Correct me if I'm Wrong...

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Correct me if I'm Wrong...

Post  John on Wed Oct 31, 2012 12:10 pm

Leuconoë, don’t ask, we never know, what fate the gods grant us,
whether your fate or mine, don’t waste your time on Babylonian,
futile, calculations. How much better to suffer what happens,
whether Jupiter gives us more winters or this is the last one,
one debilitating the Tyrrhenian Sea on opposing cliffs.
Be wise, and mix the wine, since time is short: limit that far-reaching hope.
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking:
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can. -Horace

We seem to be perpetually circling the topics of obligation, duty, and luck in our club discussions, so in the interest of clarity, let's discuss these issues in some detail. While what follows will certainly take a position on an issue, as it stands the discussions are not currently refined enough in our discussion to adequately defend, or even propose, a tenable argument. Hopefully, this will be remedied shortly:

Argument 1: Individuals have an obligation to society/environment/laws to act in accordance with prescriptions entailed by those entities. For example, one should not kill babies because either/or 1) it is frowned upon, 2) it is unnatural, 3) it is illegal. By extension, which is questionable, similar arguments for, say, developing personal ability or contributing (benefiting) to society might be postulated in forma. For instance, one should contribute to society because either/or 1) the contribution by definition helps society, 2) lethargy is unnatural, 3) debtor's prison (?). In any event, this allows judgment to be passed in cases where any of the three obligatory prescriptions are violated. Thus, John does not read enough, therefore John is wasting his talent entailing that John is a drain on society (via an assumed mechanism which will be analyzed below), and so John is 'bad.' If 'bad' is too strong, then qualify it by saying that John is 'not good,' where good is just that person meeting actual prescribed obligations.

Argument 2: We have an absolute duty to achieve our potential (cf Kant's examples in the Metaphysics of Morals where this is an explicit example) much in the same way that we have an absolute duty to not kill babies. Reason might give us a...well...reason to adhere to such prescriptions (notably of the Categorical Imperative variety). Putting aside the obvious difficulties and assuming Kant to be correct (!), we have a causal mechanism by which judgment can be placed on those refusing to adhere to the moral law. As Kant made clear, duty just is respect for the moral law, but it seems that judgment can be extended to those for whom the moral law is not compelling. John, as indicated above, refuses to read enough and meet his potential, but this conflicts with the moral law, that is, it conflicts with his duty, and so John is somehow 'bad,' or 'not good.' (obviously this is a caricature of Kant, but the point is clear and I assume everyone is familiar enough with the keen Konigsbergian).

Argument 3: Often, individuals are unable to control circumstances, and there has traditionally been leniency when applying blame (judgment) in such circumstances. John leaves home and trips into a baby carriage due to a faulty sidewalk, the carriage rolls into the street, and a baby dies. Is John to blame? Perhaps. Manslaughter might be pursued depending on how busy the prosecution is that week. It is important, however, to note that manslaughter is not merely less severe than its intent-driven counterpart, homicide, but is different in kind for just that reason. Anyway, it appears that John had an unlucky time, a time seemingly beyond his control. Alternatively, John does not meet his potential due to certain constraints beyond his control. Perhaps a lack of public school funding, parental abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, etc, the list is legion and example are apparent. Should we consider John 'not good' for not achieving his potential? That seems arbitrary. Of course, the difficult lies in the details, as in, where do we draw the line between what John could have done, and what John should have done to correct his situation?

Argument 4: Tangentially related, but related nonetheless. Society needs an intellectual elite capable of ushering in greater societal achievements. History is rife with examples of geniuses and intellectuals upon which we base our current relative affluence. Running water, vaccinations, and epidemiological research, for example, increase mortality and decrease morbidity routinely in industrialized nations. Technological advancements have supplanted manual labor in many fields which led to the development of a leisurely middle-class in several countries living in splendor which, in previous generations, was only expected by royalty. Moreover, as a supporting argument, during these stages of progress there has been a class of individuals guiding affluent nations, groups, and people along this impressive journey. The Founding Fathers of the U.S., for instance, were men of gentrified, prodigious, intellect, and led the development of our now great nation.

Now, as I mentioned, this is merely an effort to clarify some of the discussions permeating the air in recent club meetings. I think that each of these arguments should be respected, and handled carefully (it is not the job of the philosopher to dismiss unhappy thoughts just because they are unhappy). With that in mind, I propose 1) a structured discussion on the arguments as they stand, or 2) a reformulation of the arguments followed by discussion. (2) is more preferable since I am sure that I have not given these arguments justice. As for my part, I tip my hand at the outset to show which positions I will argue for/against...

Argument 1: For, but argument is arbitrary and susceptible to clever knave-style refutations, i.e. unimportant for prescription
Argument 2: Against, notable lack of compelling evidence for duty
Argument 3: For, but a much, much, stronger version
Argument 4: Against, historically the issue has been far more complicated, but superficially, the argument is inconsistent.
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Expedio

Post  Sean Anglin on Thu Nov 01, 2012 2:23 pm

In argument 4, are you against the necessity of elites doing the ushering or the necessity of continuous "greater social achievements"?

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Penultimagic

Post  John on Sat Nov 03, 2012 9:24 am

I apologize for the delay, this week has been far more hectic than I anticipated. Nice reading of the question Sean, you have noted a vagueness I did not intend (good eye). Assuming greater societal achievements are possible for the foreseeable future, I dispute the necessity of an elite class doing the ushering. Obviously, 'elite' needs to be defined as well but I will leave that to later discussions since I do not want to unfairly stack the deck full of hoi oligoi.
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Re: Correct me if I'm Wrong...

Post  Becker on Tue Nov 06, 2012 12:10 am

Argument 1: Individuals have an obligation to society/environment/laws to act in accordance with prescriptions entailed by those entities. For example, one should not kill babies because either/or 1) it is frowned upon, 2) it is unnatural, 3) it is illegal. By extension, which is questionable, similar arguments for, say, developing personal ability or contributing (benefiting) to society might be postulated in forma. For instance, one should contribute to society because either/or 1) the contribution by definition helps society, 2) lethargy is unnatural, 3) debtor's prison (?). In any event, this allows judgment to be passed in cases where any of the three obligatory prescriptions are violated. Thus, John does not read enough, therefore John is wasting his talent entailing that John is a drain on society (via an assumed mechanism which will be analyzed below), and so John is 'bad.' If 'bad' is too strong, then qualify it by saying that John is 'not good,' where good is just that person meeting actual prescribed obligations.

Where does this obligation come from? What provides the oughts and the shoulds? If we consider the initial example about killing sweet innocent babies Crying or Very sad then I feel as though:
(1) is meaningless objectively, but extremely telling subjectively. To elaborate, I think it would be a horrible reason to derive obligation from, but I think we do it anyway subjectively due to the type of society we live in - "it's not what you know, it's who you know".
(2) is.. weird? Who determines naturalness? If not who, then what? Genetic predispositions? Nah, too shaky. I don't believe in that anthropology speculation (just kidding, but not really..) For real though, I don't think (un)naturalness can or should (interesting meta-use?) be used in determining the goodness of someone.
(3) is ultimately subjective and societal, but also proven to be useless (i.e. civil rights, prohibition, suffrage, etc.). People can't be trusted to govern people, nor can they be trusted to determine what is good or right.
Overall - much too subjective for my tastes.

Argument 2: We have an absolute duty to achieve our potential (cf Kant's examples in the Metaphysics of Morals where this is an explicit example) much in the same way that we have an absolute duty to not kill babies. Reason might give us a...well...reason to adhere to such prescriptions (notably of the Categorical Imperative variety). Putting aside the obvious difficulties and assuming Kant to be correct (!), we have a causal mechanism by which judgment can be placed on those refusing to adhere to the moral law. As Kant made clear, duty just is respect for the moral law, but it seems that judgment can be extended to those for whom the moral law is not compelling. John, as indicated above, refuses to read enough and meet his potential, but this conflicts with the moral law, that is, it conflicts with his duty, and so John is somehow 'bad,' or 'not good.' (obviously this is a caricature of Kant, but the point is clear and I assume everyone is familiar enough with the keen Konigsbergian).

Although I have hesitations considering Kant's autonymous will and heteronymous will and the role of the Categorical Imperative, I think this makes much more sense as a method to base the idea of good and bad on. I don't think that the moral law as proposed by Kant can validly be extended to John reading though... So long as your action doesn't harm anyone else directly (I think reading is indirectly hurtful), then it would seem that you're perfectly fine omitting from doing so, so long as you don't do things which harm anyone else directly in its stead. Omitting to act is a hard topic to address, especially from a sense of duty. I think as long as the duty we are obliged by derives from a respected source - unanimous reason (go philosopher kings!!), then we're gucci!

Argument 3: Often, individuals are unable to control circumstances, and there has traditionally been leniency when applying blame (judgment) in such circumstances. John leaves home and trips into a baby carriage due to a faulty sidewalk, the carriage rolls into the street, and a baby dies. Is John to blame? Perhaps. Manslaughter might be pursued depending on how busy the prosecution is that week. It is important, however, to note that manslaughter is not merely less severe than its intent-driven counterpart, homicide, but is different in kind for just that reason. Anyway, it appears that John had an unlucky time, a time seemingly beyond his control. Alternatively, John does not meet his potential due to certain constraints beyond his control. Perhaps a lack of public school funding, parental abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, etc, the list is legion and example are apparent. Should we consider John 'not good' for not achieving his potential? That seems arbitrary. Of course, the difficult lies in the details, as in, where do we draw the line between what John could have done, and what John should have done to correct his situation?

Here we go with omitting and accidents... shucks. Well, first, I don't think John is guilty of anything in the tripping case. Intent plays a large role in the way I personally prescribe goodness and badness (surprise I'm Kantian!). Therefore, I don't think John is being bad or not good by not meeting his full potential because there are situations going against him. If John has the intention to become the best he can be, however, then he does have an obligation to do so. But if John wants to be a mope and let life kick him and keep him down, then he's doing his job, as long as that's what he wants. (I'm all for free-loaders). Now for the cool question: where do we draw the line between what John could have done, and what John should have done to correct his situation?

I think correct is a harsh word for an accidental situation, or uncontrollable situation. But that aside, I think, as I've said above that John should do what he intends to do, irregardless of the limitations. Intentionality determines one's ought or should, in my opinion. Therefore, if John decides that he's stuck in this life he lives and can't get out of it, then I agree with him.

Argument 4: Tangentially related, but related nonetheless. Society needs an intellectual elite capable of ushering in greater societal achievements. History is rife with examples of geniuses and intellectuals upon which we base our current relative affluence. Running water, vaccinations, and epidemiological research, for example, increase mortality and decrease morbidity routinely in industrialized nations. Technological advancements have supplanted manual labor in many fields which led to the development of a leisurely middle-class in several countries living in splendor which, in previous generations, was only expected by royalty. Moreover, as a supporting argument, during these stages of progress there has been a class of individuals guiding affluent nations, groups, and people along this impressive journey. The Founding Fathers of the U.S., for instance, were men of gentrified, prodigious, intellect, and led the development of our now great nation.

First... Philosopher Kings!!!
Second... I think it's a fact of the world we live in, although Hegelian considerations are cool to actually consider (master/servant relationship). I think the elite fully understand their relationship with the manipulated (or more kindly, the normal people). It is one of trust and consideration (most of the time I think), but obviously can be disrupted (rebellion, anarchy, etc.). People need to be lead, and we are the leaders. To fight this is to fight yourself, in my opinion. I think, if anything, our obligation to society stems from our intellect - our ability to reason and understand. If I know that I can manipulate a normal person to do what I want, I have the obligation not to simply for the sake of that person's dignity. It's one thing to know you're smarter, it's another to capitalize on this advantage (darn you capitalism... although I think it is a beautiful invention to bring about the era of the 'ideal citizen' - constant competition, constant education, constant progress... beautiful!)

But that's what I got, let me know whatchya think.

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"Yeah it's worth a Half-and-Half, and I'll be Back For it!"

Post  John on Sun Nov 11, 2012 2:14 am

Sorry it took so long to reply, but there was really not a lot to disagree with since almost everything you said, I think, is correct. Of course, my philosophical inclination is to try, nonetheless, to argue with everything, so here goes:
Where does this obligation come from? What provides the oughts and the shoulds?
This is a valid question, but mostly because of my hasty wording. An obligation would derive from any of the three cases (1) society, (2) environment, or (3) laws. Surely, some of these can be reduced, namely, laws to society or environment, but including it adds comprehensiveness to the list. Now, considering these in turn:
(1) is meaningless objectively, but extremely telling subjectively. To elaborate, I think it would be a horrible reason to derive obligation from, but I think we do it anyway subjectively due to the type of society we live in...
I agree that we derive obligation from society all the time, but I find this rather meaningful objectively. Of course, let's be sure there is no equivocation in 'objective' here. There are many possible interpretations but let's stick with the two most obvious: (a) objective in the sense imperative, as in, an external imperative to act, and (b) objective in a scientific or naturalistic manner. (b) would grant meaning to obligation derived from society through study, description, and definition. (a) on the other hand, seems to be analytically true, as in, objectivity is meaningless when there is no objectivity. (RE: If x is objective then x is meaningless).
Who determines naturalness? If not who, then what? Genetic predispositions...
Traditionally this term has had the connotation of religious or authoritative governance, but recently there has been speculation more in Aristotelian terms. That is, what is natural is simply what humans do. For instance, in the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks what it is that humans do exclusively. We do not thrive exclusively since plants do as well. We do not reflect on ourselves exclusively since mammals seem to do this. He reasoned that we, well, reason and inquire. The worst part with this interpretation of morals/political structure/prescriptions, is that it is extremely limited. What is natural? Perhaps reasoning? Really vague...In short, methinks you are absolutely correct in your suspicion.
People can't be trusted to govern people, nor can they be trusted to determine what is good or right.
I agree, this is such an important issue that it seems unreasonable to trust to just anyone. Unfortunately, we seem forced to do just this. In fact, I think, as you know, that without any overarching imperatives governing human interactions, we are obliged to determine what is good or right, but I digress, though I should be coming back to this point soon.
I think this makes much more sense as a method to base the idea of good and bad on.
Now we get to the good stuff! One of my major grievances with idea of moral imperatives of this nature is their seemingly limited nature. Even Kant was a little unnerved by how rare it seemed that such prescriptions were. 'One shouldn't steal,' for instance, is an easy one, and Kant laid out a few more, but I doubt anyone has come up with many more than those outlined in his Foundations. Surely there are not enough to guide human action. Even worse, would absolute prescription be something we wanted in the first place? There is an entire body of law (Common Law) which has developed on a case-by-case basis over the years due to the notorious difficulty inherent in determining what is right or wrong in certain contexts. Setting aside the epistemological and ontological issues with objective morals, do you think they are broad enough to encompass human interaction? Is theft always wrong, for instance, even in the Heinz Dilemma, where medicine is needed to prevent the death of a loved one? (Geez, Heinz is such a rhetoric filled example, if I'm not mistaken there are at least 57 rhetorics to be specific...).

I'll have to respond to the latter half tomorrow; it is past my bedtime. Off to dream of electric sheep...
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A meta-ethical & consequalist perspective

Post  Tim on Fri Nov 16, 2012 4:52 pm

I'm skeptical that there are unconditional imperatives with truth values, like "(Regardless of the situation) never kill someone."
But conditional imperatives can obviously be true, like "If you want to be happy, never kill someone."
I think we can derive shared ethical obligations by considering what we all share, then putting an outcome we all want in the antecedent of the conditional, like "If you want to be happy." Whether or not the conditional is true is an empirical matter.
What's more important is that it must be either true or false.

Here's a weak and rough notion of obligation:
  • You should do x if and only if x is in your best interest
  • X is in your best interest if and only if it's necessary for a maximally satisfying possible outcome
  • Ceteris paribus or necessary within a context of possibilities

It's got a "subjective" flavor to it that is widely appealing, but I'd say it's more "objective" because people are often wrong about what choice is best for them... according to their very own standards!

Example arguments:
- Ex. Reading is in your best interest because: even though you hate reading but love rollerblading, reading will allow you to rollerblade more
- Ex. Not reading is in your best interest because: that's just less rollerblading time
- Ex. Reading is in your best interest because: literacy makes for a better society, and you'd prefer to live in a better society than not. If you don't think isn't better society or for you, then you're wrong according to your own standards.
- Ex. The prosecution of manslaughter is in your best interest because: you'd prefer to live in the kind of society that encourages this, as well as the kind of society that takes into account the defendant's intentions and circumstances, restricting the set of possibilities that were available to him. Ultimately, the benefits of reducing manslaughter by prosecuting it outweigh the detriments of not fully respecting someone's intentions.
- Ex. Not eating 70% junk food is in your best interest because: This is necessary for being healthy and you want to be healthy, or this is necessary for a good society and you want to live in a good society.

These are just example arguments, I'm not claiming anything fits the role of x in above principle. Again, that may seem kind of weak, but the important thing is that there is a basis for "objective" ethics. People can be trusted to determine what is right or wrong, in the same sense that they can determine whether it's wrong that 2+2=4 -- this can't be true for you and false for me (relativism). As for some candidates of X that fit in many contexts... I basically agree with the Aristotelian notion that there are certain human virtues that are the best interests of all humans. But in the end, the consequences are what matter. Taking intentions or virtues into account--as things which must be included in a maximally good possibility--is just a kind of indirect consequentialism.
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