Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Philosophy of Biology Workshop at UW Madison

The Philosophy Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is excited to announce the 3rd biennial Philosophy of Biology @ Madison Workshop (“POBAM”), which will take place in Madison from 05/30/14 - 06/01/14. The keynote speaker for the 2014 workshop will be Prof. John Beatty, University of British Columbia.

The workshop is designed to provide a biennial forum for new work in the philosophy of biology or general philosophy of science with a biological focus. For more information, visit the POBAM homepage at: http://philosophy.wisc.edu/sober/pobam/. A call for abstracts will follow, and the online submission system will open later this summer. The deadline for submitting an abstract for the program committee to consider will be 10/01/13.

Rawls and Justice As Fairness

**This is from guest blogger David, C.**

According to Rawls, the principles for a just society are what free and equal persons would agree upon under fair conditions. Rawls presented his theory of Justice as Fairness as following:
1. If there are some principles of which people, as free and equal rational beings, can come up and agree upon as the principles for a just society, then such principles should be the principles for justice.
2. The two principles of justice in The Theory of Justice are principles that people would agree on behind the veil of ignorance in the original position, where everyone are rationally bargaining as free and equal persons.
3. Therefore, the two principles of justice in Justice as Fairness should be the principles for justice.
Under this logic of his argument, Rawls mainly argues for the 2nd premise by presenting with great detail in his book on how these free and equal persons would bargain in the original position and arrive on the principle of basic liberty and the principle of Maximin and equal opportunities.

I find a lot of topic very interesting about Rawls’ Theory of Justice. But in this post, I want to focus on the following question: Since Rawls relies on the 1st premise, but doesn’t argue for it as he did for the second premise, I wonder whether the 1st premise might be rejected by other moral theories.
Utilitarian: utilitarian would probably reject Rawls’s 1st premise. For utilitarians, what people agree or disagree should not effect the moral justification of these principles, unless people’s consent can seriously affect people’s happiness. Indeed, I’m not sure whether utilitarians would even care about justice, they might only care about overall happiness (or maybe say that justice is whatever maximizes overall happiness). The fundamental difference between Rawls and Utilitarian seems to be that, utilitarian only cares about the aggregate happiness, while Rawls’s theory puts a heavy emphasis on individual rational beings as free and equal agents.
Kantian Ethics: I think Kant would probably agree with Rawls on the 1st premise. Indeed, Rawls talks about how his theory is a development of Kantian ethics. I also find the Original Position very similar to Kant’s idea of Kingdom of Ends. I think the biggest difference between Rawls’s theory and Kantian ethics is that, Rawls’s theory is restricted to modern democratic societies (as Rawls notes this himself), while Kantian ethics is committed to a transihistorical moral judgment.

I’m curious what you guys think about this.

Egalitarianism and Rawls' Second Principle of Justice

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

In the work “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls provides what else but a theory of justice which he refers to as “justice as fairness.” In the broadest strokes possible, essentially his theory states that apt models of justice align with certain principles of fairness, while sub-par models align with principles which would be considered unfair. Leaving how he unpacks the rest of that theory for you at home to read for yourself, what concerns me the most about his theory is actually his second principle of justice, which states: “...social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all...”        The second half of this principle seems to me all well and good, but what precedes it seems ambiguous at best. While Rawls is adamant that his theory of justice allows for social and economic inequalities between persons, it seems as though this cannot possibly be the case given his theory's construction.

Clearly, for those who wish for pure social and economic egalitarianism, this aspect of Rawls' principle wouldn't be problematic. However, for those who believe that social and economic inequality, particularly the latter, is just, it would seem that Rawls' theory necessarily begets a world in which such inequality would eventually cease to exist. Looking at only economic inequality for simplicity's sake, take a state of nature, much like the one Rawls himself refers to in his work, wherein everyone begins as a blank economic slate. Now, I'm admittedly no economist, but if there's one thing I know about money, it's that there is a finite amount of it at any given time. While governments can and do print and circulate new currency into the market, at any given time, everyone works from the same pool of currency, meaning that when one entity acquires currency, at least one other entity looses currency. Accordingly, it would seem, when economic inequalities arise, one party is necessarily at a disadvantage while another is necessarily at an advantage, speaking strictly in terms of the economic value each hold, namely the currency they own. Rawls himself states that a purely egalitarian state of nature acts as a “benchmark for judging improvements,” but again, if we were to start from such a position, it's difficult to see how certain income inequalities could actually benefit those whose income level drops from that egalitarian starting point.

The only thing I can think of which may act as a counterexample to this criticism would be that those whose income level drops would still be made “better” by the increase in income in others through non-economic means. Professions which receive higher pay grades could become more competitive, and assuming skill in those professions were indeed something valued greatly by those who utilized the services offered by those of those professions, such as doctors, then the incentive for improvement would make sense as it would beget better doctors, and thus better treatment for those non-doctors who make significantly less income than there doctoral counterparts. The problem with this counterexample is that there's no way to guarantee that those who hold these professions wouldn't strive to improve their work should they not be incentivized financially. Furthermore, it is unclear whether or not the good begotten by the improvement in the quality of these professionals' work would be of enough benefit to offset what economic disadvantages their increased pay would cause others. Given the ambiguity of what “benefits” economic inequality would yield for those who'd receive the short end of the stick, it seems that introducing inequality to a pure state of egalitarianism would be an endeavor one would at best approach with trepidation, if not forgo entirely.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Intentions vs. Consequences

**This is from guest blogger, Talia.**

As I was writing my paper, I came across a few things that I'd love to get your opinions on. First, in class, we had discussed that Kant's formulations of The Categorical Imperative stressed the importance of intentions when determining the moral rightness/wrongness of an action. But, as I started thinking about it more, it really doesn't seem like the first formulation, i.e. the Principle of Universalizability, does this at all. Moreover, if anything, it seems to focus on the consequences of an action, though not intentionally. For Kant, the importance is in the universalizability of an action, not its intentions/consequences, but it seems as though the outcome of the action actually is important, in retrospect. Let's take the bank robbing example. The reason Kant says that stealing is wrong is because, if everyone stole, there would be no more money left to steal, which creates a contradiction, making the maxim un-universalizable. But, doesn't it seem like this is very much consequence-based? The outcome of stealing, not the intentions of the robber, is what is relevant to the moral rightness/wrongness. I guess my issue here is that the first formulation of CI (Principle of Universalizability) seems consequences-based, while the second formulation (Principle of Humanity) is intention-based. If we are to act in accordance with the good will, as Kant suggests, we are certainly focused on our intentions, rather than the consequences of our actions. So, moral of the story: Kant seems to contradict himself in determining whether the intentions or consequences are more important in determining moral rightness/wrongness. I know that was a lot of rambling, but I'd love to hear any clarifications or responses you all might have to offer.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Mother as Many?

**This is from guest blogger Eric B.**

In all honesty, much of this paper confuses me. Perhaps it is the sometimes slim difference between what we intend to do and what we foresee happening after certain actions (Direct vs. Oblique). Perhaps it is the simple volume of hypothetical situations that Foot presents in this paper. Most of all, I feel that the main issue is that the conclusion regarding abortion seems unresolved. To be specific, I am focusing on the third case provided by Foot, in which an abortion can be performed that would kill the fetus and save the mother, or the mother could be let to die, while the fetus is safely delivered.

Foot uses positive and negative actions to help us determine the moral obligations we have to certain situations. A positive duty is one in which we provide aid to another individual, whereas a negative duty is one in which we agree to avoid injuring them. The abortion of a baby is akin to providing aid to the mother while violating our duty not to injure the baby. It seems, that the violation of the negative duty outweighs the positive duty, namely the benefit gained by providing aid to the mother. Therefore it would follow that aborting the baby is the wrong action to take. This situation becomes even clearer if we treat change the situation to one in which a toddler may result in the death of the mother. In this case we would surely agree that it would be wrong to kill the already born child to aid the mother.

What Foot then proposes is quite strange and rather unintuitive. She suggests that people have a different conception of the scenario if we suggest that a group of individuals is harmed (P.588). In this, she submits that we treat the mother as if she was a group of people and the fetus as only a single person. It follows that we must protect the group by willingly sacrificing the single individual, no matter how difficult this may be. I find this conclusion rather bizarre, in that we must treat a single woman as a group, when in fact we know that she is a single person (and presumably has the same rights as the child). Here I would like to involve you, the reader, to help me understand exactly what is meant by this “mother-as-a-group” analogy that Foot uses. I look forward to hearing the varied responses that you all can provide.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

More on Foot and the Doctrine of Double Effect

**This is from guest blogger Chelsea**

Philippa Foot’s “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” raises many points about how we synthesize moral rights and wrongs.  Foot discusses the Doctrine of Double effect. It is best to explain this doctrine through example. A doctor is charged with the care of a very ill patient who is in a monstrous amount of pain. This doctor gives the patient an absurd amount of morphine to end her life. This is morally impermissible because the doctor directly intended to bring about her death. However, if the doctor gave the patient the same measure of morphine with the sole intent of easing her pain and merely predicted it might end her life a tad early, then the physician would be acting within the realm of moral permissibility. Basically, the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE) is the idea that one’s intentions and the predictableness behind the same action dictate its moral permissibility. Through the discussion of DDE, however, the abortion problem came no closer to being solved.

I believe that the intentions behind an action do not play a part in the morality of the action. Let us explore an example. There are two countries at war- country X and country Z. X decides that the best route towards ending the war in victory is to bomb Z’s military headquarters. These headquarters are sprawling and play a large part in the community; refugees, orphans, and cute fluffy animals live here because the military takes them in and cares for them. Country X knows this, but bombs anyway. It was not their intent to kill, wound, and maim all those civilians, but they still did. I believe they are still morally responsible for any and all pain and suffering they have caused. Regardless of their intentions, the harm that was a direct result of their actions occurred.

For a less intense example, I am a storekeeper. There is a rowdy child who kept spilling all my lima beans onto the floor. He comes to the register to buy a candy. He hands me a 10 dollar bill to pay for his 75 cent gummy worms. I want to shortchange him because I know he can’t count. I do not, however, because I know his mother will yell at me tomorrow and her voice is really annoying. I give him $9.25. Regardless of why I did the right thing, I did.

The only time someone knows all of another person’s intentions is when they are making up wonky examples and situations in a philosophy class. When it comes to morality, I find that actions speak louder than words (or intentions). Thoughts?

Foot and the Doctrine of Double Effect

**This is from guest blogger, Kyle.**

In reading the title of Foot's article and admittedly not having much familiarity with the doctrine it refers to, I was disappointed to find how little this article actually pertains to abortion specifically. Instead, Foot uses abortion as a springboard into a discussion of killing versus letting die and how the doctrine of the double effect often conflicts with our intuitions regarding what actions are right and wrong when two agents (a mother and her unborn child) have tethered fates. While the conclusions she ultimately draws are ones I would likely make myself if I had the mental fortitude to devise the arguments which beget them, I think her work here would benefit greatly from some manner of argument which didn't rely as heavily on her readers' intuitions as it does in its current state.

Many of the intuitions Foot appeals to are those I personally hold, such as the morality in killing a fetus to save its mother's life should not abstaining from action entail the death of both, despite their contradicting the doctrine of the double effect (which is to be expected as I share Foot's reservations about the doctrine itself). The problem, however, is that I'm not sure the examples she provides are quite as persuasive to those who don't hold those intuitions as she may hope. What seems absurd to those of mine and Foot's camp may not to those who hold that the ending of one's life being a primary intent fueling another agent's ending of that life is never permissible. This is particularly true in the third example Foot brings up in which refraining from intervening during a birth will result in the death of the mother but the survival of the child (whereas before, abstention resulted in the death of both parties) while intentionally killing the child will leave the mother alive. Foot remains ambiguous as to what intuitions she holds on this case, and instead uses it to show that while advocates for the doctrine often will invoke it here to defend letting the mother die, she feels their justification is actually misguided, that they should be appealing to a distinction between “avoiding injury and bringing aid” rather than “direct and oblique intention” as the doctrine originally states. This is the main conclusion she reaches with her paper, though it as well relies on a possibly contestable intuition: a distinction between avoiding injury and bringing aid.

While again, my intuitions are actually in-line with Foot's on this point, it should be noted that there are those who don't acknowledge a distinction. For a very Philosophy 101 example, there's Peter Singer's work on the immorality of miserliness in the face of suffering, in which a strong variant of his argument could state that not supplying whatever aid one can muster to those in need is indeed immoral. Though I don't think Singer himself posited this view, it seems possible to me that one may hold that such miserliness is of a similar caliber of heinousness as directly ensuring the wantonness of the needy. Such an intuition doesn't seem to bear much weight on Foot's first two examples, but it would seem to nullify the dilemma present in the third. Furthermore, if this irregular intuition was something that one held, Foot's distinction between avoiding injury and bringing aid as the principle factor in determining the morality of the actions available in the third example would be nonsensical. While her critique of using “direct and oblique intention” as the determining factor would still be apt, for those with this irregular intuition, it seems the alternative she provides wouldn't be satisfactory. Then again, perhaps this isn't an intuition many feel the need to appeal to considering how unappealing it is to me to explain how one might possibly begin to justify the view that withholding aid from and directly harming others are morally equivalent. There is also the floodgate of arguments to consider that could have been opened had Foot contested or at least made contestable the moral consideration given to fetuses being equivalent to that given to mothers, but in the interest of brevity and directness, she was probably wise not to.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


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

Kant will reject Consequentialism as the means to moral goodness and promote his ideas about good will. In this process there are many steps and one point of focus can be on his definition and implications of duty. We will go from there.

Kant defines the concepts of duty and in conformity with duty as separate things. Both of these will be actions that arise despite no immediate inclination and yet one will do the action anyway because of another inclination. This is the easy case to see that it comes from duty. The less easy case is where there is an inclination but the action is still done from duty. In his example with a shopkeeper, the shopkeeper will charge everyone the same even if he sees that it is a child who won't know the right price. He does this either out of honesty or out of self interest in being able to sell to anyone. They trust that the prices are fair and so it is also in his self interest to keep a fixed price for all customers. He argues however that preserving one's life is from duty due to an immediate inclination to do so. "But on this account the often anxious care that most people take care of it still has no inner worth and their maxim has no moral content." (527, Ethical Theory). This is a case of in conformity with duty and not from duty. The main purpose of looking after their lives is not because of the duty but because they want to keep on living. So contrary, if a person is considering death and decides to live without wanting to because of his duty to preserve his life; this is from duty. Kant continues and argues that a person who is from inclination of duty has less moral content than a man acting from duty alone. He says that an act that is an inclination of duty is honorable and praiseworthy but it has no moral content as the morality was never tested.

Kant argues that there is an indirect duty to happiness and that happiness can sum up many but not all of the inclinations a person can have. The rest of the argument follows from here and will not be discussed in this blog post. The groundwork for determining how happiness plays a role starts with clear definitions of duty and inclination. 

I don't particularly have any qualms with his definitions or explanations but it doesn't seem so clear that a person can't act from duty when there are other inclinations motivating him. The primary cause of any action seems relevant and not the appearance of particular components.

Here is an example which I think will provide a good foundation for discussion:

Consider a jar full of colored balls, we can place balls into other jars which will break when a specific color is placed in them or when too many total balls are loaded. So if we are loading the jar that breaks from a blue ball with red ones and finally place a blue ball in it, we have two options. Either the jar reached maximum capacity and then broke, or the blue ball broke it. If this ball was red and wouldn't have broken the jar, the property that is important would have been the blueness of the ball and not the number of balls. If the ball had been red and the jar would still have broken however, we have two causes for the jar breaking. The primary cause however is the number of balls. No matter which color was placed in the jar it would have broken. So, the property that matters is that is was a ball no matter the color. The blueness is irrelevant in this case although on it's own also would have been good enough to cause the action. 

I can come up with two interpretations:
(1) the property of being blue is relevant when it is the only cause and so duty is only relevant when it is the only cause.
(2) the property of being blue is only one of the properties and can be the primary cause so the number of balls in the jar before the blue one is placed is irrelevant because the blue ball would do it no matter how many balls. So, even if the inclinations were a big consideration, a slight consideration, or no consideration at all, the duty to do an action was trumping all of that.
I want to agree with (2) but (1) is the simple, more compelling answer based on the examples above. What do you think?

Act and Rule Utilitarianism

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

In his article, “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism,” J.J.C. Smart argues for what he calls extreme utilitarianism. General utilitarianism, according to Smart, holds that an action is made good by its consequences, and extreme utilitarianism holds that each individual action should be assessed on its own basis. Commonsense rules of morality will generally apply, but they are to be viewed as defeasible rules of thumb. If in a certain instance it turns out it would be better to break some rule, the rule should be broken. Restricted utilitarianism, on the other hand, holds that the rules are strict, not rules of thumb. They must always be upheld. What makes this view utilitarian is that the rules should be judged according the consequences that would follow from adhering to them (Shafer-Landau, Ethical Theory, 475-76).
In both cases, the utilitarian view needs a criterion by which to assess value so that practical judgments can be made. While this aspect of utilitarianism is not the main focus of Smart’s paper, he mentions in the second to last paragraph that “human happiness and misery…[should be] the objects of our pro-attitudes and anti-attitudes” (480). He then asserts that he views ethics as a subset of answers to the question, “what actions are ration?” Presumably, the answer is supposed to be that the rational actions, in terms of ethics, are those that most promote human happiness. I will provide two reasons I find this account unconvincing.

The first reason to think that goodness is not maximizing human happiness is that sometimes, one can feel good for having done the right thing even though one has not maximized overall human happiness. Suppose, for instance, that there is a very depressed person attempting to commit suicide, and suppose also that I simply cannot stand being around him. Furthermore, due to some shared social circles, if this person continues to live, I must continue to interact with him. Thus, we may suppose that if this person dies, overall human happiness will be maximized, even if we factor in any feelings of guilt I may have afterward for letting him die, and we may suppose that I am aware of all this. Given the circumstances, I cannot escape the feeling that if I were to save the depressed person, I would, to some extent, feel good about what I had done. However, this cannot be because human happiness will be maximized—I already know will not be. Rather, the good feeling must come from knowing that I have done the right thing. If you find this case convincing, then you must agree either that you and I are hardwired to be immoral (since, if morality is determined by human happiness, the morally good thing to do is let the depressed person commit suicide), or that utilitarianism is wrong.

The second reason I do not like Smart’s characterization of goodness as human happiness, and of ethical action as those that are most rational, is that it is difficult to see what answer could be given to the question, “why should happiness be prioritized?” Sure, the utilitarian can say that people like being happy, but what does that prove? Action, it seems, requires a goal before it can be rational. Thus, we should ask why human happiness is right goal for ethical action. Why not something else? Why shouldn’t we say that, for instance, humans are sufficiently valuable to be worth making sacrifices for? Consider a starving child near death in a third world country, and suppose you go to that country to aid in relief work. Suppose that you are then faced with the choice to either help the child, or not. Suppose she is close to death, and you know that if you save her she will lead a difficult life. Moreover, taking the time to save her now will be costly in terms of energy, and will bring you a great deal of discomfort both now and in the future—now, because you must work to help her, and in the future because you will worry over her well-being. Thus, you have every reason to believe that saving the child will not increase human happiness. Let us even suppose this assessment is correct! Should you leave the child to die of starvation, or even, to cut short her unhappiness, should you kill the child (assuming the psychological damage you will suffer as a result is sufficiently small)? Surely, to borrow Smart’s term, this would be a monstrous act. It appears, therefore, that what is rational given the goal of maximizing human happiness may not be rational given the goal of avoiding monstrous acts.
Thus, it seems to me that extreme utilitarianism fails on at least two counts. The first is that, at least sometimes, it is the fact that one has done something good that causes happiness, not happiness that retroactively causes what one has done to be good. The second reason is that attempting to maximize human happiness allows one to justify truly monstrous actions.

Hedonism and the Experience Machine

**This is from guest blogger, Eric B.**

Hello all,

I wrote this blog post as a preliminary sketch of an argument I may use within my second paper. I am focusing on Mill, Hedonism and possibly how the doctrine of Hedonism may influence any decisions we may make regarding Robert Nozik’s Experience Machine. I would love any comments about the effectiveness of this argument, and especially how it may interact with the Experience Machine.

Hedonism, as defined by Mill, follows the principle that happiness is the only intrinsically good value (unhappiness as the only intrinsically bad value). Hedonism helps us decide what we ought to do, and what we ought not to do, based on creating the greatest possible aggregate happiness. Thus, it seems like a very practical theory in individual or group decision making scenarios. Mill address the question regarding the need to choose between different types of happiness:
“On a question, which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and its consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final”. (287)
Mill argues that based on experience and knowledge of happiness outcome, we make certain decisions. If we are unable to use experience, then we accept the majority opinion in cases of moral conflict. To illustrate this, lets take a basic example of ditching class. Let’s say I have an experience of what it is like to skip class and drink beer all day. I also have an experience of the pain I get from failing my exam. I choose to study and not drink beer due to the experiences I have had, and my knowledge of the pleasure outcomes.

This is all good and fun, but what can we say about actions that we have no previous experience of? Lets use another well studied thought experiment: we must choose between saving 4 children who are going to get hit by a train, or to kill the conductor and save the children. Surely very few people can draw on previous experiences in order to make a decision that would maximize happiness. How can we determine what is most pleasurable when we have no experience of the other side? In addition, Mill states that we would follow majority opinion to know the right decision. This suggestion fails because it would be incredibly difficult to know the stance of the majority population, and the decision that the hypothetical majority may come to may not in fact maximize aggregate happiness. Thus, I am arguing that Mill’s notion of how we (the methods we use) to make these difficult decisions is unpersuasive. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

More on the Survival Lottery

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

In The Survival Lottery, Harris presents a system in which a computer program randomly chooses numbers assigned to healthy people in order to have their organs harvested to save those who need them. It’s an attempt to put two of utilitarianism more contested points under the magnifying glass: impartiality and supererogatory nature of utilitarian decision making.

When a normative theory is examined with a good counterexample that goes against moral intuitions, as Harris has given, those who believe in said theory have two options: bite bullets or explain away why the counterexample doesn’t work. I like to think I’m a (lazy) utilitarian and I will attempt to explain away what I think is wrong with this lottery system (I say lazy because I think intentions matter to an extent and I’m sort of shaky on the impartiality bit).

Harris makes a big assumption when explaining the survival lottery, that assumption being that the two lives of Y and Z will generate more overall utility than that of the sacrificed life, A. In other words, Harris is assuming all lives are equal in utility they generate. I don’t buy this, because I, and probably you, know people in real life who are just generally happier and do more things for more people to make others happier as well. Say I have a friend, Ned, who has a wife and kids, volunteers at soup kitchens, runs a successful business at the mall, is always kind to his neighbors, and is always looking at the bright side of things. I have another friend, Moe, who runs a local tavern, is single, stuck in the past, and just generally depressed and dissatisfied with his life. Now say Y and Z have the same personality and tendencies that exist right between Moe and Ned. If the lottery system was enacted and Ned was sacrificed, would it not make sense to say there was no net increase in utility? The math would look something like this:

Utility = ½ Ned/Moe + ½ Ned/Moe – 1 Ned, so net 0 Ned, +1 Moe

There’s no increase. However, I will admit, interestingly enough, that if Moe were sacrificed, there would be an overall net increase in utility because:

Utility= ½ Ned/Moe + ½ Ned/Moe – 1 Moe, so net 0 Moe, +1 Ned

In order for this system to work, there would also need to be some system in which happiness (or misery) of people would need to be taken into account. However, this would then create subclasses of people who would then be more likely to be picked in the lottery, which is something Harris rejected in the paper itself (He says Y can’t be sacrificed to Z because then the lottery would be favoring those who had the misfortune of being diseased. In a similar sense, those who are always down on their luck or suffer depression would then be more likely to be picked. It’s towards the end, sorry, my book isn’t on me write now). At this point, I feel like the whole thought experiment has so many “ifs”, “ands”, and “buts” that it’s too convoluted to even consider seriously. So what do you all think?

Harris and the Survival Lottery

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

John Harris presents an odd case, which he calls ‘the survival lottery.’ He lays out the case in which two people are dying but could be saved through organ transplants. There are, however, no organs available, although both could be saved if a third person were to be killed and their organs used to save the first two. Harris equates killing to letting die, and thus killing the one person to save two would be preferably to killing the two (by letting die) to save the one. In order to decide who should be the one person to die, a lottery is made in which all suitable donors are given a number, and in the absence of any organs provided through natural death, can be called upon to give their life.

I think Harris misses a couple of important objections here. The first has to do with a person’s right to life. Even if we agree that killing and letting die are equivalent, that does not in any way lead to his conclusion that the lottery should thus be adopted. While each person has a right to their own life, they do not have any right or claim on the rights of others. An analogy here might be useful; say that each person has a right to their own property. Now, person A and person B each buy a car, and immediately after purchase the company goes out of business and no new parts for repair are produced for the vehicle. If their cars both break down (one’s transmission goes out and the other’s engine block cracks, and only parts from the same car can replace them, no other car’s parts will fit), I think we would agree that they do not have any right to go and gut person C’s car for spare parts. Perhaps it would be saintly and noble for person C to donate those parts, thus saving two cars at the cost of one, but it is in no way person A’s or B’s right to have them. I think it is the same with lives; it doesn’t matter if a hundred people could be saved by the blood of one, they have no claim or right to his life to save theirs.

A second objection is that this system would have to bind people to stay within the country. If people have the right to leave, I think most of them would opt to do so rather than die, thus defeating the lottery. To require people to stay within the country would mean contractually binding them without giving them any choice in the matter, which is a massive infringement on freedom. People might think we are contractually bound today to the laws of our country, but we always have the option of leaving and going somewhere else.
I think either of these objections works against his argument for the survival lottery, and neither hinges on defining the difference between killing and letting die. For these reasons we should reject the survival lottery.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Extreme Utilitarianism

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

J.J.C. Smart is an Extreme Utilitarian. The Extreme Utilitarian believes that an action is right based on the total utility of that particular action and not the general utility of an action. A few examples may make this clear. He uses the example of saving a drowning person. In general this is the right thing to do. So the Restricted Utilitarian will say it is always right to save a person who is drowning. However, Smart believes that in particular cases, breaking the rule is in fact the right thing to do. For example, if the person drowning were to be Hitler, the total utility of letting him drown would be higher than saving him. Smart's next example (which is a common example) is much more interesting though. Here is the scenario: Your friend is on his death bed on a desert island and asks you to promise to give all his money away to a jockey club. You promise to do so. When your friend dies, you have the opportunity to give his money to a hospital instead which would make better use of the money and produce overall more utility. No one will ever know that you made a promise so the effects on the integrity of keeping a promise will remain intact. Smart argues that breaking the rule of keeping promises is the right thing to do in this scenario. I find this to be tricky. It seems like you owe your friend to keep the promise but there is clearly a better option. The restricted utilitarian will stick with abiding by the rule, "One ought keep promises he or she makes." But the Extreme Utilitarian after careful calculations of the options can in this instance break the rule because the happiness of breaking the rule is greater than not. I think this is the more reasonable stance to take. Abiding by the rule seems to be a general stance to take but given one particular instance following the rule when it's not producing the most utility is giving some importance to the rule. We talked about happiness being the only intrinsic good for the utilitarian. This would seem to put the restricted utilitarian in a place where obeying a rule provides some good other than happiness. Smart agrees that obeying the rule will be right 99% of the time but there are cases when given time to reevaluate, one should break the rule. I can see a few places to ask questions here. What reasons would we have for not breaking the rule in these 1% of cases? If breaking a rule is acceptable, why do we have general rules? Couldn't we just evaluate each one on it's own? Do we praise the person for breaking the rule when as a society we should abide by there rules?

Smart has a few answers and I find the discussion on the difference between an action being right and an action being praiseworthy to be the most interesting follow up. Smart argues that a person can be wrong but praiseworthy. For example, the person who saves a drowning Hitler did the wrong thing but is praiseworthy for making a snap decision and going in to rescue the drowning person. Similarly, the person who gave the money to the hospital did the right thing but, he would be blameworthy for breaking his promise. This is not particularly intuitive. A person can be blamed for doing the right thing? Smart uses an example of watering flowers in a water shortage. If everyone did it, there would be problems. So by rule, no one should water their flowers. However, if one person does it and gives the pretty flowers away to make someone happy this won't have any negative effects on the water supply and will have positive effects on the people receiving flowers. It seems like the right thing to do is for one person to break the rule. If you had to choose, and knew you were the only one considering doing this, would you break the rule? You would be doing the right thing in the extreme utilitarian sense but would be blameworthy for using water on flowers. I'm not so sure this distinction works but a disagreement in which the person is praiseworthy leads to problems of one person being praiseworthy for watering her flowers and the next is blameworthy for watering his flowers. This seems to commit us to saying that if we believe in extreme utilitarianism, then we must also accept an extreme view on praiseworthiness and blameworthiness in order to not have a conflict of right and blameworthy that Smart is willing to accept.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Nagel, Freedom, and Moral Responbisbility

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

I should start off by saying that I really shouldn’t have picked Nagel as one of my blog posts, because in the past I’ve often agreed with quite a few things that he’s said in ethics, and it turns out, that this paper is another instance of that agreement. So, instead of just simply agreeing with the things that he says and providing just an exposition of his argument, I’m going to play the devil’s advocate!

I, personally, believe that it is a necessary condition for a person to be “free” in order for them to be morally responsible. In that regards I agree with the Control Principle, which states, “We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control”. Thus, if this holds true, a person is not morally responsible for an act that is outside of their control. In playing devil’s advocate, however, why should we believe that it is a necessary condition for a person to be free in order for them to be morally responsible? Let’s say that we imagine a man that goes and kills someone, and seems to do it out of his own free will. We convict the man to life in prison, finding that he murdered the person without any outside factors influencing his actions. A few weeks later, we find out that determinism is, in fact, actually true, and that free will does not exist. What do we do? Do we actually go and let the person out of prison because we found out that he didn’t murder the person freely? It doesn’t seem like we do. The person still killed someone, even though they were morally unlucky that they pulled the wrong deterministic straw. I imagine that we would still hold the person morally accountable for his/her actions even though they might not have committed the act freely. Here’s a different thought experiment. Let’s assume that there is a guy holding a gun to your head, and he tells you that if you do not shoot the person in front of you, he will kill both you and the other person. If you shoot the guy, he will let you live and he will turn himself in, absolutely admitting that he indirectly murdered the person who you shot and taking all blame for any immoral actions he forced you to do. So, let’s say just for the sake of the argument, you shoot the guy. Even though you were not free in your action, you’re still going to feel completely like crap because you were the one that pulled the trigger, or at least, I know I would feel terrible. Perhaps one of the reasons that you feel so absolutely terrible about what you did is because you in some way hold yourself morally responsible for the death of the person whom you were forced to shoot. Even though you think that you shouldn’t hold yourself morally responsible for the man’s death, you can’t help but partially blame yourself.

Perhaps the distinction, at least in the second thought experiment, might be seen between subjective and objective moral responsibility? You hold yourself morally responsible on a subjective level, but on an objective level you know that you weren’t morally responsible? I guess I’d like to hear what you guys think, as to whether or not you think that we could not be free, but still be morally accountable for our actions.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Unfortunate Luck

**This is from guest blogger, Will P.**

In "Moral Luck" Thomas Nagel espouses a moral responsibility incompatibilist complaint against both Kant's idea of moral judgment and an intuitive idea of moral judgment most clearly found in the legal system. According to Kant, moral judgment should not take "luck" (or aspects of an act that are out of an agent's control) into account. The only relevant issue is the "will" or intent of an agent. Nagel contrasts this view with the legal fact that attempted murder is punished to a lesser degree than murder, which indicates that people intuitively make moral judgments primarily based on the results of actions that could be out of an agent's control, not primarily based on intent. He doesn't consider the possibility that legal punishment is a separate judgment from moral judgment, or, alternatively, if they are the same sort of judgment, that Kant could have grounds to object to our legal system based on these discrepancies. He considers multiple ways in which the objects of moral judgments (actions, results of actions, and/or agents themselves) can be out of the control of any given agent. These are what is meant by "moral luck." According to Nagel, if determinism is true, then moral judgments that take intention to be of primary concern are untenable and moral responsibility cannot be ascribed to agents. This is why I take him to be a moral responsibility incompatibilist. Even without determinism being true, there are situations in which the results of actions, which are out of the control of agents, determine the moral judgments of them, and these situations should thereby undermine the judgments if they are meant to be based on personal agency. (He uses the example of reckless driving which may or may not result in killing someone, depending on one's moral luck.) This case can be construed as more persuasive, since it doesn't require one to concede full-scale determinism. Kant or any other defender of the view that intentions, not results, are the rational grounds for moral judgment could insist that these judgments, which are influenced by results, are irrational and should not be made by rational people. Kant's claim is normative, so Nagel's examples don't do very much to combat it. This is the issue when Nagel says, "We may be persuaded that these moral judgements are irrational, but they reappear involuntarily as soon as the argument is over." If Nagel or anyone else "involuntarily" makes irrational judgments, it is really no strike against Kant's normative claim. Nagel points out a legitimate conflict between two commonly held ideas about morality (namely Kant's and the legal system's), but I don't see any indication to suggest that one is more "intuitively acceptable" than the other. In other words, I don't think that Nagel has valid reasons to reject Kant's normative instead of the "involuntary" judgments that people make based on results, especially if determinism is not granted to be true.

Nagel on Moral Luck

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

Nagel’s article on Moral Luck evoked many responses in me, which I will share with you all. I am eager to hear your responses.

My first reaction to Nagel’s article concerns determinism and more specifically incompatabilism. If “hard” determinism is true – the view that the truth of determinism means that no agent is ever free – then it seems like all action an agent may take are out of that agent’s control because it is not the case that, given the antecedent causal events, that agent could have acted other than they did. If we want to accept incompatabilism and still talk about moral luck, then it seems like we would have to hold that no one is morally accountable for any actions they take because they were determined to take these actions and could not have acted other than they did. But this seems wrong. For example, even if we hold that hard determinism is true then agent A who murdered someone and agent B who didn’t murder someone were equally determined and constrained to act as they did, yet we still think that agent A is morally responsible for her actions.

Next I want to talk about the legal aspect of Nagel’s article. Nagel asks, why do we punish agent A who successfully murders her husband more severely than agent B who unsuccessfully murders her husband? My answer to this question is firstly that in the legal system we base punishment on the outcome of the situation, so since in the case of agent A a man was murdered and in the case of agent B a man was not murdered, we punish agent A for the murder of her husband. I think the reason this is true of our legal system and of the way we react to the two different cases is because there is a difference in the victim. In the case of agent A a man is a victim of murder and he is gone forever. As restitution for the victim agent A is given a more harsh punishment in order to make up for the loss she caused. Another question that I must ask to this is, would it even be possible or how could we punish people for what might have happened, for what they intended to do, if it did not in fact happen? This goes along with the case of the man in Germany who becomes a Nazi simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the (say, the exact same) man who leaves Germany just in time to prevent him from becoming a Nazi. How could we punish the man who would have become a Nazi but just wasn’t there at the time to do it? I think it’s fair to only punish the man who did become the Nazi, even if this was just bad luck for him. Even if we did think that it was justified to punish the man who doesn’t become a Nazi, how would our legal system look? It would certainly be more complicated than it is now – and that is bad for lawyers. That is why I think we focus mostly on the outcome and the victim when it comes to the legal system. Lastly, I think perhaps we actually do account for moral luck to some degree in the legal system – for there are plenty of times when circumstantial evidence is included in the case to determine the level of guilt of the person on trial. This circumstantial evidence can be used both for the defense and the prosecution, and I think sometimes it does affect what the verdict ends up being. Can anyone else think of any specific court cases or written laws where circumstances can get you off the hook?

Another reaction I have to Nagel’s article is, so what? Moral luck just is a fact of life, some people are born into worse situations than others and some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. How could we account for this in the legal system? And I’m not sure we even should account for it (in most cases) – people should still try to make the best decisions they can, given what circumstances they have to deal with, and they still have the ultimate choice in how they should act. A place where I think that actually there should be a difference in punishment (and I’m pretty sure there isn’t) is say, if agent A and agent B are both caught stealing food from the grocery store. Only, agent A is a ten-year-old kid whose parents are drug addicts and don’t provide food for thei child, and agent B is someone with the means to buy the food. It seems like there should be a different level of blameworthiness for the two agents given their circumstances. But again, this is not something that the legal system directly does, I believe both agents would be equally punished.

Now I ask myself and you all, is this fair? No, it probably isn’t fair, but that is just the way things are a lot of the time. It doesn’t seem like we can be “fair” unless we all take an incompatabilist view and say that it applies to everyone than nothing is in their control and no one should be blamed or punished for their actions. But I personally cannot accept the incompatabilist view because what would society look like if we did? There would be no incentive to act morally and there would be no punishment for not acting morally. How do you all feel about it?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Blameworthiness and the Awareness of Consciousness

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

In class, we briefly discussed the concept of blameworthiness in out discussion of intentions, PAP, and OIC. I think that there is an interesting line here to toy around with. At what point do we begin blaming an individual for their actions? Given the baby puking on Jesse's shirt example, I'm inclined to say that we would begin blaming a child for their actions once they've learned what typically classifies as courteous behavior, i.e. not puking on someone's shirt. However, there are cases in which individuals past this stage still might not be held accountable. For example, those who are psychologically disturbed have most likely been taught the distinction between what is "nice" and "not nice", yet we often allow their brain wiring to come to their defense when trying to hold them accountable for, say, committing murder. So, we must re-distinguish the point at which, or which types of people, we can hold accountable for their actions.

Here's another way to think about it:

In my Philosophy of Mind class, we're talking about different levels of consciousness. Basically, you can either be aware you're conscious of something or you can simply be conscious of it. For example, imagine yourself driving home from work. There are days when you've got nothing else occupying your thoughts and, upon approaching a stop sign, you think, "okay, I should stop now." Now, there are also days when you're distracted/on the phone/thinking of other things and you somehow manage to successfully get home, at which point you think, "hmm… did I stop at that stop sign on Main St?" Well, you must have, given the fact that you got home safely. So, in the first case, you are aware of your consciousness of the stop sign, whereas in the second, you're simply conscious of it. Make sense? Okay, so, given this distinction and our discussion of blameworthiness, maybe we could say that people who are actively conscious of the things they're doing should be held accountable, yet those who are simply experiencing them, but not "fully" conscious, should not be. This awareness of consciousness is something that infants, animals, (possibly) the mentally disturbed lack, making it plausible that this is what accounts for when an individual isn't blameworthy.  The baby who isnt thinking "I'm gonna puke on Jesse's shirt now" isnt held accountable, whereas a 21 year old who very well knows what theyre doing would be responsible. Similarly, you don't hold your dog morally responsible for ripping up your couch, though you might be mad at them and say it was "wrong" (yet another distinction to draw), because they weren't actively thinking, "You know what would piss my owner off? Tearing the crap out of this couch." Now, this is where it gets tricky. How far to we extend this lack of awareness or consciousness? To people who are drunk and not fully aware of what they're doing? Are they held morally responsible? I'm torn, so I'd be curious to hear other's thoughts on the matter.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Principle of Alternate Possibilities and Ought Implies Can in Frankfurt Scenarios

**This is from guest blogger, Michael Dean.**

In class we discussed the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) and the Principle of Ought Implies Can (OIC). The PAP states that one is morally responsible for their actions only if they could have done otherwise. The OIC states that for action x that someone ought to do, it must be the case that they can do it. So, the OIC states if someone cannot do x, then it is not the case that they ought to do x. This can be read as entailing that one cannot be held morally responsible for failing to do something they could not do. 

Frankfurt’s scenario with Jones and Black is meant to be a counterexample to PAP. The scenario, very briefly, is as follows. Jones is contemplating murdering someone, say Jesse. Unbeknownst to Jones, Black is in the position to force Jones to murder Jesse if he decides not to follow through. Black is extraordinarily good at knowing when this is the case. So there are two possibilities. First, Jones simply decides to murder Jesse and does so without Black needing to step in. Second, Jones decides not to murder Jesse, but then is coerced into murdering Jesse by Black. Hence, Jones cannot do otherwise than murder Jesse. This is a great counterexample to the PAP, since I think we would want to hold Jones morally responsible in the first scenario but not in the second, even though he could not have done otherwise than to murder Jesse. What seems to be morally relevant here are intentions. In the first scenario Jones does intend to murder Jesse, in the second he does not.

This was also presented as a possible counterexample to the OIC. This line of thinking is as follows. If Jones ought not murder Jesse, than it must be possible for Jones not to murder Jesse. That is, it is not the case that it is only possible for Jones to murder Jesse if he ought not murder him. But in this situation the only possibility for Jones is to murder Jesse. So the OIC must be wrong if we say it is true that Jones ought not murder Jesse. Though I’m not entirely convinced by the OIC as it is, I think there are two ways for the defender of the OIC to wiggle out of this argument, which are both somewhat related. Again, what is morally relevant are intentions. First, the defender of OIC might argue that it isn’t true that Jones ought not murder Jesse in this scenario. Rather, Jones ought not <i>intend</i> to murder Jesse. If Jones does not intend to murder Jesse it places the moral responsibility on Black, who then ought not coerce Jones into murdering Jesse. The second way of wiggling out of this argument is by pointing out that the concept of murder has intention built into it. Jones only murders Jesse if he intends to do so. If he does not intend to do so, he is merely a prop through which Black murders Jesse. Hence, Jones does not murder Jesse and the OIC is maintained. 

I’m interested in where the comments might go from here!

Determinism and Making Choices

**This is from guest blogger, Erik V.**
Say I’m walking home from Ethics one day and a strange old man appears from behind a bush by Science Hall. He has a 10x10 grid of identical red squares and tells me “Pick the correct square and you win $50!” Imagine I don’t get scared and punch the strange old man or ignore him and keep walking or anything like that. Whichever one I pick, I am picking because I think it is the winning square. What’s the reason I think that the one I pick is the one that will win? For the determinist, is it really just as simple as “that’s the way you’re neurons in your brain were firing then” or “your experience with grids and spatial proximity of squares makes you pick that one given the circumstances leading up to it”?  There doesn’t seem to be a good reason as to why I think that any particular square is more likely the winning square than any other, yet I still “pick” one because I want to get something. I guess the second explanation the determinist gives me, the “experience with squares one” I’m likely to buy; even though I doubt most of us have a robust experience with squares and grids, unless you have a stamp collection, but it still feels kind of funny to me. Maybe I’m not even really choosing, there doesn’t seem to be anything dire at stake, it’s not like I’m wrong and he chops my arm off. How does this then translate to moral choices?

At any given point I have a lot of things I could be doing, yet I’m not because the thing I am doing will yield a result I am expecting. If I had more complete knowledge of my actions and their results, wouldn’t I then be more likely to then repeat them (or not)? Back to the strange old man, if I pick a square and it’s wrong, let’s say he removes it and lets me try again the next day. After a few days of getting it wrong, he starts giving me hints too. I eventually pick it and get $50. After a week I see him pulling the same stunt with another student, I walk up, and pick the winning square (one of his hints was that he doesn’t ever change the square/board). Since I have a complete knowledge of how the game works, and I want $50, I keep hunting him down so I can keep obtaining the result I want. If I were to extend this to the choices we make, it seems to follow that the more we know about choices and what follows, the more likely we are to make that choice again.  If it didn’t, we wouldn’t choose it because the result doesn’t agree with our value system (ex: I don’t drink bleach because it wouldn’t make me happy because I’m a hedonist).  So does this mean even if we have a free will, we could potentially fall into a deterministic lifestyle given knowledge of our actions and their results? Any input would be great. I feel very lost and confused. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Free Will: Why it Doesn't Matter if Determinism is True

**This is from guest blogger, Michael Dean**

I find it fascinating that many arguments against free will take it as a crucial assumption that determinism is true. While I do believe determinism is true (at least at the macro level), I don’t think it really matters in regards to the debate about free will if determinism is true or not. I’m convinced the common notion of free will is simply a result of not paying enough attention to our own subjective experience. People believe they are the authors of their own thoughts. You contemplate options, and yes you do actually make decisions. But can you account for why you ultimately made the decisions you did? Sure, you can provide the reasons that swayed you, but can you tell me why those reasons were the most convincing to you? You could not have controlled which reasons were more convincing to you at the time anymore than you can control what reasons pop in your head in the first place. This is the nature of a stream of consciousness. Thoughts simply occur in our minds, and while there may be reasons why various thoughts occur to you, you are not the author of them. If determinism is true, then the thoughts are determined by prior events. If indeterminism is true, then they are not determined by prior events. Either way, you do not control what thoughts occur to you. So what’s the fuss about determinism?

Think of one kind of candy. Take your time and actually come to a decision about which kind of candy you want to have in your mind. Notice the process your mind just went through. Perhaps a variety of candy just popped in your head: skittles, reese’s, twix, whatchamacallit, etc. Can you account for why certain kinds of candy popped in your head and why others did not? Perhaps you can think of reasons why one kind of candy popped in your head and another didn’t, say you just saw Babe Ruth candy bars at the store earlier so it was in your recent memory, but did you choose to think of that candy bar? No, it simply occurred to you. Then you had to settle on one kind of candy. Can you account for why you settled on the candy you did? Maybe it was your favorite, or the most recent one you ate. Can you account for why that reason was the one that caused your final decision? No, it simply occurred to you. Even if you thought, “screw you Michael, I’m going to think of a kind of chip instead,” can you account for why you decided to be stubborn and not play along? Does it matter if the thought was determined by prior events? And where is the free will here either way?

This is not some sort of epiphenomenalism. Again, you are actually choosing to do something. I do not deny that. It is not as if your decisions do not matter, it is simply that you do not choose which thoughts will occur to you and how strong of an influence those thoughts will have on your ultimate actions. This does not preclude theories of rational choice and intentionality; in fact I think it illuminates the importance of these theories. Further, I think this does not preclude the importance of moral responsibility, or perhaps the rationale behind holding people morally accountable. I’ve said a lot already, so perhaps I will return to this in the comments if people are interested in how I think this cashes out.

Ayer on Free Will and Determinism

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

Ayer says that when one is constrained, they do not act freely.  When one is in such a situation that he can only make one choice, Ayer believes that this person is caused to do the one possible option because of their constraints.  While being constrained implies being caused to do something, Ayer notes that the converse does not always hold true.  When one is caused to do something, he is often caused to do it by judging the expected outcome to be better than an alternative.  Take the following example:

‘A’ is held at gunpoint and asked to disclose governmental secrets.
‘A’ discloses these secrets, and is NOT shot.

While we might say that ‘A’ was caused to disclose the secrets, via threat, it would be wrong, according to Ayer, to say that ‘A’ was constrained to the point that NOT disclosing the secrets wasn’t an option.  It is this type of situation, where one has a choice and is not constrained, where freedom is present in Ayer’s system.

While Ayer holds the opinion that this sort of freedom is not at odds with determinism, I disagree.  Determinism is the idea that causal interactions are logically such that any event in the universe is predetermined by previous events.  Those previous events, along with the static laws of nature, are such that only one outcome is possible.

Let’s return to the previous example.  If determinism holds true, then previous events have combined with the laws of nature to lead ‘A’ to having a gun at their head with the present threat that either ‘A’ divulge government secrets or be shot.  Additionally, the laws of nature are such that ‘A’ will make the decision to divulge said secrets.  This decision comes not from free will, but from chemical reactions in the brain that are triggered by the current set of events, with these reactions manifesting themselves in the form of a conscious decision.

It seems to me that freedom is absolutely at odds with determinism, and that Ayer’s attempt to make the two compatible is a trick of semantics.  Perhaps events act alongside laws of nature to deterministically affect the outcomes of future events.  However, perhaps it is also the case that SOMETIMES events are NOT determined by past events and the laws of nature.  Under this situation, it could be the case that some events are pre-determined while others are not.  If a personal decision were to fall under the latter category, it would be the case that free will applies, and determinism exists within the universe.  Nevertheless, determinism has not applied directly to the situation at hand.  Unfortunately, I currently see no reason to believe why some events would be subject to determined outcomes while others are not, but I am certainly open to suggestions and commentary on the idea.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Determinism and Free Will

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

I just have a few quarrels with some of the things we discussed in class today in regards to determinism. The first of which is just a general claim about determinism. We should acknowledge that there is a distinction between causal determinism and causal necessitarianism. Determinism is the view that the past, along with the laws of nature, determines a unique future. Necessitarianism, on the other hand, is the view that the past, which has necessarily occurred, along with the laws of nature, will necessarily determine a unique future. Doesn’t seem like much of a distinction at first, but the distinction lies in possible worlds. For determinism, possible worlds are imaginable in which things could have been otherwise. This, for instance, is Leibniz’s view. God is the ultimate perfect being, and has the knowledge of an infinite set of possible worlds, and being that God is perfect, God chooses the most perfect possible world with the greatest plethora of life. For Leibniz, God could have chosen otherwise (Although arguably I’m not quite sure if Leibniz’s God really could have). Necessitarianism rejects the possibility of any possible worlds, and the world could not be any different than what it currently is. Many believe that this is Spinoza’s view, insofar that everything necessarily follows from Nature’s power. I'll still refer to both determinism and necessitarianism from here on out as just determinism, since my other quarrels don't require the distinction. This just bugged me is all.

Here’s my second quarrel, we seem to be making a mistake by jumping right into an argument for causal determinism. Determinism is a universal concept about the how world works, and how it has worked since the beginning of time. Jumping into a discussion on determinism without first considering its inception seems intuitively time wasting. All that seems to result from arguing that determinism is false is a response by the determinist who digs farther and farther back in time to come up with different causes for each, seemingly, free willed event we throw at them. To me, it seems that the only constructive argument against determinism, and for the matter for determinism as well, is to examine it at its inception within some theological system. In this sense, the determinist cannot dig farther back without acknowledging the existence of some higher powered influence, whether it be God or Nature. The consequent discussion then seems to rely on attempting to prove some kind of theological system to be true.

And onto my last quarrel. In class we had an example that was raised which examined moral accountability given that determinism is true. If someone murders someone, and determinism is true, then are they responsible that action, given that it couldn’t have been otherwise. One of the responses to this was that we are just as causally determined to apprehend the suspect as the person was to commit murder. Both the murder and the apprehension were determined. We were then presented with the question as to whether or not it is morally right to apprehend the murderer. Here’s my line of thought. In a deterministic system, as in any system which involves morality, there are morally responsible and morally irresponsible people. Even though, if free will does not exist, we cannot say that what the murderer did was wrong because he didn’t have a choice, we still, as morally responsible people, have an obligation to do whatever we can to prevent morally irresponsible people from committing immoral acts. In this way, morality is very important in a deterministic system, because those who are determined to cross morality, such as we have crossed morality in our ethics courses and other experiences, will become morally responsible people (hopefully). Thus, even though we may not be able to say that a person is entirely responsible for their actions, we can still influence people to become morally responsible through our actions, legislation, and education.