I’d like to now envision the book I am working on. This post is something like a proposal for the book, both to clarify my thoughts on it and (more importantly) to hear yours. As I write it I keep in mind the wise advice of my dissertation advisor, Parimal Patil, that fundamentally a dissertation proposal is telling a lie. You don’t actually know what the final result is going to be, or you would have already written it; the act of researching it will necessarily make it something different from the proposal. You just don’t know how it will be different. With that in mind, let me attempt to say some more, in a nutshell, about what the book will be.Continue reading
Last time I introduced the idea of supererogatory acts, those that are good beyond what duty and obligation require. The nature of supererogatory acts is sometimes referred to with the noun form supererogation. David Heyd’s Stanford Encyclopedia article makes a good introduction to the idea of supererogation. It also, I think, tells us what analytical moral philosophy gets wrong about the idea – specifically, when it claims that “the class of actions beyond duty is relatively small…”
Says who? Say contemporary ethicists, according to Heyd. But to my mind this does a lot to illustrate what is wrong with their way of thinking. The claim that relatively few actions go beyond the requirements of duty would certainly be true for Peter Singer and most utilitarians and consequentialists, who subject us to an effectively never-ending stream of demands in which little could be supererogatory short of altruistic suicide. Likewise, while I think it would not be hard to allow great room for supererogatory acts in a neo-Kantian position, as Heyd notes this was not Kant’s own view: there were perfect and imperfect duties, but the latter were duties all the same.
But this, I would argue, is one of the many things both utilitarians and Kantians get wrong – and therefore the majority of analytical ethicists, since most major analytical ethics descends from one or both of these sources. Continue reading
Aeon magazine recently published an excellent popularized version of Eric Schwitzgebel’s reflections on his research indicating that professional ethicists are no more ethical than anybody else. I’ve already blogged here both about the research and about the reflections. Betsy (Elizabeth) Barre shared the Aeon piece on her Facebook feed, leading to a lively conversation on Facebook which provoked me to think further about deeper issues around it.
In that conversation I shared my earlier reflection on the topic. In response, among other thoughts, Barre noted she was surprised that Schwitzgebel hadn’t presented the reflection in terms of the standard distinction between “what is moral?” and “why be moral?” And she asked me: “I take it that you think the latter question is not as problematic as some philosophers and ethicists do?”
That question came as a surprise. Continue reading
My friend Stephen Harris recently posted an interesting article on the question of whether Śāntideva’s ethics is “overdemanding”. I appreciate the article’s methodological approach. It engages Śāntideva’s ethics with the categories of analytical moral philosophy while moving beyond the relatively fruitless attempt to classify it: not “is Śāntideva’s ethics consequentialist?” but “is Śāntideva’s ethics vulnerable to the charges made against consequentialism?” The latter approach is more important because it allows engagement with Śāntideva’s ideas: asking the question “to what extent is Śāntideva right?” Continue reading
We have seen over the past few posts that while the idea of individual rights is not just a modern invention, it also is far from a universal one. Rights are not obvious or commonsensical. Contra the American Declaration of Independence, they are not self-evident.
Rather, rights need reasons. If one wants to get to the truth of the matter (and not merely to achieve an expedient political deal), it is never good enough to say something should be done for, or not done to, a person “because he has a right to it”. The right itself requires a justification. Sometimes one’s interlocutor already agrees that the person has this right, but in many cases – the most important cases – they do not in fact agree.
This point is easy to lose sight of, perhaps especially in the contemporary United States where the opposing political sides rarely speak to each other. Each side insists it is defending rights: the employee’s right to contraception, Hobby Lobby‘s right to refuse to provide contraception on religious grounds, the fetus’s right to life, the woman’s right to an abortion. But what is in question here – assuming we acknowledge the existence of rights in the first place – is who has which rights. And then we need to provide reasons.
On Leif Wenar’s modern definition, a right is an entitlement. Historically, when William of Ockham articulated a concept of rights that would get increasingly taken up in the years following, it was a potesta licitas: a legal power, a power of licence. Key to a right is an entitlement or licence that implies an obligation of others to respect it.
But who grants the licence, the entitlement, the permission? Continue reading
Is the concept of (human) rights a modern conceit, as Alasdair MacIntyre thinks? To answer that question, it helps to look at the premodern roots of the concept of rights in some detail. The French legal historian Michel Villey has probably done more than any other to help us understand the historicity of the concept of rights – to recognize that the idea of a right as we understand it today is not a human universal, but has a specific history. (Unfortunately, few if any of Villey’s works have been translated into English; even the Wikipedia link above is French only.) Something like Villey’s work probably underlies MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of rights. Still, if we examine the similarly pioneering work of Cornell historian Brian Tierney, we will see that Villey’s claims are at least somewhat overstated, and MacIntyre’s even more so.
The etymology of the English word “right(s)” goes back very far – it is shared not only with German and Dutch Recht but with the word ṛta from the Sanskrit Vedas, denoting the cosmic order underlying the world. But what’s most important in the history of “rights” and related words is not the words themselves but the underlying concept, the one that comes to be expressed in modern European languages as droit, derecho, Recht, rights. That concept begins as a word which is not etymologically related to the modern European words, but which those words all translate and which is the root of modern European thinking about them: Continue reading
Last time, I observed Peter Singer’s proposed radical revision of our moral views – the claim that, when we keep money that we could give to help the starving or diseased without major sacrifice, we are doing something as bad as if we let a drowning child drown. Is Singer right?
At the heart of Singer’s argument, by his own reckoning, is this principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” He explicitly states that the implication of this “ought” is duty and obligation, not merely charity and generosity. It is not just that sacrificing one’s own comfort and pleasure to help those in need is good, but that any refusal to do so is bad, something deserving of one’s own guilt and shame and others’ condemnation.
Now on what grounds should we accept this principle, if indeed we should? Continue reading
I have written before about Eric Schwitzgebel’s studies suggesting that professors of ethics are no more ethical than anybody else. Now what does this finding mean? A while ago, Schwitzgebel reflected some more on these studies – and on the reactions he found to them. (This reaction was recently referred to on the Philosophy Bites podcast and even in the Manchester Guardian.) He pointed out:
Philosophers rarely seem surprised or unsettled when I present my work on the morality of ethicists — work suggesting that ethics professors behave no differently than other professors or any more in accord with their own moral opinions (e.g., here). Amusement is a more common reaction; so also is dismissal of the relevancy of such results to philosophy. Such reactions reveal something, perhaps, about the role philosophical moral reflection is widely assumed to have in academia and in individual ethicists’ personal lives.
I think Schwitzgebel is quite right that the reaction is telling. Few, I think, would be surprised to hear that ethicists aren’t especially ethical. But similarly few even seem to consider this a problem – and that is what troubles me. Continue reading
Last week the Economist ran a cover story on a philosophical topic: the ethics of robots. Not just the usual ethical question one might ask about the ethics of developing robots in given situation, but the ethics of the robots themselves. The Economist is nothing if not pragmatic, and would not ask such a question if it weren’t one of immediate importance. As it turns out, we are increasingly programming machines to make decisions for us, such as military robots and Google’s driverless cars. And those will need to make decisions of the sort we have usually viewed as moral or ethical:
Should a drone fire on a house where a target is known to be hiding, which may also be sheltering civilians? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid pedestrians if that means hitting other vehicles or endangering its occupants? Should a robot involved in disaster recovery tell people the truth about what is happening if that risks causing a panic? (Economist, 2 June 2012)
In my previous discussion of Christine Korsgaard’s prologue to The Sources of Normativity, I left out one significant feature of the story she tells of Western philosophy. This is the reason – related to the basic account of excellence of obligation – why Christianity proved philosophically more powerful than Greek thought.
On Korsgaard’s account of Greek metaphysics (à la Plato and Aristotle), goodness is a feature of reality, one more fundamental in a sense than the particular physical objects that appear before us. Perfect form is more real than imperfect matter. This is true whether, with Plato, those forms exist in a world apart from matter, or, with Aristotle, they exist within matter as its potential and telos.
But if that’s the case, Korsgaard notes, then the logical question is: why aren’t things perfect already? We normally think of theodicy – the problem of suffering and responses to it – as primarily a problem for Abrahamic traditions. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, it’s hard to see how there can be suffering in the world (though it’s less hard to see how there can be evil). But broaden the question a bit – make it “the problem of bad” – and it appears elsewhere too. For Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, in which reality is pure knowledge, it’s a conundrum to think how there can be so much ignorance.
And Korsgaard seems to provocatively suggest that the Christians were better equipped to handle the problem than the Greeks – connecting to her account of how an ethics of excellence was superseded by an ethics of obligation. Continue reading