The Sensible Knave

"I do not see that we are further along today than where Hume left us. The Humean predicament is the human predicament." - W.V.O. Quine

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Is anonymity cowardly?

Many bloggers look down on their anonymous brethren, those who blog under aliases, pseudonyms, pen-names, monikers, call signs, nicknames, or serial numbers. Those who take cheap shots from behind a screen of secrecy are especially likely to incur much wrath (see here and here). The basis of the criticism is that it is cowardly to avoid the risk of repercussions of personal expression. If what you have to say is worth saying, the argument goes, you should own your words, and that means you should accept the consequences of their expression.

Many people think that there is much to fear in putting one's good name behind half-baked ideas as they are uploaded for all the world to see. They may be right, some of the time. It's not all that hard for an aspiring academic to hurt one's chances by leaving a digital paper trail. Outside of academia, bloggers might be afraid of losing their jobs, alienating friends, and so on.

In these cases, the decision to blog anonymously is made from fear, but is it cowardice? I'm afraid of fire, but I'm not a coward for choosing to run away from an empty burning building. I would think myself a coward for choosing to run instead of rushing in to save my dogs. To be cowardly is to act from fear when some other consideration dictates otherwise. Sure, this is vague, but it's clear enough to help illustrate why the mere anonymous presentation of ideas is not cowardly.

Some people wish to present their clever insights and ideas to the world. Blogging can be a great mode of presentation. Readers are free to evaluate these ideas and respond. If personal identification contributes nothing to the force of these ideas, then why is it cowardly to withhold it?

Sure, one can be brave by standing behind one's views in the light of day, but it is not always cowardly to fail to act bravely. Many acts of bravery involve overcoming fear in going beyond the call of duty (i.e., the circumstances don't call for one to overcome fear). Taking a public stand on a controversial issue involves this sort of bravery, if any.

There may yet be ways of using one's anonymity to act cowardly, however. Insulting a fellow blogger anonymously could be cowardly. It's almost like bad-mouthing someone, and honor generally requires us to say means things to another's face, if at all. While I think that many bloggers could stand to become more civil, the anonymous ones have a special obligation to do so.

Forecasting much?

I like the banner atop this blog.

If Krugman can't accurately predict the future of his own column, what chance does he have with the national economy?

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The examined life

On the one hand:

"[T]he life which is unexamined is not worth living" - Plato, Apology

On the other hand:
"Nor need we fear that this philosophy, while it endeavours to limit our enquiries to common life, should ever undermine the reasonings of common life, and carry its doubts so far as to destroy all action, as well as speculation. Nature will always maintain her rights, and prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever." - David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section V, Part I

For Hume, examining one's life might be worthwhile. But at the end of the day, the examined life is lived just as the unexamined one is lived, for the most part.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Intelligent redesign

"American corporations should stop playing God with nature."
- Lisa Simpson, Weekend at Burnsie's

Lisa was bemoaning our use of genetically modified produce (this prompted Marge to grow her own organic produce, which in turn led to Homer becoming an alpha-crow and, eventually, a medicinal marijuana user).

What strikes me as interesting is that Lisa's ilk are staunch supporters of evolutionary theory, and by implication, staunch opponents of creationism (remember Lisa the Skeptic?). So why should they object to anyone "playing God" with nature? For Lisa, it can't be that we are supplanting God's role in nature, for he has none (or at least not any kind of direct one).

Sure, genetic engineering might pose risks. Those risks could outweigh the potential benefits. That would make the course of action wrong, but the fact that we are "playing God" doesn't compound the wrong. There's ample reason, moreover, to believe that the benefits of GM crops outweigh the risks. You might expect one who has so much confidence in some areas of biological science to give other areas the benefit of the doubt.

So why are some folks so friendly to (evolutionary) science, on the one hand, and so hostile to applied (genetic) science? Is there a principle that unifies these positions? I would ask Lisa whether she simply views nature as a fully autonomous entity: not a product of design, and not to be a product of redesign.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Redistribution and status

Miss Emily Anne had this to say about academics:
I think academics are inclined to attack the privileges of wealth, because the existence of wealth lowers the relative status attributed to intellectual achievements. If the very pursuit of wealth can be reduced to a zero-sum struggle for status, then wealth loses some of its status. Academics gain status at the expense of businessmen and other high income professions.
Surely, at least some must have this in mind. Yes, many folks are not very concerned with those they claim to want to help. It's about gunning for the people at the top. But I hate to speculate about motives. I want to give the rest of them the benefit of the doubt on this score. I think that many of them mean to advance the well being of the less fortunate. But would they want this if it entailed real sacrifices on their part? Many academics gain more reward from their jobs than many other professionals who earn more money. How can this be? The nonpecuniary rewards of academia are hard to match, and they are not really subject to redistribution under any scheme on the table. Do lawyers and bankers enjoy any of these?
  • Summers off (subject to optional research)
  • 30-45 days extra paid vacation
  • Flexible scheduling
  • Extensive travel
  • Virtually guaranteed lifetime job security

How much additional compensation would the typical tenured professor ask for to give up these things? If they took the money, and tenured professorship became more like normal (lucrative) jobs, would they still support aggressive redistributive measures?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Policing Broken Windows

In economist Steven D. Levitt's book Freakonomics, he argues against the claim that various innovative policing strategies, such as the Broken Windows strategy, helped to reduce crime (pp. 127-130). When certain other factors, such as demographic change and police force growth, are also accounted for, the adoption of those strategies appears not to have had much of the role in the precipitous crime drop seen in New York City.

But here's a hypothesis that seems consistent with the data. Certain policing strategies might abate risks of mugging, robbery, etc. Before these strategies are used, however, there still wouldn't be all that many muggings, etc., because people use common sense. They know what side streets to avoid. They know to take a bus or taxi, rather than the subway, late at night. They know that certain neighborhoods are off-limits altogether. New policing strategies, such as deploying more plainclothes officers on subways and cracking down on turnstyle jumpers, intoxicated riders, loitering, etc. made the subway an acceptable option for late night travel. In the late 1990s, I rode the subway after midnight any number of times. That would have been unthinkable for me a few years earlier. In many respects, crime (risk) is just a quality of life factor. I was never at much risk of being a victim, because I restricted my movements. I gained a lot more freedom as time went on, thanks, I think, to the changes Levitt has written off.

This really doesn't refute Levitt's claim at all. But it does call into question whether crime rates tell the whole story, if what really matters is public safety. Crime rates matter to public safety, of course, but so do crime risks. Broken Windows might play a role in the latter, if not the former.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Thanks to AnalPhilosopher

I very much appreciate Keith Burgess-Jackson's kindly linking to me over at his great blog, AnalPhilosopher. Chances are that you've been to his blog if you're looking at this one. If I'm wrong, do check it out.

It was through AnalPhilosopher that I made my first foray into the blogging world. He was kind enough to post a letter regarding our commitment to the Electoral College.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Let's jet on over to worry about global warming

A big conference on global warming is now underway in Greenland. Could they have found a less convenient location? On the other hand, I suppose that if some participants would have to fly overseas to the conference site, everyone should have to. I hope the irony is not lost on them.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Do motives matter?

Consider this statement:

"American leaders care about the Middle East only for its oil."

Now think about the possible contexts. Perhaps the speaker believes that American military action in this region is unjustified. But what do the motives of American leaders have to do with that? Either there are good reasons for taking such action, or there aren't. If there are good reasons, they either trump the prima facie reasons against such action, or they don't. The reasons bearing on whether an action should or shouldn't be performed are independent of the actor's motives.

John Stuart Mill put it best in Utilitarianism, chapter 2:
He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble: he who betrays the friend that trusts him, is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations.
That doesn't mean that motives are morally irrelevant, of course. One is likely to assess a person's moral character on the basis of his motives. When a person brings about good consequences as a result of greed, we are still likely to think less of him, even if we recognize his actions as justified. But we often don't have very good insight into people's motives. That sure doesn't stop many of us from ascribing them. We often infer motives from what we think of the person.

But isn't this circular? We study motives in order to assess character, but we come full circle when we infer motives based on character. In that sort of case, one is not proving anything about bad character by talking about motives. The person is already assuming bad character.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The economist's apprentice, Miss Emily Anne has an interesting take on wildlife preservationism:
I once read an interview with someone trying to save the tigers. This person lamented the fact that the increasing human population in India was encroaching on tiger habitats. Let's think, if the human population in India had been curbed, the increase in tiger lives would be measured in thousands, while the decrease in human lives would be measured in millions. This struck me as a bizarre tradeoff to wish for. Of course, amongst environmentalists it is a fairly common attitude. Many ordinary folks implicitly think like this, even though most would never admit to preferring one tiger to a thousand people.

This sure does sound like a perverse tradeoff, but don't many of us trade away the lives of the unborn (or more accurately, the unconceived) in favor of goals much less valuable than human lives? Consider the couple that postpones parenthood for a decade so that they can further advance their careers. By virtue of this decision, they have one child instead of three. Three children would have been nice, they agreed, but not at the cost of slowing down their professional advancement.

Is this as unconscionable as the decision to sacrifice two lives for the sake of career advancement? Does it even come close? The fact is that many of us deeply discount potential lives, while distinguishing from actual lives.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Searle and the fact/value gap

In the Ethics course I taught this past spring, I finally had the opportunity to discuss John Searle's famous essay "How to Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'" (The Philosophical Review, Jan. 1964). Revisiting this work after many years allowed me to take a fresh look, and I finally noticed a flaw in the Searle's derivation. These five statements comprise the derivation:

(1) Jones uttered the words "I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars."

(2) Jones promised to pay Smith five dollars.

(3) Jones placed himself under (undertook) an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.

(4) Jones is under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.

(5) Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.

The fallacious move in this derivation, it seems, is between (2) and (3). Searle connects the statements with

(2a) All promises are acts of placing oneself under (undertaking) an obligation to do the thing promised.

One might object at this point that (2a) is a normative statement. The derivation doesn't achieve its intended goal of deriving a normative statement from purely descriptive ones if a supporting normative premise is involved. But Searle will have none of that:

I take it that promising is, by definition, an act of placing oneself under an obligation. No analysis of the concept of promising will be complete which does not include the feature of the promiser placing himself under or undertaking or accepting or recognizing an obligation to the promisee, to peform some future course of action, normally for the benefit of the promisee. (Page 44)

This "definition" is not at all obvious to me. Sure, people who utter promises ought to keep them. Yet, there is no reason to think that the act of promising is, by definition, an act of undertaking an obligation. There is no contradiction inherent to the statement "Jones promised to pay Smith five dollars, but he is not obligated to do so." The statement sounds incongruous, but is it false by definition? One could argue that Jones is obligated to pay the five dollars simply because one ought to keep one's promises. We would be relying on a moral truism, but not analytic necessity. But what evidence would settle this matter? So-called conceptual analysis doesn't get us very far. Did Searle read "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"?

But let's allow for the sake of further argument that we can make some sense of the nature of a promise. Searle says that promises are, strictly speaking, acts of undertaking particular obligations. However, I think there's a plausible case for characterizing promises as speech acts used to announce future actions and induce expectations through assurance. Searle tries to nip this approach in the bud:
One may be tempted to think that promising can be analyzed in terms of creating expectations in one’s hearers, or some such, but a little reflection will show that the crucial distinction between statements of intention on the one hand and promises on the other lies in the nature and degree of commitment or obligation undertaken in promising. (p. 44, 46)

OK, I've reflected a little. There is indeed a distinction as Searle describes, but it is hardly relevant. No one can plausibly argue that promises are mere statements of intention. Breaking a promise is, at the very least, insincere. But Jones could have been completely sincere, at all times, if he told Smith that he intends to give him five dollars and never gives Smith the money. As long as he really intended to give Smith the money when he made the statement, his statement was true. That Jones later changed his mind doesn't change the truth-value of the earlier statement, which merely reported a present mental state.

But a promise could be more this, without being tantamount to the undertaking of an obligation. What if Jones had said "you can rest assured that I will give you five dollars"? It seems that Jones has a prima facie obligation to make good on the assurance. Failing to make good constitutes a harm, in light of the expection Jones created. That's why it's (usually) wrong to break promises. It's not a matter of definition, and that is why we can reject the tautological status of (2a) , and accept it as a sound moral judgment.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Whither 3L?

"Some Question Third Year of Law School ." Count me among them. The conventional wisdom in the law school community is as follows:
  • In the first year they scare you to death.
  • In the second year they work you to death.
  • In the third year they bore you to death.
By the end of the second year, law students are trained to a point where they could easily learn more on the job than in classroom, and can actually contribute something of value.

So why doesn't the ABA support the elimination of the third year? My hardly original theory is that an extended degree program keeps the demand for legal education down a bit. This in turn limits the supply of attorneys, helping to protect their prestige and income.

Amnesty International is right

This is going too far.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Environmental Ethics

Philosopher David Schmitdz is quoted stating
environmental philosophy is not 'applied' in the same way that medical and especially business ethics has been. It's more like highly theoretical meta-ethics, except with real world examples. So someone trots out his theory of value, and in environmental ethics, you get to bring the conversation down to earth (as it were) by saying things like, does that apply to trees?

Indeed, it has been my impression many environmental ethicists delve into theoretical matters because they find that the application of the "classic" moral theories to environmental issues yields unacceptable results. That Kantianism justifies only indirect duties to animals, for instance, is arguably a sufficient reason to question that theory, as well as its meta-ethical underpinnings. Correct or not, that is the pursuit of reflective equilibrium, and it seems to set Environmental Ethics apart.

However, while this focus on meta-ethics might make the field more interesting to analytic philosophers, it is likely to reduce its appeal to undergraduate students of Environmental Ethics. Having taught that class on several occasions, I found that most of the students were looking for something light on technical philosophy, and heavy on environmental debate. I can't speak for every institution, of course, but my impression is that Environmental Ethics is more likely to be offered as a service course, for the benefit of Environmental Studies majors and their ilk. Meta-ethics can be a tough sell in that context.

Moral skepticism

And I share the insight of Hume's Sensible Knave. However, human sentiment and inclination ensures that this insight is unlikely to confound the moral sense.

From Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section IX:

Treating vice with the greatest candour, and making it all possible concessions, we must acknowledge, that there is not, in any instance, the smallest pretext for giving it the preference above virtue, with a view to self-interest; except, perhaps, in the case of justice, where a man, taking things in a certain light, may often seem to be a loser by his integrity. And though it is allowed, that, without a regard to property, no society could subsist; yet, according to the imperfect way in which human affairs are conducted, a sensible knave, in particular incidents, may think, that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union and confederacy. That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule; but is liable to many exceptions: And he, it may, perhaps, be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions.

I must confess, that, if a man think, that this reasoning much requires an answer, it will be a little difficult to find any, which will to him appear satisfactory and convincing. If his heart rebel not against such pernicious maxims, if he feel no reluctance to the thoughts of villainy or baseness, he has indeed lost a considerable motive to virtue; and we may expect, that his practice will be answerable to his speculation. But in all ingenuous natures, the antipathy to treachery and roguery is too strong to be counterbalanced by any views of profit or pecuniary advantage. Inward peace of mind, consciousness of integrity, a satisfactory review of our own conduct; these are circumstances very requisite to happiness, and will be cherished and cultivated by every honest man, who feels the importance of them.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Quine on Hume

Quine, as quoted in the heading, was not contemplating the Sensible Knave. The quote is from "Epistemology Naturalized" in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1969) and addresses Hume's epistemic skepticism. The Sensible Knave, on the other hand, shares Hume's skepticism about the possibility of a rational basis for moral beliefs.