…amending absolutism

image-placeholder-titleIn today’s class we discussed Kant’s categorical imperative and I offered Philippa Foot’s thought experiment, whereby willful suicide could be seen as universally permissible. That if a comrade were severely injured on the battlefield and we were faced with the decision to shoot him or to let him be captured by the enemy, we should, according to Foot, let the decision rest on the will of our comrade. It stands to reason that such a difficult decision, to let somebody exhibit their own free will to die by a merciful gunshot, or to be left to the enemy, must be universal. In other words, Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” is easily applicable. Letting someone decide for themselves whether they should live or die is a decision that can easily become a universal rule.

Then we add to the complication of Kant’s “perfect duties” whereby a perfect duty (a duty without exception) is a duty to not commit suicide. Now is this contradictory with Foot’s battlefield thought experiment (which by the way, is intended to illustrate virtuous behavior when considering euthanasia)? If we take Kant’s categorical imperative on his own absolutist rules, the answer is simply yes, the application of the categorical imperative in the Foot example is contradictory. For Kant, it is our “perfect duty” to not, in any circumstances, commit suicide.

Yet, we might allow for a meaningful amendment by suggesting that Kant simply could not think of every future application of the categorical imperative. It is commonly pointed out that a flaw in Kant’s categorical imperative is highlighted by the problem of dishonesty. For all intents and purposes, the absolution of the categorical imperative would indicate that we should never tell a lie. For instance, when a crazed murderer is looking for an innocent person who has taken refuge in your house, you should not lie when the murderer stops by your house asking you the whereabouts of this person. Most of us would have the conscientiousness to imagine that we’d immediately break Kant’s categorical rule and lie. In this case, it’s easy to see a slight amendment: when a crazed murderer asks you to give up the person you’re hiding, it’s clearly a universal rule that you lie to the murderer. Most people would agree that such a case of lying (as odd as it is) is universalizable.

All of this is to argue that, yes Kant was an absolutist and also it is impossible for him to have anticipated all applications of his theory. On the other hand, I think we can still safely say that both extreme cases, Foot’s virtuous behavior on the battlefield, and lying to crazed murderers are not radical misinterpretations of Kant’s categorical imperative. To be sure, we should be able to amend Kant (or any other philosopher’s ideas) in a meaningful way, provided we do not do so with gross distortions of the original claims. This is not to suggest that we simply change their ideas to meet any of our arbitrary whims, but rather that our changes are thoughtfully and rationally considered in light of evolving and expanding our ethical and philosophical wisdom.

Lastly, I hope to add power to my argument with reference Kant’s famous essay from 1784, “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” whereby Kant proposes the idea that when religious organizations are laying down guidelines, documents, and contracts for future generations to follow, these ideas should not be written or understood in such a way as to be unalterable and unamendable (as indicated in the following quote:)

“But should not a society of clergymen, perhaps a synod or a venerable classis (as it itself names itself among the Dutch), be entitled to bind itself on oath between each other to a certain unalterable symbol, in order to carry such an unceasing guardianship over each of its members and by means of them over the people, and even to perpetuate this? I say: that is completely impossible. Such a contract, which would for always seal to hold off all further enlightenment from the human race, is absolutely null and void; and should it even be ratified by the highest power, by imperial diets and the most solemn peace accords. One age cannot form an alliance and then conspire to put the following into a condition in which it must be impossible for it to enlarge its (especially so very urgent) cognitions, to purge of errors, and in general to step further in the enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, whose original determination consists precisely in this progress; and the descendants are therefore perfectly entitled to it to reject those decisions as unauthorized and taken in a malicious way.”

…from myth to philosophy

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“From Myth to Philosophy: Examining the Transition by Way of Metaphysics and Epistemology”

When we look to the transition from myth to philosophy, we make use of philosophy as a guide into connections that are not readily apparent. Two primary philosophical modes of inquiry are metaphysics and epistemology. The two are defined in a number of ways and this short essay will only focus on metaphysics as the study of ultimate reality, and epistemology as an inquiry into how we rationally understand things—when connected, both disciplines disclose true knowledge. When we are doing philosophy we are not only asking questions, we work to answer the questions we ask: what is ultimate reality (as with metaphysics)? How do we know things rationally (as with epistemology)?

Once we apply these questions to the transition from myth to philosophy, we immediately are reminded of the long-lived mythologist Edith Hamilton who distinguished the ancient Greek myths as inherently rational. Hamilton also distinguishes the myths as distinctly human. The Greek myths are concerned with human problems—human reality. The Greek legends are answering the ancient need for answers about the natural and human realties that could not be explained any other way. This confrontation of nothingness reveals the myths metaphysically. Likewise the myths are answering causal problems, where does war come from?—Ares! If one cause (Ares) brings about the effect of something else (war), we are answering a way we know something, and this is rational and epistemological.

Friedrich Nietzsche hails the first Greek philosopher as Thales, a Presocratic who thought the origin of everything is water. This is an empirical claim, we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell: water. This is another way of showing how we are perceiving the world, this is a way we gain knowledge of things using our rational faculties. Therefore Thales is, not only answering epistemological questions, where does everything come from?—he answers the question scientifically, with empirical evidence, something the myths did not do. Metaphysically, he’s offering us answers to where everything comes from, and to what (empirically) does reality consist of?—water.

Turning to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, metaphysics and epistemology gain in philosophical complexity. With Socrates we have the famous dialectic, based in dialogue, and aimed at gaining true knowledge while exposing flaws in common and opinionated reasoning. Socrates is a champion of reason in favor of goodness and true knowledge. This is epistemology and it is curiously ethical. When considering metaphysics, we immediately recognize an answer to the question: what is ultimate reality for Plato and Socrates?—the acquisition of true knowledge.

Aristotle, another scientist philosopher, categorized the way we explain things into distinct categories and components. This tendency to organize knowledge is both scientific and metaphysical. To do philosophy is to look at the components of knowledge which constitute reality. This is metaphysical. As mentioned above, to consider causation is to examine how we come to know things and how to explain things. Aristotle’s causal tools give our knowledge explanatory power. This is epistemological.

To philosophically examine the transition from Greek myth to Greek philosophy by way of metaphysics and epistemology is to see a flowing line of inquiry into the ultimate realty and into the way we rationally know things. Such thinking is abstract and takes a readjustment of our everyday understanding, thus fulfilling a demand of Heraclitus the weeping Presocratic, to find connections in what is unapparent.

…on utilitarianism

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Then we need to be careful with our definition of utilitarianism. Recall that utilitarianism is consequential. In other words, a consequentialist pays attention to the results of the actions as the indicator of morality. If the resulting consequences on an action create the most happiness for the most amount of people, the consequences of the action are considered good by utilitarian standards (& are considered bad if the actions do not). Yes, we need to think of the consequences of our actions in advance, yet the focus is more on the end results. The action is morally useful if it produces the pleasure for most.

Utilitarianism:

Action  → consequences  → moral value (or not).

Compare with:

Moral value → action → consequences. (This is non-consequentialism)

Furthermore, let’s get clear on the differences between act & rule utilitarianism. The easiest way to think of this would be to consider the difference between a utilitarian rule and a utilitarian act.

A utilitarian rule is such that a utilitarian has a rule to be followed in all situations, e.g. our rule could be: ‘it is wrong to cheat on exams’. As a utilitarian rule this implies that cheating lowers the quality of our learning (now & into the future), and it also undermines the all others who are not cheating. In addition, cheating also has the risk of getting caught which will not increase the happiness for the most amount of people. Add to this, cheating itself does not increase happiness for most (even if we are not found out), i.e. if the cheater gets away with it, only their happiness is minimally increased (while their knowledge is explicitly compromised &/or decreased all the same).

With act utilitarianism, we think about the value of the consequence per situation. In the case of cheating, we might indicate that the (dishonest) act cheating is wrong simply for the risks we take to compromise our learning & while we undermine the integrity of the others who are not cheating in a given situation—not necessarily as a rule. Nobody’s happiness is increased as a consequence whether our dishonesty gets exposed or not (as is also the case with the application of rule utilitarianism to not cheat). In other words, we might allow for dishonesty, white-lies in conversation, lying about our age, or exaggerating a story we’re telling our friends, or other so-called ‘harmless’ dishonesty, where these lies are not necessarily compromising our integrity. Here we do not have a general rule, we simply apply the utilitarian principle of maximizing happiness per situation. In the situation of cheating on exams, we chose to not cheat, because the consequences will not increase the happiness for most. Whereas, to be minimally dishonest in telling an anecdote of our fascinating trip to California is perhaps increasing the happiness of our friends who are interested enough to care.

…notes on Igor Primoratz’s Ethics and Sex

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Notes on Ethics and Sex, Igor Primoratz[1]

Between semesters it becomes important to field readings that I do not have the chance to read while in the thick of staying abreast of the readings for classes (notwithstanding the rigors of grading classwork & homework which demand a level of commitment. Additional readings are often a reach for the obvious possibility of adding extraneous philosophy above and beyond the requisite workload). I have yet to decide whether or not what I have read in the opening chapters of the 1999 book Ethics and Sex by Igor Primoratz are assignable as reading for upcoming classes.

“Introduction”

In Primoratz’s “Introduction” to Ethics and Sex, he immediately sets the stage for a discussion of the philosophy of sex that is indeed quite rare in the ascetic and arid confines of traditional philosophic discourse.[2] This sexual occlusion is noted by Schopenhauer in his influential book of 1819, The World as Will and Representation. The dearth of sexual content in the antecedent work of Classical and Enlightenment philosophy should have a clear connection to this type of intellectualized sexual constraint. Philosophy is usually understood as helping us attain an understanding of the life of the mind, the intellect, our reason. The life of philosophy is to know and have control over the passions. To be dominated by the passions, namely: sexual passion, is typically thought of as antithetical to an exploration of a quest for philosophical truth and a life of contemplation.

Primoratz quotes the legendary Roman slave turned Stoic, Epictetus, whereby he demonstrates Stoical virtue as a refusal in the face of sexual hunger. Epictetus reminds us that it is best to not be controlled and dominated by such passions, as inspired by Socrates’ libidinal restraint. Even Nietzsche weighs in on the “rancor” of sexual interest on the part of the world’s philosophers with the example that Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer were all single, unmarried. In short, philosophy and sexual discourse are historically strange-bedfellows.

Then of course, there is the undeniable influence of Christianity on our attitude of the body, of which is strongly reliant on an ascetic-denying of the sexualized body, while at the same time advocating the institution of marriage. Christian marriage, a concept whereby human sexuality can be relegated and managed within natural-law—a.k.a. sex is to procreate and it needs to be within the context of a monogamous relationship with the opposite sex.

Primoratz’s foregoing carefully indicates that the turning point in the philosophical interest with sexuality is marked by Schopenhauer in the early 19th century (ironically we cannot ignore his own glaring misogyny, including the not-so-well-known radical advocacy of polygamy). Along with Nietzsche’s “naturalism” and his championing of the body, away from the strictures of Christianity and tradition, Primoratz reminds us that the importance Nietzsche places on the body as the locus of will is directly attributable to Nietzsche’s early reading of Schopenhauer.[3] Also, nevermind the now dubious legend that Nietzsche’s downfall into dementia was allegedly caused by syphilis contracted from a prostitute in Leipzig.[4]

We could challenge Primoratz’s idea that Schopenhauer demarcates a discussion of sex and philosophy, to do so is to evoke D.A.F. de Sade, the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 work Philosophy in the Bedroom, less a work of philosophy and more a scathing critique of social convention in the name of sexual libertinage. The 18th century sexual libertine feeds his hunger by way of reading de Sade (‘single-handed’), fueling a fantasy quest with an aggressive search for libidinal freedom from sexual convention. Perhaps this reference distracts from the fact that de Sade has been largely considered a pornographer and not taken seriously as a ‘philosopher of sex.’

Historically, Primoratz nods to the once cutting-edge philosophy of phenomenological existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness from 1943, Simon de Beauvoir in her oft-cited feminist work The Second Sex from 1949, and then to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s eloquent placement of the experiential immanence of sexuality in his landmark Phenomenology of Perception from 1945. In the Anglo-analytic tradition we also have contribution of Bertrand Russell’s work from 1929 Marriage and Morals.

As we know, the 20th Century witnessed great advances in demystifying the stigma of sexual conduct. We don’t have to reach far to recall the psycho-sexual ‘pleasure principle of Sigmund Freud in his 1930 work Civilization and its Discontents, while also acknowledging the culturally destabilizing effects of Alfred Kinsey’s Kinsey Reports from 1948. The previously mentioned French phenomenologists were also becoming translated into English in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s as cultural decades were emblematic of realizing newfound sexual freedom and expression largely affected by Second-Wave feminism and other concomitant social issues, Gay rights et al.

Primoratz does narrow down the work form the 1960s and 1970s with three works: Thomas Nagel’s “Sexual Perversion” from 1968, Robert Solomon’s “Sexual Paradigms” from 1974, on to Alan Goldman’s “Plain Sex” from 1977. Now in the 21st Century, apart from Primoratz, we look to the plurality of gender issues philosophically anticipated with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from the 1990s (among countless others).

“Sex and Procreation”

This is usually where the conversation gets going in terms of a so-called conservative position concerning sexual conduct as captured within the sphere of accepted heterosexual marriage. St. Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine easily represent the two Christian Medieval views on the institution of marriage and religious life. Basically sexual intercourse is strictly aimed at bringing children into the world, and subsequently to raise and care for the children as a part of committing to the family.

We cannot forget the Biblical implications stemming from the so-called ‘Fall from Grace,’ known more simply as ‘The Fall.’ To account for sex in a Christian context is to do so negatively, it is a carnal compromise away from God’s perfection. Sexual pleasure outside of a procreative context is considered sinful, base, and selfish. As Primoratz notes for St. Augustine, perhaps the connection with human sexuality is bound to the irrational nature of sexual desire and impulse. The poignantly irrational nature of sexual desire could be an interesting point of departure for another study, given that the irrational aspects of sexual activity continue to cause problems even for those of us not immersed in a Medieval Christian view of traditional sex. Add this restrictive view on sex to the traditionally philosophic view that sex represents a preoccupation with the body, and it should go without saying that sexual activity outside of marriage and outside of the context of procreation is essentially thought of as baneful, immoral, and/or evil.

The effort is to envision all the other reasons people have sex that are not procreative—at least to call into question the notion that sex is wrong unless it is procreative. We can see that a restriction of pleasure in the name of religion is to follow an ascetic tradition that is no longer entirely practicable or sensibly realistic. Away from a few of Primoratz’s conclusions at the end of this chapter, people have sex for countless other reasons, and not all those reasons are nefarious, unethical or depraved.

I think where we struggle these days is finding a middle ground between total sexual lust (characterized and fueled by the omnipresence of online pornography) and a not-so-sexy life of moderation and restraint. It is naive to imagine that simply because one lets go of the praise and blame of religious law, does not automatically set up a life of sexual freedom and libidinal satisfaction. Nevermind Henry Sidgwick’s ‘hedonist’s paradox,’ or the ‘pleasure paradox.’ That is to say, pleasure as a goal is often (but not always) elusive. Simply seeking sexual pleasure does little to promise consistent pleasure. And the question is open as to what is experienced if the result is not pleasure—I’m tempted to surmise such sexualized pursuits can result in an increase of suffering and pain.

Meanwhile, Primortz’s books remain open.

–Aurelio Madrid

[1] Igor Primoratz, Ethics and Sex (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999).

[2] This book appears to be the result of the work responding to a much larger volume of essays on sexuality edited by Igor Primoratz from 1997, titled: Human Sexuality (Dartmouth Publishing Co., Ltd., 1997). His work Ethics and Sex seems to serve as an ethical reader’s guide to the two dozen or so essays included in Human Sexuality.

[3] See Richard Arthur Spinello’s 1981 dissertation: “Nietzsche’s Conception of the Body.”

[4] See Leonard Sax’s 2003 essay on this, “What was the Cause of Nietzsche’s Dementia?”

 

…locke, voltaire, hume, & reid on the self

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daniel rozen, self-centered mirror.

Locke gets the conversation going with the notion that the self is constituted with memory and consciousness. If we accept that memory is consciousness, this brings in the philosophical point that cognitive thinking is closely linked to memory. To be a conscious person is also to remember.

With Voltaire’s comments on identity, we mostly find a question of retributive punishment, and how we are held accountable for things we remember or forget. Surely his idea that the self is like an ever-changing river is something to consider given the changes we undergo in a lifetime are significant. As we mentioned, this is a problem of personal identity because if we cannot remember a crime, can you be punished for that crime (in this lifetime or the next)? Voltaire offers the slightly confusing example of a father who blames the Euphrates for drowning his son Xerxes. The river would reply that the waves responsible are far away and no longer to be blamed. Here we have the problem of responsibility that is similar to the problem we have today with people who commit crimes. People continue to pay the price for their past crimes long after the penalty has been met.

Yet once I write this down, I see the difference. With Voltaire, he’s seems to be critiquing Locke’s claim that personal identity is closely linked to memory, while simultaneously refuting the notion that a immaterial soul should be responsible for the sins of its body. With our example above, people have a hard time getting away from their past because they are required to ‘remember’ their past when filling out job applications and the like. Our problem is different than Voltaire’s in respect to memory. Voltaire wants to detach from this idea that we are our memories, and how does an immaterial soul hold responsibility for the sins of its former body? His two difficulties stay unresolved in this excerpt. It is implied that these notions are problematic and deserve adequate scrutiny. In light of our contemporary problem of responsibility, we do not want people to forget their past as an extension of their public identity.

Then going back to Hume, we must be clear to see that he was denying an identifiable self. For Hume the way we think is due to impressions of things as they appear to us via our perceptions—he is an empiricist. His empiricism is far more stringent than Locke’s with a heavy dose of skepticism. If the impressions we have of the world are looked at in any given moment, we cannot pull a self out of those impressions. For Hume there is not a self that coheres through each impression. This does not feel right for us though, we do have a sense of ourselves as cohering through all of the impressions we have from day to day. We, at the very least, have to account for the ‘bundle of impressions’ with have that persist through space and time are what constitute something we call a self.

Then we have to have some account of the body which is where Reid comes in indirectly. He doesn’t exactly state that the body is what constitutes the self—Reid places the self on existence. If it is not memory as Locke proposed, it must be based on a continued existence through time for Reid. Reid is also critical of Hume with regard to the self as not determinable from the ‘bundle of impressions’, whereby we can see that at the very least the self must be an accumulation of these impressions as moving somewhat beyond the impression themselves. There are other mechanisms of thought involved in the thinking of an individual person—namely reason, the appetites, space and time. No, we might not be a ‘bundle of impressions’ according to Hume, Reid expands the self to include more.

–aurelio madrid

…on deontology

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Fellow philosophers, thank you for the good thoughts on Kant’s deontology as it relates to Mill’s utilitarianism.

One problem that emerged has to do with the issue of happiness as it relates to Kant’s deontology. Always remember that Kant’s deontology is non-consequentialist, in other words, it is not promoting actions in favor of a happy consequence. As we talked about in class, if I decided to help the homeless in downtown Denver on my day off as a way to demonstrate a good action, which is rationally affirmed by asking myself if this action can be universal (according to the categorical imperative). I then quickly realize that the job of helping the homeless is not something that brings me happiness, this happiness (and its lacking) should not be a feature of my decision to do it to begin with. The good action to help others in need outweighs whether doing so will give me the consequence of happiness.

Another issue of note is in light of the problems with deontology highlighted by students. A few students proposed that a problem with Kant’s deontology is that it would be hard to determine what duties we should pursue. This is answered by way of a person deciding to do her duty as a rationally autonomous agent. That is to say, we decide how and when to do our duty in a rational way. And the duties we are deciding on are those which meet the standard of the categorical imperative—if the action can be universally applied, then the action is something to do. If it cannot be universal, then do not do it. It is our duty, according to Kant to rationally consider this while considering our moral actions in all cases.

And yet another issue to highlight also had to do with potential problems with deontology. This is the classic problem raised in the textbook (and by Kant) concerning lying. This is the scenario of a killer who comes to your house looking for a person you have hiding in your house. The point is that you should not lie and if you cannot lie you must reveal the person you have hiding to the killer. I say that we can easily think of a universal rule something like: ‘whenever a killer comes to your house looking for a potential victim you have hiding, it is alright to lie.’ I think most people would agree that it would be alright to deceive the killer in all cases like this.

…aurelio madrid

…aquinas, immortality, &c.

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…then to Aquinas and whether or not he considered the soul to be immortal, and the concurrent issue concerning whether or not the soul is separate from the body. I found an entry to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Richard Swinburne on this issue, http://www.newdualism.org/papers/R.Swinburne/Swinburne-Nature%20of%20Soul.pdf When we read the first few paragraphs, we get good synopsis of the problem. The issue rests on the transition from an Aristotelian version of the soul (psyche, Ψυχῆς) as intrinsically connected to the body. That is, Aristotle believed that the soul is the animating part of a person’s body–when the body died the soul dies with it. Given that Aquinas is Aristotelian, he mentions this very notion in the Summa Theologica, giving all of us the impression that he agrees with Aristotle, that the death of the body entails the death of the soul.

Yet it is not the case that Aquinas thought that the soul simply died with the body, or that the soul was not immortal. The easy way to think of this would be to recall that Aquinas is advocating a notion of resurrection. If a body is to resurrect with the body it once inhabited, the soul must live without the body until judgment day when the soul becomes embodied. Then according to Aquinas, the person resurrects from the dead to live on into eternity in heaven or hell. The questionable part comes with the notion of what the soul consists of while it is separate from its material matrix, its body. Does the soul lose its identity when it is not animating the body? As Swinburne indicates, Aquinas thinks that the soul is somehow “fitted” to its original body, perhaps like a key to a lock. The other point I am not sure of is what happens to the material body after it is judged.