Monthly Archives: April 2010

Being a Man III: Manly Morals

Hume made the famous is-ought distinction

Image via Wikipedia

When considering what it means to be a man one approach is to consider what is meant when someone says “be a man.” This is usually presented as either a criticism (in response to non-manly behavior) or to provide inspiration and guidance (in the hopes that the person will man up).

This sort of command is a normative imperative. That is, it tells a person what he should do and contains an element of value judgment. Presumably being a man is good while not being a man is bad (at least for those who would be men). This part is easy enough. The challenge lies in figuring out how to obey such an imperative-that is, how to be a man.

Since this is a normative imperative it seems reasonable to consider that there might be a moral aspect to being a man. Aristotle, for example, rather explicitly links being a man and being good. As he sees it, a man is a rational animal and to properly be a man is to develop excellence as a rational being. This, of course, assumes that there is a human nature and that what people should do is to achieve excellence in accord with this nature.

The idea that there is a natural foundation to being a man does have considerable appeal-after all, being a male is a matter of objective biology and it is very tempting indeed to link being a man and being a male. However, there are a few problems here. First, being a male is simply a matter of biology and seems to have no normative aspects to it.  After all, to be a male simply involve having the right parts (be these macro parts or micro parts like genes). Second, there is the old Humean injunction against deriving an “ought” from an “is” (although Hume never really gives an argument for this).  From ‘I am a male” it seems problematic to infer what I should do. Third, it seems to be at least possible that a person could be a man without actually being male. For example, a soul could perhaps be a man but would lack the biology to be a male. Despite these problems considering the nature of maleness might be an avenue worth exploring. In fact, Male Studies has gained some slight traction as an academic discipline in the United States (and is distinct from Men’s Studies).

However, if a foundation for being a man cannot be found in biology, perhaps it can be found in ethics. That is, perhaps being a man is a matter of being good. This idea does make sense. After all, when an intuitive list is assembled of what it is to be a man it will tend to include the classic virtues: honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, strength, loyalty, and so on. Obviously enough, women an children (and genderless beings) could also share this traits, thus indicating that they are not unique to men. This is hardly surprising since being a good person and being a good man would seem to overlap a great deal.

But, it might be asked, are there virtues specific to men (the manly virtues) that cannot be possessed by non-men? An easy (and easily refuted) manly virtue might be that of being a father. However, this can be refuted by arguing that this would fall under being a parent and also that a woman (or even an intelligent machine) could have the qualities of being a father. We already distinguish between being the biological father of a child and being a father (for example, in cases of adoption). As such, it would seem that a non-man could be a father and fulfill the functions of that role.

It seems possible that all the manly virtues could be possessed by people who would not, on the usual view of things, men. After all, there are women who seem to be better men than most men. For example, I know many female athletes who are physically and mentally tougher than the majority of men. They also exhibit the classic virtues of integrity, character, and so on.

Of course, these female athletes are still regarded as women and perhaps this indicates that there are some virtues that are unique to men. Then again, it might be that they are regarded as women not because they lack certain manly virtues but because they are still biologically female. As Locke noted in his discussion of personal identity, people can mean many things by terms like “man” (and presumably “woman”). As such, part of the problem might be that “man” and “woman” are used to refer to normative roles (ethical, legal, and gender) but also to biology.  As Locke suggests, clearing up our terminology can go a long way in clarifying matters.  I will not, however, endeavor to do this here.

One plausible approach is that being virtuous is largely neutral when it comes to men and non-men. So, for example, being a good man and being a good person would be the same thing. However, there still seems to be a residue of manliness left to account for. This is, to be honest, mainly just a feeling that there is still something to being a man that is distinct from being good in the general sense. That is, if a person were perfectly good there would still be some qualities that would be needed to truly be a man.

However, I must confess that suspect this feeling is primarily the product of my social conditioning. I have, as has everyone, been trained and conditioned to accept that certain roles and behavior are fitting for men and others for non-men. As such, perhaps the residue I mention is merely the results of these smudges on the lens of reason.

That said, this interests me enough to ask this question: what virtues and qualities could be unique to men? Naturally, I am not asking what is unique to males-this is a different question.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Being a Man II: Manly Metaphysics

Herma of Plato, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Image via Wikipedia

In my previous post on this subject, I considered that being a man might be merely a matter of meeting certain social norms. In short, perhaps being a man simply amounts to determining the standards set by the group in question and meeting them.

However, perhaps there is more to being a man than that. Perhaps there are objective elements to being a man. One possibility is that being a man is actually grounded in the nature of reality. That is, being a man is a metaphysical matter.

One way to look at this is to go back to the dispute over universals during the Middle Ages.  To oversimplify things quite a bit, one option was to believe that metaphysical universals are real. Roughly put, this is the view that individuals are grouped into types on an objective basis and this basis is a metaphysical property. So, for example, all men would be men because they instantiate or participate in the universal of man. This sort of view dates back to Plato. There are, of course, many views about the nature of properties. For example, there are trope theories (sometimes refereed to as theories about abstract particulars).

On this sort of view, then being a man would be an objective matter. A person who has the quality in question would thus be a man.  This, if Plato was right, could be a matter of degrees with some men being more men than others. This would be comparable to his account of beauty: objects come in degrees of beauty based on how well they instantiate the form of beauty. On this sort of view, how manly a man is would be an objective manner (although people can, of course, still dispute relative manliness).

This might also not be a simple matter of having a single quality-being a man might also involve having a set of properties and thus be a complex rather than a simple. This is, however, consistent with their being an objective basis to being a man.

The main alternative to this sort of metaphysical realism is known as nominalism. Crudely put, this is the view that individuals are grouped on the basis of names. In short, all men are men because they are called men. This sort of approach is like the one considered in the first blog on the subject.

While there are numerous versions of metaphysical views about the basis on which individuals are grouped into types,the division between there being an objective basis and the denial of such a basis cuts across all the various views. Clearly, whether being a man is objective or subjective is rather important.

On the plus side, this sort of metaphysical realism has a long and established pedigree (with a multitude of supporting arguments). Also, the idea of there being an objective basis to being a man has a certain appeal-if only to provide a foundation for our judgments that goes beyond mere opinion.

On the minus side, the opposition to this approach also has a long and well established pedigree. Also, the idea that being a man involves weird metaphysical entities rather than mundane factors such as character traits or behavior seems to be rather weird. But, of course, weirdness is not a very serious charge in philosophy.  Finally, being told that being a man is a matter of instantiating the property (or properties) of being a man does not go very far in telling a man how he should act should he desire to be a man.  To misquote Aristotle, what we are concerned with is no so much knowledge of men, but what it is to be  a man. Otherwise, our study would be useless.

Thus, while the metaphysics of being a man are of interest, what seems to be of even greater interest is what it actually is to be a man in terms of how one should act.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Can Video Games Be Art?

In short, yes.

Of course, being a professional philosopher, I am obligated to more than make a mere assertion. I had, oddly enough, thought that this matter had already been settled. However, Roger Ebert argues (at length) that video games are not and perhaps never can be art. This was done as a reply to a YouTube video by Kellee Santiago in which she claims that video games can be art. The folks at Penny Arcade also weigh in on the matter.

As with most classification battles, this conflict hinges on the definition of “art.”  After all, with definition in hand a person could sort the world into two piles: art and non-art. While Santiago goes with Wikipedia as her main source, Ebert considers more historical definitions, such as those offered by Plato. However, all these definitions have serious flaws. Since I have been published professionally in the field of aesthetics and have taught a university course on the subject for sixteen years, I am somewhat qualified to discuss definitions of “art.” My considered view is that although we have many interesting and appealing definitions, we have yet to develop one that is truly adequate. To be specific, the definitions all tend to be too narrow (leaving out too much) or too broad (letting in too much) or have other serious flaws. Fortunately, it is possible to argue whether something is art or not without having that elusive perfect (or at least adequate) definition.

One effective way to argue that something is art is to use an argument by analogy. If it can be shown that X is analogous (in relevant ways)  to something that is a paradigm example of art, then this goes a long way in establishing that X is art. Naturally, this is an inductive method and is also subject to some serious criticism.

Turning to video games, they seem to have components relevantly similar to established art forms. First, video games have graphics. These can be compared to paintings or movies (since video game graphics often move). While some video games might not actually hit a level that would qualify them as art (not even bad art) at least some of them would seem to be adequately similar to paintings, drawings or films in ways that would qualify the visual component as art. As far as the main argument, it seems that anything that can be said that would argue that a sketch, painting or film is art (references to creativity, imagination, expression of emotion, proportion, imitativeness, and so on) could also be applied to the graphics of a video game.

Second, video games have sounds and even sound tracks. While the simplest bloops and bleeps most likely are mere noise rather than music, games such as Halo have true musical soundtracks. Since music can clearly be art, the musical elements in video games would also seem to be eligible for this status.

Third, video games often have stories and narratives. While this is not true of all of them (Tetris lacks a plot, for example), some of them have plots and narratives that rival those of novels. For example, the  Mass Effect and Uncharted games serve to illustrate the narrative depths of games. The Uncharted games have been compared favorably to movies and movies are clearly art. Also, as with graphics, almost anything that can be said about a story or novel (or movie) can also be said about certain video games. As such, the story aspect of video games would also seem to qualify some of them as art.

It might be objected that although the parts that make up a game can be artistic elements, to infer that the whole game is thus art would be to commit the fallacy of composition (to assume that what is true of the parts must be true of the whole). That is, while the game has artistic parts, the game as a whole is not art. To use an analogy, the fact that a house has art on the walls and music playing within its walls does not make the house itself a work of art. To use an even better analogy, if someone decided to play checkers using great paintings as the pieces, this would hardly make the game of checkers art.

In reply, if the components are art, then the coherent combination of these parts into a whole should not someone render this whole into non-art through some sort of mysterious alchemy. In the case of the checkers analogy, the fact that the pieces are art is not actually relevant to the game of checkers. The art is not serving a role in the game as art, but rather as mere objects. This role would be served as well (even better) by small pieces of plastic. If the art is actually serving a role in the game as art, then that would change matters in a relevant. way. Provided that the art is playing a role in the game in which it being art is relevant, then it would seem to be able to give the game itself some standing as art. It could even be argued that the burden of proof rests on those who would claim that video games composed of such artistic elements are not art. Of course, such burden of proof arguments are rather weak.

As for a better argument, a reasonable approach is to consider what fatal alchemy would somehow deprive all the artistic components of a video game from combining into a work that qualifies as art as a whole. If no such fatal alchemy exists and a game is meaningfully composed of artistic elements, then the game as a whole could qualify as art.

One possibility is that video games, unlike works of art, are played rather than merely experienced. One views a painting, hears a song, or watches a movie. The artist delivers a work of art and the audience receives this work. In a game, the work is unfinished (in some cases, so much so that patches are needed) and the player is required to complete the process.

While this is a tempting argument, it can be replied to in two ways. One is that there are numerous types of accepted art that are interactive. For example, stand up comedy is an art, yet we do not say that it ceases to be an art if the comic interacts with the audience in her act. Also, there are plays that invite audience participation yet this does not deny them their status as art. At the very least, the audience interacts emotionally with the works.

A second reply is that perhaps the player is also an artist by adding his input into the game. In role-playing games, the player selects and modifies the flow of the narrative, helping to tell the story along with the creators of the game. As such, this does not seem to disqualify video games from being art.

Another possibility is that there is something else inherent to games that is able to nullify the artistic elements of video games. However, it seems difficult to sort out exactly what these fatal elements might be. Games have rules, but so does art. While art cannot be won, there are some games that are also not based on winning or losing. One could, I think, run though all the elements of games and fail to find that fatal ingredient. However, I am clearly open to this possibility. True, not all games are art. However, this hardly shows that video games are thus not art because they are games.

As somewhat of a side point, there are some arguments that attack the status of video games as art by pointing out that video games cannot match the greatest paintings, novels, films and so on. However, this argument rather misses the point. Even it is conceded that video games have not matched the greatest works of art, this does not show that they are not art. It would merely show that they are not on par with the greatest works. This would be like arguing that the Twilight books are not art because they are not as good as Shakespeare’s works or arguing that I am not a runner because I cannot place in the top ten at the Boston Marathon. Bad art is still art and non-world class runners are still runners.

Finally, I obviously have just presented a sketch of a case. One glaring weak point is that an account of what it is for artistic elements of a video game to combine to form an artistic whole. Fortunately, this is the sort of challenge any composite work faces. For example, a film has to combine the plot, the visual aspects, acting, sound effects, sound track and other elements to create a whole. As such, an analogy to films can be pressed into play here and perhaps help serve as the basis for building an account of video games as works of art.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Being a Man I: Social Construct

my 1960s wedding suit

Apparently some men are having trouble figuring out what it is to be a man. There are various groups and individuals that purport to be able to teach men how to be men (or at least dress like the male actors on the show Mad Men).

Before a person can become a man, it must be known what it is to be a man.  There are, of course, many conceptions about what it is to be a man.

One option is to take the easy and obvious approach: just go with the generally accepted standards of  society. After all, a significant part of being a man is being accepted as a man by other people.

On a large scale, each society has a set of expectations, stereotypes and assumptions about what it is to be a man. These can be taken as forming a set of standards regarding what one needs to be and do in order to be  a man.

Naturally, there will be conflicting (even contradictory) expectations so that meeting the standards for being a man will require selecting a specific subset. One option is to select the ones that are accepted by the majority or by the dominant aspect of the population. This has the obvious advantage that this sort of manliness will be broadly accepted.

Another option is to narrow the field by selecting the standards held by a specific group. For example, a person in a fraternity might elect to go with the fraternities view of what it is to be a man (which will probably involve the mass consumption of beer). On the plus side, this enables a person to clearly  be a man in that specific group. On the minus side, if the standards (or mandards) of the group differ in significant ways from the more general view of manliness, then the individual can run into problems if he strays outside of his mangroup.

A third option is to attempt to create your own standards of being a man and getting them accepted by others (or not). Good luck with that.

Of course, there is also the question of whether there is something more to being a man above and beyond the social construction of manliness. For some theorists, gender roles and identities are simply that-social constructs. Naturally, there is also the biological matter of being a male, but being biologically male and being a man are two distinct matters. There is a clear normative aspect to being a man and merely a biological aspect to being male.

If being a man is purely a matter of social construction (that is, we create and make up gender roles) than being a man in group X simply involves meeting the standards of being a man in group X. If that involves owing guns, killing animals, and chugging beer while watching porn and sports, then do that to be a man. If it involves sipping lattes, talking about Proust,  listening to NPR  and talking about a scrumptious quiche, then do that. So, to be a man, just pick your group, sort out the standards and then meet them as best you can.

In many ways, this is comparable to being good: if being good is merely a social construct, then to be good you just meet the moral standards of the group in question. This is, of course, classic relativism (and an approach endorsed by leading sophists).

But perhaps being a man is more than just meeting socially constructed gender standards. If so, a person who merely meets the “mandards” of being a man in a specific group might think he is a man, but he might be mistaken. But, this is a matter for another time.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

The Nature of Cruelty

Steve Martin at the premiere of Baby Mama in N...

Image via Wikipedia

The notion of cruelty seems to be an important concept in both law and morality. Not surprisingly, what acts count as cruels is a matter of significant debate. My intent here is not to focus on sorting out specific actions or developing a cruelometer. Rather, I am going to address a slightly more abstract issue: whether cruelty requires the capacity to suffer on the part of the victim.

Intuitively, for an action to be cruel, the victim of the action must be capable of suffering. With due apologies to Steve Martin, while there can (perhaps) be cruel shoes, one cannot be cruel to shoes. This, of course, excludes sentient shoes such as Philip K. Dick’s brown oxford.

If this intuition is correct, it would follow that cruelty would be impossible in cases involving beings that cannot suffer from the action in question.

While this intuition holds for inanimate objects such as rocks and shoes, it weakens in the case of living creatures, even when such creatures cannot suffer. For example, the human fetus is not supposed to be able to suffer from pain prior to a certain number of weeks of development. However, it would not seem irrational to speak of such a fetus being subject to cruelty. It would also not seem foolish to speak about certain acts done to brain dead or even dead humans as being acts of cruelty. As a final example, even if certain animals could not suffer (suppose, for example, that Descartes had been right) it would still seem appealing to regard some acts as being cruel to them.

One way to cash out these intuitions would be by asserting that although the actions would not be truly cruel, we regard them as cruel because 1) such acts against a being that could suffer would be cruel and 2) the beings in question (the fetus, the brain dead human, and the animals) are enough like creatures that can suffer.

One way to present a moral argument against such “pseudo cruel” acts is to use Kant’s argument regarding animals:  if a person acts in cruel ways towards such entities then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, such actions would be wrong. This would not be because the victim was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the person damaging his humanity through such an action.

Since the argument is based on the psychological effects of the action on the actor, acts against beings that 1) lack the relevant moral status and 2) do not create the psychological effect in question when subject to “cruel” acts would not be wrong and also presumably not cruel. This nicely matches our intuition that one cannot be cruel to rocks.

So, an act can be considered cruel if the being in question can suffer or if the action can affect a normal actor in a way comparable to an act of “true” cruelty (that is, make her more inclined to cruelty).

Of course, this discussion cannot be properly finished without bringing up a strange and perhaps irrelevant  imaginary scenario:

Imagine a future scientist, Sally, has a mean sister, Jane, who is very cruel to her husband, Andy. Sadly, Jane is a crime boss and would see to it that Andy would be gutted and then cloned if he ever left her. Being a sensitive genius, Sally builds an android duplicate of Andy (an Andydroid) to replace her sister’s husband and spare him from her cruelty. She then smuggles Andy off world so he can have a better life.

Being a moral person, Sally does not want Andydroid to suffer, so she makes him immune to pain and suffering. Naturally,  he has all the behavioral programming needed to satisfy Sally’s need to see Andy suffer. For example, if Jane flaunts her latest lover in front of Andrydroid and “his” friends, he will shed tears but will actually feel no emotional pain.

Sally is such a genius that Jane never notices the difference. She treats Andydroid the same as Andy, yet Andrydroid does not suffer from her actions at all.

So, are Jane’s acts against Andrydroid cruel acts or not? Bonus points for classic science fiction references, of course.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Meditation 98: Is Agnosticism Cowardly?

Is it respectable to be agnostic about the existence of God, or is it simply a form of cowardice? The agnostic suspends belief on the question of God’s existence because neither theists nor atheists can prove their claims beyond a reasonable doubt. Not even our contemporary atheists claim to prove, deductively, that God does not exist. However, sensible atheists try to show that God’s existence is so unlikely that we have no rational warrant for belief in God. The key, here, is to decide how important it is to have rational grounds for believing in God. If one agrees with a logically minded philosopher like Bertram Russell, then we ought to believe only that for which we have good reasons. Not having good reasons for believing in something will count against believing in it. Traditionally, philosophers commit themselves to finding the best reasons for their beliefs.

The question of God’s existence is a metaphysical one, and this is part of the problem. Metaphysical questions do not find firm answers in the history of philosophy. Though individuals may stand firm until they die, the arguments go on. Critics have complained that there is no apparent progress in metaphysics. Philosophers are still arguing about God, and the same old arguments go round and round under different reformulations. Nevertheless, we can explain this apparent lack of progress by noting that such is the nature of metaphysical debate. Each position has its own set of assumptions and convictions, and proponents believe that they can accommodate all of them within one metaphysical view or another. The trouble is that two clashing metaphysical views cannot both be true, yet each asserts the truth of its own position. Fighting ensues, but victory is temporary and rhetorical. Now one side has the upper hand, now the other.

However, there is no reason to despair over this state of affairs. Each side in a metaphysical debate is learning from its opponent just what its own position is. By learning to defend and to attack, each side gains a depth of understanding about its own view and that of the opponent, even while realizing that ultimate agreement is unlikely, given their differing assumptions and commitments. This does not render the conversation pointless. It shows us that the element of choice is paramount in shaping metaphysical convictions. Nothing determines one’s ultimate posture toward the universe but oneself. Theists choose to believe in God. Atheists do not. The former believes in supernatural powers and causes, the latter believes that everything we can understand has a natural explanation. An agnostic feels that the leap of faith into theism or atheism is without foundation and thus, like a skeptic, suspends belief.

The stand of not knowing whether God exists is certainly a logically possible position. If one cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of God, then agnosticism is also intellectually respectable, and, perhaps, theoretically unavoidable. However, is it morally or ethically respectable? Perhaps the courageous thing to do is to assert a consistent atheism as the most likely theory, given what we know of ourselves and the world. This would be no dogmatic assertion of atheism, but a claim that allows the tiniest logical possibility that theism might be true. However, just because something is logically possible is not, in itself, a reason to believe it.

Perhaps the moral thing, the courageous thing, is to adopt an agnosticism with strong atheist tendencies. Otherwise, one might be open to the accusation of taking the easy way out. Pascal’s Wager is like this. You might as well believe in the existence of God, because, if you are right, you gain an eternal reward; and, if you are wrong, you lose nothing, since death is simply an end to conscious existence. On the other hand, if you do not believe, and there is a God, woe betide you as a skeptic. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain by your disbelief. Is agnosticism is a similar kind of insurance policy? Does the agnostic take false comfort from the thought that it is better not to deny God’s existence absolutely, since a wrathful God might be less wrathful with an agnostic than an atheist?

Assuming for the sake of argument that the problem of evil, the failure of the metaphysical ‘proofs’ for God’s existence, and the lack of empirical support, all make God’s existence most unlikely. The agnostic fails to take this into account for the sake of a peaceful life. Run-ins between believers and nonbelievers are anything but peaceful. To push atheism in the face of believers is to ask for aggravation.

A critic may claim that this reticence points to another problem with agnosticism. It makes the agnostic too tolerant of religion as a whole, and too willing to give equal time to positions that do not warrant it. This is like a Creationist arguing that ‘Intelligent Design’ ought to be given equal time in our schools with evolutionary theory. If things are set 99 percent in one way, and 1 percent in another, there is no reason to give equal time to both. If we accept reason’s urging to reject superstition and to explain things as best we can with our limited human understanding, then, perhaps, the courageous thing is to be a practical atheist, while remaining a theoretical agnostic. Practical agnostics, on this account, are indeed somewhat cowardly.

The Famous Violinist

I’ve put together an interactive version of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s ‘famous violinist’ thought experiment.

Whose Body Is It Anyway?

I was going to call it Whose Fat Body Is It Anyway? – but decided that might not go down too well.

(That was a joke. I’m just naturally amusing.)

It’s already throwing up some interesting results (it’s been completed by about 360 people so far). For example, only 12% of people think that the violinist (or soccer player in my version) has rights against the person to whom he’s attached; 65% of Christians think that abortion is not morally justified; and 86% of Canadians think that it is morally justified.

Obviously, Whose Body Is It Anyway? has its problems, lacunae, complexities, etc., but I think it isn’t entirely stupid. It has more than 500 decision nodes, and pretty much manages to hold the distinction between rights and shoulds (which turned out to be hellishly complicated, actually).

Anyway, check it out, let me know if you find any glitches, etc., and tell your friends and pets about it.

And remember this activity has been certified fat person friendly!

(See what I mean about the naturally amusing thing. Oh never mind.)

The End of Invention

I’ve been trying to understand the nature of human progress.  What drives it?  Where are we headed?  Should we try on something else?  It’s turned up some interesting stuff from a debate 5 years ago or so (See Bryan Appleyard ‘Waiting for the Lights to Go Out’ and Robert Adler ‘Entering a Dark Age of Innovation’) much of it prompted by a possibly dodgy but still thought-provoking study undertaken by Jonathan Heubner.  I’m getting this second-hand, but apparently he compared the number of innovations catalogued each year in a standard reference work to population, calculating a rate of innovation over time.  It turns out that the rate peaked in 1873 and has been declining steadily ever since.  By 2024 the rate will be what it was in the Dark Ages.

Huebner offers two explanations for this.  Either we’ve discovered most of the technologies that are economically viable or we already know most of what we can know.  Human innovation is either limited by economics or something like brain bandwidth.

The latter is an intriguing possibility.  I know that Colin McGinn argues that the answers to several philosophical problems are beyond us, but I wonder if something else might be true about philosophical innovation as such.  Maybe we’ve gotten as far as our monkey minds can get us, technologically — Velcro and iPhones are, deep breath, among the final human technological achievements.  Perhaps philosophy peaked in the 19th century too.  It gets said a lot that we can’t really tell who the great philosophers of our generation are because we’re too close in time and thought to judge honestly.  But what if there aren’t any?  What if all the good ideas are taken?  What if the best thinkers in the last 2,000 years grabbed all the low-hanging philosophical fruit and there’s just nothing good left to say?

Pleasures of Bodiless Souls

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

Image via Wikipedia

Lisa Miller recently wrote an article for Newsweek about life after death. In this article (and her book Heaven) she runs through various theories and views on this matter. One view she considers is the notion of an immortal soul. She writes:

After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. Consolation was not the goal of Plato’s afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the “green, green pastures” of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.

The crux of this problem is that a bodiless soul cannot have the same experiences that an embodied soul can experience.

One important assumption in her assessment is that a disembodied soul cannot (or at least will not) have the same sort of experiences it had while it was embodied. However, it is easy enough to make a case that such a soul could have experiences comparable to bodily experiences. To do this, I simply need to borrow some skeptical arguments. For example, take Descartes’ classic Meditations on First Philosophy. In the first meditation he presents the dream argument, arguing that everything he experiences could be a dream and uncaused by external objects. Even more relevantly to this issue, he considers that God might be causing his ideas of his physical body and an external world even though there are no such entities. This is a coherent scenario and God could presumably do this for a bodiless soul “in” heaven. Since God would be doing this for the benefit of the soul, this would not be immoral on God’s part. In fact, God (or His agents) could make it clear what is being done. Interestingly enough, for philosophers like George Berkeley life on earth is just like this: there is naught but minds  and the ideas in them. In short, on such views we are already bodiless souls. So, life in heaven as a bodiless soul could be every bit as satisfying as life on earth.

A second assumption on her part is that a bodiless soul cannot have experiences that differ from the bodily experiences yet are as (or even more) satisfying than the bodily experiences of life. While Plato’s goal was not to comfort people with his idea of the Platonic heaven, in his theory the souls are not “escaped balloons.” The souls “commune” with the forms and engage in intellectual activities. Even better, the souls are fully in the presence of the good. In Plato’s theory this seems to be a rather interesting and satisfying existence. In contrast, life on earth is far less satisfying.

Turning to a more religious view, it could be argued that being in the “presence” of God and the other souls would be immensely rewarding and satisfying. This experience would not be like what we experience on earth. It would, one might argue, be vastly different and vastly better. After all, to assume that the mere physical pleasures are all that a human can experience and enjoy is a bit like assuming that a human can only enjoy the pleasures of animals such as pigs.

True, when most people think of pleasure they do think of bodily pleasures and would, naturally enough, see heaven in that light. For example, people enjoy sex so it is natural that some folks would claim that there will be a number of virgins waiting to have sex with them in heaven. However, the fact that most people think in terms of bodily pleasures simply shows the limits of their imagination and conception of what is fine (as Aristotle would say). The fact that the many would prefer bodily pleasures on earth and in heaven hardly shows that these are the best pleasures. As Plato and others have argued, there are better pleasures than these and these pleasures could very well be enjoyed by a bodiless soul.

Of course, one might wonder whether there are souls or not and if there is a heaven.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Fetal Pain

Human fetus, age unknown

Image via Wikipedia

The state of Nebraska has added a (seemingly) new phrase to the abortion debate, namely “fetal pain.” The gist of the view is that abortions after twenty weeks should not be allowed on the grounds that the fetus might feel what is happening to it.

While it is not known exactly when a fetus can feel pain, the Journal of the American Medical Association asserts that it is unlikely that the fetus feels pain prior to twenty eight weeks. The question of when a fetus has sufficient neurological development that would allow it to experience pain would certainly seem to be an empirical matter. Of course, the situation can be made more complicated by bringing in metaphysical concerns about when the fetus has a mind that can actually experience pain and suffer from such pain (there might be an important distinction between feeling pain and suffering from pain).

Determining when the fetus can feel and suffer from such pain does seem important. After all, many moral arguments are based on the capacity of beings to experience pain. For example, stock arguments in the moral debate over the treatment of animals rest on the fact that many of the ways we treat animals (such as how we raise them as food) causes them pain and suffering.

If the pain and suffering of animals matters morally, then it would certainly seem that the pain and suffering of fetuses would also matter morally. In fact, many of the arguments for not harming or mistreating animals based on their capacity to feel pain could be modified slightly to serve as arguments against harming fetuses that can feel pain.

Of course, this means that objections raised against pain/suffering based arguments in the case of animals could often be modified for use against the pain/suffering based arguments regarding fetuses.

On a logically irrelevant note, this could mean that folks who are pro-choice but against animal suffering might find their own arguments against mistreating animals re-purposed to argue against abortions. Likewise, folks who are anti-abortion but argue for the moral acceptability of (mis)using animals might find their arguments for allowing animal suffering to be re-purposed and used against their anti-abortion views.

Getting back to the main discussion , it does seem that pain and suffering are morally relevant. Intuitively, this makes sense. To steal an approach from Hume, simply think of your own pain and suffering and see if you can regard these as good things. It is also easy enough to take advantage of numerous existing arguments for pain and suffering having negative moral value (Mill is the obvious choice here). Naturally, there are also good arguments against this, but it hardly seem foolish to consider that inflicting pain and suffering tends to be morally wrong.

If this is granted, then abortions that cause pain and suffering to the fetus would certainly seem to have a morally negative element well worth considering. However, this would hardly be a morally decisive point. After all, the mere fact that something causes pain and suffering does not automatically make it wrong or unacceptable. One reason for this is that pain and suffering are typically taken as having relative rather than absolute weight. In other words, pain and suffering on the part of one party is usually weighed against positive value or against the pain and suffering of another party. For example, when arguing about animal testing in the context of medicine, the pain of the animals is typically matched against the gain to be had from the medicine.

In the case of abortion, the pain and suffering of the fetus would be weighed against other factors, such as the pain and suffering of the woman. This is, of course, old moral ground that has been debated extensively. In many cases the suffering the woman (or girl) would undergo would far outweigh the pain and suffering of the fetus, thus allowing the abortion to occur. If someone argued that the fetus has an absolute right not to suffer or feel pain, then the obvious counter is to inquire why the same would not apply to the woman as well and why such a clash between absolutes should be settled in favor of the fetus. After all, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim an unborn and unfinished being has a greater moral status than a person.

I suspect that the main result of the introduction of “fetal pain” into the legal battle will not be a significant change in the ethical debate. Rather, the main impact will be that a (seemingly) new rhetorical tool (or weapon, depending on your view) is now available.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]