Archive for January, 2021

Lack of Intent

January 29, 2021

In the recent discussions of Edward Feser’s work and Gunther Laird’s criticisms of them, Feser’s comment that he thinks that all of the ills of modern society follow from rejecting Aristotle has been brought up a few times.  Let me make my own statement of what I think is causing all the ills in modern times:  we’ve given up the idea that intent matters and so are trying to make moral judgements without noting the importance of intent to such judgements.

An example is the debate over hate speech, a topic that Jerry Coyne recently commented on, referencing a student article.  Coyne insists that free speech must be preserved and is at least skeptical about whether any so-called hate speech should be censored, while the student (Kelly Hui) supports the idea but ties her notion of what counts as hate speech is very much caught up in liberal and Social Justice views.  Which leads Coyne to ask her this one question:

“Who would you have decide which people are allowed to speak at the University of Chicago, and which should be banned?”

While it isn’t certain that she really holds this view, the issue from her side is that in general she would want the speech banned from campus that she finds hateful, while views that she finds acceptable or necessary she wouldn’t find hateful.  On the other hand, Coyne asks that question in line with his view that the only criteria that could really be used is whether or not it is offensive, and so based on that how do you claim that something is hateful, and hateful enough to be banned?  So Hui likely will judge what does or doesn’t count based on whether or not it offends someone that she thinks it unreasonable to offend (usually based around ideas of power or privilege) while Coyne will say that simply offending someone isn’t sufficient to get it banned.

What both of them miss here is that we can define a pretty good definition of hate speech based around what the clear intent of the speech is, which allows us to ban hate speech in a way that’s objective enough to work.

As all of us know — and Coyne as well — free speech is not absolute.  The most famous example of a restriction of free speech is the classic “You can’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded building”.  But, of course, you can do that.  If there really is a fire in the building and you think that’s the best way to get people away from that fire, you can do so and will be exempt from most consequences even if the action results in a stampede that injures or kills people.  The reason we say that in that case it was okay is that if you couldn’t reasonably foresee that your action would have that result and your intent was good, then we might say that your action was a mistake,, but we would still say that it was at least morally defensible.  So in that case, you indeed can yell “Fire” in a crowded building.

However, that’s a case where we think the action is correct, or at least reasonable.  What if we think it unreasonable?  As it turns out, intent matters there, too.  If someone decided that it would be a fun joke to do that and scare people, and legitimately didn’t believe that it would have such a terrible impact, then we’d be more forgiving of them than if their intent was to start a panic and get people trampled.  The former is stupid, perhaps, while the latter is malicious.  We can more forgive innocent stupidity than malice.

And this is what we can use to judge what is and isn’t hate speech.  If the intent of someone’s speech is to incite hatred and discrimination against an identifiable group, we can identify it as hate speech and we can make a pretty good argument that such speech should not be allowed.  There is no reasonable exchange of ideas possible, nor does it seem to have any useful purpose in a society.  If the only purpose of the speech is to generate hate, then what purpose does it have?  It doesn’t seem to fit, then, the purpose that free speech protections grant to speech.

Note that this doesn’t apply to speech that might end up having that effect.  If someone says that, say, the wealthy are hoarding resources or that the poor are demanding that the state provide for them instead of working for themselves, some people might come to hate that group, but the purpose of the speech would be to point out the situation, not incite hatred against that group.  The hatred, then, comes purely from the interpretations of the listeners, and is not the intent of the person putting forward the ideas.  If that person could reasonably foresee that it would generate that reaction, we can judge them based on that intent, but then we would judge whether that speech was reasonable or not based on how necessary it was that the ideas be expressed, just as we would in the crowded building case.

To use a progressive example, it might be hate speech to say that white people are evil oppressors, but it wouldn’t be to say that they are privileged.  The latter may be incorrect, but its purpose is not to make people hate white people, but to outline what they see as an important point that needs to be understood to keep society working and fix its problems.  The former is a case that is not just wrong, but seems designed to generate hatred.

Now, in my experience most people who reject making these judgements on the basis of intent are worried about is judgement, and the ability to punish people who do “the wrong thing”.  They note that intent exists in the minds of the people we are considering, and so how can we be sure what their intent was and so how can we be sure that they did something wrong?  They could always just say that they had an innocent intent when they really had a malicious one, and since we can’t get inside their heads how could we gainsay them to punish them appropriately?  This concern is what drives the move towards consequentialism, because we can always look at what actually happened and then determine whether what they did was right or wrong.  This, then, leads to the idea that if it offends someone or makes them feel unsafe then it’s bad, because we can in theory judge whether or not they were offended.  But then we know that some people might fake being offended, and also that some things might need to be said whether or not it offends someone.  However, instead of working to classify the speech based on intent or purpose, instead they move to use concepts of power and privilege to divide up the groups into ones where it is reasonable to avoid offending them and the groups where we don’t need to worry about offending them.  And thus we get to the progressive idea of things like punching down and privilege which dictate what hate speech and discrimination really is, with perceived powerless groups ironically gaining power through society’s protection and the perceived powerful groups being excluded from such protections.

But this is a mistaken analysis.  First, while they throw up their hands at assessing intent, it turns out that we as humans assess the intent of other humans all the time, and quite successfully.  For example, if you’re walking to a crosswalk and you see a car coming, you will look at various signs to see what the intent of that driver is to determine if you should cross and where you should stand, and they are looking at you to determine that.  This works most of the time.  We also do it for other drivers when we’re driving.  In fact, conversations rely on assessing intent because the language is often ambiguous, so we assess what we think the intent of their words are in order to determine what they mean.  And this even applies to negative speech, like insults and other attempts to make someone feel bad.  We can tell the difference, in general, between joking and teasing versus real attempts to insult someone, and even between someone being insensitive and someone trying to deliberately make someone feel bad.  This ability is all we need to treat hate speech according to my view.

But second, we can abandon the need to find out if their intent was bad so that we can punish them and consider them bad for that.  In most cases, it will be fairly clear.  In the cases where it is ambiguous, we can let it go and accept that we aren’t sure that their intent is malicious and give up our need to punish them for an uncertain malicious intent.  After all, we still can chide them for being irresponsible if their speech has harmful effects, especially if they can’t show a real value from the speech that’s necessitated those harmful effects.  And we can actually post-judge their actions if they show a consistent pattern that reveals their intent.  If in one instance they straddle the line of being malicious, we can point out their straddling and advise them to stay further away from the line.  If they continue to straddle the line, then at best they’re being irresponsible and at worst we know that their intent is to cross the line in a way that gives them some plausible deniability that that is what they are doing.  And in those cases we can point out that their continuing to do so really does make their intent to be malicious clear.  Once we give up the need to punish every purportedly bad behaviour, we can consider intent and punish the behaviour that is clearly bad.

Society has mostly abandoned intent, but this has left it unable to properly handle societal and moral judgements.  And since many in society seem to really, really want to punish bad people for bad behaviours, this has left them only able to punish them on the basis of the consequences.  But sometimes good actions have at least some bad consequences, so they need to delineate the two cases somehow.  And so they do it based on personal and political considerations, not moral ones, because their moral system has no room in it to delineate those cases.  So they elevate personal and political considerations to moral ones, and it all falls apart when they have to deal with people who have different personal and political considerations.  And that’s why things are as screwed up as they are,

Thoughts on “Amityville Toybox”

January 28, 2021

Okay, movie, you got me.  You attached yourself to the “Amityville Horror” name and made me think that this was going to be part of or associated with that franchise and so would actually have some quality, when instead all you were was a B-movie or less that doesn’t even actually really relate to Amityville at all except in the most token and shallow ways.  So, yes, using the name got me to shell out money for it and add some to what must be your enormously underflowing coffers because of how terrible a movie you are and the fact that I got you for something like $10 at Walmart.  Well done.

As you might imagine, this is not a very impressive movie.  The basic premise is that there was a toy in the house where I guess the Amityville ghost encouraged the father to kill his family, and it was with a little girl when she was killed.  This same toy — a monkey bashing the cymbols — is then given to another father as his adult children and extended family gather at his house to celebrate his birthday.  They have a number of personal issues, which the movie brings up without ever resolving them or making them important to the plot, except that after he gets the monkey the ghost of his father suddenly appears and encourages him to kill all of them for their failings.  Such as they are.  So he proceeds to do just that, and despite there being some suspense as to whether one of them will escape — which, amazingly, is not the one the movie establishes as his favourite, which would at least have allowed for some emotional pathos and some relevance of that fact beyond a creepy lap dance scene where she as a hallucination seems to be attempting to seduce him — that is snuffed out.  Then the movie switches to a group of paranormal investigators investigating the house who attempt to explain what happened, implying that the issue was indeed the object but then finding a spirit after insisting that it’s the entire house that’s the issue now, somehow.  The spirit them seems to threaten kill the psychic and the movie ends on the traditional “The evil still exists and we’re going to end on it doing something to someone else to make everyone fear that it might happen to them!” line, which adds absolutely nothing and is, overall, pretty stupid.

The paranormal investigators part is actually somewhat interesting, but it’s just completely decoupled from everything else and doesn’t actually give a decent explanation for what’s going on, especially since it’s so short and at the end.  And as noted above the ending with “The horror continues!” really seems tacked on only to have that happen because, well, don’t good horror movies do that?  Ultimately, it’s just too little, too late and mangled like the rest of the movie.

Ah, the rest of the movie.  Bad acting, cheap cinematography, a confusing plot, characters and characterization … all of this adds up to perhaps calling this a B-Movie is an insult.  To B-Movies.  There’s not much positive that I can say about the movie other than that some of the actresses are at least pretty.  But they aren’t given enough to do — and no, I don’t mean more seduction scenes like that with the father or sex scenes like the one with her boyfriend — to make them worth watching.  While the movie is again one of the shorter ones, it’s not length that hurts it here.  It’s the fact that it doesn’t have anything approaching an interesting plot and seems to be assembled entirely out of standard horror tropes with no proper links between them that hurts it.  If it had better production values, then we might be willing to put up with the non-existent plot to at least watch the performances of good actors.  And if it had a better and more engaging plot, then we might forgive its cheap production values.  But since we have neither …

Ultimately, if you’re going to do a cheap, indie movie you really, really need to decide what you’re doing and aim the entire plot at getting that across, knowing your limitations.  This is one of the things that made “The Blair Witch Project” such a success, as it set out the story it wanted to tell and bent its limited resources to making that work.  This movie is one of those cheap movies that didn’t seem to try, and was made for the sake of being made.  And so, yes, again, it fooled me.  But that’s not a sustainable way to make money on a movie.  You really want people to say that it’s really good, not be fooled into watching it and toss it aside in disgust.

I think I might feel guilty if I did sell it to someone else.  I’m certainly not watching it again.

Some Thoughts on “Ring Fit Adventure”

January 27, 2021

Quite a while ago, I was watching a game show network that I had and was seeing lots and lots of commercials for “Ring Fit Adventure” for the Nintendo Switch.  At about the same time, I had seen that the Switch had versions of classic PC games — Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, and Torment, for starters — and was tempted to pick one up.  With the two things combined and my usual long pondering time, I decided to go and get a Switch and get “Ring Fit Adventure” … and they were sold out.  So I waited.  And then we went into lockdown and I couldn’t get it anymore.  And then things opened up and I was reminded of it, and I checked and a video game store near me had one, so I picked up a Switch and the game — and a few others that I haven’t played yet — and started playing it.

As an exercise style game, it’s the best I’ve seen, and is a marked improvement on Wii Fit Plus.

“Ring Fit Adventure” is clearly a game, which was not really the case for Wii Fit Plus.  It’s basically a simple JRPG, except that everything you have to do in the game you have to do through some sort of exercising.  You have to jog to get from place to place inside the areas.  You also have to cross water and other areas with other types of exercises.  When you fight monsters, you choose from a variety of exercise “attacks”.  You open chests by doing squats.  There is also a Game Gym that can give you bonuses if you complete the activity with a certain ranking, and the activities involve varied exercises.  So for the most part, you are following the JRPG story but in order to progress at all you have to do that by moving around and doing exercises, so it clearly subordinates the exercising to the game itself.

The nice thing about this is — and which is especially important for me — is that it gives you a reason to do the exercising that isn’t just to exercise.  Thus, you will keep exercising as long as you want to get to the next area or through it.  While for me the biggest consideration has been time — I usually have about a half hour or so after work to exercise and feel pressure if I play too long — there have been times when I wanted to keep going to finish a Game Gym activity or get to a new area or finish a request or get a treasure chest.  Now, you can’t get as absorbed in this sort of game as you could in a regular JRPG because of the physical factor:  even if you wanted to see the next part or get to the next world if you’re physically tired you simply won’t be able to.  However, it does give you a reason to keep going to keep coming back beyond “I guess I should exercise today”.

I play on a relatively low difficulty, because all I really want is to get a bit of exercise and not be stuck on, well, anything, which is also how I approach all JRPGs.  Still, depending on the area, I can work up a sweat doing it, and people in better shape could bump the difficulty up a few notches and it would work for them as well.  As an example, the speed through which you move through the areas is pretty much determined by you.  I tend to use a light jog, but you could sprint through it (and I had to once for fulfill a request) so it can be as hard or as easy, in general, as you’d like.

The story started out seeming quite childish, where you have a ring who was sealing up a creature called Drageaux that you’re tricked into freeing.  As it goes along, though, it becomes more of a General rated story, and there’s a history between Drageaux and the ring that’s making me wonder who the bad guy really is (I don’t think that they will go all-in on that but there is an undercurrent of that throughout the story).  The story is just interesting enough that the cutscenes aren’t boring but it isn’t really a classic either.

There also seems to be a rhythm game associated with the game that I will try at some point, but I really want to finish the JRPG at least once first.

I’ve been playing this for a couple of months, getting it in about four days a week (the only time it fits in my schedule) and for the most part it’s been working.  It’s replacing some time on an exercise bike but I’ve been far more likely to boot this game up and have been far more likely to get the half hour in, which makes it a resounding success by my standards.

Twenty-Sided Knives Out Analysis

January 26, 2021

Last week I gave my analysis of “Knives Out”.  This week, as promised, I’m going to look at the aside analysis of it given at Shamus Young’s Twenty Sided Tale and so dive a bit deeper into some of the main issues and impressions of it as per what he and his commenters were saying.  Again, there will be massive spoilers.

Let me start with the comments on Johnson and his ability or desire to subvert stories and tropes.  From Shamus in his intro:

I said above that I’m not a huge fan of TLJ. On the other hand, I actually really like writer / director Rian Johnson. Or at least, I dig the kinds of things he does as a creator. He’s the Demolition Man of genre films. His favorite thing to do is to take a set of established tropes and destroy them by (and this is the part everyone gives him shit about) subverting audience expectations.

Demolishing a genre is not necessarily a bad thing. A certain degree of creative destruction is needed to keep things fresh and interesting. And if you’re looking for someone to mix up the status quo then Rian Johnson is the right man for the job.

His most recent movie Knives Out is a perfect example of this. He creates a classic murder mystery setup: An opulent setting of old wealth, a dead guy surrounded by jerks with reason to want him dead, a fortune for a family to fight over, and a detective that needs to solve the crime under some sort of time constraints. We’ve all seen that film. It’s a good concept and a lot of brilliant movies have been made using that template. But it’s also really fun if the director takes all of those expectations and uses them against us by presenting actions and situations that might make sense in the real world – or in another genre entirely – but brazenly violate the conventions of the given genre. Knives Out started with the classic Agatha Christie premise and then broke from tradition again and again, then sort of walks it all back near the end before doing one final reveal that again turns the thing on its head.

Some mystery fans might love a plot that keeps them guessing, while others might feel this story is annoying because of how self-aware it is of its own genre and how much it fails to deliver on the situations they’ve grown to love.

Now, if you’ll recall, one of my main points about “Knives Out” was that it’s not really any kind of subversion nor did it really play with audience expectations.  In fact, I stated that it really could have been an episode of “Hunter”, which isn’t generally a whodunnit but is a pretty standard police detective show with a hint of mystery in it.  And one of the reasons, then, that “Knives Out” doesn’t really come across, to me at least, as a subversion is because all it really does is mix elements from various detective and mystery stories in ways that have been at least partly been done before.  “Hunter”, for example, was a police show where the mystery and detective elements were very much downplayed, especially after it moved away from being a “Dirty Harry” parody.  As such, when Hunter decided that someone was the criminal, it was rare that that was subverted.  He was almost always right, in at least some way.  So that’s why the structure of “Knives Out” would fit well:  Hunter might very well have decided that the caretaker was accidentally responsible for the death, and then worked to prove that, with the slight twist added that someone else set it up, who then is the real criminal in the story.  This would only be more true the more sympathetic the purported murderer was portrayed, and Marta was portrayed very sympathetically.   The only twist that it wouldn’t be likely to do was the twist that she through her own skills managed to avoid the trap of accidentally killing him, but the reason that would have been dropped is because it would require too much work to pull off convincingly for the limited benefit it would bring.  And in fact in “Knives Out” all it really seems to do is make her look even better — more on her character later — while raising issues that the toxicology report would have come back as clean and so once she managed to tell someone what was happening — or Ransom, the son did — then the fact that the report was done would surely show that she was indeed innocent (and it is a bit of a plot hole that destroying the report by burning down where it was stored would work when the examiner should have known what it said and would have been able to answer the question about such a prominent death).

So it is a slightly more clever mystery/crime story, but that’s really all it is.  Even casting things from the perspective of Marta doesn’t do much because stories like “The Fugitive” and many comedy mysteries take on the same sort of framework, with someone who accidentally killed someone or was implicated having to prove their innocence or keep ahead of the law, and in the comedies it results the same kind of madcap adventures featured so prominently in “Knives Out”.  So it’s not all that new or surprising, and so not all that much of a subversion at all.  Which, as I noted last time, isn’t much of a surprise considering that the mystery/crime genre has been around for so long and subverted for so long that finding something that hasn’t been done is a pretty tall order.

But from the comments we can find what Johnson thought he was doing (from this comment by Steve C):

Rian Johnson quote: The basic idea was kind of twofold — or threefold, I guess — a whodunit that turns into a Hitchcock thriller that turns back into a whodunit at the end. That combined with — and spoiler alert — doing the “Columbo” thing of tipping the “murderer” early but setting it up in such a way where your sympathies are genuinely with that person. That creates an interesting dynamic where the mechanics of the murder mystery itself become the bad guy of the movie. The fact that the murderer gets caught is the thing that you’re dreading. And that seemed very interesting to me.

The thing is, though, that it turns into the crime thriller far too early for us to really get into the whodunit aspects, and so the original framing is mostly lost.  And it doesn’t really return the the whodunit that it started with at the end.  What it does that might be a switch in genre from the beginning is that the movie starts out as a locked room murder mystery, where we believe that he killed himself but if it was going to be a murder we were going to have to explain how someone could have committed it when no one could have gotten there.  And then, again, relatively early into the mystery framework — although if I recall correctly a surprisingly long time into the movie — we reveal how it could have happened, and since the movie presents the impressions that we get from the characters as being the truth we know that it is unlikely that anyone else actually killed him, and at the end it doesn’t, in fact, use the hint that if Marta could use that secret entrance to get back to him, someone else could have used it to kill him.  So the movie doesn’t really feel like it changes genres as much as Johnson seems to think because the genres are already ones that we’ve seen combined before and the movie doesn’t take the time to really establish the genres as separate before it starts to mix them, so it comes across not as a shift in genre, but as mixing genres.  And, again, those genres have already been mixed before, so it’s not all that new.

Also, that last line seems to me to highlight why the reaction Johnson got for what he did on “The Last Jedi” happened, because it’s both smug and clueless.  Let me repeat it here so I can focus on it directly:

That creates an interesting dynamic where the mechanics of the murder mystery itself become the bad guy of the movie. The fact that the murderer gets caught is the thing that you’re dreading. And that seemed very interesting to me.

It’s also the plot of “The Fugitive”, and a host of other mystery stories.  It’s been done.  A far more interesting twist would be to take someone who actually committed the murder and make that person sympathetic so that we don’t really want to see them get caught despite us knowing in the back of our minds that they really do deserve it.  As we saw in the “Hunter” episode “Rich Girl”.  So Johnson comes across as not knowing the genre he is trying to subvert and patting himself on the back for doing things that have been done before, while other shows have done better subversions without trying as hard to.  Johnson thinks he’s doing these amazing things to subvert things that he thinks the genres never touch while fans of the genres roll their eyes and note that it was never at all about those things (for TLJ, Johnson wanted to subvert the idea that the Force was tied to the Skywalkers and names with Rey being a nobody, but while the Skywalkers were prominent no one, not even the EU, was attached to that sort of idea).

And if you look at what I commented above, all of this was indeed why it would have been better for Johnson to have made Marta the actual villain at the end who manipulated everyone into the situation so that she would get the inheritance and get away scot-free.  Yes, this has also been done — again, the mystery genre has been around and been subverted for a long time — but it would have worked really well in this movie.  It would have allowed him to either show that the recollections that the movie showed us were lies, and so to actually use the movie’s structure against us.  Or to instead show that they only reveal things from a certain point of view, and so when we saw Marta’s actions there what we saw in the flashback was not her recalling what happened, but instead her recalling her act, and at the end we could see things that were left out of that flashback that showed that she was manipulating things all along.  It also would have used the focus on her to make us spend so much of the movie cheering for her and yet at the end being torn between those feelings and discovering that she was the murderer through manipulation (the opposite of “Rich Girl”, where we dislike her at the start but she goes through enough terrible things in the episode that the end where she seemingly kills herself is something that we can see as tragic).  It could also have tied into the ending more directly where if we actually considered the family to be nasty then we can actually have the mixed feelings about whether she or the family should have the inheritance.  It would also tie into the locked room mystery by a) providing an actual answer to the locked room mystery (yes, he killed himself, but only because he was lied to and manipulated into it) and b) making the existence of the secret passage incredibly important to the actual murderer’s plot … but then subverting it by making it clear that it wasn’t that someone used it to get in and kill him and escape.

And it would have avoided the issue that many had with the character of Marta, in that in the attempt to make her sympathetic they made her too nice, which caused issues, especially since they had to ensure that she and the victim both believed that he was going to die horribly but that somehow he actually wasn’t, which they did by making her be skilled enough to give the right drug regardless of the label but once she read the labels to panic.  To return to Steve C’s comment:

The main character (Marta) in Knives Out is incompetent. Everything the director shows us “this person is bad at things”. It is fine as it is a plucky underdog story. At the end, the key “Ah ha!” that solves the mystery is the fact that she is a competent nurse. Problem is no she isn’t. She is an incompetent nurse too. Everyone she has tried to help has died. Naive, guileless and generally incompetent, sure. But no aspect of her being a good nurse. She’s terrible! Key point was morphine. The use of morphine confused me early on the movie. What little I know about morphine is that it is fast acting. Thanks to war movies that’s pretty much morphine’s defining characteristic in my mind. When Mr Body was ODing on morphine, the movie stopped making sense to me. Because both of these characters should already know what a morphine OD would look like. But they don’t. Therefore minimum she’s not competent as a nurse. More likely (due to movie and genres) it is all an elaborate trick of some kind that they are in on. This isn’t a small thing either. The entire reveal at the end hinges on the morphine.

The entire movie fell apart for me there as it happened. It could have been a mcguffin drug instead of morphine and it would have worked. That was a decision of the director. Contrary to the director’s goal, it resulted in my sympathies NOT being with the main character. (My sympathies were with no characters. Which is not good.) It meant Marta was either being tricked or tricking the audience. I fully expected Mr Body was going to be revealed to be alive at the end in a “Ah ha! Audience we tricked you!” kind of way. Or that Marta was an elaborate con artist or something. I started to expect “The Usual Suspects meets Clue.” But instead it changed genres and I was left confused for most of the movie. Not about what was happening, but why the director was telling it. And this is what I feel is the defining trait of all Johnson’s movies.

I myself did think of the “horrible symptoms” part, mostly because the movie itself makes it clear that the death will be horrible with her telling that to him, which to me also hints that one of the reasons he kills himself is to avoid that (the other is clearly to protect her).  But I was willing to let it slide because they would both be panicked and might not think to check.  It is an issue that she wasn’t watching for symptoms — especially since she wasn’t sure that she gave him the wrong drug — and then was puzzled that they weren’t happening.  Again, though, I could let it slide.  But I think that Steve C has a point that the movie portrays her as actually bungling for most of the movie and then in the end has to rely on her actually being exceedingly competent.  Marta is not portrayed as being at all smart in the movie, and yet the ending kinda relies on that, and the detective makes a point of calling out how competent she is, which can lead to this impression (from a comment by Redrock):

No, I think what makes it worse is that Marta is portrayed as the closest thing to a literal saint one can imagine. As in she physically can’t lie. I mean, the girl is perfect in absolutely every way – smart as a whip, moral to a fault, so good at her job that she is incapable of making a mistake. That’s … not subtle. Irregardless of the message, really.

This was challenged in a comment by John:

Well, that’s one way of looking at it, I guess. I interpreted that as an anxiety thing rather than as a manifestation of pure, saintly pureness. Marta’s no saint. If she were moral to a fault, she’d have told the truth to everyone from the beginning. Instead, she spends the movie hiding or destroying evidence, lying by omission, and sometimes even lying outright when she thinks she can delay or conceal the vomit reflex. She’s as human as anybody in the movie, if a little nicer than most.

But I think that Redrock has it right.  The detective rhapsodizes about how wonderful a person she is, about how competent she is, about how he knows that she will do the right thing because that’s just how good a person she is.  Even John’s comment about how she would have told the truth to everyone if she was really good is undercut by the fact that the murder victim himself implores her to cover it up and even creates the plan to do so.  Even the deceptions are things that at the time we see as the desperate attempts of someone to avoid undeserved punishment.  She’s not doing these things just to get personal benefit, but because of the situation and the movie is careful to show that if those things tripped her up it would be unfair and unjust.

Which leads back to my claim that she isn’t all that bright.  She knows that she can’t lie without vomiting, and yet at the beginning even after the detective tells her that he knows this and is going to try to question her to get information about the family she … tries to lie anyway.  First, she had to know that she wouldn’t get away with it (there is a scene with the detective towards the end and with Ransom at the end where she at least plans to hide it and so get away with it).  Second, all she was hiding was the secrets of the family, and if she was at all smart she’d realize that lying about those things is only going to draw attention to them.  And third, she had no real reason to lie about them in the first place, since the things weren’t all that incriminating and there’s no real indication that she’s that attached to the family.  If it was a deliberate attempt to make them look suspicious, it would have worked, but as it is for some reason Marta is willing to lie utterly unconvincingly to the police and implicate herself when, by the plot, she really should be doing all she can to fly under the radar, which would include ensuring that she doesn’t lie to the police about anything.  You could argue that her goal was to ensure that no one considered the death a murder, but that’s never explained and so makes her look stupid, but in some way saintly so.

So I think that in an attempt to make her seem sympathetic, Johnson goes overboard, when if she really did have some human flaws it would have worked better to both make her sympathetic while leaving room for us to be suspicious of her.

This is only compounded with the fact that the family is supposed to be unlikable but aren’t that bad, as I noted.  People also noticed that in the comments.  From a comment by Joshua:

Well, I also have a raised eyebrow at this whole discussion of them being called “terrible” people. They’re not really GOOD people, but for the most part, while most of them might have some snobbishness and some bigoted views, and the movie shows very well that they are entitled and spoiled, but they really don’t DO anything. Which makes them more along the lines of “pathetic” in my book, and calling them “terrible” is an insult to people who actually do go around making other peoples’ lives worse.

Ransom definitely fits the description of terrible for multiple reasons shown in the film. Of the three in-laws, Richard is cheating on his wife who is also his meal ticket, Joni is ripping Harlan off, and Donna’s….barely there so doesn’t really count.

The rest I would dismiss as flawed people, not terrible ones. Even Walt’s pathetic attempt to threaten Marta was inspired by the fact that he’s being threatened by loan sharks (from an apparent deleted scene). They otherwise do seem to love each other as a family, and do make an offer to financially support Marta with the inheritance even though they have no obligation to do so.

Followed by another comment from John:

When I say terrible, I’m using a certain amount of hyperbole. I don’t think they’re monsters (with the one obvious exception). I even have a certain amount of sympathy for Linda and Walt, as I mentioned earlier. It can’t have been easy growing up with Harlan for a father. If what Linda says is true, then “My Coffee, My House, My Rules” was a way of life for Harlan, and not just a fun slogan for a novelty coffee mug. Moreover, Linda at least clearly loves the rest of her family. But when I look at their lives, the way they treat other people, and the way they reveal themselves after the will is read, it’s hard for me to view them as merely flawed.

As I noted, they don’t really work as being terrible people in the sense that they would have to be to work in this sort of movie.  They are more to the flawed side than they are to the terrible side for people in a movie like this.  Ransom is only terrible because he’s actually the one who is trying to kill his grandfather, and for most of the movie we know nothing about this and as he’s the most charismatic of all the characters with the most personality we tend to be on his side for most of it (especially since he seems to be at least nominally on Marta’s side).  Even their motivations seems less terrible and more flawed (Joni’s double-dipping, for example, being mostly because she is indeed poor).  So Marta is portrayed as more saintly than she needs to be in part because otherwise there’d be some real conflict over whether we should side with her or the family when it comes to where the money goes.  As Joshua noted

For Knives Out, it was the scene after the will is read and Linda basically accuses Marta of sleeping with her father. This was really cool, because from the evidence presented, I think that it’s perfectly reasonable for Linda to come to this conclusion based upon the information she had, and Marta is being really awkward and evasive about their questions of what they consider to be a very important matter. The thing is, Marta is being evasive because she’s trying to avoid being incriminated in Harlan’s death and this whole will and estate thing are the LAST thing on her mind at the moment. To me, this was really awesome writing because it showed two groups who had fully fleshed motivations being at odds for natural reasons. And then later, the movie once again retreats away from that complexity and says that “Nah, Marta was the only person in the right all along and the children are all just awful bad people who deserve to lose their inheritance so it can be given to the pure as snow protagonist instead”. I came out of the film a lot more sympathetic to Harlan’s actual children (Walt and Linda) than the film intended, and the film doesn’t seem to realize how much these characters were dumped on, especially Linda.

Since none of the family — other than Ransom, who isn’t shown until later in the movie — were actually involved in nor seemed to have any interest in killing the patriarch of the family, they could have played on that ambiguity to generate doubts as to how bad the family was and if a lot of the things that we see are normal flawed human beings in certain situations and then having that exacerbated by all of them getting cut out of the will in favour of Marta.  Remember, they all at least thought they’d get something out of it, and it all going to Marta either leaves them out in the cold or at her mercy, and she wasn’t even involved with the family for all that long.  But the movie has to make Marta sympathetic and overdoes it, while not being able to make us really dislike the family.  And I think a big part of that is because, as I noted last time, Johnson fails at cognitive empathy and so goes on what invokes emotions in him.  From a comment by Galad_t:

That being said, I’m grateful for today’s column, because the comments led me to watching Knives Out, and I loved it. Having watched/read very few murder mysteries, I enjoyed its atmosphere, and sensed all throughout the movie that not all will be as it seems. The final “puke scene” was most enjoyable.

See, that scene didn’t really thrill me.  It struck me as overkill and something that dragged the movie back into the slapstick humour that it wasn’t really pulling off.  But if you really disliked Ransom — and, again, I didn’t because he was the only character that I felt had any charisma or personality — then it would be very gratifying and you’d love that scene.  This, then, ties into how Johnson tried to make us dislike the family.  From a comment by Matt:

I agree they all have to be horrible for the trope to work, but the ways in which they demonstrate their horribleness are not subtle and why I described the film as a polemic. His grandson is “one of those fascist trolls” on 4chan, for instance. I think it’s more about immigration than inherited wealth, which is why I believe that the attempted satire is weak.

Johnson tries to make us dislike them by associating them with ideas that we will dislike, and the more sympathetic characters — the one granddaughter, for example — are made more sympathetic by opposing those ideas.  This works if you agree with him that those positions are absolutely terrible.  If you don’t, it will fall flat.  This then will leave the audience split on the characters and how terrible they are.  Of course, in general you want to show that people are terrible by appealing to universally accepted terrible ideas, but where Johnson fails is by appealing to the ideas that he thinks are clear signs of a terrible person and not by appealing to ideas that clearly are signs of a terrible person.  It’s a sign of a poorly done movie that different people can have such widely varying interpretations of it when that’s not the actual intent of the movie, and when having different interpretations really hurts the experience of the movie.

Anyway, that’s probably a good place to stop.  Rian Johnson’s movies often seem to garner discussion, but not really in the ways he intended, especially for The Last Jedi but also, as we’ve seen, for Knives Out.  I think that perhaps the fact that his movies generate debate is at least in part responsible for his “fame”, but I don’t think it really indicates that he’s a good writer/director.  From these discussions and my watching two of his movies, I don’t think I’ll be seeing out his works at any point in the future.

The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 4)

January 25, 2021

Last time, I looked at Chapter 3, which is the one that had the most overlap with my own analysis.  This time I’m looking at Chapter 4, which takes a tack that is much less interesting and, ultimately, one that I have repeatedly argued in the past is actually a very weak form of philosophical argument.  In response to Feser’s claims that modern morality is deficient, Laird is going to argue that Feser’s natural law ethics is at least as deficient if not more so.

Let me start with the reasons why this is not a very strong argument.  The problem is that there are far too many ways to avoid such arguments.  The first broad category is that the moral system is being misinterpreted, either by the person criticizing it or by the people who decided to use it justify what we think are horrible things.  The other broad category is to essentially bite the bullet and admit that it does justify those things that we think are horrible but ultimately those things really are correct.  The only time, then, that such arguments can really work is when you take something that the person advocating for the theory would find acceptable and show that the view instead actually supports it, and so argue that that person should reject their own theory.  But that’s a personal appeal, not a universal philosophical one.  More importantly, it doesn’t actually prove the theory wrong, and so the theory could still be right.  When you make such an appeal, you would need to appeal to a universal wrong that everyone accepts, and even then biting the bullet would blunt that attack.

Laird relies on two main attacks:  arguing that certain philosophical systems that Feser would not approve of — Nazism and Communism in particular — have links to his natural law theory, meaning here Plato and Aristotle specifically, and also arguing that Aristotle explicitly justifies slavery.  However, to make this entire point pointless, at the end Laird has to admit that all of his arguments are historical and that Feser would not be amiss in demanding that Laird give philosophical arguments to show that the system is indeed false.  Since this is in line with my argument above, it makes the entire chapter pretty much pointless.  Laird says that he will try to give those philosophical arguments in the next chapter, meaning that this one isn’t doing anything other than associating the view with slavery, Nazis and Communism, which is pretty much an argument ad hominem, unless his historical arguments actually work.  So let me take a quick look at them.

The link to Nazis and Communism is pretty much the first sort:  Laird notes that the Nazis used Plato explicitly and that Marx didn’t repudiate Aristolean ideas, but these arguments are pretty weak.  That Marx didn’t explicitly repudiate it doesn’t mean that he used it either, and so it’s hard to see the direct link that Laird would need from Aristotle to Marx, so that we can see that Aristotle when interpreted properly will lead to Communism.  And while he can show the Nazis using Plato directly, it’s way, way too easy to argue that they misinterpreted it and so that, again, Plato properly understood does not allow for their interpretation and so doesn’t justify their philosophical ideas.  The most he can and has made in the chapter is that the ideas could lead to those interpretations, but no one with any philosophical experience at all denies this, especially if we allow for people to misinterpret the ideas as Laird needs to here to make his point.  So he doesn’t make the direct link he needs for this to even work as a historical argument, let alone one we should take seriously philosophically.  And his link from Thomism to similar issues is even weaker, since all he has there is a supposition that it could be used that way, which is far too weak to support any real counter to Feser at all.  He would have been better served, I think, to spend the time he spent on these arguments to showing how the negatives Feser points to are not objectively negatives — ie that Feser calls things negative only because he thinks they’re negative and not because they actually are — or that the negatives that he and Feser agree on are misinterpretations of his preferred moral system.  That would provide a philosophically interesting discussion, which these arguments don’t really manage (admittedly, by Laird’s own admission).

There is one philosophically interesting argument here, which is the argument that Aristotle directly supported slavery.  Unfortunately, Laird’s take on it ends up seeming shallow when he talks about Aristotle’s actual philosophical justification for that stance.  It becomes obvious that Laird pulls that out because he believes that such a thing is so obviously and clearly objectively wrong that any moral system that could possibly allow for it must be wrong.  However, Aristotle’s view didn’t justify slavery in and of itself, but instead justified slavery for those whose natures were such that they had to be slaves by nature.  The first reason this blunts Laird’s argument here is that Aristotleans can argue that the view only justifies slavery if it is true that people can have a nature that demands that they be slaves, and no such people exist, so it’s an irrelevant argument.  It would be like Aristotle’s view advocates that if people can fly by their own power they must follow the same rules for ships for when they are flying.  No matter what you think of such a moral position, it’s irrelevant since no one can do it.

But it’s the second reason that’s more philosophically interesting, because we can ask if the idea that if there were people who had a nature such that slavery was demanded would it be morally wrong in that case?  The example I was pondering was that of the Atans in David Eddings’ ‘The Tamuli”.  These were a race whose sexual selection ended up selecting for maximum strength, size and aggression.  However, the problem with that was that the aggression ended up being completely out of control, and so if left to their own devices they were constantly fighting with each other, in a way that risked wiping out the race.  So one of their kings, seeing the problem, decided to sell the entire race into slavery to the not-very-aggressive Tamuls, who turned them into an army but, more importantly, curbed their aggressive tendencies by, well, not giving them the permission to indulge them in harmful ways, which the book credits with saving their race from extinction.

Let’s put aside for the moment that idea that there might well have been other solutions that would have worked and simply assume here that that king was right and at that point the Atans had the nature of slaves, and the only options for them were to become slaves or be wiped out.  Could we really say that it would be necessarily immoral to treat them as slaves and, in fact, to enslave them?  Given most of the moral systems out there, about the only one that could out-and-out reject it is Kant’s deontological view, and even in his view it isn’t clear that it would be wrong, since it wouldn’t necessarily be people treated anyone else or themselves merely as means and not as ends in themselves (after all, they are taking their nature into account) and the idea that people should be enslaved if their nature dictates that and at no other time and for no other reason actually is universalizable.  To use my own preferred Stoic model, it’s hard to argue that it is vicious to treat someone in line with their actual nature, even if that nature is for them to be a slave.  So while creating people who have slavery as their nature may be immoral, treating such people according to their nature and enslaving them isn’t clearly immoral.  And so that Aristotle’s moral system could come to this conclusion doesn’t actually count against it, and in fact his view seems to handle this sort of situation in a reasonable way and provides a better justification for what we might all agree is the moral move than the others might.

From these two arguments, the charge of justifying slavery against Aristotle has no teeth.  For all practical purposes, it doesn’t, and in the only case where it does it really looks like he might have a point.

This chapter is one that I don’t really think serves much purpose.  If Laird has philosophical arguments and not historical ones against natural law theory, he would have been better off to simply go straight to them and not bother with this as a lead-in, especially since philosophically the most philosophical of his arguments falls completely flat.  But next time we’ll actually look at the more philosophical arguments expressed in Chapter 5.

The Principle of Indifference

January 22, 2021

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time will know that I’m not a fan at all of Bayesian epistemology.  Richard Carrier is one of its biggest advocates, constantly casting all epistemological questions in its light and developing its components in his normal, inimitable style of insisting that it’s all just correct.  In this post, he talks about “The Principle of Indifference” and tries to defend it against all attacks.  As is normal for Carrier, he is as much if not more concerned about it as a practical principle as opposed to just being a theoretical or philosophical principle.  However, the problem is that in this article his own defenses actually destroy it as a practical principle and his use of it in the Bayesian context actually weakens it as a philosophical one as well.  In short, his defenses of it against the charges show that it can never actually be used in real life and that all of the problems with it that he needs to mount the defenses against are all caused by treating it as something expressing probabilities.

So let’s start with the basic idea of what the Principle of Indifference is:

In lay terms, the PoI means this: when you have no information making any logical possibility more or less likely than any other, they are, so far as you know, all equally likely. For example, when you say you don’t have any idea whether a claim’s truth is more likely than 50% or less likely than 50%, you therefore mean it has a probability of 50%. So far as you know, that is. In other words, this is a principle of epistemic probability, not “objective” probability. Because it is a statement about what you know, not about what’s the case apart from what you know. For any claim h, if all you know is that h is as likely true as false, then what you know is, by definition, that h is as likely true as false. And that translates into mathematical terms as “the probability of h is 50%.” That’s simply a description of your state of knowledge at that time.

So the base principle isn’t unreasonable, as it basically says that if you have no idea and no information that would lead you to thinking that one option is more likely than another, then to you they are all equally likely to be the case.  But note that then Carrier immediately starts translating that into direct probabilities, which he needs to do to maintain his idea that all epistemology is ultimately Bayesian.  This means that what he can’t advocate for is someone simply saying that this probability or likelihood is indeterminate, and so someone treating the situation as one where they really have no idea how likely any of these are.  Carrier would no doubt argue that what I just said is simply stating that the probability is 50% or that they are all equally likely, but this is false.  For a proposition that is, say, testable empirically, if the two possibilities are sufficiently distinct so that specific experiments would easily make it clear that one was much more likely than the other, then I’d know that one of them really is far more likely than the other, but that I wouldn’t know which one that is until I actually look.  Carrier can argue that I should treat the two as equally likely, but I could easily respond that if the likelihood is at all important to me I shouldn’t consider them equally likely, but should instead simply go and look to see which it is.  It wouldn’t be a smart move, say, to make decisions or plans on the basis that both were equally likely when I could indeed easily check to see which one is more likely.

The advantage of it being indeterminate over having to give it a probability is that this behaviour flows naturally.  If I don’t need to know how likely it is or need to act on which one I think is correct, then I can ignore and don’t have to consider it as a probability at all.  If someone asks which I think is more likely, I need not answer that they are equally likely, but instead can simply answer that I have no idea.  But if I need to act on either of the options or even on the basis of what I think the likelihood of each options is — for example, whether I should hedge my bets on which one is true — I immediately recognize the absolutely true fact, even for Carrier, that I really need to know more before I can act on that likelihood.  Even under the Bayesian model, we really need to be able to distinguish between the cases where the probability is 50% because that’s what I’ve come to after considering a lot of evidence and all the evidence I can reasonably consider and where the probability is 50% because I didn’t start with any evidence or information at all and didn’t bother to gather any additional information.  In the former case, it’s far more reasonable to act as if each option is equally likely whereas in the second case it’s far more reasonable to go and look to determine what the real likelihood is than to assume that they are all equally likely.

But as it turns out all of the issues raised against the Principle of Indifference precisely follow from it being considered as a probability of 50%, and that Carrier’s defenses against those charges end up killing it as a practical principle.  Let me just look at one of the more indicative ones, which is the Partition Problem:

For instance, if you assume the absence of all pertinent information and then demarcate h and ~h as “God exists or God does not exist” you might assume the PoI entails P(h), in this case P(God exists), is 50%. But on another day you might demarcate h and ~h as “the Christian God exists or the Christian God does not exist” and assume the PoI entails the same conclusion. But it cannot be the case that the probability that just any god exists is exactly the same as that the specifically Christian God exists. Since there is a nonzero probability that a non-Christian God exists instead, the probability “that God exists” must necessarily be higher than the probability “that the Christian God exists,” as the former includes the latter—and all other gods. The “and” here is additive: all their probabilities add together. But you can’t add any positive number to x and still have x; you will always have some number larger than x.

This problem arises not only there. Because “God exists” contains a large number of assumptions—each of which must demarcate the probability space. For example, “God exists” entails “the supernatural exists,” but that the supernatural exists cannot be as likely as “the supernatural does not exist” and at the same time “God exists” be as likely as “God does not exist.” Because it is logically possible the supernatural exists and God does not. So P(supernatural) must be higher than P(God). It can’t be the same. And here the PoI should give us a different result: if we assume no information exists to render any of these possibilities more likely than its converse, then so far as we know P(supernatural) must be 50% and so far as we know P(God|supernatural) must be 50%. And that actually gets us the conclusion that P(God|supernatural) is 25%, not 50% (as 50% x 50% = 25%).

The basic idea is this:  there will always be a number of related propositions to pretty much any proposition that we are considering.  So if we are to consider a proposition for which we have no knowledge or evidence as having a probability of 50%, then what do we do with those related propositions if we don’t have any knowledge or evidence for them either?  Well, we’d be adding or multiplying them, which would give them a probability that isn’t 50%.   But the Principle of Indifference says that for any proposition where we have no information as to how likely each option is we must assume that they are equally likely, which means in those cases where there are only two options — which is generally true for propositions since they can only be true or false — if we do treat them as probabilities then by the PoI we would have to give them a probability of 50% and yet the probability calculation would insist that we not assign that probability to them, thus contradicting the PoI.

Carrier’s defense is to argue that in those cases we actually do have information as to the probability:

And that’s generally the solution to the Partition Problem: to properly account for dependent probability in any hierarchy of assumptions. Since P(God|~supernatural), i.e. the probability that God exists if the supernatural doesn’t, is zero (unless we change what we mean by “God,” but then we would be talking about a different thing—more on that shortly), then necessarily the PoI first operates on the demarcation between the supernatural and the natural, and then operates on God only inside the domain of the supernatural. In other words, we are talking about P(God|supernatural) and not just P(God). Discovering this fact—which is a logical fact, about the definition of God (and thus what we are “actually” seeking the probability of)—is information that changes the probability.

So in a broad sense, the PoI doesn’t apply: because you know it is not “as likely as not” that God exists, but rather that it’s “as likely as not” that the supernatural exists, and then “as likely as not that God exists if the supernatural exists” (again, assuming we have no other information bearing on either question). But the PoI still narrowly applies: within the probability space where we have no distinguishing information. Within the set of all logically possible worlds in which “the supernatural exists,” we have no information indicating that “God exists” is any more likely than not. But that entails P(God) = 0.25, not 0.50, as just noted. So once we do the math correctly, the Partition Problem solves itself.

But note that there and throughout the post any challenge to the PoI based on these probability calculations is solved by saying that in those cases we actually do know something about the proposition and so the probability calculations are actually correct and giving us the right probability.  We should immediately be able to see that any move like this weakens the PoI as a practical principle, because it limits its applicability.  Without doing all the work for every proposition in existence, we can wonder how many propositions have no such dependencies.  For example, while Carrier exempts atheism from being dependent on the supernaturalism proposition, could it be dependent on the naturalism proposition?  Or a host of other propositions?  So if we didn’t know anything about atheism itself, could we have a number of other propositions that would reduce its probability in the same way that Carrier has reduced theism’s and Christianity’s?  It seems pretty likely, so it seems that in most cases we’d always have additional information that we could get just from knowing the propositions exist and logically analyzing them without having any specific evidence or information at all.  Given that as per Carrier the PoI doesn’t apply in such cases, it looks like the PoI is going to legitimately apply very much at all in real life.

But wait, it gets worse.  The PoI is supposed to be applied when we don’t have additional information telling us which option is more likely.  However, we always have some information telling us how likely a proposition is, since propositions do not simply spring fully formed to our minds.  No, propositions always have a source.  Someone tells us about it.  We read it in a book.  We sit in our armchair and imagine it up.  And these sources all have a reliability that we can determine and that we have all the information we need to determine as soon as the source provides a proposition for us to ponder.  So to not consider that information that we clearly have seems to be epistemologically negligent.  So we shouldn’t be relying on the PoI here and pretending that we have no information about the proposition, but should instead be using the information that we have to determine a more reasonable probability.  So if the PoI does not apply when we have additional information about the relative likelihoods, then the PoI will almost never apply.  And that’s not taking into account the fact that for almost all propositions we will encounter and certainly for all propositions where we care about those likelihoods we will have background knowledge that is relevant to it, or at least will have a way forward to gather information and evidence to determine what those likelihoods are.  So as a practical epistemological principle, we will or at least should be gathering the information to determine “real” likelihoods, and not use the PoI at all.

And here is where we get into the philosophical problems.  The first is the one I just noted:  epistemologically speaking, when confronted with the PoI what a good epistemology will advocate is that you don’t assume that all of the options are equally likely, but instead that you go out and figure out what the real likelihoods are.  After all, it is premised on the idea that you don’t actually have any real evidence or information about them, but if you care about which of them are correct surely you should go out and look for such evidence or information, no?  The only time you wouldn’t need to is for propositions where you really don’t care what the likelihood is, almost certainly because the proposition is irrelevant to your life.  But then what’s the point of assigning any probability to it at all?  If you don’t care, then you will never use the fact that it has a probability of 50% and so have no need to assign it one, and if you come to care later considering the probability indeterminate should prompt you to do the epistemically superior thing and go try to get evidence to get a better set of probabilities.  So one should, in fact, never use the PoI, and should instead use any situation where they think they might want or be able to use the PoI as an indication that they need to go out and gather more information.  So a good epistemology should never stop with the PoI.

The second one is that all of the issues that Carrier runs into are spawned from the fact that he translates the “equally likely” there to a specific probability, which then allows for probability operations, which then move the probabilities away from the probability that the PoI would try to assign, which then forces Carrier to claim that the PoI doesn’t really apply in those cases.  So then at a philosophical level we can ask, as I did above, why we’re even bothering to assign a probability to it at all.  Why not just leave it indeterminate?  If we did that, then we wouldn’t have any of these problems, and it would allow us to easily distinguish between propositions where we have no information and propositions where based on significant information we have determined that each option really is equally likely based on the information we have.  Saying that the former case is an example of the latter is indeed quite misleading since in the latter case we are clearly more justified in saying that each option is equally likely because we went out and gathered the information and did the mathematical work to determine that, whereas in the former case we have no information and so are merely assuming it on the basis of a complete lack of information.  So leaving the PoI case indeterminate makes it abundantly clear that we are working from a position of a complete lack of information instead of working from a position where we may have lots of information that supports all the options equally well.  Carrier’s use of the PoI cannot make this distinction on its own, and runs him into issues with probability calculations forcing him to abandon the PoI anyway.

The PoI doesn’t work as a practical principle because in real life we will almost always have at least some additional information that will let us calculate proper probabilities.  It also doesn’t work as a philosophical principle because in any case where it would entail if we cared about those likelihoods we really should be going out and gathering information before assigning any likelihood to the options.  And Carrier’s translation of it to a probability in line with Bayesian epistemology causes the issues that he needs to address, and ends up forcing him to abandon the PoI to avoid contradictions and paradoxes.  If Bayesian epistemology really depends on the PoI, so much the worse for Bayesian epistemology.

Thoughts on “The Dark Stranger”

January 21, 2021

“The Dark Stranger” is actually an odd horror movie.  The main premise if taken as a horror movie is that a shut-in young woman suffering from mental issues starts to do art again in the form of a comic book, and the things start to come to life.  Well, that’s at least most of what is said on the back of the box.  What really happens is that it seems like she gets some kind of mental connection to the “Dark Stranger”, which gets her to draw comics in a fantasy world that parallels her life, and the things she writes about are things that the supposed “Dark Stranger” actually does in real life.

As a horror premise, it isn’t bad, but as a horror movie the movie doesn’t work all that well.  There’s a lot of focus on the artist and her family and the people around her, how she tries to get back into reality, and the fact that she seems to have to cut herself in order to draw.  That takes up time that could be used to build the horror and tension.  Additionally, the movie itself isn’t all that scary and there isn’t that big a threat to people.  We see one murder and then a capture, but for the most part the scary things are her obsessions and some jump scares rather than actual horror.  The production values and acting are fairly good, though, so it comes across as a decently produced and acted horror movie that doesn’t really manage to live up to its potential.

However, I don’t think that’s what the movie is really about.  It strikes me that the movie is, in fact, an attempt to use horror to make an analogy for depression.  The artist’s mother killed herself due to depression and everyone is worried that the artist is going to follow her example.  The Dark Stranger appears when she stops taking her medication and seems to be an analogy for depression itself, encouraging her to create but trying to push her to kill herself in or after doing so.  This relates to what some creative types have felt is the conundrum with medication, as it seems to stifle their creativity but without it their mental issues take over.  The movie hints that the Dark Stranger was responsible for the mother’s death and at the end might be targeting another artist.  Moreover, the ending hints that all of the horror things that occurred were in fact in the artist’s head, as her new boyfriend and her brother were seemingly in the horror world of her comics and yet don’t react as if they were, and they are missing physical signs of their experiences in that world.  So all of this could simply be her delusions as she sinks further and further into depression, and only with the support of her friends and family — that her delusions and depression have been alienating her from — can she break free.

As an analogy for depression, it’s actually kinda interesting.  I suspect that some depression advocates would be at least a bit annoyed by the implication that the way to cure depression is stop taking your medication and overcome it with force of will, but what the movie does brings a perspective to depression that people who are not ingrained with the clinical and technical details of it can understand, including things like isolation and guilt and all of those things (which was also more directly hinted at in “Ouija Room”).  And so, seen as that, it’s also more interesting.

As a horror movie, it’s competently presented but not all that interesting, so I wouldn’t sell it but wouldn’t rewatch it any time soon.  As an analogy for depressing, it’s more interesting … but also because of the subject matter is not a movie that I’m going to want to rewatch frequently.  So, it goes in my box of movies that I might rewatch again, but is a movie that is actually of higher quality and is more interesting than that would normally imply.

I’m not supposed to care …

January 20, 2021

So as I mentioned quite a while ago, I really like the Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, from way back when if I recall correctly we studied it in school as an example of a ballad in English class (I think it was later, but that in a different English class — at university this time — was what got me interested in “The Lady of Shalott” and Loreena McKennitt).  At one point I came across a collection of Gordon Lightfoot songs on CD, bought it, listened to it … and decided that the only song on it that I liked was “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, and didn’t listen to the CD anymore.  I copied the song off onto cassette to listen to with a bunch of other of my favourite songs — including a version of the Imperial March — and put the CD aside.

And then my CD player gave up the ghost.

I had a very, very difficult time finding a replacement for my 5 CD stereo, and so eventually just gave up on that.  I bought a radio that could run on batteries in case I lost power — and, soon after, actually did lose power for several days where listening to the news let me know what the heck was going on — and then decided to convert some CDs to MP4s and supplement that with some game soundtracks for music that I could listen to at work and at home in my multiple MP4 players (a Blu-ray player and multiple PCs/laptops).  And then not this past Christmas break but the one before that I decided to actually go through all of my CDs and burn them all to USB drives to listen to, and managed to make use of them for about the month before the lockdown happened and TV became more useful (and, also, I had left them at work).  In the summer, I got them back and the TV was becoming less interesting, and so I started listening to them more.

Now, a bit before that I had bought and assembled a TV stand thing to put on the wall in my living room where nothing else was, and then mostly for decoration I picked up one of those replica Victrola radio/CD player/record player (yes, record player)/cassette things.  And when I tested out the radio it was set to a radio station that played a good mix of songs and a lot of the songs that I remembered from my childhood.  And since while I was off in December listening to songs on my computers was less convenient than listening to the radio, I listened to the radio a lot, and indeed tend to keep listening to the radio when I’m working on things like the blog in my room because it’s a good mix of music and isn’t filling the room, and isn’t taking up computer cycles.

And that rekindled my interest in Gordon Lightfoot.

I think they were playing other songs of his as well, but one that I heard the most was “Sundown”, which I remembered from my childhood again, and remembered that I had liked it.  And so I decided to give the CD another try in the slack time between the end of my current disk of “Doctor Who” and the time “Super Password” comes on and/or I quit for the day to go do “Ring Fit Adventure” and my afternoon/evening stuff.  But I wasn’t sure if I would be able to take it, so I mixed it in with some Enya (which I either was or thought I had been introduced to by a suite mate in university residence my second year) and since I always put Windows Media Player on shuffle I figured I’d get a good mix (this will be important for later).  The set always starts with “Orinoco Flow”, and Windows Media Player is being balky and so hasn’t downloaded the information to tell me what each song is.  This will, again, be important later.  Also, I don’t remember that song from university, but instead from a TV commercial for a local mall that happened to align pretty well with the “sail away!’ part of the lyrics.

Anyway … I like more Gordon Lightfoot songs now, and don’t think that CD only has one good song on it.  The one I actually remember is the one that provided the title for this post.  But while I’m not going to claim that I like all of the songs, I don’t really remember one that I absolutely hate, which is thus a far cry from the impression I had of it when I first listened to it.  Has my musical taste matured over the years?  Unlikely, since the song that spawned my recent interest in Gordon Lightfoot was one that I was interested in because I liked it as a kid.  Could it be just that the CD was front loaded with songs that I didn’t like, and by the time I was past them I had given up on the CD?  Possibly, especially in light of the thing that all of those previous notes were hinting at:

I have no idea if “Sundown” is actually on my collection of Gordon Lightfoot songs.

I don’t recall hearing it, but Media Player’s shuffle doesn’t create a random list of songs, but instead shuffles mostly in place, so there’s no guarantee that it will pick that song, and I only listen for about an hour or two and so it might not have picked it.  I also listen to it while working and while doing other things so it’s entirely possible that it did come on and I didn’t notice it.  I can’t check to see if it’s listed on the CD’s listing in Media Player because, again, Media Player is being balky in identifying them (I really have no idea how it decides when to load them and when not to).  And I can’t be bothered to dig up the CD to check.  Eventually, I will settle this, but for now it’s a strange puzzle.

Anyway, after at least deciding that I didn’t care for Gordon Lightfoot, I have now discovered that I at least kinda do.  Make of that what you will.

Thoughts on “Knives Out”

January 19, 2021

The reason that this is under the “Philosophical Writer’s Guide” instead of the normal “Not-So-Casual Commentary” is because this is actually a two-part discussion.  See, Shamus Young has been talking about Jedi Fallen Order, and during part of it he digressed to talk about “The Last Jedi”, and mentioned “Knives Out” in one of the posts on it.  As is normal for comment sections, this caused a digression in the comments to talk about “Knives Out”.  Now, I had heard about “Knives Out” before that — interestingly, it was playing at one point at a movie theatre whose parking lot I stop in before walking to a mall that has parking that I loathe — and had picked it up for an inexpensive price and put in my stack of movies to watch (that I haven’t really made any dent in until very lately).  But those comments had an impact on my plans for that movie.  First, it made me decide that I was going to watch it and not let it sit like I had with so many other movies.  Second, it actually delayed my watching it because I wanted to let what others had said about the movie go out of my memory before watching it so that I could form more of my own opinion.

I’ve watched it now, and so what’s going to happen is that today I’m going to talk about my own impressions of the movie without delving too much into the deeper issues of characters and subversions, and then next week I’ll take on the comments from that post to do a deeper analysis of the movie.  There will be massive spoilers for the movie.

So, to start, let me say this:  it is utterly amazing how the movie manages to make me care so little for all of the characters and the plot of the movie.

Now, the movie starts as a standard whodunnit with a murder victim that lots of people had a reason to kill, and it builds it as the standard “rich and unpleasant family offs a patriarch to presumably get the inheritance” plot.  That means that we probably aren’t going to like any of the characters, and the ones that we do are probably going to be the ones who did it.  But the family are unpleasant, certainly, but not evil to that level.  Their crimes are infidelity — which is pretty much table stakes these days for unpleasant characters — and double-dipping.  One of them is portrayed as essentially a right-wing troll but besides being utterly irrelevant to anything in the movie — at most, the character is there so that the left-wing crusader can rail against him and make herself look good — that’s not going to be someone that most people will think really terrible as opposed to mildly annoying.  They seem to be somewhat spoiled and privileged, but again to an extent that’s actually on the milder end for movies like this.  There are some subtle hints about them  being hypocrites — they talk about the servants being part of the family and that they’ll take care of them, but then they aren’t invited to the old man’s funeral while that one of the family doesn’t show up for the funeral is seen as a huge scandal, showing that perhaps they aren’t really considered family — but those hints are too subtle to really work, especially when we get into another issue with the movie, which is its genre.

The movie comes across as some mix of a comedy/drama, but it doesn’t manage to pull the combination off.  The movie is far too ridiculous to take seriously as a drama — one main character trait that is a major plot point is that one of the characters vomits whenever she tells or even thinks about telling a lie, for example — but it doesn’t really seem to have the comedy and punch lines to work as a comedy.  While it’s often ridiculous, it’s almost never funny.  But how ridiculous it is kills the drama at many points in the movie, including at the end.  Because of that, any subtle hints will get drowned in either the ridiculousness or the attempts at drama.  Does the movie mention that they didn’t get invited to the funeral as just another ridiculous idea?  Or because that’s necessary in order for the murder plot to come off?  Or because it wants to show us the hypocrisy of the other characters? Shamus talks about trusting the writer a lot, and here that’s what we would have to do, but we aren’t sure what the writer wants us to take from this.  The problem isn’t necessarily with the writing itself, but with the mix of genres.  If we take it as a comedy as it definitely tries to do in some parts, one interpretation makes the most sense, but if you take it as a drama, then another makes sense, and finally if you take it as a social commentary it suggests another interpretation.  Since they work against each other, they can’t all be true, and so it leaves things like this ambiguous.  Which was my comment on “The Last Jedi” which was also by Rian Johnson, come to think of it.

The other issue here is that none of the characters have any personality and aren’t played with any charisma whatsoever.  There are some good actors here — Jamie Lee Curtis and Daniel Craig specifically — which makes it so surprising that there is nothing at all to their characters.  The only character with any charisma or personality is the one played by Chris Evans, which had me rooting for him as the only character that was at all interesting — including the supposedly main and partial viewpoint character of Marta — which only made it the more disappointing that he ended up being not only the murderer, but also a rather cartoonish villain who was undone in a ridiculous way.  That also had him exit the movie, which meant that at the ending we were left with characters that I didn’t care much about and so the big ending where we are left wondering what was going to happen fell flat for me because, well, I didn’t care what was going to happen.

The sad thing here is that he started with what I thought was a brilliant move, by opening with the interviews of each of the characters.  This was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the characters and set up how we should consider them, with room for more twists later.  And then what he does is use it to set up plot points instead of character points.  It’s a less than ideal vehicle to outline the plot and fails to do what it is ideal for, getting us real insight into the characters and their personalities.

I wonder if the real cause of this is a failure of empathy, by which I mean cognitive empathy as opposed to affective empathy.  I’m sure that for some people the links to immigration and to privilege and to right-wing ideas is enough to make them dislike them.  It’s probably the case for Johnson as well.  Others however will need more.  More than that, though, I think Johnson fails, probably both here and in “The Last Jedi”, because he doesn’t really get while writing these things that others do not have the information that he has.  He knows the backgrounds — presumably — of all of the characters, or especially of the major ones.  He knows what he wants them to work and how things should play out.  And then he tries to hide things from the audience, which is perfectly fine.  But he seems to think that we understand what he understands, and so doesn’t put those things into the movie itself.  So some people might get it, but some might not, and that creates the ambiguities in plot and characters that bit him in “The Last Jedi” and here as well.

Now, above, when I talked about genre, you might have thought that I was going to talk about subversions since Johnson seems to want to and like subverting things.  And that seems to be true here as well (more on that specifically next week).  The main problem with trying to subvert the mystery genre is that for any genre that’s been around for a long time almost all of the interesting subversions have already been done.  So that means that what Johnson has done here really comes across like a slightly more interesting whodunnit.  So much so that I thought in considering that that this entire plot would work really well … as an episode of “Hunter”.  There is a murder and they discover or have hints that it was done accidentally by someone, with indications that it might be murder, only to prove that someone else was responsible for the switch and so for the murder.  The only difference here is the “mistake” that means that it wasn’t a murder and was really a suicide as suspected, but that actually makes things less interesting, because what it means is that the old man killed himself because he was mistakenly led to believe that he was actually dying of an overdose, which is shaky and, in fact, actually really tragic, especially since he killed himself by slitting his own throat.

A more interesting subversion would have been to have Marta, the nurse who accidentally didn’t give him an overdose, be planning all of this herself.  Yes, it’s been done before, but so has this plot.  She could have put it in the head of the one son to switch the labels, and then give the right medication to ultimately absolve her of the blame, but point out the “mistake” to the old man, knowing that he would kill himself rather than have her take the blame for the mistake.  She then could have hired the detective herself to ensure that he investigated and found the real murderer and absolved her from it.  This would have played into the comments that she knew the family and knew that none of them killed the old man, since a) none of them did and b) she knew them so well that she could play them like a piano … including the old man to get him to change his will.  It would have ultimately made her a more interesting character and would have been a more interesting plot to reveal at the end.  But, alas, that’s not what was done.

So, what did I think of the movie?  It was all right.  I’m not sure whether or not I want to watch it again, but it wasn’t all that terrible or uninteresting despite the characters and mystery being rather pedestrian.  I won’t put it in the closet with the movies that I will definitely watch again — and I should note here that “Clue”, an actually funny murder mystery, is in there — but don’t think that I want to sell it off either.

The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 3)

January 18, 2021

As mentioned last time when I looked at Chapter 2, Chapter 3 of “The Unnecessary Science” focuses on natural law morality and, in particular, its intersection with sexual morality, which I myself examined in detail while reading Feser’s work.  Gunther Laird noted in a comment on last week’s post that we were making very similar arguments, which is in some sense true.  We both are arguing that once Feser makes the — correct in my opinion — moves to allow actions that don’t directly frustrate or pervert a function and to note that reproduction is not merely or possibly even primarily about simply producing a child but instead has to include raising that child to maturity then a number of things that Feser might want to prohibit seem to become at least potentially acceptable.  While there was a vigorous debate over that in the comments, for me it seems that if you are performing a sexual act that is set up to not produce children itself — and thus in theory perverting the faculty — it can’t count unless that in some way risks impeding you in having and raising the children you would be able to have and raise.  So if you do and as far as we know you are going to have just as many children in wedlock and are not risking your existing marriage (adultery) or delaying your marriage (by preferring casual affairs to preparing for marriage and finding a spouse), then in my view it is difficult to argue that it remains an example of perverting the faculty in line with Feser’s later moves.

That being said, it was also noted in the comments there that my interpretation was a bit of a trap for progressives, since while it accepted the arguments that some things that progressives advocated for were not necessarily morally wrong, it also advocated for a much different approach to sex than they would accept.  The reason is that I insist that sex for reproduction is the ideal case, and that reproduction is the main end of sex.  This means that I would at least consider all forms of sex that aren’t aimed at reproduction to be at least inferior to sex for reproduction, which means that, for example, I advocate that if you are not prepared when having sex with someone to marry them if a child results then you shouldn’t have sex with them because not marrying them if a child is produced is morally wrong by natural law (it’s not necessarily such by Stoic morality).  This is something that the progressive idea of sex can’t work with.  It wants sex to not be primarily for reproduction, and for all forms of sex to have equal value, even those that do not and cannot result in children or a marriage for the purposes of raising children.

And so I think one big problem Laird has in Chapter 3 is that he needs to defend that position and while accepting at least the natural law premise must argue that the main purpose of sex is not or need not be for reproduction.  The problem with this is that any such arguments have a very large hill to climb, since it really seems obvious that that is what sex is for.  It makes as little sense to claim that sex’s primary purpose isn’t necessarily for reproduction as it would be to claim that the primary purpose of eating is not to provide nutrition for the body.  Not only is that really what it does, not only is that what we’ve used it for for millenia, but it also is what evolution selected it and its specific traits for.  You can argue that sex for pleasure isn’t necessarily wrong, but not that it’s as important or ideal as sex for reproduction.

The preamble out of the way, let me now move on to my rather long list of specific notes on the chapter.

Laird tries to use an example of wet dreams — also known, I believe, as nocturnal emissions — to argue that since we spontaneously and throughout our life “waste” sperm, then masturbation should be allowed as well.  The issue here is that my understanding of the phenomena was that it was pretty much like bed wetting:  a brief period of time before we learn how to control our body better, with perhaps a bit of a loss of function as we age.  Thus, to argue that wet dreams justify masturbation seems to be same sort of argument as claiming that the fact that sometimes we wet the bed means that it is proper for us to simply urinate in our clothes and bed whenever we feel the need to urinate.  No, just because our body sometimes does something naturally does not give us carte blanche to do similar things intentionally.

Laird’s description of it implies, though, that it isn’t just a matter of a lack of control, but is instead something that occurs throughout one’s life, and so there may be a biological reason to occasionally flush out sperm.  This leads to an argument that can work, by arguing that it would be permissible to masturbate in order to achieve that biological goal in at least a cleaner and more consistent way.  However, the issue here is that this would not allow us to consider masturbation acceptable in general, but would instead only allow it precisely as needed to perform that specific function, which will be quite limited.  In fact, any of Laird’s examples that rely on finding a medical or biological reason for it to be necessary or at least greatly desirable suffer from that counter, which is that if that is the case it must only be done a) as is necessary to provide that function and b) only if there is no other reasonable option.  I believe that Feser’s justification for this would probably be that it is not immoral to subvert a faculty of an organism if the other option is the death of the organism, because obviously few if any faculties of an organism will function if the organism is dead.  But that’s far more limited a set of cases than I think Laird needs here.

(Note as an aside that you could make a comment here that if that’s the defense Feser would use then it opens up an argument that if someone demanded that a person, say, rape someone or else they would kill that person that person would be able to use the same justification to perform the rape.  I think Feser would take the Stoic line here and differentiate cases where your death comes at the hands of another person acting immorally from those where it’s happening due to purely natural causes.  If one acts in a manner that would be considered immoral only because someone else will act immorally if you don’t, your duty as a moral person is to force them to act immorally, not act immorally yourself and absolve them of the moral blame).

So I think the Feser could still blanket condemn pretty much all of the actions that Laird challenges him on here, and allow for certain exceptions in extremely rare cases.  That’s not going to get Laird or progressives in general the sort of sexual ethics that they want, nor will it strike any kind of real blow against Feser.

Laird then turns his attention to marriage with similar arguments, but ones that are a bit stronger because he can try to show that in at least some cases different forms of marriage could be in some cases necessary for actually raising children.  The problem with these, though, is that in general they don’t really work for that purpose.  He suggests that harems could work perfectly well, but the issue there is that even if we had one person who had the resources to raise the children from multiple marriages, children need more than wealth to thrive.  They also need attention, and in most harems there is no real way for the provider to provide the attention each would need.  Polygamy, of course, has similar issues, but Laird does point out that that could have advantages in cases where there is a huge imbalance between the genders.  However, that’s a very rare condition, and even then it might simply be better to increase the number of children per couple and through that and death rates eventually right the imbalance than to advocate for temporary polygamy (and permanent polygamy isn’t justified by that condition).

Ultimately, even progressives have to accept that the best arrangement for raising children is for their needs to be provided by their biological parents as best they can.  In fact, that’s exactly what at least some progressive feminists argued.  A while back, I was involved in a debate on feminist groups about what was called “Choice For Men”, which was the proposal that because women could get an abortion for any reason they wanted — which included that they didn’t want to provide support for a child — and ultimately that the child being born really was their choice that the man should get a chance to choose to absolve himself of support for it as well by giving up all rights to that child.  The best argument against that was that once the child was born it would require support, and that the best people to provide that support were its biological parents.  If this argument is accepted, then it pretty much precludes any of Laird’s examples as being in any way equal to traditional marriage.  Is it possible that we could accept them for a brief time if absolutely necessary?  Possibly, if the only alternative was the extinction of the human race.  Outside of that, there is no good reason to consider them marriages at all.

As an attempt to get same sex marriages into the picture, Laird appeals to a claim of their being a Form of Homosexuality, and so homosexuals getting into relations with members of the same sex and even getting married might well be them actually pursuing their real final end as per their Form.  The problem here is that homosexual acts are behaviours and behaviours follow from Forms and properties, and so it is entirely possible that homosexuals have disordered desires and properties that give them a propensity to act in that particular immoral way, just as someone might have a genetic disposition towards alcoholism without having to possess the Form of the Alcoholic and have drinking themselves into an early death as a final end.  Forms don’t seem to work the way they would need to to let Laird pull this off.  This is on top of the fact that if marriage really has a Form, then it would be about reproduction, which same sex marriages couldn’t conform to anyway.

What he moves onto, then, is trying to argue that marriage itself isn’t really a Form at all, but is instead merely a cultural artifact.  The big issue here is that if he denies that there’s a Form of Marriage, then his arguments for same sex marriage would be taken out as well.  Besides that, Feser derives his Forms from at least his view of nature, so to simply deny a Form exists because it is culturally recognized wouldn’t be a very good argument.  That a culture recognizes something doesn’t mean that it defines it, and if we start from a natural basis for marriage then it being primarily for reproduction, again, seems a pretty safe argument, especially given what I noted above.  As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, there is a difference between the legal definition of marriage and the “real” definition of marriage, and Laird’s attempt to turn the Form of Marriage into a cultural artifact at a minimum risks eliminating that distinction for no good reason.

I debated abortion a bit on the comment sections at “A Tippling Philosopher” and, yeah, I still don’t buy his arguments here.  The two main ones from the chapter and from the comments are that a) if potential rationality is enough to grant the zygote personhood, then sperm and eggs seem to have a similar enough potentiality to grant it to them as well and b) that potentiality and actuality are not the same thing.  The problem with the first argument is that the zygote does seem to be sufficiently different to have its own Form, and so to have different potentialities.  The fact that if nature is left to take its course the most natural progression is for it to end up as a rational being — which is absolutely not the case for sperm and eggs — and that being dependent on someone is insufficient in and of itself to remove rationality or the potential for it (we argued about this a fair bit in the comments on “Tippling”) makes me think that this argument is at a minimum far more complicated to make than Laird would like.

The second argument is a little better, but not the way Laird starts it. He made an argument about Feser ordering a drink and being upset that the waiter instead of bringing ice cubes brought water, which he could then claim had the potentiality for ice and were surely what Feser wanted, right?  My counter was that Feser explicitly asked for the actuality — or at least expected it — and that in that case being given the potentiality was indeed clearly not giving him what he wanted.  The argument though could be used to show that we don’t have to treat potentialities and actualities the same, which then could be used to break Feser’s argument that the potentiality for rationality is sufficient.  Of course, Feser does argue for why the potentiality itself matters, and at the end of the day Laird would need to give a strong argument for why the potentiality is not enough that doesn’t rely on the argument that it would provide an unreasonable burden on the mother or her body.  That …  might be tricky.

Finally, Laird tries to make a link to the idea that Aristotle and Plato at least accepted that under some circumstances infanticide might be allowed to create an inconsistency between that and abortion, by appealing to the principle of totality that I referenced earlier when talking about how you can frustrate a faculty in order to preserve the whole organism.  Here, it would be referring to removing an individual to allow the survival of the entire culture/race, which Laird then notes could work for abortions in at least some cases as well.  The problem with this line is two-fold.  First, as already mentioned, it would only allow it if there is no other choice, seriously limiting its applicability.  Second, why it could be done for infants and not adults is because to do this would require the agreement of the moral agent if they are capable of moral agency, and so for adults they couldn’t be forced into it but would have to agree to it.  For infants, they are not capable of moral choice or agency and so those who are responsible for them would have to make the choice on their behalf.  Thus this doesn’t introduce any real inconsistency.

Ultimately, this is not a good argument to use in defense of abortion because this in no way allows for the woman to have control over the situation and so for it to be her choice.  While we may not be able to compel her to participate as a moral agent, we could certainly consider her to be acting immorally in these cases if she didn’t have the abortion, which is quite uncomfortably close to justifying forced abortions.  If you can’t argue that the choice to abort or not is completely and totally hers, you aren’t defending abortion rights at all.

Next time, Chapter 4, where Laird tries to argue that natural law justifies some moral atrocities itself.