Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Gyges Escapes Again! • Regressive Tendencies? • Are Incompetent Murderers OK? • Marks of Progress • Regressive Tendencies?
Gyges Escapes Again!
DEAR EDITOR: Despite everything, Gyges will still escape from Arnold Zuboff’s perfect grasp into the terrible freedom of moral uncertainty.
In his letter in Issue 33 of Philosophy Now, Arnold Zuboff writes: “Gyges… may easily calculate… that a perfect grasp would reveal an immeasurably greater value in the life of the stranger than in the acquisition of £10”. But value has to be value for somebody. A splendid new pair of climbing boots is of no value at all for a man with no legs.
So there are two possibilities. The first is that the problem hinges on the value of the stranger’s life for Gyges. In that case Gyges could try to work out all the possible ways in which the stranger might impinge, directly or indirectly, on his (Gyges) own life. Given that the stranger, his character, situation and location are unknown to Gyges, that is impossible. (Or does perfect grasp mean that they are, or could be, known? That would change the whole story.) In any case, even if this calculation were possible, it might well turn out that the total of all the stranger’s possible effects on Gyges would be disadvantageous to the latter. Admittedly, there is one exception: if Gyges could convince himself that any addition to the world’s population would, or would be likely to, benefit him, then no further calculation would be necessary in order to establish the value of the strangers life to Gyges. But what evidence or argument could lead Gyges to this conclusion?
The second possibility is that the problem hinges on the value of the stranger’s life for all humanity. If this is to be established on empirical grounds, it must depend on the kind of person the stranger can be presumed to be. S/he would clearly be of no value to humanity as a whole (as opposed to her or his nearest and dearest) if s/he were a mass murderer with no compensating traits such as wit, beauty or musical talent. So Gyges would have to rely on the probability (assumed a priori or based on induction from statistical evidence) that more people benefit humanity than harm it. If this probability is assumed a priori, this becomes a humanist version of the all-human-lifeis- sacred position. The argument from induction, on the other hand, would have to rely on questions such as “What would the state of humanity be if this or that person had never existed?”, which, I submit, are unanswerable, perfect grasp or no. If the value of the strangers life to all humanity is not to be established on empirical grounds, however, it must be based on a direct appeal to the all human life is sacred postulate, which makes the whole argument about Gyges decision redundant.
Now, I grant that I have ignored Arnold Zuboff’s analysis of what perfect grasp entails. But all this does is to explain how, in the hypothetical perfect case, the effect on the world of the strangers life or its termination could be assessed. It leaves untouched what is meant by value and for whom (universal, particular or individual) that life or its termination has value. This is the flaw in Arnold Zuboff’s proposed basis for moral decisions, not the fact that it is based on a probabilistic calculation rather than a definite determination.
DEAR EDITOR: I’ve been enjoying the lively debate on Intelligent Design (ID) in your recent issues, but there remains a major flaw in the theory which has never been addressed by its proponents, such as William Dembski or Michael Behe. ID, being the latest manifestation of the old argument from design, also succumbs to the infinite regress problem. Let’s begin by stating ID’s obvious central premise: “Irreducible complexity (Behe) or specified complexity (Dembski) bespeaks Intelligent Design.”
This is where the argument collapses. Since all intelligent designers of complexity (including deities) must themselves possess at least as much complexity as their creations (e.g. humans), then, according to the above premise, all intelligent designers must also bespeak of further intelligent design, and their intelligent designers before them, ad infinitum. One could retort that the Intelligent Designer of the universe would not possess a physical body and would therefore not have complexity in the same way that objects or organisms do. But this is false. It’s quite obvious that the attribute of intelligence (whether embodied or disembodied) is itself a form of specified complexity, and since intelligence is always implied in ‘intelligent designer’, our regress would remain. Any recourse to Aquinas’ First Cause argument doesn’t help. If a particular intelligent designer in our regress is claimed to be a First Cause, then there is no reason why the universe itself cannot be (since both would still possess unexplained complexity). Furthermore, any attempt to stop the regress by arbitrarily choosing a sufficient stopping point, would rely on personal preference and not logic.
If the infinite regress problem isn’t effectively addressed by ID’s proponents, then ID, like all design arguments before it, will remain a nonstarter.
Are Incompetent Murderers OK?
DEAR EDITOR: Moral Instrumentalism (see Michael Philips in Issue 32) is more a rationalization of conflicting intuitions (‘moralities’) rather than a moral philosophy per se. It seems more concerned with providing an irrational emotional outlet for victims of accidents rather than providing a rational means for assessing blame according to actual personal responsibility for an intentional act regardless of consequences.
If the upside of all this is that we get to rail against someone for his bad luck or feel OK about someone who had horrendous intentions then we are merely indulging our infantile rage, and not passing any kind of moral judgement at all. We are also not “minimizing guilt, resentment and recrimination” but rather redirecting it away from lucky ‘murderers’ and toward unlucky bus drivers.
With respect to the examples given I would suggest that murderers (whether incompetent or lucky) are not fit to live freely among us. However, if the woman who attempted to kill her husband did so in response to a prior attack by him then her act would be justified. Also, if driving under the influence puts lives at risk then it is a crime regardless of outcomes and should be seriously and consistently prosecuted i.e. the impaired bus driver should be held accountable for being impaired irrespective of results.
What Instrumentalism really seeks to do in blaming unlucky negligence is to discourage accidents, and since accidents are by definition unintentional they cannot be effectively proscribed. Instrumentalism countenances the idea that we should level blame against the unlucky so that the lucky will shape up and not become unlucky. It also seeks to not seriously punish the lucky because they were lucky.
If a bus driver has to endure the equivalent of the Scarlet Letter for being unlucky and a horrible would-be murderer is returned unscathed to live among us, then what we have achieved in society is a net diminution in the exercise of reason.
I was surprised when I discovered in his article that this was not the point that Michael Philips was ultimately going to make.
Marks of Progress
DEAR EDITOR: Joel Marks (Issue 33) argues that science cannot put philosophy out of business because it adds ‘new facts’ that themselves need to be interpreted. But science is less concerned with producing ‘new facts’ than with constructing theories that explain existing facts and, in many cases, predict new ones. The role of controlled experiment will vary from case to case and in some cases not exist at all (as, for example, in palaeontology). If so, then the attempt to distinguish philosophy as essentially reliant on existing data and science as dependent on generating new data is necessarily mistaken.
Further, there is a sense in which successful scientific theories, rather than opening up new philosophical problems, may be seen as, if not answering them directly, at least as making certain options intrinsically less plausible. Who, knowing what we now know about the brain from neuroscience, can be a Cartesian dualist? The problems of teleology that so preoccupied Kant are surely, after Darwin, to say the least, less troubling. If the new Darwinian account of the aetiology of human morality is to be given credence, a good many theories of ethics become unsustainable: there is little hope, for example, for ethical objectivists, emotivists, prescriptivists and existentialists.
It is also pertinent to note that the influence is one way only. The progress of science tends to close up philosophical options just as it does theological ones. The progress of philosophy – if there is such – does not in the same way result in the closing-up of scientific options. This doesn’t mean, however, that science can swallow up philosophy entirely – and to this degree I agree with Marks – if only because there are certain questions on which it is hard to see how science can throw any light, those, for example, concerning our ethical, aesthetic, and political values.
More challengingly, Marks argues for the empirical nature of both philosophy and science. I would wish to stress by contrast the degree to which both are dependent on thought-experiments. For example, if you are Galileo, attempting to refute an Aristotelian physics in which heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones, you don’t start at once dropping objects from the Tower of Pisa. Instead, you ask whether it is even conceptually plausible. That is, you ask: if Aristotle were right, what would happen to a heavy object in free fall if it were attached to a lighter one. If you are Einstein, you ask, for example, what would it be like to travel on a beam of light?
Similar sorts of thought-experiment occur throughout philosophy. Recent examples include Searle’s Chinese room, the question of inverted qualia, and the brain in the vat. Famous nineteenth- century ones include Hegel’s inverted world and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. There is, however, a difference between what science and philosophy do with these thought-experiments. Science typically tries to anchor them, or the theories to which they give rise, in physical experimentation. There is no such option available to the philosopher: rather, what he is aiming at is clarification. The appeal to experience is unavailable to him, precisely because these are sci-fi scenarios, which go outside our present-day experience. They are questions instead about conceptual possibility. Thus the philosopher’s relation to the empirical is necessarily more tenuous than Marks suggests.
DEAR EDITOR: The arguments in your ‘Fashion Emergency’ article reflect terminological confusion. No wonder that the blows in your picture do not connect. Epistemology is a traditional philosophic – ie non-empirical subject. According to its – arguably – greatest exponent, Kant, it exposes what is involved or presupposed in the transition from raw data to knowledge. It cannot be empirical because grounding empirical knowledge on a particular piece of empirical knowledge would be circular. On this level we need to be ‘Old Fashioned Feminists’ and reject sexual differences. ‘Theory of knowledge’, though an accurate translation, is not burdened with the same tradition and so can cover empirically based theories such as those of Cognitive Psychology, Sociology of Knowledge, and History of Ideas. On the Humpty-Dumpty principle feminists are perfectly entitled to call contributions to these disciplines dealing specifically with women ‘feminist epistemology’ as long as it is unambiguously distinguished from epistemology as a branch of philosophy.