Sunday, March 18, 2018

Is and Ought Revisited

A useful Facebook discussion . . .

Yes, such creatures apparently do exist. Don't interrupt.

A useful Facebook discussion has given me to revisit the derivation of 'ought' from 'is' and examine some of its elements with a bit more care.

Here is the standard derivation that I have given to a hypothetical 'ought'.

P1: Agent desires that P
P2: Doing A will realize P
C: Therefore, Agent ought to do A.

Now, in order to make this into a valid argument, we need to specify some of the details.

First, let us examine the premise: Agent desires that P

Agent desires that P

Agent desire that P implies that Agent has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which P is true. This is what it means to have a desire. Desires provide motives to act. An aversion is a desire that not-P, so aversions also provide reasons to act - reasons to prevent the realization of states of affairs in which P is true.

Doing A will realize P

The Facebook discussion made me realize that I was hiding an implicit assumption in this. In order for this inference to work out, we must define realize in this context to mean that doing A will realize a state of affairs in which P is true, and not doing A will prevent the realization of states of affairs in which P is true.

You see, if we stick with a concept of realize where it simply means creating a state of affairs in which P is true then there will be cases when the premises are both true and the conclusion is false. These are cases where doing A will realize a state of affairs in which P is true, but not doing A will also realize a state of affairs in which P is true. That is to say, P will be made or kept true no matter what I did. I desire that the sun will come up in the morning . . . this is true. It is also true that, if I do a chicken dance, the sun will come up in the morning. It does not follow from this that I ought to do a chicken dance because it is also true that if I do not do a chicken dance, the sun will come up in the morning.

So, lesson learned: We must understand doing A will realize P to mean that doing A will bring about a state of affairs in which P is true and not doing A will bring about a state of affairs in which P is false. Now the agent has a reason to do A.

Therefore, Agent ought to do A

This part has always been something that I needed to be clear about.

The sense of ought that I talk about here is prima facie ought. It is a sense of ought that means nothing more than has a prima facie reason to do A. This is a reason that can be outweighed by other reasons that the agent has. It is a kind of reason that should be outweighed by other reasons that the agent should have. It is not a moral ought. It is not an all-things-considered ought.

Here is a same argument presented in this discussion - modified somewhat to eliminate some confusing elements.

P1. (premise) You have a desire to have money.
P2. (premise) Taking your friend's money will satisfy that desire.
C. (conclusion) Therefore, you ought to take your friend's money

Now, of course this argument is not valid if we take the 'ought' in the conclusion to be a moral ought or an all-things-considered ought.

In the case of the all-things-considered ought the argument only considers one thing, not all things.

In the case of moral ought, I have argued elsewhere that moral ought is not grounded on the desires the agent has. It is ground on the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally. So, these premises do not justify a moral-ought conclusion.

I can illustrate the prima facie reason easily enough by imagining that the money turned up missing. Now, as the crime investigation team, we need to determine who took it. We ask, "Who has a motive?"

Well, in fact, everybody has a motive to take the money in that everybody has at least one desire that can be better fulfilled by taking the money. Our list of suspects starts off being quite large - and it is large precisely because the argument above is valid for everybody. The conclusion is true in the sense that . . . yeah, you have a reason to take your friend's money. But, this is not an all-things-considered ought which would also consider your aversion to harming your friend or with damaging your friendship. Nor is it a moral ought that considers the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an aversion to taking the property of others.

With these elements in place, we can see how we can derive an ought from an is. From this foundation, we can build more complex oughts, such as practical oughts and moral oughts.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Hume on Causation

I have heard from multiple sources that all conversation concerning causation starts with Hume.

In An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume defined causation as follows:

We may define a cause to be an object followed by another, and where all the objects, similar to the first, are followed by objects similar to the second. Or, in other words, where if the first object had not been, the second never would have existed.

The first half of this quote is quite similar to the idea of pragmatic causation that I have been suggesting in the previous posts: A cause is that which we have reason to manipulate in virtue of the fact that, through it, we can bring about that which we desire or prevent the realization of that to which we have an aversion.

Note, however, that this account of practical causation differs from Hume's definition in that it includes an element whereby manipulating the cause is a means of manipulating the effect. Hume's definition is binary; A either is or is not followed by B. The account of practical causation says that we can manipulate B by manipulating A. Now, either bringing into existence or denying existence of something is one form of manipulation. However, the account of practical causation at least makes clearer the fact that, for example, we can turn a dial to make the music louder or quieter, or make the light in a room brighter or dimmer.

One of the criticisms of Hume is that his theory of constant conjunction seems to identify certain things as causes that we typically do not accept to be causes. A standard example is the fact that night always follows day. Indeed, all "objects" (it would make more sense to use the term 'state of affairs') similar to a day are followed by objects similar to night. Yet, we do not say that day causes night or night causes day. Rather, we say that day and night have a common cause - the fact that the earth spins on its axis.

The pragmatic account of causation, in that it includes an element that looks at what we can manipulate in order to change the effect, avoids this objection. If we look at that which we can manipulate to bring about a change in the effect we discover that there are things that we can manipulate that will bring about a similar effect in both day and night. We can increase the length of the day (and the night) by slowing the spin of the Earth. We can eliminate the day and create a permanent night by eliminating the sun.

So, the practical view of causation respects the fact that the day and the night have a common cause - that which we can manipulate in order to influence both of them.

Off of the top of my head, I fear that this account of causation is going to be considered circular. After all, "that which we can manipulate" seems to be assuming causation, and thus it is assuming that which we are trying to explain. How do we account for the fact that the manipulation of A brings about a change in B? This "bringing about a change in" is the very subject of causation that we are trying to understand.

If we look to Hume for an answer to this question, we acquire this knowledge from experience. We learn that the conscious manipulation of A brings about a change in B in regular ways that we can observe and understand. By experience we learn that the manipulation of A brings about a change in B.

Note that this still contains a significant difference with respect to Hume's account of causation. Hume describes causation in terms of the regular connection between events, while the pragmatic view of causation looks at the conscious manipulation of A to bring about a change in B. Or, at the very least, it is something where we have reason to expect that if we could manipulate A (e.g., slow down the rotation of the earth), then we could bring about a change in B (the length of the sun). This is information we acquire through observation.

This also provides us with a way of acquiring a more precise definition of "objects similar to" the cause and the effect. Objects "similar to" the cause are those that we can manipulate that will bring about a change in the effect. Objects "similar to" the effect are those that are changed by manipulating the cause.

Experience tells us that by changing the color of a light switch we do not change the capacity of the light switch to turn the light on and off. Thus, the color does not cause the light to go on or off. It is not something that we can change to manipulate the effect. Similarly, something is "similar to" the light going on if it is something that will illuminate when switch is turned on. A different light bulb, a heating lamp that fits into the same socket, or a heater plugged into the same socket, are all objects similar to the light in that they are things we can manipulate by turning the switch on and off.

By defining "similar to" as that which we learn through observation that we can manipulate in order to bring about changes in the effect, then this is not circular. This is empirical. It fits in with Hume's basic empiricist assumptions.

Note that I have written this entire post concentrating on the first half of Hume's quote. I have said little about the second half - "where if the first object had not bee, the second never had existed". Though it follows from what I have said that this is a poor restatement of the first premise. The first statement allows for the manipulation of the properties of the second object by manipulating the first. The second statement is entirely black and white, 'exists' or 'does not exist'. I do not think that causation is as binary as this second statement seems to require.

Philosophers' Communication Problem - Causation

Philosophers seem to have a pathological dislike of having their claims be comprehensible to real people.

I am going to add “cause” to my list of examples. Here, "cause" joins terms such as “realism” and “anti-realism”, and “objective” and “subjective”, as terms that philosophers use in a way that is destined to confuse more people than it helps.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the Philosopher David Lewis distinguishes “causation” from “explanation”.

He defines “causation” as that which occurs in nature independent of intelligent thought. For example, a collision between a Mars-sized planetoids and an early Earth caused the moon to form.

Explanation, he claims, applies to what Humans do as we look for “the cause” of accidents, wars, famines, good harvests, and economic prosperity.

The problem is that what Lewis calls “explanation”, the rest of the world calls “cause”. The term “explanation” can be used to talk about a relationship between cause and effect. However, when we ask for an explanation we are usually asking for a description. For example, “Explain the meaning of ‘We the People” as it appears in the Constitution", or, "Explain the process for determining the velocity of an unladen sparrow."

Lewis' application of terms to the issue of causation would be like deciding to use the word “ball” to refer to a tendency to bounce off solid objects and using the term “red” for the spherical object thrown against solid objects to demonstrate its 'ball'. We already have perfectly good English terms for these things: ‘ball’ = elasticity and ‘red’ = ball. The rest of the world would find what this person says a lot easier to understand if he - and those who commented on his work, would simply use the terms in their standard English way.

We invented (and are continuing to modify) language language primarily to use as a tool for realizing our desires. It would only make sense that our language would have a convenient way to refer to, "that which we can manipulate that will help us to realize that which is important to us." The word we use is “cause” as in “the cause” or “a cause”. Since knowing what we can manipulate in order to realize what we desire is useful to us, I suspect that we will continue to use the word 'cause' primarily in this way.

Of course, we have the capacity to recognize that there are relationships between one state of affairs and another in the sense that, "If we did have an interest in realizing or preventing the relation of the effect, we would manipulate the cause." Conequently, we have a way of applying this term for what we have both the ability and a motive to manipulate to that which we may only hypothetically want to manipulate. Consequently, even though no person was around to witness the formation of a moon, we can still ask and answer the question, "If we wanted to create a moon, what would we have focused our attention on that could have realized the formation of a moon?" We can ask the same question concerning the extinction of the dinosaurs, the formation of the milky way galaxy, the death of a star, or the fact that ice floats on water.

So, we do have an expanded sense of the word 'cause' that goes beyond what we actually care about. However, it is built on a concept of 'cause' that is concerned with realizing what we do, in fact, care about.

The bulk of philosophical discussion seems to be focused on this expanded concept of 'cause'. However, discussions keep getting derailed by linguistic intuitions concerning how we would actually use the word 'cause' - and those intuitions cannot be divorced from actual or hypothetical human desires.

So, it seems, not only are these philosophers good at confusing us, they are just as good at confusing each other.

I intend to use the word 'cause' to refer to 'that which we can manipulate in order to realize that which we desire or to prevent the realization of that to which we have aversions." I will sometimes extend this usage to ask about things that would have been good objects of manipulation if we had wanted to realize or prevent some state of affairs.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Responsibility for the 2016 Presidential Election

Who can we blame for the fact that Trump became President in 2016?

In my previous post, I presented an account of practical causality. It states that the cause of something is the type of thing that we can we can influence to bring bout a type of state that we desire or prevent a type of state to which we are adverse.

At least, that is the cause we have reason to care about. There is another, broader type of causation - but that alternative type includes a lot of things we do not care about (excluding a very small number of scholars and a few others).

So, I want to look at this account of practical causation with respect to a real-world causal problem.

Who can we blame for the fact that Trump became President?

The first thing to note is that, even though we look for "the cause", it is often not the case that there is one and only one cause. The only time that there is one and only one cause is if there is one and only thing of a type that we could have changed to have prevented the realization of a state of affairs in which Trump became President.

Many people use this linguistic convention as a rhetorical trick to avoid moral responsibility. In conditions where more than one wrong action contributes to an avoidable bad state of affairs, each person who contributed to realizing that which ought not have been realized points a finger at the other causes and cries, "It's their fault!" The embedded assumption that there is one and only one cause then allows the individual to draw the false conclusion, "If they are the cause, then I cannot be the cause."

However, in the real world, it is often the case that there is more than one cause. Each cause is a type of event that we can influence which, if we influence that type of event in the right way, will prevent the realization of types of states of affairs such as Trump becoming President.

As it turns out, anything that would have brought about a shift of 6,000 votes in Michigan, 22,000 votes in Pennsylvania, 11,000 votes in Wisconsin and was morally culpable can be listed as being "to blame" for Trump winning the 2016 election.

Of course, there is a large obvious set of candidates of who is to blame - including Trump, the Republican National Committee, and those who rallied behind, worked for, and contributed to the Trump campaign. But, let's look a bit beyond the obvious into some of the potentially controversial causes.

Sexism - particularly implicit bias: This was certainly to blame for the election results. A person suffering from implicit bias did not vote against Clinton because she was a woman. Instead, this voter found some other excuse to vote against Clinton. One likely source is that the thought of voting for a woman gave the voter a general feeling of uneasiness. Without realizing that their uneasiness resulted from sexism, they interpreted their sentiments as, "I don't trust her" or "I just don't like her" or in attributing certain wrongs to her where they would not have drawn the same conclusion about a male candidate based on the same evidence. In short, they used make-believe or exaggerated reasons other than sexism to reject a candidate that sexism made them feel uneasy about.

Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie Sanders is to blame for Clinton's defeat. It is not just that he weakened her as a candidate. A greater harm came from his "us" versus "them" tribal rhetoric. Humans are built to respond to this way of thinking with increased polarization and hatred - even intolerance - of "the other". Tribal thinking, once it is established, closes the mind to reason and evidence. This is why you find groups (tribes) with such absurd beliefs - this is tribalism dominating reason. It does not matter that Sanders endorsed Clinton later. He created a tribe whose members simply took his later endorsement as a betrayal of the tribe. Sanders' tribalism had another effect - it worked hand-in-hand with the Russian campaign to tip the election in favor of Trump. Sanders plowed the ground and planted the seeds. The Russians tended the crops and harvested its fruit.

The Russian meddling. Russia selected America's president. Putin looked at the candidates, pointed to Trump, and said, "I want that one," then invested several million dollars in a campaign of mostly illegal activity to get his preferred candidate elected. Saying that Putin selected the US President is to be interpreted as simply restating this causal relationship. Putin's contributions to the Trump campaign likely flipped more than 40,000 voters in the states listed above, which gave the election to Trump.

Of course, sexism itself worked with Putin and Sanders to give the election to Trump. Implicit bias made people more willing to embrace Sanders' tribal rhetoric and more eager to see merit in what has since been shown to be Putin's campaign rhetoric.

Post-Fact Thinking: Many people simply do not care whether their political rhetoric is true or false. The speed at which false claims spread on social media is proof of this. People share false and misleading information at the drop of a tweet. If it supports a conclusion that they like - they accept it, they share it, and they endorse it. While there is no condemnation given to those who spread misinformation, those who attempt to correct misinformation are attacked. A greater general aversion to false beliefs and deception would have meant less misinformation on social media, and more people basing their votes on the facts.

This lack of interest in the truth was, of course, also useful to Putin and his team. Their campaign largely consisted in filling social media with lies and distortions that those who have no interest in the truth were more than eager to share on social media, freely helping the Russians to harm America and its interests and its people.

Let me return to the purpose of this post - to give a practical application to the practical theory of causation. These are all causes in the practical causation sense in that they represent the types of things that are under our control that we can change to prevent the types of harms that we have suffered from happening in the future.

The things we can do to make things better in the future:

(1) Recognize and work on eliminating or correcting for - or at least preventing the worst outcomes of - our implicit biases.

(2) Shunning and shutting down "us" versus "them" tribal political rhetoric.

(3) Setting up defenses against Russian style political meddling - at the very least warning others what to expect and how to fight back. (Something the Trump administration and leaders in the current legislature seem quite unwilling to do.)

(4) Worry a lot more about whether the claims that we are spreading on social media are true - or whether we just want them to be true because they fit our political narrative.

This represents how to put the theory of practical causation to practical use.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pragmatic Causation

Yesterday, I mentioned that philosophers distinguish between the causation that occurs when there are no people (e.g., the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs), and the causation that people are interested in (whether Russian meddling was responsible for Trump being elected President).

On the surface, they seem quite similar.

However, when we look at the first type of cause, we tend to include things that people are not actually interested in. In earlier posts I mentioned the case of saying that the house fire was caused by the existence of oxygen in the room. This is true in the metaphysical-causal sense in that if there had been no oxygen in the room there would have been no fire. However, this is not the cause we are interested in. Consequently, it is not the moral/responsible cause of the fire.

We could also say that building the house itself caused the fire. If the house had never been built, it never would have caught fire. Yet, again, this is not the type of cause we are interested in. Thus, though building the house was, in one sense, the cause of it burning down, it was neither the cause in the moral/responsible sense or in the useful sense.

In considering this broader sense of cause, I must say that I have no interest in the causes that people generally have no reason to be interested in. This means that I find it hard to find the motivation to investigate this type of cause other than the need to create a paper for class and turn it in.

Yet, I am drawn to the thesis that this type of cause would not even exist except that people have a need and a use for a more pragmatic sense of "cause".

If we look at cause through a pragmatic lens, it seems to me to take something of the form, "things like A tend to cause things like B" means "if you want to control things like B, then you should look for ways to control things like A."

Of course, "wanting to control things like B" comes from the motivation to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of our desires are true.

One of the things I have noticed about pragmatic causation is . . .

In the general discussion of causation, people like to link specific causes to specific events. Whereas in pragmatic causation, people link "things like the cause" to "things like the effect". They are more general. While we may look at the cause of the Great Depression, we are actually more interested in the kinds of things that have effects like that of the Great Depression. When we look for the cause of an automobile accident we are looking for the types of things that tend to cause things like automobile accidents.

We do this because our interest in avoiding economic depressions and automobile accidents cause us to wonder what we can do - what actions we can take - to prevent economic depressions and automobile accidents. This causes us to look for types of causes that we can act on - that we can influence - in our quest to manipulate effects.

Even causes that we seem to be able to do nothing about are susceptible to pragmatic consideration. When we look for the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs we are looking for things the likes of which can bring about a mass extinction. In finding that "the cause" is an asteroid impact, we learn that if we wish to avoid our own mass extinction, we should look for the possibility of an asteroid impact. If the cause of the dinosaur extinction was disease, it causes us to look for the possibility of preventing a human extinction by our study of diseases.

In other words, we are looking to control something that is like the asteroid impact or pathogen that could have an effect that is something like the extinction of the dinosaurs - namely, human extinction.

Our interest in looking for the cause of the automobile accident is to find out whether there is "something like that which caused the accident that we can act on or manipulate" which can be the cause of "something like that accident." This way, we can act on that which seems to be the cause of the accident (e.g., drunk driving) in order to reduce that type of effect (automobile accidents).

This, to me, simply seems to be a more sensible concept of causation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Causation versus Explanation

It turns out that the ideas that I posted yesterday - my "pre-study" ideas of causation - turn out to be philosophically . . . um . . . wrong.

I want to remind the reader that I have never studied theories of causation outside of the realm of moral responsibility. I am learning as I go. And, mayhaps, I can help you to learn as I go as well.

Recall that I postulated that we adopted the idea of "cause" for practical reasons. We have an interest in making certain propositions true or false (that which is the objects of our desires). We invented the idea of "cause" to identify those things, the manipulating of which, can bring about or avoid that which we desire or towards which we have an aversion.

Problem: Causes (and effects) would exist even if we did not exist with our desires to identify them. If I make causes dependent on our desires then, in the absence of our desires, there would be no causes. Yet, this conclusion seems to be false. This gives us reason to reject the original assumption.

Logic can be so annoying sometimes.

David Lewis distinguishes between 'causation' and 'explanation'. He understands explanation as being dependent on us. Indeed, the explanation of something is the cause that we care about. So, the presence of oxygen in the air may be a part of the cause of the house burning down, but it is not a part of the cause that we care about (since we are not going to start building houses without oxygen). The cause that we care about (the short circuit, the stove set on high and the owner falling asleep, the arsonist) is what 'explains' the fire. It is through this concept of explanation that we can assign moral responsibility.

However, there is still this 'cause' that we may or may not have reason to care about. That is 'causation' itself - what the philosophers are interested in.

This leads to a potential source of confusion.

If there are causes that we care about, then there is at least a possibility of causes that we do not care about.

This leads to a problem since one of the ways we evaluate theories of causation is by testing them against our linguistic intuitions. Somebody proposes a theory of causation, we imagine how it would work in specific instances, and we check whether we would, intuitively, call that a cause or not.

For example, Tom places a bomb that would kill Susan if it goes off. Pete notices the bomb and disarms it. Pete, we may say, saved Susan's life in that if Pete had not disarmed the bomb, then Susan would have been blown up. Fortunately, Pete had a pair of wirecutters in his pocket because he had been working on some home repairs. If Pete had not put the wire cutters in his pocket, he would not have been able to save Susan's life. So, we can say that one of the causes of Susan's life being spared was Pete's having a pair of wirecutters which, in turn, was caused by his doing home repairs.

However, it is also the case that if Tom had not placed the bomb, that Pete would not have been able to save Susan's life. So, Pete's saving Susan's life was caused, in part, by Tom placing a bomb. So, do we credit Tom with placing the bomb in virtue of the fact that, "If you had not placed the bomb, then Pete would not have been able to save Susan's life."

That seems odd, right?

However, we must distinguish between the causes and explanations. Tom's placing the bomb may have caused the event that resulted in Pete's saving Susan's life. However, Tom's placing the bomb did not save Susan's life. This is because Tom's placing a bomb, though a part of the cause, is not a part of the cause that we care about. So, it is not a part of the 'explanation' for how Susan's life was saved. Tom gets no moral credit.

So, we are going to need to keep this distinction between 'causation' and 'explanation' in mind as we look at the philosophy of causation.

And note that what I wrote yesterday may be more of a theory of 'explanation' than a theory of 'causation'.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Thoughts on Causation and Responsibility

The next section on my Metaphysics and Epistemology course is "causation".

As I have reported earlier, I have studied value theory - without much emphasis on metaphysics and epistemology. However, on the subject of causation, there is an area of overlap.

That area concerns moral responsibility. To say that Agent A is responsible for an accident is to say that, in a sense, he caused it. So, it seems, having a theory of responsibility requires having a theory of causation.

Before getting into this study of causation, there are two preliminary points worthy of consideration.

(1) Free Will

In discussing moral responsibility, one of the first topics to come up is that of free will. We cannot hold a person responsible for an action unless, in some sense, he "could have done otherwise". This is often taken to assume that the agent has some strange contra-causal power that allows him to break the laws of physics and cause matter to go one way or another - to perform one action instead of another - regardless of what would happen under the determined laws of physics.

Desirism is unique, I think, among moral theories in that it not only denies the existence of free will, it denies that the free will hypothesis has anything to do with morality. Morality was invented in a determined universe and it was invented so that it works in a determined universe. Those thinkers who postulated some sort of free will were wrong from the start.

Typically, philosophers distinguish positions regarding free will having to do with different positions on two different questions:

Question 1: Do humans have free will?

Question 2: Is free will required for moral responsibility?

Libertarianism (not to be confused with the political view, with which it has no necessary connection): The position known as "libertarianism" says that the answers are "yes" (humans have free will) and "yes" (free will is required for moral responsibility). This is considered the standard or default view of morality as it is practiced. We hold people morally responsible for actions when they could have done otherwise and, because humans have free will, they could have done otherwise - unless compelled to act by some outside force.

Hard Determinism: The position known as "Hard Determinism" says that the answers are "no" (humans do not have free will) and "yes" (free will is required for moral responsibility), which means that there is no such thing as moral responsibility. This whole practice of holding people morally responsible for their actions is a mistake. We are all only doing that which prior historical events cause us to do and to say that we are to be condemned because we could have done otherwise is a mistake.

Soft Determinism/Compatibilism: The position known as "soft determinism", also often known as "compatibilism," effectively argues that the answers are "no" (humans do not have free will) and "no" (free will is not required for moral responsibility). What is required for moral responsibility is that one's actions are caused by one's character or the type of person one is - by one's own beliefs and desires. When the action is caused by the type of person you are - with who you are as a person - then you are responsible for that action even though you are the type of person you are as a result of the determined laws of nature.

Desirism is a particular kind of soft determinism. One of the problems with compatibilism is that it says that A is compatible with B - that the two can exist side by side in moral harmony. It allows that a type of "free will" is compatible with determinism because it defines "free will" in terms of acting on one's own beliefs and desires - with auctions being caused by the type of person one is. Desirism is a particularly harsh form of compatibilism because it dismisses free will entirely. It does not want to live in peace and harmony with "free will". It wants to dump "free will" entirely - kick it out of the house and be rid of it. It was a bad idea at the start and it remains a bad idea.

Instead, desirism holds that the actions that one is responsible for are those that come from one's character, and that character itself is under the influence of praise and condemnation (reward and punishment). We hold people responsible for their actions because, in a determined world, holding people responsible (reward and punishment; praise and condemnation) has effects on people's character, and we have reason to value those effects.

(2) Practical Responsibility

So, fine, a person is morally responsible for an act when it comes from a part of his or her character that is susceptible to change through praise/reward and condemnation/punishment.

This still does not give us a theory of causation.

On this matter, I have tended to adopt a pragmatic view of cause. To say "A causes B" is to say, "Hey, as a matter of practicality, if we want to control B, then the best way to do this is to find some way to control A."

So, a house burns down. The fire marshal is interested in what caused the fire. It wasn't caused by the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere - we certainly are not going to start building oxygen-free houses. It was caused by faulty wiring, since we can change wiring codes and install safety measures (e.g., circuit breakers) that reduce the chance of fires due to wiring.

And, so, a person is responsible for an action when the action is caused by a part of his character that we can influence using reward/praise and condemnation/punishment. We hold people morally responsible for actions - and apply reward/praise and condemnation/punishment to the action, precisely because it was caused by a type of character trait vulnerable to reward/raise and condemnation/punishment.

Cause by Absence

I think one of the merits of this type of account of causation is that it makes sense of the possibility of the absence of something being a cause.

What caused the fatal accident?

Answer: A callous disregard for the interests of other people on the part of the machine operator.

Most competing theories of causation require that, to make sense of A causing B, there must be an A that causes B. They have no place for the possibility that the absence of A can cause B.

However, on this practical cause model, we can make sense. If the absence of A is something that we can influence - something that we can change - in order to prevent further occurrences of B, then "the absence of A" is a perfectly reasonable cause of B. It simply means that we have the power, in the future, to make it more likely that there will be an A. In the example above, we need to promote a regard for the well-being of others, which we can do (in part) by registering condemnation or punishing those who display a callous disregard for the interests of others.

Friday, March 09, 2018

A Better Voter

A recent facebook conversation brought up what seems to be a logical error with a current political strategy.

The claim is that, if we provide people with better political candidates, that people will vote for them, and that this will improve the quality of our legislators.

The problem with this view . . . .

It assumes that voters have not had better political candidates in the past.

When we realize that voters have had an opportunity to select better political candidates in the past and rejected them, then we have to question the idea that the best way to get better legislators today is to invest our time and effort into presenting them with better political candidates today.

In fact, what we should be expecting is that voters are going to do the same to the new and improved political candidates we offer that they have done to the old but better political candidates in the past and reject them - putting into office the same type of bad legislators that they have preferred in the past over the higher quality candidates otherwise available.

This suggests that, if you want to get better legislators into public office, you are first going to have to create a better quality of voter.

Then the question becomes: How do we do that?

Here's a strategy . . . you go to everybody who disagrees with you and denigrate and belittle them, shout them down and insult them every time they try to make a point, and "block", "ignore", or otherwise silence them so that you do not need to listen to them and their pathetic, stupid ideas.

Do you think that would work?

I'm suspicious that this is not the best strategy either.

In fact, if I were to take a look at what I would consider an effective strategy, I would have to say that the model that has historically shown to be the most effective is that of the religious missionary. That is, you go into the neighborhoods of "unbelievers", dress up well, be polite and courteous, and say, "I would like to talk with you about rational voting."

It is significant to note that I said, "talk with" and not "talk to" - because an important part of this conversation is listening, finding out what the speaker actually and sincerely cares about, and addressing those concerns.

The process requires taking into consideration certain facts about human psychology. One of the most important facts is that people need to be a part of a community. Ripping an individual out of their community by putting them into conflict with that community is not only an impractical plan, it doesn't show much concern for the people one is talking to.

Again, religious missionaries provide the best model in that it has largely involved talking to whole communities at once. It did not seek to turn neighbor against neighbor. Instead, the missionary recognized that the only way he was going to reach the mother in a family was to reach out to the father, children, parents, siblings, and others in that person's community as well. Towards this end, they often moved into the community, sought to concern themselves with and advance the interests of the people that they aimed to serve, and to make themselves a part of the community as a whole.

History is also filled with other models. These are the models of crusade, inquisition, jihad, genocide, and holocaust. One cannot deny that they existed. Though I would hope that anybody reading this would be of the opinion that those options are morally unavailable. In looking for ways to create a better voter, we are looking for morally permissible ways - and those ways involve respect, concern, consideration, and kindness.