Tag Archives: socrates - Page 2

First Philosophy Shooter: Cartesian Apocalypse

The year is 2056. The majority of the world’s population has been deceived and enslaved by the virtual reality of the Evil Genius.  Only the mysterious Cartesian Circle has the will and the means to oppose the Evil Genius. Using advanced technology and theology, they resurrect the one man to ever face off against the Evil Genius: Rene Descartes.

In FPS: Cartesian Apocalypse you take on the role of Rene Descartes. Guided by the Panopticon, you use the power of philosophy (and lots of guns) to battle the tyranny of the Evil Genius. Your mundane arsenal is augmented by powers drawn from the great philosophers of history: the Socratic Method, the Platonic Form, the Inverted Spectrum, the Chinese Box, the Second Sex, Mad Pain & Martian Pain, the Will to Power, the Categorical Imperative, and more. Do you know how to save the world?




“Step over Diablo, there is a new Evil Genius in town!”
-A. Blizzard

“This game reminds me that the French once did real philosophy.”
-V. Quine

“It is imperative that you play this game.”
-I. Kant

“FPS maximizes utility. And destruction. Five stars.”
-J. Mill

“It is nothing, but what kick-ass nothing it is being.”
-J. Sartre

“F@ck Yeah!”

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The Media, Gotcha Questions and Tacos

English: Sarah Palin speaking at a rally in El...

Image via Wikipedia

It has long been a common practice on the right to accuse the media of having a liberal bias. Sarah Palin added a new spin on this approach by popularizing the notion of the “gotcha” question. As might be imagined, politicians continue to avail themselves of the notion that the media is out to get them.

In some cases the media does act in ways that seem to indicate that certain folks are out to get politicians. For example, CNN’s John King started off a presidential debate by asking Newt about what his second wife had said about his alleged request for an open marriage. While Newt handed King his rump on a platter, Newt also launched into an attack on the media.

On the one hand, Newt made some legitimate criticisms about how the media folks tend to bring up matters that are salacious yet lacking in actual merit as news stories. In the case of Newt, his character is relevant. However, as Newt points out, the story of his infidelity is old news and bringing it up at the start of the debate does seem to be rather uncalled for. This does, as one might imagine, raise some interesting questions about media ethics in regards to the timing of stories as well as the focus the media folks place on certain stories.

On the other hand, the media did not make up the story-Newt did, in fact, behave in ways contrary to his own currently espoused morality. Newt’s claim that the media makes it difficult for decent people to run for office seems to be questionable in that the professional media merely reports what people do and, as such, decent people would have no such sordid tales in their background. For politicians to complain that the media folks are reporting what they do and say is comparable to Meletus’ anger at Socrates for making evident his failings. The misdeed lies not with the person who reveals the misdeed but with the person who commits it.

More recently, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. was asked by the press about the alleged harassment of Hispanics by members of the town’s police force. In reply to a very straightforward question about what he would do about the situation, he said he   “might have tacos.” As might be imagined, this did not go over very well.

While he did say he took responsibility for his actions, he also blamed the media and accused the reporter of asking a “gotcha” question. However, the question hardly appears to be anything that would legitimately count as a “gotcha” question in that it is not loaded, overly complicated, confusing, or otherwise trap-like in content. Also, the media folks presented his claim in full context. If they had, for example, asked him what he would have for dinner and then edited that in as his reply, then he could justly accuse the media of being unfair. However, he was asked a straightforward question and his reply was presented in context. As such, the only one he has to blame for his words is himself. Perhaps the biggest gripe that politicians have with the media folks is that they so often make public what politicians actually say and do (“how dare they report what I said!”). That, however, does not seem to be anything unfair or unjust on the part of the media. Rather, that seems to be their job.

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Climate Change & Skepticism

Al Gore

Cover of Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons (that is, the belief might be true, but is not justified).

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-“reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

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The Real

As a professor (and even worse, a philosophy professor) I have become accustomed to people talking about the real world as a land far from the ivory tower in which I am supposed to dwell. Naturally I, and folks who are supposed to be like me, are not supposed “to get” how the real world works. Thanks to Sarah Palin and others, I have also grown familiar with the idea of a Real America, which is also presumably a place where I do not live. Not surprisingly, all this talk of the real got me thinking.

When folks accuse me, as a professor, of not being in the real world I tend to smile a bit. After all, there is a certain irony in accusing a philosophy professor of being far from the real world or not “getting” the way the real world works. This is because, obviously enough, of Plato’s famous discussion of the distinction between the lovers of wisdom (philosophers) and the lovers of sights and sounds. For Plato, the true philosophers were the ones who deal with the real.  The real for Plato is, of course, those mysterious forms. The other folks, those who seem to now claim to be the kings of the real, were characterized as merely playing with images and opinions.

Naturally, talking about Platonic forms and other philosophical stuff does little to convince folks that I  do not live many zip codes removed from the real world. As such, it seems like a reasonable approach to set aside talk about unseen realities and take a somewhat different approach.

One reasonable approach involves considering what is supposed to distinguish the real world from the sort of world that I and other philosopher types are supposed to reside.

On the face of it, my “world” seems to be just as real as the “world” of the folks who accuse me of keeping it unreal. After all, the buildings seem solid enough as do the people around me. I do work, I get paid, I interact with people, and do the things that other folks do. As such, my “world” just seems to be part of the world, rather than an unreal realm distinct from the allegedly real world.

But, someone might say, you philosopher types deal with things that are not real. You live in books, talk about made up ideas and so on. In the real world we deal with real things.

One obvious reply is that the “real” world contains an abundance of made up ideas and other such things that are supposed to be part of the unreal world. To use an obvious example, consider politics. As another obvious example, consider the financial system. The so-called real world seems no more (or no less) real than the world of philosophers and other academic folk.

But, suppose that I am willing to accept that the “world” I occupy is not the same as the “real” world. That is, that there are differences between what I do in my professional life and what, for example, people who are bankers, construction workers, engineers, financial planners, bureaucrats, priests, and so on do. There is still the obvious question as to why their “way of life” should be considered real and mine should be considered unreal.

This would seem to take us to the old saw that philosophy in particular and intellectual endeavors in general are useless. The real world is the world in which people bake, build and kill rather than think, talk and write. However, this seems to be a mere prejudice on par with intellectuals looking down on those who bake and build for not discussing Proust over lattes in the cafe. These “worlds” seem to all be quite real. I see the value in being able to repair a two stroke engine (having done it myself), cook a fine steak (or tofu) or put a round through a person’s head at 800 meters (haven’t done that, but could). I can also see the value in being able to consider various moral views, speculate on the nature of the universe or do mathematical proofs.

This is not to say that different professions are not different and that some professions (or specific people) might be less than useful. However, the blanket dismissal via the use of “the real world” seems to have no real substance.

As far as “getting it” or being part of the Real America (or Real Britain or whatever), this seems to be primarily a rhetorical device. Merely saying that someone does not get it or accusing them of not being Real Xs does not prove that they are in error or morally wrong. For example, someone might tell me that I “just don’t get it” when it comes to taxes and government spending because I argue that cutting the deficit requires increasing some taxes and reducing major expenditures, such as defense spending. Obviously enough, no matter how many times someone says that I do not “get how the real world works” or that I am not part of the Real America, he does not show that my view is in error.  What is wanting is, of course, an argument that shows that I am, in fact, in error.

In many cases it seems that accusing someone of “not getting it” or “not understanding the real world” or of not being “real whatever” is merely another way of saying “they don’t believe what I believe” or “they don’t see the world as I see it” or “they do not have the same values as me.” Obviously enough, the mere fact that someone has different beliefs, views or values does not prove that these beliefs, views or values are inferior or mistaken. Of course, the use of such rhetorical devices can be rather effective. After all, the real people want to get it.

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The Ethics of Wikileaking

Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

Wikileaks has made the news once again for leaking confidential documents. This latest batch consists of  251,287 cables from Unites States embassies. While most of the documents are not classified, some are and this is a matter of concern to American officials.

While there are various legal concerns regarding these documents, my main concern is with the ethics of this leaking. I will consider various arguments in the course of the discussion.

One argument in favor of the leak is the classic Gadfly Argument (named in honor of Socrates because of his claim to the role of the gadfly to the city of Athens). The gist of the argument is that the people in government need to be watched and criticized so as to decrease the likelihood that they will conduct and conceal misdeeds in shadows and silence.

Given that governments have an extensive track record of misdeeds, it certainly makes sense to be concerned about what the folks running the show might really be doing under the cloak of secrecy and national security. If it is assumed that being part of the government does not exempt these people from moral accountability, then it would seem to follow that leaking their misdeeds is, in general, a morally acceptable action. After all, it would seem to be rather absurd to argue that people have a moral right to keep their misdeeds a secret.

The obvious reply to the Gadfly Argument is that even if it is granted, it does not cover all of the leaked material. After all, not all of the material deals with moral questionable activities that should be thus exposed to the light of day. As such, more would be needed to justify such a leak.

A second obvious argument is based on the assumption that in a democracy the citizens have a moral right to know what the folks in the government are doing in their name. This right can be based on the idea that the citizens are collectively responsible for the actions of their government and hence have a right (and need) to know what is actually going on. This right could also be based on the notion that the citizens need to be properly informed so as to make  decisions. Since power comes from the people, one might argue that the people have a right to know about how that power is exercised and the information to (in theory) exercise it wisely.

To use a specific example, given the support the United States provides to Saudi Arabia, the citizens of the United States would seem to have a right to know that the Saudis provide funding to anti-American terrorist groups. That information seems quite relevant in deciding how we should deal with Saudi Arabia and to conceal such things from citizens seems to be rather wrong.

To use another example, given the truckloads of public money being dumped into Afghanistan, the American public (and the world) would seem to have the right to know about the widespread corruption.

The obvious reply to this approach is to contend that the good of the people sometimes requires that the state keep secrets from them and others. In support of this, the usual sort of utilitarian argument can be trotted out: to create the most good for the people (and, of course, the world) the United States must sometimes engage in secret activities that might cause problems if they were known. However, this secrecy is justified for the greater good that it creates.

This argument does have significant appeal. After all, the main function of a state is to protect the citizens and ensure the good of the people. This might (and perhaps often does) require actions that might be morally questionable or at least rather embarrassing. As such, for the good of the people, these things must be concealed. Diplomacy, it can be contended, requires considerable duplicity, two-faced behavior and various social games that require secrecy. In this regard, diplomacy between diplomats is very much like diplomacy between friends and co-workers: to get along it is sometimes best that we do not know everything we really think about each other. As such, these leaks could be harmful to international relations and thus the leaking might be wrong.

There are also legitimate reasons to conceal things that are not morally questionable or embarrassing. For example, military secrets or details of intelligence operations seems to fall under the realm of things that can generally be legitimately kept secret. Such leaks could be morally wrong.

This discussion leads to my final point. Given that there can be legitimate grounds for secrecy and real harms arising from leaks, there is a clear need to judge what to leak and what not to leak with due wisdom and moral authority. While the folks at Wikileak claim that they review the documents, it is still a matter of grave concern as to how well the material is assessed before leaking. After all, leaking information about vile misdeeds or exposing wicked deceptions is laudable. Leaking information that undermines attempts to resolve conflicts peacefully or puts people at risk needlessly is certainly morally dubious at best.

Determining who should decide what should be known and what should be secret is a rather difficult matter. Naturally, the folks in the government are likely to be biased and hence their judgment cannot be completely trusted. I have my doubts about the wisdom and moral authority of the folks at Wikileaks, but the need for gadflies does seem clear. However, it would be nice to have gadflies as wise and as ethical as Socrates.

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Self Interest

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Image via Wikipedia

One general challenge is getting people to act properly. What counts as proper behavior is, of course, a rather contentious matter. However, it seems reasonable to believe that at the most basic level harming others is not proper behavior.

It can be argued that self interest will motivate people to act properly. The stock argument (which is based on Hobbes, Locke, and Smith) is that a rational person will realize that behaving badly is not in his self interest because the consequences to himself will be negative.

Naturally, a person might be tempted to act badly if she thinks she can avoid these consequences, which is why it is rather important to make sure that these consequences are rather difficult to avoid. In addition to this concern, there are also other concerns about self-interest as a regulating factor on bad behavior.

First, for self-interest to be a regulating factor, a person’s self interest must coincide with acting correctly. If a person’s self-interest (or what he believed is his self-interest) goes against acting correctly, then he will be inclined to act incorrectly. Not surprisingly, various philosophers have tried to argue that what is truly in a person’s self interest is to act correctly. While there are some good arguments (such as those presented by Socrates) for this view, there are also good arguments that this is not the case. Naturally, from a purely practical standpoint the trick is to get people to believe that their self-interest coincides with not acting badly.

Second, even if it is assumed that it is in a person’s interest to act correctly this will not motivate a person to act correctly unless a person knows what is in her self-interest. While it is tempting to assume that a person automatically knows what is in her self interest, this need not be the case. After all, a person can think that something is in her best interest, yet be mistaken about this. A person might be misled by his emotions, confused or wrong about the facts (to give but a few examples).

Third, even if it is assumed that a person knows what is in her self-interest and that it is in her self-interest to act correctly, there is still the question of whether the person will chose to act in accord with her self-interest or not. To use a simple example, a person might know that exercising is in her self-interest, but be unable to stick with exercising. Roughly put, a person might have knowledge but lack the will or motivation to act on this knowledge.

Thus, self-interest can play a role in regulating behavior-provided that it in accord with correct behavior, the person has knowledge and the will to act on this knowledge.

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Socrates, Islam & Conscientious Objectors

Portrait of Socrates, Roman marble, Louvre museum

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In 2009 Major Hasan is alleged to have killed 12 soldiers and one civilian at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. In 2007 he presented “The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military” During his presentation he said that “it’s getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims.” Based on this, he recommended that the “Department of Defense should allow Muslims [sic] Soldiers the option of being released as ‘Conscientious objectors’ to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events.” In light of the deaths at Fort Hood, perhaps his recommendation should have been taken quite seriously.

While this event is a recent one, the idea of being a conscientious objector is a rather old one. Also, the question of obedience is an even older one, dating back in terms of philosophical discussion to at least Plato’s Crito.

While Socrates is not discussing military service in the Crito, he does discuss the moral question of whether a citizen should obey the commands of the state or not. In Socrates’s case, he is in prison and awaiting his execution. His friends, lead by Crito, have arrived with a plan to spring him from jail and go to another city state. Socrates refuses to flee and, like all good philosophers, decides to spend the final moments of his life in philosophical argumentation.

While he presents three distinct arguments, the two that are relevant to the matter at hand can be presented in the following condensed versions. The argument that does not apply here is his argument that he could have chosen exile during his trial and hence would appear foolish to run away.

One argument can be classified as the benefit argument: Socrates argues that since the state benefited him and he freely accepted these benefits, then he owes the state his obedience. A second argument, the contract argument, is that by remaining in the city of Athens by his own free choice he thereby agreed to obey the laws of that city. Socrates does, however, add two important conditions: the state cannot trick or force people to remain and still expect their obedience. But, once an adult person agrees to obey by remaining and accepting the benefits of the state, then she owes her obedience to that state. If she disagrees, then she is obligated to persuade the state that it is in error, but if she fails to do so, she must remain obedient.

Now, let us turn to the matter of Muslim soldiers and Hasan’s case. As noted above, he contends that it is difficult for Muslims in the United States military (and this would presumably also apply to Muslims in any Western military) to morally justify serving when the United States military is engaged in operations against Muslims. He also presents a view that can be easily made into a utilitarian argument: Muslims should be allowed to leave the service so as to avoid harms such as damaged morale and other adverse events (perhaps including such things as violent actions by Muslim soldiers against their fellow soldiers).

While I cannot speak for Socrates with certainty, given his views in the Crito, I suspect that he would present a much better version of the sort of argument I will now hazard.

When Muslim soldiers enter the United States military, they know that they might be required to fight against fellow Muslims. Of course, anyone who enlists knows that they might very well be required to fight against other people who belong to groups they identify with (such as Christians, or men, or women, or Russians, or any number of groups). As such, there seems to be no trickery in play. Also, entering the military is completely voluntary: no one, Muslim or non-Muslim, has to enlist and serve. As such, there is no force.

When people enter the military, the United States spends a considerable amount of resources in training them. Also, the soldiers are given various incentives (such as signing bonuses) and opportunities (such as education). Naturally, the soldiers are also paid and receive other benefits as well.

Since Muslim soldiers have not been deceived or forced into serving and they have accepted the benefits provided by the service, they are then obligated to fulfill their obligations. If they did not wish to risk facing fellow Muslims in battle, then they should have chosen another career path.

It might be objected that this would discriminate against Muslims by not allowing them to enter the service. However, this is not the case. This would no more be discrimination against Muslims than expecting pacifists to either be willing to fight or not join the military in the first place. After all, the military’s function is to fight and service members might be, in theory, called upon to fight people of almost any faith.

Of course, this still leaves open the possibility that a soldier can correctly object to immoral orders or situations and do so within the rules of the military. This right is, of course, held by all soldiers.

Naturally, it could be argued that it is immoral for a Muslim to fight a fellow Muslim (although a shared faith, be it Islam or Christianity rarely if ever seems to be a deterrence against violence in war). However, the same sort of argument could be made by anyone who objects to fighting folks whom they identify with. Of course, I do find this appealing: when we are killing each other over land, power, or whatever, it does seem like we are acting in an immoral manner.

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Going Negative

I generally find going negative in American politics to be fairly appalling. When the Bush machine ripped into McCain in 2000, I winced as a fine American was being coated in mud by his own party (thus violating Reagan’s 11th commandment). When John Kerry was swift-boated in 2004, I also winced. Once again, an American who had bravely served his country in a time of war was under attack by the Republican machine.

When the machinations for the 2008 American Presidential elections started gearing up, I worried that the candidates would go negative quickly and seek out new slimy depths. While there was some internal strive over race and gender among the Democrats and the Republicans sniped at each other a bit, the process was relatively civil. Mostly, anyway.

When the convention balloons had finally settled, it seemed that McCain and Obama would run relatively clean campaigns. In fact, McCain showed good character in congratulating Obama on his historic achievement of being the first black major party Presidential candidate in the United States . On September 11th, both candidates showed good character (or savvy political skill) by suspending their political battle and walking together.

Unfortunately, after those clean moments, the campaign has started getting a bit dirty. Ironically, McCain is the one who has started the descent towards the usual political filth of lies and viciousness. Recently, McCain drew fire for falsely accusing Obama of advocating sex education for Illinois kindergartners and call Sarah Palin a lipstick wearing pig (she herself claims to be, in effect, a lipstick wearing pit bull).The irony is that McCain himself was a victim of nasty politics in 2000 and he had a reputation for straight talk and good behavior.

The reason for the change seems to mark a fundamental moral shift for McCain. In the past, he was regarded as a man of principle who seemed most concerned with doing what was what right. For example, McCain took a strong stand against the use of torture. However, he seems to be moving away from his old principles and seems to have adopted a classic principle: doing whatever it takes to win.

Ironically, McCain’s people seem to have adopted the same strategies and tactics that were employed against him in 2000. Of course, this can be seen a prudent choice: they worked then and they are working now. While McCain was lagging behind Obama in the polls, he has recently tied and some polls show him as being ahead. While some pundits attribute some of this to his selection of Sarah Palin, it has been noted that his use of negative tactics has proved effective. Part of the effectiveness is that Democrats are not as good at being nasty as Republicans and part of it is that Obama does not seem very comfortable with that style of politics. But, McCain was also uncomfortable with it before, so perhaps Obama will learn to stomach the nastiness as well.

Naturally enough, this raises the old ethical questions about whether employing such means to win is justified. If one takes the view of the classic sophists, then McCain is acting in a prudent matter. After all, to the sophist, what matters is success and one should not be concerned about the means (except in terms of their effectiveness). Of course, to those of a more Socratic bent, that sort of approach is fundamentally flawed. What matters for such people is not success, but being good. As in the ring of Gyges section of the Republic, the candidates have a choice between justice and injustice. McCain seems to have made his.

I was hoping for a better sort of campaign between two decent men. However, I suspect that I will be disappointed once more. On the plus side, this situation has given me excellent examples to use in my critical thinking and ethics classes. Further, it also allowed me to show how the sophists of ancient Greece are still relevant today. They would be quite at home in American politics.