Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Relativism, Nihilism, and Realism: You Think You're a Relativist but You're Not.

If I had a nickel for every time I hear something like “Well, if it's right for him, who am I to judge?” I'd still be poor. Not because I don't hear it a lot but because I'd donate all those nickels to charity. Anyway, relativism--the position that values are relative to an individual or culture-is by far the most dominant view among the general population. In fact, back in my pre-philosophical days I too was a relativist. If you were born to a relatively secular or liberal religious household chances are you *think* you're a relativist too.

Before getting into the problems with this view, I'll quickly go over some of the (perceived?) virtues of relativism. (a) It promotes a culture of tolerance and avoids/tempers dogmatism and (b) by way of (a) it can reduce conflicts. However, there are two main problems with relativism: (a) no one really believes it when push-comes-to-shove and (b) it's logically incoherent: instead you must pick either realism (there are objective values) or nihilism (there are no objective values).

EDIT: Some commenters have correctly pointed out that realism and nihilism aren't the only positions available if you reject relativism. In the interest of simplicity for my non-professional audience I intentionally lumped non-cognitivist positions in with nihilism. So, for those of you familiar with the distinction, please read "nihilism" as including non-cognitivist positions for the purposes of this post. For non-philosophers, if you'd like to learn about the difference I've given a brief summary here.

Part 1: There Are No True Relativists
OK, let's grant the virtues of relativism for the moment. Unfortunately for relativists (i.e., most Westerns) you aren't really relativists. Relativism leads to the absurd conclusion that there's no normative difference between a sadist's values and a humanitarian's values. Hey, if tormenting people for fun is perceived as good and right by the sadist, then it's good. Who are we to judge his values? The relativist might reply, “No, what I mean is you can do what you want so long as you don't harm other people.” That's a fine response but you've just given up relativism. You've just conceded that there is at least one objective moral truth.

Another response might be that people can do what they want so long as it makes them happy (however you define it). Once again you've conceded the argument because you've committed yourself to the objective value of happiness. I.e., when actions conflict with happiness, we ought to favor happiness; happiness is more important than all other things. You are actually a realist/objectivist.

Again, relativism leads to the unsavory position that the Gestapo and Medicins Sans Frontieres are organizations of equal moral worth. If the Gestapo thinks it's good and right to “throw the Jew down the well,” then, hey, who are we to judge? Punching someone in the face is no less praiseworthy as giving someone a helping hand. I doubt very much that anyone truly thinks that, beyond personal beliefs and preferences, there are no important differences between the values in the above examples. If you think there are important differences you're a realist because you just made a judgment about one set of values having more value than another. If you don't then you're probably a nihilist. But you aren't a relativist. More on that later.

Why the Virtues of Relativism Aren't Virtues
Tolerance, aversion of dogmatism, and reduction of conflicts are not genuine virtues in the face of obvious evil. If we discovered that our neighbors had child slaves most of us do not think it would be virtuous to tolerate the practice. In fact, we should dogmatically oppose it and we should confront those who practice it. In short, most of us think that confronting evil and injustice is virtuous while tolerating it is not. And so, the virtues of relativism are not virtues after all. They are contingent on the objective goodness of the practice in question.

If we think a practice is good or perhaps value neutral then tolerance for diversity appears good. But it's not relativism that grounds the virtue of tolerance, non-confrontation, etc... It's our recognition of a practice that brings about some good. And so, the virtuousness of our response is grounded in the fact that we are tolerant of things that are good (or value-neutral) and intolerant of things that are bad. In short, it is the goodness or badness of the act that grounds the virtue of our response to it.

Part 2: The Logical Invalidity of Relativism and Why You Must Be Either a Realist or a Nihilist
Argument 1: The Multiplicity of Things
Let's get the ball rolling with a little Plato...

Now if a man believes in the existence of beautiful things, but not of Beauty itself, and cannot follow a guide who would lead him to a knowledge of it, is he not living in a dream. Consider: does not dreaming, whether one is awake or asleep, consist in mistaking a semblance for the reality it resembles?
I should certainly call that dreaming.
Contrast with him the man who holds that there is such thing as Beauty itself and can discern that essence as well as the things that partake of its character without ever confusing the one with the other—is he a dreamer or living in a waking state?
He is very much awake.
So may we say that he knows, while the other has only a belief in appearances; and might we call their states of mind knowledge and belief? Republic V. 476

Ok, there's a bunch of stuff going on here that I'll possibly address in a later post but for now I just want to focus on one idea. How is it that someone can say of many particular things, actions, or events that they are good/bad/just/unjust/beautiful/ugly, etc... if he isn't referring to one objective standard? That is, by indicating that several particulars are good then they must share the property of goodness just as all red things must share the property of redness. 

For example, when someone says x was good, y was good and z was good, all these things (are perceived to) share the quality of goodness. And so goodness must be one objective thing, not many things. There is one concept of goodness and particular acts or events can partake, to varying degrees, in goodness. (Note: some philosophers contest this view suggesting that there are only particulars but let's roll with it for now. It's not the only argument against relativism.)

The simple response is to say, yes but people might disagree over what goodness/rightness/justice is. That is, they might have different beliefs about what those normative concepts contain.

First of all, the fact that people disagree over something isn't evidence that there's no objective truth about it. For example, just because people might disagree over whether Sweet Baby Jesus created the universe or whether it was Indra (those are the only possible choices) doesn't mean that there's no right answer to the question. (Indra did it)

Disagreement only is evidence for three possibilities: (a) one person is right while the other is wrong; (b) both people are wrong; (c) there is no right or wrong answer. You can't just jump to (c) from the fact that there is disagreement over something. You must also consider that (a) and (b) might be true.

Argument 1: “True”--You Keep Using That Word But I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means
The fact is, relativists often express their position in the following mantra “If Bob thinks X is good then it's true that X is good for Bob.” In short, each individual (or culture) is the arbiter of value. Let's see why this argument doesn't work...

I covered the first reason to reject the relativist argument in the first section. Relativism means we can make no judgments between the most evil and the most benevolent actions. Let's assume for the moment that it's true that we can't make such objective judgments. There's no way to distinguish between what we perceive as benevolent and evil actions. Let's try a different argument.

Another reason to reject the relativist mantra is that just because someone believes something is good for them doesn't make it so. If you can't think of at least a few times you believed something was good for you but at a later date realized it was a mistake, either you are still an infant or you're lying. Scientifical fact from test tubes and beakers: People can be mistaken about what is or isn't good for them and so just because a person believes something is good doesn't make it so.

Here the relativist can reply, OK so maybe people can be wrong about what's good, bad, right, or wrong for them but it doesn't follow that there is some objective good, bad, right, wrong for everyone. The person that got it wrong just got it wrong relative to them.

Let's use logicalization to address this counter-reply:
Again, at the heart of relativism is the idea that believing something makes it so. Thus, believing that abortion is wrong makes it true that abortion is wrong (for that person or culture). But this is to misunderstand the notion of truth. When we say that something is true we mean that it's true regardless of your beliefs. For example, if someone believes that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq their belief has no bearing on the truth of the proposition. The proposition “there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” is either true or false regardless of what anyone believes because the truth value of propositions depends on states of affairs in the world not on our beliefs about states of affairs. It can't be both true and false. It must be one or the other.

Person A says “I believe abortion is wrong (in circumstance C), therefore it's wrong.” They say the proposition “abortion is wrong” is true.
Person B says “I believe abortion isn't wrong (in circumstance C), therefore it isn't wrong.” They say the proposition “abortion is wrong” is false.

The most basic rule of logic is the law of non-contradiction: that something cannot both be true and false at the same time. Relativism leads us to violate the most fundamental rule of logic. It makes it so a proposition can both true and false at the same time. Under relativism “abortion is wrong” is both true and false.

Accepting relativism means we have to reject the most basic rule of logic and this is not a good outcome. It means you can't even communicate because everything is both true and false. Squares both do and do not have 4 corners; Circles both are and are not squares; I both exist and don't exist at the same time; I both will and will not meet you for lunch. My car both is and is not a car. Those jeans both make your butt look fat and not fat. Nothing makes any sense. All meaning is drained from language. This is the logical cost of accepting relativism.

The relativist can reply. No! No! No! You don't understand! What I mean is “abortion is wrong" is true for me! (Me! Me! Me! Everything revolves around me! Even truth and falsity). But this is to completely abandon what we mean by true and false. Nobody takes seriously the person who says “the earth is flat is true for me!”. To such a person we simply say that they are confusing belief for factual knowledge. They believe that the earth is flat but this doesn't make it true. And they certainly don't know that the earth is flat. There is a fact about the universe that the earth either is flat or it isn't. It can't be both—regardless of how hard you believe and regardless of what you read in "The Secret"...

To summarize: An assertion cannot both be true and false (law of non-contradiction). Relativism violates the law of non-contradiction because some people will say of a moral statement that it is true while others will say it's false. There are two alternative: (a) both are wrong and there is no moral truth at all, just preferences (i.e., some form of nihilism is true); (b) one is right and the other is wrong (i.e., some form of realism is true).

Realism or Nihilism: Pick One but You Can't Be a Relativist
We want language to have meaning so we must abandon relativism. Our two choices are realism or nihilism. Realism (in its many flavors) is the position that we can make objective judgments about some values being better than others. Contrary to what simplistic caricatures would have us believe, realism doesn't necessarily commit you to hard and fast rules. 

Realism can be very coarse grained. It might say that for certain situations there is no one right answer there are several but there are also wrong answers. If you think that there are some situations where there is fact about what's good or right or that there can be wrong answers, you are a realist. Maybe you think it's wrong to kill a bunch of innocent civilians for drawing cartoons of a person who lived in the 7th century. If you think it's wrong, and not just a belief that it's wrong but are willing to say it's wrong for anyone to do, then you're a realist.

If you don't think there are any objective moral facts or values then you can never say one set of values is better than another. As a nihilist you can't say that making one decision over another matters (from an objective point of view) because there are no values and so there's no reason to prefer one outcome over another. People might have personal preferences but we can never objectively evaluate their preferences. The person who chooses to spend their life counting blades of grass has a life no less meaningful than the person who cures cancer.

What you can't be is a relativist. Either there are objective moral facts and/or values or there aren't. It's one or the other. It can't be both. People can have beliefs/preferences about what's good/right/bad/wrong but this doesn't tell us anything about the objective state of affairs. If you're a realist, people can have mistaken beliefs about what's good/right/bad/wrong. If you're a nihilist, people only have preferences and preferences can't be “true” or “false” any more than my preference for strawberry ice cream is true or false.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Annual Fitness Post: The Most Efficient Fitness Workouts

Hey guys, it's that time of year when you go out and buy an annual gym/yoga/taichi/zumba/crossfit membership that you'll only use for a month or two. *This* time you're gonna make it work! Well, I hope you do anyway.

As my throngs of adoring fans know, every year I do an annual fitness post.

This year's post is about the most efficient workouts in the woooooooooooooorld. Basically, my patented high-tech workouts will teach everything you need to know to lose fat, gain muscle, and cure cancer. Ok, maybe I'll just teach you how to get the best workout in the shortest amount of time.

You can use these workouts a couple of ways. They can be your primary workouts or you can use them the way I use them. If I'm short on time or need a change from my usual routine, these workouts kick my ass in under 25min. For most people it'll be less.

The common theme of all these workouts is high intensity. I'm too busy to do the literature search but basically, the best evidence on fitness training is that short high intensity training gives as much if not more benefit as up to 2 hours of low intensity training. Trust me. I'm a philosopher.

Why waste time working out when you can waste time doing other things? Now, hold on to your panties cuz these workouts are intense. Some of them will finish you in 10 or 15 minutes (as long as you're pushing yourself and not whining like a baby).

World's Most Efficient Workout #1: Running Stairs
Back in my high school wrestling days, after a full practice Coach Buono would make us run stairs for 15min. It is one of the most hellish workouts you can do.  Let me be clear. I'm not talking about no sissy stair climber. I'm talkin' real stairs. There's a very big difference. You'll find out...

How to Run Stairs
Find some stairs. Run to the top. Run back down. Repeat.

Ok. So lets talk specifics so you get the best workout possible in the shortest amount of time.

First of all I like to find at least four stories of stairs to run (more is gooder). Find a building or outdoor parking garage or maybe the building you live in.

Second, mentally commit to the number of times you'll climb the stairs. You aren't allowed to quit until you've finished. At the low end it should add up to maybe around 30 flights. I like to do around 60. Back in the day I lived in an 18 story apt building and I'd run up 10 times. Don't do that. You'll die. The first time I did it, I couldn't walk for days.

Third. This is the important part. You must ascend 2 steps at a time. Running! No walking! Ok, so maybe near the end when you're starting to die you can walk the flights at the end of a rep but you must walk up 2 at a time. Otherwise, you won't be engaging a lot of the muscles in your legs and you won't be working out with enough intensity. MORE INTENSITY!!!1111!1!!!

What I like to do is I'll go up the stairs to the rhythm of the song I'm listening to. This forces me to keep a certain pace and not give up like a baby. Also, when you start to get tired, you can walk to the rhythm between flights but once you get to the next flight get back to 2 at a time and to the beat! Stop crying, big baby!

Fourth: Descending. For most people I don't recommend running down unless you're used to it. If you do, make sure you keep one hand on the handrail. I've fallen before. It's no fun.

I usually do my 60 flights in around 25 min and I'm done after that.  Lungs are on fire, legs like jelly (u jelly?). So, if you're looking for a quick workout that will give you results; this is a good one.

Reminder. RUN up. Yeah, your legs and lungs will hurt but you wanted to get in shape didn't you? Oh, did you think it was going to be easy? Did you think you could just sashay up those stairs and you'd get all the results? Listen cry baby: All those fitness sophists telling you that you can get in good shape by doing comfortable low intensity exercise are lying to you. You're going to have to push yourself past your comfort zone if you want results. Now stop crying and go run some stairs!

World's Most Efficient Workout #2: Sambo Conditioning 
What is the sambo conditioning circuit? 10 Jumping Squats, 10 Push ups, 10 Sit ups. Repeat for minimum 10 minutes. I dare you to do 15 minutes. Count how many times you can get through the circuit so next time you have benchmark and a target to beat.

How to do the squats: Go down into a regular squat but with your arms at your sides until your finger tips touch the ground. Jump up. That's one.

Lets be real. You're not going to be able to jump the whole 10 minutes. So, as you begin to fade, do as many jumping squats as you can at the beginning of the set until you fail then finish the set with regular squats. For example, you're already starting to cry cuz you can't do 10 full jumping squats. In your next set of squats, jump for the first 3 or 4 then finish the set with regular squats but make sure your finger tips touch for each one.

How to do the push ups.  You know how to do push ups. Chest to the ground then full extension of the arms. That's one rep. Don't let your midsection sag. Better to stick your ass up a bit then let it sag. You can vary the hand placement too: narrow, neutral, wide.

Sit ups: Well, they don't have to be sit ups. Pick another ab exercise if you like: crunches, leg raises, V-ups. Whatevz. Just make sure you get a full range of motion and a good contraction at the top of the movement (that's what she said).

If you can do 10 cycles in 10 minutes you are Jesus. I think my best was 8.

World's Most Efficient Workout #3: Randy Couture Weightlifting Circuit for Wrestling
Maybe you can't find a staircase or maybe you just want to do weights but not your usual work out. This weight cycle will kick. your. ass.

Do this circuit 6 times:
If you live. Please tell me about it.

World's Most Efficient Workout #4: Versa-Climber
I just discovered this one a month ago. If your gym has one, I challenge you to go just 5 min at 90 rpm (that's what I did the first time and I died the death).

The way I'd recommend using this one is as interval training. Go 2 min at 90 rpm then rest for 1 min. Repeat 5 times. Go home, you're done.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Moral Desert and Economic Desert Part 1

Problems with Various Desert Bases
What would it mean for someone the get the wage they deserve? Our answer will depend on the desert base; i.e., in virtue of what are things deserved? Probably the most intuitive answer is that "I deserve my wage because I worked hard for it," implying that effort is the basis for desert claims. Cursory reflection leads us to this reject this answer for a couple of reasons. 

The type of market you serve, the nature of your product, aggregate demand, supply, and your customers willingness and ability to pay all affect your wage although none of these variables are in your control.  That is, they are not a product of your effort. If you work in social services and serve the poor, there is tremendous demand for and value of your services yet your "customers" have a low ability to pay.  Your wage is low and your effort is largely irrelevant. On the other hand, a Saudi Prince might pay a beautiful model $10 000.00 to hang on his arm for an evening. The model's beauty isn't a product of effort nor deliberate choice and so it's hard to say she "earned" the $10 000.00 if effort is our desert base. There are many other counter-examples to the effort desert-base but I'll leave it at that.

The next plausible candidate desert-base is achievement or outcome.  If I produce more than someone else then I deserve more.  This solution also has it's problems. First of all we have to ask about the nature of goods being compared. Do we think that the largest crack dealer is more deserving of their income than the small-time dealer? The former produced more sales, after all. And so we see that social value also enters the calculus. 

It's not enough that a product generates sales, we must also consider the social value of the product. But here's where things get tricky. Often the market value and the social value of goods come apart. The social value of drug rehabilitation workers (for non-celebrities) trumps that of a Fendi handbag yet the profit margins on the former are minimal.  The social value of an educational computer program trumps that of candy crush, yet candy crush and other games deliberately designed to be addictive are much more profitable. And so again we see there is no clear way to establish the magnitude of desert. We can't just appeal to market value. 

Prudential vs Moral Desert
The very loose fit between various desert bases and desert is one set of reasons to be skeptical of economic desert claims. The chief puzzle in understanding economic desert, however, is reconciling the role of prudential and moral action in generating desert claims. Intentionally self-benefiting action generates most economic desert claims: few people go to work motivated by the desire to serve their others, and if they do, it's incidental.  The desire to achieve a certain standard of living and buy this or that knick knack motivates most people to drag themselves out of bed day in and day out. In short, the target beneficiary of the fruits of most people's labor is themselves.

One the other hand, moral desert is generally conceived of as being produced by other-directed action in terms of benefits.  It's odd to say "I'm morally deserving of X because I was looking out for number 1". And so, it is puzzling that the claim "you can't tax me because it's my money--I earned it" is often an implicitly moral one. Denying that others have a claim to your wages imposes duties on them and by so doing enters the moral realm.  Failure to respect these duties might be considered theft by some. But, again it seems odd that a moral claim can be generated by self-serving action and intent.  So, is it simply a category mistake to say that one has a moral desert claim to their wage? Maybe economic desert isn't moral, it's something else.

I think there's a plausible solution to this apparent tension between our common sense intuitions about economic desert and the conceptual distinction between prudential and moral action: in many cases, prudential action is a component of moral action. Simply put, taking care of yourself and your needs so others aren't burdened by you is a part of moral living.  The notion of a good citizen is tied to the idea of, at best contributing positively, but a least not being a net consumer of societies resources when you don't have to be.  A good citizen, if they are able, minimally fulfills part of their moral duty by providing for themselves.

Of course, the prudential and moral don't necessarily overlap.  I can act prudentially and also act contrary to morality. For example, it might be economically prudent for me to sell heroin to minors but the social harms would wipe out any good that came from prudence. And so we see that, although prudence and morality can align, they can also pull in opposite directions.  The moral value of prudence seems to be constrained by considerations of social good.  That is, prudence only has value so long as it doesn't conflict with at least some of our notions of social good.  The mere existence of a market for the products of one's prudential labor isn't sufficient to infer the social value of your prudence--nor of your product.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Can Ethical Vegetarians and Vegans Own Carnivorous Pets?

One thing you learn pretty quickly in philosophy is that committing to a particular principle often commits you to unexpected positions. Since becoming vegetarian I'm starting to realize this a lot in terms of the principles that ground my vegetarianism.

Here's the issue: It seems that the principles that ground vegetarianism or veganism commit us to the conclusion that it's unethical to own carnivorous pets. Lets look at the principles that support vegetarianism and veganism and see how they apply to carnivorous pet ownership.

(Note: For economy I'm going to use vegetarianism to refer also to veganism and "pet" to refer to carnivorous pet).

Argument 1
The most common reason people become vegetarian has to do with Peter Singer's argument which , in abbreviated form, goes something like this:

(P1) Factory farming causes animals to suffer tremendously.
(P2) Suffering is bad and we shouldn't cause it.
(C)   We shouldn't eat factory farmed meat (or any meat where the animal suffered).

Notice this argument isn't against killing, only against suffering. The objection to killing a separate reason to reject eating meat which I'll set aside for now.

Here's the problem for people who accept this argument or something like it: Pets eat factory farmed meat. By owning a pet you are contributing to the suffering of many other animals--the very thing you oppose.

It seems as though having a pet is contrary to a vegetarian's ethical commitments.  A vegetarian can reply (in some cases): I adopted this pet and I wasn't going to just let it die.

Even if this is true, (P2) seems to commit us to a startling conclusion: we ought to euthanize our pets. Here's why. Lets take for granted that more suffering is worse than less suffering.  Your pet has had a pretty good life. Except for the time it spent before you rescued it, live's been pretty good. Almost no suffering. Now, keeping your pet alive over its natural lifetime causes the suffering of many other creatures equal in their capacity to suffer with your pet. Their suffering is of no lesser moral worth than that of your pets. If we are truly committed to (P2), that suffering is bad, and we should cause less rather than more suffering, it seems to follow that we ought to euthanize our happy pets. It will cause less over-all suffering.

Argument 2
If your vegetarianism is founded on the idea that eating meat is wrong because killing is wrong, there's an analogous problem.  Lets apply the famous trolly problem to see why.  A trolly is barreling down a track and will kill 5 workers working in a tunnel ahead. You can pull a lever and divert the trolly to another tunnel with only one worker. Should you allow the 5 to die or pull the lever, saving the 5 but causing only one worker to die? Most people say pull the lever.  It's better to save 5 lives for the "price" of one. So, if we accept this principle and say the lives of animals are of equal value (at least with respect to each other), it seems to follow that we should euthanize our pet (or at least not feed it) to save the 5 animals that will be slaughtered to feed our pet over its lifetime.

Argument 3
You can also run all the same arguments in regards to the environmental cost of raising animals for meat. Owning a pet causes more animals to be raised for meat. More animals=higher environmental cost=more bad. If you euthanize your pet, those future animals don't need to be raised for meat and there is less of an environmental impact. Fewer animals=lower environmental cost=less bad.

Weak Counter Argument: Causal Inefficacy
One way to reply is to say that "well, euthanizing my one pet isn't going to change the meat industry/how much meat is produced." Vegetarians hear (and reject) a version of this same argument when people object to vegetarianism. It's a bad argument. To see why, imagine the pre-emancipation slave owner saying "well, even if I free my slaves, everyone else is still going to have slaves and probably just take my freed slaves anyway." Is this a good argument? Nope. Owning slaves is morally bad regardless of what other people do. You're responsible for the moral consequences of your own actions; what other people do isn't relevant.

As a vegetarian, I don't like any of these conclusions but they seem to follow from the principles I've accepted.  At the very least, the principles suggest that, if we don't euthanize our rescued pets we at least have an obligation to ensure that all pets should neutered/spayed to prevent future pets from coming into the world. Also, that once our existing pet dies (naturally) we shouldn't get another pet--rescue or otherwise. That sucks. I can't imagine my life without doge.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Aristotle and Plato: Hey, Dummy! You Don't Know What You Want!

Aristotle and Plato make the same puzzling claim: You can be mistaken about what you desire. Consider the following example: You're looking at a delicious piece of chocolate cake.  You say to your friend Aristotle, "I really want to eat that cake."  Aristotle be like: "No, you don't." You be like, "Dude, yes I do. Aristotle be like, "No, you only believe you want the cake. You don't really want it. You're mistaken."  You be like, "Dude, I think I know what goes on in my own head better than you. Inside my head right now is a little homunculus screaming 'I want cake! I want cake!'  I know because I'm in my head, and you're not in my head."  Aristotle be like, "Dude, like I said, you believe you want it but you're mistaken. You don't want it."  You be like, "Dude, how can you say I don't know my own internal mental states? That's...uh...mental. If you put me in an fMRI machine right now, you'd see a desire state. That's me desiring that piece of chocolate cake!"

Anyway, eventually you eat the cake and it was delicious.

Part 1: Human Nature, Rationality, and Human Good
So, how do Plato and Aristotle argue for this seemingly puzzling view that you can be wrong about your own internal states? We're going to have to lay a little groundwork first before we can make sense of the view.  Bear with me...

First of all, everybody wants "goodness".  That is, nobody really desires bad things.  We all aim our action at the good.  And the good for humans is happiness.  So, whenever we act we are aiming at happiness (which is "the good" for humans).  This part's important so let me repeat.  No one intentionally acts in a way to make themselves unhappy.  We can be mistaken about what will make us happy but no rational person would intend to make themselves unhappy.  Otherwise stated, all actions intend to aim at happiness.

You might reply by pointing to examples of self-destructive behavior.  Aristotle (and Plato) would answer in two ways. First of all, people who engage in such behavior believe that it will relieve them from whatever is bothering them. They are aiming at happiness, they are just mistaken about how to achieve it. An alcoholic drinks because he thinks it will bring him closer to happiness than staying sober and thinking about his problems.  An emo dresses in black and listens to emo music because they believe this will bring them closer to happiness than not doing this.

The second response would be that if a person truly aimed at unhappiness, that is, they actually deliberately tried to try to make themselves unhappy, then this person would not be rational. And so, the qualifier: No rational person would deliberately aim at unhappiness.  Stated in the affirmative: All rational people aim at happiness.  In short, everything humans do (so long as they're rational) is intended to bring them happiness (or at least get us closer).

Qualification: Aristotle's Happiness vs Psychological/Emotional Happiness
Entire libraries have been written on this topic but I'll give you the super-duper condensed version: Aristotle doesn't mean emotional happiness as we often mean today. His use of the word is usually translated as eudaimonia which means "flourishing".  Eudaimonia can also be thought of as "a meaningful life".  Of course, some degree of emotional happiness will be a component of a eudaimonic life--it's hard to do a lot of the other important things if you're chronically depressed--but it is not the ultimate end of our actions. The ultimate end is a meaningful/flourishing life. For a full post on this topic...

Note: for the rest of this post I'll use 'good', 'happiness', 'meaningful life', and 'flourishing life' interchangeably. 

Ok, where were we? You might already be beginning to see that what we've covered so far can give us some tools to explain why you can be mistaken about your desires.  The answer will be something like: Everyone genuinely desires (eudaimonic) happiness. You believe that being famous, rich, pleasure, power, etc.. will get you there and so you desire and pursue those things.  However, those things won't actually get you a meaningful/flourishing life and so you are mistaken about what you desire.  You don't desire being famous and rich, you actually desire a (eudaimonic) life.

Part 2: Why Are We Mistaken? Beliefs vs Knowledge
Aristotle and Plato differ in their account of how we come to know the good but they are united in that you can't live a (eudaimonic) happy life without knowing what the good is. To know the good takes years of study and most people don't undergo this rigorous training and so they have mistaken beliefs about what the good is. They believe it's pleasure, fame, wealth, power, honor, etc...

There's an important difference between belief and knowledge.  Beliefs can be both true or false but knowledge is always true.  You cannot attain knowledge without rigorous study and, as I said above, most people don't undertake this training and only have beliefs about what is good.  Since they only have beliefs about the good, they're likely to be mistaken.

Part 3: Putting it All Together
Ok, so how is it possible to be mistaken about what you desire? Of course everyone who reads this blog knows what the good is.  It's all those other people who don't read my blog that merely have beliefs about what's good. Now, imagine you're walking around with one of those pin-heads and they're like "Oh! I want that shiny thing! It'll make me sooooooooooooo happy!"

Now, as a true philosopher you know a few important things: (a) you know what is truly good and thus necessary for a meaningful human life; (b) you know that your pin-head friend's action is intended to bring them happiness, that is, like all rational humans all actions aim at happiness; (c) you know that shiny things don't contribute to a meaningful flourishing life (happiness); (d) it follows that your friend doesn't really desire the shiny thing because what they really desire is happiness and the shiny thing won't achieve that. Thus, they are mistaken about what they desire.

In short, in so far as they're rational, they desire happiness not "shiny thing". The fact that they skipped out on philosophy class prevented them from acquiring knowledge of the good. Thus, they only have beliefs--rather than knowledge--about the good and are consequentially mistaken about the content of the good, which in turn leads them to believe that something that doesn't bring about happiness will bring about happiness.

Moral of the story: Don't be a fool. Stay in philosophy school.

Objections and Replies Coming Next Post

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Can Vegans Make Broth from Dead Vagrants?

For the last half-year or so I've been thinking about the ethics of eating animal byproducts. Here's what I mean: Let's suppose that you believe that it's unethical to eat factory farmed meat and dairy (or any meat or dairy--nothing important to my argument hangs on this).  As someone who lives according to your considered ethical judgments, is it permissible for you to eat by-products from the meat and dairy industry that would otherwise be thrown out?

Before continuing I should make one thing clear: These arguments only work so long as the byproducts would (a) otherwise be thrown out and (b) do not contribute to the demand for the primary product. Also I'll need to assume that current conditions persist, that is, the majority of the population isn't vegetarian and there is significant demand for the primary products.

Case 1: Whey
Let me give you some examples of by-products. Whey is a waste by-product of cheese-making and greek yogurt production. Its disposal is actually a significant environmental problem since millions of tons are produced every day (in the US alone) [seecheese, greek yogurt]. In a whey (sorry, couldn't help myself)  eating the waste product is a net environmental good. If left unconsumed it would otherwise have to be treated in an industrial digester which is an energy intensive process. Also, simply dumping it into nearby water sources contaminates the water and kills all the flora and fauna and so it cannot be done. 

There are two basic arguments for why it might be morally permissible for a vegetarian or vegan to eat whey products.  First of all, there's so much excess whey from primary dairy processes that your actions don't perpetuate or generate additional demand on primary products (i.e., milk/cheese). That is, consuming whey doesn't cause milk producers to produce more milk or cheese. Second, consuming whey actually minimizes the environmental impact of the dairy industry. Instead of excess whey contaminating the environment, we eat it.

There is a possible counter-argument. By consuming whey we create a market for it which makes it cheaper for the dairy industry to get rid of it. Currently they have to pay people to take it (e.g., farmers who use it fields or to feed animals, and whey product producers).  If the cost of disposal is reduced, the price of primary products also comes down (because total production cost is lower since disposal cost went down). If the cost of primary products comes down then standard economic theory predicts demand for primary products increases.

I'm not quite sure if this argument works. I'd need to consult with an economist to know for sure but here's one possible way to reply. Suppose we agree with the counter argument that the cost of production for cheese and milk will come down thereby increasing demand. Baaaaat! If demand for milk/cheese increases so will the quantity of byproduct (whey) produced and since the vegetarians are already eating as much as they can, the cost of disposing of this extra waste (from producing even more milk and cheese) will also rise perhaps causing the price of primary products to settle back around where they started. I'm no economist but anywhey, lets look at another case...

Another thing to consider is that we might already be at peak whey consumption. Also, the amount of whey that vegetarians and vegans might consume (that don't already consume it) could be negligible in terms of how much excess there is. Recall that there are several million tons produced err' day.

Case 2: Animal Carcasses 
I came up with this next case as a result of motivated reasoning. It's freakin' cold in Ohio and I've been making a lot of legume soups and stews. What I'd really like is to use a chicken broth but being a committed (albeit imperfect) vegetarian, I don't buy chicken or chicken bouillon. 

But I was thinking... Suppose an omnivore friend had roast chicken for dinner and was about to throw away the carcass. Would it violate vegetarian or vegan ethics to use the carcass for a broth? I guess what I'm really asking is if there is something intrinsically bad about consuming animal products or is it only bad because of how they got on our plate? 

I think the reasonable answer is that eating meat isn't intrinsically bad, it's only bad if certain ethical conditions were violated in raising and/or killing the animal. I doubt there's anything morally wrong with eating roadkill or eating an animal that died of natural causes. It might not be a very appetizing thought, but it's hard to see why a vegetarian or vegan would say it's wrong.

The only possible argument I could think of is if (a) you think it's just as wrong to eat an animal as it is to eat a human and (b) you think it's intrinsically morally wrong to eat humans. Suppose we agree with (a). Is (b) likely?  I don't think so. We can all probably agree that it's wrong to kill someone to eat them but if someone died of natural causes and you were starving, would it be wrong to use them for soup? Probably not. You might have an aversion to it but it's hard to see why it would be morally wrong. 

Of course, the case of my friend's chicken carcass is a bit more complicated than eating roadkill.  The vegetarian/vegan will be ethically opposed to how the chicken got to the plate (especially) if the chicken was conventionally raised and killed. That said, the vegetarian/vegan's actions don't generate demand for the primary product (i.e., don't support or perpetuate the meat industry) and the byproduct is going to be thrown away anywhey.  In such a case, is there any harm or is there a wrong?

I'm curious what my vegetarian/vegan friends think.  By the way, I'm headed down to the morgue to get some bones to make both. Let me know if you'd like me to get some for you while I'm there.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Do Fetuses Have Rights?: A Review of "Choices, Interests, and Potentiality"

This post is a summary and evaluation of some of the arguments in "Choices, Interests, and Potentiality: What Distinguishes Bearers of Rights?" by Anna-Karin Margareta Andersson.

This paper presents itself as an investigation of the topic of rights and argues that (human) fetuses have rights yet never mentions abortion. And so this paper, under the guise of a philosophical discussion of what creatures have rights, is a thinly-veiled ideological attempt to discuss the abortion issue. This kind of ground my gears cuz if you want to write about the abortion issue just be open about it. There's no need to cloak it in something else.

More things that grind my gears: First, it is as clear a case of motivated reasoning as you'll find in academic literature. Second, the tone is one of thinly veiled smugness. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I can be smug as bug in a rug next to a pug but I try not to bring that into my professional writing. I try not to. Ok, enough with the ad hominems, lets check aus the actual arguments.

There's only one semi-technical term you need to know: A rights bearer is a creature that has rights. Some people say that only humans have rights, some people say animals have rights, some people say both. Some people say that you have rights in relation to your capacities others say it's in relation to your interests.  There are lots of views. Andersson suggests you have rights in virtue of an empirically verifiable property--although she defines this quite broadly. The main issue in this article is what types of creatures have rights and why.

This article really has two main parts. The first part is an argoomint for why we should restrict the scope of rights bearers. In short, we should be careful about extending rights too widely to all or most sentient beings because it will cause conflicts between rights bearers. Part two of the paper is an argoomint for why fetuses should have rights. We all agree that adult humans are paradigmatic cases of rights bearers. If adult humans in a temporary coma have rights then similar rights should be extended to fetuses because both are temporary not-fully-functioning adult humans.

Part 1: Allowing Too Many (Types of) Rights Bearers Will Cause Problematic Conflicts Between Different Groups of Rights Bearers
Andersson argues that if rights are granted to too many kinds of creatures then problematic conflicts between rights and rights bearers will occur and the end result will dilute the value of having rights and the rights themselves.

Argument 1
Part A: Some sets of rights will inevitably conflict. The more rights people have, the more likely the rights are to conflict. More importantly, the more creatures there are that have rights, the greater the chances of right conflicting. Anytime rights conflict, in order for the situation to be resolved someone or something's rights will have to be over-ridden.  If rights are constantly being over-ridden then the "practical relevance" of being a rights bearer is diminished (p. 177).  It's like, what's the point of being accorded rights if they're going to be frequently over-ridden anyway--even if you are compensated? The wider the scope of creatures that get rights, the greater the likelihood that rights will get over-ridden, and therefore the value of having rights declines. And that's baaaaaaaaaaaaad!

Part A: For those of you keeping track of the critical thinking concepts, this argument commits the fallacy of argument from final consequences.  That is, you argue that something is false because you don't like the consequences of it being true.  Because it's an informal fallacy it only means that the argument is invalid and therefore inductive.  Inductive arguments can be strong or weak but their conclusions don't necessarily follow and so they must be evaluated on a case by case basis.  Let's not commit the fallacy fallacy.  We need to evaluate the argument...

The argument says that moral rights are limited only to a narrow class of creatures because extending rights to too many creatures causes excessive rights conflicts.  The problem here is that it very well might be true that many creatures do have rights and there will be many rights conflicts. Too bad, so sad. The conclusion would have some plausibility if the claim were normative, that is, that we ought to restrict rights to only a few types of creatures. But this isn't the conclusion she argues for. Her thesis concerns "what subjects actually do have moral rights" (p. 175; my italics).  You can't argue for what is the case from what you don't like about the consequences of alternative possibilities. That's like saying, "I don't owe rent this month because if I pay rent I won't be able to pop bottles in VIP". Conclusion, I don't own rent. QED.

Argoomint 1
Part B: We should also limit the scope of rights bearers because highly diverse creatures will have highly diverse rights. When the diverse rights come into conflict it will be difficult to figure out how to weigh one against the other. We'll have to come up with some rules to adjudicate between disparate conflicting rights meaning some types of creatures will have systematically weaker rights than others.
Why should we label a large group of subjects "rights bearers" and systematically prioritize some types of rights bearers over others in case of rights conflicts, instead of reserving the term "rights bearers" for the prioritized subjects and entitle the other subjects to certain treatment when doing so does not compromise any rights? (p. 178)

In other words, what's the point of using rights language if the rights of one group will always be trumped by those of another? Why not use a clearer terminology that actually reflects that one group's rights will systematically trump another's?

Part B: Man, I really really want to use some post-modernist critical theory goobly gook to make this next point. Something about institutional patriarchal power structures and penises betray Andersson's post-colonial speciesism.  Setting that aside, Andersson makes an unwarranted assumptions causing her to beg the question.  Aside: When philosophers use the phrase "to beg the question" (which is the right way) it means that someone is assuming the very thing they are trying to prove. I.e., it's a form of circular reasoning. Anyway, Andersson's argument for restricting what creatures have rights only works if she assumes that the rights humans have systematically trump any and all rights that non-humans have--which is the exact conclusion she's trying to argue for. As she says, there's no point in extending rights to animals because every right that they have will be systematically trumped by any rights humans have. This is clearly false.

Suppose someone derives pleasure from torturing fluffy white kittens with really cute meows. His right to live according to his own conception of the good life doesn't trump a fluffy white kitten's right to live a life free from unnecessary cruelty.  The rights humans have don't systematically trump the rights of all creatures. Sometimes the rights of other creatures trump ours. To show that they don't would require an argoomint...

Part 2: Who Gotz Rights? 
What do hungry twins say when they're still in the womb? Feed us! Feed us! (Thank you, I'll be here all week).  Lets get down to bidniz.

In the first part of the paper we saw that Anderson wants to constrain what types of creatures are rights bearers. So who's going to get rights? Dogs? Kittens? Bears? Apes? Give up? You'll never guess: Adult humans and fetuses are rights bearers and non-human animals aren't.  Lets see how she gets to this conclusion:

Argoomint 1
The plan is to identify a paradigmatic case of a rights bearer, figure out what it is about them that makes them a rights bearer, then see what other things have that special rights-bearer sauce.

VocaboolaryAgency is fancy-talk for being able to make reflective choices between alternative courses of action and to reflect on one's preferences.

Let me put the argument into standard form then I'll explain it in English:

(P1) Adults (humans) capable of exercising agency are paradigmatic examples of rights bearers.
(P2) Adults must be rights bearers because of some property that non-paradigmatic rights bearers don't have.
(P3) All adults capable of exercising agency possess the physical constitution that is necessary for exercising agency. Call this physical property X.
(P4) Agents who are prevented by certain obstacles from exercising agency are still carriers of property X.  Call these obstacles to exercising agency Y.
(P5) If we can show that facing obstacle Y does not affect the adult's status as a rights bearer because Y is a certain type of obstacle, we should accept that adults who face Y remain rights bearers in virtue of being carriers of X.
(C) By (P4) and (P5), adults who face Y remain rights bearers in virtue of being carriers of X.

Property X
Here are the important things to keep in mind: An adult is a rights bearer because an adult can exercise agency.  In order to have agency one must have a particular physical constitution (property X). That is, to have agency you need a brain that is organized such that you can make deliberative decisions.  So far so good.

Notice that being a rights bearer isn't tied to actual behaviors but a capacity for behaviors (deliberative action).  Why? Because if we said that you're only a rights bearer when you are making deliberative decisions then all the moments in between, like when you're sleeping or staring at your phone, you are no longer a rights bearer. Losing your rights anytime you sleep or look at your phone isn't a good result for a theory of rights.

With Andersson's argument, agency is grounded in having a physical structure (property X) and so, when you're sleeping you don't lose your agency (since your brain structure doesn't change in respect to being able to you being able act as an agent).  Obstacles to agency (condition Y) are times where the brain structures responsible for agency remain intact yet you temporarily can't or don't exhibit agency. For example sleeping, being in a temporary coma, or watching reality TV.  Under these and other similar conditions, you don't lose your status as a rights bearer since you have property X (the brain structure required for agency) at all times.

So far we've said that rights bearers are creatures that have the physical structures necessary for agency. Creatures without these structures and who don't have agency--even with nourishment, protection from disease and trauma won't develop these structures. Did you notice the sneaky move yet? If not, I'll explain it in a moment.

Condition Y:
Lets look at (P4) and (P5) because they're (obviously) important.  (P5) is pretty uncontroversial so we'll grant it. (P4)  says that when you temporarily cease to exercise agency you are still an agent so long as you actually possess the physical brain structure required for agency (I'm italicizing here for a reason).  To quote
The defining aspects are the physical properties that are necessary in order to be able to exercise agency.  There is no essential change in her defining aspects in the sense that the entire physical constitution of the subject that is necessary in order to exercise agency remains unaltered while she is in such a condition: [. . .] she remains a rights bearer while in such a condition [. . .]. (p. 180)
Has the quote caused condition Y in you yet? (Has it put you to sleep?). A few more things about condition Y: it must be a temporary condition that the subject will spontaneously relapse from.  In other words, if you suffer major brain trauma that permanently alters the structure of your brain such that you will no longer be able to exercise agency, you can lose your rights bearer status.

Here comes the tricky part! Who needs the Quickee Mart! So far we've said that condition Y (e.g., sleeping) is a temporary obscuring of your agency and you don't lose your rights-bearer card under condition Y (e.g., sleeping). That's because you still have the underlying physical structures for agency (property X).  Here's the big move:
By saying that the subject is in a temporary state, I merely mean that the subject at some point will get out of the state: I do not require that she has been capable of agency at some previous occasion. (p. 181; my italics)
Now the sneaky move is more explicit.  Essentially, Andersson is going to draw an analogy between an adult who temporarily loses their agency and a fetus that temporarily doesn't have agency. She's going to say that both of these temporary states are condition Y because they're both temporary.

Analysis: Disanalogy
There's an important disanalogy: The adult actually has property X (the physical structure required for agency) but is temporarily impeded (by condition Y) from using it. Once the adult wakes up (i..e, once condition Y ends) he can exercise the agency that is undergirded by the relevant brain structure (property X) that he had all along. In the case of the fetus, the fetus doesn't have the brain structure for agency. That is, the fetus doesn't have property X--the property which Andersson claims is necessary for agency.

Notice that in the adult case we say that adults under condition Y maintain their right bearer status because they actually have property X. The fetus, however, doesn't actually have property X. But Andersson's whole argument for what makes a rights bearer a rights bearer relies on the assertion that one must actually have property X. The case of the adult under condition Y and the fetus under condition Y differ in this important respect. What confers rights-bearer status? Is it having property X or not? Whatever you think about the rights status of fetuses, this particular argument doesn't support the conclusion it's intended to support because it's inconsistent in respect to what physical property confers rights-bearer status.

The problem for Andersson is that there's an asymmetry between continuing to be an agent when one's agency is temporarily blocked via condition Y and being treated as a full agent even though one has never in fact been one. The issue is: Should you be accorded some particular moral status (a) because of some property you will have at some point in the future or (b) because of properties you actually have. In previous sections Andersson argued for the latter and if it's the latter then fetuses aren't rights bearers but animals could be depending on what the magic right-bearing property is. If it's the former, then fetuses are rights bearers. But Anderson didn't argue for this "potential" claim-- she argued for the latter. You are a right bearer in virtue of actual properties.

Andersson's solution to this asymmetry is to argue that “there is no morally relevant difference between possessing the physical constitution necessary in order to exercise agency, and developing such constitution” (p. 182). That is, we ought to give equal moral consideration to (a) actually having a morally salient property and (b) being able to develop that property under normal conditions. Call this the equivalency principle. The burden of proof lies with Andersson to give us an argument for why what is merely potential ought to be given the same moral consideration as what is actual. Putting the two on par could lead to counter-intuitive results—especially if we generalize this principle to other areas of moral reasoning.

Suppose in the not too distant future biological markers are identified for paedophilic behavior. The marker is a necessary condition for paedophilic behavior. At 4 years old Bob is diagnosed with the known precursor to the biological marker for paedophilic behavior. Adult pathological murderers possess the physical constitution necessary in order to be a paedophile. Baby Bob will develop the physical constitution in order to become a paedophile. It follows from the equivalency principle that there is no morally relevant difference between adult paedophiles possessing the physical constitution necessary to act as a paedophile and Baby Bob developing such a constitution. We should treat both the same.

Doin' The Two Step
There's a way for Anderson to respond. She can say that to determine whether a creature is a rights bearer and how many rights it has is a two-step process. Step one is to determine whether something is or isn't a rights bearer. If something has the potential to develop agency then it's a rights bearer. If it doesn't have the potential for agency (via having the potential to have property X) then it isn't an agent. Once you've decided whether it's a rights bearer you decide which rights that creature has relative to how close it is to developing full agency (i.e., having property X). For example, as a child comes closer to developing full agency, it gets more and more rights. This line of reasoning seems to conform with Andersson's thoughts: “The content of the rights [fetuses] are owed vary depending on their developmental level” (p. 184).

Suppose we accept this account. There are still problems. If fetuses gain rights depending on their developmental level then it appears that the content of particular rights is grounded in particular capacities (which are themselves grounded in physical structures). We might say that a child has a right to be free from unnecessary suffering because it has the capacity to suffer (because it has a central nervous system). But if a child gets this particular right in virtue of a particular capacity and structure, it seems inconsistent not to extend this particular right to every other creature that has this capacity/structure. To avoid this problem Andersson can argue that fetuses come into the world with all their rights but not only is this implausible but she denies it herself.