Monthly Archives: March 2012

Moral Methods

Thanks to the budget cuts in education, I won’t be teaching this summer. On the plus side, this has encouraged me to write yet another short philosophy book, Moral Methods. As per tradition, I am making it available as a free PDF on this site. It is also available in the Kindle format in the US and the UK for the usual 99 cents (or the UK equivalent in fish and chips).

This concise reference work is intended to provide the reader with the basics of moral argumentation and specific tools that should prove useful in this process. There is no assumption that any specific moral view is correct (or incorrect) and no specific moral agenda is pushed in this work.  Rather, the intention behind this work is to assist people in making better moral arguments.  If a reader disagrees with a specific example, then an interesting exercise would be to consider a counter-argument against the conclusion presented in the example.

The book divides into three parts. The first provides a basic discussion of arguing about ethics in the context of moral issues. The second, which is the majority of the book, presents a variety of methods that should prove useful in moral argumentation.  The third part consists of short moral essays that provide additional examples of moral reasoning.

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Alfred Mele on free will

Alfred R. Mele’s recent article on free will in The Chronicle of Higher Education is short and to the point. First, Mele argues that most people do not have a conception of free will that involves anything obviously spooky, such as a non-physical soul. Second, he argues that arguments against free will that rely on Libet-style experiments are inconclusive. He may be right on both points, but this falls well short of vindicating free will (to be fair to him, all he concludes is that it’s too early to bet the farm on free will’s non-existence … a rather weak claim).

As to the first point, Mele refers to a simple study that he conducted (he suggests that there were more, but only offers us the one):

In one, I invited participants to imagine a scenario in which scientists had proved that everything in the universe is physical and that what we refer to as a “mind” is actually a brain at work. In this scenario, a man sees a $20 bill fall from a stranger’s pocket, considers returning it, and decides to keep it. Asked whether he had free will when he made that decision, 73 percent answer yes. This study suggests that a majority of people do not see having a nonphysical mind or soul as a requirement for free will.

Just a few points about this. First, even as reported only 73 per cent of participants in the study thought that free will is compatible with physicalism – that seems to be the essence of what they were asked. That’s an overwhelming majority, no doubt, but the fact remains that 27 per cent of people in the study apparently thought that free will is not compatible with physicalism. Furthermore, we are told nothing to assure us that the participants were a random sample of the population (any population you might consider relevant, whether it be the population of the local community where the study was conducted, the population of, say, the US, or the population of the English-speaking world). Was the study biased, for example, towards highly educated people, or more secular people, who might be more accepting of physicalism than the general population?

Thus, the study is suggestive, but it does not, at least as it’s reported, prove a great deal. It suggests that many people, perhaps a majority, think that free will is compatible with physicalism, and perhaps that it’s compatible with causal determinism (if we make an assumption that the two ideas tend to be closely linked in people’s minds). That’s important, in that the study at least provides data casting doubt on the view that “free will” just means, in the English language, something … well, something incompatible with physicalism and determinism. It provides one set of data, albeit not necessarily a very reliable one, that many people actually have a much more mundane conception of free will.

However, we don’t know enough to draw strong, specific conclusions about how the participants in the study approached the question they were asked. Did they answer quickly and intuitively, or did they think about it in a more theoretical way? Perhaps some thought it was sufficient that the person not handing back the $20 was able to deliberate, was not externally impeded or coerced, etc. Perhaps some thought it enough that nothing described in the scenario implied the truth of anything like fatalism (it is arguable that this is the issue that really bugs the folk … both now and historically). Perhaps, for all we know, the participants, or many of them, had rather confused conceptions of free will, involving a jumble of ideas, but at least the majority of them did not have a clear conception that “free will” just means (in part) the actions or deliberations of some kind of spooky non-material thing.

Furthermore, we should ask about the arguments of writers who insist that the meaning of “free will” – what the expression actually conveys in ordinary use in the English language – is the deliberation of some sort of non-material thing whose activity transcends any natural order of causation. How is this semantic claim grounded? What evidence do we have for it? Perhaps Mele’s little experiment is not decisive against the people who define “free will” in such ways, but their semantic claim doesn’t seem to have any more solid grounding. On the contrary, it generally seems to be an intuition based on the life experience of those making the claim, but that is hardly scientific and others may have very different life experiences. At the most it relies on highly indirect evidence, such as evidence that the folk tend to have a dualist theory of mind.

As for Mele’s point about how to interpret Libet-type experiments, this is an area where I hesitate to get involved. I don’t want to pretend to expertise that I lack. Still, I’ve never been convinced that the experiments prove much at all, and not for the sorts of reasons that Mele gives. While Mele argues about how to interpret the data, I wonder whether he isn’t chasing a mirage here. Even if he is correct about everything else, his arguments only seem to be relevant if he is trying to defend a position that we make decisions, or perhaps final decisions, entirely consciously – or at least that this happens in important cases. But, Libet aside, is that even remotely like the experience we actually have? While agonising conscious deliberations may play some kind of important role in reaching some of our decisions on difficult issues, we never seem to reach these decisions in an entirely conscious way.

Not surprisingly, therefore, courtroom advocates (barristers and trial lawyers) are trained to immerse themselves in the detailed evidence relating to a case, but not to think they can work out the case theory consciously. At least that’s my experience: they are told, in effect, to let the unconscious mind do the creative work, or much of it. I doubt that it’s different for other professions, irrespective of what practitioners are explicitly taught.

The way we reach factual conclusions, arrive at theories and understandings, make decisions about what to do next, and do so on, will generally, at some stage, involve an Aha! point (or more than one) where the answer (or some aspect of it) seems to “come to us” from the unconscious parts of our minds. Not only is this the actual phenomenology of decision-making, there are reasons to question whether we can coherently imagine or describe a situation in which every aspect of our decision-making is fully conscious – just try to do so! I defy you to. (Neil Levy has a 2005 article questioning whether the idea is even conceptually coherent, though I don’t know whether it represents his current view.)

A suitably deflated concept of free will may match up with the ideas of the folk, at least in a rough way, and may also be instantiated in the real world – e.g. it may be enough that fatalism is not true and/or that we are often able to make uncoerced decisions after an adequate time for deliberation (which may, in part, be conscious). If these are the sorts of things that the folk, or many of them, primarily have in mind when they think they have free will, then free will is not only compatible with physicalism and determinism. It also seems compatible with the role that is played by the unconscious mind. On the other hand, it may not be compatible with the role played by the unconscious mind if we always (or even typically) have unconscious desires, fears, etc., that are at odds with our consciously held values, and which we’d experience as alien if we knew about them.

In any event, no matter how much we fence and skirmish over how to interpret the Libet data, we are not going to be able to defend free will unless we have a conception of free will that allows a large role for the unconscious mind in our decision-making processes.

US Election: A Little Light Relief

Enjoy: rebuttals are welcome (but let’s not forget the PAC rules).

(Hat tip: Bill Vallicella).

Some posts about declining fertility rates

A little batch of posts in praise of declining fertility rates, for your interest and discussion:

1. Froma Harrop

It is true that Japan is a rapidly aging society, as is ours. The Japanese face the challenge of caring for many elderly people in a country with fewer young workers. Higher retirement ages will deal with some of the labor needs, and more experienced older workers are actually good for an economy.

In America, the usual recommendation for these changing demographics is to admit more immigrants. The Japanese, long hostile to immigration, see automation as the answer. The country’s engineers are developing robots to do much of the nursing home-type work. The Japanese government is investing large amounts in these technologies, turning a challenge into a growth industry.

2. Tom Flynn, who comments approvingly on Harrop’s piece.

experts have been warning of overpopulation since the fifties, so an eventual return to the global population of that time (roughly 2.5 billion) would seem a reasonable goal in order to make humanity long-term sustainable on the only planet we’ve got. Of course getting there would require several consecutive generations of demographic contraction. Far from seeing the state of having fewer workers than elders as a crisis, we need to learn to view it as a challenge to be met — as the price of avoiding a future in which we doom ourselves by our own fecundity. That’s a huge challenge for economists, as today’s economy is essentially a Ponzi scheme that depends on a few percent population growth year after year. I only wish more economists were working on it.

3. Russell Blackford. I comment approvingly on Flynn’s piece.

There may be some serious transitional difficulties. Outmoded attitudes to older people may not change as quickly as desirable, nor may the attitudes of those people themselves, some of whom may not welcome an increasing social expectation that they continue to be productive into their later years. This may influence many policy deliberations.

Still, one point stands out. We should adopt a mindset of embracing the future rather than resisting it. It is pointless suggesting more and more ways to cajole people out of exercising their freedom to put less emphasis on childbearing and rearing. If, for example, we favour policies such as paid maternity leave, our support should be based squarely on arguments relating to the interests of women. The arguments should be about increasing the practical autonomy of those women who choose to become mothers, and particularly their ability to care for their children. They should not be based on a supposed need to increase the fertility rate.

Fertility rates will probably get even lower. So be it. This will create policy challenges, but it is not a tendency that must be reversed by moral exhortations or government actions. On the contrary, despite the policy challenges that it creates, it is the sign of free societies and essentially a development that we should welcome.

Now we just need Harrop to comment approvingly on my post, and we’ll have a tight little circle of mutual admiration. Still, the general position being expressed in these posts is not a common one, at least in mainstream discussion of public policy, where there is much hand-wringing about how to support an ageing population.

So perhaps I can refer readers to some dissenting views on this one-off occasion.

Darth VaPaula, Gender and Video Games

Star Wars: The Old Republic

I play Star Wars the  Old Republic. I live in Florida. As such, I was somewhat interested when the Florida Family Association decided to launch an email campaign against Bioware regarding the plans to allow LGBT relationship options in the game.

Lest anyone think that the game is some sort of sex-fest, the relationships between a player character (PC) and a non-player character (NPC) is rather limited. Essentially you get to engage in fairly tame flirting via selecting tame response options and there is some dialog that involves mild sexual themes. For those looking for racy action, you will find much much more on prime time  shows than you will see in SWTOR. While Bioware does an excellent job crafting the personas of the NPCs that the players interact with, I have never been particularly interested in game romance myself. After all, I can do that in real life and I prefer to spend my game time killing bad guys with a light saber, something I cannot do in real life (yet).

However, I know that some players really get into the romance options in Bioware games and it is a rich part of the narrative experience for these folks. As such, I can see why the folks at Florida Family Association are a bit worried. I, too, have been worried when I heard friends speak endlessly of their intimate relationships with NPCs. Of course, my worry is rather different than that of the FFA.

The FFA seems to have two main concerns regarding the possible inclusion of LGBT options in SWTOR:

• Children and teens, who never thought anyway but heterosexual, are now given a choice to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their game player.

• Children and teens, who choose non-social agenda characters, would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.

In regards to the first problem, if these children and teens (although the game is rated T and hence is intended only for teens) have “never thought anyway but heterosexual”, then they would presumably not chose any of the LGBT options in the conversations with NPCs. Unless Bioware radically changes the game by adding an orientation button, a PC’s sexual orientation is shaped by making choices in various conversations (such as picking a flirt option). As such, kids and teens who are purely heterosexual prior to playing SWTOR would presumably not select the LGBT options. After all, if their minds are devoid of any sexual thoughts other than heterosexual, why would they pick anything else? To use the obvious analogy, if I only think about playing a Jedi, the fact that I have the option to play a trooper would not compel me to play a trooper. That is, if I lack trooper tendencies, I won’t play a trooper in the game. Or real life.

It might be countered that the mere option for such in game behavior could lead the heterosexuals away from their heterosexuality. After all, Plato argued at length in the Republic regarding the corrupting potential of art. As such, perhaps SWTOR could turn kids and teens away from the “hetero side” to the “gay side”. This, of course, assumes that any orientation other than heterosexual is morally wrong-which is an issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

One obvious response to this line of reasoning is that the kids and teens in question will also face the same options in real life. That is, when encountering actual people in the real world they will sometimes have LGBT options for real. As such, this worry about SWTOR seems rather pointless: if the kids and teens are not going to go to the “gay side” in real life, they surely will not do so in SWTOR. Likewise, if they would go to the “gay side” in SWTOR, then perhaps they would do the same in real life anyway. The game merely allows them the chance to select from options that are available in real life already and there seems to be no reason to think that the game would make straight kids gay.

It might be argued that while straight kids and teens can resist the “gay side” in real life, SWTOR would lure them to the “gay side”, perhaps with cookies. As noted above, Plato did argue that art can have corrupting influences that bypass our normal defenses against such things. For example, Plato noted that while a manly man will not give in to sorrow when faced with tragedy in real life, he can easily be seduced to giving into such unseemly feelings via the nefarious influence of the arts. By analogy, kids and teens who are heterosexual in real life could thus be seduced to the “gay side” by the nefarious influence of the video game. This sort of reasoning is, of course, analogous to that used to argue that video games and art corrupt the youth into being more violent or sexual. After all, when not corrupted by art humans have no interest in either sex or violence.

One obvious reply is that if video games have such a powerful impact on the sexual orientation of the youth, then the lack of LGBT options in SWTOR should have converted LGBT players straight. After all, if the availability of LGBT options is a threat to heterosexuality, then the availability of heterosexual options should be an equal threat to LGBT players. The presence of both options could, presumably, cause players to oscillate in their orientation as they are lured from the “straight side” to the “gay side” and then back again. One would thus assume that the person’s sexual orientation would be set by their last interaction in the game. This, of course, seems rather absurd.

It might be claimed that LGBT options are just so appealing that a heterosexual kid exposed to such options will be lured into picking them, contrary to his/her true sexual orientation. The same, it would need to be argued, is not true of heterosexuality.

One obvious reply is that if the LGBT options were that seductive, then most people would be LGBT.  But this is not the case. Another obvious reply is that if LGBT options are so appealing, then perhaps people should chose them. After all, it generally makes sense to pick what is most appealing. To use an analogy, when I pick my dessert I go with the option that appeals to me the most and take that to the be best option. Likewise, if LGBT is such an awesomely appealing choice over heterosexuality, then perhaps people should be picking that rather than struggling to resist it. Of course, if LGBT options lack this special appeal to people who are nominally straight, then these options present no “threat” in the game or in life.

The second problem, as the FFA sees it, is that kids and teens “would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.”

My first reply is that the way the game works, players are not forced to deal with the relationships between other PCs and NPCs. That is, the substantial conversation interactions that involve romance take place without other players being involved. As such, if the folks at the FFA are worried that players will be forced to see LGBT sex or even substantial LGBT conversations, then they are worried about nothing. All they will see is the usual killing and looting that form the majority of the game play. As such, they are worried about something that will not really happen.

Of course, it can be countered that players will encounter some LGBT comments or remarks in the course of play and this takes me to my second reply.

Second, kids and teens are already “forced to deal with” LGBT in real life. They might not realize it, but unless they are kept in isolation they are no doubt regularly encountering and interacting with LGBT people. After all, people do not have “straight” or “LGBT” nameplates over their heads in real life. As such, the worry about encountering LGBT characters in the game seems rather absurd.

Third, there is the obvious moral reply. Imagine if someone said that they were worried that their Christian kids and teens would be forced to deal with Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Or that their white kids would have to deal with Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. Such views would be regarded as nothing more than the expression of hate and prejudice. The same certainly seems true of the FFA’s view here. After all, if the KKK does not have the right to demand a racially pure SWTOR, then the FFA would seem to lack the right to demand a gender pure SWTOR.

The FFA does offer an additional argument against the inclusion of LGBT options in STWOR. The FFA contends that because the Star Wars movies did not have any LGBT characters, they should not be in SWTOR.

On the one hand, this does have some small appeal. After all, a game based on a movie universe should reflect that universe. So, for example, since the Star Wars universe lacked Vulcans and Daleks in the movies, they should not be in the game.

On the other hand, this argument is easy to counter.

While the Star Wars movies did not show LGBT characters (as far as we know), there is nothing to indicate that the Star Wars reality is devoid of LGBT. After all, the movies only follow a limited number of characters and there are only a few relationships (Han and Leia, Anikan and Padme, R2 and C3P0). As such, to infer that because there were no open LGBT relationships in the Star Wars movise, then the Star Wars universe is devoid of LGBT relationships would be an odd inference. This would be  on par with inferring that because the movie did not show any dentists, the Star Wars universe lacks dentists.

Another obvious reply is this: suppose the Star Wars movies did not show any female Smugglers (Han Solo’s class), would it follow that the Smuggler class should be restricted to male characters? It would seem not. After all, there is no universe defining reason why a female cannot be a smuggler. Likewise, it is not inherent to the Star Wars universe that it be LGBT free. After all, the opening does not say “In a totally straight galaxy devoid of LGBT…”. As such, Bioware can add these options and still be within the known canon of Star Wars.

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Jerry Coyne on free will

As I indicated yesterday, I am going to comment on the six pieces about free will published recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ll start with Jerry A. Coyne’s article entitled “You Don’t Have Free Will”.

Some preliminaries

This article contains points that I agree with (for example, that the expression “free will” is used in many ways or with many meanings) and points that I possibly agree with (for example, that we should drop free will talk). I do think it’s clear that many different definitions of “free will” are used, and I’m inclined to think that that, alone, might be a reason not to use the expression. It can mean that we are all just debating at cross-purposes.

At the same time, I wonder what the expression conveys to an ordinary person in ordinary discussion. Attempts to get that clear by the sort of conceptual analysis favoured by analytic philosophers don’t appear to me to have gone anywhere near settling this, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of empirical research on the subject. To an extent, I am relying on a hunch here, but the difficulty that philosophers have had, historically, in defining “free will” makes me wonder whether the meaning of the expression is clear at all, unless a meaning is actually stipulated for the purpose of debate. In that case, we might frequently be talking past each other when we use the term.

I also suspect that the term has various connotations that are troubling. It may be that when I say, “You have free will”, I at least connote something rather spooky that is likely to be false. At the same time, if I say, “You do not have free will”, I may at least connote certain fatalistic or passivist ideas that are also likely to be false. So perhaps, if I want to avoid misleading people, I should avoid saying either of those things. (But I’d like to see some more empirical research on what these statements, “You have free will” and “You do not have free will”, actually do connote to people.)

So I can agree with Professor Coyne that we might do best to avoid the term “free will” … and try, instead, to make whatever points need to be made with other language. At the same time, my reasons are, I think, a bit different from his.

Are compatibilists just saving face?

I do not agree with him when he says the following:

Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn’t exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. In response, some philosophers — most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained — have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy.

I don’t think there is any reason at all to believe that; it strikes me as overly cynical. I can report, in my own case, that my past (and certainly not entirely buried) tendency towards compatibilism is not at all a face-saving device of this kind. It is a sincerely held position based on the view that we retain certain capacities even if our decisions are the product of a causally more-or-less deterministic process. Furthermore, reflection on what is important that reasonably falls within the ambit of the free will debate leads me to think that the capacities we retain are very important.

These capacities include: the ability to deliberate; the ability, more specifically, to deliberate about what I most value or desire in a situation; the ability to shape my own future to an extent, as a result of my choices; and, more generally, the ability to affect the future of my society and my world, to an extent, as a result of my choices. Some people – certain fatalists and passivists – seem to deny the latter abilities, at least.

Consider “soft determinism”, which is perhaps best regarded as a sub-set of compatibilism (if compatibilism is regarded as something like the view that free will and determinism are logically compatible whether or not determinism is actually true). Soft determinism might be interpreted as the claim that these fatalists and passivists are wrong, even though causal determinism is more-or-less correct. If that’s a plausible interpretation of what soft determinists are trying to say, then soft determinism seems like a position that is at least arguable and that people could hold sincerely. Once again, I see no reason to believe that people who hold these sorts of positions are insincere or trying to change the subject. So I reject this talk of “face-saving” and so on.

The “couldn’t have acted/chosen otherwise” argument

Still, is the Coyne position correct to this extent: We don’t have free will in the sense defined by the article?

The first problem is that the article relies on the claim that we live in a more-or-less deterministic world, including at the level of the brain. Things could get a bit complicated if it turns out that the brain functions in an indeterministic way (to some important degree), and I’m not at all sure that the actual science accomplished to date rules this out. However, the science may be suggestive, and in any event I’m not opposed to the claim, either temperamentally or philosophically, so in what follows I’ll assume its truth for the sake of argument. The claim seems plausible enough to me, at least, even if not definitively established. For the sake of argument, then, let’s assume that the brain (along with everything else) functions deterministically to whatever extent is needed for Professor Coyne’s argument to go through.

Does this rule out free will? Well, that’s going to depend on our definition of free will, and I’ve argued that this is unclear and that different definitions may be used sincerely and reasonably. Still, what if we use the idea of:

At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.

Even this is problematic. The idea of “could have chosen otherwise” (which some philosophers do, indeed, use as a definition of free will) is at best equivocal.

On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to. Say a child drowns in a pond in my close vicinity, and I stand by allowing this to happen. The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.

What more would I have needed to have been able to act otherwise? I was at the right place at the right time. I can swim. No special equipment that I lacked was actually needed … and so on. The parents are likely to reply that it’s not that I couldn’t have chosen to act otherwise, but that I merely didn’t want to act otherwise.

Surely there are many cases like this where the reason that I didn’t act otherwise was not any lack of capacity, equipment, being on the spot, etc., but merely that I didn’t want to act otherwise. The most salient thing determining how I acted was my desire-set. Leave everything else in place, but change my desire-set, and I would have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, it is true that I could have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, someone can rightly say to me: “It’s not that you couldn’t have acted otherwise; it’s that you didn’t want to.”

Suppose the tape is replayed. Suppose that determinism is sufficiently true that I end up making exactly the same decision for exactly the same reasons (I don’t want to get wet, I don’t like children and desire that as many as possible drown, or whatever my reasons might be). If determinism holds true to that extent (which, again, I am happy to stipulate), I’ll act in exactly the same way – speaking tenselessly, I don’t save the child. Professor Coyne says, and we’ll stipulate that he’s right: “free will means that your choice could have been different.”

But, Jerry, it could have been! It’s true that if the tape is replayed my choice will be the same. Putting it another way, it’s true that my choice wouldn’t be different if the tape were replayed. But the article is confusing wouldn’t with couldn’t. It’s a straightforward confusion of modality. As happened the first time, I could save the child in the perfectly familiar sense that I have whatever capacities, equipment, proximity, etc., are required. As happened the first time, the parents could and would rightly say to me, “It’s not that you couldn’t have; it’s that you didn’t want to.”

Now it’s true that my wants or values or goals, or whatever – my desire-set – may itself be determined causally. Indeed, I’m assuming throughout that this is so. I’m assuming (and I think this is reasonable, given the concessions I’ve made to causal determinism) that all these things are identical with states of my neurology that have a physical causal history. Perhaps that fact grounds some kind of argument against free will, if we imagine that free will involves some sort of ultimate capacity for self-creation. I agree that we don’t have free will – certainly on this picture – if “free will” means: “Free will all the way down.” Thus, on this picture, we don’t have free will of a kind that could be deployed in theodical arguments … my choices can be traced back eventually to the initial creative acts of God, if such exists.

But as long as the explanation as to why I didn’t act otherwise is just those states of my neurology – the ones that constitute my desire-set – the parents are quite right to complain that I could have chosen to do otherwise and saved their child. “You just didn’t want to,” they say, correctly. I was someone whose desire-set was such that I wouldn’t act otherwise in such circumstances, but I was not someone who couldn’t do so. Thus the “couldn’t act otherwise” argument, based on causal determinism, should not convince us that we lack free will. When I failed to save the child, I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise.

Free will or not free will?

It seems that everyone except me currently has a book about free will. As Jeremy Stangroom said when I made a similar remark on Twitter, if I had a new book about free will everyone else would have a new book about secularism. Well, so it appears … but I suppose that’s an illusion.

Be all that as it may, new books on free will or related topics have been (or soon will be) published by Sam Harris, Michael S. Gazzaniga, David Eagleman, Neil Levy, and Mathew Iredale – and there may well be others. This suddenly seems like a very hot topic, both within the academy and among a larger class of educated people.

By the way, the only book amongst this lot that I have yet read is Levy’s, which I found persuasive up to a point, although I do have the Harris book on order. Anyone who’d like to send me/get their publisher to send me review copies of the others is strongly encouraged.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has very recently published a batch of essays about free will – partly, it says, in response to the books by Harris, Gazanniga, and Eagleman – perhaps annoyingly, but not that surprisingly, philosophers Levy and Ireman are not mentioned. It’s not surprising for a number of reasons, including that their books are not aimed at a broad general audience. Or rather, Levy’s book is very much written for fellow philosophers, and more particularly those with some specialisation in this field (its approach is quite technical, which is not true of all Levy’s books), while Iredale’s forthcoming volume is from a relatively small academic press, even it’s written in a broadly accessible way. These books are not likely to receive heavy marketing. Still, it’s unfortunate that important new books on the topic by philosophers haven’t been picked up on by the Chronicle, of all places, mainly because they are too academic.

I’m planning, over the next few days, to look at the six articles in the Chronicle, taking them in order (which will mean starting with the contribution by Jerry Coyne, then, respectively, those of Alfred Mele, the aforementioned Gazzaniga, Hilary Bok, Owen D. Jones, and Paul Bloom).

Do I have a dog in this fight? Well, to an extent. I still tend to think of myself as a compatibilist, although I’ve increasingly come to wonder whether “free will talk” is actually very useful at all, one way or the other, in illuminating our situation. Perhaps everything that needs to be said can be said without actually using the expression “free will” – and perhaps both “You have free will!” and “You do not have free will!” convey false or misleading content, or are simply too unclear to convey anything very coherent at all to the average person. So I’ve become something of a sceptic about the whole concept, or, rather, the expression, while still thinking that there are useful things that can be said in the vicinity, perhaps in other language. Since these things include some of the content that affirmations that we have free will are apparently intended to convey, my scepticism is not so much about whether we have free will, whatever it is, as whether the expression “free will” is especially clear or useful.

But we’ll see. Although I do have a viewpoint that I start with, I’m open to being persuaded by all or any of these six articles. Join me over the next few days as I tackle them one at a time.

Health Care & Compulsion

President Barack Obama's signature on the heal...

President Barack Obama

The United States Supreme Court will soon be ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. This ruling will, of course, settle the legality of the matter-at least until it is challenged. While the constitutionality (or lack thereof) of the act is certainly interesting, my main interest as a philosopher is the ethics of the matter.

While the law is 2,400 pages long, I will just focus on the ethics of a key part, namely that the law requires people to purchase health care insurance. Opponents of the law assert that this is the first federal law that requires citizens to purchase a product and they typically assert  that this goes beyond the legitimate power of the state. Proponents of the law retort by arguing that the state is acting legitimately. As such, a key moral issue is whether or not the state has the right to compel citizens to buy a product in general and insurance in particular.

On the face of it, the idea that the state has a right to compel people to buy a product seems to be absurd-even when such a purchase would be a good idea. After all, buying and consuming fresh fruits and vegetables is a good idea, yet one would be hard pressed to present an argument in favor of compelling this by law (the Broccoli and Orange Act, perhaps).

To present a more substantial argument, I will begin by noting that I favor a a presumption in favor of liberty. That is, the burden of proof is upon the state to show that the intrusion on liberty is legitimately warranted. While spelling out the various conditions under which intrusion would be warranted goes beyond the scope of this essay, one obvious justification is that the intrusion prevents an individual or group from inflicting unjust harm onto others. Thus, the restrictions on murder, theft and defective products are warranted. Intrusion that are done merely for the good of a person would not be justified, at least if we follow John Stuart Mill’s classic arguments regarding liberty. After all, if I am sovereign over my self, then the state (and others) have no moral right to intrude on my actions when they impact only me. As such, while the state can justly prevent me from selling tainted broccoli, it would not seem warranted in compelling me to eat broccoli-despite the fact that doing so would be good for me. This line of reasoning, interestingly enough, would also forbid the state from making the use of marijuana illegal and would also make laws forbidding same sex marriage morally wrong since they impose on liberty solely to impose a specific religious/moral view rather than to prevent people from harming one another. In fact, the principle that the state cannot compel except to prevent harm would entail a host of libertarian positions on various issues-something that should be duly considered when using such a principle.

Of course, it could be argued that while the state has a right to compel people to not do various things even when they are not harmful to others, it does not have the right to compel people to take positive action. That is, the state can be justified in telling me what not to do, but it has no legitimate right to tell me what to do. As might be imagined, this approach is often taken by folks who want the state to compel people to not do various things (like smoke marijuana or marry someone of the same sex) but who are against this specific act.

While justifying specific acts of compulsion can be challenging, this approach does seem consistent. After all, the principle is that the state cannot compel taking action and can only compel people to not do things. As such, while the state can, for example, forbid abortion, it cannot morally  compel people to buy health insurance.

Naturally, if this principle is used to argue that forcing people to buy insurance is wrong, it must be applied consistently-namely that the state is wrong to compel action and it can only forbid. This would entail that compelling young men to sign up for selective service is wrong. It would also entail that compelling people to pay taxes is wrong. Forcing automakers to include seat belts, air bags, and brakes would also be wrong. Forcing women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion would be wrong. So would forcing children to attend school. Compelling people to serve on a jury would also be wrong.  And so on. Naturally, this might have considerable appeal to some people, but this path would seem to take us into the realm of the absurd (although some, such as the anarchists, would say we are already there and doing this would take us out of the absurd).

The obvious counter is to insist on narrowing the principle from “the state has no moral right to compel” to “the state has no moral right to compel people to buy a specific product.” The challenge, of course, lies in justifying this principle. As might be imagined, the reply that “the state has not done this before, so doing it is wrong” is not a good argument. After all, the mere fact that something has not been done before is no indication of whether it is good, bad or indifferent. This sort of “reasoning” could be seen as a variant on the appeal to tradition fallacy, in that the idea is not that something is good because it is a tradition but that something is bad because it is not.

What, then, is needed is something that shows that the state lacks the legitimate authority to morally compel people to have health insurance while it does possess a right to compel people to do things. The challenge is to show a relevant difference between the insurance case and the other cases in which state compulsion is (allegedly) morally acceptable. The obvious thing to point to is that the state would be forcing people to buy a  product. However, the mere fact that this is different does not entail that it is a relevant difference that make this specific compulsion wrong. After all, the state does compel us to pay for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and is thus compelling us to buy what amounts to health and retirement insurance.

Naturally, it could be argued (as some have) that the state should not do this-that being forced to pay for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security involves an unjust compulsion and thus the state should not do this. This view would allow someone to consistently oppose the Affordable Health Care Act’s compulsion to buy health insurance but at an obvious price-namely the need to be opposed to these three things.  As such, those who do not want to be rid of these things will need another line of attack.

The most fruitful one is that the the health care coverage is a private product rather than a state product. This, of course, does provide a significant difference between the state’s “products” and health care coverage. Of course, it does not provide an argument against the state compelling people to pay into a national health care insurance (as it does with the current national health care insurances, Medicare and Medicaid). As such, focusing on the fact that the product is a private one would seem to help shore up the view that the state should instead compel people to buy national health care-after all, this seems to be well within the legitimate power of the state (at least as it is currently conceived).

Nations other than the United States do, of course, have national health care. Of course, this sort of thing is presented as a worse demon than forcing people to buy private insurance. But this is a matter for another time.



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Rawls and the 50p taxrate

What would John Rawls’s view be of the cutting of the 50p tax rate? He is often called an ‘egalitarian’ political philosopher; so presumably he would be against the reduction of this tax rate on the very rich?
Not so fast. Have a listen to this item from the TODAY programme, yesterday on Budget morning:
About 90 seconds in, ultra-rich businessman John Caudwell makes a quasi-Rawlsian argument. He says: “What’s best for the country enables the Government to look after the poorest members of society”.
This TODAY interview with John Caudwell, Caudwell’s making of a difference-principle-style argument, suggests once again that Rawls’s political philosophy, which supposedly undergirds the thinking of ‘lefties’ (it is explicitly backed by many including allegedly Obama, Purnell, Stuart White, etc), is actually compatible with extremes of inequality as manifested for instance in the abolition of the 50p tax rate.
Now, it might be responded: what’s wrong with that: IF it can be shown that the tax take goes UP from this group as a whole then it could be a valid move, on Rawlsian grounds. This response shows I think the bankruptcy of the claim sometimes made that Rawlsian thinking is ‘egalitarian’. You can hardly pretend that abolishing the 50p tax rate is egalitarian!
Rawls’s philosophy is at best ‘prioritarian’; it is utterly inegalitarian. Caudwell’s stance shows this.
Anyway: even if the tax take did / does go up, as a result of the abolition of the 50p rate, then it would still be a bad thing to do, to abolish it. Because we would still be creating a more unequal society; and moreover encouraging people to work themselves to death (high tax rates are a good thing inasmuch as they discourage the culture of overwork which grips societies like ours).
Rawlsian liberals don’t like to hear this sort of thing. Witness the furious reaction when I put forward this view before:
But, when one listens to a man like Caudwell making a quasi-Rawlsian argument, then things are pretty clear: We need to do better than Rawls. We ought to be egalitarians. It is pretty sickening if the best that the ‘Left’ can do is back a political philosopher whose thinking is compatible with the still-higher extremes of inequality which George Osborne is now creating.

Contraception, Once Again

English: Picture Of Ortho Tri-Cyclen oral cont...

Could this get you fired?

While wars rage on and the economy continues to limp along for the working class, considerable attention is still focused on contraception. On the one hand, this can be seen as a mere distraction from what should be regarded as more important matters. On the other hand, it can be regarded as a fundamental struggle over rights.

One key conservative talking point regarding contraception coverage is that the real issue is whether or not the state has the right to require health insurance providers to cover contraception. This, of course, falls under the more general issues of whether or not the state has the right to compel health insurance providers to cover anything at all. Naturally, this falls under the very general topic of the legitimate limit of the state’s compulsive powers.

Since I just wrapped up discussing John Locke in my Modern Philosophy class, my inclination is to say that the state’s legitimate purpose is the good of the people and it is limited in what it should do on the basis of the rights to life, liberty and property. As might be imagined, this general guide is not very helpful in this matter. After all, it can be effectively argued that compelling such coverage would be for the good of the people and it can also be effectively argued that doing so would be an imposition on the liberty of the providers.  As in most such cases, my inclination is to take the stock approach of weighing the good of the imposition against the badness of said imposition. For example, some people argue that the state should have the right to use its compulsive power to ensure that a person can only marry one other person (at a time) and that the other person must be of the opposite sex. In supporting such a view, the usual argument (apart from the appeals to religion and tradition) is that same sex marriage and polygamy are harmful to society. As such, the liberty to marry as one pleases must be taken away using the compulsive power of the state. Interestingly, many of the folks who are opposed to compelling  contraceptive coverage are in favor of using the compulsive power of the state in the domain of marriage. As such, they apparently do not have a principled objection against the state compelling people in regards to their moral beliefs. Rather, their view seems to be that as long as the state is compelling the right people, then such compulsion is fine. Of course, a person can be against contraception coverage and not be against, for example, the state using is compulsory power to impose a specific moral view in regards to marriage. In fact, one way to argue against the compulsion of contraceptive coverage is to argue against state compulsion in all matters other than those that involve harming others. So, for example, a person could be consistently against the state compelling a specific religious/ethical view of marriage and against the state compelling the coverage of contraception.

In regards to the matter of coverage, I am willing to accept (and in fact insist on) the principle that the burden of the proof is on the state in regards to compelling such coverage. That is, it is up to the state to show that such coverage should be compelled by law. This is a general principle that I accept, mainly on the assumption that there is a presumption in favor of liberty.

One standard way to argue for the legitimacy of state compulsion is to show that something is harmful (generally to others rather than just to oneself) and thus the state, under its legitimate role as protector of the life, liberty and property of the citizens, has the right to compel. This approach seems quite reasonable and is used to justify such things as the state compelling people to not murder, rape, or steal. As should be clear, this approach does not justify compelling coverage. After all, it is not preventing someone from wrongfully inflicting harm on another. Of course, this is a rather minimalist view of the state and one that only the most ardent libertarians seem to hold.

Another standard way to argue for the legitimacy of state compulsion is to show that compelling it creates a public good that warrants the imposition on liberty. For example, drafting people in times of war can be justified on the grounds that the public good requires such service. As another example, the compelled  paying of taxes to provide for roads, police, defense, fire departments, schools, bridges, and so on is justified on the grounds that this serves the general welfare and the common good. John Locke argues for the state using its power to serve the general good and, of course, American government is supposed to have a legitimate role in providing for the general welfare. In general, it seems fair to say that the idea that the state should compel people to act for the general good only seems odd when it is proposed that the state compel something that a person does not like (like contraceptive coverage). When the state is compelling people to do what someone wants, it generally seems perfectly reasonable to that person. However, it would be rather nice for folks to have a consistent general principle regarding under what conditions the state can compel (other than “in cases in which the state is doing what I want”).

As with all conflicts between liberty and the general good, one key part of the dispute is whether or not the imposition on liberty is warranted by the gain to the public good. For example, compelling me to pay my taxes is warranted by the fact that my contribution is needed for the general good.

In the case of contraceptive coverage, the argument rests on the assumption that preventative care should be covered (this is already a matter of law, but naturally can be challenged on moral grounds) for the general good. If this assumption is accepted, then the question that remains is factual: should contraception be considered preventative care? The experts at the bipartisan  Institute of Medicine have claimed that this is the case. Given their expertise, I am inclined to accept their opinion over that of non-experts. As such, it would seem that contraception should thus be covered.

Of course, it can be countered that the coverage preventative care should not be compelled by the state and that the insurance providers should be free to cover or not cover what they wish.

This does, of course, have a certain appeal. No doubt folks in all industries feel imposed on by the state compelling them in regards to what they can do or not do. For example, those in the food industry probably are not thrilled that the state imposes restrictions on what they can sell as meat and that they are required to divulge the contents of their products to the consumers. However, these compulsions are justified by an appeal to the common good. Likewise, the imposition of contraceptive coverage can be warranted on similar grounds. After all, such coverage is claimed to have numerous benefits for the people covered as well as the general public (such as lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies and all that entails).

It might be countered that the coverage of contraception violates the ethics of some employers (such as the Catholic Church) and thus contraceptive coverage is a very special case. In fact, Arizona is considering a bill that would seem to allow employers to fire employees for using contraception. In these cases, the argument is that this is a matter of religious liberty. As I have argued at length in other posts about this, I will not repeat my arguments here. I will, however, add that these cases are not clear cases of a cruel state imposing on the liberty a hapless church, insurance company or employer. Rather, there is also the rather important matter of the liberty of the employees and their rights.

There is, of course, a stock view that employees have no right to expect their employers to respect their rights or liberties as the state is supposed to respect them. On this view, our rights and liberties exist relative to the state and not relative to employers. However, I am inclined to follow Locke here and take the view that our rights are not merely against the state, but also against each other. As such, it is just as wrong for my employer to compel me in ways that violate my rights and liberty as it is for the state. At the very least, if the state lacks the right to compel them to provide coverage because they disagree, then they would seem to lack the right to compel their employees to conform to the ethics of their employer.

It might be countered that such rights are only for the powerful (churches and employers) and that the weaker folks (such as employees) must take it or leave it. That is, an employee who wants to work has to be willing to accept the moral imposition of his employer in this matter while his employer has a perfect right to not be imposed on in such a way by the state. If the employee doesn’t like that her employer  refuses to include coverage of contraception in the health care benefits, she can just go and find another job. If she cannot, then she will have to accept being unemployed or she must conform to the religion/morality of her employer.  This, of course, seems to be rather wrong. After all, it seems rather absurd to justify an imposition on liberty on the basis of an appeal to liberty. Of course, this is nothing new: in the pre-Civil War South people routinely argued that forcing the southern states to give up enslaving people would be a violation of their liberties.

In light of the above discussion, mandating the coverage of contraceptives does seem to be morally acceptable.

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