Thursday, January 26, 2012

Some Reflections on Ethical Reasoning

Note: The below entry is not the writing I have been slowly pecking away at for the last 6 months. Rather, they are some thoughts that have occurred to me in the process of writing along with a few other miscellaneous topics.

To begin, a bit of genealogy on the development of my current intellectual adventure: as many of my projects, the response comes from a question posed to a friend about whether ethics, or morality (I don’t remember which), is relative or objective. My two knee-jerk reactions to the question are that, first, this is not the proper dichotomy: they are not mutually exclusive in the way the question implies; the contrast usually presented as either objective/subjective, or absolute/relative. (I later found that this confusion is not uncommon, even among professional philosophers. I believe the confusion stems from the conjunction of some first and second order ethical positions.) Second, while I have a proclivity toward ethics as objective (though not real), the overall line of discussion is not productive in working out ethical dilemmas, or resolving the meta-analysis of positions.

I would like to be able to argue that, like many classifications of people’s positions, the labels absolutism, relativism, objectivism, and subjectivism are not helpful in determining what position one may have on a particular ethical topic. For example, if someone self-identifies as a moral relativist, some may conclude that the person believes abortion is permissible. However, the person may believe that the moral and legal realms are distinct and hold that, while nothing can be meaningfully said about its morality, it should be illegal. Or, it could be that it could not be true that abortion is wrong, due to beliefs about ethical propositions and truth, but hold that abortion is, nevertheless, morally impermissible. For those familiar with the diversity of philosophical positions, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, or even be controversial.

My writing project tries to articulate the range of beliefs one may have while maintaining one of these labels. In familiarizing myself with the field, my reading has included Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams and Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by J. L. Mackie. While reading and writing on the subject, I’ve realized that the more commonly debated topic is not what positions people hold, but which can be consistently be held, or even which are correct. Understandably, this is the more interesting and substantive claim. As a result, I’ve wanted to engage the subject matter at this level, though I have not.

In thinking about the change in topic, I realized that the problem with the writing project as a survey of possible ethical positions takes no regard for the rational plausibility of a belief set. The resulting argument from the initial line of reasoning is the more trivial position that it is possible for any person can have any set of beliefs. This is an obvious fact about consciousness. However, this is less than the more substantive position demonstrated in the above example. Thus, to reframe my point, borrowing from Mackie’s terminology, some particular first order ethical position does not entail some subset of second order ethical positions, or vise-versa.[1] Further, the terms themselves are not particularly enlightening to one’s position within their respective conceptual territories. In other words, my position may be more similar an argument Williamson recently made in his recent NY: Times’ article “What is Naturalism.” I also recently ran across the book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis by Richard J. Bernstein which seems to touch on the subject I’ve been ruminating on. If this is the direction I’m headed, maybe I should just start reading Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Rorty) and engage in that debate. After all, I’ve been meaning to read Rorty’s book for sometime.

The line of research may be too much of a diversion from my other interests. David Gauthier’s book Morals by Agreement turned me on to the notion that our moral concerns are an expression of problems with economic externalities and/or the prisoner’s dilemma. Along these lines (I think), Amartya Sen has done some work with the failure of markets to meet the needs of people (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). Both Sen and Martha Nussbaum are working on a conception of capacities in terms of positive freedoms that relates back to the previous work in poverty and famines, though Nussbaum has a different perspective/focus than Sen. Following this line of thought, many of our more pragmatic ethical problems can be productively addressed through other work in externalities (see Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom, and Social Choice and Individual Values, Arrow). Economists, along with others, work in rationality with regards to the prisoner’s dilemma could help produce systems that motivate people to be more moral. That is, by working on how to reduce free riders, we can further refine our welfare system so that less take advantage of it.

In a sense, the viability of the work in externalities with regard to resolving moral problems relates to my conclusions about the discussions surrounding moral relativity, and more generally metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy. That is, I take a pragmatic approach to resolving ethical dilemmas in part due to the inability for some lines of discussion to produce substantive conclusions. The skeptical stance toward the relationship between an ontology for, or from, ethics is, in part, the subject matter of my current writing project.


[1] Here’s Mackie’s description of first and second order positions: “..first order moral views, positive or negative: the person who adopts either of them is taking a certain practical, normative, stand. By contrast, what I am discussing is a second order view, a view about the status of moral values and the nature of moral valuing, about where and how they fit into the world” (16, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong).

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Abortion: Does the Soul matter?

A popular pro-life position is that people obtain their moral standing at conception or very shortly after. However, the reason they have moral standing at conception, and not some later date, can vary. This post will focus on those arguments that maintain that the soul entering the body at conception is the relevant quality for moral standing. More particularly, it is this fact that makes abortion immoral. In addressing this position, I will explain some conceptual hurdles that the advocates must address and why I find arguing for moral obligations via the soul unproductive.

A simple version of the soul argument against abortion can be made in four steps: 1) killing an innocent person is murder; 2) all things with souls are persons; 3) fetuses have souls; 4) thus, killing a fetus is murder. The driving intuition here is that what makes people different from other animals, and responsible for our actions, is our soul. Many believe that our identity resides in our soul and we retain our identity throughout our lives which extends back to the moment we are conceived. Now, for the sake of brevity, I have assumed that people have souls, and explain why I nevertheless find this popular pro-life position unconvincing.

Although my soul is the substance that contains my identity, how people enter the world is still not resolved. Our souls could be created (or enter) after our bodies develop beyond a particular point. Just as a human soul would not enter an insect and become a person (at least by many Christian theologies), the soul may wait to enter the body until it has been properly formed. This line of reasoning tracks the intuition that I am different from my body. Certainly I existed before my body and will exist long after it has rotted away. In short, before the soul enters the body, the primary moral concern should not be to have a child as soon as possible, but the life that the child will enter into.

For those that believe I am me only in the unity of the body and soul, the questions concerning the development of the body, and its relationship to identity still stand. If we must have a body to be a person, the type of body would still be at issue. For example, without the ability to think, it seems implausible to refer to the unthinking thing as a person. Further, would this unthinking being be accurately called me? I don't think so. And, I believe that our other moral intuitions about our relationship between those things with souls, and those without, agree with this assessment.

The underlying problem with the pro-life position from the belief in a soul is that, while it is a unique feature of human beings, there doesn't seem to be a reason to treat this property of persons differently than other qualities that make us stand out. In particular, it would seem that, while having a soul could be morally relevant in a moral consideration, the existence of the soul does not have the effect that the pro-life advocate desires. Consider, for example, how we ought to treat animals. Although we may disagree about whether killing animals is wrong, far more agree that the mistreatment of animals (abuse and negligence) is wrong. And, it would be wrong even if we were to conclude that animals have no souls. I might not believe that dogs have an after life, but this doesn't mean I can take my frustration at work out on my dog. Thus, possessing a soul is not a necessary condition for moral consideration.

The soul is not a sufficient condition for the kind of moral consideration needed for the pro-life position. That is, just because something has a soul does not mean that the destruction of that thing is on par with murder. For instance, if we believed that a house had a soul, the destruction of that house, while possibly not good, would not be equivalent to killing a person. Our intuitions about the destruction of a house versus killing a person is different because the physical properties of the house and a person are very different. It is these properties that make the difference in our moral determination. Similarly, the treatment of an unformed body with a soul is different than the treatment of a fully formed body with a soul. Hence, the fact that something has a soul is not sufficient to determine whether the destruction of that thing is murder.

Keep the love,

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Abortion: The death of the potential person

The last 6 months or so I have been researching the morality of abortion. My interest in the subject was peaked from some thinking I had done on the moral status of future persons, and animal rights; reasoning about the former seemed to have potential as the basis of an argument for the immorality of abortion. The latter touches on some moral intuitions I have about the rights of animals, and arguments against a social contract theory of morality. Additionally, apart from the appeal on an abstract level, the fact that one's position on abortion has an impact on the world that is not true of other philosophical arguments. So far, my research in the field hasn't proven to be productive in the manner that I expected. I thought there would more reasoning about the relationship between different qualities and how, or why, those qualities include/exclude things from moral consideration. What I have read so far, though admittedly small, has concentrated on our intuitions about either the right to life, or what kind of obligations are entailed by the right to life.

There are two lines of reasoning for the anti-abortion position that I am most familiar: the moral standing of life before conception, and the moral standing of life after conception. The argument I hear most frequently usually falls into the latter category, and those of the former are usually considered as a reductio ad absurdum. Now, there is good reason for looking at moral standing before conception argument as absurd. For my approach to the subject, I'll just make the strongest argument from the preconception position, then move to why it cannot ultimately support the anti-abortion position.

The preconceptionist (for lack of a better term) argues that people are destined to be born before the act of conception. If one prevents conception from taking place, that person is killing that child. Or, one might argue that we have an obligation to future generations to not intentionally harm them. If we prevent some people from being born, we have done those people the greatest harm. For example, if someone had the cure to cancer, and that person intentionally withheld the cure, he would be partially responsible for the pain inflicted on the people who would eventually develop cancer (at least those that he would have helped had he acted). Thus, those who prevent a person from being born harm the unborn through their actions (or lack thereof).

There are three principle objections to this line of reasoning. First, it is possible that the use of contraceptives, or an abortion, is predestined. Thus, choosing to not have a child, does not prevent someone from being born since the choice would be part of the overall plan. Further, if one can defy destiny by not having a child, it would be reasonable to infer that one could defy destiny by having a child. If acting against God's will is one's principle concern, both would be equally immoral. Some might object that God's will is always that, if a child can be born, he or she should be conceived. This objection will be dealt with in the third point.

Second, while it may be possible to harm one through inaction, a harm to someone that does not exist is incoherent. For example, it would be wrong to claim that someone who does not exist has cancer, and even more confused to further claim that, by not curing cancer, one has harmed the potential person. The immoral quality of associated with a harm occurs with the advent of that harm. Further, there is an assumption that the “harm” of not existing is worse than other possible harms. Many people could be born into situations such that it would be better had they not been born. For example, supposed a couple is trying to decide whether to have children. They come to learn that, if they have a child, there is 100% certainty that the child will be born with a severe genetic disorder. Not only would we say that the couple should not have the child, it would be wrong for them to have the child with that knowledge.

Third, a conclusion that abstaining from sex is equivalent to murder seems prima facie wrong. Most would say that a couple who decides to wait to have a child until they can afford it is doing the right thing. Additionally, if preventing potential people from being born is murder, then having a child would be also be murder. When a couple decides to have a child this means that they have decided not to have other children that they could have had at another time. Thus, the action would both be an act of murder and not at the same time. Such a conclusion does not answer whether one should have a child, or not, since every answer would be a wrong one.

These are the reasons why I decided that, if abortion is wrong, it isn't because we are doing a harm to potential persons. Next I'll explain the “at conception” arguments that have the most appeal and why I don't find them persuasive.

Keep the love,


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not Quite Factual: Political Rhetoric and Core Beliefs

The major news of the past week or so has been about the now infamous statement “[his claim about Plan Parenthood] was not intended to be a factual statement” by senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) in response to his claim that over 90% of the work done at Plan Parenthood are abortions. The major news outlets are responding that his response is indicative of the disproportionate attention that political commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and pundits like them have received. They feel that these programs, and implicitly Fox News, have been sowing misinformation and political discord which has been negatively affecting the political process.

The two claims that have got my attention are that a) our political environment has become more partisan than it was in the past, and b) the production of misinformation is the source of this partisanship. Arguments about these claims have been circulating for some time. To my knowledge, claim (a) has not been disputed by either side. Rather, both sides claim that the other is responsible for elevating the intensity of the rhetoric and presenting false information.

The vitriol in politics, to my knowledge, is not new. When it comes to disagreements about a topic that many consider central to their system of belief the rhetoric around the debate can get quite ugly. The recent slump in the economy and various attempts to fix the problem have brought some people's opinions about the fiscal policies of the government to the forefront of the national debate. Money, even in less financially difficult times, is a subject that can break up friendships and marriages. It wouldn't be surprising that the intensity of the debate centers around the particular subject material, not the misinformation and spin produced by the political commentators. In short, there isn't a necessary relationship between the pundits and rogue news programs, and the dialogue between disagreeing parties.

These claims are such that it should be possible to empirically test them. Since there are different countries with relatively similar cultures, but with different news distributors, we could examine the dialogue in other countries and see whether the tone is different. While a different culture might be able to account for some variation between debate within the States and elsewhere, a similarity between these cultures would be indicative of problems with news production. We could also see what the effect of false information has been on a debate. By judging the polarizing effect of information and particular topic within a debate, we should be able to determine if the false information and rhetoric of pundits has a significant affect to a discussions tone.

Since I don't have the resources to do this research, a more conceptual approach to the problem will have to do for the time being. If people form their opinions and act on information received from a reliable source, arguments that use false information to support an argument for the hostile nature of the opposing side would create a more forceful opposition. After all, rallying people against the particular issue is what the argument is intended to do. Why continue to make the arguments if they don't persuade or motivate?

Some believe that people only reaffirm their beliefs, and turn a blind eye toward facts that might challenge the way they believe. As a result, all people do is motivate their base, but not change their frame of mind. While I agree that this does happen, I also believe that more people are open to changing what they believe than many might suspect. Not only do I consistently read about people who have changed what they believe in the face of new facts or good arguments, but I too have changed my mind a few times on important issues. Changing a firmly held belief is not a quick process, but it does happen.

Keep thinking,


Friday, April 1, 2011

The Digital Market Place: Finding Work in a the Global Information Market

The Internet, in the relatively short amount of time that it has been around, has drastically changed the way people do business. Yet, we still haven't fully seen how it will effect the economy in the long term. I think that the future will favor the self-employed, or entrepreneurs. Early on we saw with Napster, and other file sharing programs, that the Internet has allowed for the reduction or elimination of information middle men. In print media, we have seen changes in news agencies, from the outright elimination of some news organizations to a shift to digital distribution for others, and even some self publishing of full books by others. In radio, we see competition with the easy availability of music through portable media players, Internet radio stations like Pandora eliminate the need for a DJ, and podcasting removes the need for the radio company. Finally, television companies, in addition to wrestling with piracy, must learn to accommodate the instant access of Netflix and Hulu.

This change in the accessibility of information provides an interesting dynamic for people entering into the market place. On the upside, self-employment through the production of some digital medium is cheaper than it ever has been, which means an increased competition among producers, and lower average revenues for one's efforts. The saturation of the market with blogs, for example, makes possible ad revenues in that market relatively small, even though there is a potentially large consumer base. In the end, while it is possible for people to make a living with a blog, podcasts, and/or internet videos, for most, these media will simply supplement one's income.

Best of Luck,

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Voice and Michael Moore

This blog was originally written in an essay format. It began “Why be good? The imperative to act as we ought, rather than as we like, looms over our daily interactions, opinions about public policy, and many varieties of social and personal actions.” The essay comes as a reaction to a recent discussion with Nick about ethical relativism. I decided to change voice, and topic somewhat, to accommodate time demands, and possible audience. I still might publish the blog, but I didn't want my consistent ability to get bogged down in details to prevent me from getting something written.

Dez, a friend from High School, has been writing once a day in a blog for the past month. She recently explained that coming up with something to write on a daily basis can be difficult. I certainly sympathize. This is what motivated me to change my writing style from an essay format to something more informal. Coming up with new content on a consistent basis along with doing it in a more rigorous format can be a bit overwhelming. Additionally, few people want to read heady material regularly, daily or otherwise. So, in an effort to be more consistent with my blogs, and stay relateable to a broader audience, a narrative and somewhat schizophrenic blog is what I'm going with for the time being.

I recently watched Michael Moore's film Roger and Me. I went into the movie not expecting much, and getting much of what I expected. His films, while emotionally quite good, fail to make strong arguments for his positions. Roger and Me details the, more or less, mass exodus of Flint, Michigan after GM decides to move its plants from Flint to Mexico (Moore's claim). Moore holds the position that GM has an obligation to the people of Flint to provide jobs for those who lost work. The film mostly consists of him trying to talk with Roger Smith (the CEO of GM) and following the lives of the people of Flint as they went through the transition.

The problem is that Moore doesn't seem to understand that increased efficiencies in production (and thus more wealth over all) practically necessitates a smaller workforce in that industry. Its debatable whether GM's move out of Flint did make the company more efficient. But, this isn't a topic that Moore addresses in his film. He should have. A convincing case could be made against the move to Mexico. After all, more than likely, GM decided to make the move because they wouldn't have to pay the works as much and worker's rights aren't as well protected in the country (see Walmart). Ensuring that people make a living wage and are not abused are values that many people can get behind. Emotion works for some people. Me, not so much.

Rationally yours,


Monday, March 14, 2011

Blog: Introduction

I don't consider myself a writer. Yet, I find myself writing in a blog, or journal when I get the free time, or writing when I need to work out a problem, personal or otherwise. For a time, I published my writing on myspace. For various reasons that account has fallen into disuse, though it still exists. Sometime ago, I started playing with the idea of publishing my writing once again. I have also been considering publishing videos on youtube to hopefully engage others in a larger debate. I don't know how committed I am to this project. In theory, since I write on a fairly consistent basis anyhow, I should, at the very least, be able to post online in place of writing in my journal. Video publishing is more tenuous due to some technological restrictions, and nervousness about the different format.

In the long term, it would be great to make a living as a writer. Discounting pay, the lifestyle of a writer has a lot of appeal. They can work from anywhere, and set their own hours. Popular writers have a fame that can be appealing. However, like musicians and other artists, there are far more who are never able to make a living in the market, than those who do. This is why, in part, I am working toward an engineering degree while pursuing this interest on the side. And in fact, many other writers (professors for example) work in other ways while still writing on the side.

I decided to go with blogger, rather than something like livejournal, or go back to myspace for aesthetic and practical reasons. First, blogger's page layout has a cleaner layout than livejournal, and is roughly comparable to myspace. I actually prefer the default setting in myspace to blogger, but myspace requires that those who wish to comment have accounts. Although many may still have myspace accounts, it is enough of a hassle for dissuade me from publishing on their site. I like the options that livejournal has, and the community that has grown up around the site. But, again, to my knowledge, commenters have an account with livejournal, and I don't like how the pages have been formatted. Finally, I have an email, and youtube account that are linked with the same name. This will hopefully make it easier for others to find me online.

My current plan is to publish something once a week that is roughly 500 words. For some reference, the word count of this post up to the words “500 words” is 411 words. This blogs content will mostly be about the various political, economic, and philosophical topics that are on my mind. I hope to try to keep the writing related to whatever is in the national discourse. I will probably foray into religious and ethical subjects. Time will tell, whether we want it to or not.

Till next time,