Monthly Archives: May 2010

Balance of Law

The United States Congress approves federal fu...
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One of the great problems in political and moral philosophy is that of the balance of law. Plato, in his ring of Gyges tale, was one of the first to present this problem. It was later developed by thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Mill.

The problem can be presented in the following way. If there is not enough law, then people will tend to behave badly. While thinkers vary in just how bad the bad behavior would be, the general consensus is that people will not be very nice. Hobbes presented one of the worst case scenarios, but even Locke’s state of nature had its problems.

On the other side of the balance,  if there is too much law, then people will be too restricted and this leads to a wide variety of problems. As with porridge, the ideal is to get the laws just right: enough so that bad behavior is checked, but not so many that people are strangled in rules and limits.

Not surprising, people disagree a great deal about how many laws (and what sort of laws) are just right. For example, liberals tend to think we need lots of laws to control corporations, to protect minorities, to protect the environment and to provide social goods. As another example, while American conservatives claim they are for “small government”, they tend to want more laws limiting things such as sex, drugs and various personal liberties they disagree with. This nicely matches the fact that the guiding “principle” of most people is “people should do what I want and not do what I do not want them to do.” So, people tend to favor many laws against what they dislike and many laws for what they like. They tend to be against laws that are for what they are against and against what they are for.

Also not surprisingly, profound (or not so profound) thinkers also disagree. For example, Mill argues for fairly limited restrictions on liberty, while Aristotle held that individuals must be greatly restricted (for their own good, of course). Interestingly, these thinkers all agree that the laws should be such that they produce the best results. What they disagree about is the extent (and content) needed to produce these results. Again, the porridge problem: what is “just right”?

While discussing the abstract matter is easy enough, the most significant challenges come about when specific matters are being discussed. For example, consider the oil that is contaminating the ocean off the coast of America. This specific situation raises questions about the extent to which the oil industry should be regulated. Naturally, the abstract balance problem arises on this level as well. If there is too much regulation, then companies will not be inclined to drill for the oil that is so critical to our lifestyles. If there is too little regulation (or it is not enforced or it is not good), then oil companies will do what people tend to do in such situations: what they think is “best” for them, even though it generally is not really the best.

Interestingly enough, the balance of law tends to seesaw in a very predictable pattern: first, there are few (or no) laws. Then something bad happens. Then there are more laws. Then people get lax about the laws. Then something bad happens. Then people create more laws. Then people get lax about the laws. Then…Well, you get the picture.

In the case of the example at hand, there will probably be “tough new laws” passed by Congress to regulate the oil industry. These laws will be added to the piles of previous laws that were created following past badness. Then, people will grow lax and there will be another disaster. Then more laws will be created. This will be repeated until doomsday.

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A Recurring Theme

BP Logo
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This has been less than a stellar year for business: Toyota made cars that would not stop, financial companies exploded, and BP had an explosion that created an oil leak that would not stop.

While these are three different types of disaster, there is a recurring theme in each case. To be specific, it was found that the regulators were sometimes just a bit too cozy with the folks they were supposed to regulate. While such coziness is hardly shocking, it was a bit surprising to learn that some of the  financial foxes guarding the other financial foxes (to keep them from running wild in the economic hen house) were viewing naked foxes online. In the latest disaster, the BP oil spill, the regulatory agency folks seem to have been cozy with the drilling companies and some were also apparently viewing porn. A new twist is that at least one regulator admits to using Meth. God only knows what will be next.

The coziness problem seems to stem from the usual suspects: the laws and the people.

One problem in these cases is that there seems to be a lack of effective control over how cozy the regulators can get with the regulated. This aspect of the problem can be addressed with revised regulations (and enforcement of existing laws). Some obvious fixes include outlawing gifts, having regular “inspections” of regulators to determine what they are doing (or not doing), and checking for conflicts of interest (such as close relations to the folks in the industry to be regulated). Other fixes including having stronger regulations that are harder to bypass or work around. After all, weak points in the laws make it easier for corruption to grab hold. Of course, these weak points are not the fault of the regulators-they are created by politicians by accident or by design. In the case of designed weak points and loop holes, these serve to undermine good regulatory practices by building in ways for companies to get around regulations. Typically companies have to use their influence to take advantages of weak points, which is how corruption can get started.

Of course, regulations can only be as good as the people who enforce them (or fail to do so). A country could have very good laws, but the folks who are supposed to implement them could lack the will or the desire to do so. This could be due to moral weakness on the part of the enforcers or some other factors (such as a lack of support on the part of the law makers). The solution to this problem involves getting ethical and competent people into such positions and taking steps to ensure that they do not succumb to corruption or frustration.

As a final point, I want to discuss the drugs and the porn. My rough hypothesis is that the cozy relationships played a causal role. One possibility is that corruption breeds corruption. In other words, when a person has a moral weakness in one area, it makes it easier for other moral weakness to take hold. So, a person who is willing to be unduly influenced by companies might find that this vice enables other vices to grow in relative strength. This can also lead to an overall culture of corruption in the workplace, leading to a general decay.

A second possibility is that one corruption did not contribute to another, but that both are the effects of bad character. That is, a person who is not morally upstanding would tend to engage in a range of morally questionable behavior, ranging from accepting corporate gifts to using illegal drugs.

A third possibility is that the cozy relation between industry and the regulators  has left the regulators with little real work to do. As the saying goes, idle hands do the devil’s work (that is, clicking links to porn or using drugs).

In any case, moral flaws seem to be among the causal factors of the recent disasters.


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Why I No Longer Attend Dinner Parties (Part One)

I no longer attend dinner parties, for two reasons. Firstly I no longer drink, and find it difficult to be in the company of those who do. Secondly, the  only people who would ever invite me to a dinner party are the people who remember what I was like when I did drink, and they tend to adjust their intention accordingly. That said, I retain fond memories of those occasions on which the philosophy flowed freely with the wine, and clarity was imposed upon those issues which, when constrained by sobriety, presented themselves as intractable.

It goes without saying that the memories are false. 

Here’s how I remember one such occasion from several years ago following a staff research seminar on…something or other.

Me: I’ve been giving some thought to the question of arbitrariness as it relates to a divine command morality.

Nicholas: Divine command morality being the thesis that the ultimate foundations of a genuine moral system are determined by God’s will? More wine Andy?

Me: No thank you. One glass is my absolute limit. Yes, you are quite correct. Divine command theory holds that those actions which are good are so in virtue of the fact that they are commanded by Him and those actions which are wrong are those which He forbids. For example, we can take charity to be a duty because God commands it and we can take murder to be wrong because God has forbidden it. Those who endorse this view are minded to argue that it follows from the traditionally conceived character of God, i.e. that He is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. There are, it goes without saying, other ways of construing the connection between religion and morality, even within what might be called the Christian tradition. Divine command theory is, if you like, a way of maximising the strength of that connection.

Howard: I seem to remember there is some discussion of  something like this in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, in which it is asked, roughly: “Do the gods command what is right or is what is right simply that which the gods command”.

Me: Plato talks about the gods rather than from within the monotheistic tradition, but the issue he raises is indeed taken to be a problem for divine command morality. Does God command what is good (in which case “the good” is logically prior to God’s command) or is whatever God commands “good” simply in virtue of the fact that God has commanded it ? If the former is true then it seems to follow that God reports what is “good” rather than determines what is “good” and the connection between religion and morality seems to come apart. But if the latter is true then it seems to follow that morality is in a sense arbitrary: that murder could become a duty were God to decide to will it so.

Stephen: This is indeed a problem is it not? It seems that in order for divine command theory to establish that God is logically prior to morality it is necessary to accept that morality is arbitrary in the way you suggest. And yet such arbitrariness is surely inimical to morality as any of us would understand it. There simply seem to be some moral precepts that are inviolable and binding across cultures and over time.

Me: But might there not be a way through this? Could we allow that morality is determined via His will, allow further that this implies arbitrariness and yet insist that it is nevertheless the case that there are some things that He would not will.

Nicholas: It’s difficult to see how this might work. For it would remain the case that He might decide to command us to torture our children and on this view we would be obliged to do so. Would this not constitute a reductio of the divine command thesis? Once you concede arbitrariness is it not the case that the reductio is available?

Me: Not necessarily. We might argue that arbitrariness does not of itself imply an absolute absence of constraints. We might want to say that it is a feature of the divine character that there are some things He cannot will and some states of affairs that He cannot endorse. God cannot bring into being a square circle: but to accept this is not to compromise on His omnipotence because to suggest otherwise would be absurd, and it can hardly be an argument against omnipotence to suggest that He can’t do the impossible: quite the reverse. Likewise there may be some states of affairs that it is outwith His character to will  but this does not impugn His omnibenevolence so much as underline it. At the very least we need an examination of what “arbitrariness” might mean when applied to a God as traditionally described.

Nicholas: I think that there might be a more basic and obvious objection to any attempt to make morality dependent on religion which is that many people who live more or less blameless lives have no religious faith. They simply do not need religion to tell them what to do.

Me: Yes but this is to confuse the epistemic for the logical. From the fact that a person has a sense of right or wrong independent of faith it does not follow that goodness is  not logically founded in religion. A can be logically constitutive of B and it can remain the case that a person has knowledge of B and no knowledge of the constitutive relationship. A divine command theorist is not committed to denying that an atheist can lead a morally good life; she is committed merely to the different claim that it is God who makes that “morally good life” logically possible.

Such, anyway, is how I remember the evening’s discussion. The reality, I am told is somewhat different: I hogged the wine, animadverted at tedious length about alleged ball tampering in the cricket, and managed to get lost on my way back from the  toilet (a distance of some 10 feet).

There is an excellent discussion of the nature of arbitrariness and God’s will in Paul Rooney’s Divine Command Morality (published by Avebury Press)….or at least I think there is.

If Philosophers Had Infomercials


Bored, bored, bored

‘[F]or if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom:  mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us.’

Schopenhauer is exhausting, isn’t he?  Still, I wonder why it is that boredom is such an unpleasant thing.  If being alive,existing in and of itself, were wonderful, wouldn’t just being there be good enough?  It isn’t, though, for most of us most of the time.  Maybe a settled moment or two, a ‘Buddhist catnap’ as I think Vonnegut put it, is fine on the rare occasion, but much of our lives is spent fleeing the awful quiet of our own company.  We have stamp collecting and iPods and movies and texting and newspapers and cards and a million shiny things to distract us.  I wandered the length of a train a while ago, just taking in the many things people do instead of doing nothing — faces illuminated by laptops and phones, brows furrowed over crosswords, small talk, flirtation, Scrabble, and considerably more wine than I expected.732192_bored

Maybe boredom is our default setting, the neutral gear of the human condition, for a very good reason.  Cats and possibly some god or other might be happy just existing, but for the rest of us, boredom is something to flee.  When we run away from it, at least we stand a chance of going somwhere.  I wonder what sort of creature we would be if Schopenhauer were wrong.  Suppose mere existence satisfied us.  Imagine being able to sit there, content, forever.  Would that be better or worse?

That chewed up five minutes, anyway.

Being a Man V: Birds & Bees

Male Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang) in the M...
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After reading an article in National Geographic about orchids and evolution, the idea struck me that it makes sense to look at being a man in the context of evolutionary theory. In the case of the orchid article, the idea was that the amazing adaptations of orchids (for example, imitating female insects so as to attract pollinators) can all be explained in terms of natural selection. While humans have a broader range of behavior than orchids, the same principle would seem to apply.

Crudely and simply put, the theory is that organisms experience random mutations and these are selected for (or against) by natural processes. Organisms that survive and reproduce pass on their genes (including the mutations). Those that do not reproduce, do not pass on their genes. Over time, this process of selection  can result in significant changes in a species or even the creation of new species. While there are no purposes or goals in this “system”, it can create the appearance of design: organisms that survive will be well suited to the conditions in which they live. This is, of course, not design-if they did not fit, they would not survive to be there.

Getting back to being a man, evolution has shaped men via this process of natural selection. As such, the men who are here now are descended from men who had qualities that contributed to their surviving and reproducing. These men will, in turn, go through the natural selection process. In the case of humans, the process is often more complicated than that of birds, bees and orchids. However, as noted above, the basic idea is the same.  The “men” of the non-human species have  a set of behaviors that define this role. In most cases, the majority of these behaviors (nest building, fighting, displaying, and so on) are instinctual. In the case of humans, some of the behavior is probably hard-wired, but much of it is learned behavior. However, if one buys into evolutionary theory, what lies behind all this is the process of evolution. As such, being a man would simply be an evolutionary “strategy” that arose out of the process of natural selection. As such, being a man is on par with being a drake, a bull or a steer.  That is, it involves being in a gender role that is typically occupied by biological males.

Of course, this does not help a great deal in deciding how one should act if one wants to be a man in a meaningful sense. But, evolution is not about what one ought to do. It is simply about what is: survive and be selected, or fail and be rejected. That said, looking at comparable roles in the animal kingdom as well as considering the matter of evolution (and biology) might prove useful in looking at the matter scientifically.

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If Aristotle ran the Huffington Post

Artifice is not the same as deceit. The media is full of artifice. Words are edited in print, chopped and put back together in audio and video, not to misrepresent, but simply to provide a smoother, more coherent picture of the ideas being presented.

Most of the time we do not think of any of this as deceitful. But this seems in part to depend on how good our media literary is. For instance, it is standard practice when filming an interview with only one camera to, at the end, record some “noddies”: the interviewer is seen nodding or responding to what the speaker is saying. This is in effect a re-staging of their actual reactions – at the time they are filmed, the interviewer is just looking into space. But some viewers do feel deceived when they discover this.

So where is the line between benign artifice and deceit? I got wondering about this after I received an email from Tom Morris, author of If Aristotle Ran General Motors. He has started a series of “interviews” with philosophers at the Huffington Post and he was on the look out for “interviewees”. You’ll see why I use scare-quotes when you read what his message contained:

If you have an idea for an interview of about 1,000 words or fewer (or up to 1,200 on rare occasion), please email me. Then I ask only that your submission be formatted like the interview you see. Suggest my questions and comments as well as your own, and I’ll edit from there. Please also help me with the formatting time by using this code for your name and mine with each question and answer….

As examples, he has:

Tom: Hi, fellow philosopher! You have a new book out on XYZ.

You: Hi, Tom. Yes indeed.

I wasn’t comfortable with this. Morris was asking people to write “interviews” with themselves, pretending that Morris had set the questions. Morris would then edit them if he didn’t like any bits of them.

Now this is hardly criminal behaviour, but I think that philosophers of all people should be wary about being so brazenly untruthful. I should say that Morris is very open about the process, and clearly doesn’t see this as deceitful. When I raised my concerns to him in an email he said “It’s just a quicker and easier way of providing a forum for the voices of others,” adding “I’ve been very fortunate to have ample public hearing for my work. I’m just wanting to share some of the stage, so to speak. I’m 58 and won’t be doing this forever. I want to encourage others in the academy to ‘get out there’ with more of their work.”

Although I made it clear I was not accusing him of any subterfuge, his response didn’t convince me. I followed up:

For me something doesn’t sit right abut philosophers presenting themselves so falsely. It isn’t an interview. You didn’t ask the questions. It’s just not truthful. It’s not a big deal, perhaps – we’re not talking about major disinformation here. But if Aristotle ran The Huffington Post, no way would he would approve! And I think if Huffington Post readers knew this, some at least wouldn’t like it.

One part of his second reply really didn’t convince:

Of course dialogues written by just one person have a rich tradition in our biz. Plato didn’t mean to trick people, nor did Hume. And these aren’t even written by just one person.

But no one ever thought they were real dialogues. He also wrote:

My understanding is that the philosophers I interview just suggest the questions. That’s how I take what they write to me. If I approve the questions, that amounts to my asking them. If I don’t, I propose a question of my own or a bevy of such questions. The end result, to me, counts as an interview, not just an “interview”.

I want to stress that I do not think Morris is behaving with any malign intent. He said he was happy for me to blog about this and quote from his emails. But I do think he’s mistaken here. The artifice in this case is misleading, whether it is intended to mislead or not. And although this is not an important case – it’s really just a good example of a wider issue – I do think it is important for philosophers to uphold values of truthfulness, even when the stakes are low.

Am I being too puritanical? Or hypocritical? After all, I use artifice when I edit my podcasts and written interviews. At a time where more and more people are using media tools, it is perhaps important that we try to draw some rough lines at least between acceptable and misleading artifice. But where?

Meditation 99 “Life is a Dream.”

Meditation 99: Life is a Dream

Metaphors draw two unlikely suspects together in an illuminating way. The metaphor “Achilles is a lion” is not literally true, unless I have a lion named “Achilles.” Yet it draws attention to the courage and strength of the hero with a punch that straight prose lacks. “X is brave and strong” applies to many people. The metaphor distinguishes Achilles from others who are also brave and strong. Metaphors make readers think about the deeper identity that underlies surface differences. A good one sparks new thoughts and connections between ideas, but metaphors are never literally true.

“Life is a dream” is a well known metaphor. On the surface, seeking an identity between waking life and dreaming seems unpromising. After all, we distinguish ‘dreaming’ from ‘waking life’, and without this contrast, it would no longer make sense to speak of ‘dreaming’ in the first place. Life is real, but dreams are not. No matter how vivid at the time, what happens in dreams does not actually happen. I dream that I marry the boss’s daughter, but wake up to find it is time to go to work sweeping her dad’s factory floor. I can fly in my dreams, but not in waking life. There are other contrasts. Time is disjointed in dreams, but can be mapped using clock time in ‘real life’. I wake to a continuing life, but each dream is complete in itself. It is extremely rare, I would imagine, to continue last night’s dream tonight. Dreams certainly appear illusory in comparison with normal waking life.

At this point, we might ask why “Life is a Dream” has captured so much attention over the years? From what direction do we hear it? The metaphor seems to be coming from an esoteric tradition, from mysticism, Taoism, or perhaps Buddhism. As a realistically-minded philosopher, I have resisted the idea that life is somehow a dream. And yet, I have thought about it over the years. I stub my toe. It hurts. Is this a dream? I lose my job, my wife, my cat and my dog. Are these just dreams? The world aches with war, plague, death, hatred, hunger and despair. Are all these dreams? Are the suffering of millions just illusions?

Another way I have resisted the life/dream metaphor is by rejecting mysticism as not sufficiently rational. In one strand of the mystical tradition as I understand it, what the ignorant normally call ‘life’ is actually illusory. It is the veil of Maya, fueled by craving for the unreal and delusional delights of trying to satisfy endlessly proliferating desires. Everything is changing in every way all the time. Nothing stays the same. We are supposed to escape from the illusion of Maya and the wheel of life (Samsara) by understanding that life is just a dream, and all this ceaseless striving is a kind of sleepwalking. Best to give up the desires which give birth to the world of craving. This sounds good, but once again we are up against the fact that life feels real to those who are struggling to survive in a difficult and frightening world. Thinking that life is just a dream seemed to me just an excuse to forget about the world and all the problems we find there.

After coming to these dark reflections, I found a question to move forward. Are dreams actually the same as illusions? Consider an optical illusion. Once we find out that it is an illusion, our minds corrects for the faulty perception. A straight stick looks bent when it is half under water. Once we learn a little optics, we see why it looks this way. Of course, it might be a bent stick after all, but that would just be funny. Are dreams illusions like this? I think not. No matter how sure I am that it was a dream after I wake up, there is no way to ‘correct’ for the illusion while in the dream itself. Dreams just do seem real at the time.

First of all, a dream is not illusory on its own terms. While dreaming, the dream is real. Second, dreams have meaning. To say that something is a dream is not to say that it is meaningless, pointless or trivial. Third, and most importantly, though dreams do vanish upon waking, the ephemeral nature of dreams does not detract from their existence or significance.

From this standpoint, there is a deep identity between dreams and waking life. For me, it has to do with the varnishing of days and dreams together. Yesterday has all the phenomenological reality of yesterday’s dream. It is gone, not to be retrieved. Yesterday is like a play that ran its course, stirred up actions and passions, and then passed away in sleep. What is the memory of the wonderful trip you took to the sea shore last summer but a dream? This is the deep structural identity of memories, dreams and waking life.

Being a Man IV: Fatherhood

Petri dish
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One plausible area to look for a role unique to men is that of fatherhood. There is, obviously enough, an intuitive appeal to the idea that only men can be fathers.  Of course, it is quite possible to raise questions about this.

One of the first things that needs to be sorted out is the distinction between being a biological father and a father. While most fathers are biological fathers, not all of them are. For example, the father of an adopted child would still seem to qualify as a father, even if he never impregnated a woman. Defining what it is to be a biological father seems rather easy: that is the male who provide the sperm that fertilized the egg.

Of course, a little science can make this a bit messy. For example, imagine sperm engineered and grown in a petri dish. This sperm could be used to fertilize an egg, but it would seem odd to classify the sperm as the father. Perhaps the creator of the sperm would be the father, even if the scientist was a woman or a team. However, let this matter be laid aside, perhaps to be discussed more in comments.

Turning back to looking at the role of father (apart from the biological role), it could be seen as a man’s role because a father is supposed to provide a manly role model and teach the manly virtues to his sons (and presumably teach his daughters that many men lack these virtues).

Of course, this account runs into a bit of a problem. If a father is one who provides the manly role model and teaches the manly virtues, there is a clear need to define what it is to be a manly role model and which virtues are manly. In short, looking at the role of being a father does not seem to help define what it is to be  a man. Rather, this seems to be a bit of a backwards approach. Instead, what is needed is an account of what it is to be a man and the nature of the manly virtues. Once those are established, then it would be possible to provide an account of what it is to be a father.

There is the possibility that there are no special manly virtues or manly roles that are unique to males. Thus, non-males could occupy those roles and have those virtues. If so, it would be possible that a woman could be a father (in this sense) or even a machine (such as an intelligent robot).  Not to be sexist here, it could also be possible that a male could be a mother (non-biological).

Then again, perhaps there are such roles and virtues. So, as an exercise to the reader, what might these roles and virtues be? Also, which ones would be essential (or at least important) to being a father?

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Philosophers hold their seats

With most of the UK general election results now in, we can see that the philosophers standing have done well in some ways, not so well in others. (See yesterday’s post for details of the candidate’s philosophical backgrounds.) All four of the candidates standing for the major parties won their seats.

Oliver Letwin (Conservative) held his West Dorset seat with a 1.1% increase in votes compared to 3.9% for his party nationally

Jon Cruddas (Labour) held his Dagenham seat with an 8.9% fall in vote compared to a 6.3% fall for his party nationally

John Pugh (Liberal Democrat) held his Southport seat with a 3.3% increase in vote compared to 1% increase for his party nationally

Jesse Norman (Conservative) was elected as the member for Hereford and South Herefordshire, a seat previously held by a retiring member of his party. He was elected with a 5.2% increase in vote for his party since the last election compared to 3.9% nationally.

Alas, that means that even though it would have been meaningless anyway, due to the small sample size, we can’t have any fun talking of swings for and against philosophers, as it all pretty much evens out – unless someone else can spot a spurious statistical pattern.

There were also three Green Party candidates who didn’t stand much chance of winning their seats.

Shahrar Ali won 668 votes in Brent Central, 1.5% of votes cast, 2.2% down on his party’s showing last time.

Chris Fox (won 909 votes in Harwich and North Essex, 1.9% of those cast, 1.8% down on his party’s showing last time.

Ben Foley (a.k.a. Fairweather) won 393 votes Bedford, a 0.9% share, up 0.9% on last time ( i.e. there was no Green Party no candidate last time)

Nationally, the Green Party’s share of the vote was almost identical to last time, around 1%.

(Note: national results are not final yet, so all national figures are provisional. I hope to update when all results are in)