Saturday, February 04, 2012

Three Oughts

I've previously argued that 'ought' is a a problem-relative fact about practical options, or, to put it on other words, that saying "I ought to do X," (or "I should do X") tells us that, given some practical problem for me, X is a solution. I think, however, that we can clarify this more by considering three major kinds of 'oughts'.

(1) Ought-at-least: As in "You ought at least to call your friend." This is a minimal solution ought. It says that X (calling your friend, in this case) is the least complicated, elaborate, or difficult option that solves the presupposed problem, or, to be more exact, that it is the solution that satisfies the bare essential requirements of the problem.

(2) Ought-best: This is the optimal solution ought. It says that X is the solution that most completely fulfills what the problem requires.

Both of these are consistent with there being more than one possible 'ought'. Ought-at-least is consistent with there being better solutions; ought-best is consistent with there being less good solutions that are nonetheless adequate. We sometimes talk this way, taking there to be a spread of 'oughts', any of which are good enough. But sometimes, indeed, quite often, we do not. Then we need

(3) Ought-only: This is the unique solution ought. It says that X is the only solution that meets the problem requirements.

Of course, an ought-only occurs when there is no difference between ought-at-least and ought-best.

In reality, I think these are all, at the generic level, the same sort of ought, i.e., practical solution to a given problem. What actually distinguishes them is the particular problems to which they are solutions. Two problems can be broadly speaking of the same kind, but have precise details that narrow or broaden the practical options that can be considered. We often don't distinguish much among the three above merely because we often aren't identifying our problems very precisely. If I say, "I should go to the store," I may have only a hazy idea of the problem involved (e.g., I know that I need some things that would be helpful or necessary to have, but have no precise list, just a vague, 'milk, and tissues, and some other things probably', which will be filled out at the store itself). Kinds of solutions are categorizable according to the kinds of problems they solve; and some practical problems allow any number of courses of actions as solutions and some practical problems aren't solvable by any more than one course of action. But precisely because we are vague in specifying the problem it's useful to keep in mind that there are different kinds of solutions that could be meant by saying "You ought to do X" or "You should do Y".

Friday, February 03, 2012

Notable Links

* An interesting news article on the White House garden, which is a working garden.

* Richard Beck recently finished a series of posts entitled, "Meditations on the Little Way," about St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
(1) Thérese of Lisieux and the Democratization of Holiness
(2) Story of a Soul
(3) "My Vocation is Love"
(4) The Elevator to Jesus: Practice of the Little Way
(5) Epilogue: The Dark Night of Faith and Love

* Thomas Storck has a good discussion of whether usury is still a sin.

* The SEP has an article on Hasdai Crescas. Hasdai Crescas was one of the truly great medieval Jewish philosophers, and the most important of the anti-Aristotelian Jewish philosophers after Maimonides, just as Gersonides was the most important Jewish philosopher in the Aristotelian camp after Maimonides.

* The IEP has an article on the complications of Lucas-Penrose anti-mechanism arguments.

* Udacity looks like an interesting new educational endeavor (devoted to computer science); I'm thinking about taking a course or two at some point myself.

* Jourdon Anderson was an emancipated slave who receive a letter from his former master asking him to come back to work for him. Anderson's letter in response is a perfect expression of wit and intelligence.

* History Carnival 106 is up at "Frog in a Well".

* An interesting discussion by John Meyendorff of Byzantine wedding customs (PDF).

* Jeremy Pierce has a really good post using the TV series Once Upon a Time as an example for explaining the distinction between externalism and internalism.

Midgley on Modern Autonomism

This inflated notion of autonomy is the mirror-image of Socrates's paradox that 'nobody does wrong willingly.' Socrates eliminated the will, making moral choice seem an entirely intellectual matter. Modern autonomism leaves nothing but the will, a pure, unbiassed power of choice, detached equally from the choosing subject's present characteristics and from all the objects it must choose between. In doing this it far outruns its distant ancestor Kant, more and more limited quotations from whom still appear as its warrant, and who still gets attacked for its excesses....Whatever his mistakes, Kant was always trying seriously to make sense of human life, and therefore to bring its two sides together in the end. By contrast, modern autonomism is embattled, and will have no truck with the opposition.
[Mary Midgley, Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay. Routledge (New York: 1996) p. 54]

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Autonomy and Dignity

Christopher Kaczor recently had an article on human dignity at "Public Discourse", addressing Steven Pinker's 2008 article on the same subject. When Pinker's article came out I blogged about it and was not impressed. But it's worth revisiting, and MrsDarwin asked my thoughts on the concept of autonomy in the article, which I hadn't really addressed at all before. So I'll throw out a few things on the subject.

Throughout his essay, which is titled, "The Stupidity of Dignity," Pinker attacks the notion of human dignity, arguing that the notion of autonomy is morally superior and more useful. This is at first glance a puzzle, since anyone who knows the history of the two concepts knows that they have always been pretty closely connected. What Pinker is actually doing is building on an argument in an article on bioethics by Ruth Macklin, called, "Dignity is a Useless Concept." To put the argument of that work very roughly, Macklin argued that dignity was a useless concept because everything significant that you could do with an appeal to human dignity could be better done simply by appeal to the principle of autonomy -- that, in fact, most of the work done by such appeals to human dignity were just obscure appeals to the principle of autonomy, anyway. If you can talk of autonomy, talk of dignity is redundant.

I don't know much about Macklin's other work, but I think the argument in that editorial is extremely poor. We see this in several ways. For one thing -- and this has been noted by bioethicists since Pinker wrote his essay -- Macklin doesn't really do justice to the possibility that 'dignity' is in fact a genus, of which autonomy is merely one species. There are other principles besides autonomy that come up when we talk about human dignity. To take just one, the principle of common human sympathy, that we should take into account not just people's capacity to choose but their feelings regardless of what they choose, is something that comes up in medical situations. It is not, however, a part of most common accounts of autonomy, which is about reason and choice, not about feeling. And it may not be as important as autonomy for bioethics. But it is something people do tend to think important, and when asked why it can't simply be cut out, people will talk about it in terms of the dignity, or worth, or value of the other person. But even if we don't consider such things, dignity is not a concept confined to bioethics; it is applied far more generally -- indeed, far more generally than autonomy -- to situations like the plight of the poor and oppressed. And it is clear in many of these cases that autonomy is not that the only thing on the table, e.g., solidarity is important, and so forth. At best Macklin's argument could only apply within the field of bioethics -- at best it can be an argument that the only dignity-concept to be considered in bioethics is autonomy. I think this is false, of course, but even at best Macklin's argument can't rule out the possibility that it is crucially necessary for discussing how bioethical issues relate to issues outside of bioethics -- as one might well need to do in popular work or for purposes of public policy.

And note: it doesn't even matter if autonomy is in fact the only dignity-concept useful for bioethics itself. It is clear that many people deny that it is, and argue that other things should be considered. These disputes can only be adjudicate in light of more general concepts than autonomy itself -- such as the concept of human dignity.

And human dignity is the more general concept. We can see this when we recognize that autonomy need not be taken as normative -- that is, you could simply go around identifying some things as autonomous without regarding this as particularly significant for anything. The concept as used in bioethics has greater weight, implications for practice. What makes the difference? That when we use it in the latter way, we are treating autonomous agents as having worth, value, precisely as autonomous agents: namely, dignity.

We see this historically, as well. Human dignity was a big topic of discussion in the eighteenth century. There are a number of notable works that at least discuss the subject in this period, such as Georg Joachim Zollikofer's famous series of sermons on the dignity of man. (Worth reading, by the way; they are famously eloquent, and like a lot of eighteenth century sermons do at times get into serious philosophical questions, albeit in a popular way.) Zollikofer's actually pretty interesting; he lists autonomy-type things (freedom, etc.) as part of what constitutes human dignity, but his idea of it is not so narrow, since human dignity covers everything that is required for a fully human pursuit of happiness. Not only is autonomy important, but also virtue, the relation of a human being to his or her Creator, the capacity for moral and intellectual progress, all are mentioned. And I don't think Zollikofer is really arguing anything out of the ordinary for the time, either. Autonomy itself only becomes truly important as a moral concept with Kant, and closely reading the passages on autonomy in Kant shows clearly that he himself treats autonomy as equivalent to dignity. That human beings have autonomy is itself why human beings are beyond price. They have neither market price nor emotional price (merely sentimental value) but are truly priceless -- they have dignity. To treat autonomy itself as being of any special significance, Kant has to connect it with more general and common considerations of human dignity; and in the contrary direction, when Kantian-minded pastors (of whom there were quite a few in the late eighteenth century) wanted to speak to their congregations of Kantian moral questions, would do so in terms of human dignity, the more generic because less technical concept.

Both Macklin and Pinker, however, really gloss over the important fact that in this day and age, even if you confine yourself to autonomy, there is nothing that is the principle of autonomy. Rather, there are many different accounts of autonomy. And many of the ethical disputes that occur can be recognized to involve differing conceptions of autonomy. For instance, do children have autonomy. There is a pretty straightforward sense in which children are highly heteronomous: they are in the care of parents and guardians, and they are not generally regarded as competent for making major decisions on their own. That is what heteronomy is. But one could have a looser sense of autonomy in which they do count as autonomous, in the sense that they have capacity for actual autonomy. The same thing goes for people with serious mental deficiencies. Nobody is obviously autonomous if they are not making their own decisions; and, of course, it is simple nonsense to suggest that doctors never have to deal with patients who aren't making their own medical decisions -- can't, in fact, make their own medical decisions, whether legally or mentally. In order to hold that doctors have any obligations to children, if you are doing so not on the basis of something like dignity, some value children have regardless of their capacity for choice, you need a pretty broad and loose account of autonomy. And this is going to give you very different results than a stricter account of autonomy will.

What account of autonomy do we find in Pinker's essay? Here are some things he says about it:

The volume contains fine discussions by Pellegrino and by Rebecca Dresser on the avoidable humiliations that today's patients are often forced to endure (like those hideous hospital smocks that are open at the back). No one could object to valuing dignity in this sense, and that's the point. When the concept of dignity is precisely specified, it becomes a mundane matter of thoughtfulness pushing against callousness and bureaucratic inertia, not a contentious moral conundrum. And, because it amounts to treating people in the way that they wish to be treated, ultimately it's just another application of the principle of autonomy.

Notable points here: autonomy is here reduced to "treating people in the way that they wish to be treated".

Note, though, that all these cases involve coercion, so once again they are ruled out by autonomy and respect for persons.

Notable points here: autonomy is here linked to noncoercion.

And we get some vague comments about freedom that are probably intended to link up with autonomy, too. Notice that, despite Pinker's loud proclamation of the lack of definition and the squishiness of the concept of dignity, we don't really get a definition of autonomy here, and it itself is very squishy. Treating others as they want to be treated is obviously something that has important limits. Noncoercion may be important, but obviously in medical situations you are often going to come into situations where it will be tricky to determine whether something is coercive. Doctors have to communicate with patients, for instance. How a doctor does so can have a big effect on the course of treatment; how far can a doctor go in presenting the case for a treatment before it starts to endanger this noncoercion requirement? Doctors have to make very quick judgment calls at times. How far can a doctor go in deciding on their own on a course of action in such situations before they are acting in a coercive way? And notice that it's completely unclear from anything Pinker says whether children are to be considered as autonomous. We don't in any strict way treat them as they want to be treated; we don't in any strict way avoid coercing them. They are, again, in a pretty straightforward sense heteronomous, and don't have a full slate of social freedoms. That would seem to rule them out. But Pinker never tells us. Like lots of autonomy theorists, he forgets that children exist (they are mentioned once in the essay, in a completely incidental way). The same thing again occurs with people who have significant mental disabilities (the only time Pinker mentions them in the essay it is simply to say that we read in discussions of dignity that everyone, no matter how lazy, evil, or mentally impaired, has dignity). Again, Pinker, like many autonomy theorists, has completely left out adults who are in very obvious ways necessarily heteronomous. And yet we are told over and over again that autonomy doesn't leave anything out. At one point Pinker uses the phrase "autonomy and respect for persons". Is this a hendiadys? it must be, or Pinker has just introduced a second principle that is relevant to questions of dignity -- autonomy wouldn't be enough if you also have to appeal to a principle of respect for persons. But the two don't seem to be synonymous. For one thing, respect for persons obviously includes respect for heteronomous persons.

I actually suspect that Pinker's notion of autonomy has no opposite. Autonomy properly means that one is capable of legislating, making law, for oneself. But it simply does not seem to occur to Pinker that anyone could be in situations where they can't actually be treated as autonomous because they are not able to make their own decisions. Children and people with mental disabilities either don't exist in Pinker's world -- or autonomy becomes such a broad principle that it no longer means autonomy. Indeed, it is no longer clear what it means.

The World as Alter Ego

A very interesting passage in Feuerbach (Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, section 32):

An object, i.e., a real object, is given to me only if a being is given to me in a way that it affects me, only if my own activity – when I proceed from the standpoint of thought – experiences the activity of another being as a limit or boundary to itself. The concept of the object is originally nothing else but the concept of another I – everything appears to man in childhood as a freely and arbitrarily acting being – which means that in principle the concept of the object is mediated through the, concept of You, the objective ego. To use the language of Fichte, an object or an alter ego is given not to the ego, but to the non-ego in me; for only where I am transformed from an ego into a You – that is, where I am passive – does the idea of an activity existing outside myself, the idea of objectivity, really originate. But it is only through the senses that the ego is also non-ego.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Three Poem Re-Drafts and Two New Poem Drafts


cars on the road
flurry by me
madly roaring
rushing past
in huff and hurry
like hell and fury
as though the world
were nearly ending
which it is

Farther Shore

Though every good thing passes, look for a farther shore!
The dying of the one good makes another to endure.
God is born in Bethlehem, and God is crucified;
but promise rises yet again when promise is denied.
The seed-husk falls away that sprouting stem may live:
so falls away the prior good, its very life to give.
You may call it dark evangel but this gospel does not lie:
the flower bursts to blossom -- and in its blossom dies.
But every flower's fading is fruition of a life
and mediating labor that births the fruit to light.
And in a dusty manger far beneath a Magi's star
a doom is writ and graven that no mortal hand can bar
in living proof of glory that the wise will not ignore:
though every good thing passes, there is a farther shore.


Weird with wild wormwood
lightly bitter in my taste
the triune in my body
is deeply interlaced
and I am green as glory
with bewitchment in my soul
as I wait inside the glass
for the God to make me whole

Wild and unruly
a danger to the sane
I stand upon the wasteland
as I wait for crystal rain
raindrops fall down slowly
as sweet and cold as ice
pure heaven interfuses
and I louche to paradise

A Woman Slew Me Yesterday

A woman slew me yesterday;
it happened in the usual way,
a noonday knock upon the door,
a word or two, a settled score,
a spear of ice to pierce me through.
You know it well, for she was you.
No, not a word of hot defense!
Every killer must repent
however justified the blow.
But sun still shines and rivers flow,
and though your insults shot me through,
every day we live anew.
Let us not be trapped by pride;
let us set the harm aside,
and let us love with zeal, not pain,
until you kill me once again.

Sooner or Later

Sooner or later we all have to face,
in the great competition of life's urgent chase,
there are really no winners. We all lose this race,
no matter our talent, no matter our pace.

Sooner or later: yes, but how long?
The race may not go to the swift or the strong,
but we think some may win. There we are wrong.
The bells in the steeple toll loss in their song.

But maybe the race is not meant to be won.
Time is the swiftest; no feet can outrun
the pace of its step. But look at the sun
and tell me it's pointless, this life and this fun.

Maybe the race is supposed to be lost.
Where is the worth in the work without cost?
And through endless storms our souls would be tossed,
our hearts be made hard by cold winter frost.

Or maybe the point is to learn how to lose,
how to let go the past, every wound, every bruise,
how to capture true joy, or better yet choose
a life with more colors than victory's hues.

Google's View of Me

Age: 65+
Gender: Male

Apparently it thinks my primary interests are business and law. And there's a big web services component that comes, I think, from my use of StatCounter.

You should be able to find Google's view of yourself through the Ads Preferences Readout.

To Step Aside Is Human

Yesterday we were moralistic with Kipling; today let's be moderate with Burns.

Address to the Unco Guid, Or the Rigidly Righteous
by Robert Burns

My Son, these maxims make a rule,
An' lump them aye thegither;
The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither:
The cleanest corn that ere was dight
May hae some pyles o' caff in;
So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
For random fits o' daffin.
Solomon.-Eccles. ch. vii. verse 16.

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel',
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours' fauts and folly!
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi' store o' water;
The heaped happer's ebbing still,
An' still the clap plays clatter.

Hear me, ye venerable core,
As counsel for poor mortals
That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door
For glaikit Folly's portals:
I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes,
Would here propone defences-
Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,
Their failings and mischances.

Ye see your state wi' theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer;
But cast a moment's fair regard,
What maks the mighty differ;
Discount what scant occasion gave,
That purity ye pride in;
And (what's aft mair than a' the lave),
Your better art o' hidin.

Think, when your castigated pulse
Gies now and then a wallop!
What ragings must his veins convulse,
That still eternal gallop!
Wi' wind and tide fair i' your tail,
Right on ye scud your sea-way;
But in the teeth o' baith to sail,
It maks a unco lee-way.

See Social Life and Glee sit down,
All joyous and unthinking,
Till, quite transmugrified, they're grown
Debauchery and Drinking:
O would they stay to calculate
Th' eternal consequences;
Or your more dreaded hell to state,
Damnation of expenses!

Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names,
Suppose a change o' cases;
A dear-lov'd lad, convenience snug,
A treach'rous inclination-
But let me whisper i' your lug,
Ye're aiblins nae temptation.

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, -
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Eight Functions of Money

Money has eight different purposes. The first three are the ones already mentioned [means of payment for buying and selling, means of barter for other money, currency trade]. The fourth is to display one's riches, showing it to everyone or putting it in the marketplace where it is dealt with or exchanged. The fifth is to use as medals and clothing decorations. The sixth use is to cheer with its presence. The seventh use is to cure some illnesses with its broth as, they say, is one of the properties of gold powder. The eight use is as security for a debt. For these last five purposes, it is possible not only to lend and exchange money but even to rent it out.

[Martín de Azpilcueta, Commentary on the Resolution of Money, Chapter 3 in Sourcebook in Late-Scholastic Monetary Theory, Grabill, ed. Lexington Books (New York: 2007) p. 34.]

This is why it's a delight to read the scholastics. The function of display has in past years become more commonly discussed by economists as they catch up to something that the Doctor Navarrus recognized as obvious in the 16th century. But I still have yet to come across an economist giving due credit to how our use of money to cheer ourselves up affects how we use it; and while we don't go around like bedouins with gold coins sewn to our veils and belts, it's clear from any look at how money functions in such a society that the jewelry use is clearly distinct from both display and storage of value, and also clearly operative. And I don't think it would cross any modern economist's mind to try to think through the complications that arise from renting money for use in folk remedies. Some of this, of course, is that these things are more obvious in a monetary system that is based on a precious metal standard. But part of it is that economists often don't consider all possible cases, and, without making it explicit, really confine themselves to carefully contrived artificial markets or assume rather substantial conditions that are not universal.

Wabbling Back to the Fire

Somehow it always has something relevant.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings
by Rudyard Kipling

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshiped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

State of Probation

Arsen's mention of life as a reverberatory furnace reminded me of Butler's discussion of life as a state of trial and probation in the Analogy. Butler was the early eighteenth century's greatest moral philosopher -- and in the Anglophone world arguably the greatest moral philosopher of the early modern period. Some of his most important ideas are in the Fifteen Sermons, but the Analogy, an argument against a certain kind of Deism, is his masterwork. He discusses probation in chapters 4 and 5 of Part I.

If we consider the natural world and mere worldly prudence, we find that parts of our lives are natural trials or states of probation preparing us for greater goods later. Some of our actions bring pleasure, some of our actions bring pain, and we are capable, through experience, of developing the foresight to weigh these outcomes. Thus we find that in order to get what we really want we must often discipline ourselves when it comes to what is right in front of us. We subjugate our present interest to a greater future interest. Because of this, however, we clearly can make sense of the idea that our lives taken as a whole might well be probationary in themselves:

Thus mankind having a temporal interest depending upon themselves, and a prudent course of behaviour being necessary to secure it, passions inordinately excited, whether by means of example, or by any other external circumstance, towards such objects, at such times, or in such degrees, as that they cannot be gratified consistently with worldly prudence, are temptations, dangerous and too often successful temptations, to forego a greater temporal good for a less; i.e. to forego what is, upon the whole, our temporal interest, for the sake of a present gratification. This is a description of our state of trial in our temporal capacity. Substitute now the word future for temporal, and virtue for prudence, and it will be just as proper a description of our state of trial in our religious capacity; so analogous are they to each other.

Butler argues that the analogy is quite strong, and that it gives to the notion of life as a state of moral and intellectual probation an antecedent credibility: it makes sense to see life in this way. Our life is a state of maturation and refinement in virtue, one with three aspects: trial or difficulty, opportunity for discipline, and the manifesting of our genuine moral character. And once we posit the idea that our life is probationary, we find a lot in our lives that fits it to be probationary; indeed, Butler argues, even more that makes it appropriate as a moral state of probation than makes parts of it appropriate as natural states of probation. He doesn't want to say that moral trial, a probationary period for building up virtue, is the whole of life; but it is a key part of life, and one of which we can make a remarkable amount of sense.