Monday, February 25, 2013

Michael Smith’s Argument for God

 **This is from guest blogger, Patrick S.**

In “Ethical Theory:  An Anthology”, Russ Shafer-Landau includes an article of Michael Smith’s arguing for moral realism.  This article gives some constructive thought to moral realism, with some exceptional points on the flaws of the standard picture of human psychology, yet its final reasoning for why one should believe in the objectivity of moral facts is flawed.

Smith argues that moral disagreements might be useful to his philosophy, only insofar as that they can morph into moral agreement.  Smith shows multiple times throughout the article that there are many different reasons for believing in moral facts, but without absolute proof.  He admits that many philosophers believe in the possibility that our reasons for action, and so the moral truths upon which we base those actions, are fundamentally relative, differing from person to person.  Even so, he pushes for his view, arguing that the answer might lie in the result of a moral disagreement.  If one moral disagreement can end in such a way that person “A” has convinced person “B” that the belief of “A” is correct, then it is possible that person “B” was mistaken in their original belief and that person “A” had true knowledge of the moral fact in question.

The tricky bit about this journey towards truth, argues Smith, is that it would imply that everyone’s views could eventually converge on the moral truth at hand.  This is the weak link in the argument.  If convergence upon a belief were data in favor of realism, then one could use the argument in favor of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God.  Not having studied religion extensively, I cannot delve into the details with any accuracy, but I am fairly certain that people have convinced other people to convert religions in the history of the world.  If everyone were to converge upon a single God, would Smith argue that this is evidence for truth in the matter of the fact of God’s existence?  As Smith discounts the idea of the Judeo-Christian God in the article, I would venture to guess that the answer is “no”.  Perhaps my analogy between his argument for moral facts and an argument for the existence of god is far-fetched, but certainly no more far-fetched than the argument itself.  One might argue that the world’s population has never believed in the same God…but the same population has probably been closer to a uniform belief in God than it has been to a belief in objective moral truths.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Begging the Question and Justification

As previous posts indicate, we're discussing a piece by Russ Shafer-Landau in my class this term.

He there discusses an objection to moral realism involving moral disagreement.  Consider a case in which two agents are embroiled in a moral dispute that seems intractable--neither can convince the other to change her mind.  Shafer-Landau contends that one agent could be justified in believing that X is wrong even if her defense of the view that X is wrong begs the question.  As he put it, "'s belief might continue to be justified, even if defending it to others has one begging questions."

This is only part of his reply to the objection and I don't consider the point I'm about to make to be much of a criticism of Shafer-Landau's response.  Indeed, I think he successfully shows that the objection is extremely weak.  I'm here simply expressing my confusion and hoping that others will weigh in on the issues that I'm about to raise.

Suppose that an agent believes that slavery is wrong and she believes this for various reasons (e.g., that people have a right not to be enslaved, that slavery is not conducive to overall utility, that it violates the categorical imperative, etc.).  Suppose that her opponent does not believe that slavery is wrong and she believes this for various other reasons (e.g., that some groups of individuals are morally inferior to others, that there's no such thing as a right not to be enslaved, that both utilitarianism and deontology are false, etc.).  So we have a moral disagreement about slavery.  And we might imagine that neither party will budge.

Of course, this case is distinct form the one which Shafer-Landau apparently has in mind.  His case (it seems from his very brief discussion) is one in which one of the agents is only able to offer question-begging arguments when trying to convince her opponent.  His claim is that such an agent can nevertheless be justified in thinking that, say, slavery is wrong.

Now, what would justify her belief that slavery is wrong?  Is it these question-begging arguments?  How can a question-begging argument confer justification?  One of my students suggested that such arguments are only question-begging when presented to the other agent.  And when "presented" to the agent herself, they are not question-begging.  I'm not sure what to make of this suggestion.  It seems to me that arguments are question-begging in virtue of their structure, not in virtue of the audience.  (Well, maybe that's not quite right, since begging the question is taken to be an informal fallacy---But one way to think about arguments that beg the question is as a type of circular argument where an explicit or implicit premise of the argument entails the conclusion and so the argument should be seen as entirely unsatisfactory.)  So, again, why think that the agent is justified in believing that slavery is wrong if she isn't able to offer anything but question-begging arguments?  Perhaps she could be justified because, on one way of thinking about them, question-begging arguments are valid.  Here's an example of a question-begging argument:
(1) Y.
(2) Therefore, Y.
It's valid, but is it the sort of argument that could confer justification (even when you "offer" the argument to yourself)?  I suppose you might be confident of the truth of Y and you could think that you are justified in believing Y on the basis of such an argument.  But the question is whether you could actually be justified in believing Y on the basis of this question-begging argument.

The case I gave seems like a paradigm case of moral disagreement.  I take it that what usually happens in such cases is that agent A finds agent B's arguments unpersuasive because she thinks B's arguments are not sound (and vice versa).  Of course, an agent might be justified in believing that slavery is wrong even if she cannot provide reasons that her opponent finds compelling.  Her reasons might be good ones even if her opponent doesn't agree that they are good.  Of course, the reasons the agents in my case have for their beliefs don't involve arguments that beg the question.

But Shafer-Landau's point is about a different kinds of case than the one I've offered.  It's a peculiar instance of moral disagreement and I'm having trouble making sense of how an agent can be justified in believing something when she is stuck with only question-begging arguments.

Our conversation in class got cut short and I found it really interesting, so I thought I'd open it up to folks reading this blog.  Comments on these issues are most welcome.        

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Reply to Shafer-Landau

**This is from guest blogger, Aaron F.**

In, “Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism” (Ethical Theory: An Anthology 62-71), Russ Shafer-Landau defends ethical nonnaturalism. His first step is to convince us of moral realism which he defines with a set of three theses. They are, “(i) moral judgments are beliefs that are meant to describe the way things really are; (ii) some of these beliefs are true, and (iii) moral judgments are made true in some way other than by virtue of the attitudes taken towards their content by any actual or idealized human agent” (62). Thus, moral realism as defined here is incompatible with emotivism, subjectivism, and error theory. It may not be immediately clear that error theory is ruled out (it was not to me) since one might think that a statement such as, “there are no true moral statements,” is a negative moral principle. However, since moral principles must be about what is right or wrong, good or bad, etc., and the thesis of error theory is about what is true (or, in this case, false), the claim that there are no moral truths is not itself a moral statement. With his in place, he presents the following argument.
 1. Ethics is a species of inquiry; philosophy is its genus.
 2. A species inherits the essential traits of its genus.
 3. One essential trait of philosophy is the realistic status of its truths.
 4. Therefore, moral realism is true. (62)
The first two premises are taken for granted (it is difficult to see how they could be false), and Shafer-Landau argues for the third with the remainder of the article. However, I believe that the argument is not complete. In particular, it does not follow from the premises that error theory is false. This also means, of course, that the premises do not entail the conclusion.
Error theory is true just in case all moral judgments are false, and all moral judgments would be false if there were no basic ethical principles. Let us see if we can make error theory consistent with premises one to three. We are told by premise one and premise three that philosophy is a genus of inquiry whose truths have realistic status. I find that the most natural way to interpret this is to think of philosophy as a discipline whose
aim is to discover the elements of a set P of philosophical truths and principles. Then, species of philosophy attempt to discover the content of subsets of P.

But it is the case that every set has the empty set as a subset. Hence, it is possible that the subset E of ethical
truths and principles is empty. If this is so, then all ethical statements will be false because there will be no principles according to which anything can be judged to be good or bad, right or wrong, etc. As for consistency, that E be empty clearly does not conflict with premise two. Premise one simply says that E is contained in P,which is true if E is the empty set, and premise three only mentions the status of elements of P. Hence, it does not follow that E is not empty, which means that the conclusion of the argument is not entailed by its premises.

The solution to this problem is obvious. Simply add two premises: first, “‘such-and-such’ is a true ethical principle,” and second,“therefore the set of ethical truths and principles is not empty.” Given these premises, and the ones in the original argument, it would follow that moral realism is true. However, we are now required to have at least one true moral principle. Moreover, it seems that we must have at least one realistic moral principle (in the sense of moral realism), for if it were, for instance, a subjective moral principle, premise three of the original argument would disqualify it as a potential element of E.  On the other hand, one might solve the problem by presenting a non-set theoretic interpretation of the relationship between philosophy and ethics. However, I do not know what such an interpretation would be.

Is the Realistic Status of its Truths an Essential Trait of Philosophy?

**This is from guest blogger, Lawrence D.**

Russ Schafer-Landau, in "Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism," sets out to defend moral realism against a number of criticisms. 

His primary, positive argument is as follows:
1.  Ethics is a species of inquiry; philosophy is its genus.
2. A species inherits the essential traits of its genus.
3. One essential trait of philosophy is the realistic status of its truths.
4. Therefore moral realism is true.
While I find this argument to be logical, I still feel that something is wrong with it. I think all he has managed to do is prove moral realism is possible, not that it's necessarily true. I think the problem here is with premise 3 (which he acknowledges is likely to be the premise most contested). I think philosophical truths have a possible realistic status, not necessarily a flat-out realistic status. I think it’s possible to philosophize about entirely non-real things in a manner that is coherent and rational, and if this is true then his argument does nothing to prove the validity of moral realism, only to prove that it is possible with the bounds of this argument. Ancient Greek philosophers disagreed upon the natural substance of things; some claimed it was water, others fire, or some mysterious Apeiron. They all seemed to be making rational arguments on why they thought each substance to be the foundation, and yet today we believe them all to be wrong. If it is possible to philosophize about non-real things, then to say that ethics is a species of philosophy does not do anything to prove its realness. While I think his arguments against moral disagreement and the causal inefficacy of moral facts are effective for dismissing those arguments, I think the argument still stands simply that entirely rational arguments within philosophy can be made about non-real things, and thus his general argument does not prove moral realism to be true.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Was Moore a Subjectivist, a Non-cognitivist, or What?

**This is from guest blogger, Claire S.**

In The Subject-Matter of Ethics, Moore is presenting a thesis opposing the view of ethical naturalism, which is the view that moral facts and properties of those facts are natural entities, that moral facts and properties supervene upon naturally existing properties; in other words, there is no change in moral facts or properties without a change in the natural properties. An ethical naturalist would thereby define “goodness” or “morality” in solely natural properties; this is something that Moore thinks is impossible. In his essay he struggles to come up with a way to define goodness at all, claiming it impossible.  He says, “propositions about the good are all of them synthetic and never analytic,” (51). By this he means that it is impossible to define what good is itself, for the goodness can only be defined as being in terms as a property of some other end; what I mean is, to define a “good bike” would be to explain what about the bike makes it optimal for its function, or what makes it good as a bike. To define a “good book” is to define what makes the book pleasurable or functional according to its purpose. What makes a book good is entirely different than what makes a bike good, so it is difficult if not impossible to come up with a definition for the good alone because the goodness of some thing depends on what properties make it optimal according to its function. So the goodness is always synthetic depending on what thing it is a property of, and it is never analytic, we can never define what it is to be good in itself. In order to define the intrinsic value of good, Moore says we must be able to determine the intrinsic nature of good, which he has shown is not possible.

Moore on page 55 focuses on the fact that “good” cannot be defined in an analytic way like “bachelor” can be defined as “an unmarried man”, in this case, you can substitute the phrase “an unmarried man” for the word “bachelor” and still retain the truth value of a proposition. “Good” however does not work this way, for it is not the case that, say, if I said the phrase, “this song is good” that I can then substitute “this song” for “good” in another sentence, like “hot coffee in the morning is this song”.

I agree with Moore that “good” cannot ever be defined as analytic, for it seems to always be synthetic with regard to whatever thing we are attributing the good to. I do not, however, think that Moore’s argument denies the fact that there can be epistemological ethical beliefs that are subjective that a person draws from when they make ethical claims.

I am also interested in seeing if there is a way to define “goodness” analytically by saying something like, “is such a way that it is optimal in function for its subject”. Like, what makes a bike good is that it works according to its function or what makes a book good is that it is optimal considering its function. This is almost a weird way of subjective things having the ability to be objective. However, it does not seem like this definition can even be applied to questions of ethics, for it doesn’t make sense to say that when I say, “that Bill Gates gives to charity is good” that I mean “giving to charity is optimal for Bill Gates function”, rather it is not necessarily something that is optimal for Bill Gates’ function in the way that breathing and eating are optimal for Bill Gates’ functions as a human. It seems that we would have to categorize these even further in order for a functionalist argument to work for ethics.

I am wondering what exactly Moore is trying to do after he shows ethical naturalism is false. Does Moore’s view support a subjectivist argument for the goodness of things, or is he leaning toward a more non-cognitive argument that it doesn’t at all make sense to talk about things being ethically good or bad? I think after subjectivism gets pushed passed a certain point it can turn into non-cognitivism, which could be a danger for Moore if he wants to support a subjective view of ethics. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Further Worry for Harman's Moral Relativism

**This is from guest blogger, Eric B.  As he indicates, he's thinking about writing his paper for my class on this topic.  I'm sure he'd appreciate insightful comments on this post.**

Hello all, I would like to begin by saying that a lot of the objections that I will raise have been offered in class previously. I wish to write this blog post in order to air some of my thoughts, and a new situation to analyze that may end up in my first paper.

Harman does an excellent job of succinctly laying out his thesis regarding moral relativism in the first sentence of his paper. He believes that “morality arises when people reach an implicit agreement… about their relations to one another (p.41)”. The crux of my argument revolves around the nature of an implicit agreement, and the idea of community agreement. The objection that I present here is epistemological in nature, in that I question how we come to understand implicit agreements especially in a community setting. Every individual has a unique perspective on the world that surrounds them, and it is more than likely that a situation which arises, will be viewed drastically different by two individuals.

This situation may be best described by using a (rather disheartening) scenario. Imagine a situation in which a woman has just killed her former rapist, and this scenario was viewed by two individuals. Both of these individuals believe that murder is wrong. However, one of these individuals (Person A) does not believe that rape is morally wrong, while the other is vehemently anti-rape (Person B). B will then say that the murder was justified due the heinous act of rape, while A will cling to the idea that all murder is wrong.

My issue with Harman’s moral relativism is that in this scenario the implicit agreement is entirely too vague. Both A and B seem to have come to the same conclusion--i.e., that murder is wrong; but when a complicated scenario arises that also involves moral disagreements regarding rape, then their implicit arrangement fails. In layman’s terms, my argument revolves around the ambiguity of Harman’s thesis regarding moral relativism. How do I know that when I say “murder is wrong” and the person across from me agrees, that we are actually agreeing to the same principle, and not our interpretation of it.

More on Moore

**This is from guest blogger, Nathan T.**

I just have to say this: G. E. Moore makes philosophy seem so annoyingly simple.

In the selection, “The Subject-Matter of Ethics,” Moore proposes that good is fundamentally undefinable. In considering definitions of good, Moore refutes an appeal to semantics and the common useage of the word “good,” stating that he instead wants to know the property or thing to which “good” refers. Likewise, he does not ask what things have the property of being good, or “the good,” (p. 52) but what the property “good” is in of itself.

Moore believes that there are certain foundational properties or entities that are completely simple; namely, that they cannot be reduced to any further properties or components (unlike a horse or a Chimera). Moore considers an example with the color yellow: while yellow can be described in terms of wavelengths and retinas, yellow is a basic perception that cannot be broken up into any more basic parts. Likewise, good is a property that is completely basic, and therefore undefineable (because, according to Moore, a definition “states what are the parts which invariably compose a certain whole” (p.53)). Therefore, any naturalist attempt to define “good” in terms of more basic concepts, such as pleasure or desire, will fail, as he considers for the last half of the selection.

I have to admit, I agree largely with Moore. However, I am slightly uncertain as to what his ultimate “project” is. By making “good” undefinable, is Moore precluding meta-ethics as a legitimate field of study? If “good” is a simple (and, implicitly, unanalyzable) concept, then it seems that the only valid subject matter are the things which are good, which Moore seems to take as the enterprise of ethics (p. 52, second column).  Or is Moore simply “cleaning house,” and doing away with muddled and blurred concepts, such as thinking that good and pleasure are related? Perhaps Moore is instead saving the enterprise of meta-ethics from unclear ideas.

I think I probably side with the first interpretation, but I’m open to other thoughts. So what do y’all think?

G.E. Moore, Definitions, and Moral Terms

**This is from guest blogger, Daniel S.**

First, I’d like to start off by saying that I felt that this piece by G.E. Moore was fascinating, and some of the undefinable definitions he was portraying in the beginning of the piece were things that I have been pouring over rather recently. To start off with, Moore believes that there are notions which we are unable to define solely because of how simple these notions are. For instance, Moore gives the example of “yellow” and wonders about how are we to define “yellow” to a person who does not know yellow? This simple notion, “yellow”, is often used to describe and define other objects, but when it comes to defining itself, all we can really say is that yellow is yellow. Moore continues by saying that we may be able to define yellow by looking at the physical events which occur that allow us to perceive yellow, such as light vibrations in the eye.  But, these light vibrations aren’t really what we mean when we’re talking about yellow, but rather the light vibrations are merely our way of being able to see yellow.

It’s worthwhile to take an additional look at how we perceive these simple notions. Moore uses an example of a chimera. A chimera is a mystical creature that has the head of a lioness, a goat head growing from the middle of its back, and with a snake as its tail. This being is so complex that we are able to chip away its parts. We can take away the snake for the tail, or the head of the lioness. But, even after we do separate these parts we are still left with some highly complex parts. The head of the lioness is still going to have two eyes, it’ll have hair, and it’ll be a multitude of different colors. It is when we get to the very basic of these descriptions that we can find the simple notions, where we are no longer able to break it away into any additional parts. We often use these simple notions to express the parts of complex objects, but these simple notions in themselves express a certain quality; yellow is yellow.

The reason this is important is because Moore finds that the simple notion, “yellow”, is in some respects analogous to “good”. Moore believes that good, just like yellow, is a simple notion. This leads to Moore being asked, “What is good”, and consequently Moore would ambiguously reply, “good is good”.  Well, this seems frustrating and leads to a conundrum. If we, as ethicists, are attempting to find good and define what it is, then how are we supposed to be able to do that if all we are able to say about good is that “good is good”? Moore would reply that even though good is an undefinable notion, it is still something which we know. Just as we know what yellow is, we know what good is.

Personally I found this to be quite interesting, and this eventually leads into Moore’s naturalistic fallacy. I’d like to hear what you guys think though. Do you think it IS actually possible for us to be able to define good? Or are you content with Moore finding that it is a simple notion? And further, if we are to agree with Moore, then are those who are unable to realize the simple notion of good morally responsible for their actions? Because we can imagine a person who is color blind of yellow, and thus does not have any idea of what it is, but we do not portray him in a negative light. This might be one of the falling points for Moore’s argument, because it seems as though the consequences for being unable to recognize good are much greater than the consequences for not recognizing yellow, which may mean that "good" is actually a complex notion.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Grad Conference: Mind, Language, and Cog Sci

University of Western Ontario
Graduate ConferenceinPhilosophy of Mind, Language, and Cognitive Science
May 23-25, 2013

Keynote Speakers:
Professor Jackie Sullivan (Philosophy, University of Western Ontario)
Professor Edouard Machery (History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh)
Professor Jody Culham (Psychology, University of Western Ontario)
The Philosophy Department of the University of Western Ontario is pleased to announce the 11th annual PhilMiLCog graduate conference on the Philosophy of Mind, Language and Cognitive Science. Submissions by graduate students in the fields of philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, of linguistics, or of cognitive science are welcome. Submissions on the topics of philosophy of neuroscience, philosophy of psychology, embodiment and feminist issues in the philosophy of mind, language or cognitive science are particularly encouraged. Submissions by graduate students in fields other than philosophy are welcome, but all submissions must make a philosophical contribution.

Submission should be presentable in 25 minutes (3500 words) and should be accompanied by a short abstract (150 words).

Do not include identifying information in the abstract or in the body of the paper.

Please attach a separate cover sheet with the submitter’s name, paper title, mailing address,
e-mail address and institutional affiliation.

Deadline for submission: March 1st, 2013

Please E-mail your paper, abstract, and cover page as Word, WordPerfect, RTF, or PDF files to

Friday, February 8, 2013

How to Write a Good Philosophy Paper

Angela Mendelovici has some advice about writing a philosophy paper that's available here.  

Thanks to Brian Leiter for posting this on his blog.  

What is dessert?

There's an interesting thread at The Splintered Mind about the necessary and sufficient conditions for dessert.

As some note on the thread, desserts needn't be sweet or had after a meal.  They needn't fall within a certain range of portion size.  So what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a dessert?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Harman and Moral Relativism II

**This is from guest blogger Cole D.**

In his “Moral Relativism Defended”, Gilbert Harman deviates from the definition of moral relativism formulated by its detractors, which states that, “…(a) there are no universal moral principles and (b) one ought to act in accordance with the principles of one’s own group, where this later principle, (b), is supposed to be a universal moral principle,” (41).  He instead utilizes a more logical thesis which postulates that something’s morality is akin to its largeness.  Just as it is meaningless to say that an item is big without any references, he argues that judgment of an action’s morality only makes sense within the context of an agreement or understanding.

I found Harman’s discussion of cases in which moral judgments are not applicable to be especially interesting and convincing.  For Harman, we only make inner judgments (calling their actions “right” or “wrong”) about someone’s morality if we believe that relative moral considerations are applicable to them.  For this reason, we may call a group of cannibals heathens and savages, but we cannot say that they were wrong in their actions, because they would merely scoff at us (and then eat us). 

This distinction isn’t only for people who belong to other societies.  Harman argues that moral judgments are also not applicable to those whose actions are “beyond the pale” (43).  He gives the example that it seems strangely weak to say that Hitler’s perpetration of the holocaust was “wrong”.  This is because we view an action as going beyond mere wrongness.  Harman believes that this intuition comes from us knowing that our morality did not apply to Hitler; if he could have done something so incredibly reprehensible, he obviously had a completely alien sense of morality which we would not have been able to influence.  The author convincingly compares this with the case of Stalin, who was responsible for the death of millions, but believed that this decision was preventing greater disaster.  As such, we can logically say that Stalin made the wrong decision, but we cannot say that about Hitler. 

While I have traditionally found myself to be in opposition to moral relativism, I felt that I could not deny that Harmon made several powerful arguments in favor of the theory, and his examples of extreme cases especially made me question my views.

Harman and Moral Relativism

**This is from guest blogger Cassandra K.**

First of all, I don't sway toward moral subjectivity in the general sense, but many of my own personal questions with strict objectivity are addressed here by Harman and so I do find his argument compelling. It seems true to me that we often make moral judgments because we assume that the agent in question aligns with our own moral compass, so to speak. And the situations we find most unsettling and puzzling seem to be the situations in which the agent is decidedly not guided by our compass (Harman's Hitler example). In this way, it seems plausible that we might make two sorts of moral judgments: 1. comparatively, as in when we assume that the agent has reasons for their action and that those reasons coincide with our own and 2. externally, where we recognize that we are not on the same moral grounds as the agent and thus don't have the "implicit agreement" Harman discusses. Harman is only concerned with the first type of moral judgment, and it seems that he thinks the other form holds less meaning in terms of moral judgments.

I also think there's something to his claim that in some cases we may not have reasons for our actions, morally speaking. He cites that "there might be no reasons at all for a being from outer space to avoid harm to us; that, for Hitler, there might have been no reason at all not to order the extermination of the Jews" (44) and I think this is right. In fact, I think morality is the type of thing that often transcends rationality. We often struggle to rationalize our own moral beliefs and "it is because I say it is" or "it just works for me" is a pretty common base rationale for our personal moral systems. 

As a last thought, it seems that our "objective", standardized form of morality is really nothing but a consensus (whether cultural or otherwise) on what we accept to be true. This is how laws are formed that are intended to govern what is right and wrong for a society, country, or other establishment. Where there are communities, accepted communal guidelines for morality are needed. Here is where I found Harman's account the most interesting, because it does seem to give relativism a defense. His account of "agreement" sounds a lot like how the world seems to work in actuality. True, there may be moral outliers who have no moral qualms with murdering people and stealing and all of the other things that we've deemed "immoral" (and thus illegal) by societal standards, but as Harman states, these people are moral "outlaws."

In short, I wasn't expecting to be persuaded by Harman's account of relativism but because he addresses both many of my personal questions about objectivity and many of my concerns with relativism, I found his argument quite compelling. I'd be interested to hear from people who didn't find it compelling (kudos being a more devout objectivist) and their reasons for it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Fetuses and Wrongful Death

Lawyers for a Catholic hospital in Colorado recently argued that twin fetuses that died while in the hospital's care were not, under state law, human beings.  The lawyers contended that the hospital thus cannot be held responsible for the fetuses wrongful deaths.  I imagine the lawyers of the hospital had the following argument in mind:
(1) A fetus is not a human being.
(2) Wrongful death suits only apply to purported wrongful deaths of human beings.
(3) Therefore, it is not legitimate to accuse a hospital of being responsible for the wrongful death of a fetus.
As has been noted in the press, this argument directly clashes with the Church's commitment to the position that fetuses should enjoy the same legal protections as human beings like you and me.  It's quite bizarre that the lawyers would rely on premise (1) in their defense.    
Leaving aside interesting issues about Church doctrine and this surprising legal maneuver, I wonder about the moral status of fetuses and one's ability to bring a lawsuit against a hospital for wrongful death (or something in that neighborhood).  Hospitals/their staff can be grossly negligent or otherwise morally responsible for the death of a fetus.  In such cases, it seems that there ought to be some sort of law that is violated.  There should be some sort of claim that parents of the fetus(es) can level against a hospital.  Assuming one thinks that fetuses (and their parents) are deserving of the sorts of protections from wrongful death, I can see two plausible ways to go from here.  First, current laws related to wrongful deaths could be expanded to include fetuses.  Second, alternative laws could be enacted that are akin to the current wrongful death protections but which are directed at fetuses (not (other) human beings).  
It should come as no surprise that there are laws against killing non-humans.  One can be charged, for example, with the wrongful death of a dog or other pet, but the potential penalties are much less severe than those associated with the wrongful death a human being.  I suppose what one thinks of the moral status of fetuses (and how they compare morally to human beings/non-human organisms) will inform what one thinks about what sort of law ought to be in place to protect fetuses from wrongful deaths.  Nevertheless, I don't see of any plausible reason for thinking that fetuses are not deserving of such protections.  If there are really no legal protections in place (in Colorado or elsewhere), there certainly should be.  

Some people who think that abortions are morally permissible think that premise (1) above is true--that is, they think that fetuses are not human beings.  How might such a person defend the view I articulate above?  That is, how might one justify a pro-choice position and, at the same time, grant that fetuses are deserving of protections related to wrongful death?  Perhaps one could rely on the sorts of considerations that are used to justify protecting non-humans from wrongful death. Such a maneuver would involve granting that fetuses are to be given certain protections from hospitals/their staff behaving negligently or otherwise wrongfully causing the death of a fetus, but they are not to be given protections from a parent who desires not to give birth.  This makes for a fascinating and nuanced position that I haven't thought about before reading about this court case.  I'm curious what readers of this blog think about all these issues. 

And I'm curious to see how this case will turn out...  

The Argument from Queerness

**This is from guest blogger Kelsen A.**

As part of this course we are learning about J. L. Mackie's view of Moral Scepticism by reading his piece The Subjectivity of Values. The main focus of this post is to discuss his argument from queerness but in order to understand this argument it helps to have a little bit of the overall view in mind. By Moral Scepticism, Mackie generally means that he does not believe in objective moral values. His position however is a little more complicated. He believes that moral values are the kind of thing that would be objectively true or false but they are all false. So when making a claim such as, "X is wrong." it is like saying, "Getting up in the middle of the night will result in being eaten by the monsters under your bed." because both claims don't have a referent. There are no monsters under your bed, so the sentence is false. Similarly, there is no such thing as right or wrong.  So moral claims are simply false.

Now, Mackie makes arguments for why the view above would be plausible or at least why other views would not be plausible. The Argument from Queerness does the latter by attacking the Objectivist's intuition. All Objectivists at some point need to fall back on some sort of intuition-- that there is a fact of the matter and each person should be able to intuit it.  Mackie states, "If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe." So, this sense of right and wrong is a very strange sort.

Let's consider some of the possibilities. On the one hand, moral intuition is not like sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell. All the senses seem verifiable. If there is a claim about how something feels; say it feels hard. There are comparisons and tests to determine what is harder than what. Sounds can be measured as waves and smells could at the microscopic level be split into individual molecules. So morals are "utterly different" from the senses. This seems quite clear. What are some things that might be similar though? Some might argue that math has the same sort of intuition. There aren't these physical things out there that make mathematical properties true but instead they are just there and they exist objectively. Some Objectivists would put morals in the same category. Some concerns with calling this a similarity would be how one solves arguments. In math, in general, if two rational people disagree about a proposition, there is a proof that would convince the opposing party to change his or her view. With any moral claim however, even something widely accepted such as, "Kicking babies for fun is wrong." doesn't have the same proof. This seems to put moral claims in a different category. The Objectivist will suggest numerous other possible similarities such as number, identity, necessary existence, and infinite expansion of time or space. But Mackie claims that all of these (some with a fair amount of effort) can be shown to be as they are empirically although he does not do this in this argument. The claim of "utterly different" may come into question but we have at least clearly established different.

If we accept that this first part of Mackie's claim is true, that the intuition is a very strange sort there is still the question as to whether it is reasonable to have this special capacity for moral intuitions. Mackie however finds this to be a lame excuse and compares such intuition to Plato's forms. It just doesn't make sense to believe there to be this special kind of intuition when there is nothing to back it up. The simpler explanation that moral claims are objective but false (like astrology for instance) is a plausible explanation and the one that Mackie endorses. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Workshop on Reference at Ohio State

The Departments of Philosophy and Linguistics at Ohio State University will be hosting a workshop on reference March 21 & 22. Participants include:

Barbara Abbott (Linguistics, Michigan State)  
Paul Elbourne (Linguistics, Queen Mary UL)  
Michael Glanzberg (Philosophy, Northwestern)  
John Hawthorne (Philosophy, Oxford)  
Irene Heim (Linguistics, MIT)  
Robin Jeshion (Philosophy, USC)  
Hans Kamp (Philosophy, UT Austin)  
Jeffrey King (Philosophy, Rutgers)
David Manley (Philosophy, Michigan)
Craige Roberts (Linguistics, Ohio State)  
William Taschek (Philosophy, Ohio State)

By bringing experts from both fields together, we hope new light will be shed on the nature of reference. We hope you will join us for what promises to be two days of stimulating, interdisciplinary conversation. 

Information about the workshop can be found here:

Titles and abstracts will be updated on the flyer attached as soon as that information is available.
Any questions should be sent to Eric Snyder and Liela Rotschy at: 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mackie's Argument from Queerness

**This is from guest blogger Erik V.** 

In J.L. Mackie’s essay The Subjectivity of Values, Mackie claims that "if there were objective values, then they would be of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe" (Ethical Theory, 2007, 31). This is the basis from which Mackie constructs his argument from queerness. Mackie believes that if objective values exist, they would possess such weird and bizarre properties that they would be like nothing else commonly discussed. Furthermore, how we go about coming to know about these objective values would be even stranger, because, according to Mackie, we seem to have no good capacity for understanding them.

The crux of the argument from queerness can be seen in this passage from The Subjectivity of Values:
How we can be aware of this authoritative prescriptivity, of the truth of these distinctively ethical premises or of the cogency of this distinctively ethical pattern of reasoning, none of our ordinary accounts of sensory perception or introspection or the framing and confirming of explanatory hypotheses or inference or logical construction or conceptual analysis, or any combination of these, will provide a satisfactory answer; a ‘special sort of intuition’ is a lame answer (Ethical Theory, 2007, 32).
I believe Mackie is trying to support the argument from queerness by a arguing in a reductio ad absurdum style against the view that there are objective values.  How I interpret his argument is something like this:

(1)  If objective moral values exist, then they can be obtained through sensory perception, introspection, framing and confirming explanatory hypotheses, etc.
(2)  Sensory perception, introspection, framing and confirming explanatory hypotheses, etc. cannot be used to obtain objective moral values.
(3)  If regular human faculties cannot be used to obtain objective moral knowledge, then humans must possess a special intuition about objective moral knowledge.
(4)  Having a special intuition about objective moral knowledge has no real basis in anything.
(5)  Therefore, we know nothing about morality.

If this is how Mackie intended to frame the argument, I do not completely buy premise (4). I do agree that having a special intuition about morality is a ‘lame’ answer, but I think it has some plausibility. We use intuition all the time. We usually don’t justify an entire claim on a gut feeling, but intuitions act as a starting point for justification in a belief. I’m going to try and justify this in a very convoluted example.

Let’s say I have a really big box and a really small box made of the same material. I push the big box very slowly towards a wall until it hits, then I push the small box incredibly fast towards the same wall until it hits. I then ask you which box hit the wall with more force. Some people might say the big box, some might say the small box. Assuming they have no knowledge about physics, their answer is solely based on intuition. If they then find out that force equals mass times acceleration and find appropriate masses and accelerations of the boxes, they can then go about using mental faculties to justify or disprove their intuition. The point of this example is to try and demonstrate that intuition is a starting point for knowledge, whether the intuition was true or false, and how higher-level mental faculties can be used to justify the intuition. I believe the same type of intuition used in this example can be extended to morality, given an objective view of morality.

I also have a gripe with Mackie's reliance on claims about the strangeness of objective values. Simply because something seems out of the ordinary does not necessarily mean associating with it is futile. At any given point in time, any facet of anything can seem strange to someone. Evolution seems ludicrous to some people, but that doesn’t invalidate the theory. Similarly, objective values may not appeal to Mackie because of their inherit strangeness to him, but that is not enough to convince others. It’s a very subjective view of objectivity.