Saturday, December 01, 2012


In a recent discussion of just war theory, Jeff McMahan makes a common mistake about permissibility:

As I noted earlier, just war theory distinguishes between the principles of jus ad bellum (resort to war) and those of jus in bello (conduct in war). According to the Theory, the latter are independent of the former, in the sense that what it is permissible for a combatant to do in war is unaffected by whether his war is just or unjust. Whatever acts are permissible for those who fight in a just war (“just combatants”) are also permissible for those (“unjust combatants”) who fight for aims that are unjust. Combatants on both sides have the same rights, permissions and liabilities — a view commonly known as the “moral equality of combatants.” According to this view, if we accept that it is permissible for just combatants to participate in warfare, we must also accept that the same is true of unjust combatants. Both just combatants and unjust combatants act impermissibly only if they violate the rules of jus in bello — that is, only if they fight in an impermissible manner.

This has one immediately paradoxical implication: namely, that if unjust combatants fight without violating the rules governing the conduct of war, all their individual acts of war are permissible; yet these individual acts together constitute a war that is unjust and therefore impermissible. But how can a series of individually permissible acts be collectively impermissible?

I think it's actually incorrect that in just war theory jus in bello is independent of jus ad bellum, despite the fact that there are important and morally significant distinctions between the two and despite the fact that the relationship between the two is not always straightforward. The major complications are (1) that combatants, while not usually being the ones who actually decide to initiate belligerent action, have obligations of allegiance, obedience, protection of their fellow citizens, and the like that are not suddenly disrupted and (2) that combatants are not always in a position to fully understand the larger issues in the war -- they can be deceived, they can be misinformed, they can be mistaken, they can be in a position where they are missing crucial information. However, I think there's a more general problem here: permissibility is a very weak modality. Just as something's being possible does not imply that it's actually possible in a given case, so something's being morally permissible does not imply that it's actually morally permissible in the given case -- it just means that there are general considerations that do not of themselves make it impermissible. Take, for instance, McMahan's scenario:

Suppose, for example, that the armies of Aggressia have unjustly invaded and conquered neighboring Benignia. Aggressian soldiers never once violated the principles of jus in bello. But to defeat the Benignian army, it was necessary for them to kill more than a million Benignian soldiers, most of whom were civilians when the invasion began and enlisted in the military only to defend their country from Aggressia. According to the Theory, the only people who have done anything wrong in bringing about this vast slaughter are a handful of Aggressian political leaders who spent the war in their offices and never killed anyone.

In actual fact, there is simply not enough information to go on in this example. What we do know is that the soldiers of Aggressia cannot be accused of acting unjustly simply in terms of the particular format in which individual soldiers carried out the details of the war, since nothing distinguishes their conduct on these particular points from those of Benignia. If there's anything wrong with the actions of Aggressian soldiers, it is not in how they carried out the war, simply considered as such; it is a matter of what they could honestly have known about the war, what options they actually had available, what the situation actually means for their standing obligations as citizens and soldiers, and so forth. These are not usually considered solely in terms of just war theory for the obvious reasons that these are not issues that have specifically to do with warring but with general problems we all face in being members of a society. In fact, many of them will be exactly the same problems faced by non-combatant Aggressians. Just war theory does not rule out that the Aggressian soldiers have done something wrong; there could be any number of ways they are acting wickedly, as human beings, citizens, or even as soldiers generally speaking. To determine this would require much more detail than we are actually given. All that can be ruled out is that any such wrongdoing has to do specifically with the format in which they acted specifically as soldiers in a war situation, precisely considered as such.

A different but related issue arises with McMahan's question above about "But how can a series of individually permissible acts be collectively impermissible?" But there is only a paradox if we are taking permissibility to be a stronger modality than it is. It is entirely possible for something to be permissible in one respect and impermissible in another. For instance, it is entirely permissible for any individual to go without ever having children; if everyone did so, the human race would go extinct; and one could at least argue that it is not permissible for the human race to structure its choices so that the human race goes extinct. But that's not paradoxical; the impermissibility is not any one person's going without children but the whole society's doing so. And that's no more paradoxical than the fact that A, B, C, and D could all each be possible but A & B & C & D could be an impossible combination. Indeed, it is structurally the same; permissibility and possibility are both Lozenge or Diamond modalities, and permissibility is just possibility in some form of deontic modal logic.

This, incidentally, is why I think bioethics often ends up being very screwy; bioethicists tend to argue at the level of the permissible in general. But this is very, very weak; it is entirely possible for something to be permissible in general and yet for it to be actually impermissible in any foreseeable practical circumstances. (Utilitarians are very familiar with this sort of thing; in principle, you can treat anything as morally permissible in utilitarianism, if you only modify the circumstances enough. This is sometimes used to attack utilitarianism. But, while no deontologist would ever accept this as an adequate response, utilitarians will quite reasonably respond that many of these modifications are so extreme that we have no reason to think that they could ever possibly happen in the actual world. If it's a purely abstract and hypothetical question of whether there is some conceivable circumstances under which a grave atrocity would be permissible, that is a different thing from saying there are any reasonably possible circumstances in which there would be nothing at all that makes the atrocity impermissible.) It is generally useless to know that an action is morally permissible at the general level, because this is consistent with its not being permissible in a particular case, or even in all particular cases that anyone will ever actually come across; and permissibility is in practice generally permissibility-in-light-of-the-particular-reasons-that-have-actually-given, and is consistent with the very same action being impermissible for reasons not given. This contrasts with impermissibility, which is almost always useful to know. I often point out to my Intro students that it is only rarely useful to know that an argument is invalid, although it is almost always useful to know that it is valid; there are important differences between this and permissibility (they attach to rather different sorts of things, permissibility is a Diamond modality and invalidity a Diamond-Not modality, etc.), but in both cases the reason for the asymmetry is built into the modalities themselves.

The moral of the story, of course, is that, except in very specific cases, ethicists should never be talking about what's permissible; they should be talking about what's impermissible and what makes it so, precisely because of this sharp difference in strength between the two.

Conservative and Liberal

Tim Egan at The Opinionator:

The Progressives of the early 20th had an amazing run — direct elections of senators, regulation of monopolistic trusts, modernization of public schools, cleaning up the food supply — with only one major blooper: Prohibition.

As David Bernstein notes at "The Volokh Conspiracy", this is a bit of a rosy-colored glasses view:

I’m not a big fan of either the Seventeenth Amendment or of antitrust law, but put those aside; what about, among other things, residential segregation laws in the South and border states (fortunately invalidated by the Supreme Court, much to the dismay of Progressive commentators), eugenics legislation, hostility to the Equal Rights Amendment/support for “protective” law for women only, support for American imperialism (at least via one of the Progressives’ great champions, Theodore Roosevelt–and Woodrow Wilson didn’t exactly distinguish himself with American intervention in World War I, which may be the single greatest “blooper” in American history), and support for state legislation monopolizing certain fields on behalf of incumbent businesses (see, e.g., New State Ice v. Liebmann)?

In any case, Egan's argument is an interesting example of a common failure in our ordinary political discourse to recognize that the liberal/conservative labels change drastically over time. There are lots of cases. I remember Janet Radcliffe Richards giving a (very good, as one would expect from her) interview about Mill on the subject of women and mentioning the 'conservative judge' James Fitzjames Stephen. Now, there's no question that some of Stephen's positions would be considered quite conservative now; but he was a utilitarian like Mill, a member of the Liberal Party like Mill, an advocate of reform like Mill; he just thought that Mill's account of liberalism was incoherent and utopian, and that utilitarianism required certain kinds of coercion that Mill's harm principle disallowed (an argument that has never stopped being made by liberal utilitarians). So it's unclear what is meant by calling Stephen conservative in this context; his right to be called liberal and Liberal at the time was quite as good as Mill's -- better, in fact, since Stephen's liberalism would have been more widely recognizable as liberalism in their own day. There is, of course, a very limited sense in which you can say that Stephen was 'more conservative than' Mill on specific points, but this is a very weak and purely relative sense, useful only for very specific kinds of situation; the fact that Noam Chomsky is more conservative than an old-school Stalinist does not make Chomsky a conservative anything.

Through time there are liberalisms, not liberalism; there are conservatisms, not conservatism. These labels are defined relative to a spectrum that is always changing.

I was going to put this in the next links post, but this is as good a place as any:

xkcd had an interesting comic recently on the make-up of the U.S. Congress through the centuries. It's somewhat misleading; the right/left or conservative/liberal distinction is not actually a stable one through time. But the sense it is used here is stipulated as how one is ranked in a DW-NOMINATE system in terms of who one votes with. That is, if all Congress were to turn Communist tomorrow, we'd still get the same sort of left/right spectrum (assuming that members of Congress were still allowed to vote differently), because 'conservative' and 'liberal' are here relative to other people within the same Congress on the particular non-unanimous issues brought before Congress, not to any particular set of ideological claims. It indicates the internal splay of Congress more than its political leanings. It is to some extent arbitrary which direction we consider conservative or liberal -- DW-NOMINATE does not tell us -- so we're actually just looking at distance of legislators from each other, which is often given a loose 'conservative'/'liberal' label based on certain aspects of economic policy (a pretty divisive area of politics that tends to create a lot of divergence among groups of legislators). These labels can make sense if you are simply looking at legislators in a single Congress, but they don't make much sense at all for comparing legislators in 1990 to legislators in 1890. It's an interesting graphic, and definitely fun. But it's almost bound to be misread, precisely because of this common tendency of thinking of 'conservative' and 'liberal' as timeless and monolithic labels rather than as what they are, pragmatic labels for a given time that loosely cover vast numbers of rather different movements, ideas, and people.

The Gust, the Whirlwind, and the Flaw

A Dream, After Reading Dante's Episode of Paulo and Francesca
by John Keats

As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swoone'd and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So play'd, so charm'd, so conquer'd, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And, seeing it asleep, so fled away -
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe where Jove griev'd a day;
But to that second circle of sad hell,
Where 'mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss'd, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.

Tanaver IV

The following chapters have been done at Tanaver.

Part I

Chapter I: A Day in the Life
Part I, Part II

Chapter II: This Darkest Sea
Part I, Part II

Chapter III: Conversation over Lunch
Part I, Part II

Chapter IV: City in Heaven
Part I, Part II

Chapter V: Ohu's Stronghold
Part I, Part II

Chapter VI: Representatives
Part I, Part II

Chapter VII: Negotiations
Part I, Part II

Chapter VIII: The Thing That Can Explode **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter IX: Transitions **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter X: Samar in the Field **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter XI: Pavilion **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter XII: The Gates of Death **New**
Part I, Part II

The last two weeks of November saw a severe slowdown, as it all had to compete with more immediately important things; having fallen behind about a week, I couldn't catch up and, as I had originally suspected, it took the whole month of November to get through Part I. The wordcount for Part One comes to about 40800, or about 9000 words short of the NaNoWriMo goal. And since Part I was just supposed to set up for Part II, where the major action in the book takes place, I suppose that's a long way to go without getting to the meat of the story. On the other hand, considering that this is all a completely first rough draft with almost no revisions, I think it has actually turned out well so far. Much of the material will eventually need to be redistributed a bit; the few something-like-action parts will need to be redone, and several of the conversations will need to be made less rough-hewn (and in parts trimmed and reworked considerably), but all in all it's OK.

One of the things I have an interest in when reading stories is the philosophical backgrounds in play. In most stories, especially most science fiction, this ends up being of the most simplistic kind, just as science fiction tends to be ploddingly prosaic (or else merely pseudo-poetic, with a lot that is kitschy and incoherent). A Canticle for Leibowitz is probably the most famous science fiction exception on both points. In any case, I have been angling for something that is at least not an egregious offender on these two fronts.

The Samar are an interesting case, because the sort of philosophical backgrounds that have to be available in Samar culture in order for them to do what they do is actually quite constrained. What do the Samar do? Well, they're an entire civilization that functions as a sort of civil service, but given the size of what they have to handle, they cannot be (as civil service usually ends up being) a rigid and extensive bureaucracy. Civil service has to specialize heavily but the Samar have to be generalists to the extent possible. They go around and try to help different societies, operating on a large scale, and they are trying to make things better. That means they have to have a clear sense of which direction progress is found. And they have to do this over an extraordinary variety of cultures. There are lots of things they cannot be. They cannot be relativists, because to be relativists doing what they do on the scale that they do would mean that their actions would be indistinguishable from a might-makes-right approach, and would make any general sense of progress impossible. Sophisticated relativists can make sense of progress on a small scale, but it's not a sense of progress that scales up. A lot of philosophical backgrounds are ruled out simply by being too small change: the Samar are dealing with so many things on such a scale that any philosophy suitable to what they do has to be bold, ambitious, sweeping, capable of taking an immense civilization in all its richness into its scope. But it also has to be practical and flexible, and it has to have a strong moral component. That rules out a lot. But the Samar do need a very developed philosophical background, given the sheer extent of their operation.

There are two general kinds of philosophical background that come immediately to mind given this sort of description: one Eastern, one Western, namely, Neo-Confucianism and Neoplatonism. These are more families of philosophies than particular philosophies, but they have the right scale: they are massive in scope and ambition. They are highly rational. Neo-Confucianism is obviously practical, and perfect for philosophically astute civil servants who have to be generalists; and, while it's not what tends to be studied when people study it, Neoplatonism is also quite practical in orientation. Not all versions of each are equally appropriate. One thing that is needed is detachability from historical contingencies, which means that Plotinian and Christian Neoplatonisms are more suitable than Iamblichian (if that's the right adjectival form) Neoplatonisms. In Neo-Confucianism, the lixue of Zhu Xi and the daoxue of Wang Yangming are certainly more appropriate than the scholarly back-to-the-text approach of the hanxue.

So I made them Neoplatonist Neo-Confucians: they have a Neo-Platonist sense of beauty and a Neo-Confucian attitude toward its pursuit. Most of what the Samar say on this subject have parallels on one side or the other. Their philosophical practices are a mix of Neoplatonist 'therapy of the soul' and Neo-Confucian self-cultivation.

All of this contrasts with the Ylfae or the Syylven. The Ylfae are only seen from outside as rather incomprehensible, so any sense of their philosophical approaches to the world can be left inchoate, although they would probably like Novalis. The Syylven are not as active in the world, and thus their philosophical background can be left implicit, as a sage philosophy, in their poetry and wisdom traditions.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Music on My Mind

Jana Mashonee, "What Child Is This?" (Cherokee version). A little Greensleeves, a little Cherokee (which is one of those languages that, in the right song, can be stunningly beautiful), a little something better than the pop-song carols we are starting to hear this time of year.

Incidentally, if you prefer not to get your Christmas carols quite so early, you might listen to The King's Singers singing the actual song Greensleeves. One of those truly great folk songs. The history of it is rather tangled; the tune goes back at least to the sixteenth century. There appear to have been several ballads about Lady Green Sleeves; I'm not sure where the one that won out originated, but it seems to do have done so quite early. The tune became popular and a lot of songs were sung to it, including Christmas carols. The particular carol to which it has become indissolubly attached, "What Child Is This?", was written by William Chatterton Dix in the 1860s as he was bedridden with a terrible illness that looked like it would be fatal, although he did eventually recover and live three decades more.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Scholardarity Essay Contest

Jason Zarri notifies me that Scholardarity is holding an essay contest. For those who are interested:

There are two topics to choose from:

(1) What role should the government play in a society and what is the proper relation of the government and economy in order to best serve the common good? Would new approaches to the discipline of economics— for example, the evolutionary or complexity economics of Eric Beinhocker or other approaches, e.g., the social economics of Anghel Rugina, contribute to the well-being of society?

(2) What is the proper relationship between government and religion in a democracy? What are the effects, positive and/or negative, of government on religion, of religion on government, or of both on society as a whole? Essays may include the pros and cons of the separation of church and state, governmental restrictions on certain religious practices, as well as restrictions placed on a religion, such as wanting to impose its will on the whole society.

There will be two rounds: In Round 1, contestants will submit a proposal of about 500 words in which they give an outline for a paper on their selected topic. From these proposals, twenty will be selected as finalists to enter Round 2. The finalists will write a paper based on their proposal, of about 2,000 words in length. All twenty of the finalists’ essays will be published on Scholardarity.

The cost of entry is $5 (which goes to form a pot for the contest) and the deadline for Round 1 is February 15. To get more information, or to contribute your essay, visit the essay contest page.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Kant famously says (Critique of Pure Reason A7):

In all judgments in which the relation of a subject to the predicate is thought (if I only consider affirmative judgments, since the application to negative ones is easy) this relation is possible in two different ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A; or B lies entirely outside the concept A, though to be sure it stands in connection with it. In the first case, I call the judgment analytic, in the second synthetic.

This relates to definitional mereotopology: Kant's claim is that analytic or explicative judgments are cases where, when B is predicated of A, B is a definitional part of A, and that synthetic or ampliative judgments are cases where, when B is predicated of A, B is definitionally relevant to A but not a definitional part of A, and A is not a definitional part of it. He says other things that can be taken mereotopologically, too, of course; for instance, that in (certain kinds of) synthetic judgments B is predicated of A because A and B are both parts of a whole, namely, the experiential unity combining them.

Africa for Norway

Hilariously funny as it is, it makes a serious point: "Imagine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway” video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?" And, of course, it says something about celebrity culture in the Western world that so many features of the video are easily recognized tropes.

(ht: Feminist Philosophers)

Anne Jaap Jacobson at 3AM

Anne Jaap Jacobson has an interesting interview at 3AM:

One of the questions that most interests me is the extent to which the intellectual excellence – or even competence – that our species is capable of is fundamentally social. Are we isolatable rational beings, or should we think of ourselves as inextricably social? So the worry is not really about human cognitive capacity, but about that of those who either are in practice or in theory isolated individuals. It is in fact quite stunning, I think, to find that much of the embodied movement in philosophy has left out the role of society or assigned it an ancillary role. Sue Campbell, whom sadly recently died, is a notable exception. It has been a very important part of feminist philosophy to challenge the pervasive thesis that the human beings are at their best operating on their own and thinking purely rationally; equally, feminist thought is rich in its explorations of the role of the community in the creation of the individual.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fortnightly Book, November 25

Is it really November 25 already? November, where did you go?

I am closing out November with one more bit of Northernesse (probably the last for a while): Njal's Saga. Njal's Saga is one of the classic Icelandic prose sagas. Like so very many of the great Northern works, it is a tragedy, but it is less a tragedy of heroes than of an entire community.

Unlike most Scandinavian cultures, the Icelanders had developed a commonwealth structure of government. They brought over a great many Norwegian legal and judicial customs, but avoided the highly centralized government that had grown up in Norway. The government consisted of a large number of priest-chieftains. This position was hereditary, although it could be bought or sold. The freemen of the island were each required to give their allegiance and support to one of the chieftains. However -- and this is a somewhat remarkable feature that has always fascinated people -- freemen could choose which chieftain to support in this way, regardless of where they lived. The chieftains led the Althing, the Icelandic assembly, but freemen (who were known as 'assembly-men') were also required to attend. (Iceland's Althing, which still exists, is often called the single oldest Parliament in the world, since it has functioned in one form or another, with the exception of a few decades in the nineteenth century, since the tenth century. But it has changed quite a bit over the centuries.)

A nation of free people! But between about AD 960 and AD 1020, this free nation nearly tore itself apart. Njal's Saga is a thirteenth century look back, using oral and written sources, on this period. We start with a quiet community of people living quiet lives like they usually do, the most exciting things being (for the most part) court cases and weddings and gossip-laden divorces. Occasionally murders out of passion, or out of vengeance for slights real or imagined, will cut across the scene and shock everybody, but they live in a culture where peace and consensus and fair dealing are the expected norm. As events unfold, however, things slowly begin to heat up. Slights, insults, offenses to honor slowly build up in just the right places; tensions increase. Little jealousies begin spinning out into petty acts of spite. People acting criminally are not quite brought to justice. Through it all, the people of the community work to restore balance and peace. Decent men -- honorable Hoskuld, prudent Njal, valiant Gunnar -- try to restore the situation, but their attempts to correct it make things worse. The very proud and honor-conscious men of the community actively try to swallow their pride and let minor slights to their honor pass; but they can only do so much. Things that seem to bring peace actually do nothing but let wounds fester under the surface. Honest peace offerings get misinterpreted as intentional insults. Harsh action leads to harsher actions, and harsher actions to actions harsher still. Pettiness leads to violence leads to atrocity, culminating (but not ending) in the terrible event that gives the Saga its full name, the Saga of the Burning of Njal, in which Njal and his sons are burned alive in their house. An ordinary community thrown into terrible chaos by very ordinary failings. And the story is told with great vividness, despite (but sometimes perhaps because of) the Scandinavian tendency to avoid any explicit exploration of motivation; the anonymous author has given us one of the great works of Western literature.

The translation I will be using is that of Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, i.e., the Penguin Classics edition.