Tuesday, April 03, 2018

On Cotton and Fossil Fuels

Essay assignment: Compare and contrast the cotton industry in the United States in 1850s to the fossil fuel industry in 2018.

Let me start with a point of contrast. There is very little that we can attribute to the fossil fuel industry in 2018 which is as blatantly evil as chattel slavery based on race. Any attempt to say that the current owners and operators in the fossil fuel industry are “as bad as” the owners and operators of cotton plantations in the 1850s would be a mistake.

However, important similarities do exist, and they are matters of moral significance.

Recently, I was asked why I thought the founding fathers, with their belief that all men are created equal and endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, would still endorse slavery. I had argued that the founding fathers believed in the existence of moral facts and meant for the phrase referencing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be a reference to these moral facts. Yet, they seemed to ignore a very clear application of these moral facts. How could that happen?

I argued that slavery appeared in the Constitution for the same reason that we do not have a carbon tax. There are entrenched interests whose wealth and power depends on a system that would be threatened if they admitted to certain facts.

The fossil fuel industry – its owners, managers, and employees – are engaged in activities that will destroy cities in some cases and, in a few cases, destroy whole nations. They will kill millions of people and cause great deal of suffering to hundreds of millions more.

Yet, they are blind to the moral wrongness of their actions. In the case of fossil fuel production, the owners and operators of the fossil fuel industry do not want to see themselves as villains. Therefore, they blind themselves to facts that would lead to that conclusion. In this case, they are blinding themselves to hard and fast scientific facts.

In the same way that the fossil fuel industry is motivated to accept bogus science in defense of their institutions, the same was true of the cotton industry in 1950. Case in point: The "theory", proposed by Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, 1851, that, while slavery is the natural and comfortable condition for mentally healthy blacks, some blacks suffered from a mental disorder he called "drapetomania," which motivated the slave to attempt to escape slavery. One can prevent a slave from developing drapotomania by treating the slave with some measure of kindness and comfort. However, once afflicted, the best treatment for this illness was said to be a judicious application of a whip.

Certainly, if people who can blind themselves to well-established scientific fact backed up by stacks of evidence, we should not be surprised to discover that people can blind themselves to “softer” moral facts such as the idea that blacks also have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The desire that plantation owners and operators had to see themselves as good people while still preserving the system that gave them wealth and power blinded them to that which, to somebody who could view the situation more objectively, are blatantly obvious moral facts.

The purpose of my reference to the planation system is to point out what can happen to people who are, in many ways, decent human beings. There is little doubt that many plantation owners and operators were, in the bulk of their lives, decent human beings. They loved their children, took care of their elderly parents, helped their neighbors, participated on civic projects. They held to the same principles against lying, repaid their debts, kept their promises, refrained from taking their neighbor’s property without consent, at least so long as they were dealing with other white people. They had many reasons to consider themselves decent human beings.

However, they suffered from a moral blindness that prevented them from seeing themselves as moral monsters with regard to their treatment of a certain part of the population whose interests did not concern them.

Owners and operators of the fossil fuel industry are suffering the same effect.

This, in itself, explains how this problem arises and perseveres in the population of plantation owners and operators in the one case, and fossil fuel industry owners and operators in the other. It does not explain how these ideas are spread throughout a population who (1) do not own slaves, or (2) do not own or operate businesses in the fossil fuel industry.

The notion here is that not all rationalizations are alike. People seeking to rationalize the wrongs inflicted on others in pursuit of their own wealth and power are going to test several different rationalizations. Those that succeed will grow and spread and become more widely adopted, while those who fail will disappear, never to be heard from again. Now that we have the owners and operators of the cotton/fossil fuel industry seeking to dismiss the wrongs they inflict on others, we can look at the techniques they used and ask, “Why are these the ones that succeeded in a wider population?”

Before going on, I would like to add that the owners and operators of the fossil fuel industry has a significant advantage over the owners and operators of the cotton industry. The fossil fuel industry has the capacity to hire public relations firms that know how to create surveys and focus groups who will tell them which messages will work. They maintain lists of contacts with the media that they can use to spread the ideas that the research shows them will work.

What works, among human beings, is a message of tribalism. One needs to pick out or identify a tribe, give it the message that “we” are morally superior to “them” and if “them” wins, then “us” will suffer unduly.

In the case of the plantation owners in the first half of the nineteenth century the tribal message that worked was racism. “We white people are morally superior to them black people. Them black people are only fit to be slaves. Nature and God built them that way. Rest assured, fellow white people, you are more like us than like them. Though, if you allow the abolitionist to win, the abolitionist will make you politically equal to the blacks. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”

The fossil fuel industry has found its mark, not in racial tribes, but in political tribes. In the 1850s, it was “supporting slavery and other policies useful to the economic and social interests of the plantation owners made you a member in good standing of the white race,” now it is, “supporting the policies useful to the economic and social interests of the fossil fuel industry makes you a member in good standing of the conservative party”. And, just as the 1850 message was accompanied by the claim that the white race is morally and intellectually superior to the black race, the 2018 message is that the conservative political movement is morally and intellectually superior to the liberal movement.

“They are beneath you – only worthy of the contempt and condemnation of decent people like us – and certainly you would rather be one of us than one of them.”

And that, then, is how the fossil fuel industry of 2018 is like the cotton industry of 1850. It is made up of people whose economic and social status depends on being blind to the moral wrongs of their action, who have adopted a message that feeds into the tribal instincts of a general population to promote an idea that “we” are better than “them” and that to be counted “one of us” you will have to adopt these attitudes useful to preserving the social and economic status of those in this industry.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Interpreting the Bill of Rights

A member of the studio audience . . . well, not really, it was really my Philosophy of Law professor . . . asked a question regarding the interpretation of law.

It concerned an email discussion concerning Justice Paul Stevens' editorial calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. After I posted some comments suggesting the difficulty in doing this and the reasons why some may oppose it, he responded with the following set of questions:

In light of our class in jurisprudence the question is where to look for guidance. In Natural Law, Legal Positivism, Legal Realism or where? Are any of these theories any good when it comes to the Second [Amendment] at least with respect to those who want it out and those who see it as sacred?

My answer was:

Positive Law vs. Natural Law

In discussing morality, I discover that people often confuse what I call an anthropological/sociological concept of morality with a philosophical concept.

The anthropological/sociological concept is descriptive - it asks what people believe to be right or wrong in a particular culture at a particular place and time.

The philosophical concept asks, “What is the right answer, if any?”

For example, was slavery morally permissible in South Carolina in 1850? The answer using the anthropological/sociological concept is “Yes.” The answer using the philosophical concept is, “No.” (NOTE: This is not to say that all philosophers would agree with that answer, but I would defend it. I hold that there are moral facts, and this is one if them. Yet, this moral fact does not change the correct anthropological/sociological answer.)

These are not conflicting answers. They are two different answers to two different questions.

We see this same distinction even in the hard sciences. We talk about ancient Egyptian astronomy, Medieval medicine, and Newtonian physics. In Newtonian physics, “Force equals mass times acceleration is true” is true. In Einsteinien physics (and in the real world, so it seems) it is false (but close enough for almost all practical purposes). Again, the statement that F=m*a is true in Newtonian physics but not in the real world is not a contradiction. The two statements are talking about two different things.

I see the dispute between legal positivism and natural law theory as being similar.

Legal Positivists are looking at the social/anthropological question of what the law is believed to be in a particular culture at a particular place and time. Legal Realism is an extreme form of Legal Positivism. It attempts to predict and explain whether (for example) the accused would be convicted or acquitted in a particular culture at a particular place and time, the way that a moral anthropologist might try to predict if a person in a culture would be praised or blamed.

The Natural Law theorist asks, “Should the accused be convicted or acquitted?” Or even, better yet, “Should the accused have even be put on trial? Should there even be such a law?”

These theories are not in conflict. They are addressing different questions. They only appear to be in conflict when people confuse the anthropological/sociological concept of law (positive law: what the law is believed to be) with the philosophical concept (natural law: what the positive law should be).

Natural Law theorists particularly contribute to this confusion when they identify what the law is and what the law should be, insisting that law that deviates from what the law should be is not law. It is still law in the anthropological/sociological sense even if it is false, just as “F = m * a” is true in Newtonian physics even if it is not true of the world.

The Separation Thesis
An important question in the philosophy of law concerns the Separation Thesis. This thesis holds that there is a fundamental distinction between what the law is and what the law ought to be. This thesis is often presented as a conflict between legal positivists (who say that an unjust law is still law) and natural law theorists (who say that an unjust law is no law at all).

If we recognize the distinction above, we see two types of separation thesis. There is a separation thesis that exists separately within either positive law or natural law itself, and there is a separation thesis concerning the separation of positive law from natural law.

Imagine a judge who must decide the case before her. Let us assume that the judge is a legal positivist who thinks that she ought to judge the case according to the law and that she ought not to let her moral opinions influence her decision.

The judge fails before she even begins. Her first decision involved answering a moral question – whether she morally ought to apply the law as written and morally ought not to allow her moral principles to impact her decision. In answering this question, she has already allowed a moral opinion to impact her decision.

In fact, I find it difficult to see how anybody who is not a moral nihilist (who rejects the very idea of morality) can prevent moral principles from impacting a decision. The decision constitutes an action. As an action, it is governed by moral principles. There is an “ought” and “ought not” applicable to what she does.

Of course, on the natural law side, there is no problem linking natural law to natural morality. Natural law is simply an expression of natural morality.

So, on the anthropological/sociological descriptive side, we have a positive law (the descriptive law at a particular place and time) linked to positive morality (the descriptive morality of a particular place and time). On the natural law side we have a natural law linked to natural morality.

Then there is the question of a “separation thesis” between positive law/morality and natural law/morality. In this case, the answer is, “Of course there exists a separation, just as there is a separation between Newtonian physics and the physics of the real world, Ancient Egyptian astronomy and the real-world facts concerning the stars and planets, and Darwin’s theory of evolution and evolution as it exists."

Bridging the Gap
Having said this, there is a way to bridge the gap between positive law and natural law. I will argue that we find an example of this in the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights contains phrases such as:

  • The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed (Amendment II)
  • The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. (Amendment IV)
  • No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation (Amendment V)
  • Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. (Amendment VIII)

These terms: “right”, “unreasonable”, “due process”, “just”, “excessive”, and “cruel” are value-laden terms. They require a judgment of value.

The question to be answered here is whether these terms are best understood as using the sociological/anthropological sense of the term (the beliefs about value that exist at the time), or the natural law sense of the term (the moral facts).

The doctrine of “originalism” seems to prefer the anthropological/sociological concept. Under this interpretation, the person interpreting the amendment is invited to try to discover, through an examination of history, what the term “right”, “unreasonable”, “just”, etc. meant to the people living at the time that they were writing the amendment. This requires a study of history, anthropology, sociology, and the culture at the time the Constitution was written. In a sense, this “freezes” the Bill of Rights in a certain era and keeps it in that era until some deliberate act (e.g., an additional amendment or revision) applies a new set of anthropological/sociological facts.

The alternative to this is that these terms use the natural law sense of the term. Under this interpretation, the Amendment refers to a moral fact that exists in the world independent of anybody’s beliefs or opinions. There exists, in the real world, a right to be secure in one’s persons, houses, papers, and effects. There exists, in the real world, an objective fact of the matter as to whether a search is reasonable or unreasonable. On this interpretation, it does not matter what the founding fathers believed. They could very well have been wrong. What matters, instead, is what the moral facts – the natural law – say to be right, to be reasonable, to count as due process, to be just or excessive or cruel.

As I see it, even the legal positivist would have to come to the conclusion that the value-laden terms in the Bill of Rights (and other parts of the Constitution) refer to the natural law - to the moral fact of the matter, not to the beliefs of the founding fathers.

This is because, as a matter of anthropological/sociological fact, when the founding fathers made moral claims, they assumed the existence of independent moral facts and they were using moral terms to refer to those independent facts. They were not using those terms to refer to their beliefs about those facts. So when they wrote about “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” they assumed that there was, in the world, a thing called a “right” and that this thing, whatever it is, is that which the people had. They did not have this right in virtue of the fact that the founding fathers believed it. Nor could one infallibly determine its size, scope, or limitations by examining the beliefs of the founding fathers. The person who wanted to see the size, scope, and limitations of this right had to look at the right itself and determine what these limits were in fact.

This view of morality is blatantly obvious in looking at the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . .

This is not talking about a right that exists only because the founding fathers believed that it exists. This is talking about a right that exists in fact – and the purpose of governments is to secure rights that exist in fact. Consequently, to determine what the right is that the government needs to secure, one needs to look, not at the beliefs of the founding fathers, but at the right that exists in fact.

Of course, all of this assumes that there are rights that exist in fact. If there are no such rights, then this would imply that the Bill of Rights is empty. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects cannot be abridged by any law if there is no right to abridge. The right to bear arms cannot be violated if there does not exist, in nature as determined by natural moral law, a right to bear arms that can be abridged.

And, of course, on this interpretation, judges are being commanded by the Constitution to apply – not their own moral opinions to the case – but the moral facts insofar as they can determine what those facts are.

The Second Amendment
This comment emerged in the context of a discussion of repealing the Second Amendment. On this view, if we look at the intentions of the founding fathers the amendment says that there exists in nature a genuine right to bear arms, and its size, scope, and limitations exist in nature as a matter of fact. We then need to investigate that right to determine its size, scope, and limitations in fact. If there is no such right in fact, than the Amendment is empty. No law can infringe on a right that does not exist in nature. The assertion in the Bill of Rights that such a right exists does not make the assertion true. And if it does exist, we still need to look at the right itself to determine its size, scope, and limitations - whether it applies to the private ownership of thermonuclear bombs or whether there is no such right.

We get to this answer regardless of whether we follow the path given us by the Legal Positivist or the Natural Law theorist, on the grounds that the authors of the Second Amendment themselves were Natural Law theorists.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Here is yet another episode in the continuing drama of "moral philosophers wasting their time."

I know . . . it's still too harsh.

This is a problem with much of my writing. I have an idea of what "sells" - what attracts readers - what would boost popularity. However, I tend to find it substantially immoral. Appealing to tribal loyalties, for example, would probably tend to members of the tribe promoting my work. Instead, I argue against tribalism and write against those tribes that would otherwise likely adopt me as one of their own.

People also seem to prefer arrogant and condescending writers. They can certainly generate a lot more comments. But I can only be arrogant and condescending if I immediately apologize for it. That doesn't work.

Anyway, the issue that I want to discuss today is supererogation.

Supererogation are praiseworthy acts that go above and beyond the call of duty. It happens when there is some act that there are moral reasons to do - e.g., donate a substantial portion of one's income or one's extra kidney - to others, yet doing less than this is morally permissible.

Katie Steele presented the dilemma as follows:

(1) If there is more moral reason (it is more praiseworthy) to do act Y as compared to do act X, it is not permissible from the moral point of view (it is blameworthy) to do X. (I have an obligation to pay you $50. If I pay you $40 instead, I still owe you $10 and can be blamed for cheating you out of $10 if I do not pay it.)

(2) There is more moral reason to perform supererogatory acts compared to non-supererogatory acts. (There are moral reasons to give more of your wealth to those in need than less, or to give your unused kidney to somebody who needs one than to keep it for yourself.)

(3) It is permissible, from a moral point of view, to do (some) non-supererogatory acts. (It is morally permissible to give less to charity or to keep your kidney to yourself.)

(4) There are some supererogatory acts (e.g., donating a substantial portion of your income or donating a kidney).

I am not going to go over Katie's suggestion for dealing with this dilemma . . . I believe that the terms of the workshop would not allow me to share her position as it is a work in progress.

However, I can give the desirist answer.

Praise and blame exist to do work. They aim to perform a function - to mold the desires of character, promoting desires and aversions that people have reason to promote.

The effect of praise and blame are not going to be uniform across the population. As with most things, we can expect a bell-shaped distribution curve. They will be more effective on some than on others. There will, in fact, be a segment of the population that they will be particularly effective on. These people will acquire the desired preferences to a particularly strong degree.

It makes no sense to blame people for failure to reach a level of virtue that only 1% of the population is capable of reaching. That would require perpetually condemning 99% of the population where that condemnation would be ineffective. In fact, these unreasonable demands could potentially weaken the effectiveness of blame, reducing its ability to encourage people to adopt good desires and aversions to the degree that a more rational use of this tool would make possible.

On the other hand, there is certainly good reason to praise the top 1% - because we do have reason to encourage these traits to the degree that we are able to do so. We have a reason to invent the term "hero" and apply the term to those who go "above and beyond the call of duty."

These, then, are the supererogatory actions - those that it makes sense to praise, but where it does not make sense to blame or condemn those who fail to perform them.

In the previous argument, this calls into question Premise 1. There are actions that there are more moral reason to perform (praiseworthy) where the failure to perform those actions are not blameworthy. These are the actions of the top X% of what the tools of praise and condemnation make possible.

Oh, I wrote Katie Steele and offered my suggestion above.

Her response: Thanks for this. I think your account sounds here sounds plausible. I think it is roughly compatible though with one of the options that I was suggesting – the idea that the ‘permissible set’ (of non-blameworthy) options represents what is ‘morally decent’, where that may merely be a matter of social convention. Amongst these options, some are still recognisably morally better. You offer a potential story for why these two sorts of judgements might be socially useful…

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Against Any Intrinsic Life-Value

Welcome to another episode of "Moral Philosophers Wasting Their Time".

Okay . . . that's too harsh and condescending.

But, it is the case that a lot of work being done in moral philosophy seems to be grounded on false assumptions, meaning that a great deal of work is being done to no useful end.

I spent all day Monday attending a workshop on "Formal Value Theory". Two of the presentations concerned moral theories that are built on false assumptions of intrinsic value.

One of the two presentations concerned another version of what, in moral philosophy, is known as The Repugnant Conclusion.

For all practical purposes, the argument goes as follows:

Assume that you have a population of, say, 100 entities each of them are having a quality of life that we shall arbitrarily assign a value of 100 units. Such a life is going twice as well as a life that has 50 units of value. These numbers are merely for illustrative purposes. All we really need to know is that one life can go batter than another. The life of a person in constant pain is better than the life of a person who only infrequently experiences pain. If you imagine your own future, I am confident that you see some possible futures as being better than their alternatives.

So, we have our community of 100 people each with a life that has 100 unites of value.

If we lower the value and add numbers of people, we can create a community that has more overall value than the one we have. So, let us say that we cut the value of each life in half (to 50 units), but we add another 101 people. Where the previous world had 10,000 units of value, this new world has 10,050 units of value. The latter is better. On the hypothesis that we should maximize total life-value, we should bring about the latter world.

Now, let us cut the value of each life in half again - to 25 units. And, again, we double the number of people in the world and add one. Now, we have a world with 10,075 total units of value. This is a better world still.

If we keep doing this - if we keep reducing the quality of life but increasing the number of people experiencing life at that level of quality, so long as the overall value remains positive, we can make the world a better and better place. One billion people with a quality of life of 0.000011 will have 11,000 total life value units - or 10% more than that of the world with 100 people experiencing 100 life-value units each.

Of course, all of this is premised on the idea that life-value units are to be maximized.

Desirism denies that there is any type of intrinsic value to be maximized. Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. And the value of the state of affairs in which people have particular desires is evaluated according to its relationship to other desires. The Repugnant Conclusion gives us reason to reject the idea that there is an intrinsically good "life value" to be maximized and, in so doing, gives us a reason to reject alternatives to desirism.

How does desirism see this problem?

Ask people, what type of future do they desire for their - say - great grandchildren. If they had to choose between a society in which their great grandchild were 1 of 100 people with a life value of 100, or one of 1 billion people having a life value of 0.000011, which would they choose?

I strongly suspect that few would select the repugnant conclusion. Indeed, people will tend to find that option repugnant.

Yet, a lot of moral philosophers are still pushing this idea that there is something like a life value to be maximized - the assumptions that lead to this type of conclusion. Usually, they are talking about maximizing happiness, or well-being, or pleasure over pain. There is even a desire satisfaction version that argues that desire satisfaction has intrinsic value to that the goal of morality is to maximize desire satisfaction. This means creating more people with more desires to be satisfied. This is supposed to be an intrinsically good thing.

These moral philosophers could spend their time more productively if they could accept that arguments such as these refuse the thesis that there is an intrinsic value to be maximized and, instead, looked at value not as an intrinsic property, but as a relational property. Value relates states of affairs and desires. The repugnant conclusion is simply not a conclusion that people have many (if any) reason to desire.

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.