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Philosophy on the TeeVee September 7, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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Philosophy departments across the U.S. are being decimated by bean counters but at least philosophy now has its own TV channel.

Actually, this site looks interesting—top notch philosophers addressing important issues.


Torture Doctors Don’t Care April 15, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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A leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concludes that medical personnel were involved in torturing terrorist suspects held overseas by the CIA, according to reports in the New York Times. The article highlights the fact that the medical personnel were violating codes of medical ethics.

Facilitating such practices, which the Red Cross described as torture, was a violation of medical ethics even if the medical workers’ intentions had been to prevent death or permanent injury, the report said. But it found that the medical professionals’ role was primarily to support the interrogators, not to protect the prisoners, and that the professionals had “condoned and participated in ill treatment.”

This suggests that there is something especially egregious about medical personnel being involved. Torture is bad, but it is even worse when medics participate.

Dominic Wilkinson at Practical Ethics asks why:

But would it really make it better if the assistants were soldiers or CIA officers who had received some medical training? What if they were scientists or vets?

He goes on to argue:

Sometimes we hold doctors to higher standards than the rest of the community. We may, for example, feel particularly aggrieved if a doctor gossips about our health to another patient, but not be concerned (or as concerned) if this is done by our hairdresser. But the moral requirement not to torture or to assist in torture is not of this nature. It is something that should have equal force on a doctor or a CIA officer, a hairdresser or a vet…But the reason that it is wrong for doctors or other health professionals to assist in torture is because it is torture – not because they are doctors.

I am not convinced that the wrongness of the action is unaffected by the fact it is committed by medical professionals. And I think the ethics of care explains why.

We expect medical professionals to be at least in part motivated by care. Doctoring or nursing is a helping profession in which having the motive to help others is essential to being successful.

Medical professionals who assist with torture not only violate their medical code of ethics. They also are acting on a motive which is diabolical when it moves a medical professional, thereby amplifying the wrongness of their actions.

CIA officers (or hairdressers) need not have any special caring motive. Thus, although they violate a code of ethics by torturing prisoners, their motives are not in substantial conflict with the motives required to do their job.

Of course, all human beings ought to be motivated to some degree by care (on my view of an ethic of care). The act of torture by anyone (in most circumstances) is wrong because it (usually) lacks a caring motive. But for persons who are not medical professionals, that wrongness is not amplified by a motive utterly out of line with professional requirements.

There is more on torture of a different sort at Reviving the Left.

Hoops, Paydays, and Epistemology April 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left 

The excessive risk-taking by banks and investment firms that caused the economic meltdown was in part the result of the skewed incentive structure of their compensation packages. Because their compensation was based on how well their company’s stock did over the relatively short term, they had every incentive to take on excessive, long-term risk if it would boost their short-term profits.

What was bad for the health of the firm was good for the stock trader or manager who pocketed immediate benefits.

NPR’s Scott Horsley, referencing a recent NY Times article by Michael Lewis on NBA star Michael Battier, compared Wall Street’s approach to compensation to compensation based on individual statistics in the NBA. Players often take poor shots in order to pad their stats, even though passing the ball would be better for the team, and many players virtually ignore defense, an essential part of the game, because it is more difficult to represent in statistical measures. If a player’s compensation is dependent on individual statistics only, they are rewarded for actions that often hurt the team.

These skewed incentives indicate a disturbing trend in contemporary society. We tend to form beliefs around data that is pervasive only because it is easy to acquire. It is easy to count and assign individual responsibility for baskets or sales minus expenses. These are convenient ways of keeping score.

However, the fact that a bit of data is easy to gather does not mean that it is providing a comprehensive, accurate measure of the health of the firm (or a basketball team). Stuff that isn’t easy to measure is not part of the calculation.

So why do hard-working, serious people take the easy way out when trying to measure performance? Isn’t it obvious to management (whether in sports or business) that the way the measure performance can be incomplete?

In a recent post, I argued that our economic problems were the result of an epistemological crisis. Our Wall St. wizards created lots of investment vehicles they didn’t understand and could not analyze.

But this tendency to form beliefs and hence policies around easily accessible data suggests another epistemological dimension to this crisis that explains why we take the easy way out.

Jerry Z. Muller writes:

From the point of view of top management, the diversity of operations means that executives were managing assets and services with which they have little familiarity. This has led to the spread of pseudo-objectivity: the search for standardized measures of achievement across large and disparate organizations. Its implicit premises were these: that information which is numerically measurable is the only sort of knowledge necessary; that numerical data can substitute for other forms of inquiry; and that numerical acumen can substitute for practical knowledge about the underlying assets and services. A good deal of our current economic travails can be traced to this increasing valuation of purportedly objective criteria, so denoted because they can be expressed and manipulated in mathematical form by people who may be skilled at such manipulation but who lack “concrete” knowledge or experience of the things being made or traded.

This is a theme that I emphasize in Reviving the Left. The pursuit of objectivity, and the resulting abstract representations, often leave out crucial data we need in order to act well, especially where human beings are concerned. Sensitive, situational knowledge that sometimes involves feelings and intuition is essential for guiding human action, but it is not well represented by mathematical models. Yet the “cult of accountability” is fast spreading throughout society. From finance and basketball to education and health care, every activity is being measured by a metric that may not capture crucial components of the activity—with sometimes disastrous consequences.

Climate Change Deniers April 7, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

I’m curious. What makes people cavalier about making the earth uninhabitable?

Freeman Dyson is without question a brilliant physicist (although not a climate scientist). But, as this recent NY Times article reminds us, he continues to claim that we ought not do much about global warming?

The consensus among climate scientists that anthropogenic climate change is real is substantial. I understand that there are some scientists who question the models on which projections of global warming are based. But how confident can we be in these dissenting opinions given the substantial consensus? Scientific consensus is sometimes mistaken, but it isn’t typically mistaken, and is seldom entirely wrong about very settled beliefs. Getting on board with the deniers seems a risky bet. It is possible that our climate models are wrong but surely the probability is relatively low.

I understand that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the effects of climate change. How large the climatic effects will be, what parts of the world will be most affected, etc. cannot be known at this point, although we can make some highly educated guesses. But why would it be rational for any country to gamble that they won’t be affected given the potential for catastrophic outcomes?

And there is justifiable controversy over how much the mitigation of the effects of climate change will cost and who will bear these costs. There are clearly opportunity costs to spending lots of resources on mitigating climate change—the money could be used to alleviate poverty, for instance. But most current models of the effects of climate change predict significant disruption in agriculture and habitation patterns that promise substantially more misery than the disadvantaged experience today. If we ignore climate change, we are taking great risks with their lives.

Moreover, there is credible evidence that new green technologies will be a powerful stimulus to economic growth both in developed and underdeveloped countries.

My problem with global warming deniers is not merely that they are opposing the scientific consensus. Science often advances when qualified scientists challenge the consensus. There will always be scientists who devote their lives to showing an hypothesis to be false, if they can. That is their job. My problem is with the judgment that we ought to base policy on this aspiration to be iconoclastic.

Risking lives on the basis of a belief one knows to be probably false is a case of bad moral judgment. This is true even if one has doubts about the climate models. The issue is not so much a matter of science but of morality. It is morally wrong to risk great harm based on a hypothesis that is likely to be false.

Like Wall St. bankers, climate change deniers think they can make risky bets and someone else will pick up the tab.

Service—Military and Non-military April 1, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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I have occasion to speak with many veterans in my line of work. And when they talk about why they went into the military, they often say they wanted to make a contribution, make the world a better place, or make something of their lives.

Their decision and motive is certainly worthy of admiration, respect, and gratitude.

But I find it disconcerting that, in our society, military service is viewed as the primary avenue to achieving this kind of fulfillment. Although the military fills an important need—defense—our world has many other vital needs that are typically underserved—teaching, caring for the indigent, the elderly, and the disabled, environmental cleanup, infrastructure development, etc.

And although the military yields a variety of satisfactions and builds skills that are useful in civilian society, so would these other non-military activities.

Of course, the fundamental difference between military and non-military service is that those in the military sometimes risk their lives and must engage in the distinctively destructive activity of learning to and sometimes having to kill people, some who might be quite innocent, and often for less than justifiable reasons.

The fact that some members of the military sacrifice their lives for their country gives military service an heroic aspect. But shouldn’t we judge the value of a service at least in part according to how much good it produces? Doesn’t the fact that military service involves killing sometimes innocent people for bad reasons count against it as a form of service?

I suppose we think of the value of military service in light of the fact that physical security is a vital, non-optional collective good. Having an effective military is an absolute necessity. And the military can perform its function only if its members are willing to do what is necessary regardless of personal sacrifice and despite some moral qualms.

In other words, the heroic aspect of military service is just inherent in the “whatever it takes” necessity of providing physical security. The non-military forms of service, although they provide unqualified goods, are perceived as less necessary.

But this ignores the fact that much military activity has little to do with providing collective security and much to do with projecting power based on quite illegitimate motives. Furthermore, it ignores the subtle but very real damage to our collective security when poverty, despair, and environmental degradation are allowed to fester.

It is to be hoped that some of the new initiatives to promote community and national service will elevate their prestige.

The Road to Imperial Ruin March 31, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left..

One of the main themes of Reviving the Left is that the ethics of care is relevant in the political arena in areas such as foreign policy.

Unlike moral theories that strive for universality, and thus focus on what human beings have in common, the ethics of care rests prescriptions on knowledge of particular persons, their circumstances, and their differences, and the cultivation of empathy and perceptiveness to gain such knowledge.

Matt Yglesias makes a point about our approach to Pakistan that implicitly reinforces the importance of an ethic of care.

In responding to the argument that we may not be able to trust the Pakistanis to root out the Taliban and Al-Quaeda from tribal areas he writes:

“This sort of thing is, in my view, really the achilles heel of the American imperial project….And when we get involved in things like the internal politics of Pakistan, or political reform in Egypt, or wars in the Horn of Africa, and so forth we’re dealing in situations where the level of understanding is incredibly asymmetric. If you go to pretty much any country in the world, you’ll find that educated people there know more about the United States than you do about their country. Nobody at highest levels of the American government speaks Urdu. Or Arabic. Or Amharic or Somali or Pashto or Tajik.

Lots of people at high levels in the Pakistani government speak English….they have a vast bounty of media outlets to peruse to gather intelligence. And year-in and year-out Pakistan cares about the same smallish set of countries—Pakistani officials are always focused on issue in their region and issues with the United States. Our officials dance around—the Balkans are important this decade, Central Asia the next, Russia and the Persian Gulf flit on and off the radar, sometimes we notice what’s happening in Mexico, etc.

In other words, in a straightforward contest of power between the United States and Pakistan, we can of course win. But in a scenario where we are trying to manipulate the situation in Pakistan in such-and-such a way and Pakistani actors are trying to manipulate the situation for their own ends, the odds of us actually outwitting the Pakistanis are terrible. They’re in a much better position to manipulate us than we are them.

This is one reason why so many of our foreign policy and foreign aid initiatives go wrong. We assume that other people are like us. We assume they share our interests, habits of communication, and ways of looking at the world because we assume our way is simply the human way.

And these assumptions are encouraged by our dominant moral theories (e.g. Kantian or utilitarian theories) that enjoin us to act only on prescriptions on which it would be rational for anyone to act. Our moral reflection tends to take place on a very general and very generic level.

Reviving the Left March 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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As some of you know, I have been working on a book for the past few years. It is entitled Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America. The book has just been released.

The aim of the book is to describe a new moral vision for liberalism, one that rests less on social contract theory and more on the ethics of care. It is a book of popular philosophy intended for philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Hopefully, a quick but informative read.

I have a new website devoted to the book that includes two new blogs—one devoted to liberal theory, values, and politics, and the other devoted to liberal activism (maintained by my son who has considerable activist experience). So head on over and check us out.

I will, of course, continue to blog here, but with some of the more political material moving to the new site.

With two blogs to feed, when will I sleep? I’m not sure.

Friday Food Blogging 3/27/09 March 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy.
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Philosophy on the Mesa ponders all questions about how to live well—the spirit of Socrates lives on.

Questions like:

Stilltasty.com is a website with everything you need to know about what really matters. (h/t to IFA)

See! Isn’t philosophy practical?

The Boss Says We’ve Lost Our Moral Center March 25, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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And no one wants to argue with The Boss.

Recently two of my favorite people appeared on the same show. Jon Stewart interviewed Bruce Springsteen.

So what did Springsteen have in mind when he said “the country has lost its moral center?”

Here is how I would explain it.

It has long been an assumption in most social and political theories, whether in philosophy or the social sciences, that we can best understand human behavior by assuming that each person is a thoroughly self-interested, rational agent.

This self-interested rational agent knows what he wants and he makes decisions by making rational calculations about how to maximize the satisfaction of his desires. So regardless of whether it is a consumer choosing between Coke and Pepsi, an investor deciding between stocks and bonds, or a person deciding how best to spend her time, we make rational calculations about how to maximize our desires based on comparisons of the added benefit we would get by pursuing alternative courses of action. (Economists call this marginal utility)

Of course, no one really makes decisions this way because emotions, irrational attachments, and a variety of human weaknesses always enter the mix of factors explaining our decisions. But most theorists, and especially economists, have found this idea of a rational, self-interested agent useful, while realizing that it is an idealization and oversimplification. It is useful because our lives are really complicated and messy and, it is thought, that we have to eliminate some of that messiness if we are going to produce intelligible models of human action.

The recent collapse in our economic system, and the inability of economists to predict it, has called into question the effectiveness of these assumptions as a model. But I think the model has had more pernicious effects than simply disrupting economic theory.

One way to understand what Springsteen was talking about when he referred to losing our moral center is that, as a culture, we took this theoretical idealization of a rational, self-interested person out of the context of economic modeling and made it a moral ideal—something we should strive to be. This move largely defines modern conservatism.

It is thus no wonder that we have lost our moral center. No doubt human beings are sometimes self-interested desire machines trying to accumulate as much as we can. But morality begins when we see the folly of that. When we make the idea of a self-interested, rational maximizer our moral ideal, we lose the very basis of any moral point of view.

The question our current predicament poses is whether we can regain our moral center.

You can find out how right here.

Determinism Is Not Fatalism! March 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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One of my pet peeves is that people, who should know better, describe determinism as if it were fatalism. Here is Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State describing determinism:

To the determinist, the march of causality will make one outcome inevitable, and so it is wrong to believe that anything else was possible. The chooser does not yet know which option he or she is going to choose, hence the subjective experience of choice. Thus, the subjective choosing is simply a matter of one’s own ignorance – ignorance that those other outcomes are not really possibilities at all.

To illustrate: When you sit in the restaurant looking at the menu, it may seem that there are many things that you might order: the fish, the chicken, the steak, the onion soup. Eventually you will make a selection and eat it. To a determinist, causal processes dictated that what you ordered was inevitable. When you entered the restaurant you may not have known, yet, that you would end up ordering the chicken, but that simply reflects your ignorance of what was happening in your unconscious mind. To a determinist, there was never any chance at all that you could have ordered the fish. Maybe you saw it on the menu and were tempted to get it, and maybe you even started to order it and then changed your mind. No matter. It was never remotely possible. The causal processes that ended up making you order the chicken were in motion. Your belief that you could have ordered the chicken was mistaken.

Professor Baumeister is describing fatalism, not determinism. Fatalism is the view that the future is fixed, pre-ordained, so my deliberation about what to do in a situation doesn’t matter. If I walk into a restaurant and I am already fated to choose chicken from the menu, well then I will choose chicken regardless of my deliberation. Baumeister says “To a determinist, there was never any chance at all that you could have ordered the fish.”

But this is simply a misunderstanding of determinism. Determinism asserts that my actions are caused by my psychological state and other causal influences operating when I make a decision. But that psychological state will include a deliberative process that is continually being shaped and reshaped by new information. When I walk into a restaurant, given my preferences, I may be more likely to choose some items from the menu rather than others. But what I end up choosing will depend on odors wafting from the kitchen, the conversation at the table, the recommendations of the waiter, the descriptions of dishes on the menu, and other countless details about my surroundings that influence me. And I have to deliberate to find out, in light of those influences, what my preferences are. To the extent I am open to new information and have psychological states that are responsive to my surroundings, my actions are not fated.

It is of course true that all of these influences will determine what I choose. But when I walk into the restaurant most of the options on the menu (except for those that are distasteful) are genuine options and my ultimate choice will depend on my deliberation, which in turn is dependent on complex causal influences. So there is nothing illusory about choice—it is as real as the causal processes that determine my action and is in fact part of those processes.

So when Baumeister says —

“Choice is fundamental in human life. Every day people face choices, defined by multiple possibilities. To claim that all that is illusion and mistake is to force psychological phenomena into an unrealistic strait jacket.” —

He is inventing a straw man; a position no determinist holds.

He goes on to argue:

Also, psychological causality as revealed in our labs is arguably never deterministic. Our studies show a change in the odds of one response over another. But changes in the odds entail that more than one response was possible. Our entire statistical enterprise is built on the idea of multiple possibilities. Determinism denies the reality of this. Statistics are just ways of coping with our ignorance, to a determinist – statistics do not reflect how reality actually works.

Again, simple nonsense. Changes in odds reflect changes in causal conditions. There are multiple possibilities because there are multiple causal factors and the correlations don’t reveal which causal factors are at work.

He concludes:

To believe in determinism is thus to go far beyond the observed and known facts. It could be true, I suppose. But it requires a huge leap of faith, as well as a tortuous effort to deny that what we constantly observe and experience is real.

If determinism is false, then human actions must be uncaused—mysterious events that pop into existence and are somehow under our control yet outside the causal structure of reality.

Who is making a leap of faith?

A course in philosophy should be required for all scientists before they have a license to publish.

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