or shouldn't), and that's okay. The application can fit the specific context while the principle itself remains unchanged.

Make sense? I don't really think we ever disagreed. I think we both just want our disciplines (or my future one at least) to have their proper due. I wanted you to recognize where you transcended history, and you want me to recognize where I use it. Understood.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Part One: History vs Philosophy

The following is a rather interesting discussion I had with a history graduate student. After discussing a recent approach in political philosophy, our conversation turned to the merits (or faults) of our respective disciplines when it comes to studying justice. Below is the first part of our discussion, and soon I'll post the later portion. We disagreed, mainly about the use of ideal theory, but I think down the line we both gained a (better) appreciation for the other's discipline. Your thoughts are welcome, as always.

HISTORY STUDENT: If you'll forgive me, I'm not convinced that it is valid to talk about "political" philosophy unless there is some kind of practical policy application. It would be sort of like arguing about automobile philosophy in the absence of a practical application to cars. It might well be useful for something, but it wouldn't be automotive, and I could hardly blame a mechanic for completely ignoring my insights.

ME: I see the role of the political philosopher as figuring out what is valuable in terms of justice. Before you can make policies, you have to know what is worth pursuing. It sounds easier than it is. Philosophers look for what is valuable, and an ambitious philosopher will even try to determine some sort of ranking for what is valuable (with arguments that would/could appeal to any rational being, etc). More often than not, they don't get that far. And that's okay. Why? Because it's better to figure out what is valuable, if anything is, than not. Philosophers can argue about values, and prioritize them, and even try to get the proportions of importance correct without knowing exactly how things should be actualized in the real world. However, as you can imagine, this is a daunting task, and it takes a complex strategy to even attempt such a feat. Philosophers try to decide *what is good, or what helps people flourish (flourishing is haphazardly used a lot, and I don't like that, but does have some sort of basic meaning that everyone can grasp)? They construct arguments. Your question is an important question, one that philosophers talk about alongside these issues -- though rarely with complete answers.

So think of it this way. Maybe I don't know how to get Florida. Maybe I have no clue. Maybe I'm pretty sure I should head West. If someone can at least tell me to start going South, than I'm in a much better position than I was before. I'd be even better if they knew what states I should pass through, or even better what roads. You seem to think policy makers already know what justice is and what's valuable, but that's just not the case. I'm not sure I could tell you. But that doesn't mean I don't think there is an answer to be found out.

"Political" in political philosophy is a misnomer (if it weren't, I wouldn't like it). It's about explaining/understanding justice, not politics, not even the government. So really it's just a branch of ethics that focuses on justice over other values. And within ethics it's hard to make trade-offs (political philosophy is the most practical, I think; metaphysics might be the least).

After all, what do historians contribute to politics?

HISTORY STUDENT: Historians, my friend, would say that these questions are impossible to answer apart from history. For there is no such thing as justice outside of an historical context, if only because there is no so thing as personality outside of an historical context. "I" do not have any identity unless I have a past. Is a person a murderer, a lover, an artist, a boon companion, a befriender of small animals, a needer of hugs and fuzzy slippers? The only way to know -- even if I am that person -- is to preserve some memory of that person's past. And is a person's behavior just or unjust? The only way to know (whether or not we take a technically "consequentialist" view of morality) is to maintain a record of that behavior's consequences.

Example: Could we reasonably have a discussion about the morality of slavery in the absence of historical evidence about slavery's effects on real people? We could try, I suppose, but it would be highly unwise. People can justify (or condemn) anything as long as they can defer examination of that bottom line. In/justice isn't something that happens to propositions or ideals; it is something that is lived out by people.

For exactly the same reason, I am highly suspicious of anyone's attempt to discuss justice without discussing the means by which it is to be secured. In a perfect world, so to speak, everybody would have a pony. But I am going to benefit far more from the work of somebody who does not recognize the central importance of ponies yet makes ponies possible, than from the work of somebody who understands that ponies are essential yet fails to provide me with any means of getting one. The one makes justice possible (albeit not inevitable); the other merely talks about justice while the real world waits desperately for its ponies.

Sure, it is possible to do both -- to talk about ponies and deliver them, too. But the two things cannot be assumed to go together or even to be compatible with one another. If I miscalculate in the course of a practical campaign to deliver justice (as, say, Mao or Robespierre or G.W. Bush did), I may very well make the world worse than if I had left people alone to pursue justice in their own slapdash ways.

ME: All well and good, but I don't think you quite get it yet. What you're saying already depends upon a specific concept of justice. You're talking about consequentialism, at a minimum, but you have no way to decide which consequences are good and which are bad (though it sounds like you might go with utility --and you should be strongly suspect of utilitarianism). Sure, you have inclinations, but you haven't given me reason to believe that the effects of slavery, for example, are wrong in any sense of the word. You could argue that it's inefficient perhaps, but you haven't given a concept of morality with which to condemn it (or even to way to judge the effects). To measure something you need a ruler. To judge something you need to understand the standard that it's being judged against. Before you can compare the heights of two people, you have to have a concept of tall, and what it means to be taller. The standard can't merely be left to whim or intuition (though our intuitions can help us understand it), or even to what has historically been considered morally right. So you do your work with preconceived notions of morality, some of which may be right (after all, I do believe our intuitions are able to tap into an actual moral truths -- but not everyone believes this). You just aren't giving a concrete way to make those judgments.

How did you even figure out that it would be better for everyone to have ponies? You didn't. You guessed. You have to support it with an argument that is at the same time divorced from specific circumstances, and still responsive to facts about human nature and society (so no, we don't turn a blind eye to historians, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, etc).

Don't get me wrong, I prefer a theory of justice that's not too pie in the sky, but at the same time if it's too dependent on current circumstance then it won't fully appreciate what could and more importantly, what should be. Philosophers give us the goals, the direction, what's valuable to pursue, and other social scientists/historians/whoever else can tell us what's feasible and how to reach those goals.

Even though other political leaders have pursued injustice, or justice in a misguided way (if you can even call it that), does not mean justice isn't a worthy goal to pursued by a collective force (over our individual slapdash ways).

So you say justice or injustice relates to people, and I agree, only I see them as moral agents operating against an actual moral standard (which is not a person on some views, but I believe the actual standard to be God, so perhaps I believe the standard is also an agent, I'm unsure) -- a standard that has principles independent of historical context (though not independent of the nature of the agents themselves). Human abilities to act morally remain unchanged ( at least since we acquired a conscious moral thought that conflicted with survival and instinctual response, if you like). We can do good or bad. Be selfish or altruistic. Pursue the excellent or pursue nothing at all. Yes, the outcomes have been different over time, and in some ways the same, but studying the outcome isn't enough, not without a standard to go by.

I'm giving you a hard time now because I think so many other humanities folks underestimate the importance of knowing where to go, actually knowing what is just. Guessing, pure intuition, personal taste, that's not enough. It's important because, as you say, if it's not justice we pursue than there are bad consequences, it's just you have to make sure you know how to tell what is bad and what is good. Sure, philosophers would do well to then determine which of our values (deemed as such) are feasible and which must wait for another time. That's fine. But our job is not defunct even if other people don't take a critical look at their own (sometimes unnoticed) moral judgments. Perhaps this calls for some teamwork across disciplines?

Continue to part two.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


So I was bored today and instead of finishing up one of my many drafted posts, I decided to put RLN into Wordle. This is what I got (from the posts on the first page). Interesting. I recommend clicking on the image because it's easier to read.