A Philosopher's Blog

Mental Illness or Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2012

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When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2012
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The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.

When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt.  That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.

In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.

On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do.  Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.

One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.

On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.

Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.

As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.

To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.


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Posted in Business, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 9, 2011
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Marriage and other romantic relationships have often been cast as being fundamentally economic in nature. In most cases, this perspective has been taken by those critical of marriage (“marriage is long term prostitution”). However, there are some who take a positive view of marriage seen through the lens of economics. One recent book is Spousonomics, which I have not read. Like most men, I’m not much on reading books on relationships. However, hearing about the book did get me thinking about the general subject of casting a relationship in economic terms.

On the face of it, this perspective makes perfect sense. Legally, marriage is fundamentally about property rights: who owns what and who gets what when the marriage almost inevitably fails. However, that part is so obvious that it is hardly interesting to even write anymore about it.  Instead, I will focus on the view that characterizing relations in economic terms is a “bad thing.”

A case can be made for this being, in fact, bad. After all, deep in our secret hearts we want to believe in a love that is pure and unsullied by such matters as value exchanged and crass things like cash. I do, of course, agree with that. Love should not be about money (although money can kill love) nor should it be regarded as a crude matter of toting up gains and losses. However, I do think that it makes sense to consider relationships in terms of value.

While the feeling of love has value, it is one value among many in a relationship. While this might sound cynical, you can test this yourself: imagine that somehow all you have is love for someone and nothing else. No pleasure in their company, no common interests, and so on. Just someone the existence of love. While I suspect that is not even possible, that would seem to show that love is not the sole value in a relationship and is probably not enough to keep a relationship going by itself.

In addition to love (and one hopes that love is at least present) there must also be other matters of value. These things (though I dislike using that word here) could include the pleasure of the other person’s company, shared interests, emotional support, and so on. It is the sum of these factors that make a relationship worthwhile or not. This is, of course, a matter of value.

But, someone might say, this still seems like crude economics. It makes  relationship like a business merger or an alliance: you should be in it if it creates more value for you than the alternatives. That, one might say, is crass economics.

However, I have two responses. First, that is how you, good reader,  really function. Think about it honestly and  consider relationships you have ended and why. Second, this does not so much cast relations ships in a negative light as economics in a better light. Economics is, of course, based on human relationships (and not the other way around). As such, the reason why relationships seem to be analyzable in economic terms is that economics are forms of human relationships. As such, economics can be analyzable in terms of human relationships-although it is but a narrow set of possible human relations.

So, perhaps we should not say that marriage is a form of economics, but that economics is a form of marriage. Or not.

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Running Addiction

Posted in Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2010

Newsweek recently published an article by Steve Tuttle titled “Addicted to a Run.” While the article was mostly about the fact that Steve Brewer has not missed a day of running in 25 years. Tuttle does not mention that there are many other runners who have even longer streaks. I must admit that I’m a slacker now: my streak only lasted a bit over two decades.

Having been a running fanatic, I have wondered if running can be an addiction. I am inclined to say that it can. After all, it can actually start to cause problems in a person’s life in a way that is comparable to recognized addictions. In my own case, I would run even when sick or injured and would give my running and racing priority over almost everything else.  I even ran to the point that running was actually making me less healthy: I was so over-trained that my blood pressure was elevated (but still pretty good for my age) and I felt horrible. I eventually ended my streak and now have a much healthier approach to my healthy approach.

Of course, there are some important differences between running addiction and other addictions. First, running in moderation is very beneficial in many ways. In contrast, moderate drinking might have some minor health benefits and “moderate” heroin use has none at all. Second, running seems to be easier to control than other addictions. True, I was hooked bad on running but was able to just say “I am not running today” and simply did it. Unlike other addictions, it is usually rather hard to get people addicted to running. In fact, it is usually rather hard to get people to run at all. Third, even being addicted to running is usually better than not exercising at all. Even when I was over-trained, I was still in far better shape than non-runners. Fourth, running addiction does not seem to lead to the negative behavior of other addictions: running addicts don’t commit crimes to get more miles, they generally do not become violent, and running generally does not result in divorce or loss of employment. So, as far as addictions go, running is a good choice.

I have heard that some people have used running to avoid other addictions. While I’ve never been addicted to anything else, I do have some anecdotal evidence from fellow runners that seem to support this claim. At the very least, it is hard to stay addicted to tobacco and running at the same time. However, I have known runners who were also alcoholics, so it is clearly not a perfect defense.

My advice: run.

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Proving X, Concluding Y

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2010


This fallacy occurs when a conclusion is drawn from evidence that does not support that conclusion but another claim.  The form of this reasoning is as follows:

  1. Evidence for claim X is presented.
  2. Conclusion: Y

While all fallacies are such that the alleged evidence provided in the premise(s) fails to adequately support the conclusion, what distinguishes this fallacy is that the evidence presented actually does provide support for a claim. However, it does not support the conclusion that is actually presented.

This fallacy typically occurs when the evidence for X seems connected or relevant to Y in a logical way, but actually is not. It is this seeming relevance or connection that lures the victim into accepting the conclusion. As such, this differs from fallacies in which the victim is lured to the conclusion by an emotional appeal.

Obviously, this fallacy (like all fallacies) is a case of non-sequiter (“does not follow”) in which the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. However, this specific sort of mistake is common and interesting enough to justify giving it its own name and entry.

Example #1

“I am troubled by the reports of binge drinking by college students. According to the statistics I have seen, about 19% of college students are binge drinkers and this leads to problems ranging from poor academic performance to unplanned pregnancies. Since people often drink in response to pressure, this shows that professors are putting their students under too much pressure and hence need to make their classes easier.”

Example #2

“Our product testing revealed that 60% of the people on Acme Diet Master reported that they felt less hungry when using the product.  This shows that 60% ate less when using our product. I think we have our next big product!”

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Are We Addicted to Oil?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2010
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In his recent speech, Obama trotted out the old claim that we need to deal with our oil addiction. This, naturally enough, raises the question of whether we are addicted to oil or not. This hinges on what is meant by the term “addiction.” Rather than get into a hair splitting semantical debate, I will go with an obvious and intuitive account of addiction.

Addiction  “ is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.”

On the face of it, we do seem to have such an addiction. As a nation, we seem to have a lack of behavior control when it comes to consuming and acquiring oil. We also generally fail to recognize that we have serious behavioral problems relating to oil. We are generally willing to kill and allow our own people to die to ensure access to it. We are also willing to put our health and the environment at risk in order to acquire and use oil. We do this even though their are safer alternatives available that do not involve a need to engage in violent foreign adventures.

Of course, it could be countered that we actually have a legitimate need for oil and our actions reflect this need rather than the pathological behavior of addiction. After all, we do engage in similar behavior to ensure “national security”, yet this would not be characterized as an addiction.

However, given that there are better alternatives to oil, our commitment to it does seem to be increasingly irrational and thus it seems more and more like behavior based in an addiction.  Some might attempt to defend oil by arguing that everyone uses it or that it is a good thing. Interestingly enough, that sort of strategy is used by drug addicts as well.

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Avatar Depression

Posted in Aesthetics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 19, 2010
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One somewhat odd side effect attributed to the movie Avatar is depression and thoughts of suicide. Apparently when some folks see the movie, they find the return to reality to be a rather negative experience. Hence the depression and thoughts of suicide.

Of course, there is the obvious question of how widespread this phenomena actually might be. After all, the folks in the media tend to focus on what is likely to gain the greatest attention. There is also the other obvious question of whether or not this is an effect specific to Avatar. After all, it seems likely that people get depressed by the contrast between the worlds of fantasy and the real world.

Naturally, it is tempting to dismiss such depression as the mere weeping of nerds who are sad because they cannot have a big, blue girlfriend and ride dragons. After all, there are many people who face far more serious problems (for example, the folks in Haiti).

However, it can be argued that such depression (however silly it might seem) does cause real suffering for those who experience it. Perhaps they can ease their pain by working towards a better world. After all, having a purpose and staying busy can do wonders for that sort of depression.

It certainly says a great deal about our world that people can be driven to depression by a science fiction movie.

Although I saw Avatar, I did not suffer from any depression. Of course, this might be because I have been a sci-fi fan and a gamer for years, so perhaps I have a tolerance for switching between fantasy and reality. Or perhaps it is because Avatar, for all its impressive effects, is just a movie.

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Ring of Gyges: A Case for Injustice

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2009

It is my position that the life of injustice is preferable to the life of justice. In support of this claim I will show that the material goods are what truly matter in life and that injustice provides the best means of reaching said goods.

In his work Utilitarianism[i] J.S. Mill presents the well-known argument that the way to prove that something is desirable is to show that people desire it. If Mill is correct, then it should follow that a way to prove that something is preferable is to show that people prefer it.  It is my contention that people prefer material goods and that they are thus preferable.

In support of my claim I offer the following support. First, if you ask people what they want, the most common answers, at least in my experience, involve material things-money, jobs, power, cars and so on. Of course, this is based on my experience, which might be unusual. Hence, there is a need for a broader base of evidence. This brings me to a second category of evidence-the media.

A quick glance at the leading magazines of today clearly shows what people prefer. Business magazines, such as Business Week, extort the value of wealth and success in business. Celebrity magazines, such as People glory in the fame and wealth of the stars. Turning to television, channels such as VH1 and MTV show the houses, cars, fame and wealth of celebrities and, of course, these things are all held up as being of great value. Many of the music videos, a defining art form of the 21st century, present the glory of wealth, fame and power. Given that art tends to reflect the values of a culture, it seems evident that wealth, fame and power are valued and preferred in this culture. If additional evidence is needed, a survey of the rest of the media will reveal that the general glorification of wealth, success and material goods is common. Thus it may be safely concluded that the media provides ample evidence that material success is preferable.

Third, there is the fact that many people pursue material goods at the expense of non-material goods. For example, people are willing to engage in degrading activities for material gain or fame. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor, Flavor of Love, the various versions of Survivor and similar shows make this quite evident. Magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse and Hustler also make it clear that people are willing to engage in degrading behavior for the sake of money and fame. As another example, people are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to acquire money. In Japan, for example, people have been known to work themselves to death. In the United States, people are willing to work long hours and focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships in order to achieve material success. As a final example, people are quite willing to engage in immoral behavior for material success. People lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to gain material goods. Dictators throughout history ranging from Caesar through Hussein have been willing to employ the most terrible methods to secure their material power. These facts indicate that people greatly value material goods and, given the above argument, it would follow that these goods are preferable.

Fourth, people are willing to risk punishment in order to acquire material goods. Prisons are full of people, ranging from former corporate officers to petty thieves, who committed crimes in the attempt to make material gains or in search of material pleasures. Given that people will risk terrible punishments in order to gain material goods, it seems reasonable to believe that these goods are preferable.

Overall, given the arguments presented above, it seems eminently reasonable to accept that material goods are what people prefer and hence are preferable. What remains is showing how being unjust enables one to better acquire such goods.

Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost CD at a technology expo. This CD, of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the CD to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice.  She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.

In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.

Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.

In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end.  However, even in reality the chance is rather slight and, given Glaucon’s conditions, it must be assumed that Bill is never caught and never punished. In the real world, Polly’s chances of success would be rather low, this showing that her choice is a poor one-even in reality. Adding in Glaucon’s conditions, she would have nothing but her justice and her poor, pathetic life. Given these conditions, it should be clear that Bill’s choice for injustice is preferable to Polly’s choice.

Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.

The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.

It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. Best of all, none of her misdeeds can ever lead her into trouble. As per Glaucon’s conditions, she can never be caught or exposed. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only the top software company but also rightly regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.

If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.

The situation becomes extremely dire when Glaucon’s conditions are taken into account. In Glaucon’s scenario, the just person has no chance of material success and cannot even enjoy the reputation of being just. In light of these conditions, the just life would be a foolish choice indeed.

In light of the above arguments it is evident that the life of injustice is the preferable life.

[i] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (London, 1863)

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Why Be Good? IV

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2009
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In Part III of Why Be Good?, I presented a stock argument for being evil. The gist of the argument is that being evil while seeming good provides an amazing flexibility that can lead effectively to material success. But, it would be unwise to leave a case for evil unopposed. So, I now turn further consideration as to why one should be good.

As noted in my first post on this matter, the stock answer to the question is that being good enables one to receive rewards and to avoid punishments. Naturally, if a person is motivated to be good by gain and fear of loss, then she would chose evil if she thought it would give her more gain at an acceptable level of risk. This is why, obviously enough, people worried about the behavior of others work at trying to keep the gain of being evil down and the risks high.

Of course, if someone is good only because they lack the ability to get away being evil, then they are not really good-just pragmatic.

So, suppose that I could get away with being evil and that I could seem to gain more from that moral approach. Would I have a rational motivation to remain good?

Socrates argues that I would, mainly because of the internal effects of being good or evil. Roughly put, an evil person will be like a diseased person. Her soul will be rotten and corrupt. According to Socrates, such a person might think they were happy, but they would be mistaken. Rather, they would be miserable. This misery would come from the inside and would be a direct result of their evil.

In contrast, the good person would have a healthy soul and would, like a person having a healthy body, be better off. Thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius argued that being virtuous would make a person happy. This would not be because of external factors, but because being virtuous would put  a person into a state of happiness. In short, to be virtuous is to be happy.

On the face of it, it might be wondered why people are bad if virtue is so great. After all if being virtuous makes a person happy and everyone agrees that happiness is great, then one would expect that everyone would be working at being virtuous.

The easy answer to this can be found in an analogy to health: everyone (well, almost everyone) gets that being fit and healthy is objectively better than being unfit and unhealthy. Obviously, most people do not exercise nor do they eat properly. In some cases this might be due to serious obstacles (like being very poor), but many cases seem to be a matter of choice. After all, an American could swap out some TV or internet time for exercise and could swap a salad for a Whopper. But, of course, exercise and proper diet strikes most people as being hard and unpleasant-just as the virtuous life strikes most people as hard and unpleasant.

It has long struck me as odd that we are so constituted that most of us find doing what it takes to be healthy and doing what it takes to be good as hard and unpleasant. This does suggest that there might be a connection between virtue and health. This seems reasonable-bodily health and mental health would certainly seem likely to be connected. In any case, virtue theorists love to compare the two.

But, let us get back to my concern over why I should be good. I’ve never done anything truly evil, although I have done some bad things (nothing I could do jail time for, though-not even speeding). I have also never done anything that would qualify me for being a moral saint. But, I have done good things. Comparing the two, I have found that I much prefer what doing good does to me. Getting back to the analogy of health, doing good works like healthy food and exercise-it makes me feel better across the board. I also feel better about myself and I feel happier.

In contrast, doing bad things feels much like eating tempting but unhealthy foods and like not exercising: I feel bad, I feel worse about myself, and I feel less happy. I find this unpleasant and repulsive, so I am motivated to be good.

A clever person might point out that I seem to be choosing good over evil based on gain and loss: being good is a gain and being evil is a loss. It might also be added that my motivation seems selfish: it is not based on choosing goodness for the sake of goodness. Rather, this motivation is based on choosing goodness because of what it does to me. How, one might ask, am I any different from someone who is good because they fear being tossed into Hell or being whipped like a donkey for straying off the path? How am I any different from someone who acts good because they hope to rewarded by others with success or Heaven?

This is a fair challenge and requires a response.

The best reply is that to have the positive effects of being good, one must chose goodness for the sake of goodness and avoid evil because it is evil. If I consciously chose to do good actions only  because I hoped that I would feel a certain way, then I would (ironically) rob myself of that feeling. For example, suppose I find someone’s wallet and say to myself: “I shall return this wallet and doing so will make me feel good. So, that is why I will do it.” If that was the only reason I returned the wallet, I would not have that feeling. I would be returning the wallet to get the feeling, but would not get that feeling because I would not be doing the right thing, but acting out of selfishness. However, if I return the wallet because it is right, then I would feel good about it.

To use a more specific example, consider a particular virtue: generosity. If I give to others to be happy, then I am not generous. Rather, I am acting out of self-interest.

At this point, it might be wondered how my motivation to be good fits in here. After all, if I am motivated to be good because it makes me happy, but I can only be happy if I act out of the sake of goodness, then I would seem to be in a bit of a problem: my motivation would prevent me from ever achieving my goal. Realizing this, I would certainly no longer be motivated by my former motivation.

Fortunately, there is a way around this. I want to be good because I have seen the correlation between my happiness and doing good things. That motivates me to be good so as to be happy. As such, I will do good things. However, as long as I am doing these deeds just to be happy, I won’t be happy. Fortunately, as I do good out of that motivation, I will become habituated into doing good and avoiding evil. Eventually, with some luck, I will do goodness for the sake of goodness and avoid evil because it is evil. Doing this will make me happy.

A clever person might point out that I would seem to be choosing goodness because of the gain of doing so and the punishment of being bad. True, the rewards and punishments do not come from the outside, but my motivation certainly seems to be based on what goodness can do for me. Am I not, one might argue, just like the person who acts good to avoid being whipped like a straying donkey?

One obvious difference is that my motivation is internal, rather than external. It is not fear of external punishments and hope of external rewards that motivates me. Rather, it is the direct effects of doing good and doing bad that motivate me.

Ah, the clever person might say, that is a difference. But it is not enough of a difference. Consider, if you will, the nature of generosity. If you give to others because doing so makes you happy, you are not really generous. Rather, you are merely buying happiness. We would not call someone who gave to the poor because he wanted a tax break a generous person. While you want something different from a tax break, you are still giving to get and that is no more generosity than is giving someone money in exchange for an ice cream sundae. So, you clever philosophy, you are not good-you are just self serving. True, you are not as crude in your motivations as some…but a refined self serving approach to life is still self-serving.

I seem, then, to be trapped in a problem: if I am good because it makes me happy, then I’m just giving the same old answer to the question. But, if being good does nothing for me, then I would seem to have no motivation to be good.

One option is to try a Zen like thing: my desire to be happy will lead me to take good actions. However, doing good things to be happy would not be doing good. If being good is what would make me truly happy, then my desire to be happy by doing good would prevent me from being happy. So, like a Buddhist getting rid of all desires (even the desire to achieve Nirvana) to achieve Nirvana, I would somehow have to shed the desire to be happy and simply do good for its own sake. In doing that, I would then achieve happiness.

Another option would be to argue that goodness itself can be a motivator-that one would be drawn to chose it for its own sake even if it did nothing for you. Kant seems to have a view something like this-he argues that being good involves acting in accord with the moral law because it is the moral law. Being motivated by a desire for happiness does not cut it. Of course, this does raise the question of why this should motivate someone to be good. Kant, of course, thinks he has an answer to this.

Yet another option is to accept that this is the best that can be expected. It is better than the stock motivation (fear of external punishment) for the following reason: a person who is motivated by the threat of external punishment and hope for external reward would just as willingly be evil if they believed they could gain more at less risk. There are, in fact, many opportunities for people to do just that. In contrast, if being good makes someone happy and being bad makes people unhappy, then there would seem to be no viable alternative. After all, if doing good is what makes  a person happy, then they cannot do evil to become happy. So, there would be an excellent motivation to be good and no motivation to be evil (except for those who wish to be unhappy).

Which then is right? More thought is needed…

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Narcissism & College Students

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2009

Americans have long been  accused of having inflated egos, but it has recently become popular to accuse Americans of being narcissistic. This narcissism is now seen as being primarily an affliction of the young; although baby boomers are often seen as being able to give them a run for their money.

Some of the evidence for this is statistical.

Apparently 10% of folks in their 20s have had symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (compared to 3% of those 65 and older). Of course, it could be the case that youth naturally tend to have this symptoms and then outgrow them. However, if the current generation of kids is actually suffering more from such symptoms, then this would be a matter of concern.

Since many 20 somethings are in school, it is not surprising that much of the alleged evidence of narcissism involved education. As one example,  30% of college students believe that showing up to every class entitles them to a grade of B or better. There are also various bits of anecdotal evidence. For example, it is claimed that students now seem to be more inclined to expect make-up tests for when they miss class for no good reason (such as being too drunk to take a test).

While there are many questions that need to be dealt with in this context, I will address only two of them. The first is whether such behavior is something new. The second is whether such behavior is narcissistic or not.

In regards to the first question, I will rely on my experience as a professor. Overall, I would say that I have seen roughly the same degree and type of allegedly narcissistic behavior over the past eighteen years. For example, when I was a graduate student at Ohio State (1989-1993), students would ask me to arrange make up exams for them at special times and would argue that they should not fail because they did not want to fail.  I’ve seen the same as a professor (1993-now).  Over the years, I’ve also dealt with roughly the name number of incidents in which students have claimed that they deserve a good grade merely for attempting to do the work and showing up. Of course, this evidence is anecdotal and my sample might be biased in some ways.

I must admit that every semester I hear other faculty at my school and other schools talk about how the students get worse every year. However, I think that much of this is due to perception rather than a real difference. Having heard this so often, I’ve gone back and checked my grades over the years. What I found was that the grades tend to be about the same; although there are some individual classes that deviate from the norm (which is exactly what one would expect). I’ve also thought about the incidents that would seem narcissistic and the rate seems to have been fairly constant.

To explain this, people seem to have a natural tendency to “remember” things the way that they were not. For example, people talk about how good things used to be back when they were kids. Likewise, people tend to believe that people have gotten worse. However, that seems to be mostly a matter of selective memory.

Also, people have been talking about how bad the kids are since the time of Socrates-thus showing that this is nothing new.  This does not mean that the kids are fine-it just means that this is nothing new.

Now, to the second question. Is the behavior in question really narcissistic? Obviously, this depends on what is meant by the term. It is tempting to slap labels on things in order to make things seem more dramatic or to sell books, but such labels should be carefully considered.

Many thinkers have argued that people are selfish and desire gain they do not deserve. In the Republic, Glaucon argues that people naturally want undue gain and are focused on their own good. However, such behavior seems to be selfish rather than narcissistic. Hobbes goes even further: he contends that people are psychological hedonists who are motivated only by gain or glory (the boosting of their ego). While such behavior could be described as narcissistic, it makes more sense to just stick with calling it selfish.

Narcissism certainly seems to go beyond merely being selfish or having unrealistic expectations about how people will treat you (such as giving grades or special make-ups). There are, obviously enough, people who are narcissistic, but this is nothing new.

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