Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On 'Moral Facts Naturally Exist (And Science Could Find Them)' (Pt. 2)

In my last post, I sketched Richard Carrier's moral philosophy. Today I will explain my primary reservation, but first I want to point out several areas of agreement. Like Carrier, I...
  • believe morality is concerned with hypothetical imperatives.
  • accept a Humean theory of reasons, i.e. what a person has reason to do is dependent on that person's psychology.
  • accept the theory of action that a rational person will always try to fulfill her highest-priority desires, according to the information she has.
  • agree that science — broadly construed — is vital in finding out the rightness or wrongness of an action.
This definitely puts us in the same neighborhood of metaethics-ville. Carrier characterizes moral facts as objective and his view as realist (by denying the contraries); I quibble with that, but only because I would label the same things differently. Not a big deal.

'Ought' and Internalism

When Carrier defends his view that moral imperatives are a class of hypothetical imperatives, he admits this is an unpopular view among philosophers. "But," he says, "none have ever presented any other identifiable logical relation that can ever be meant by 'ought' (or any other term or phrase semantically equivalent to it) that produces any actual claim to our obedience."1

This close association of morality, the meaning of 'ought,' and motivational internalism rests at the very beginning of Carrier's chain of deductive logic in the appendix following the chapter. Here are the first three lines, with variables expanded:
1.1 If there is <a moral system>, then <a moral system> is <a system of imperatives that supersede all other imperatives>.
1.2 If <a moral system> is <a system of imperatives that supersede all other imperatives>, then <a moral system> is <what we ought to obey over all other imperative systems (whether they are labeled moral or not)>.
1.3 <what we ought to obey over all other imperative systems (whether they are labeled moral or not)> is <that which we have a sufficiently motivating reason to obey over all other imperative systems>.2
Throughout the chapter, Carrier uses the phrases "what we in actual fact ought to do" and "what we as a matter of actual fact ought most to do" as synonyms, and contrasts this with "other things that carry no sufficient motivating reason for us to do them instead".3 You may recognize this as a strong form of motivational internalism, i.e. recognized moral facts necessarily provide some motivation or — in strong form — overriding motivation.

I think Carrier has a good point that if we start by insisting on internalism, then it's hard to see how moral facts could originate from anywhere but a person's own desires; and if we insist on strong internalism, how they could originate from anywhere but what a person desires most. Or consider a reasons-based version of internalism: a person always has some reason or overriding reason to act morally. If having a reason requires having some appropriate desire — which I affirm — then we're back to the same spot.

'Ought' Externalism

Contrary to Carrier, I hold that sentences like "Michael ought to contribute to UNICEF" or "Josephine ought not fire her pistol into the air when she celebrates" can represent true propositions even if Michael and Josephine happen to lack appropriate desires.

This means I deny (1.3). I'll make this denial punchier: it can be true that we have no reason to do what we ought to do.

How can I get away with saying this? Because I believe the word 'ought' requires an end (or goal) to complete its meaning and make it eligible for being true or false. At the same time, it doesn't require that anyone's desires be a certain way. The logical relation signified by 'ought' works something like this:
Michael ought[some end] to contribute to UNICEF.
or more specifically:
In order that [some end], it ought to be the case that Michael contributes to UNICEF.
The claim being made is that — among the relevant actions open to Michael — the one most likely to precede [some end] is that he contributes to UNICEF. (The 'ought' in the more specific parsing is a non-normative probability 'ought,' like "It ought to rain before midnight." I'm following Stephen Finlay's reductive analysis of normative 'oughts' into non-normative 'oughts' plus ends, which is motivated by making sense of normative language in general.)4

Really, though, I just want to drive home the point that 'ought' claims have a gap if you listen for it.

We're normally very adept at filling the gap from context and so we don't notice there ever was a gap. For example, "You ought to eat two cups of green vegetables per week" in typical contexts would suggest a health-related end. In a conversation about minimizing risk for liver cancer, we would fill in the more specific end of minimizing risk of liver cancer. At that point, we have a quite specific claim which is open to empirical investigation.
You oughtthat you minimize your risk of liver cancer to eat two cups of green vegetables per day.
In order that [you minimize your risk of liver cancer], it ought to be the case that you eat two cups of green vegetables per day.
Notice something else: the truth or falsity of this 'ought' claim does not depend on having actual or ideal desires about minimizing the risk of liver cancer.

Laying Claim to Our Obedience

What I'm saying is that true 'ought' statements don't necessarily lay claim to a person's obedience. Some do, because they connect with a person's desires, and this makes them the only imperatives important to that person, in a relevant sense.

I understand the phrases "there is a reason" and "Josephine has a reason" to reflect this distinction. There may be a reason for Josephine to not fire her pistol in the air when she celebrates (it might cause far more suffering than the joy she gains), but if she lacks certain desires she might not have a reason to refrain from pulling the trigger.

Carrier could grant all of the above, adjust his argument a bit, and still identify moral imperatives as imperatives which are both (1) true and (2) matter to a person by virtue of that person's desires. What I'm challenging in this post is the assertion that what a person "in actual fact ought to do" necessarily corresponds with what that person has motivating reason to do.

In other words, Carrier can't simply rule out other (i.e. externalist) uses of 'ought' as invalid. He needs to show that his moral theory is a better solution to metaethics in some way other than winning by default.


I may eventually follow up this post with my take on other parts of his overall moral theory, but this will do for now.

ADDED:  A followup on the same topic is here.

1. Carrier, R. (2011). Moral facts naturally exist (and science could find them). In Loftus, J.W. (Ed.), The end of christianity (pp. 333-358). Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. p. 342
2. Ibid. p. 359
3. Ibid. p. 348
4. Finlay, S. (2009). Oughts and ends. In Philosophical studies, 143(3). pp 315-340. See my post on it.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On 'Moral Facts Naturally Exist (And Science Could Find Them)' (Pt. 1)

This chapter by Richard Carrier comes at the end of The End of Christianity. So far, it's the only chapter I have read because I'm much more interested in popular essays on metaethics than the (anti) religious theme of this anthology.

Can science discover moral facts?

Carrier is following Sam Harris' lead by putting this provocative claim in the title, and — like Harris — doing some philosophy first to analytically reduce moral facts to scientifically-accessible components. So the really controversial steps are philosophical rather than scientific.

I'm familiar with moral philosophy. Give me the short version!

Moral facts are whichever hypothetical imperatives correspond to an individual's deepest desires. Human-universal moral facts exist because all humans share a set of deepest desires. Since science can investigate both hypothetical imperatives and desires, science can discover human-universal moral facts.

What makes 'ought' claims true?

Let's start by looking at conditional 'ought' claims (aka hypothetical imperatives).
If you want to wake up in time for work, you ought to set an alarm clock.
If you want your car to stay put, you ought not park in a tow-away zone.
If you want to become a doctor, you ought to study diligently.
So if I really do want to become a doctor and there really is this connection between studying diligently and becoming a doctor, then I really ought to study diligently. Carrier points out that both of these prerequisites are open to scientific investigation. "And wherever both are an empirically demonstrated fact, the imperative they entail is an empirically demonstrated fact."1 This means that science can discover 'ought' facts, not just 'is' facts.

What makes an 'ought' claim a moral 'ought' claim?

The majority view has been that moral 'oughts' are different from the above kind of 'oughts' because they're not conditional on what a person wants. Carrier disagrees on the grounds that any system of imperatives which doesn't line up with what a person most wants can't count as morality, because that person will "have a better reason to do something else instead."2

Instead of viewing morality as something that stands in opposition to our desires, morality has to do with what fulfills our deepest desires. It's just that, sometimes, we're mistaken about what promotes our own deepest desires. "What we really want most, and what will really obtain that, are matters of fact that cannot truly be answered from the armchair. Empirical methods must be deployed to ascertain and verify them. Only science has the best tools to do this."3

Doesn't this make morality an individual thing?

Even if morality is grounded on the individual level, there may still be universal moral facts if some moral facts apply to every individual. (Or at least human-universal moral facts if all humans share some moral facts.) Carrier argues that it's likely all humans have the same set of deepest desires.
"Only if what an individual wants most (when rational and sufficiently informed) is not the same as for everyone else will this not be the case. Then, a different set of moral facts will be true for them (yet even then true moral facts still exist, they are just again relative to different groups or individuals.) But that outcome is very improbable for members of the same species."4
Carrier's justification for this statement is hard to follow, but it goes something like this:

Humans share many biological facts, and these facts generate a hierarchy of high-order desires that we're stuck with, i.e. we can't just change them without altering our natural humanity. "For example: we all need to eat, breathe, move, think, and cooperate and socialize with a community[....]"5 The way these fundamental desires play out for individuals may differ, but we share our most basic biological needs.

Biological differences among humans aren't sufficient to change these high-order desires, at least not without extreme genetic mutation.

Environmental differences only make a difference in how our fundamental human desires play out. Same algorithm; different results. If I had lived life in your shoes, I would want most the things you want most.

So, ultimately, only our shared human biology determines our high-order/foundational/deepest desires, which in turn determine what is morally right for all of us in general terms, and what is right for each of us when applied to our individual situations. To use one of Carrier's examples, we all have fundamental desires to eat and to avoid pointless harm, which might make it morally right for me to eat strawberries but morally right for you to avoid eating strawberries because you're allergic to them; we're both following the same basic imperatives of eating and avoiding pointless harm, which means there is no real difference in moral facts here.


To review, Carrier believes moral facts are open to scientific inquiry because his metaethics reduce moral facts to facts about the effectiveness of means to ends (hypothetical imperatives) and psychology (what a person most fundamentally desires). This would be enough to explain how moral facts "naturally exist" and how "science could find them," but he goes one step farther and argues that humanity shares one set of moral facts.

Carrier's chapter is followed by an appendix containing, as he puts it: "formal deductive proofs of every one of these conclusions, fully verifying that they are necessarily true."6 I appreciate his boldness! Still, I disagree with his moral philosophy at several points, as I will explain in the next post [which is here, but only covers one point of disagreement].

1. Carrier, R. (2011). Moral facts naturally exist (and science could find them). In Loftus, J.W. (Ed.), The end of christianity (pp. 333-358). Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. p. 335
2. ibid. p. 343 
3. ibid. p. 342 
4. ibid. p. 351 
5. ibid. p. 352 
6. ibid. p. 334

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reading the ACLU Policy Guide (Pt. 5)

Series explanation and overview here.

Note: These are my summaries of the 1995 version of the guide, not the policies themselves.


Policy 48 — Right to Organize

"The rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively are aspects of freedom of association."

Both public and private employees are covered. There's a note here about the ACLU supporting this right for teachers at religious schools specifically.

This 1980 policy spends some time talking about a contemporary issue involving J.P. Stevens Company (dramatized in the film Norma Rae). Because the J.P. Stevens Company would not recognize the right to organize, and because it discriminated according to sex and race, the ACLU supported the ongoing boycott effort.

Policy 49 — Right to Strike

The ACLU supports the right to strike, as derived from the rights of freedom of association and speech, as well as the abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment. Specifically, the government may not punish people for ceasing to work.

The one justifiable exception is when sudden striking poses "an imminent and substantial threat to the public health and safety of a community." And even then, the ACLU insists there be an effective alternate method for settling the kinds of disputes which lead to strikes.

Policy 50 — Closed Shop, Union Shop and Right to Work Laws

The ACLU does not believe requiring workers to pay labor union fees infringes on their civil liberties, so long as the required amount does not exceed that worker's fair share of collective bargaining costs and "other costs of representation." This policy describes unions as "instruments" of "industrial government." Because citizens receive the benefits of taxes to civil government, they may not refuse to pay taxes; the same principle applies here for industrial government.

However, it does violate freedom of association to require workers to actually join the union, follow union rules, or pay more than the amount described above. Nor can any fee be charged before a person is hired.

Required union fees may be used to lobby for referendums or for "laws beneficial to employees," but not for political candidates. As there may still be conscientious objection to the use of funds, the ACLU supports allowing such workers to make a charitable donation of the required amount.

Policy 51 — Picketing in Labor-Management Disputes

There's nothing here not covered by the policies in part four of this series, except to affirm that picketing in the context of labor-management disputes is included.

Policy 52 — Freedom of Speech and Unionization Campaigns

Freedom of speech is affirmed in the context of workers arguing for — and employers arguing against — unionization. If an employer addresses workers during work hours to speak against unionization, pro-unionization workers must be given an equal opportunity to address workers during work hours.

Both sides must stick to making arguments for their position, not coercing anyone to comply.

Policy 53 — Free Speech Rights of Corporate Employees

Speech which does not "substantially, materially and directly" affect an employee's ability to do his or her job (or others from doing their jobs) is protected by the First Amendment.

Policy 54 — Internal Union Democracy and Equal and Fair Representation

Unions have an especially strong duty to operating under non-discriminatory and democratic standards because they are meant to represent all workers fairly as a form of industrial government.

Every union member should have free speech and association rights within the union, recognized by the union. Every member should be allowed to vote, to hold office, and to only be removed from office in a regular fashion. No discrimination based on "race, religion, color, sex, age, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, opinion or lack of United States citizenship." And finally, fair access to resolving grievances and due process for any kind of discipline.

Policy 55 — Due Process Rights of Private Employees

All private employees have the right "not to be disciplined without just cause," "notice and hearing in cases of termination or discipline," and "notice and hearing in cases of the closing of entire businesses."

Oddly, this policy is more of an internal ACLU note that they need to develop policies in this area.

Policy 55a — Privacy Rights of Private Sector Employees

Employee access to records about themselves is here affirmed to be covered by the same principles as Policy 273 — Data Collection, Storage, and Dissemination. (It will be a few more posts before I get to that!)

Employers may not inquire about aspects of employee personal life and health which do not directly concern job performance. "The employer's legitimate concern for maintaining an acceptable level of job performance can be satisfied by measuring job performance." If job performance does appear to be impaired, establishing "probable cause related to substance abuse," then employers may test for drug abuse.

If government agents attempt to question employees in the workplace, employers have a positive duty to inform employees of their constitutional protections and may not punish employees who take advantage of these protections.

"Individuals are entitled to segregate their personal lives from the requirements of their jobs." For example, employers may not take into account "[m]arital status, parental status or sexual orientation" at the workplace.

Employers must give a justification for any rule about personal appearance, showing that it is "reasonably related to job performance."

Every employee is entitled to some personal storage at work which the employer may not examine.

Policy 56 — ACLU and Intra-Labor Conflicts

The ACLU expresses an interest in getting involved in conflicts between unions and members when the standards expressed in Policy 54 are not being followed.

Policy 57 — Union and Corporation Political Activity

As already mentioned in Policy 50, the fees paid by non-members to a union may not be used "to support the political activities of the union." Collective bargaining and even lobbying for laws relating to working conditions don't count as political activities.

The ACLU supports the right of union members to express opinions at odds with official union policies, with a possible exception of when this threatens "the union's well-being."

Policy 58 — Restrictions on Union Members and Officers

The ACLU doesn't believe union membership (or qualification for union office) should ever be contingent on a member's beliefs. Only action taken against the union should count against members, and mere advocacy is not the kind of action meant. (Which makes me wonder what the exception in the previous policy could be about.)

The government may not punish unions for having members with certain beliefs. Specifically, the ACLU condemns the Communist Control Act of 1954.

Policy 59 — Government Employment

Government employees also have the right to organize into unions and strike. Teachers are specifically mentioned here.

Policy 59a — Government Trusteeships of Labor Unions

If a union is unable to follow the kinds of standards in Policy 54, the ACLU points at "government supervised elections or trusteeships" as a remedy. This may be temporarily necessary to clear out criminal racketeering control of a union and return the union to legitimate democratic status.

An alternative remedy would be court-supervised elections. Either way, there is a danger of the government causing harm to civil liberties, so this policy includes a list of relevant guidelines to guard against that.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reading the ACLU Policy Guide (Pt. 4)

Series explanation and overview here.

Note: These are my summaries of the 1995 version of the guide, not the policies themselves.

Assembly and Public Protest

Policy 41 — Civil Disobedience, Picketing, and Demonstrations

"Generally speaking, civil disobedience is the willful, nonviolent and public violation of valid laws because the violator deems them to be unjust or because their violation will focus public attention on other injustices in society to which such laws may or may not be related." (Invalid laws being those which are unconstitutional or interfere with constitutional rights.)

First, the ACLU wants to be clear that it has defended and will keep defending people who violate invalid laws, whatever the motivation or circumstance. Civil disobedience — as defined above — is something different.

The ACLU isn't directly concerned with those who engage in civil disobedience and accept punishment to show "their respect for society as a whole and for its laws in general." This policy is more concerned with those who ask the ACLU for help avoiding punishment for breaking valid laws because of their higher motives. "[T]he ACLU believes that freedom to say what one believes, not to do what one wishes, is what is protected by the First Amendment." So long as punishment is not magnified simply because the lawbreaking was accompanied by protest, the ACLU believes the government acts properly. Otherwise we would "change a nation governed by law to one governed by motivation alone."

The government may regulate the time and place of public meetings for reasons of public order, but must do so in a way that is impartial toward the content of such meetings.

Policy 41a — Time, Place and Manner Restrictions

While picketing is a form of protected expression which must be allowed in public places, some restrictions may be justified. For example, picketing in residential areas may have restrictions on the number of picketers, hours, or noise level.

The common areas of shopping malls, shopping centers, and sufficiently large residential complexes can count as public places even if privately owned. Owners of shops within such shopping centers, however, may prohibit expression they don't like. Also, private businesses may advocate for any cause without providing opposing views a voice (unlike the rules for broadcasting in part two of this series).

Policy 42 — Symbolic Speech

Symbolic speech such as tearing up a draft card or burning a flag are protected forms of expression. This policy talks about a Vietnam-era law that made it a felony punishable by up to five years of jail time for mutilating a draft card, which clearly far exceeds any inconvenience to the Selective Service. The law was aimed directly at punishing dissenting views.

Policy 43 — Captive Audience

The government may not require licenses to distribute literature (for free or for sale) or make speeches in public. On the other hand, some restrictions on time, place and manner are acceptable.

Excessive volume or brightness of otherwise free expression may be limited if they are "sensory intrusions so intense as to be assaultive." Of course this depends on context, since what's too loud in a stadium isn't the same as what's too loud in a residential area at night. As always, such restrictions must not discriminate against speech content.

"So long as there is ample public spaces where communication is unrestricted, the government may create and maintain reasonably limited sanctuaries in public places where people can go for quiet and contemplation."

Policy 44 — Heckler's Veto

However annoying, heckling is protected speech so long as it doesn't effectively prevent "the speaker from speaking or the audience from hearing."

Policy 45 — Private Facilities for Public Meetings

The ACLU may work to persuade owners of private meeting spaces to not be discriminatory toward the groups they allow, but recognizes the legal right of owners to do so.

Policy 46 — The Ultra-Right

Public employees who are members of far right groups may not be discriminated against merely for having such an association, and must be judged by their actions on the job. (Apparently there was concern in 1964 that police members of the John Birch Society would not carry out their duties with professional impartiality.)

"Although the democratic standards in which the ACLU believes and for which it fights run directly counter to the philosophy of the Klan and other ultra-right groups, the vitality of the democratic institutions the ACLU defends lies in their equal application to all."

So the ACLU's policy concerning opposition groups is to "vigorously present its [i.e. the ACLU's] position, while defending the group's right to speak."

Policy 47 — Gun Control

"The setting in which the Second Amendment was proposed and adopted demonstrates that the right to bear arms is a collective one, existing only in the collective population of each state for the purpose of maintaining an effective state militia."

Furthermore, the ACLU points at the Supreme Court's "long-standing interpretation" that the Second Amendment's application to individuals is wholly contingent on the extent to which the maintenance of a well-regulated militia is promoted. It's implied here that the role of militia is fulfilled by the police, with the conclusion that only members of the police and military are guaranteed the individual possession of arms.

There is a very interesting long footnote here about a previously included footnote. In 1979, a short footnote was added to state that the ACLU was not neutral, but positively supported gun control laws. In 1980, this was reconsidered and removed, returning the ACLU to official neutrality toward individual gun ownership. "Even though gun control is a desirable social objective, and it would be nice to find a civil liberties rationale for affirmative ACLU support of gun control legislation, the Committee noted that the ACLU has never supported particular remedies for particular crimes, and as such, we cannot support gun control legislation."

The ACLU does oppose restrictions on gun ownership or sales which violate other civil liberties, such as investigation into political views and associations.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reading the ACLU Policy Guide (Pt. 3)

Series explanation and overview here.

Note: These are my summaries of the 1995 version of the guide, not the policies themselves.

Free Speech for Government Officials and Personnel

Policy 35 —Political Campaign Financing

"Limitation on contributions or expenditures made by individuals or organizations for the purpose of advocating causes or candidates in the public forum impinge directly on freedom of speech and association." Thus the ACLU opposes campaign contribution limits and, instead, encourages public financing of campaigns which otherwise would be unable to effectively communicate their views for public consideration. "The appropriate civil liberties response is to expand, not limit, the resources available for political advocacy."

Public financing would provide equal funds to all qualified candidates "who have demonstrated an objective measure of existing political support." The idea here is to ensure a financial floor adequate to inform the public of their options.

Government issued pamphlets in which all candidates have been given message space are recommended.

The ACLU's stance on disclosing contributors is conflicted. They want to compel disclosure of major contributors to combat "improper influence," but simultaneously worry about this causing a "chilling effect" on the freedom of association. So they try to say "fringe political group" contributions shouldn't have to be at risk of disclosure, but otherwise the public ought to know. To me, this breaks with the usual ACLU pattern of forming general policy to protect cases most vulnerable to abridged liberties...a nice way of saying this distinction looks unprincipled.

(There is a footnote about the ACLU opposing "laws that require, or even tolerate, effective coercion of an individual to support group communication with which he disagrees." Specifically, the ACLU believes workers who must be in a union must not be required to pay more than their fair share for collective bargaining. I take it this refers to unions using member fees to advance political ends members may disagree with.)

Policy 36 — Congressional Expression

The ACLU opposes any attempt to weaken congressional immunity to prosecution for whatever they may say in the Senate or House (see Speech or Debate Clause). This includes any normal laws for libel or slander. Instead, the ACLU supports giving any such "accused person" the opportunity to make an official reply, and "spontaneous denunciation" by other members of Congress when anyone gets out of line.

Interestingly, this means the ACLU supports greater freedom of speech for members of Congress than anyone else, at least while they're in official debate.

Members of legislative bodies may not be denied their seat for expressing disagreement with US law or policy.

Policy 37 — Government Employees

In 1967 when the first part of this policy was written, the Hatch Act made it illegal for many federal employees to participate in the political process, even on their own time. The ACLU considered this a "severe deprivation of freedom of speech" and an inappropriate response to worries that superiors might coerce those under them to participate in partisan politics. (I found that the Hatch Act was amended in 1993, which makes me wonder why the 1995 ACLU guide wasn't updated to reflect this.)

There's a note here about the ACLU defending the rights of a Peace Corps volunteer who was fired for being critical of the Vietnam War.

The ACLU opposes any punishment for government workers who express opinions that would be protected for anyone else, unless the government can show that such expression impairs his or her ability to do the job.

Policy 38 — Financial Disclosure Requirements of Government Officials

The balance between the public's right to know and the privacy of government employees can be maintained by only requiring disclosure for particular positions and to the extent required to check for "a conflict or other impropriety."

Policy 39 — The Armed Forces

"The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees and protects the freedom of speech, assembly and association of members of the armed forces to the same extent that it does for civilians."

The ACLU opposes the confiscation of written materials and any punishment for criticizing public officials. Vague rules against "disrespectful behavior toward a superior officer" should be removed and such concerns be covered by specific rules. Nor does the military have any "legitimate interest" in hairstyle and personal jewelry standards, unless it actually affects safety. All personnel must be informed of — and given — an opportunity "to express dissenting viewpoints."

Members of the armed forces may not be restricted in their right "to address the President or members of Congress, privately and directly by means of personal letters, on any matter of public policy."

Non-classified information must be made available to the public.

Policy 40 — Constitutional Conventions

I'm unclear on the context of this policy, but I can tell that in 1979 there was concern about calls to have a Constitutional convention to amend the Constitution and about a possible negative impact on civil liberties.

Policy 40a — Regulation of Political Parties

So long as political parties remain "voluntary associations" of citizens without a "privileged, institutionalized role in elections and government," the ACLU affirms their free speech and association rights.

However, the ACLU considers primary elections to be a "semi-governmental function" and so believes government regulation can be justified to ensure voter rights. "To facilitate competition for primary nominations, states may publish or mandate the publication of lists of registered members of parties engaging in the primary election process." (Surprised at that one!)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reading the ACLU Policy Guide (Pt. 2)

Series explanation and overview here.

Note: These are my summaries of the 1995 version of the guide, not the policies themselves.

The Mass Media

Policy 12 —Access to the Media

"The ultimate purpose of the freedom of speech provision of the First Amendment is to promote the public circulation of diverse thought on political and social causes." From this reasoning, the ACLU asserts that freedom of speech can require positive action to ensure its "ultimate purpose." In a time before ubiquitous Internet, "street corner" and "pamphlet" promotion of unpopular ideas seemed hopeless compared to the power of mass media, so the ACLU here supports various ways of making sure such views are present in mass media formats.

Newspapers, magazines, and similar print media should not be able to turn down non-commercial advertising (of ideas) which are in a similar category of non-commercial advertising that's already accepted. We've seen a recent example of what's at stake with the difficulty Atheist groups have had in keeping up billboards in cities Christian groups have not.

Newspaper opinion pages are recommended. (Those weren't a given a couple of decades ago?)

The previous items concerning print media were apparently just strong recommendations, because this policy contrasts the "unenforceable right of access" to print with an "enforceable right of access" to broadcast media. The justification is public ownership of the airwaves.

Policy 13 — Newsperson's and Researcher's Privilege

The ACLU believes the First Amendment protects reporters and other researchers from being compelled to provide their confidential sources, with the sole exception of such material being essential to a defendant in criminal court.

Policy 14 — Government Pressures on Newspapers

Investigation of newspaper funding for anti-trust reasons is allowed, but investigation of "political and social opinions" is forbidden by the First Amendment.

Laws forbidding political opinions in newspaper editorials on election days are unjustified abridgements of the freedom of speech.

Policy 15 — Communications Monopolies

Monopolies aren't necessarily a threat to diversity of opinion; it depends on the specifics of how news organizations operate. Nor does such a threat necessarily correlate to the size of monopoly, as "local monopolies are often more harmful to diversity than nation-wide combinations." The emphasis here is on whether the form of ownership is actually a problem in a given case, not just potentially a problem.

Policy 16 — Commercial Advertising

The ACLU does not claim advertisers should be allowed to say whatever they want, as public health and anti-fraud concerns are valid reasons to restrict advertising speech. However, advertisements may contain protected forms of speech. (An advertisement for birth control in a strongly Catholic community might be at risk of unjustified suppression, for example.)

The government may not require advertisers to disclose their identities, but the advertising medium may set requirements.

Policy 17 — Film Classification

Nothing here not already covered in earlier policies. The ACLU expects parents to make their own decisions about which films their children see, and suggests they consult "various experts" ...just not the government.

Policy 18 — Rating Systems Sponsored by the Communications Industries

Though not government entities, film and music industry rating systems significantly constrain free speech and expression. Besides, the private nature of such system is questionable because, historically, they were put in place to avoid a perceived threat of the government doing so.

To be clear, the ACLU does support non-industry groups who take it upon themselves to provide information — even ratings — of music and films. (A good current example is http://www.kids-in-mind.com.) The difference is that people can make their own informed choices about what they and their kids watch, without industry powers imposing their often arbitrary rules on artists.

Policy 20 — Governmental Regulations of Broadcasting

The ACLU believes that technological limitations on the number of broadcast channels has resulted in a "government-created First Amendment preferred position" for those in control of these channels, compared to those without such control. Furthermore, the government's involvement has imposed content restrictions on broadcast channels. The ACLU opposes content restrictions and wants to ensure some use of broadcast channels for non-owners.

Policy 20a — Civil Liberties Principles and Requirements for the Communications Media Infrastructure

Written just before the first graphical web browser was created, this policy concerns the "diversity of networks that will permit citizens to communicate with each other via multiple, interactive communications paths by voice, data, image, video, and other communications means." Today we'd probably just say, "the Internet." (I should point out that this policy was strictly written about "public switch telephone lines" with other media infrastructure under investigation. Perhaps they had things like Bulletin Board Systems in mind.)

The vision for "an electronic public forum" is one to which "all citizens and locales have reasonable, equitable, nondiscriminatory, and affordable access [....]" Services should be "offered by a diversity of sources." Also, Common Carrier regulation should ensure that content providers on the network have equal access "at non-discriminatory rates and terms," are not bound by contract to only use one carrier, are not subject to content filtering by carriers, are considered exclusively responsible for their content (as opposed to holding the carriers responsible), are given a reasonable share of traffic capacity, are free to use their own endpoint equipment (not dictated by carriers), and have their privacy and their subscribers' privacy protected.

This is all quite similar to Network Neutrality policies.

Policy 21 —Diversity, Censorship, and FCC Regulation

This policy echoes Policy 20 in asserting an "affirmative obligation" for the government to ensure diversity on limited broadcast channels, but then weakens this claim considerably by saying: "The [FCC] has a duty to encourage a multitude of voices, but only in a limited way, viz: by preventing monopolistic practices and by promoting technological developments that will open up new channels. But censorship or editing or the screening by government of what licensees may broadcast goes against the grain of the First Amendment." Especially read in light of Policy 15's attitude that monopolies aren't necessarily bad, all of this strikes me as muddled to the point it doesn't seem possible to follow all of these guidelines at once.

Policy 4's position on obscenity for print media is extended to broadcast media, which would be no restrictions based on obscenity.

Policy 22 — Curbs on Network Control of Programming

The ACLU supports compelling networks to offer blocks of broadcast time on a "first come, first served" paid basis to the public. In particular, this should include prime time blocks.

Policy 23 — Subscription TV and Theater TV

Since this policy was written toward the end of public broadcast channel dominance, the promise of a greatly increased number of channels supported by subscriber fees rather than advertising was welcomed as a great stride forward for diversity of speech. The ACLU had in mind what we would now call "à la carte television", where viewers subscribe on the level of specific channels or programs which today is really only offered as a premium service after paying for huge blocks of cable channels. The thought was that by relying on subscriber fees rather than trying to please the largest possible audience for the sake of advertisements, content could cater to more specific interests.

There was apparently a contemporary complaint from broadcast networks about the FCC promoting subscription TV, so this policy also spends time justifying the FCC's role in this and addresses fears that subscription TV would eliminate the older networks.

Theater TV just means showing TV content to a large audience and charging for it. The ACLU was positive about this as well, since it only adds to sources of information.

Policy 24 — Cable Television

Amusingly, this policy from the mid-70s presents a much less rosy view of subscription TV than the previous policy from the mid-60s. By this point, the harsh reality of local cable monopolies selling block of channels according to their own tastes had dampened the earlier hopes of open and diverse consumer choice.

Much of this policy is a rehash of Policy 20's remedies for broadcast channels. However, because of the cost of cable, the ACLU asks that fees be set by "an independent and politically insulated regulatory board" to avoid creating "information poor" segments of society left without cable access.

Another difference with cable television is the ease of gathering information about viewing habits. The ACLU is fine with aggregate data but against unnecessary record keeping on individual subscribers.

Policy 25 — Fairness Doctrine

Anyone can produce print media, but technical limits on the number of broadcast stations create a scarcity of opportunity to broadcast information over the air. Because of this unique situation for the medium, the ACLU believes there is ample justification for regulation which ensures broadcast channels are serving the overall public interest, in a way that is unnecessary for print media.

"As a policy, the general Fairness Doctrine expresses two duties: 1) licensees have an affirmative obligation to devote a 'reasonable amount' of air-tme to the discussion of 'controversial issues of public importance'; and 2) once broadcasters cover one side of a controversial issue, they must also afford a 'reasonable opportunity' for contrasting viewpoints to be heard."

In addition, when a person or group is attacked on the air, there is a duty to notify the attacked of the details and offer a chance to respond on the air. And when a station endorses a political candidate — or a political issue "closely associated with a particular candidate or candidates" — that station must also provide an opportunity to respond.

The ACLU supports the Fairness Doctrine because of its positive duty interpretation of the First Amendment in combination with the situation of broadcast scarcity. One specific recommendation is that any time the President speaks, "contrasting viewpoints should be presented immediately."

Policy 26 — Equal Time in Broadcasting of Political Campaigns

All "legally qualified candidates" must be provided equal time to speak to the public on broadcast and cable channels. News programs which happen to cover candidates do not count against their share of the time.

Policy 27 — Broadcast Editorializing

Earlier on, the ACLU was opposed to broadcast editorializing. This policy (dated April 13, 1959) reverses position, so long as editorializing is clearly identified and broadcasters also ensure advocates for the other side of the issue are invited (at least) to speak their minds.

Policy 28 — Reallocation of the TV Spectrum

This late 70's policy supported the gradual move of all broadcast television to UHF stations, which would have allowed for a greater number of channels. Obviously, this didn't happen, probably due to UHF having significant downsides.

Policy 29 — Religious Broadcasting

This policy implies there was a perception that the FCC considered religious programming as a factor in licensing. The ACLU supported including minority/non-organized religious views as well as irreligious views in that definition, and asked the FCC to state that having religious programming is not a positive or negative factor in licensing.

Policy 30 — Public Broadcasting

The ACLU supports public broadcasting (now known as PBS and NPR for television and radio format respectively). In addition to the regulation of privately owned channels as addressed above, these would be publicly owned channels which allow for full time focus on the positive duty to the First Amendment, i.e. a diversity of speech on topics of public interest.

Policy 31 — Broadcasting Employees' Political Activities

The ACLU opposes firing radio or television employees for outside political associations or activities, though doesn't object to reassignment if that person is in news reporting (but not for other positions). And if this is to be done, it must be a stated policy ahead of time.

Policy 32 — Loyalty Oaths, Investigations, and Blacklisting

Blacklisting workers known to have unpopular political associations, or requiring workers to swear they won't take up such associations are strongly opposed practices. Obviously, company investigators of employee associations are out of the question as well.

There is an allowable exception for when writers use their jobs to promote ideas employers are against. Not sure on the details here, but I think this refers to employers being able to control content put out by their own company.

Policy 33 — On-the-Air Treatment of Political and Social Dissidents

"Any legally qualified candidate is entitled to reach the electorate" through broadcast stations, even if that candidate shares views which overlap with disliked groups or individuals.

Policy 34 — Political Criteria for Licenses

Since a broadcaster may be both a station owner and a content producer on a station, the ACLU wants to make it clear that it doesn't demand such a person present balanced views as a content producer, so long as the station as a whole adheres to diversity guidelines above. Individuals are not expected to embody diversity; stations are.

Policy 34a — Exit Polling

The ACLU opposes restrictions on exit poll reporting, except as necessary "for an orderly election process."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reading the ACLU Policy Guide (Pt. 1)

For international readers, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a legal activist group which promotes individual civil rights, especially Constitutional rights. It's a polarizing organization; people tend to be ardent supporters or demonize it. As a member, I am closer to the first category, though I strongly disagree on some issues.

The official ACLU website is pretty good for finding articles on current events, but weak on detailed policy explanations. It turns out there is — or was — a Policy Guide of the American Civil Liberties Union which was published in loose-leaf format in 1966 with replacement pages sent out like software patches until 1995. At least, the copy I found locally started out as the full 1986 version and was dutifully 'patched' by librarians until 1995. I haven't been able to locate any references to later editions.

[Note: I have since contacted ACLU Nebraska and confirmed the Policy Guide stopped being updated in 1995. I was directed to the national and local websites for current policies, which would be fine if the information there were more detailed.]

In this series of posts, I will summarize and lightly comment on ACLU policies from the mid '90s. Keep in mind that some positions are bound to be outdated or differently presented today. Policy names and the names of policy sections are verbatim.

American Civil Liberties Union (1986-1995). Policy guide of the american civil liberties union. New York, New York: ACLU.

Policy Sections

Censorship [1-11]
The Mass Media [12-34a]
Free Speech for Government Officials and Personnel [35-40a]
Assembly and Public Protest [41-47]
Labor-Business [48-59a]

Academic Freedom [60-79]
Separation of Church and State [80-102]
Loyalty and Security [103-119]
Military Power [120-122]
[series on indefinite hold]


Policy 1 — Prior Restraint and Official Censorship

"Believing that pre-censorship is the most dangerous of all curtailments of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment, the ACLU opposes any governmental restriction or punishment, prior to publication or exhibition, of any form of expression on grounds of obscenity."

Examples given include government censorship of films, books, magazines, and plays. Apparently, the "pre" in "pre-censorship" indicates any kind of system in which publication is forbidden by default unless the government approves. I can see how that would be even more restrictive than the government censoring something after the fact. So far as I know, this kind of thing isn't a problem nowdays.

Policy 2 — Mail Censorship

The ACLU opposes any censorship of private communication alleged to be "obscene or seditious," whether by the postal service or customs agents. Racial and religious hate speech are pointed out as examples of protected material.

This section talks about a couple of laws which allowed citizens to opt-out of "sexually oriented" mail, kind of like the Do Not Call registry today. Any such mail had to be labeled as such and the postal service would be responsible for not delivering it. The ACLU opposed these laws on the ground that they had the effect (intended or not) of restricting the freedoms of adults. People living in small towns, for example, might feel that they couldn't been seen accepting mail with the obscenity mark on it. "The Union holds that censorship instituted to protect children inevitably affects the freedom of adults to read and view what they please." It is a matter of parental rather than government responsibility to control what their children see or read.

Policy 3 — Private Pressure Groups

This one is a little strange. First, the rights to organize and protest for a cause are recognized, but then the policy says this "does not mean that the ACLU should refrain from objecting when the likely consequences of private pressure group activities would be inimical to civil liberties."

The charitable reading is that this policy isn't like the first two; it's not saying the government should be able to suppress speech when that speech is threatening civil liberties. Instead, this policy merely makes it clear that the ACLU recognizes the legal right to such speech while expressing a contrary opinion themselves. This is consistent with the "more speech, not less" approach to hate speech that the ACLU takes these days.

Policy 4 — Censorship of Obscenity, Pornography and Indecency

"The ACLU opposes any restraint on the right to create, publish or distribute materials to adults, or the right of adults to choose the materials they read or view, on the basis of obscenity, pornography or indecency."

This isn't from some particular support of pornography, but because the ACLU believes the general freedom of speech and the right to read are threatened by such exceptions. And, besides, there is no agreed-upon definition of obscenity.

The ACLU also opposes laws against distributing such material to minors, again citing the reasons that this inevitably turns out to restrict distribution to adults and that it's the responsibility of parents to control what their own children are exposed to.

Realizing we're not likely to see an end to obscenity laws soon, there is a list of seven guidelines intended to mitigate the harm to civil liberties from such laws. For example, definitions must be drawn narrowly, trials must be fair and without extra-judicial harassment, and — more controversially — those involved should not be "obligated to risk punishment by misjudging the age of a minor. Such persons should not be required to keep records of evidence submitted by minors; and should be entitled to rely reasonably on a minor's statement of age." I think the idea here is that people should not be subjected to special jeopardy who are making a good faith effort to follow the law. It would be similar to bars not being liable for selling alcohol to minors if the minor presented a genuine-looking fake ID. I don't know why a record-keeping requirement of photo IDs would be opposed, since that is an effective way to encourage due diligence.

There's a bit about being opposed to zoning laws against the sale of books, movies, etc. on account of content.

Crimes which are sometimes claimed to be caused or increased by pornography such as coerced sex and kidnapping can be "remedied" by better enforcement and strengthening of these laws. The ACLU supports laws protecting minors from "substantial physical harm" or "substantial and continuing emotional or psychological harm." Basically, they're against any harm coming to children because of involvement in the production of obscene material (or anytime else), and believe laws against this rather than laws against obscene material itself are the correct response. I suppose it would be like punishing people for murder, but not for possessing recordings of murders. A highly controversial position nonetheless.

Policy 5 — Comic Books

Comic books must have been the video games of the time, in terms of people blaming the medium for youth crime. This policy points out the lack of good evidence for a causal link between comics and crime, and condemns both government and industry censorship.

Policy 6 — Libel and Invasions of Privacy through Speech

The ACLU opposes any libel laws for speech about public officials relating to their public position, or about anyone relating to public concerns. They do allow for compensatory damages in other cases, but claim "[t]he award of punitive damages is inconsistent with First Amendment principles since they are intended not to compensate the plaintiff for any loss he or she has suffered, but to punish the defendant." In addition, the ACLU believes civil — as opposed to criminal — action is adequate for libel; they point out that a "disproportionate number of criminal libel prosecutions" involve persons involved in public office which is especially damaging to free speech.

Group libel laws, such as laws against defaming racial or religious groups, are opposed completely. "While the statements involved may well be offensive and hateful, still it is better that they be openly expressed and, therefore, open to challenge and debate."

And "truthful, embarrassing, private facts" don't justify legal action.

Policy 7 — Access to Government Information

While some government information "directly relevant to national security," personnel files, medical information, and closed door consideration of unpopular proposals are legitimately withheld from the public, the ACLU here complains that the government also has a habit of keeping information secret that is unclassified and lacks any other compelling reason for secrecy.

"The achievement of government of and by the people requires that the people know what the government is doing." For example, the people must be told immediately about military action both direct and by sponsorship, armed forces presence in foreign countries, economic assistance to foreign countries or insurgencies, and any diplomatic commitments involving these things. However, not about details of operations and weaponry, the details of intelligence gathering "so long as the types of techniques employed are made public," or military contingency plans (like the plan to quell Canada if it comes to that).

The ACLU supports an independent government agency whose job it is to responsibly review materials for declassification, over any objections from the group that originally classified it.

Policy 8 — Media Coverage of Military Hostilities

For democratic reasons, the ACLU believes members of the press should have unimpeded access to active combat zones and the military personnel therein, and to their own communication equipment to report what's going on to the public. I suspect this policy may be somewhat amended today with the real-time nature of global reporting which easily intrudes into the kind of details excepted in the previous policy.

Policy 9 — Census Questions

This policy is largely about the appropriateness and confidentiality of race/ethnicity questions on the census. The ACLU sees a conflict between the right to privacy and other rights served by finding out information about race and ethnicity. Frankly, I don't understand why the government needs to know racial statistics to protect any related rights.

Name and address may be mandated. Race/ethnicity as well, so long as this information is stored separately from name and address. All other questions should be voluntary, except that religious affiliation questions should never be asked even on a voluntary basis.

Policy 10 — Copyrights

Amusingly, the main concern here is about government employees copyrighting documents in an attempt to prevent dissemination. I'd love to hear the story behind that one.

Policy 11 — Anonymity and Disclosure

Anonymously published propaganda ought to be free from demands to reveal the source. A justifiable exception is when it concerns candidates for public office, since it's too easy for one campaign to crank out last-minute anonymous lies to sway an election. This doesn't allow time for the public to investigate the merit of such claims.

The ACLU supports (or rather, doesn't oppose) laws to reveal who is paying lobbyists. The justification again concerns the public's opportunity to evaluate information.

Political groups and private organizations may not be legally compelled to provide membership lists, as this detracts from the freedom of association.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Words and Things without Ideas

How do words and phrases like "Mars," "the first President of the United States," and "Dante Shepherd" mean what they do? A popular first answer is that they mean what they do because they each stand for a particular thing. The notion these kinds of words are just labels for things is called the Theory of Reference for definite descriptions.

Following William Lycan's Philosophy of Language: a Contemporary Introduction, I will describe four puzzles which make the Theory of Reference appear untenable.

Puzzle #1 — Apparent Reference to Nonexistents
Zaphod Beeblebrox is two-headed.
How can "Zaphod Beeblebrox" have meaning by standing in for something, if that 'something' doesn't exist? Lycan puts this intuition more explicitly (paraphrasing a bit):

I. The sentence above is meaningful.
II. The sentence above is in subject-predicate form.
III. A meaningful subject-predicate sentences is meaningful only because it refers to something then ascribes a quality to it.
IV. "Zaphod Beeblebrox" doesn't refer to anything that exists.
V. Given II through IV, the sentence above isn't meaningful...or it refers to something that doesn't exist.
VI. If something doesn't exist, it's impossible to refer to it.

One of the points from I to VI must be false. (Which would you challenge?)

Puzzle #2 — Negative Existentials
The Lemurian civilization never existed.
Assuming this is true, how could it be a true, meaningful sentence under the Theory of Reference? The sentence explicitly denies the existence of the very thing it is supposedly pointing at and talking about, so to speak.

Puzzle #3 — Identity
Howard O'Brien is Anne Rice.
If the Theory of Reference were correct, this should be a very boring, trivial, non-informative kind of statement along the lines of the equation x = x. There sure seems to be more information here than that! Probably even a commentary on her parents' psychology.

Puzzle #4 — Substitutivity 
Debra Morgan knows that the Bay Harbor Butcher dismembers bodies.
Since Dexter Morgan is the Bay Harbor Butcher, it should be possible to substitute referentially equivalent words without changing the meaning.
Debra Morgan knows that Dexter Morgan dismembers bodies.
But she doesn't know this, at least not in the episodes I've seen. The two sentences obviously have very different meanings if one is true and the other false! (Leaving aside the question of whether facts about fictional characters are genuinely true, since real life cases are possible.)

Now What?

The Theory of Reference is nice and simple, but doesn't work out. There are other theories which do a better job of capturing what we mean by 'meaning.' I don't think any of them has universal support among philosophers (what does?). And of course there's always the possibility our notion of 'meaning' isn't neat, so we can't ever capture it neatly.

Friday, August 5, 2011

On 'Slaves of the Passions'

Mark Schroeder's book, Slaves of the Passions, defends the idea that all reasons are dependent on the psychological features of those to whom they are reasons.

To use his central example, picture Ronnie (who likes to dance) and Bradley (who doesn't even like to be around dancing). Both are invited to a party where dancing will definitely be going on. If you agree the fact that there will be dancing at the party is a reason for Ronnie to attend and a reason for Bradley to avoid attending, then you're on board with the intuition that at least some reasons are explained by psychological differences.

The controversial move is to try explaining all reasons in the same way. In its most general form, Schroeder characterizes this Humean Theory of Reasons1 as a "parity thesis," which only insists that whatever the difference is between Ronnie and Bradley that constitutes a difference in reasons...that's what constitutes a difference in all reasons. Specific versions of the Humean Theory of Reasons (HTR) may advance different theories about what the difference actually is.

Why make a big deal out of distinguishing general from substantive theories?
  1. Past critics of the HTR have tended to challenge some substantive theory while believing they were challenging the general theory.
  2. Schroeder offers his own substantive theory, Hypotheticalism, which supposedly dodges historical criticisms. But of course he doesn't want anyone to think discrediting Hypotheticalism would automatically discredit the HTR.
Well, Not THOSE Reasons

The HTR is concerned with normative reasons rather than explanatory reasons.

Explanatory reasons — The reason my car won't start is that it has a dead battery.
Normative reasons — Graduate school requirements are a reason to maintain a high undergrad GPA.

Schroeder makes a further distinction within normative reasons, producing what he (somewhat reluctantly) labels objective normative reasons and subjective normative reasons. This distinction is based on whether the reason applies whatever a person's beliefs may be (objective) or applies because of a person's beliefs regardless of what is actually true (subjective).

Suppose I take a pill I believe is aspirin, but is actually poison. I probably don't have an objective normative reason to take the pill, but if I have a headache it seems right to say I had a reason of some kind to do so. Subjective reasons, Schroeder suggests, are normative reasons which would be objective normative reasons if the person's relevant beliefs were true.

So the two basic kinds of reasons turn out to be explanatory reasons and objective normative reasons, with the HTR aiming at the latter category.2 It would be nice to unify these two senses, as Stephen Finlay does for normative and non-normative senses of 'ought,'3 but Schroeder points out difficulties rather than a solution for doing this.4

Winning the Intuition War

Or rather, not losing the intuition war. Slaves of the Passions is primarily about rescuing the HTR from disrepute by showing that supposedly knock-down arguments are weak or off-target. I may examine a few of these arguments in the future.

Today I want to take a step back and ask, "What makes a theory of reasons a good theory?" Avoiding incoherence is a start, but philosophers are exceptionally skilled at figuring out how things aren't necessarily incoherent. It's a low bar.

I'm tempted to say that a good theory of reasons provides the simplest possible explanation of our talk about 'reasons.' This is the sort of thing Paul Ziff did in his book Semantic Analysis when he analyzed 'good' as meaning "answering to certain interests."5 Schroeder's chapter on normative reduction makes it clear he's trying to say something about the metaphysics of reasons, not just something about English and other languages which might have similar semantic patterns. And a vital way to test the metaphysical correctness of theories about reasons is to check the intuitive data.
For to the extent that a Humean is willing to admit to accepting results that are intuitively false, other philosophers are going to legitimately infer that he has simply changed the subject, and is talking about something else entirely.6
This plays out in a pair of chapters alleging that the HTR wrongly calls things reasons which are not reasons...and wrongly denies that things are reasons which are reasons. For example, Schroeder's substantive theory generates the seemingly ridiculous result that I have a reason to eat my car. This would seem to put him in a bind. How can he make make intuitive acceptability a necessary criterion for theories of reasons, yet support a theory with such an unintuitive result?
What I will now do is explain why our negative existential intuitions about reasons are prone to be misleading in this way. The explanation comes in two steps, each of which yields a testable empirical prediction. So I'll then proceed to test these predictions.7
I was excited; empirical predictions! No need to rely on intuitions about a metaphysical issue. ...except the empirical tests turned out to be tests of intuitions.

Prediction one: When Schroeder explains that the reason for me to eat my car is that it "contains the recommended daily allowance of iron," it becomes somewhat less unintuitive.
Prediction two: When Schroeder explains that this reason is a terribly weak reason, the unintuitive level drops again.

The lesson here is that initially unintuitive results can be ok if reflecting on them can result in their looking not-so-bad after all. This is probably a good approach to take with people whose big hangup with the HTR is based on on negative intuitions. I don't think it appeals as much to people like me who have an intuitive affinity for the HTR but don't appreciate intuitive 'tests' of metaphysics. Then again, I'm not the sort of reader Schroeder needs to worry about.


I may as well sketch the substantive version of the HTR featured in Slaves of the Passions, to keep anyone curious about that from feeling completely teased by the tangent I took in this post.

Revisiting the Ronnie and Bradley scenario, the fact that there will be dancing at the party is a reason for Ronnie to go to the party because (1) Ronnie desires that he dance and (2) the truth of the proposition there will be dancing at the party helps explain why Ronnie going to the party promotes Ronnie dancing. And if (1) or (2) didn't hold, then the fact that there will be dancing at the party would not be a reason for Ronnie to go. (As is the case for Bradley.)

Reasons depend on a person's desires and external facts about the world. It's important to notice that the only reason identified above is the fact of dancing at the party. This sets Hypotheticalism against other versions of the HTR which count desires as reasons for action (except in special cases where desires fill the role of the fact of dancing in the example above).

Although Hypotheticalism is intentionally constructed as an 'existence proof' of an intuitively viable form of the HTR, Schroeder usually goes back to the dancing scenario and argues that Hypotheticalism turns out to provide a more intuitive explanation of the Ronnie/Bradley difference than other versions of the HTR which are vulnerable to historical criticisms.

I'm definitely on board with the general HTR, and think the basic Hypotheticalist template is about right. Except by 'right' I mean as a concise explanation of how 'reasons' language is actually used, or as a minimally cleaned up version to achieve coherence. Schroeder's applications of Hypotheticalism to moral theory strike me as completely off the wall, but I realize he's trying to show that the range of Hypotheticalism is broad enough to allow for surprisingly Kantian strategies. So it's probably just my usual boggling at Kantians at work there.

1. In Book 2, Section 3, Part 3 of A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." This passage inspired so-called Humean theories of reason and, obviously, this book's title.
2. I skipped over the category of 'motivating' reasons which Schroeder takes to be a combination of explanatory and subjective normative reasons. See p. 12.
3. See http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2010/12/on-oughts-and-ends.html
4. Schroeder, M. (2007). Slaves of the passions. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 35-37.
5. Ziff, P. (1967). Semantic analysis. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press.
6. Schroeder. p. 86
7. Ibid. p. 94