Monday, May 27, 2013

More On Grad School in Philosophy

There's an interesting thread on Brian Leiter's blog having to do with advice for new grad students.  Some of the advice seems apt for non-philosophy grad students and for those thinking of going to grad school.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ross and Prima Facie Duties

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

I ultimately completely agree with Ross on his view of prima facie duties. I think the most compelling part is that there is a non absolutist view to it. Morals are not simple enough that one code will work for every choice we have to make in life. There are times when feelings will be hurt by the choices we make, that is unavoidable I think Ross has a good system here to minimize the pain placed on people. There is no set in stone way to determine whether or not an action is immoral that I feel is illogical and Ross does a great job combating it. I completely agree with the idea that sometimes within different situations you have to have a guideline for how to make the best choice morally. This does not say this is how it will work every time just simply a way to help guide your decisions along and that is why I agree with him.

I think that an argument from the Utilitarians would focus on the fact that this is not an absolute argument. I feel the Utilitarians focus on there needing to be an absolute way to determine a moral decision. I think that Utilitarians would argue that their view is also for breaking promises if more good comes from it then harm, this in turn would still state to be a utilitarian view. They would contest that the duties that Ross speaks of should be broken if it means causing more ultimate good and that there has to be one simple way to make a moral decision. Like I have said I agree with Ross on his prima facie duties but I don't think he would convert any Utilitarians on the basis that its not an absolute view. anyone have any thoughts?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Kant’s Deontology—questions regarding contradictions in the Principle of Universalizability

**This is from guest blogger, Danny W.**

Alright, here begins my attempt to say something intelligent about Kant’s Deontology—a tall order indeed. I’ll lay some groundwork first to review what we know. Kant proposed his ethical doctrine, deontology, as a moral guide which suggests doing only those actions in which an individual acts out of intrinsically ‘good will’—or to fulfill some objective duty. Hence, Kant would say that acting with the motivation to exercise good will, and conversely, to have goodness of will be the only end sought, would garner the highest moral praise. In connection with these claims, Kant did not ultimately think the consequence of an action played a role in the moral evaluation of someone’s action—the evaluation would center around the motivation or intention of performing the action. One question that naturally arises surrounding Kant’s ethical system is: How do we know when someone is acting out of good will? As the kind, thoughtful philosopher that he was, Kant made sure to provide several tests. I plan to focus on the Principle of Universalizability—one of Kant’s litmus tests for determining whether actions are moral or immoral.

A quick aside before we continue with the Principle of Universalizability. Another test in his deontology (which roughly means the “study of duty”) is the “Principle of Humanity” test. Despite the potential confusion surrounding which actions are actually done as ‘means’ versus ‘ends’—the definitions of which remain elusive in certain hypothetical scenarios—I think the principle boils down to respecting and caring for fellow human beings. Sure there are flaws, and Kant didn’t state it so abruptly, but that seems to be the gist of his thinking. There may be holes, but I will not focus on this test any further.

The Principle of Univeralizability, on the other hand, is a three step process which allows any person to judge whether an action is moral or immoral. (1) Formulate a maxim, rule, law, or state of things, (2) universalize the maxim (i.e., imagine that everyone in the world is following maxim), and (3) assess whether there is a contradiction in the hypothetical world from part (2). If there is a contradiction, then the action described in the maxim from step (1) would be immoral, and vice versa.

My biggest concern with the PoU arises when we speak about step (3)—deeming hypothetical worlds to be contradictory. It is interesting how Kant uses this word, and confusing what he actually expects when someone is using this test. It is common to think of contradictions in formal logic as statements of the form A&~A (i.e., something, A, is true and false simultaneously). Let’s try out our paradigm case: I want to cheat on my wife; I imagine everyone in the world cheating as well; the result is a world in which monogamous relationships cannot exist and the cheating could thus not logically be called cheating. It seems like the only way you can report this contradiction—in a strict logical sense—would be to assert that “cheating” (as we know it in our real world) cannot exist in our hypothetical world (in which the maxim is that everyone cheats on significant other). However, it does not follow that just because everyone cheats (in our hypothetical world) that the “action of cheating” is made impossible. Significant others will still exist and one will cheat on that partner—the metaphysical circumstances do not change between our real and hypothetical worlds. It is not as if there is “cheating” and “not cheating” taking place in a metaphysical sense. “Cheating” persists but our anthropocentric definition of cheating (sexual interactions with a person A while you are simultaneously engaged in a monogamous relationship with another person B) loses all meaning and descriptive power. The word becomes hollow of meaning, since “monogamous relationships” do not exist and thus our definition of “cheating”—inherently built on the metaphysical status of monogamous relationships— from the real world does not make sense and disintegrates. Thus, an action persists but we no longer have the vocabulary to label the action—vocabulary we obviously do have in the real world. Okay this might be major backtracking, but here goes. I suppose that through the lens of the hypothetical world, we wouldn’t even regard the action as “cheating”. So, Kant achieves his contraction based on a logical contraction across worlds. I guess my previous thoughts had been focused on having the contradiction occur in the same world—which didn’t make sense.

Part of my thinking was that Kant was also using contradiction to generally state that there is a contradiction to our accepted social structure and stability. If everyone is cheating, there is no more social order as we know it in this world. These are just some of my trailing thoughts, but I think I will open it up for comments. I’m interested to know how all of you view the tests that Kant puts forth for his deontology!

Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance—Do rational agents come to the same conclusions?

**This is from guest blogger, Danny W.**

In Theory of Justice, John Rawls presents an argument outlining the most just forms of resource distribution. Rawls devised a methodology for arriving at governing principles that delineate how a just society ought to spread its resources to its constituents. Rawls describes a hypothetical position—the Original Position (OP)—from which any rational agent would arrive at the same common principles regarding how resources ought to be distributed. The rational agents would be under a “veil of ignorance” which effectively means that they would not yet be implanted into the future society—for which they were determining principles of resource distribution—and would not know their social or economic status in that future world. These agents would then, from this veil of ignorance, be required to choose which principles would bring about the society that would leave them best off (i.e., even if the agent turned out to be on a lower socioeconomic rung, they would not be too screwed). Rawls alleges that, given rational, self-interested agents, every person would choose the following principles for resource distribution (as seen on the handout):

First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic freedoms that are compatible with similar freedoms for others.

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:
a.   They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
b.   They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).

However, I have questions about the relationships between these ideal, rational agents, the OP, and the veil of ignorance—okay, I also have questions regarding the principles that are unanimously reached by these ‘veiled’ agents. I like the principles that Rawls arrives at (because they seem to satisfy some brute intuitions that I have), however I’m curious how his argument holds up under greater scrutiny.

My biggest criticism is of Rawls’ supposition that all rational agents would converge on his 2nd principle naturally and necessarily. I keep hearing the word rational—and agents described as those working under rational thought processes—and for some reason wonder how exactly Rawls is using these terms. The world reason (and all of its derivatives) tends to get thrown around carelessly from time to time without much consideration for linguistic meaning. So what I assume Rawls is saying is that, given the chance to articulate a deductive argument in premise-conclusion form, someone using this structured style of ‘reasoning’ would arrive at a conclusion which mirrors his Principles.

I assume most rational agents would decide that the 1st principle is rational, in the sense that one could provide the following argument:

(1) We all want to have basic freedoms (life, liberty, happiness, yada yada), regardless of socioeconomic status.
(2) Since we are all humans (the same general entity), each person should have access—or the right—to basic freedoms.
(3) A right to basic freedoms is identical for all people; the right is either met or not met for whichever ‘freedoms’ are deemed ‘basic freedoms’.

(Co) Each person ought to have equal right to basic freedoms.

So, that was a rough sketch of an argument for equal rights to basic freedoms. A supporter of this conclusion would—for the sake of a strong rational argument—need to add supplementary premises about the connection between personhood and access to rights, either by appealing to happiness, the raw materials of a meaningful life, social order, etc. as intrinsic goods and necessary conditions to be met in the lives of human beings. Also, I realize the conclusion also leaves out another wrinkle in the principle—namely, regarding the rights to basic freedoms of others in equilibrium with our own—which could be accounted for with more premises and elbow grease. Someone else could probably do a better job fleshing that out, but the general argument takes shape, and I can understand why a ‘rational’ being would land on the conclusion—even this truncated version.

In contrast, I don’t see why someone, for example, would land on the Difference Principle (part b of 2nd Principle).  I’ve tried to think of rational arguments that would land on that conclusion, but I’m not really sure how to voice these. It seems intuitive that these rational agents in the OP would—not knowing which lot they would be cast—go for an Egalitarian set-up. If I have my thinking cap on in that OP, I might realize that, if the society I’m entering has resource constraints—and I think we’re being idealistic if we don’t consider that—then I will realize that a small fraction of the population will actually have sufficient resources. If I’m self-interested and rational, I might realize that there is a better shot at having the minimum to survive if I decide on a principle of resource distribution that emulates Egalitarianism—equality for all. That way, if I do draw the short straw in life (in terms of sheer quantity of resources allotted to me), and get born into a hut in a rural town in India, then I’ll feel better about being helped up to that equal standard. Even if I end up being a stud running back for the Green Bay Packers with boat-loads of ‘earned’ money, I would still have an equal cut of the pie after all of the resource confiscations take place—I’d be surviving! In retrospect as that Packer star, I would likely hate my decision, but from the OP I would be making the best choice given the knowledge of how resources naturally land in a society.

I’m not sure Rawls has an answer to this. Okay, I’m sure he does and I will go and look for it, but I’m curious to know what all of you think about these ramblings! Is it possible to say which principles a rational agent or agents in the OP would select? What about complications that arise when you start to realize the possible disconnect between real society demands and the idealized test that Rawls has carved out as a thought experiment? I’d love to hear any thoughts. 

Ross on What Makes Right Acts Right

**This is from guest blogger, Cassy K.**

Briefly, Ross puts forth a non-absolutist theory revolving around prima fascia duties that are permanent but not always decisive. Those duties are fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, non-maleficence, and self-improvement. He admits that this is not an exhaustive list, but each is necessary. In particular scenarios, some duties may be outweighed by others but they are always important regardless.

Shafer-Landau points out three primary difficulties with Ross's theory: 1. Arbitrariness: there's no apparent reason for why these particular duties are included. 2. Balancing: it's not clear why some duties take priority in certain cases, if they are not ranked. 3. how do we come to know these duties and the final duty to act on in specific cases?

While I think these are certainly good to point out, I personally don't think they're true objections. Each of them can simply be deduced to intuition. When you really think about it, why do we do anything? Regardless of what might be truly behind our actions, we do things because something (whatever that may be) compels us to do so. There are many days when I don't feel like going to work, but I still go. If I didn't find any compelling reason to go--even though I say I don't "want" to--I wouldn't. I think what we're discussing here is similar.

Presumably, Ross included these prima fascie duties because that's what his intuition instructed him to include. The only reason that we see this as a "difficulty" is because it's not as satisfying as we'd ideally like it to be. We dislike admitting that some things may happen by chance for the same reason--as human beings, "by chance" and "intuition" aren't satisfying answers, even if we make the majority of our decisions based on intuition. That's the reason that I decided to go to work even when I didn't feel like it, whereas my roommate often calls into work when she doesn't feel like going. We're wired differently; our decision-making is necessarily affected by our individual intuitions and dispositions. So while appealing to our intuitions might not be as ideal as a solid, empirical explanation, morality is not a science.

It would, of course, be nice if Ross's theory gave us a methodical way to calculate the absolute moral decision in every case. But given the complexity of the world, ourselves, and the decisions we face, is that even a feasible demand? I would argue that it absolutely is not--that when you really think about it, it's almost silly to ask. Utilitarianism is an interesting and thought-provoking theory, but the fact of the matter is that very little of that is actually going through my head when I'm contemplating a moral decision. I might be thinking about whether or not it will hurt or help others, but I'm not calculating hedons in my head. (Nevermind that I don't even know what that would look like in practice.)

I think Ross is onto something here. By focusing on what actually goes through our heads when we're making a moral decision and considering the complexities we face, he's conjured up something that actually seems to make sense in the real world as it really works, even if it hasn't allowed us to "close the book" on our discussion of morality. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance

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

In his initial description of the veil of ignorance and what it blocks out, Rawls makes an extensive (although admittedly incomplete) list of the things that the person behind the veil of ignorance does not know. A lot of them make perfect sense and help strengthen his argument. For example, he specifically says that the person behind the veil does not have personality traits such as a penchant for gambling. This helps strengthen the usage of the maximin principle; if the person was wont to gamble recklessly and was allowed to have this quirk behind the veil, they might opt to formulate a tyrannical society in hopes of landing the top position.

However, I found one of the elements of the veil that he cited to be problematic: “I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its economic…situation or the level of civilization…it has been able to achieve,” (638). First of all, this seems wholly unnecessary. What sort of effect would knowledge of one’s society have upon the entirely rational person’s decision that would lead them to reject justice as fairness and the maximin principle? It just seems odd that he would include this, but make no mention of the agent’s knowledge of their gender being of any importance. This inclusion seems to counter no objections and only cause problems. If the person behind the veil had no knowledge of his or her society, they might decide upon a heavily redistributive economic situation. In practice, this could be entirely unfeasible. Consider a society in which food, knowledge, and general goods are bountiful in nature and free for the taking, with a very low, very spread-out population with a universally-practiced religion which dictates that its practitioners only take as much as they need and never enslave others. In this society, redistribution would be nonsensical; if anyone could take what they wanted without negatively affecting anyone else, redistribution would do far more harm than good. Note that I am not arguing against redistribution here—in fact, I am generally highly in favor of it. However, Rawls’s inclusion of a limitation on societal knowledge seems to be a definite flaw in his thought experiment, as some hypothetical societies would not benefit from it at all. I am interested in if anyone was able to deduce a reason or come up with a defense for Rawls’s inclusion of this counterexample.