Saturday, February 09, 2013

Gerard on Taste and Genius II: Formation of Taste

One of the difficulties of talking about taste and genius is that they are in some sense natural and in some sense artificially cultivated; what is more, it is often difficult, perhaps sometimes impossible, to determine where the division occurs. We saw in the previous post how Gerard uses the reflex sense method to analyze taste into its natural constituents. We are able to identify aspects of our experience that are not reducible to the five external senses of sight, hearing, touch, oral taste, and smell; this gives us the internal or reflex senses. Because we cannot rule out a priori that they provide us with at least usually reliable information about the world, and because we cannot in practice ever do without them anyway, they have the same authority as our external senses, and for the same reason. Using this method, Gerard identified seven natural principles of taste: "the senses of novelty, of sublimity, of beauty, of imitation, of harmony, of ridicule, and of virtue" (ET 2).

At this point we need to consider how we build on these in order to develop good taste. There are several elements to this: (1) the union and improvement of our reflex senses; (2) sensibility or delicacy of passion; (3) precise and balanced judgment; (4) actual practices of cultivation.

(1) We form or cultivate our taste, thus giving ourselves good taste, by improving each of these senses individually and learning how to exercise them all in unity. In reality, both of these go together: by improving our reflex senses we make them better able to combine in gestalt, and by uniting them we make it possible to exercise each to the fullest extent: "Our sentiments and emotions receive an immense addition of strength from their reciprocal influence on one another" (ET 74). Although Gerard doesn't use the example, we can compare this to the way the external senses of taste and smell work together: to get the full taste of a meal, we need to be able to smell as well as taste it. Likewise, the experience of sublimity is intensified and enriched if this experience is also an experience of novelty, or of virtue, or of harmony. One area in which we all see this operating is that of music (ET 76):

Poetry is a complication of beauties, reflecting by their union additional lustre on one another. The sublime, the new, the elegant, the natural, the virtuous, are often blended in the imitation; brightened by the power of fiction, and the richest variety of imagery; and rendered more delightful by the harmony of numbers. When poetry is set to well-adapted music, both gain new power by their alliance. The music, by exciting the requisite affections, puts the mind in a disposition to conceive ideas suited to them, with peculiar facility, vivacity, and pleasure.

(2) This union of the internal senses in aesthetic experience is affected by something that is not itself a reflex sense at all, namely, what Gerard calls "sensibility of heart" or "delicacy of passion", which is the tendency to be easily moved by any kind of sentiment. It is what we might call sensitivity. Human beings are extraordinarily diverse in how sensitive they are, and it is to this that Gerard attributes much of the diversity in judgments of taste. Some people are largely insensible to aesthetic experience; this will necessarily create defects in their taste. It is possible to have excessive sensibility, but Gerard thinks it is rare, and I think he would also want to make a distinction. Intense sensibility may hamper one's ability to make a good critical judgment at a given time, but even then it could prepare the way for good critical judgment later. Being overwhelmed by a symphony or sunset may make it impossible to give a just analysis of its beauty and grandeur while you are actually experiencing, but it provides you with a richer experience that can assist you in such an analysis later.

(3) I suspect that Gerard is not worried about the excessive sensibility due to the third ingredient in good taste. Neither union of reflex senses, nor delicacy of passion, nor both combined are enough to give one good taste. A key element of good taste is good judgment (ET 83-84):

Good sense is an indispensable ingredient in true taste, which always implies a quick and accurate perception of things as they really are.

That judgment may completely exhibit to the internal senses, the beauties and excellencies of nature, it measures the amplitude of things, determines their proportions, and traces out their wise construction and beneficial tendency. It uses all the methods which art and science indicate, for discovering those qualities that lie too deep spontaneously to strike the eye. It investigates the laws and causes of the works of nature: it compares and contrasts them with the more imperfect works of art; and thus supplies materials from which fancy may produce ideas, and form combinations, that will strongly affect the mental taste.

Gerard gives several examples of this, which I will not go over. Suffice it to say that judgment has a considerable effect on our aesthetic experience. Nonetheless, in different experiences and to different people it may have a larger or lesser role, and this is another reason why there is a diversity in judgments of taste. Some people have more acute internal senses; others have more accurate judgment. Both may have a good critical judgment, but the one will have a better feeling for the aesthetic features of the experience, while the other will have a better sense of how the experience conforms to reasonable standards of unity and variation. Accurate judgment may make up for some weakness of imagination, while strong imagination may make up for some weakness of judgment. But the two will also have somewhat different experiences in the first place as well, since the first will have more feeling for the immediate features of the work, while the latter will have more feeling for its abstract or intellectual features. Gerard gives as his examples Longinus and Aristotle, who wrote two of the major aesthetic works of antiquity. Longinus exhibits a delicate sentiment and imagination; he has a good judgment, but his imagination far outstrips it. Thus to read Longinus you have to enter into his sentiments; otherwise you are going to miss his point, because he is not as good at explaining his conclusons as he is at conveying the imaginative experience underlying them. Aristotle, on the other hand, is the reverse case: livelilness of imagination is far outstripped by his brilliance of judgment. He is extremely good at analysis and weighing of argument, so his conclusions are backed by powerful explanations. But you rarely get a sense of the aesthetic experience underlying them.

(4) All aspects of human nature admit of some kind of improvement, including even the external senses, but the internal senses admit of more improvement than most. Part of the reason for this is precisely the fact that they are reflex senses: they respond and react to all the other senses (including other reflex senses). Not just everything will cultivate this improvement. "It is only in the few who improve the rudiments of taste which nature has implanted, by culture well chosen, and judiciously applied, that taste at length appears in elegant form, and just proportions" (ET 95).

There are four lines along which this cultivation might take place: sensibility, refinement, correctness, and proportion.

Sensibility "disposes us to be strongly affected with whatever beauties or faults we perceive" (ET 121). It is relatively ingrained; it is largely based on the native features of the mind, and thus not easily susceptible of development. In fact, extended use may well dull, rather than heighten, the mind's ability to perceive and feel. This does not, however, mean that it does not admit of any improvement. Indeed, there is a sort of paradox of sensibility: overexposure dulls sensibility, which might lead you to think that extensive experience of beauty would dull our taste for it, but extensive experience of beauties in reality heightens our taste for them. This is because extensive experience with beauty is not repetitive; the objects of taste are endlessly variable. Further, although familiarity may make our experience less striking, it will nonetheless give us a more complete sense of everything involved in the experience, thus enriching the things that may be taken into account by the reflex senses. Other reasons could be added. Thus, while sensibility is relatively stable, we can improve it by extending our acquaintance with the objects of taste.

Refinement or elegance "makes us capable of discovering both [faults and beauties], even when they are not obvious (ET 121). The objects of the reflex senses admit of degrees, and we can come to recognize when (for example) a harmony is imperfect. This happens partly by familiarity, but the primary contributor to refinement is simply study -- we acquire knowledge and improve our judgment. To have a refined taste for wine, you have to set your mind to distinguishing the features of wine, find and fill gaps in your experience, compare each experience with every other experience. In addition, we need to practice and exercise our judgment. In our early experiences of something, we have difficulty taking everything into account in our judgments, but over time we are able to cover more and more of our experience with our judgments, no longer bewildered or overwhelmed by all the elements of our experience. As Gerard says (ET 114):

Refinement of taste exists only where to an original delicacy of imagination, and natural acuteness of judgment, is superadded a long and intimate acquaintance with the best performances of every kind. None should be studied but such as have real excellence; and those are chiefly to be dwelt upon which display new beauties on every review.

Correctness "preserves us from approving or disapproving any objects but such as possess the qualities which render them really laudable or blameable; and enables us to distinguish these qualities with accuracy from others, however similar, and to see through the most artful disguise that can be thrown upon them" (ET 121). Every aesthetic excellence can be seen as a mean between two extremes; but as with virtue, the extremes are almost never equidistant from the mean: there is usually one extreme that is much more similar to the virtue than the other, and thus apt to be confused with it under certain circumstances. As with refinement, correctness is developed in great measure by deliberate study (ET 125):

Custom enables us to form ideas with exactness and precision. By studying works of taste, we acquire clear and distinct perceptions of those qualities which render them beautiful or deformed: we take in at one glance all the essential properties; and thus establish in the mind a criterion, a touchstone of excellence and depravity. Judgment also becomes skilful by exercise, in determining, whether the object under consideration perfectly agrees with this mental standard.

Proportion involves finding the best balance of all the principles involved in good taste. Sometimes one reflex sense may exercise much too much influence; excessive pursuit of the humorous or the novel may, for instance, ruin one's taste for the sublime. This imbalance is perhaps the most common cause of bad taste. Proportion presupposes correctness, and requires the exercise of all of our reflex senses, not just in general, but with regard to any kind of object that involves a diversity of aesthetic features.

Having considered what is required in the formation of taste, Gerard turns to a discussion of how taste relates to other areas of life, which we will consider in the next post in this series.

Can't Live with Them and Can't Live with Them

There's an old saying around these parts: can't live with 'em and can't shoot 'em. It is, of course, the hyperbolic version of "can't live with them and can't live without them". Everybody knows the feeling, and it's exactly the phrase that captures the feeling of most university faculty and librarians for academic publishers. Edwin Mellen Press is, for some unfathomable reason, apparently bent on making clear exactly why:

In September 2010, Dale Askey, now a librarian at McMaster University, in Ontario, published a blog post titled “The Curious Case of Edwin Mellen Press,” in which he called the Edwin Mellen Press “a dubious publisher.” For a few months afterward, several people chimed in in the blog’s comments section, some agreeing with Mr. Askey, some arguing in support of the American publisher.

In June 2012, Edwin Mellen Press’s founder, Herbert Richardson, issued a notice of action to Mr. Askey, suing him for more than $1-million. That same day, the press issued a similar notice of action to Mr. Askey and McMaster University, telling them that they were being sued for libel and seeking damages of $3-million.

The lawsuit, filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, came to light this week when Leslie Green, a philosophy-of-law professor at the University of Oxford, mentioned the case when responding to a blog post about a list that gave Edwin Mellen Press a low ranking among philosophy publishers....

In a copy of the press’s notice of action obtained by The Chronicle, the publisher alleges that Mr. Askey accused the press of “accepting second-class authors” and urged “university libraries not to buy the Press’s titles because they are of poor quality and poor scholarship.”

Edwin Mellen Press also charges that because McMaster University employs Mr. Askey and did not require him to remove the blog post or the comments, then the university “adopted the defamatory statements as their own.”

...The press also asserts that the defendants are liable for statements made by others in the comments section of the blog post, including one scholar’s claim that Edwin Mellen officials “practically enslave their authors to a contract that NO ONE should ever sign.”

Some obvious points right off the top:

(1) It does not speak well for the professionalism of Edwin Mellen Press that it responds this way to a single bad review.

(2) What does the Press think it is doing? Academic librarians are the lifeblood of the academic publishing industry. The whole industry is structured precisely in order to market and sell to college libraries, its primary customers. How can they possibly think that suing dissatisfied librarians will improve their position with their primary market?

Academics -- and this includes academic librarians -- judge presses not only on the quality of their catalog but also on their treatment of academics -- and, again, this includes academic librarians. They tolerate a lot because there is a never-ending need, but that does not mean they are willing to tolerate just anything.

And now webpages talking about this controversy will come up every single time someone searches for the Press's catalogue online.

(3) Dale Askey wasn't saying anything that isn't already widely thought. The Press has its defenders -- and it is, I actually think, a decent press for more unusual works that are a bit out of the mainstream, if you have the money to spend -- but it's not regarded as creme-de-la-creme among professionals. Here, for instance, is a survey of publishers in philosophy in which Mellen places last. The poll tells us nothing surprising; Oxford and Cambridge are certainly going to be on top, and which one is the very top will likely just depend on the precise make-up of the people taking the survey (although with some advantage to Oxford, because a wider variety of philosophers are likely to be find its very large catalogue useful), I'm a little surprised Routledge doesn't beat out Harvard, I would have expected Broadview to do somewhat better than it does, &c., but there are no major surprises on the list. People's views of academic publishers will be colored by what they've found useful, but these things are pretty stable across the profession. That Mellen is on the list at all is not a small thing, it should be said, but it doesn't have any obvious advantages in terms of the importance of the works it publishes, the material quality of the books it makes, or the price for what you get. It is clearly outmatched on at least one of these by most academic publishers, in fact.

(4) The attempt to suggest that McMaster "adopted the defamatory statements as their own" is the height of stupidity; universities do not and cannot monitor all communications of their employees. What is more, academic librarians are hired professionals, and the University has no right to interfere with its librarians (or faculty) airing their professional opinion in public (certainly not where this does not severely hamper the ability of the university to fulfill its mission). This is precisely what Askey was doing, however; academic librarians are too often the forgotten professionals in the business, but professionals they certainly are, and Askey was obviously speaking on a matter within his own field.

(The professional character of much university employment is something that is often not understood by outsiders. For things like faculty or library positions, universities hire people as professionals, expected to do what they deem fit in their own professional judgment as long as it fits with the required tasks. As I said, it is often forgotten that this includes librarians, not just professors, but professionals are hired precisely so that they will make their own assessments and provide their own best judgment.)

Ironically it turns out that Askey wasn't even an employee of McMaster when he wrote the post; McMaster is literally being sued for not forcing him to repudiate something he wrote before they hired him.

Friday, February 08, 2013

More on Divine Command Theory

There has been some interesting discussion of the previous post on the Stupid Way of Arguing Against Divine Command Theory. I thought I would put up, as a tangential matter, a few points that (insofar as they are ignored) probably make it easier for people not to notice that there is something very off about the SWAADCT.

(1) Divine command theories are specifically theories of obligation. To put it in other words, they are not concerned with goodness in general but with that particular kind of goodness that can be represented by a strong modality (Box) -- a kind of necessity. And they are positivistic about this: you only have an obligation (strong modality/Box for morality) if something commands or forbids something.

They are not general accounts of goodness I have never come across any developed version of divine command theory that was even consistent with taking divine command theory to be a general account of goodness. The most important divine command theorist in the early modern period, William Warburton, rejects this entirely, unless by 'goodness' you mean 'having to do strictly with moral obligation'. Warburton's account recognizes that we have three distinct ways in which we talk about morality. We talk about morality in a rationalist way (perception of what is appropriate), we talk about morality in a sentimentalist way (good taste), and we talk about morality in a deontic way (following or not following obligations). The weakness of the former two is that they both admit of degrees. Yes, murder is generally a stupid way of getting what one wants, and yes, it is icky and bad taste. But lots of things are stupid and icky that are not necessarily violations of moral obligations; so what makes the difference? Command and sanction, which draw a sharp, bright line. When Warburton argues that atheists cannot consistently be moral, he is not arguing that they can't identify things as good and bad; he is arguing that there is no way to pull deontic necessities, obligations, out of the slippery, fuzzy means they can consistently accept, and that the only way to have such obligations is to have some universal command and sanction, which requires some commanding authority with universal power of sanction.

If we look at other kinds of divine command theory, like, for instance, the more modern version explored by Robert Adams, we find the same thing: there are kinds of goodness and badness independent of obligation and permission, it's just that for the latter kind of goodness you need something that can obligate and permit. And so it is with others.

(2) The God of divine command theory is not generally an empty placeholder; he has to have the features required to have commanding authority of universal scope. In Warburton's account these are absolute goodness, wisdom, and power; in Adams's account, love is specifically, although not exclusively, singled out. Such divine command theories -- and, again, all developed divine command theories I've ever come across give some content to what it means for God to command -- do not accept the view that just any kind of thing can be commanded by God. In Warburton's case, we cannot ever say that God might command something unless we have reason to think it is the kind of thing that a perfectly good, wise, and powerful authority might command. In Adams's account, nothing counts as the right sort of command to form an obligation unless it is the kind of command a loving God could give. Thus none of the usual scary scenarios can be easily shoehorned in. To posit that there might be a situation/possible world/whatever in which God commanded that we should cannibalize schoolchildren, we'd have to first determine that we had good reason to think that there was a situation/possible world/whatever in which a perfectly good, wise, and powerful (or loving) authority might have wise and good (or loving) reason to require that people cannibalize schoolchildren. Once we've gone out this far on the limb, it's easy to see that the supposed scary scenario is completely toothless, even before we've gotten to the question of obligation itself.

(3) By the time we've even gotten to the question of divine command and obligation, though, we have already assumed, for the sake of argument, that there is no impediment to its being the kind of thing we could be obligated to do. All that's missing is whether we actually are. And since divine command theory is positivistic about moral obligation, the bare fact of God, as having these authoritative qualities, commanding whatever it is constitutes the obligation. Once we've said, then, "Assume that DCT is true, and assume that X might be commanded by God; then it's obligatory!" we aren't saying anything that could possibly be an objection to divine command theory: we have simply said that if we assume that divine command theory is true and that such-and-such might meet its criteria, we would have an obligation. This is a purely formal characteristic that divine command theory shares with every possible account of obligation. That's just what it is to be an account of obligation: that if something, whatever it may be, meets the criteria, it is an obligation. It does not follow from this that X actually might be commanded by God -- again, I have never come across a divine command theorist who was definitely committed to saying that absolutely anything might be commanded by God. All we've done is restate what it is to be an account of obligation, using divine command theory and some arbitrary example. To make the example non-arbitrary we have to show that the divine command theorist is committed to its being a possibility.

(4) Given the structure of most divine command theories, it's actually quite implausible to accuse them of implying that anything could be an obligation. What they are usually committed to instead is the claim that anything might not be an obligation. Take any obligation in existence, God could have conceivably not made it an obligation. Note that it could still be a good thing to do. Likewise, for anything we are obligated not to do, the divine command theorist is not saying that God could have made it so that we were obligated to do it (which would have to be proven on a case-by-case basis) but rather that God could have made it so that we were not obligated not to do it. It could still be bad, stupid, icky, distasteful, inappropriate, etc., depending on the exact form the divine command theory took. We just wouldn't have an actual obligation not to do it; doing it might make you an icky, stupid, bad person in some way, just not in the way that failing in your duty might.

When we recognize this, we see quite clearly that most critics of divine command theorists are probably guilty of a scope error, confusing God could have made it so that we were obligated to do it with God could have made it so that we were not obligated not to do it. But you can reject the first while accepting the latter, and most divine command theorists at least tend to prefer to talk about the latter, and at least seem committed to rejecting the former, whenever we are talking about Very Bad Things. Divine command theory is not the position that God could make anything obligatory; it is the position that anything obligatory can only be so because God commands it. These are radically different.

The Stupid Way of Arguing Against Divine Command Theory

I'm not really sure what to make of the fact that it is also the nigh-universal way of arguing against it.

The stupid way of arguing against divine command theory (we'll make it More Logical the way philosophers do by turning words into letters and call it SWAADCT), goes like this.

(SWAADCT) Given divine command theory D, and given the assumption that God commands some awful thing A, D would require that A be obligatory.

Notice, incidentally, that I admirably continue the practice of turning words into letters to make it More Logical. Yes, I have been reading some dimwitted discussions of divine command theory that engage extensively in the practice of making things More Logical.

All mockery of the ritualistic behaviors of analytic philosophers aside, this is a truly stupid way to argue against anything. Divine command theories are accounts of obligation itself. Thus, if we are already assuming them even for the sake of argument, saying, "Suppose that God commands some awful thing" is equivalent to saying "Suppose that this awful thing is the kind of thing that would make it obligatory". We have therefore assumed arbitrarily that some awful action has the obligation-making feature required by the theory we are assuming for the sake of argument and then are shocked -- SHOCKED! -- that it logically follows that the awful action is obligatory.

Obviously this is the sort of fun we can have with any account of obligation:

(SWAAU) Given a utilitarian account of obligation U, and given the assumption that some awful thing A is required to maximize utility, U would require that A be obligatory.

(SWAAK) Given a Kantian account of obligation K, and given the assumption that some awful thing A is required by the categorical imperative, K would require that A be obligatory.

Mix and match! Make your own!

Or you know, you could just concede that when your refutation of a position consists of "But when I arbitrarily add assumptions about what fits the account's criteria for obligation, I sometimes get unacceptable conclusions", your conception of how to do meta-ethics is pretty obviously bankrupt.

There are, of course, non-stupid ways of arguing against divine command theory. Catherine Trotter Cockburn has a number of arguments worth taking seriously, for instance. And it is well known that divine command theories suffer most of the problems of legal positivism, and for at least some of them cannot take the usual escape routes that legal positivists take, for the obvious reason that divine command theories are forms of moral positivism and thus merely a way to generalize legal positivism.

UPDATE: For additional discussion on why this approach to divine command theory is a no-go, see my follow-up post.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Plato and Democracy

Jason Stanley has some comments about Plato and democracy at The Stone that seem to me to be guilty of the reckless hyperbole with which people talk on this subject:

Plato had a famously dim view of democracy. He regarded politics as a craft, and thought that understanding the essence of a craft is to have expertise. Plato argues that we cannot hope the multitude to achieve expertise in the craft of governing. They are too easily misled by sophists. It followed, for Plato, that democracy must be rejected as a just system of governance. It is “probable that the origins of tyranny are found nowhere else than in the democratic regime.” (“The Republic”). A just system of government must have a philosopher king, who understands the essences of things. Translated into the modern context, Plato’s view is that the only just system of government is one that is run by one or several experts in economics and public policy. The multitude is too easily swayed by propaganda.

Plato was right to regard his views as inconsistent with democracy. His view that citizens are not competent to make judgments about public policy, that economics and policy are areas of expertise like the physician’s, is profoundly undemocratic.

It is true that Plato has a dim view of democracy, but this definitely involves taking Plato's comments on democracy and exaggerating them beyond all recognition. (I don't think Stanely is alone in doing this.) So some points to the contrary, with minor comment:

(1) The claim that Plato thinks "that citizens are not competent to make judgments about public policy" is the exact opposite of the view that Socrates actually presents. The structure of the kallipolis requires that citizens make lots of judgments about public policy -- namely, in those areas of public policy directly relevant to the skill by which they are able to benefit the city. Some citizens, of course, have more extensive 'jurisdiction' as we might call it, because they develop more comprehensive skills; but this is not surprising, since the structure here -- that some people have more responsibility and power to govern than others -- is true of every society with a government, and the kallipolis or city of virtue by its very nature has to be a meritocracy. Given that Socrates is answering the question of what kind of luxurious city (more on that in a moment) would be incapable of injustice, the kallipolis is a city in which all policy is public policy, because everything has to be for the good of the city. The differences are just in more-and-less: some people are capable of actions and decisions that are more beneficial for the city than others.

Likewise, it is incorrect to say that Plato's view is "that we cannot hope the multitude to achieve expertise in the craft of governing". The Platonic Socrates does indeed think that people are too easily misled by sophists, but this is not because they are incapable of the craft of governing but because they listen to flattery and pandering rather than examining their lives and trying to be just. Likewise he thinks they are enamored with democracy because of a complacent confusion of the gaudiness of mere tolerant diversity with the beauty of justice, not because they are incapable of being goaded into recognizing the difference. Since Socrates in several dialogues (the Republic is not an exception) closely links, and sometimes seems to identify, the craft of governing with the craft of self-governing, government ends up being the ability to develop justice in oneself and encourage it in others. The whole Socratic approach, however, assumes that everyone is at least in principle capable of this, and in the Republic Socrates is quite clear that the way to prevent the degeneration of society is for people to try to be the kind of citizen appropriate to a kallipolis, regardless of what their actual society might be.

The only way in which we can make these opinions work is by glossing "multitude" as "people who are not trying to know what justice is and live their lives in accordance with it"; in which case it is certainly true that Plato would think that we cannot hope for such people to achieve the skill of governing, and that they are not competent to make judgments about public policy. If we take it in that sense, though, I think we have to admit that there is something to be said in its favor.

(2) It's easy to overlook elements of the the structure of the Republic, since there is so much to the dialogue, but the most fatal element to overlook is the fact that the kallipolis is not Socrates's first choice for a just society. It is his second, the one that takes most of the book even to describe. The first just society presented in the dialogue doesn't take long to describe at all. In this first society people come together and divide the labor required to survive. For instance, instead of one person trying to do and get everything he needs, he focuses on making food for everybody and gets things like clothing by exchanging with other people. Everybody works hard and budgets thriftily and trades fairly because they have to. For social fun they eat good food in moderation, drink in moderation, and sing hymns together; they also "roast myrtle and acorn by the fire", which is sometimes taken to be a sexual euphemism. And that's it. The society is organized not by a government but by the three principles of free market, necessary thrift, and mutual aid. (Maybe you could add the principle of church picnics.) There are no guardians, no philosopher-kings. There isn't even any government in our usual sense; everybody does what they have to and injustice is avoided because it is obviously contrary to everyone's interest. Kropotkin would love it; it is a self-organizing anarchy in which injustice is impossible precisely because everyone has to govern themselves and their own families, and people work together and get along because they have to do so.

The Athenians, of course, are utterly shocked at this picture of a just society, calling it a "city of pigs", and demand that Socrates give them a just society in which the people have luxuries: quite literally, a city in which people can have comfy cushions, tables, fancy sauces, perfumes, pastries, and courtesans. In other words, they want not a just trading society, they want a just trading power. They want a city in which they can live exactly like they do in Athens but still guarantee that there will be no injustice. But how do you avoid injustice in a society in which people devote themselves to obtaining luxuries? You have to make it possible for them to have luxuries while making it at least extremely difficult for them to fall into the trap of always craving more (pleonexia, as the Greeks called it). Craving more and more is a major, perhaps the major, cause of injustice. And that is where we get the republic, the kallipolis, and that is why the kallipolis is so weird: this is how far Plato thinks you'd have to go to have city that both pursued wealth and luxury like Athens and was immune to injustices of ambition and craving. People would have to treat each other more like family than like strangers, rulers would have to regard things like bribery and sale of offices in the way they regard drinking poison, education would have to be carefully structured to weed out even the idea that people might be better off if they were unjust, etc., etc. This is also why, having built the kallipolis in idea, Socrates then goes on to show how it would slowly collapse in real life as, just by sheer accumulation of accidents, people start realizing that you can do what you're supposed to and still not get the nice things you're supposed to get for it -- and therefore start taking shortcuts.

(3) Plato does think that democracy tends naturally to tyranny, but this is closely tied to what he means by democracy. Plato criticizes democracy not because he thinks it is bad government but because he thinks it is a near-abdication of government: the principle of a democratic society is one in which everyone gets to do whatever they like, regardless of whether it benefits themselves or others, as long as they don't harm anyone else. This principle of tolerance gives order to the society, but it is a necessarily unstable order. For it to work everyone has to agree about what is harmful and what is harmless. But there is nothing in democratic society that can possibly guarantee this agreement. Even if they start out in agreement, it would break down over time as people naturally diverge and have different experiences. In order to handle this it becomes absolutely necessary to persuade other people, not about minor things, but about the most fundamental things. Thus we have the rise of sophists and orators. Democracy becomes a power struggle between interest groups, each trying to persuade a sufficient majority that they have the right idea about what is harmful and what is harmless while their opponents are really doing what is harmful. Opinions are deemed bad not on the basis of the understanding that they summarize but simply because you can find a way to bully or shame enough people into not holding them. Only the bare principle of tolerance and the balance of power prevent the society one in which might makes right.

But the democratic city also has nothing that can guarantee that balances of power will last forever or that people will continue to respect the principle of tolerance. Sooner or later the balance of power tips heavily in one direction, sooner or later one group gets enough power that they begin to realize that they don't actually need to tolerate people who disagree with them, and that life would actually be easier for them if they didn't. So they stop doing it. And then you have tyranny: a society whose only principle of rule is someone being able to manipulate others into destroying those who disagree with them.

To put it in other words: Plato does not take a dim view of democracy because he thinks ordinary people are incapable of developing the skill of governance; he takes a dim view of democracy because he thinks democracy by its nature makes it almost impossible for them to develop it. He doesn't think that democracy tends toward tyranny because people are in themselves too easily misled by sophists and orators; he thinks that it does so because democracy by its very structure makes it difficult for them not to be misled by sophists and orators. People are protected from being misled by sophists and orators in a kallipolis, because everyone has to develop at least some public-minded virtues; they are protected in a timarchy because everyone has to conform to standards of honor that are not easily twisted around; they are protected in an oligarchy because orators have to show that their proposals really do stand a chance of being useful and profitable; but they have no protection at all in what Plato calls a democracy. Plato is not skeptical of democracy because he thinks most people are incompetent when it comes to political decisions; he is skeptical of democracy because he thinks it makes most people incompetent.

(4) Nonetheless, it is always worth keeping in mind that, for all this, Plato is quite clear that democracy is still a genuine government and a society that still has some echo or shadow of justice. It is the weakest society, yes, but it is a true and genuine society, one in which we can still say there is a public good, a common good. It is salvageable (by philosophy and the pursuit of virtue) and beneficial to its members. A democractic society in Plato's sense can be (and should be) much better than it is, but the citizens still can make it better without superhuman acts of heroism. The degeneration of democracy into mobocracy and tyranny is an extraordinary catastrophe, one of the worst catastrophes possible, because it is the last government in which the society still has anything to do with justice at all.

Shared Beliefs, Shared Topics for Argument

Shared norms and beliefs do not necessarily predict a shared pattern of inference. Although it is often assumed that people who share the same beliefs and values will most likely draw the same conclusions given the same evidence, there is reason to believe that argumentative divergences can and do occur quite readily among groups who share common creeds, texts, and orientations. Michel Billig (1996) has provided extensive analysis of this phenomenon, including discussion of religious communities who argue endlessly over the meaning and implications of their shared texts, norms, and histories. Ironically, the plenitude of their shared beliefs and norms provides easy fodder for more, not fewer, arguments. Quite simply, in communities who share many beliefs and norms, there is more on the table to argue about, and more fine points to consider. Thus the possibilities for contestable assertion do not seem, necessarily, to be reduced by the sharing of concepts and norms of reasoning. The feature that Billig emphasizes in such cases is the implicit two-sidedness of any argument, and the lack of guarantee that there will ever be a bottom line in sorting out disputed claims.

Lyne, John. 2012. “Having ‘A Whole Battery of Concepts’: Thinking Rhetorically About the Norms of Reason.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 143-148.

One likely advantage of shared beliefs and values for argumentative diversity, of course, is that everyone can agree about what's an important topic to argue about. The person with which you are least likely to argue much is the person who thinks that the things you want to argue about are in reality pointless to argue about. So where shared beliefs and values are lacking, a lot of energy gets expended simply trying to work out what the worthwhile topics of argument are.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Of Rights-Based Constitutional Government

From the recent DOJ memo arguing that the President has the authority to use lethal force against U.S. citizens (PDF), my emphasis:

Were the target of a lethal operation a U.S. citizen who may have rights under the Due Process Clause and the Fourth Amendment, that individual's citizenship would not immunize him from a lethal operation. (p. 2)

This is precisely what is wrong with the Administration's position on this. Due process is not a right a U.S. citizen "may have"; due process by its nature is by its very nature due. And the Constitution is quite undeniably explicit that "no deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". There are no exceptions. Note, incidentally, that there aren't even exceptions for non-citizens: no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law.

Everybody recognizes that due process of law is not the same in every situation. The legal process due in killing someone who is immediately engaged in actual war against the U.S. is obviously very different from that which is due in capital punishment. Likewise, we all recognize that citizenship is not immunity from being killed, which is why we don't throw cops in jail for shooting violent criminals who are an imminent threat to other people. None of this is what people actually protest on this issue. What people protest is the cavalier attitude, the kind of attitude that talks about the government's authority to kill citizens who "may have" constitutional rights.

This is not a mere slip of words; the cavalier attitude is built into the very document itself. The very principle of constitutional government is that government authority is authority derived from others, in our case the people; and the very foundation of the American conception of rights is that there are rights that are not derived from the government, but that must be respected by the government if it is to have any authority at all. It's never a case in which a U.S. citizen "may have" rights guaranteed him by the Constitution. And the whole point of the American approach to government is that you are never allowed to start with the authority of the President, or of Congress, or of the States, because these institutions have no authority except insofar as is required to respect and protect the rights of the people. All authority given to them is for the express purpose, and for no other purpose, of making sure that citizens have things like due process. If Congress uses its authority to prevent people from getting the process due to them, it does not matter what justification they give: it is usurpation of power. If the President uses his authority in a way that does not respect due process, it is usurpation of power. Obviously the President will have to do many things that involve hard decisions, and obviously this may mean doing in one case what would violate due process in another case. But this is not because the President has authority, which then must accommodate due process to the extent possible, but because due process, which the President must always and without exception accommodate, varies from case to case.

But the entire logical structure of the memo goes the wrong way: it argues for Presidential authority and then uses this as itself part of the government's interest in establishing due process. This is, and I will not mince words, the kind of argument that could only be made by someone who has no conception of rights or constitutional government, whose entire understanding of justice is corrupt. Obviously we must weigh government interest against private interest in determining what process is due; government interest includes things like protecting the rights of its citizens, and obviously due process can never require the government to violate this interest, and should include things that further this interest. But in a constitutional regime based on the concept of rights it is never part of government interest to exercise its power, even for the purpose of protecting those rights, because government interest is the whole collection of ends of government, and exercise of power is a means, not an end, of government. It is not the purpose of government to exercise power, even to good ends; it is the purpose of government to serve certain ends, which requires exercising power. There is a universe of difference between the two. Thus, we can never start with some general Presidential authority to kill people, even enemies of the state in active war against the U.S. We do not start with Presidential authority to kill and then establish limits; we establish limits based on rights and outside those limits there is no Presidential authority to kill at all. Or, to put it another way: we can only establish that the President has any constitutional authority on this topic at all to the extent that we have already established that recognizing such authority would not violate due process. Only when we have established that the President is not violating due process and other rights can we then go on to discuss whether he has any actual authority in the area at all.

Almost everyone is willing to recognize that the President has the authority if he is not violating due process. But the direction is crucial. The fact that the action makes it easier for the government to act is never a reasonable thing to weigh in determining whether the action is violating due process. What we weigh in determining the legal process due are the ends served by government, not the government's power to do things; that a restriction on action would make things difficult for the government to act is irrelevant, since the only feasibility that is relevant to due process is whether a restriction on action would make it impossible to serve the ends of protecting its citizens and their rights. But we have had several Administrations recently that take the government's authority to act as the default, and push the burden of proof on those who would argue that this authority to act violates rights. This is not just contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, it is contrary to the existence of principled constitutional government at all. In a constitutional regime based on rights, the burden of proof is always on the government, because the government has only derivative authority. The rights stand in themselves; the government must show that it is respecting and protecting them, or concede that it has no authority at all.

There are other issues, of course. People often think that the limited role of Congress in all of this is disturbing. The right that is protected is due process of law, not due process of Presidential deliberation; the mere fact that the Administration thinks a lot before it decides to kill someone is not due process. The due process must be a procedure of law, not a mere decision, however deliberative that decision must be, and the fact that there is such a controversy over this is perhaps as much due to the fact that people don't think the role of the law, or in other words, the role of Congress, is being adequately respected here. But this is a distinct issue. The thing that is most completely worrisome about this is less the particular conclusion reached (which in particular cases might be the right one) than it is the way in which it is reached, the attitude the Administration displays every single time they put together a justification of actions like this. Bits and pieces of their arguments are often right, but the argument as a whole is built on assumptions at which we should be aghast. This attitude, these assumptions, I do not hesitate to say are corrupt. And what these justifications show us is that our Department of Justice is filled with people who have these attitudes and reason on these assumptions.

ADDED LATER: It should be said that I've only scratched the surface here. The best summary I've found of the many serious problems here is Glenn Greenwald's discussion of it at The Guardian.

Method and Principles

The mistake of most philosophers in modern times is in placing the question of method before that of principles, as if principles were found or obtained, instead of being given. The principles determine the method, not the method the principles; and when once we understand principles are objective, we understand that our method must be objective, instead of subjective.

Orestes Brownson

Monday, February 04, 2013

Disciplinary Philosophy and Disincentive

It is impossible not to notice that this withdrawal of philosophy from the public conversation coincides quite closely with its disciplinization, and anyone who works as a philosopher in the current, disciplinary environment knows very well that to spend too much time engaged with public affairs and too little on disciplinary work is to court unemployment. Aristotle may have written The Athenian Constitution, but it is not an exaggeration to say that if a contemporary philosopher, employed at one of our top Universities, was to devote his time and energies to consulting on or even drafting a revision of the American Constitution — say, as part of a constitutional convention — he would fail to get tenure, on the grounds that his work had not been peer-reviewed. Such is the disincentive today for philosophers to do anything other than write the narrowest, disciplinary sort of philosophy that it is hardly a surprise that so few of us are engaged in the essential work of public affairs.

Kaufman, Daniel A. 2013. “Philosophy’s Academic Viability: A Reply to Frodeman, Briggle and Holbrook.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (3): 1-5.

(The Athenian Constitution, or The Constitution of Athens, which was written either by Aristotle or his student, is generally assumed to be part of the large research project behind Aristotle's Politics. Ancients sources attribute somewhere between 150 and 170 works on Greek constitutions to Aristotle; practically none of them have survived, and this one was only rediscovered in the 19th century as part of the Oxyrhynchus find. In any case, it's certainly true that most philosophy departments wouldn't count it towards tenure. One of the things I try to make clear to my Intro students is that ideas are affected by infrastructure and practice, especially educational infrastructure and practice; this would be a case where educational infrastructure and practice provide a disincentive for philosophers to concern themselves with the world at large rather than with discussions of structured technical problems likely to be cited in further discussions of the same problem.)

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Links of Note, Notes on Links

* John Wilkins had two really good posts on classification recently:
Pattern recognition: neither deduction nor induction
The relation of classification to abductive reasoning

The latter question is a little tricky since we don't have a unified account of abduction, but both arguments seem to me to be right, and quite important. Of course, the fact that classification is not itself induction, deduction, or abduction is still consistent with large-scale classificatory inquiries involving the latter three on an extensive scale, just as large-scale inductive inquiries will inevitably include deductions; and I think this takes care of a lot of the cases that might initially seem to be counterexamples.

* Daniel Dennett discusses some of his major ideas and current interests. I haven't really paid close attention to Dennett since I started reading Freedom Evolves and decided it was a waste of my time, and haven't really come across anything since that I've thought was even remotely on par with some of his early work, but this interview is quite interesting even if you don't like Dennett.

* H. G. Wells: Mysticism and Machinery

* Richard Marshall interviews Stephen Mumford on causal powers theory.

* John Farrell talks about Sax Rohmer and Fu Manchu. It's an interesting case: the Fu Manchu works are racist in an obvious sense, since the whole point of Fu Manchu is to be the Yellow Peril in one man. But the result is a weirdly compelling villain, because he's so much. To be the Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu has to be the greatest threat to Western civilization ever encountered; and since Rohmer actually does a fairly gripping job of conveying this, it turns out to be pretty awesome villainy. What we find in the first novel, for instance, is that the finest minds and bravest souls in Britain try to hunt him down and with all the resources of the British nation they can barely keep up with him. But this is the inherent self-annihilatory tendency of Peril-stereotype racism: to attack an entire race as really being a terrible threat to the entire order of civilization, you have to portray them as capable of truly amazing things, because that's not a tiny little threat. What I'm really waiting for is a good pro-Fu-Manchu story -- one that makes him the hero, or at least the anti-hero. There's no doubt that the potential is there; despite Rohmer's playing him up as an awful, evil person, it's hard not to root for him already. You kind of want to see Western civilization fall just to see how he does it.

* Gavin Kennedy reviews Alexander Broadie's Agreeable Connexions: Scottish Enlightment Links with France

* Gerald Russello discusses Christopher Dawson

* Faith, Wonder, and the Method

* The Chaldean Catholics have chosen a new patriarch, Louis Sako. It's an important decision; the Christian Church in Iraq has been fraying badly since the Iraq War, and the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans is one of the important leaders of the community. He'll have a difficult period ahead, but hopefully he can bring some order and stability to a community that has been under immense external pressures.

* Two Popes tweeting:

Pope Benedict XVI of Rome
Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria

So that's Catholics and Copts. It turns out that Patriarch Bartholomew also has a Twitter account, bringing the Orthodox in on the action, but unlike the other two he doesn't seem to use it for more than pointing to his addresses and open letters. Any others?

Goodreads 100

MrsD has put up a book meme. I've followed suit, with a slightly different key. Obviously if I haven't read it but it's on my shelves, it will be a Fortnightly book at some point. I've cheated slightly with Les Miserables; I am at this very moment 2/3 of the way through my first reading, and will be finished with it before the end of the week. I keep miscounting, but I think this brings me to 52 books on the list that I've read. There are some odd ones on the list that I really don't expect to get around to, ever, even if I don't necessarily have anything against reading them.

Books I've read
Books I started but didn't find interesting enough to continue
Could be interested to read
If I were handed this, I'd look for the nearest cereal box as an alternative
Haven't read
** Have on my shelves currently

To Kill a Mockingbird **
The Catcher in the Rye
Fellowship of the Ring **
Pride and Prejudice **
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ** (Philosopher's Stone, people. Philosopher's Stone!)
Romeo and Juliet **
Jane Eyre **
1984 **
Hamlet **
The Hobbit **
Brave New World
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe **
The Great Gatsby
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn **
Fahrenheit 451 **
Wuthering Heights **
Alice in Wonderland
The Secret Garden
Green Eggs and Ham
Little Women **
Of Mice and Men
The Handmaid's Tale
Lord of the Flies
The DaVinci Code
Frankenstein **
Dune **
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Gone With The Wind
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
A Wrinkle in Time **
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Slaughterhouse Five
Anne of Green Gables
Where the Sidewalk Ends **
The Little Prince **
Memoirs of a Geisha **
The Princess Bride
The Picture of Dorian Grey
The Hunger Games
Sense and Sensibility **
The Golden Compass **
Dracula **
The Color Purple
The Kite Runner
The Odyssey **
Anna Karenina
And Then There Were None **
Interview with the Vampire
The Book Thief
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Count of Monte Cristo
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Joy Luck Club
Little House on the Prairie
The Giver
Life of Pi
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes **
Ender's Game **
A Tale of Two Cities **
The Stranger
East of Eden
Les Miserables **
The Bell Jar
The Road
The Time Traveler's Wife
A Prayer for Owen Meany **
The Stand
The Sun Also Rises **
The Pillars of the Earth
Crime and Punishment **
The Good Earth
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Help
Lonesome Dove
Water for Elephants
American Gods
The Poisonwood Bible
My Sister's Keeper
The Master and Margarita
The Notebook
Like Water for Chocolate (but it was the original Spanish, Como agua para chocolate)
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Invisible Man **
A Game of Thrones
The Fountainhead
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The Brothers Karamazov
The House of the Spirits
Fight Club
Interpreter of Maladies