Monday, January 31, 2011

Being Sure — The Easy Way and the Hard Way

"[T]hose who believe that genetically modified foods are dangerous will be relatively unlikely to study the arguments of those who think they are safe. So it is for many topics. The vast abundance of information on the Internet and in the print and broadcast media is only likely to worsen this problem. We cannot attend to everything; we must select; we select according to our interests; we are interested in confirming what we already believe."1
Confirmation bias is the natural, unconscious tendency to pay attention to evidence in favor of what we believe while overlooking evidence which might challenge our beliefs. Even worse, we can keep our views from being challenged altogether by exclusively choosing radio stations, TV programs, and books from "our side."

It's easy to notice this happening on the "other side" of a given issue and condemn them for not taking the time to properly understand our own arguments. If they did, they might agree! Or at least they would understand our true concerns instead of caricatures of our concerns. Well, why not apply an intellectual Golden Rule? If we want others to make an effort to understand our side, we should be willing to do the same.

Taking an open look at another point of view is risky. Parts of it might make sense. You might suddenly realize one of your own arguments isn't very good. It may become necessary to adjust your view a little...or a lot. But remember, this is not an external risk. Refusing to examine alternate views is refusing to trust yourself to deal with new information.

Any major issue will have a variety of proponents on both sides. When it comes to deciding which folks on the other side to give a fair hearing, I have a bit of advice: find someone likable. This might mean talking to someone you already know and like personally. It might mean sampling speakers and writers on the other side and filtering out the jerks (unless you dig that sort of thing). It might just mean finding someone you respect for doing good work in an unrelated area. Whichever way you go, it's important to counter your confirmation bias with a positive bias. We can't get rid of our less rational instincts, but playing them against each other goes a long way toward outsmarting them.

When you do find an argument from the other side that makes sense, don't stop there. Go looking for the best response your own side has to offer. Then see what the other side's best response is to that. It's a back-and-forth process that does the most justice to both sides.

It's easy to be sure by only looking for confirmation. It's harder to be sure when taking challenges seriously, but the latter approach is a much more reliable way to not only feel correct, but to be correct.

1. Trudy Govier. A Practical Study of Argument (7th ed.). 2010. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. p 374.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lingo: Foundationalism, Coherentism, and Infinitism

When I express a belief, it's reasonable — especially if you disagree — to ask why. I may try to justify the first belief by drawing on the support of some other beliefs. Of course, if you still disagree with those beliefs, you will probably ask the question again about the supporting beliefs. And so on.

How long can this process continue? It's a bit like asking how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.1 No one is patient enough to find out! But let's talk theory. There are three basic views about what makes a belief justified.


According to the foundationalist view, we will eventually get to one or more basic beliefs which are special because it's inappropriate (in some sense) to ask me why I hold it. Basic beliefs are justified without appeal to supporting beliefs. For example, the belief that I am currently experiencing a warm sensation might be a basic belief. These basic beliefs serve as a foundation to any set of justified beliefs. So:
  1. Basic beliefs are justified without appeal to supporting beliefs.
  2. Non-basic beliefs which only need support from basic beliefs and previously justified non-basic beliefs are justified.

A coherentist view of justification doesn't rely on a foundation of basic beliefs with a careful buildup of justified beliefs on top of that. Instead, a belief is justified if — or maybe to the degree that — it fits (i.e. coheres) with all the other beliefs a person holds.

One way to sketch the difference between foundationalism and coherentism is to pay attention to how we go about accusing someone of holding an unjustified belief. Suppose I believe that Tuesdays bring me abysmally bad luck. If you point out that I don't have any reliable basis to draw that conclusion, you are thinking like a foundationalist. If, instead, you point out that some of the best days in my life have been Tuesdays, you are thinking like a coherentist.  


This term doesn't show up nearly as often as the other two, but it's worth mentioning to round out the major possibilities. Roughly speaking, infinitism is like foundationalism without basic beliefs. There are no eventual stopping points. Justification is gained along the way down, instead of put on complete hold until it turns out a belief ultimately relies only on basic beliefs.

Justification and Truth

Holding a true belief is not the same thing as being justified in holding a belief. Justification is more about having a good reason to believe something. It's possible to believe something for a bad reason, but happen to be correct (unjustified true belief). If you agree it's also possible to believe something for a good reason, but happen to be incorrect, then justified false belief is an option.

Still, there wouldn't be much point in worrying about justification if justified beliefs weren't at least more likely to be true than unjustified beliefs.

Why do I bring this up? Because I don't want people to discount coherentism and infinitism out of hand just because it's more obvious that beliefs considered 'justified' under those views could possibly still be false. That's not a fatal criticism. Personally, I think foundationalism turns out to be problematic despite its initial appeal, but this is just a quick introduction to the terms. They'll come up again in future posts.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why I Am Not A Compatibilist

I'm new to the free will debate, but at this point I don't see how compatibilism is even a proper response to the question being asked.

The question is: do we have free will?

To understand what "free will" is supposed to mean, it helps to back up and look at why people are raising the question. First, there is the religious worry that — on some views — God either knows everything we will do in advance or outright determines what we will do in advance. Second, there is the science-based worry that human action may be fully determined by physics. So while I may feel that I could have chosen to do either A or B before I chose to do A, it was actually impossible for me to choose B in that particular instance.

The question of free will arises from the thought that if only one choice is open to us, it's not a genuine choice in some important sense. I'm reminded of the story Henry Rollins tells about a waiter with shaky English who told him, "Your choice is fish."

Compatibilists say this is nothing to be worried about, that free will is compatible with all our choices being determined by God or physics. So long as we are doing what we ourselves want to do, we have all the freedom "worth wanting." I agree it's nice that we're able to act on our own desires, but that's not what the free will question was about.

The Philosophy of Love Potions

Suppose I want a certain woman to love me and, luckily, have the alchemy skills to concoct a perfect love potion. All I have to do is put a drop of the potion in her drink and her mind will be permanently altered in such a way that she will love me more than anyone else. The effect remains after the potion has left her system, so there's no ongoing external influence. Loving me is what she herself wants to do and, since she has the freedom to act accordingly, she will.

On the compatibilist view, she would have all the freedom "worth wanting." She is free to pursue the will that I gave her. But is this freedom or the perfect form of slavery?

The answer is: both. It depends on which level we are considering. Compatibilists are right that we can call a person free who can do what she wants, but we can also call a person unfree if what she wants is up to God, or physics, or a potion. If a person's will is properly identified as "what a person wants" — and I think it is — then the unfree level is her will.

Taking a Stand

It's not that compatibilist philosophers are totally mistaken. Freedom to pursue our (possibly) unfree will is significant and worth appreciating. I would rather get what I want than choose what I want and not get it. But I don't think it's accurate to call this kind of freedom "free will" just because that's the special phrase people want to hear.

Put semi-formally:
  1. What we want is determined by outside forces.
  2. "What we want" is appropriately equivalent to "our will."
  3. Therefore, our will is determined by outside forces.
  4. That which is determined by outside forces is not free.
  5. Therefore, our will is not free.
I don't know if (1) is true, but I do think (5) follows from it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why Philippa Foot Changed Her Mind (And I Haven't)

This is a followup to my post on Philippa Foot's paper "Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives."1 I already knew Foot later came to repudiate the view expressed in that paper — a view that resonates with me — but I didn't know why she changed her mind or what became her new position. So I set out on a little investigation, half-expecting she would lead me to new insight.

If anyone wants to follow Foot's trail without being biased by my take on things, you'll find a thorough explanation in her book Natural Goodness, especially Chapter 4. It will also be very helpful to read Warren Quinn's paper "Rationality and the Human Good," included in the collection Morality and Action which Foot put together after his death. Natural Goodness is also dedicated to Quinn's memory.

[Added] Neil S. points out that Foot wrote a one page "Recantation" in Moral Discourse and Practice, edited by Darwall, Gibbard, and Railton.

Acting Morally and Acting Rationally

In "Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives," Foot wrote:
"Irrational actions are those in which a man in some way defeats his own purposes, doing what is calculated to be disadvantageous or to frustrate his ends. Immorality does not necessarily involve any such thing."
It's this definition of what it means for an action to be rational that Foot later questioned and rejected. In other words, she rejected the idea that a person could conceivably act rationally yet immorally by pursuing his own desires and interests. In Natural Goodness, Foot looks back to her earlier paper:
"I now wonder why, given the obvious indigestibility of the idea that morality is indeed a system of hypothetical imperatives, I should have accepted it even for a short while. What seemed to force it on me was the sheer difficulty of showing a practical rationality that was independent of desire or interest."2
So she implies she has found a better definition of what it means for an action to be rational, one which goes beyond acting toward one's own desires and interests. In fact, one which includes moral considerations.
"Can it be the case that someone who does what is wrong thereby acts in a way that is contrary to reason? May we add considerations that are about right and wrong to the list of rationalizing considerations given above?"3
Foot's inspiration for answering these questions with a 'yes' comes from Warren Quinn's article "Rationality and the Human Good."

The Virtue of Rationality

Quinn tries to show that if we accept a definition of rationality which is indifferent to moral concerns — what he calls "Neo-Humean rationality" — we cannot at the same time regard rationality as "our chief excellence as agents."4 He argues that if rationality allows (or even recommends) a contemptible action, then such rationality itself must share in that contemptible quality. He goes on to say, "[S]urely it is doubtful whether either the excellent or the worthwhile can be contemptible. The ideas do not seem to cohabit comfortably in the same logical space."5

Back to Foot:
"And Quinn asked, in the crucial sentence of the article, what then would be so important about practical rationality? In effect he is pointing to our taken-for-granted, barely noticed assumption that practical rationality has the status of a kind of master virtue, in order to show that we cannot in consistency with ourselves think the that Humean account of it is true. Seeing this as a move of great originality and extreme importance, I asked myself why [...] it should be supposed that there is [a morally independent concept of rationality] with which the requirements of moral goodness must somehow be shown to be consonant."6
Both Foot and Quinn are viewing morally indifferent theories of rational action — like the one Foot used to hold — as setting up rationality as an authority over morality. Not only that, but a supposedly virtuous authority which turns out to not be so virtuous. The fix, then, is to stop putting the cart before the horse (Foot's actual analogy!) and make goodness the "master virtue" which restricts what it means for an action to be rational.
"This now seems to me to be the correct way of meeting the challenge that I myself issued in 'Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives' and that at the time despaired of meeting: namely, to show the rationality of acting, even against desire and self-interest, on a demand of morality. The argument depends on the change of direction that Quinn suggested: seeing goodness as setting a necessary condition of practical rationality and therefore as at least a part-determinant of the thing itself."7
That's...quite a change. From what I can gather, a breakdown of Foot's new definition of rational action would be:
  1. An action is rational if demanded by morality, or if it is morally permissible and promotes one's own desires/interests.
  2. An action is irrational if forbidden by morality, or if it is morally permissible but works against one's own desires/interests.
An Example

To lend intuitive support to rejecting a "present desire" account of rational action, Foot points out that we have no qualms about saying a person is acting irrationally if he indulges in a trivial pleasure which risks his future health.

But do we necessarily consider such behavior irrational? Driving to the movie theater is a risk to my future health. Is skydiving irrational? What about people who willfully sacrifice their lives for a cause they presently support? If one's present desire for something risky outweighs present desire for future security, I don't think we can so quickly dismiss the risky option as 'irrational.'

Even if we do find "present desire" theories of rationality insufficient, it would be a small adjustment to consider theories which take into account both present and future desire. We would still be squarely in a desire/interest based understanding of rational action. Foot only threw in the 'present' qualifier for her supposed counter-example.

But, again, even if we do find desire/interest theories insufficient overall, this doesn't automatically make the case that practical rationality is mostly about taking moral actions and avoiding immoral actions. Why doesn't Foot give readers an example of acting against personal desire/interest to perform a morally required action which even 'Neo-Humeans' would have a hard time calling irrational? That would be an intuition lending positive support to her new position.

The Root of the Problem

My investigation has been informative, but not enlightening. I still maintain that the rational action and the moral action may be at odds, if a person truly has no desires or interests which bring the two together. Suppose I have the option of gaining a million dollars, but I know it would require the death of ten healthy people I've never met. If I take the million dollars, I haven't necessarily demonstrated faulty reasoning; what I have shown is the moral failing of preferring a million dollars over the continuance of ten lives.

Why would Quinn and Foot feel so uncomfortable judging rationality and morality in separate terms? I suspect it boils down to a presupposition Quinn implies in his paper:
"I spoke earlier of rationality as authoritative. By the authority of one excellence over another I mean the ability of the former to prevail over the latter in determining what the agent should, in some unqualified and unrelativized sense, do."8
I deny that any "unqualified and unrelativized" sense of 'should' is valid. Or, positively, I affirm that normative 'should,' 'ought,' 'must not,' etc. uniformly imply a related end. See my post on Stephen Finlay's paper "Oughts and Ends."9 I'm comfortable with the possibility that what a person shouldrationally do is different from what a person shouldmorally do, but Quinn would insist on a further answer about what a person simply should do. As far as I can tell, this is like insisting on being told which number is produced when dividing an integer by zero; if terms like 'should' are relative to an end, demanding a non-relative 'should' is futile.

Stepping Back

How does all this apply to the question of whether moral imperatives are hypothetical or categorical? If you recall, the essential difference between the two is that hypothetical imperatives are necessary to fulfill a desire/end (actual or potential) while categorical imperatives don't refer to anything beyond themselves.

Foot spent time in her earlier paper showing how moral virtues can be properly thought of as having ends, which people may or may not desire. If this counted in favor of characterizing morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives back then, I don't see how Foot's new position about rationality would change that. It would merely be irrational to flout hypothetical imperatives, even when one's own interests or desires alone encourage doing so.

Overall, I get the feeling much of the conversation is a fight over terminology. Does the word 'rational' include moral considerations? We could define it either way. Foot was lambasted for suggesting morality is "a system of hypothetical imperatives," even though I doubt most of her critics would have as much of a problem with the idea that moral virtues have ends; they were probably upset because they understood "hypothetical imperative" to mean something else. Foot's repudiation of her earlier paper did, in fact, focus on something else. I'm much more interested in sorting out ideas than getting lost in the words.

At least I did find the answers I set out to find; not a bad result!

2. Foot, Philippa (2001). Natural goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p 61.
3. ibid. p 62.
4. Quinn, Warren (1993) Rationality and the Human Good. In P. Foot (Ed.), Morality and action. New York: Cambridge University Press. p 221.
5. ibid. p 226.
6. Foot (2001). p 62. 
7. ibid. p 63.
8. Quinn (1993). p 212.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On "Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives"

This famous paper by Philippa Foot struck me as a good deal more reasonable than most of the ethical theory I had been reading previously. From what I gather, it was a challenge to mainstream thinking at the time and continues to be controversial today.

Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives — Philippa Foot (Link)

Two Kinds of Imperatives

An imperative is just a command. According to Kant (as quoted in Foot's paper), "All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically." Kant goes on to define hypothetical imperatives as involving actions which are necessary in order to achieve something a person desires (or actions which would be necessary if that thing were desired). So if I say, "You must take a left at the end of the street" under the assumption that you want to reach the bank, I've expressed what is clearly a hypothetical imperative.

Kant then defines categorical imperatives as involving actions which are necessary in themselves "without regard to any other end." If that doesn't make much sense to you, join the club!

Morality — according to Kant and others — is concerned with categorical imperatives and not 'mere' hypothetical imperatives. But as you might guess from the title of Foot's paper, this assertion is under question.

Inescapable Commands

Foot does recognize a difference between imperatives which rely on the agent's desires (and are withdrawn if it turns out the proper desire isn't there) and imperatives which stand regardless of the agent's desires. It's easy to contrast "If you want to reach the bank, you must take a left at the end of the street" with "You must not rob the bank." The latter type is 'inescapable' in the sense that the command applies no matter what the agent wants.

Does this escapable/inescapable dichotomy amount to the same thing as the hypothetical/categorical dichotomy? According to Foot, "[m]odern philosophers" have claimed inescapability as a key feature of moral judgments which distinguish them from hypothetical imperatives.

Reason-Giving Commands

Foot writes, "[I]t is supposed that moral considerations necessarily give reasons for acting to any man." This leads to another dichotomy: commands which necessarily give everyone reason to follow them and commands which only contingently give people reason to follow them.

The Challenged View

Now we have the components to sketch the overall view that Foot appears to be challenging in her paper. I'm presenting it all at once instead of in parts (as she does), but I think it's a fair representation.

Supposedly, all commands fall into one of two distinct categories. They are either:

Hypothetical Imperatives
and Escapable
and Contingently Reason-Giving
and Non-moral
Categorical Imperatives
and Inescapable
and Necessarily Reason Giving
and Moral

An obvious way to criticize this model is to find odd cases which blur the line between categories, which is what Foot does.

Challenge #1: Commands can be inescapable, yet non-moral.

Club rules — like "not bring[ing] ladies into the smoking room" — or rules of etiquette are inescapable, i.e. we don't take back club rules or table manners just because someone doesn't care to follow them. In fact, we tend to express the rules all the more forcefully when we encounter such indifference.

Challenge #2: Commands can be moral, yet contingently reason giving.

Per Foot, "Irrational actions are those in which a man in some way defeats his own purposes, doing what is calculated to be disadvantageous or to frustrate his ends. Immorality does not necessarily involve any such thing."

I don't see how to dispute that without claiming the most moral action is necessarily the action which most promotes an agent's own goals. Even if it's the case that human psychology or a divine overseer's intervention makes every moral choice the best option to realize personal goals — which is doubtful from the look of this world — that would just mean that all moral commands are contingently reason giving.

Farewell, Proxies!

If you glance down to the third challenge, you'll notice Foot directly challenges the notion that morals must be categorical imperatives. What, then, was the point of the first two challenges?

Philosophers had been using 'inescapability' and 'necessarily reason giving' as proxy measurements (indirect indicators) of categorical imperatives. Foot needed to break down the assumption that any 'inescapable' command must be categorical and the assumption that 'necessarily reason giving' is a quality possessed by any command at all.

Think of it as clearing the table before focusing on the true object of inquiry.

Challenge #3: Commands can be moral, yet necessary to achieve a desire (i.e. hypothetical)

Supposedly, "Actions that are truly moral must be done 'for their own sake,' 'because they are right,' and not for some ulterior purpose." Ah, we're finally back to the question of the end/purpose/goal of a command! Remember that Kant defined hypothetical imperatives as actions necessary to achieve some actual or potential desire and categorical imperatives as actions which are necessary without such further purpose.

Since I still have no idea what it would mean for an action to be "of itself objectively necessary," I'm happy to let that phrase remain apparent nonsense if moral imperatives can be understood without it.

First, Foot gives a probable explanation for why Kant was so opposed to letting desires play a role in morality. In short: he mistakenly believed that humans only desire selfish things unless they decide to act morally for morality's sake. Why is this mistaken? Because we can and do desire good things for other people beyond personal benefit.

(On a hunch, I looked up whether Kant ever had children. Nope! I don't have children either, but from what I've observed, it would be very hard to be a loving parent and still think all human desires are self-serving.)

Second, Foot gives an example of moral virtue coming from a desire:
It will surely be allowed that quite apart from thoughts of duty a man may care about the suffering of others, having a sense of identification with them, and wanting to help if he can. Of course he must want not the reputation of charity, nor even a gratifying role helping others, but, quite simply, their good. If this is what he does care about, then he will be attached to the end proper to the virtue of charity and a comparison with someone acting from an ulterior motive (even a respectable ulterior motive) is out of place.
She further points out that a person may act justly out of a desire that "every man to be treated with a certain minimum respect," or act honestly out of a desire "to live openly and in good faith with his neighbors."

If we can have desires which correspond to moral imperatives, then we can view hypothetical imperatives with greater esteem. Not all hypothetical imperatives support moral virtues, but some do!

The Danger of Hypotheticals

Foot anticipates complaints that teaching morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives would be ineffective in controlling people who lack any and all moral desires. I would very loosely paraphrase her answer as: "Yes. Let's be honest and face up to that, rather than peddle delusions."

She closes by implying that we might actually be creating moral skepticism with "the official line about morality," i.e. that right acts must be done for some utterly mysterious reason with no concrete justification. I, for one, am in favor of removing the mystery from moral discussions and making do with what's left.

Followup Post