Saturday, February 16, 2008

Double Effect and Intrinsically Immoral Acts

Zippy asks an interesting question about double effect:

The first criteria of the principle of double-effect is that the principle of double-effect only applies when an act is not intrinsically immoral....Isn't it odd, then, that so many Catholics, including a number of well respected theologians in their non-magisterial texts, appeal to the principle of double-effect in order to demonstrate that a proposed act is not intrinsically immoral? This is exactly backward. The principle of double effect doesn't determine whether or not an act is intrinsically immoral: rather, the PDE applies only to acts which are not intrinsically immoral.

The principle of double effect does contribute an essential component to determining whether or not an act is intrinsically immoral, which, for instance, is why in ST 2-2.64.7, a locus classicus for the principle, Thomas Aquinas does exactly that. The reason is that the principle of double effect recognizes that there are effects intended and effects that are preter-intentional, beside the intention, and that this is relevant because changes in the intention change the act itself. Subtle changes may change it subtly, major changes will change it in a major way. Thus, if in a struggle you kill someone because you are trying to save your life, this is a different act entirely from, in the same struggle, trying to kill them because you want them dead. Thus drawing the line between intentional and preter-intentional effect is an important step in determining what the act is in the first place -- which certainly is a prerequisite if you are going to evaluate whether it is intrinsically immoral.

The confusion, I think, and I think it is a general one, is due to the fact that the principle of double effect in its actual applications usually involves two elements: the drawing of the line between intentional and preter-intentional effect, and the judgment that this line is also a line between permissible and impermissible acts. When we talk about double effect we sometimes mean the former and sometimes both the former and the latter. This latter judgment cannot be based on the distinction of effects alone. (Thus Aquinas, for instance, claims that it is permissible to kill someone as a preter-intentional effect of one's act, assuming that everything is done in a proportionate manner, because self-preservation is natural.) But to get to the point that you are properly understanding the act in question, you need to remove confusions about effects that lead to equivocation on the subject; and to do this you have to begin applying the principle of double effect. This is, of course, not a sufficient condition; but it certainly is a necessary one.

To put it in other terms: when you have determined that an act is intrinsically immoral, this means that it is immoral when you have taken into account every morally relevant feature of the act. Only then can you determine the actual object of this particular act. Thus it is trivially true that if an act is intrinsically immoral, applying the principle of double effect does not show it to be permissible, because recognizing it as intrinsically immoral involves already having taken into account the distinction of effects (otherwise we are being dangerously vague about which act we are talking about). Thus we have to have already applied the principle of double effect to judge that the particular act in question is intrinsically immoral. It is certainly true that the application of the distinction of effects does not on its own show that any act is permissible; what it does is identify one very important way in which people get confused about which act they are talking about -- and this confusion can in some cases be all the difference between an act that is permissible and an act that is impermissible. The permissibility (or impermissibility) has to be shown on other grounds. But in every case what we will be investigating is the permissibility or impermissibility of acts that the distinction of the double effect has distinguished. Given the distinction, there is a further step of saying that, in the case of an act in which a good effect is intended and a bad effect is preter-intentional, the bad effect's being preter-intentional is enough to make it permissible if:

(1) the particular way the good effect is intended is itself not intrinsically evil (we can, of course, intend good effects in intrinsically disordered ways, and many immoral actions involve intending good things in evil ways);
(2) the bad effect is permitted but not actively willed;
(3) the good effect is at least as natural an effect for that action as the bad effect;
(4) the good effect is substantially good in comparison with the bad effect.

There has historically been some controversy about how (4) is best determined, and about what exactly happens if conditions (2) or (3) are not met. Everyone agrees, though, that if all four conditions are met the act is permissible. In practice we tend sometimes to use 'principle of double effect' to refer to the distinction of effects (given that this can sometimes make apparently impermissible acts permissible) and sometime to use it to refer to the distinction plus a set of criteria of permissibility like the above. The former alone tells us nothing about permissibility, but it is necessary for determining whether any moral act is intrinsically evil or permissible. The latter does tell us whether an act is permissible; determining whether something is intrinsically evil or not is indeed a key element of it, but a great deal depends on whether you presume the new acts identified by the distinction to be intrinsically evil until proven permissible or permissible until proven impermissible.

We can sum it all up with an example. Murder is an intrinsically evil act. But to determine whether an act is murder requires first distinguishing intentional and preter-intentional effects, and recognizing that this distinction has important bearing on how the act is to be understood in the first place. So, faced with an act of killing, we consider what effects were intended and what effects were preter-intentional. Suppose someone tried to fend off an attacker, leading to the attacker's death. We then ask if the person who was attacked was concerned at the time with simply protecting his own life, and not bent on killing the attacker. Suppose it to be so. We then ask if the end of protecting one's own life is a good one to will. It is. We then ask if the person who was attacked used a reasonable amount of force in his defense (rather than, say, plunging a knife twenty times into the attacker's body). Suppose it to be so. This means that the means was proportionate to the end. We then ask if there was any general imprudence on the part of the person attacked. That is, we want to know whether the person attacked should have chosen some alternative course that would not have resulted in the attacker's death but would still have fully preserved the end of self-preservation. (It's possible, of course, that a person could genuinely intend self-preservation rather than murder, and in the act itself exercise restrain and a sense of proportion, but be certainly wrong for getting into the situation in the first place. A man in a duel to 'preserve his honor' may intend only self-preservation, and strictly restrain himself to proportionate means, but that doesn't of itself make the act of killing permissible.) This can be a tricky thing to evaluate; sometimes the imprudence will be minor, and simply will make the act less good than it usually would be, while often it will be major enough to make the good intention and proportionate means simply a component part of a larger immoral act. Suppose the person attacked were set upon suddenly and without warning, not having been negligent. Then there is nothing about the act that makes it wrong, however similar it may look to an act of outright murder under similar conditions.

Homer 19 and 20

I have recently been reading a biography of Auguste Comte. Tomorrow is, according to Comte's Positivist Calendar, Homer 20, devoted to Lucian, while today is devoted to Juvenal. So here are links for Juvenal and Lucian. I particularly recommend the latter; he manages to be both philosophical and enjoyable to read. One wishes that better philosophers had had his literary ability.

Juvenal's first three satires at the Ancient History Sourcebook.

The Fowler edition of Lucian's works at For philosophically-minded readers I particularly recommend the Hermotimus; for historians, The Way to Write History. Other good ones, and possibly of wider interest, are the Sale of Creeds, Charon, and the Icaromenippus.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Would Socrates Do?

Mark Rowlands at "Secular Philosophy":

If Christians ask themselves ‘what would Jesus do?’ philosophers should, it seems, ask themselves, ‘What would Socrates do?’ It’s a long time since I read any of the Platonic dialogues, but if my memory is not deceiving me, Thrasymachus didn’t break down when Socrates cast doubt on his claim that ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger.’ But even if he had, I don’t think it would have stopped Socrates.

(HT: Philosophy, et cetera)

It's an interesting idea, and a good one, I think; but asking 'What Would Socrates Do?' is a heftier responsibility than it might seem. In my intro course I've just started teaching (for the ancient philosophy section of the course) Plato's Gorgias, which in its own way is precisely about what Socrates did, about what a Socrates does, in the face of people like Thrasymachus (except, of course, that it's Callicles rather than Thrasymachus). And the point is twofold: rather than merely chattering about justice, Socrates lived a just life and taught justice that way, and he did not shirk doing so even when they killed him for it. I think it's a great thing to ask the question, "What would Socrates do?" But as St. Justin Martyr hints in reflecting on Socrates, if you are really taking the question seriously you have to be willing to die for the answer, the whole answer, and not just the parts that are convenient. If justice is the better part, and you follow Socrates, it is in the most fundamental sense the better part even if by every ordinary standard it is the worse part; even if the absolute triumph of injustice is guaranteed. It is something to which you must stick even when the Sophists are clearly going to defeat you -- and sooner or later they always do. As Boethius muses in the Consolation, the victory of the partisans of Lady Philosophy is often one of "victorious death." You know you are a philosopher when your view of true victory makes you yourself completely expendable in the cause of truth and justice.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Straw Man and Weak Man

There is an article on straw man fallacy in the Scientific American (the authors are Yvonne Raley of Felician College and Robert Talisse of Vanderbilt). It is not, I think, a very strong essay even granted that it's not intended to be a rigorous one. The constant problem we face in handling informal fallacies is that they all have two aspects. As I've said before:

Any communicated argument will...involve both reasoning and rhetoric; but the two cannot be simply conflated. You can use the same tactic of reasoning with a very different tactic of rhetoric, and vice versa. So we need to distinguish the two.

Fallacies like ad hominem, ad misericordiam, etc. turn out to be various rhetorical formats of the one fallacy of ignoratio elenchi. But what is the rational fallacy in straw man? It would appear at first glance that it is also a form of ignoratio elenchi: it leaves the other person's position unrefuted by presenting a different position (a weaker one) than it. But if this is so, not every simplification, or even obvious oversimplification, of an opponent's arguments would be a straw man. It would only be those cases where the oversimplification has so changed the nature of the position that a refutation of that position can have no bearing on, is for all practical purposes irrelevant to, the original position. Thus to show that something is a straw man it is not enough to note that it oversimplifies, or even misrepresents through its oversimplification, the original position; it has to be shown that the misrepresentation is serious enough that knocking it down doesn't introduce anything that tells against the original position.

Thus it seems to me that Raley and Talisse keep confusing the rhetorical and the rational aspects of the informal fallacy in their essay; they identify a rhetorical tactic, simplification of the opposing position, but incorrectly assume that the tactic itself is fallacious. (A good example is the Bill Clinton example: no doubt this does simplify Dole's position, but the point would seem to be not refutation of Dole's position, but a proposed contrast of the general sort of position Clinton wished to support with what he saw, or wished people to see, as the general sort of position Dole wished to support.) In reality, since straw man fallacy is a fallacy of irrelevance, this rhetorical tactic isn't shown to be a straw man unless we have shown it to introduce irrelevance.

As for the "twist" on the straw man that they talk about, the "weak man fallacy," it is, as far as I can see, no fallacy at all: it is simply the argumentative strategy of attacking weak arguments. Raley and Talisse's examples do a fair enough job of showing why this is often a faulty argumentative strategy; but fallacy and bad or even misleading strategy are different things.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Mix Tape for Lent

* Stacie Orrico, More to Life

* Tim Eriksen and Cassie Franklin, And Am I Born to Die?

* Alison Krauss, Down in the River to Pray

* Deborah Liv Johnson, What Wondrous Love Is This

* Kansas, Dust in the Wind

* Agnus Dei from Franz Schubert Mass no. 6 in E flat major

* Skillet, Rebirthing

* Kathryn Scott, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (best for last)

Sabor de bien que es finito

Sabor de bien que es finito
Lo más que puede llegar
Es cansar el apetito
Y estragar el paladar.
Y así, por toda dulzura
Nunca yo me perderé,
Sino por un no sé qué
Que se halla por ventura.

From St. Juan de la Cruz, "Glosa a lo Divino". A rough, quick translation:

The taste of finite good:
the most it can give
is the tiring of the appetite
and the ruining of the palate.
And so even for all sweetness
I will never lose myself,
but for an I-know-not-what
that fortunately is found.

But "por ventura" as a poetic expression is somewhat tricky; it can mean fortunately, happily, by chance, as luck would have it, and so forth. "Fortunately" and "happily" with their association with chance (fortune in the one case and happenstance in the other) perhaps do the best.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Punctuation of Political Power

Section 8 of Article I of the U.S. Constitution begins:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;....

Browsing about, I came across an interesting passage about this in Noah Knowles Davis's Elements of Deductive Logic, speaking of ambiguity and punctuation:

After the word "excises" a semicolon is frequently printed, whereas in the original draft, and in the authorized edition of March 3, 1877, it is followed by a comma. Alexander Hamilton held that the items of the rest of the section are additional powers; Madison, that they are limitations. The semicolon enlarges federal authority; the comma favors state-rights. (p. 188)

That is, if we take the punctuation after "excises" to be a semi-stop, the above passage says:

Congress shall have the power
to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises;
to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States (as long as all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States)

And then it goes to enumerate powers beyond these two. But if we take the punctuation after "excises" to be a pause, the above passage says:

Congress shall have the power
to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, in order to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States (but all of these duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States).

This confines the Congressional power with regard to taxation to three purposes: paying debts, providing for common defense, and providing for general welfare; i.e., Congress can't tax unless it is explicitly for one of these purposes, and this is one power.

As Davis says, the comma is standard; but, of course, it's a different question whether it should be read literally or instead as a sort of colloquial semicolon. As things stand, we publish it as a comma but in practice we treat it as a semicolon, at least to the extent that we do not require Congress to make explicit the purpose of each tax, but allow it to raise taxes and then decide how it will be apportioned (and, again, do not require that Congress make clear in each and every case how this apportionment is related to the three purposes). This is a state of affairs somewhat uncomfortable for those of us who are partisans of the Comma Theory of Taxation.

Whewell Revived

I was interested in the following, seen at Bede's Journal:

In an excellent recent article for the New York Times, Steven Pinker outlined current research into the evolutionary origin of morality. He explains how researchers have shown that morality can been categorised into five universal headings: fairness, purity, authority, harm and community. Translated into language that we all understand, these five categories mean: do unto others as you would have done to you; do not commit adultery; honour your father and mother; do no murder; and do not covet your neighbour’s ox. Although there are huge variations in morals in different societies, Pinker is convincing that all fit into these categories.

One of the things that struck me was that this is actually fairly similar to Whewell's view of moral order. Whewell holds that all our moral tendencies and conceptions tend to converge on an 'ideal center', the character of the good man, which is characterized by what he calls the five cardinal virtues: benevolence, justice, truth, purity, and order. And there seems to be at least a rough correspondence between the moral universals described by Whewell and those described by Pinker as the result of recent research:

Fairness : Justice
Purity : Purity
Authority : Order
Harm(lessness) : Benevolence
Community : Truth

The last correspondence may not be immediately obvious, but it becomes more clear from Whewell's discussions of the Virtue of Truth, in which Truth is always a social and communal virtue, necessary because it makes community possible (it establishes a "Common Understanding" without which community relations are impossible) and allows the development of law and social interaction.

Mill on the Purpose of Universities

I came across this quotation of Mill while reading Alexander Campbell Fraser's Biographia Philosophica: A Retrospect (chapter VI), but I'm unable to find the source in Mill. Does anyone know it?

Text not available
 Biographia Philosophica: A Retrospect By Alexander Campbell Fraser

UPDATE: Miriam Burstein identifies the source in Dissertations and Discussions. It is, somewhat (although not wholly) unexpectedly, an early (very early -- 1835) defense of utilitarianism against one of its major critics, Adam Sedgwick, in his Discourse on the Studies of the University. The criticism apparently had no effect, since in the 1850 edition Sedgwick inserted a note saying that he did not change one sentence of his attack on the utilitarian theory of morals because his views on that subject had not changed.