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Hume & Kant

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 20, 2015
David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

David Hume’s statements on ethics foreshadowed those of 20th century emotivists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following are videos covering the philosophy of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Hume Video #1

Hume Video #2

Hume Video #3: Skepticism regarding the senses.

Hume Video #4: This is the unedited video from the 4/14/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It covers Hume’s theory of personal identity, his ethical theory and some of his philosophy of religion.

Hume & Kant Video #5:  This is the unedited video for Modern Philosophy on 4/16/2015. It covers the end of Hume’s philosophy of religion and the start of the material on Kant.

Kant Video #1: This is the unedited video from the 4/21/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It covers Kant’s epistemology and his metaphysics, including phenomena vs. noumena.

Kant Video #2: This is the unedited video from my 4/23/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It wraps up Kant’s metaphysics and briefly covers his categorical imperative.

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Are Animals People?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2015

IsisWhile the ethical status of animals has been debated since at least the time of Pythagoras, the serious debate over whether or not animals are people has just recently begun to heat up. While it is easy to dismiss the claim that animals are people, it is actually a matter worth considering.

There are at least three type of personhood: legal personhood, metaphysical personhood and moral personhood. Legal personhood is the easiest of the three. While it would seem reasonable to expect some sort of rational foundation for claims of legal personhood, it is really just a matter of how the relevant laws define “personhood.” For example, in the United States corporations are people while animals and fetuses are not. There have been numerous attempts by opponents of abortion to give fetuses the status of legal persons. There have even been some attempts to make animals into legal persons.

Since corporations are legal persons, it hardly seems absurd to make animals into legal people. After all, higher animals are certainly closer to human persons than are corporate persons. These animals can think, feel and suffer—things that actual people do but corporate people cannot. So, if it is not absurd for Hobby Lobby to be a legal person, it is not absurd for my husky to be a legal person. Or perhaps I should just incorporate my husky and thus create a person.

It could be countered that although animals do have qualities that make them worthy of legal protection, there is no need to make them into legal persons. After all, this would create numerous problems. For example, if animals were legal people, they could no longer be owned, bought or sold. Because, with the inconsistent exception of corporate people, people cannot be legally bought, sold or owned.

Since I am a philosopher rather than a lawyer, my own view is that legal personhood should rest on moral or metaphysical personhood. I will leave the legal bickering to the lawyers, since that is what they are paid to do.

Metaphysical personhood is real personhood in the sense that it is what it is, objectively, to be a person. I use the term “metaphysical” here in the academic sense: the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality. I do not mean “metaphysical” in the pop sense of the term, which usually is taken to be supernatural or beyond the physical realm.

When it comes to metaphysical personhood, the basic question is “what is it to be a person?” Ideally, the answer is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions such that if a being has them, it is a person and if it does not, it is not. This matter is also tied closely to the question of personal identity. This involves two main concerns (other than what it is to be a person): what makes a person the person she is and what makes the person distinct from all other things (including other people).

Over the centuries, philosophers have endeavored to answer this question and have come up with a vast array of answers. While this oversimplifies things greatly, most definitions of person focus on the mental aspects of being a person. Put even more crudely, it often seems to come down to this: things that think and talk are people. Things that do not think and talk are not people.

John Locke presents a paradigm example of this sort of definition of “person.” According to Locke, a person “is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”

Given Locke’s definition, animals that are close to humans in capabilities, such as the great apes and possibly whales, might qualify as persons. Locke does not, unlike Descartes, require that people be capable of using true language. Interestingly, given his definition, fetuses and brain-dead bodies would not seem to be people. Unless, of course, the mental activities are going on without any evidence of their occurrence.

Other people take a rather different approach and do not focus on mental qualities that could, in principle, be subject to empirical testing. Instead, the rest personhood on possessing a specific sort of metaphysical substance or property. Most commonly, this is the soul: things with souls are people, things without souls are not people. Those who accept this view often (but not always) claim that fetuses are people because they have souls and animals are not because they lack souls. The obvious problem is trying to establish the existence of the soul.

There are, obviously enough, hundreds or even thousands of metaphysical definitions of “person.” While I do not have my own developed definition, I do tend to follow Locke’s approach and take metaphysical personhood to be a matter of having certain qualities that can, at least in principle, be tested for (at least to some degree). As a practical matter, I go with the talking test—things that talk (by this I mean true use of language, not just making noises that sound like words) are most likely people. However, this does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood and it might not be sufficient. As such, I am certainly willing to consider that creatures such as apes and whales might be metaphysical people like me—and erring in favor of personhood seems to be a rational approach to those who want to avoid harming people.

Obviously enough, if a being is a metaphysical person, then it would seem to automatically have moral personhood. That is, it would have the moral status of a person. While people do horrible things to other people, having the moral status of a person is generally a good thing because non-evil people are generally reluctant to harm other people. So, for example, a non-evil person might hunt squirrels for food, but would certainly not (normally) hunt humans for food. If that non-evil person knew that squirrels were people, then he would certainly not hunt them for food.

Interestingly enough, beings that are not metaphysical persons (that is, are not really people) might have the status of moral personhood. This is because the moral status of personhood might correctly or reasonably apply to non-persons.

One example is that a brain-dead human might no longer be a person, yet because of the former status as a person still be justly treated as a person in terms of its moral status. As another example, a fetus might not be an actual person, but its potential to be a person might reasonably grant it the moral status of a person.

Of course, it could be countered that such non-people should not have the moral status of full people, though they should (perhaps) have some moral status. To use the obvious example, even those who regard the fetus as not being a person would tend to regard it as having some moral status. If, to use a horrific example, a pregnant woman were attacked and beaten so that she lost her fetus, that would not just be a wrong committed against the woman but also a wrong against the fetus itself. That said, there are those who do not grant a fetus any moral status at all.

In the case of animals, it might be argued that although they do not meet the requirements to be people for real, some of them are close enough to warrant being treated as having the moral status of people (perhaps with some limitations, such as those imposed in children in regards to rights and liberties). The obvious counter to this is that animals can be given moral statuses appropriate to them rather than treating them as people.

Immanuel Kant took an interesting approach to the status of animals. In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. People (rational beings), in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.

Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards people. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a person doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

Given this approach, Kant could be seen as regarding animals as virtual or ersatz people. Or at least those that would be close enough to people to engage in activities that would create obligations if done by people.

In light of this discussion, there are three answers to the question raised by the title of this essay. Are animals legally people? The answer is a matter of law—what does the law say? Are animals really people? The answer depends on which metaphysical theory is correct. Do animals have the moral status of people? The answer depends on which, if any, moral theory is correct.


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A Teleological Universe

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 31, 2014

Creation of Adam ( )

One classic dispute in philosophy can be crudely summed up by two competing bumper-sticker slogans. One is “everything happens for a reason.” The other is “stuff happens.” The first slogan expresses a version of the teleological view—the idea that the world is driven by purpose. The second expresses the non-teleological view—the world is not driven by purpose. It might be a deterministic world or a random world, but what occurs just happens.

Not surprisingly, there are many different theories that fall under the teleological banner. The sort most people tend to think of involves a theological aspect—a divine being creates and perhaps directs the world. Creationism presents a “pop” version of teleology while Aquinas presents a rather more sophisticated account. However, there are versions that are non-theological. For example, Thales wrote of the world being “full of gods”, but did not seem to be speaking of divine entities. As another example, Aristotle believed in a teleological world in which everything has a purpose.

The rise of what is regarded as modern science during the renaissance and enlightenment saw a corresponding fall in teleological accounts, although thinkers such as Newton and Descartes fully embraced and defended theological teleology. In the sciences, the dominance of Darwinism seemed to spell the doom of teleology. Interestingly, though, certain forms of teleology seem to be sneaking back in.

One area of the world that seems clearly teleological is that occupied by living creatures. While some thinkers have the goal of denying such teleology, creatures like us seem to be theological. That is, we act from purposes in order to achieve goals. Even the least of living creatures, such as bacteria, are presented as having purposes—though this might be more metaphor than reality.

Rather interestingly, even plants seem to operate in purposeful ways and engage in what some scientists characterize as communication. Even more interesting, entire forests seem to be interlocked into communication networks and this seems to indicate something that would count as teleological. This sort of communication can, of course, be dismissed as mere mechanical and chemical processes. The same can also be said of us—and some have argued just that.

It is quite reasonable to be skeptical of claims that link the behavior of plants to claims about teleology. After all, the idea of forests in linked communication and plants acting with purpose seems like something out of fantasy, hippie dreams, or science fiction. That said, there is some solid research that supports the claim that plants communicate and engage in what seems to be purposeful behavior.

Even if it is conceded that living things are purpose driven and thus there is some teleology in the universe, there is still the matter of whether or not teleology is broader. While theists embrace the idea of a God created and directed world, those who are not believers reject this and contend that the appearance of design is just that—appearance and not reality.

One reason that teleology often gets rejected (sometimes with a disdainful sneer) is that it is usually presented in crude theological terms, such as young earth creationism. It is easy enough to laugh off a teleological view when those making it claim that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Also, there is a strong anti-religious tendency among some thinkers that causes an automatic dismissal of anything theological. Given that supernatural explanations do tend to be rather suspicious, this is hardly surprising. However, bashing such easy prey does not defeat the sophisticated forms of non-supernatural teleology.

The stock argument for teleology is, of course, that the best explanation for the consistent operation of the world and the apparent design of its components is in terms of purposes or ends. The main counter is, of course, that the consistency and apparent design can be explained entirely without reference to ends or purposes. To use the standard example, there is no need to postulate that living creatures are the result of a purpose or end because they are what they are because of chance and natural selection. When someone has the temerity to suggest that natural selection seems to smuggle in teleology, the usual reply is to deny that and to assure the critic that there is no teleology in it at all. Those who buy natural selection as being devoid of teleology accept this and often consider the critics to be misguided fools who are, no doubt, just trying to smuggle God back in. Those who think that natural selection still smuggles in teleology tend to think their opponents are in the grips of an ideology and unwilling to consider the matter properly.

Natural selection is also extended, in a way, beyond living creatures. When those who accept teleology point to the way the non-living universe works as evidence of purpose, the critics contend that the apparent purpose is an illusion. The planets and galaxies are as they are by chance (or determinism) and not from purpose. If they were not as they are, we would not be here to be considering the matter—so what seems like a purposeful universe is just a matter of luck (that is, chance).

It is, of course, tempting to extend the teleology of living creatures to the non-living parts of the universe. If it is accepted that we act with purpose and that even plants do so, then it becomes somewhat easier to consider that complicated non-living systems might also operate with a purpose, goal or end. Interestingly enough, being a materialist makes this transition even easier. After all, if humans, animals and plants are purely mechanical systems that operate with a purpose, then the idea that other purely mechanical systems operate with a purpose would make sense. This is not so say that stars are intelligent or that the universe is a being, of course.

There are those who deny that humans and animals operate with purpose and assert that we simply operate in accord with the laws of nature (whatever that means). Hobbes, for example, took this view. On this sort of view humans and the physical world are basically the same: purposeless mechanical systems. On this view, there is no teleology anywhere. Stuff just happens.


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Lawful Good

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 6, 2014
Paladin II

Paladin II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have written in other posts on alignments, it is often useful to look at the actual world in terms of the D&D alignment system. In this essay, I will look at the alignment that many players find the most annoying: lawful good (or, as some call it, “awful good”).

Pathfinder, which is a version of the D20 D&D system, presents the alignment as follows:

 A lawful good character believes in honor. A code or faith that she has unshakable belief in likely guides her. She would rather die than betray that faith, and the most extreme followers of this alignment are willing (sometimes even happy) to become martyrs.

A lawful good character at the extreme end of the lawful-chaotic spectrum can seem pitiless. She may become obsessive about delivering justice, thinking nothing of dedicating herself to chasing a wicked dragon across the world or pursuing a devil into Hell. She can come across as a taskmaster, bent upon her aims without swerving, and may see others who are less committed as weak. Though she may seem austere, even harsh, she is always consistent, working from her doctrine or faith. Hers is a world of order, and she obeys superiors and finds it almost impossible to believe there’s any bad in them. She may be more easily duped by such impostors, but in the end she will see justice is done—by her own hand if necessary.

In the fantasy worlds of role-playing games, the exemplar of the lawful good alignment is the paladin. Played properly, a paladin character is a paragon of virtue, a word of righteousness, a defender of the innocent and a pain in the party’s collective ass. This is because the paladin and, to a somewhat lesser extent, all lawful good characters are very strict about being good. They are usually quite willing to impose their goodness on the party, even when doing so means that the party must take more risks, do things the hard way, or give up some gain. For example, lawful good characters always insist on destroying unholy magical items, even when they could be cashed in for stacks of gold.

In terms of actual world moral theories, lawful good tends to closely match virtue theory: the objective is to be a paragon of virtue and all that entails. In actual game play, players tend to (knowingly or unknowingly) embrace the sort of deontology (rules based ethics) made famous by our good dead friend Immanuel Kant. On this sort of view, morality is about duty and obligations, the innate worth of people, and the need to take action because it is right (rather than expedient or prudent). Like Kant, lawful good types tend to be absolutists—there is one and only one correct solution to any moral problem and there are no exceptions. The lawful good types also tend to reject consequentialism—while the consequences of actions are not ignored (except by the most fanatical of the lawful good), what ultimately matters is whether the act is good in and of itself or not.

In the actual world, a significant number of people purport to be lawful good—that is, they claim to be devoted to honor, goodness, and order. Politicians, not surprisingly, often try to cast themselves, their causes and their countries in these terms. As might be suspected, most of those who purport to be good are endeavoring to deceive others or themselves—they mistake their prejudices for goodness and their love of power for a devotion to a just order. While those skilled at deceiving others are dangerous, those who have convinced themselves of their own goodness can be far more dangerous: they are willing to destroy all who oppose them for they believe that those people must be evil.

Fortunately, there are actually some lawful good types in the world. These are the people who sincerely work for just, fair and honorable systems of order, be they nations, legal systems, faiths or organizations. While they can seem a bit fanatical at times, they do not cross over into the evil that serves as a key component of true fanaticism.

Neutral good types tend to see the lawful good types as being too worried about order and obedience. The chaotic good types respect the goodness of the lawful good types, but find their obsession with hierarchy, order and rules oppressive. However, good creatures never willingly and knowingly seriously harm other good creatures. So, while a chaotic good person might be critical of a lawful good organization, she would not try to destroy it.

Chaotic evil types are the antithesis of the lawful good types and they are devoted enemies. The chaotic evil folks hate the order and goodness of the lawful good, although they certainly delight in destroying them.

Neutral evil types are opposed to the goodness of the lawful good, but can be adept at exploiting both the lawful and good aspects of the lawful good. Of course, the selfishly evil need to avoid exposure, since the good will not willingly suffer their presence.

Lawful evil types can often get along with the lawful good types in regards to the cause of order. Both types respect tradition, authority and order—although they do so for very different reasons. Lawful evil types often have compunctions that can make them seem to have some goodness and the lawful good are sometimes willing to see such compunctions as signs of the possibility of redemption. In general, the lawful good and lawful evil are most likely to be willing to work together at the societal level. For example, they might form an alliance against a chaotic evil threat to their nation. Inevitably, though, the lawful good and lawful evil must end up in conflict. Which is as it should be.


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Obligations to People We Don’t Know

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 10, 2014

One of the classic moral problems is the issue of whether or not we have moral obligations to people we do not know.  If we do have such obligations, then there are also questions about the foundation, nature and extent of these obligations. If we do not have such obligations, then there is the obvious question about why there are no such obligations. I will start by considering some stock arguments regarding our obligations to others.

One approach to the matter of moral obligations to others is to ground them on religion. This requires two main steps. The first is establishing that the religion imposes such obligations. The second is making the transition from the realm of religion to the domain of ethics.

Many religions do impose such obligations on their followers. For example, John 15:12 conveys God’s command: “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”  If love involves obligations (which it seems to), then this would certainly seem to place us under these obligations.  Other faiths also include injunctions to assist others.

In terms of transitioning from religion to ethics, one easy way is to appeal to divine command theory—the moral theory that what God commands is right because He commands it. This does raise the classic Euthyphro problem: is something good because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is good? If the former, goodness seems arbitrary. If the latter, then morality would be independent of God and divine command theory would be false.

Using religion as the basis for moral obligation is also problematic because doing so would require proving that the religion is correct—this would be no easy task. There is also the practical problem that people differ in their faiths and this would make a universal grounding for moral obligations difficult.

Another approach is to argue for moral obligations by using the moral method of reversing the situation.  This method is based on the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the basic idea is that consistency requires that a person treat others as she would wish to be treated.

To make the method work, a person would need to want others to act as if they had obligations to her and this would thus obligate the person to act as if she had obligations to them. For example, if I would want someone to help me if I were struck by a car and bleeding out in the street, then consistency would require that I accept the same obligation on my part. That is, if I accept that I should be helped, then consistency requires that I must accept I should help others.

This approach is somewhat like that taken by Immanuel Kant. He argues that because a person necessarily regards herself as an end (and not just a means to an end), then she must also regard others as ends and not merely as means.  He endeavors to use this to argue in favor of various obligations and duties, such as helping others in need.

There are, unfortunately, at least two counters to this sort of approach. The first is that it is easy enough to imagine a person who is willing to forgo the assistance of others and as such can consistently refuse to accept obligations to others. So, for example, a person might be willing to starve rather than accept assistance from other people. While such people might seem a bit crazy, if they are sincere then they cannot be accused of inconsistency.

The second is that a person can argue that there is a relevant difference between himself and others that would justify their obligations to him while freeing him from obligations to them. For example, a person of a high social or economic class might assert that her status obligates people of lesser classes while freeing her from any obligations to them.  Naturally, the person must provide reasons in support of this alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to present a utilitarian argument. For a utilitarian, like John Stuart Mill, morality is assessed in terms of consequences: the correct action is the one that creates the greatest utility (typically happiness) for the greatest number. A utilitarian argument for obligations to people we do not know would be rather straightforward. The first step would be to estimate the utility generated by accepting a specific obligation to people we do not know, such as rendering aid to an intoxicated person who is about to become the victim of sexual assault. The second step is to estimate the disutility generated by imposing that specific obligation. The third step is to weigh the utility against the disutility. If the utility is greater, then such an obligation should be imposed. If the disutility is greater, then it should not.

This approach, obviously enough, rests on the acceptance of utilitarianism. There are numerous arguments against this moral theory and these can be employed against attempts to ground obligations on utility. Even for those who accept utilitarianism, there is the open possibility that there will always be greater utility in not imposing obligations, thus undermining the claim that we have obligations to others.

A fourth approach is to consider the matter in terms of rational self-interest and operate from the assumption that people should act in their self-interest. In terms of a moral theory, this would be ethical egoism: the moral theory that a person should act in her self-interest rather than acting in an altruistic manner.

While accepting that others have obligations to me would certainly be in my self-interest, it initially appears that accepting obligations to others would be contrary to my self-interest. That is, I would be best served if others did unto me as I would like to be done unto, but I was free to do unto them as I wished. If I could get away with this sort of thing, it would be ideal (assuming that I am selfish). However, as a matter of fact people tend to notice and respond negatively to a lack of reciprocation. So, if having others accept that they have some obligations to me were in my self-interest, then it would seem that it would be in my self-interest to pay the price for such obligations by accepting obligations to them.

For those who like evolutionary just-so stories in the context of providing foundations for ethics, the tale is easy to tell: those who accept obligations to others would be more successful than those who do not.

The stock counter to the self-interest argument is the problem of Glaucon’s unjust man and Hume’s sensible knave. While it certainly seems rational to accept obligations to others in return for getting them to accept similar obligations, it seems preferable to exploit their acceptance of obligations while avoiding one’s supposed obligations to others whenever possible. Assuming that a person should act in accord with self-interest, then this is what a person should do.

It can be argued that this approach would be self-defeating: if people exploited others without reciprocation, the system of obligations would eventually fall apart. As such, each person has an interest in ensuring that others hold to their obligations. Humans do, in fact, seem to act this way—those who fail in their obligations often get a bad reputation and are distrusted. From a purely practical standpoint, acting as if one has obligations to others would thus seem to be in a person’s self-interest because the benefits would generally outweigh the costs.

The counter to this is that each person still has an interest in avoiding the cost of fulfilling obligations and there are various practical ways to do this by the use of deceit, power and such. As such, a classic moral question arises once again: why act on your alleged obligations if you can get away with not doing so? Aside from the practical reply given above, there seems to be no answer from self-interest.

A fifth option is to look at obligations to others as a matter of debts. A person is born into an established human civilization built on thousands of years of human effort. Since each person arrives as a helpless infant, each person’s survival is dependent on others. As the person grows up, she also depends on the efforts of countless other people she does not know. These include soldiers that defend her society, the people who maintain the infrastructure, firefighters who keep fire from sweeping away the town or city, the taxpayers who pay for all this, and so on for all the many others who make human civilization possible. As such, each member of civilization owes a considerable debt to those who have come before and those who are here now.

If debt imposes an obligation, then each person who did not arise ex-nihilo owes a debt to those who have made and continue to make their survival and existence in society possible. At the very least, the person is obligated to make contributions to continue human civilization as a repayment to these others.

One objection to this is for a person to claim that she owes no such debt because her special status obligates others to provide all this for her with nothing owed in return. The obvious challenge is for a person to prove such an exalted status.

Another objection is for a person to claim that all this is a gift that requires no repayment on the part of anyone and hence does not impose any obligation. The challenge is, of course, to prove this implausible claim.

A final option I will consider is that offered by virtue theory. Virtue theory, famously presented by thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius, holds that people should develop their virtues. These classic virtues include generosity, loyalty and other virtues that involve obligations and duties to others. Confucius explicitly argued in favor of duties and obligations as being key components of virtues.

In terms of why a person should have such virtues and accept such obligations, the standard answer is that being virtuous will make a person happy.

Virtue theory is not without its detractors and the criticism of the theory can be employed to undercut it, thus undermining its role in arguing that we have obligations to people we do not know.


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The Worst Thing

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2014
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...

Anselm of Canterbury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It waits somewhere in the dark infinity of time. Perhaps the past. Perhaps the future. Perhaps now. The worst thing.

Whenever something bad happens to me, such as a full quadriceps tendon tear, people always helpfully remark that “it could have been worse.” Some years ago, after that tendon tear, I wrote an essay about this matter which focused on possibility and necessity. That is, whether it could be worse or not. While the tendon tear was perhaps the worst thing to happen to me (as of this writing), I did have some bad things happen this summer and got to hear how things could have been worse. Since it seemed like a fun game, I decided to play along: when lightning took out the pine tree in front of my house I said “why, it could have been worse” and then was hit with inspiration: what would be the worst thing? The thing that which nothing worse can be conceived.

I can say with complete confidence that there must be such a thing. After all, just as there must be a tallest building, there must be the worst thing. But, of course, this would not be much of an essay if I failed to argue for this claim.

Interestingly enough, arguing for the worst thing is rather similar to arguing for the existence of a perfect thing (that is, God). Thomas Aquinas famously made use of his Five Ways to argue for the existence of God and most of these arguments relied on a combination of an infinite regress and a reduction to absurdity. For example, Aquinas argued from the fact that things move to the need for an unmoved mover on the grounds that an infinite regress would arise if everything had to be moved by something else. A regress argument with a reduction to absurdity will serve quite nicely in arguing for the worst thing.

Take any thing. To avoid the usual boring philosophical approach of calling this thing X, I’ll call this thing Troy. If Troy is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists. If Troy is not the worst thing, then there must be another thing that is worse than Troy. That thing, which I will call Sally, is either the worst thing or not. If Sally is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists and is Sally. If it is not Sally, there must be something worse than Sally. This cannot go on to infinity so there must be a thing that is worse than all other things—the worst thing. I’ll call it Dave.

The obvious counter is to throw down the infinity gauntlet: if there is an infinite number of things, there will not be a worst thing. After all, for any thing, there will be an infinite number of other things. As Leibniz claimed, the infinite number cannot be said to be even or odd, therefor in an infinite universe a thing could not be said to be worst.

One might be inclined to reject the infinity gauntlet—after all, even if there is an infinite number of things, each thing would stand in a relation to all other things and there would thus still be a worst thing.

Another obvious counter is to assert that there could be two or more things that are equally bad—that is, identical in their badness. As such, there would not be a worst thing.  A counter to this is to follow Leibniz once again and argue that there could not be two identical things—they would need to differ in some way that would make one worse than the other. This could be countered by asserting that the two might be different, yet equally bad. In this case, the response would be to follow the model used in arguing for the best thing (God) and assert that the worst thing would be worst in every possible respect and hence anything equally as bad would be identical and thus there would be one worst thing, not two. I suppose that this would have some consolation value—it would certainly be a scary universe that had multiple worst things.

Of course, this just shows that there is something that is worse than all other things that happen to be—which leaves open the possibility that it is not the worst thing in another sense of the term. So now I will turn to arguing for the truly worst thing.

Another way to argue for the worst thing is to use the model of St. Anselm’s ontological argument. Very crudely put, the ontological argument works like this: God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. If God only existed as an idea in the mind, a greater being can be conceived, namely God existing for real. Thus, God must exist.

In the case of the worst thing, it would be that which nothing worse can be conceived. If it only existed as an idea in the mind, a worse thing can be conceived, namely the worst thing existing for real. Thus, the worst thing must exist.

Another variant on the ontological argument can also be used here. A stock variant is that since God is perfect, He must exist. This is because if He did not exist, He would not be perfect. But He is, so He must. In the case of the worst thing, the worst thing must exist because it is the worst. This is because if it did not exist, it would not be the worst. But it is, so it does. This worst thing would be the truly worst thing (just as God is supposed to be the best thing).

This approach does, of course, inherit the usual difficulties of an ontological argument as pointed out by Gaunilo and Kant (that existence is not a quality). It would certainly be better for the universe and the folks in it for the critics to be right so that there is no worst thing.


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Ethics & Free Will

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2014
Conscience and law

Conscience and law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs recently had their article, “What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will”, published in Scientific American. This article considers the causal impact of a disbelief in free will with a specific focus on law and ethics.

Philosophers have long addressed the general problem of free will as well as the specific connection between free will and ethics. Not surprisingly, studies conducted to determine the impact of disbelief in free will have the results that philosophers have long predicted.

One impact is that when people have doubts about free will they tend to have less support for retributive punishment. Retributive punishment, as the name indicates, is punishment aimed at making a person suffer for her misdeeds. Doubt in free will did not negatively impact a person’s support for punishment aimed at deterrence or rehabilitation.

While the authors do consider one reason for this, namely that those who doubt free will would regard wrongdoers as analogous to harmful natural phenomenon that need to dealt with rather than subject to vengeance, this view also matches a common view about moral accountability. To be specific, moral (and legal) accountability is generally proportional to the control a person has over events. To use a concrete example, consider the difference between these two cases. In the first case, Sally is driving well above the speed limit and is busy texting and sipping her latte. She doesn’t see the crossing guard frantically waving his sign and runs over the children in the cross walk. In case two, Jane is driving the speed limit and children suddenly run directly in front of her car. She brakes and swerves immediately, but she hits the children. Intuitively, Sally has acted in a way that was morally wrong—she should have been going the speed limit and she should have been paying attention. Jane, though she hit the children, did not act wrongly—she could not have avoided the children and hence is not morally responsible.

For those who doubt free will, every case is like Jane’s case: for the determinist, every action is determined and a person could not have chosen to do other than she did. On this view, while Jane’s accident seems unavoidable, so was Sally’s accident: Sally could not have done other than she did. As such, Sally is no more morally accountable than Jane. For someone who believes this, inflicting retributive punishment on Sally would be no more reasonable than seeking vengeance against Jane.

However, it would seem to make sense to punish Sally to deter others and to rehabilitate Sally so she will drive the speed limit and pay attention in the future. Of course, if these is no free will, then we would not chose to punish Sally, she would not chose to behave better and people would not decide to learn from her lesson. Events would happen as determined—she would be punished or not. She would do it again or not. Other people would do the same thing or not. Naturally enough, to speak of what we should decide to do in regards to punishments would seem to assume that we can chose—that is, that we have some degree of free will.

A second impact that Shariff and Vohs noted was that a person who doubts free will tends to behave worse than a person who does not have such a skeptical view. One specific area in which behavior worsens is that such skepticism seems to incline people to be more willing to harm others. Another specific area is that such skepticism also inclines others to lie or cheat. In general, the impact seems to be that the skepticism reduces a person’s willingness (or capacity) to resist impulsive reactions in favor of greater restraint and better behavior.

Once again, this certainly makes sense. Going back to the examples of Sally and Jane, Sally (unless she is a moral monster) would most likely feel remorse and guilt for hurting the children. Jane, though she would surely feel badly, would not feel moral guilt. This would certainly be reasonable: a person who hurts others should feel guilt if she could have done otherwise but should not feel moral guilt if she could not have done otherwise (although she certainly should feel sympathy). If someone doubts free will, then she will regard her own actions as being out of her control: she is not choosing to lie, or cheat or hurt others—these events are just happening. People might be hurt, but this is like a tree falling on them—it just happens. Interestingly, these studies show that people are consistent in applying the implications of their skepticism in regards to moral (and legal) accountability.

One rather important point is to consider what view we should have regarding free will. I take a practical view of this matter and believe in free will. As I see it, if I am right, then I am…right. If I am wrong, then I could not believe otherwise. So, choosing to believe I can choose is the rational choice: I am right or I am not at fault for being wrong.

I do agree with Kant that we cannot prove that we have free will. He believed that the best science of his day was deterministic and that the matter of free will was beyond our epistemic abilities. While science has marched on since Kant, free will is still unprovable. After all, deterministic, random and free-will universes would all seem the same to the people in them. Crudely put, there are no observations that would establish or disprove metaphysical free will. There are, of course, observations that can indicate that we are not free in certain respects—but completely disproving (or proving) free will would seem to beyond our abilities—as Kant contended.

Kant had a fairly practical solution: he argued that although free will cannot be proven, it is necessary for ethics. So, crudely put, if we want to have ethics (which we do), then we need to accept the existence of free will on moral grounds. The experiments described by Shariff and Vohs seems to support Kant: when people doubt free will, this has an impact on their ethics.

One aspect of this can be seen as positive—determining the extent to which people are in control of their actions is an important part of determining what is and is not a just punishment. After all, we do not want to inflict retribution on people who could not have done otherwise or, at the very least, we would want relevant circumstances to temper retribution with proper justice.  It also makes more sense to focus on deterrence and rehabilitation more than retribution. However just, retribution merely adds more suffering to the world while deterrence and rehabilitation reduces it.

The second aspect of this is negative—skepticism about free will seems to cause people to think that they have a license to do ill, thus leading to worse behavior. That is clearly undesirable. This then, provides an interesting and important challenge: balancing our view of determinism and freedom in order to avoid both unjust punishment and becoming unjust. This, of course, assumes that we have a choice. If we do not, we will just do what we do and giving advice is pointless. As I jokingly tell my students, a determinist giving advice about what we should do is like someone yelling advice to a person falling to certain death—he can yell all he wants about what to do, but it won’t matter.


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Kant & Economic Justice

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2014
English: , Prussian philosopher. Português: , ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the basic concerns is ethics is the matter of how people should be treated. This is often formulated in terms of our obligations to other people and the question is “what, if anything, do we owe other people?” While it does seem that some would like to exclude the economic realm from the realm of ethics, the burden of proof would rest on those who would claim that economics deserves a special exemption from ethics. This could, of course, be done. However, since this is a brief essay, I will start with the assumption that economic activity is not exempt from morality.

While I subscribe to virtue theory as my main ethics, I do find Kant’s ethics both appealing and interesting. In regards to how we should treat others, Kant takes as foundational that “rational nature exists as an end in itself.”

It is reasonable to inquire why this should be accepted. Kant’s reasoning certainly seems sensible enough. He notes that “a man necessarily conceives his own existence as such” and this applies to all rational beings. That is, Kant claims that a rational being sees itself as being an end, rather than a thing to be used as a means to an end.  So, for example, I see myself as a person who is an end and not as a mere thing that exists to serve the ends of others.

Of course, the mere fact that I see myself as an end would not seem to require that I extend this to other rational beings (that is, other people). After all, I could apparently regard myself as an end and regard others as means to my ends—to be used for my profit as, for example, underpaid workers or slaves.

However, Kant claims that I must regard other rational beings as ends as well. The reason is fairly straightforward and is a matter of consistency: if I am an end rather than a means because I am a rational being, then consistency requires that I accept that other rational beings are ends as well. After all, if being a rational being makes me an end, it would do the same for others. Naturally, it could be argued that there is a relevant difference between myself and other rational beings that would warrant my treating them as means only and not as ends. People have, obviously enough, endeavored to justify treating other people as things. However, there seems to be no principled way to insist on my own status as an end while denying the same to other rational beings.

From this, Kant derives his practical imperative: “so act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” This imperative does not entail that I cannot ever treat a person as a means—that is allowed, provided I do not treat the person as a means only. So, for example, I would be morally forbidden from being a pimp who uses women as mere means of revenue. I would, however, not be forbidden from having someone check me out at the grocery store—provided that I treated the person as a person and not a mere means.

One obvious challenge is sorting out what it is to treat a person as an end as opposed to just a means to an end. That is, the problem is figuring out when a person is being treated as a mere means and thus the action would be immoral.

Interestingly enough, many economic relationships would seem to clearly violate Kant’s imperative in that they treat people as mere means and not at all as ends. To use the obvious example, if an employer treats her employees merely as means to making a profit and does not treat them as ends in themselves, then she is acting immorally by Kant’s standard. After all, being an employee does not rob a person of personhood.

One obvious reply is to question my starting assumption, namely that economics is not exempt from ethics. It could be argued that the relationship between employer and employee is purely economic and only economic considerations matter. That is, the workers are to be regarded as means to profit and treated in accord with this—even if doing so means treating them as things rather than persons. The challenge is, of course, to show that the economic realm grants a special exemption in regards to ethics. Of course, if it does this, then the exemption would presumably be a general one. So, for example, people who decided to take money from the rich at gunpoint would be exempt from ethics as well. After all, if everyone is a means in economics, then the rich are just as much means as employees and if economic coercion against people is acceptable, then so too is coercion via firearms.

Another obvious reply is to contend that might makes right. That is, the employer has the power and owes nothing to the employees beyond what they can force him to provide. This would make economics rather like the state of nature—where, as Hobbes said, “profit is the measure of right.” Of course, this leads to the same problem as the previous reply: if economics is a matter of might making right, then people have the same right to use might against employers and other folks—that is, the state of nature applies to all.


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Kant & Sexbots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 27, 2013

Robotina [005]

Robotina [005] (Photo credit: PVBroadz)

The Fox sci-fi buddy cop show Almost Human episode on sexbots inspired me to revisit the ethics of sexbots. While the advanced, human-like models of the show are still things of fiction, there is already considerable research and development devoted to creating sexbots. As such, it seems well worth considering the ethical issues involving sexbots real and fictional.

At this time, sexbots are clearly mere objects—while often made to look like humans, they do not have the qualities that would make them even person-like. As such, ethical concerns involving these sexbots would not involve concerns about wrongs done to such objects—presumably they cannot be wronged. One potentially interesting way to approach the matter of sexbots is to make use of Kant’s discussion of ethics and animals.

In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. They are mere objects. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them. Sexbots would, obviously, qualify as paradigm “objects of our inclinations.”

Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do it).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.

Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty—they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.

In the case of the current sexbots, they obviously lack any meaningful moral status of their own. They do not feel or think—they are mere machines that might happen to be made to look like a human. As such, they lack all the qualities that might give them a moral status of their own.

Oddly enough, sexbots could be taken as being comparable to animals, at least as Kant sees them. After all, animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. Likewise for sexbots. Of course, the same is also true of sticks and stones. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat stones well. Perhaps this would also apply to sexbots. That is, perhaps it makes no sense to talk about good or bad relative to such objects. Thus, a key matter to settle is whether sexbots are more like animals or more like stones—at least in regards to the matter at hand.

If Kant’s argument has merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog.  This should also extend to sexbots. For example, if engaging in certain activities with a sexbot would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If engaging in certain behavior with a sexbot would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should engage in that behavior. It is also worth considering that perhaps people should not engage in any behavior with sexbots—that having sex of any kind with a bot would be damaging to the person’s humanity.

Interestingly enough (or boringly enough), this sort of argument is often employed to argue against people watching pornography. The gist of such arguments is that viewing pornography can condition people (typically men) to behave badly in real life or at least have a negative impact on their character. If pornography can have this effect, then it seems reasonable to be concerned about the potential impact of sexbots on people. After all, pornography casts a person in a passive role viewing other people acting as sexual objects, while a sexbot allows a person to have sex with an actual sexual object.

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Do Dogs Have Morality?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2012

A Good Dog or a Moral Dog?

The idea that morality has its foundations in biology is enjoying considerable current popularity, although the idea is not a new one. However, the current research is certainly something to be welcomed, if only because it might give us a better understanding of our fellow animals.

Being a philosopher and a long-time pet owner, I have sometimes wondered whether my pets (and other animals) have morality. This matter was easily settled in the case of cats: they have a morality, but they are evil.  My best cats have been paragons of destruction, gladly throwing the claw into lesser beings and sweeping breakable items to the floor with feline glee. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I really like cats—in part because they are so very evil in their own special ways. The matter of dogs and morality is rather more controversial. Given that all of ethics is controversial; this should hardly be a shock.

Being social animals that have been shaped and trained by humans for thousands of years, it would hardly be surprising that dogs exhibit behaviors that humans would regard as moral in nature. However, it is well known that people anthropomorphize their dogs and attribute to them qualities that they might not, in fact, possess. As such, this matter must be approached with due caution. To be fair, we also anthropomorphize each other and there is the classic philosophical problem of other minds—so it might be the case that neither dogs nor other people have morality because they lack minds. For the sake of the discussion I will set aside the extreme version of the problem of other minds and accept a lesser challenge. To be specific, I will attempt to make a plausible case for the notion that dogs have the faculties to possess morality.

While I will not commit to a specific morality here, I will note that for a creature to have morality it would seem to need certain mental faculties. These would seem to include cognitive abilities adequate for making moral choices and perhaps also emotional capabilities (if morality is more a matter of feeling than thinking).

While dogs are not as intelligent as humans (on average) and they do not use true language, they clearly have a fairly high degree of intelligence. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that they can be trained in very complex tasks and even in professions (such as serving as guide or police dogs). They also exhibit an exceptional understanding of human emotions and while they do not have language, they certainly can learn to understand verbal and gesture commands given by humans. Dogs also have an understanding of tokens and types. To be specific, they are quite good at recognizing individuals and also good at recognizing types of things. For example, a dog can distinguish its owner while also distinguishing humans from cats. As another example, my dogs have always been able to recognize any sort of automobile and seem to understand what they do—they are generally eager to jump aboard whether it is my pickup truck or someone else’s car. On the face of it, dogs seem to have the mental horsepower needed to engage in basic decision making.

When it comes to emotions, we have almost as much reason to believe that dogs feel and understand them as we do for humans having that ability. The main difference is that humans can talk (and lie) about how they feel; dogs can only observe and express emotions. Dogs clearly express anger, joy, fear and other emotions and seem to understand those emotions in other animals. This is shown by how dogs react to expression of emotion. For example, dogs seem to recognize when their owners are sad or angry and react accordingly. Thus, while dogs might lack all the emotional nuances of humans and the capacity to talk about them, they do seem to have the basic emotional capabilities that might be necessary for ethics.

Of course, showing that dogs have intelligence and emotions would not be enough to show that dogs have morality. What is needed is some reason to think that dogs use these capabilities to make moral decisions and engage in moral behavior.

Dogs are famous for possessing traits that are analogous to (or the same as) virtues such as loyalty, compassion and courage.  Of course, Kant recognized these traits but still claimed that dogs could not make moral judgments. As he saw it, dogs are not rational beings and do not act in accord with the law. But, roughly put, they seem to have an ersatz sort of ethics in that they can act in ways analogous to human virtue. While Kant does make an interesting case, there do seem to be some reasons to accept that dogs can engage in basic moral judgments. Naturally, since dogs do not write treatises on moral philosophy, I can only speculate on what is occurring in their minds (or brains). As noted above, there is always the risk of projecting human qualities onto dogs and, of course, they make this very easy to do.

One area that seems to have potential for showing that dogs have morality is the matter of property. While some might think that dogs regard whatever they can grab (be it food or toys) as their property, this is not always the case. While it seems true that some dogs are Hobbesian, this is also true of humans. Dogs, based on my decades of experience with them, seem to be capable of clearly grasping property. For example, my husky Isis has a large collection of toys that are her possessions. She reliably distinguishes between her toys and very similar items (such as shoes, clothing, sporting goods and so on) that do not belong to her. While I do not know for sure what happens in her mind, I do know that when I give her a toy and go through the “toy ritual” she gets it and seems to recognize that the toy is her property now. Items that are not given to her are apparently recognized as being someone else’s property and are not chewed upon or dragged outside. In the case of Isis, this extends (amazingly enough) even to food—anything handed to her or in her bowl is her food, anything else is not. Naturally, she will ask for donations, even when she could easily take the food. While other dogs have varying degrees of understanding of property and territory, they certainly seem to grasp this. Since the distinction between mine and not mine seems rather important in ethics, this suggests that dogs have some form of basic morality—at least enough to be capitalists.

Dogs, like many other animals, also have the capacity to express a willingness to trust and will engage in reprisals against other dogs that break trust. I often refer to this as “dog park justice” to other folks who are dog people.

When dogs get together in a dog park (or other setting) they will typically want to play with each other. Being social animals, dogs have various ways of signaling intent. In the case of play, they typically engage in “bows” (slapping their front paws on the ground and lowering their front while making distinctive sounds). Since dogs cannot talk, they have to “negotiate” in this manner, but the result seems similar to how humans make agreements to interact peacefully.

Interestingly, when a dog violates the rules of play (by engaging in actual violence against a playing dog) other dogs recognize this violation of trust—just as humans recognize someone who violates trust. Dogs will typically recognize a “bad dog” when it returns to the park and will avoid it, although dogs seem to be willing to forgive after a period of good behavior. An understanding of agreements and reprisals for violating them seems to show that dogs have at least a basic system of morality.

As a final point, dogs also engage in altruistic behavior—helping out other dogs, humans and even other animals. Stories of dogs risking their lives to save others from danger are common in the media and this suggests that dogs can make decisions that put themselves at risk for the well-being of others. This clearly suggests a basic canine morality and one that makes such dogs better than ethical egoists. This is why when I am asked whether I would chose to save my dog or a stranger, I would chose my dog: I know my dog is good, but statistically speaking a random stranger has probably done some bad things. Fortunately, my dog would save the stranger.

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