Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Argument Is The Evidence

After listening for a few hours to Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, I moved on to the next audio book.

Though I have little interest in her philosophical arguments, I appreciate her mastery of rhetoric. Wollstonecraft's central point — which is no controversy to me — is that women are naturally the intellectual equals of men, kept down by social prejudice and especially the lack of equal education. I wouldn't argue for this conclusion in the way she does, but then my methods would not go over so well as hers in 18th century Britain.

The rhetorical feat Wollstonecraft accomplished that I could never even attempt was simply proving that a woman of her time could write in such highly educated style. What better way to argue for the intellectual potential of womankind than to demonstrate it?

Online text and audio book:

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Problem with Pascal

Two brief quotes from Pensées should suffice.
"Dungeon.—I approve of not examining the opinion of Copernicus; but this...! It concerns all our life to know whether the soul be mortal or immortal." — 218

"Order.—Men despise religion; they hate it, and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable, to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true." — 187
Blaise Pascal has a habit of placing truth discovery at the end, as reassurance of what he first wants the truth to be. And his most famous argument — the 'wager' — shows he considers this last step optional.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Answering Moore

One important question in moral philosophy is whether fundamental moral concepts are irreducible or, alternatively, composed of non-moral concepts.

Moral naturalism is the view that fundamental moral concepts can be understood or defined in other terms. The most famous denial of moral naturalism comes from G.E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica.1 In it, Moore argues:
  1. The adjective or property good is the fundamental concept in ethics.2
  2. This same property good is applied not only to actions, but to 'good beer,' 'good chair,' 'good health,' 'good soldier,' etc.3
  3. Good, in this general sense, cannot be analyzed further or defined in other terms.4
  4. Attempts to define good in terms of other properties tend to commit what he calls the naturalistic fallacy
    In this post, I first affirm that the naturalistic fallacy is a true deductive fallacy. I will then argue that moral naturalism may be correct anyway.

    The Naturalistic Fallacy

    Moore draws a sharp distinction between the property good and the set of all things which have the property good. He calls this set "the good," but it might be more intuitive to expand this to the phrase "all things that are good." So, tautologically, all things that are good have the property good. Here's the important bit:

    What if all things that are good share another property? And let's take this one step farther. What if this other property is found nowhere else but in things that are good? Can we conclude with certainty that this other property and good are, in fact, one and the same property?

    Moore and I answer: no! That is not a deductively valid conclusion. For that, we would need premise (2) below.
    (1) Property Z always and only co-occurs with the property good.
    (2) If any property P always and only co-occurs with property Q, then P and Q are actually one and the same property.
    (3) Therefore, Z and good are actually one and the same property.
    It's easy to illustrate a problem with premise (2). Suppose Nathan and Isabella both only have one child, their daughter Sara. This means the properties being Nathan's daughter and being Isabella's daughter always and only co-occur. Yet Nathan could father another child in secret, causing the property being Nathan's daughter to hold in a person for whom being Isabella's daughter does not. This goes to show these were distinct properties all along.

    But wait! What if we strengthen the argument with some 'necessarilies' thrown in?
    (1) Necessarily, property Z always and only co-occurs with the property good.
    (2) If, necessarily, any property P always and only co-occurs with property Q, then P and Q are actually one and the same property.
    (3) Therefore, Z and good are actually one and the same property.
    This version of premise (2) is harder to counter-example. Plantinga argues against it by appealing to the implausibility that being half of six and being the 5th root of 243 are one and the same property because a person could easily know the number three has one property but not the other.5 But even if you don't accept Plantinga's argument against premise (2), it's still invalid to go straight from (1) to (3).

    Deduction Isn't Everything

    Suppose we do find a property Z which always and only co-occurs with good. If we don't have any way to rule out the possibility they are the same property, and the co-occurance cases are numerous, can't we use inductive or abductive reasoning to make a strong — though not certain — case for the identity of Z and good?

    A Moral Naturalism

    I claim the property good is identical to the complex property likely to bring about or maintain an implied end. In the same way, better is identical to more likely to [etc.] and best is identical to most likely to [etc.].

    Readers may notice I'm denying the dichotomy between things that are good for an end vs. good in themselves. I maintain that all things are good for an end — even if the end is so obvious or customarily assumed we don't consider it separately — or not good at all. In short, I consider talk of 'good in itself' or 'intrinsic good' to be misnomer or nonsense.

    But I'm less interested here in arguing positively that this 'property Z' always and only co-occurs with good than showing how Moore's objections to moral naturalism don't rule out possibility that good is properly defined in this way.

    Moore's Trilemma
    "In fact, if it is not the case that 'good' denotes something simple and indefinable, only two alternatives are possible: either it is a complex, a given whole, about the correct analysis of which there could be disagreement; or else it means nothing at all, and there is no such subject as Ethics."6
    I won't seek for a fourth option because I do think good is a 'complex' open to controversy about its analysis. Moore's argument against this option follows immediately...

    The Open Question Argument
    "The hypothesis that disagreement about the meaning of good is disagreement with regard to the correct analysis of a given whole, may be most plainly seen to be incorrect by consideration of the fact that, whatever definition may be offered, it may always, be asked, with significance, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good."7
    By way of example, Moore considers whether good might be identical to that which we desire to desire. But once we've identified the things which we desire to desire, it seems intuitively obvious to Moore that we can still intelligibly ask whether it's good that we desire to desire each of them. He then claims, "we have not before our minds anything so complicated as the question 'Do we desire to desire to desire to desire A?'"

    Notice the rhetorical sleight of hand here. Moore turned the question of goodness back onto the very thing suggested to constitute good. Of course this produces an awkward recursion! He just as well could have directly denied we have the question "Do we desire to desire A?" in mind any time we ask whether A is good. Instead, he obfuscated his brute denial by folding over the candidate moral naturalism in a way that makes it seem more convoluted.

    How does my favored definition of good sound under the same treatment? After we've identified the things which 'are likely to bring about or maintain an implied end,' can we intelligibly ask whether it's good that each of these are likely to bring about or maintain an implied end? So, for instance, a certain chair is a good chair because it is sturdily built and will likely maintain the end of holding up the person sitting on it. Is this state of affairs good? That is, is this state of affairs likely to bring about or maintain an implied end? If the implied end is the same end, then obviously, yes it is. We already covered that! If the implied end is a different end, then the original 'good chair' state of affairs could be good, bad, or indifferent toward this second end. For example, a chair being good [for holding up a sitter] might in turn be bad [for breaking easily during a staged bar fight].

    Implicit and Explicit Definitions

    Must we have an explicit definition of good in mind when we call things good or question whether they are good? If so, then moral naturalism is easily eliminated since I agree we often think of good as a simple attribute.

    But consider the notion of speed. We often think of speed as a simple attribute, "I'm going 70 mph." But it turns out that speed in a certain direction is velocity, and velocity is always relative to a reference frame. It's just that an Earthbound reference frame is so easily assumed and the reference frame of, for example, a train is almost as easily inferred from context. As a result, we usually don't explicitly consider the whole definition of velocity when we think or talk about it.

    In a similar way, I don't consider it a fatal defect for my favored definition of good to include a 'reference frame' or rather a 'reference end.' Most of the time we assume sturdiness is a requirement for a good chair, but if the implied end is unusual — such as when filming a bar fight — so too will be the requirements for a good chair. I actually consider it a strength for the view I hold that it can explain why we sometimes want to call a thing both 'good' and 'not good' in different senses.

    Actions can also be good or bad depending on the implied end. This explains why we might call, for example, a hostile takeover good [for business] but bad [for minimizing harm to workers]. Certain conventional ends concerning harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, purity and the like are plugged into the definition of general good to define moral good in the more narrow sense.8 But since these conventionally moral ends can conflict, it's possible for a single action to evaluate as morally good and morally bad. This is why normative theories of ethics are plagued by troublesome counter-intuitive cases.

    Indefinable Good

    The main reason I resist Moore's assertion that good is a simple, indefinable property is how unhelpful I take his answer to be. "Good is good, and that is the end of the matter"4 leaves us without any idea of what it means to be good, beyond a list of things we feel have this property. What can we possibly do when such feelings conflict? Claim my ESP is better than your ESP? (Hey, it works for reformed epistemology!)

    If Moore can't prove further attempts to define good are futile — like Gödel did to kill a certain mathematical quest — my desire to understand morality drives me to find a more scrutible definition of good.

    2. "[T]his question, how 'good' is to be defined, is the most fundamental question in all Ethics. That which is meant by 'good' is, in fact, except its converse 'bad,' the only simple object of thought which is peculiar to Ethics." from Chapter One.
    3. "And on the other hand, other things, beside conduct, may be good; and if they are so, then, 'good' denotes some property, that is common to them and conduct; and if we examine good conduct alone of all good things, then we shall be in danger of mistaking for this property, some property which is not shared by those other things [....]" ibid. 
    4. "If I am asked, "What is good?" my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the matter." ibid. 
    5. Plantinga, A. (2010). Naturalism, theism, obligation and supervenience. Faith and Philosophy. Volume 27, Number 3 - 2010. Also see my post on the paper earlier this month.
    6. from Chapter One.
    7. ibid.
    8. See

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    Statement of Purpose

    [The following is my statement of purpose for admission into the Library and Information Science graduate program at the University of Missouri. I may tweak it a bit before sending it in later this month. Oh, and I'll actually be taking classes through the University of Nebraska at Omaha. UPDATE — Sent in! UPDATE — Accepted!]


    After seven years in small business IT consulting, I realize it's time to either affirm it as my life's work or take action toward a more wholly satisfying career. I do enjoy helping others use (and cope with!) technology for business ends, but I would prefer to support a cause I personally value: the promotion, operation, and protection of library services.

    It would be hard to overstate the importance of libraries in my life. Literature shaped my imagination and character; informational books changed my fundamental worldview; contemporary academic discourse has become a hobby. I want to be directly involved in providing everyone else with the same opportunity or better.

    Though I intend to stay open to other possibilities in coursework ahead, I am interested in academic librarianship in the areas of collections development, reference, digital libraries, subject specialization in philosophy and religion, and accessibility for visually impaired patrons. I will also follow and participate in the professional discussion of library principles, then do my part in articulating those principles to stakeholders. Day to day, I see myself working to improve the availability of information resources in general, then assisting students, teachers, and community members with their individual needs.

    Why grant me this opportunity? Last semester, I earned a flawless grade in my first graduate level class, "Leadership and Management in Libraries and Information Agencies," demonstrating my ability and drive to excel in the program while working full time. But school is one thing, hands-on aptitude is another. My work in information technology has prepared me for a library career in the sense that I am familiar with the process of designing and implementing systems, then giving personal support to the end users of these systems; not to mention the concrete usefulness of IT experience itself in twenty-first century libraries! My demeanor is calm and unflappable. I have an appreciation for ideal solutions, but won't hesitate to address urgent needs with a workable solution. The one form of idealism I will zealously defend against practical concerns is human rights, which include those intellectual freedoms championed by the library profession.

    Thank you for your consideration. I am excited to officially get started in this program!

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    The Philosophical Assumptions of Science (First Attempt)

    • We live in a world which has qualities that don't depend on our beliefs about it.
    • Our sense perceptions are caused by the way the world is.
    • We can improve the correspondence between our beliefs and the way the world is by reasoning about patterns in our sense perceptions.

    Have I left out any scientific presuppositions which are not already components of these three assumptions? Have I assumed too much? I'm still finding and considering other lists of all presuppositions necessary and sufficient for scientific method, but the above represents my current thinking. Feedback requested!

    Sunday, March 6, 2011

    Hypothetical Imperatives: Acting For a Reason

    "Originally, a 'hypo-thesis' was literally an 'under-thesis,' that is, a support for a thesis. So, in the conditional claim 'X given Y,' X is the thesis (θέσις), and Y is the under-thesis (ὑπόθεσις) or support for the thesis X. But now a 'hypothesis' is an uncertain belief under consideration, possibly true and possibly false, that will require more research and evidence to determine whether or not it or some other competing hypothesis is actually true."1
    I suspect much of the resistance to the idea that morality could be a "system of hypothetical imperatives"2 is due to associating the flimsy-sounding word 'hypothetical' with the solemn topic of morality. However, as shown by the quote above, the word originally had a much stronger meaning.

    Two Views of Moral Imperatives

    There are different ways of characterizing the distinction between categorical imperatives and hypothetical imperatives. But the way I see it, a categorical 'ought' fits the pattern "One ought to X [necessarily and unconditionally]" instead of the pattern "One ought to X, given Y." So any time an imperative is expressed with an underlying reason (a hypo-thesis), I consider that imperative a member of the hypothetical camp.

    In a fairly trivial way, this definition characterizes most specific moral imperatives as hypothetical, since they rely on more basic moral principles. The big question is whether fundamental imperatives are categorical or hypothetical.

    Fundamentally Categorical

    If the most basic moral imperatives are categorical, by stipulative definition there can't be any underlying reason why we ought to act morally. So there is literally no reason to act morally in the first place under the categorical view!

    Fundamentally Hypothetical

    If, on the other hand, the most basic moral imperatives are themselves hypothetical, there can be a reason to act morally in the first place.

    This is a scary thought for those who want morality to be an absolutely unquestionable set of rules that must be followed because...the rules say they must be followed. But this is clearly circular! What happens when some brave soul asks why moral imperatives must be followed? Typically something like this:
    • "What? Of course you must act morally. Morality demands it!"
    • "Without morality, [terrible things] would happen!"
    The first response is the only one allowed by the categorical view and is effective at converting questioners into moral skeptics. The second response implies justifying reasons for moral imperatives; simply turn these terrible consequences around to form a list of positive goals morality promotes.

    So why must moral imperatives be followed? Not just because "it's the moral thing to do," but because certain actions must be done, given these underlying positive goals.3

    1. Gauch, H. G., Jr. (2006). Scientific method in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 116.
    2. See
    3. See

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011

    On "Naturalism, Theism, Obligation and Supervenience"

    When I finally reached the core argument in Alvin Plantinga's recently published paper "Naturalism, Theism, Obligation and Supervenience," I was surprised and a little puzzled. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn't that!

    "Naturalism, Theism, Obligation and Supervenience" — Alvin Plantinga

    The Goal
    "I propose to support the claim that naturalism cannot accommodate morality—not by showing directly that it can’t, but by displaying the failure of the most natural way of arguing that it can."1
    ...where the "most natural way" (punny!) falls into this pattern: There is a "naturalistically acceptable" property N which is equivalent to a given moral property M in the sense that if something has property N, it necessarily has property M (and vice versa). Therefore God isn't needed to account for moral properties.

    An Example

    Classic Utilitarianism provides a convenient example of a naturalistic property: "maximizes the world's hedonic index." If five actions are open to me, one of them might have the property of doing the most to increase pleasure among all sentient beings in the world. According to classic Utilitarianism, any action with this property also has the property of being obligatory (and vice-versa).

    Why couldn't a Utilitarian say these two properties are equivalent, note that God wasn't invoked, and shrug off claims that God is required for moral obligation? This is where Plantinga's dilemma about equivalent properties comes in.

    "Identical" Option — Equivalent Properties Are Identical

    As Plantinga puts it, "if a property A is equivalent to a property B, then A is identical with B." That probably sounds redundant, but remember he is defining equivalent properties as those which necessarily appear as a pair. If they always and only appear together, it's easy to see the attractiveness of declaring them one property rather than two. Occam's Razor, right?

    "Non-identical" Option — Equivalent Properties Aren't Necessarily Identical

    Plantinga questions whether the property of being the [principal] square root of 9 is the "very same property" as being the fifth root of 243, among other counter-intuitive examples. It's not important to resolve the debate about which view of properties is correct because both options, Plantinga argues, are bad news for naturalistically acceptable morality.

    The Possibility of Divine Command Ethics

    Readers are asked to consider the possibility that "[w]hat makes an action A obligatory is that it is an essential property of God to command all persons to perform A." In this scenario, it may still be the case that a naturalistic property lines up with obligatory acts. God might, for example, command all persons to perform actions with the property of doing the most to increase pleasure among all sentient beings in the world. Classical Utilitarians would have correctly identified a property which:
    1. always and only belongs to obligatory acts
    2. does not mention God
    3. (yet) is not the property that makes those acts obligatory
    The non-identical option is what allows us to say that a naturalistic property (like the Utilitarian property) and the obligation property can be numerically distinct even if they always and only appear together. And since they are distinct properties, it doesn't follow that obligation must also be a naturalistic property.
    "Given [the non-identical option], therefore, one can’t show that rightness or moral obligation is naturalistic by showing that it is equivalent to a naturalistic property."2
    Meanwhile, it might seem at first like the identical option can show that moral obligation itself is naturalistic once someone can show that it always and only appears in conjunction with a naturalistic property (since this would show they are the same property). But if obligation also always and only appears in conjunction with a God-based property, then the naturalistic property, the property of obligation, and the God-based property would all be one and the same property according to the identical option! Therefore, the apparently naturalistic property was a God-based property all along.
    "[I]f [the identical option] is true, then not even showing that obligation is identical with some naturalistic property will suffice to show that obligation is naturalistically acceptable; for obligation might well be identical with a naturalistic property, but also identical with a property obviously entailing that there is such a person as God."
    The Big Conclusion

    Under either complementary view of equivalent properties, demonstrating the equivalence of obligation with a naturalistic property fails to prove that obligation itself is a naturalistic property.

    Wait A Minute

    Why should any of this bother a naturalist? Heck, Plantinga outright affirms "there are naturalistic properties that are logically equivalent to obligation." A few provocative declarations aside, Plantinga appears to spend the whole paper arguing that this equivalence relationship is compatible with a certain kind of Theism, not that it is incompatible with naturalism.

    All I've learned is that naturalism can't accommodate morality in hypothetical cases when naturalism is false anyway. This paper is probably of more interest to a Theist who is troubled by the strong ties moral properties have to naturalistic properties; it's a way of holding onto the possibility that moral properties are God-based even if they always and only appear in conjunction with (apparently) naturalistic properties.

    1. Faith and Philosophy. Volume 27, Number 3 - 2010.
    2. I'm substituting "non-identical option" for Plantinga's term 'abundantism' and "identical option" for his term 'sparsism.' I found his terms to be a confusing adaptation of David Lewis' usage and not needed for my own explanation.