Monday, February 21, 2005
Second, as long as I've got your attention let me just say please, please, please vote for Laurel Prussing in tomorrow's Dem primary. Thanks.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
The Gospel according to Z
I've been thinking about the moral theory implicit in the song "Search Me, Lord" by the Kings of Harmony. The chorus is excerpted below. Click on the iTunes box if you want to hear it for yourself (the chorus is included in the sample loop).
Oh, search me Lord,
Please, search me lord, yes,
Turn the light of heaven on my soul,
If you find anything that shouldn't be,
Take it out and straighten me,
I want to be right,
I want to be saved,
I want to be whole.
It seems to me that this lyric contains three distinctively moral elements. Working back to front one finds, first of all, an articulation of the content of the concept of being a moral person. Second, there is an implied account of the source of moral motivation. Lastly, a procedure is suggested for arriving at the desired state of moral perfection.
The content of the concept is given in the last three quoted lines. Each suggests a dichotomy: right as opposed to wrong; saved as opposed to lost (or perhaps fallen or damned); and, whole as opposed to incomplete. Of these it is the last which is most difficult to interpret. The key, I think, is to take each line as corresponding to an element of the Trinity. So: to be right brings the agent into agreement with the Father, the law giving God of the Old Testament; to be saved is to be given grace by the savior of the New Testament; and, to be whole, then, is to be filled by the spirit of the Holy Ghost.
It is worth noting that the notion of immorality as defect or incompleteness is common in non-theological philosophical contexts. So, according to some views, a moral failure is a failure to live up to one's higher order judgments and this disrupts the unity of the self (in some sense). Others, and notably Plato, have thought that immorality (and particularly indulgence) polluted the soul, and one can think of the removal of this pollution as a return to wholeness. I'm a little unclear on the theology of the Holy Spirit, so I don't know how close the song's moral understandings are to these.
In any case, it seems to me that one can grant the song's conception of the state of moral perfection and yet take issue with the other elements of the song's moral view.
Begin by considering the implied account of moral motivation. It is apparently suggestd that there are three reasons to be moral. First, because it is commanded by God. Second, because otherwise one will suffer the pain of damnation. And, lastly, because one will receive the benefit of communion with the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, each of these is inadequate as a basis for moral motivation.
In the case of the first the problem has to do with the externality of the proposed direction. By substituting God's will for her own the individual abdicates her status as an agent. In order to understand the individual as an agent, then, we must see her as endorsing the laws given unto her by God. But then the explanation is incomplete, because nothing has been said about her reasons for giving that endorsement.1
This still leaves hope for the account as a whole, of course, since the endorsement might be underwritten by the other two suggested reasons. This hope is dashed, however, because those reasons are entirely egoistic. That is, the individual doesn't seem to be concerned with morality at all, but only with her own wellbeing.
On the basis of this, it seems to me that the motivational account suggested by the song is inadequate. It should be mentioned, however, that this account is suggested rather than explicitly stated. It may be that the Kings of Harmony are not egoists and imagine other reasons (perhaps articulated in other songs) for moral action.
Consider next the proposed procedure for moral correction. That procedure has two parts. In the first, the Lord is asked to 'shine the light of Heaven' on the agent's soul in order to find 'anything that shouldn't be.' In the second, it is requested that the Lord, having identified a defect, 'take it out and straighten me.'
The first part of this is vulnerable to an objection which parallels certain elements of those given above. In trusting the Lord to identify defects, the individual abdicates her own role in the project of moral evaluation, and this makes it difficult to understand her as a fully responsible agent. As with the previous line of objection, however, there is room for the thought that the individual has, for reasons not identified in this song, endorsed the content of the Lord's evaluative judgment.2 If this were so then the individual would merely be relying on the Lord's priveleged view, rather than substituting His will for her own.
The second part of the procedure faces a problem which is less easily evaded because it rests on an explicit demand. The difficulty here is that the Lord, rather than the individual, is entrusted with the responsibility for seeing to it that the demands of morality are met. This has the effect of reducing the entire content of the individual's moral obligations to a single act of supplication. That is, the individual entirely satisfies her responsibility for the reform of her character by asking that the Lord do the heavy lifting. This, clearly, is a moral vision fit only for children. It would be better if the demand had been something like, "please Lord, reveal it to me."
1 I mean to be following Korsgaard here.
2 It may be that the relevant explanation is that given by The Dixieaires in "The Greatest Creator of Them All."
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
The experimental method in philosophy
Applied ethics is a field that has grown up in analytic philosophy over the last 35 or 40 years. It's main concern is to apply rigorous philosophical reasoning to the sorts of ethical problems and dilemmas encountered in everyday modern life. So, those who work in applied ethics consider such things as the allocation of scarce medical resources, the permissibility of abortion, and the justification of self-defense. Importantly, applied ethics is meant to be independent of any prior theoretical framework. That is, rather than taking a developed moral theory (like, say, utilitarianism) and then analyzing cases according to its tenets, the applied ethicist begins with the cases and only endorses principles which arise endogenously from judgments about those cases.
In practice this means that those who work in applied ethics are constantly appealing to moral intuitions. So, for example, it might be said that scarce intinsive care unit beds should be reserved for patients with a reasonable chance at surviving to live a reasonably full life, and that this fits our intuition that not every life is equally worth living. What's going on here is that the approach taken by applied ethicists prevents them from taking any moral theory as licensing their judgments, and so they look elsewhere, to intuitions, for some kind of foundation.
The problem, as David notes, is that the intuitions of philosophers are not always in agreement. Experimental philosophy attempts to correct for this deficiency by widening the sample to include ordinary folk. It goes like this:
(Note - a "1 2 3 problem" is just a situation where there are three mutually incompatible explanations of a case, each of which is thought to be intuitively appealing by some group of philosophers)
To approach a solution to the "1 2 3 problem," an experimental philosopher might present versions of claims 1, 2 and 3 to a group of ordinary people and ask each subject whether she finds any of the claims difficult to reject. It might turn out that although ordinary people find it very difficult to reject claims 1 and 3, claim 2 doesn't have any intuitive appeal at all to them. If this happens, then the case for anti-2ism will become quite strong. Progress will have been made on a problem which philosophers have long been unable to solve.
One thing to consider here is that the explanation for differences in intuitive judgments can have causes that don't seem to have much to do with the substance of the cases. For example, studies have shown that moral intuitions are sensitive to differences in socio-economic status. I've blogged about this before, though my focus was different.
David's critique is methodological and practical. There is no reason to expect that non-philosophers will display unanimity in their opinions. This means that the best case scenario is that some large number of non-philosophers will agree, but that not all will. There is then a practical question of deciding what amount of agreement is dispositive, and there seems to be no principled reason for choosing one standard rather than another. Moreover, if there were a principled reason, one wonders why it wouldn't make just as much sense to apply that standard within the discipline.
It seems to me that David is right to think that this is a serious problem, but I want to suggest two further worries.
First, something I gestured at earlier. The whole project gets off the ground because (some of) those working in applied ethics have been half-hearted in their rejection of foundational approaches to moral problem solving. That is, they reject the idea that progress can be made by starting with an account of the basic structure of morality, but then, at the end of the day, they look to moral intuitions to play the very same role in moral justifications that used to be played by comprehensive theoretical accounts. To see just how futile this is, consider where we would stand if experimental philosophy succeeded. We would know of some judgment that it accorded with the moral intuitions of a vast majority of people. But that doesn't tell us much at all unless we have some reason for thinking that those moral intuitions are an adequate foundation for moral justification. And since there seems to be no good reason to think so, we end up replacing one inadequate foundation with another. We would do better, I think, to stick to our anti-theoretical guns.
This brings me to my second worry. This kicks in for anyone who isn't thoroughly committed to an anti-theoretical approach to ethics. Suppose, again, the success of experimental philosophy. Suppose, further, that agreement among intuitions does reveal that the correct moral result has been reached. It seems to me that we face a version of the euthyphro problem. The problem is that we didn't get an answer to the question we really cared about. That is, we might have found out that a particular action is morally required, but we didn't find out why.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
If three people do it...
Etiquette Dinner for Graduate and Professional Students
Sponsor/Host: UI Alumni Association and Graduate College Career Services
Savvy dining and social skills play a major role in the business arena today. Enjoy a four-course meal while learning how to strenghten business relationships in special social situations to give yourself a competitive edge.
Date: Monday, February 28, 2005
Time: 6 pm
Location: Colonial Room, Illini Union, Urbana, IL
Contact: (800)355-2586 or (217)333-1471, firstname.lastname@example.org
Fee: $10 per student (price includes four-course meal and etiquette tutorial)
Max. Attendance: 75
Reservation Deadline: Friday, February 18, 2005