Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

John Martin Fischer and Compatibilism

April 23, 2021

So the next view in “Four Views on Free Will” is John Martin Fischer’s view on Compatibilism, which includes his unique view of compatibilism called semi-compatibilism.  What I’m going to do here is talk a bit about why compatibilism is attractive (since he does that at the beginning of the chapter) and then talk a bit about semi-compatibilism since I don’t think it really achieves what he wants it to achieve.

First, Fischer focuses on arguing that it seems obvious that we make choices, but also notes that determinism could be true, so a compatibilism that allows us to retain decision-making abilities even if it turns out that determinism is true.  Unfortunately, this way of talking about it seems to bias him towards simply making it possible for us to retain “free will” if determinism happens to turn out to be true, which isn’t going to satisfy either of the other two main sides — yes, there is a third one lurking out there since it’s the last segment of the book — because hard determinists think that determinism is true and libertarians are going to reply that there definitely seem to be types of determinisms that would eliminate all free will, and so finding that there might be types of determinisms that wouldn’t isn’t all that impressive, especially since the hard determinists are talking about determinisms that really do seem like they would eliminate all free will.  So compatibilists need to do more than simply carve out an exception in some determinisms for free will, but instead need to show why the determinisms we are likely to have don’t cause any issues for free will.  And I think that this impacts his semi-compatibilism, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Before that, though, I’d like to note that he is somewhat right about the appeal of compatibilism, with it being a view that bridges the two positions.  But I think that the main reason it is appealing to many — although many find it implausible rather than plausible — is a basic philosophical methodology.  Our intuitions strongly support the idea that we have some sort of meaningful free will and that we actually make meaningful choices.  However, a lot of the intuitions from science and even every day life suggest that for everything else things are pretty much entirely determined causally (we can ignore quantum phenomena because they don’t seem to have much if any impact at the macro level and we don’t observe quantum phenomena in our everyday lives).  So it raises the obvious question that if everything else in our world is determined, why would we be any different.  So what we have are two strong and pretty plausible and intuitive arguments for either side.  And when we have such a clash of arguments where we can make strong arguments for either side — think Kant’s Antimonies — and can’t see where either side’s argument goes wrong there is a natural philosophical tendency to ask whether maybe the problem isn’t in the arguments for each side, but instead in the arguments that we are making to say that they can’t both be true.  Maybe we’re wrong about that and they can both be true.  And all compatibilisms at their heart say exactly that:  both of those intuitive and strong arguments are, indeed, actually true.

Which means, of course, that the debates against compatibilism really should focus on whether it is indeed the case that both can be true, and so on whether we can have a meaningful free will even if things are totally determined.

Which leads to his semi-compatibilism.  The problem with it is that as I understand it he relies on a distinction between regulative control and guidance control, and argues that while determinism would kill regulative control (which requires access to alternative possibilities that determinism would eliminate) from guidance control which he argues would not or would not need to be impacted.  But those terms can be a bit confusing, so I’d like to focus on his example of the difference (from page 58) which is a Frankfurt-type example (I’ll be summarizing it as I understand it and not quoting it because I have an actual book and that would be a real pain for me):

Imagine that someone is going to vote, but hasn’t decided who to vote for yet.  Unbeknownst to them — but knownst to us — someone else has implanted a chip in their brain that will notify them if they decide to vote for Party B so that they can instantaneously flip a switch and change the decision so that they will instead vote for Party A.  So if they go through their process and decide to vote for Party A, then they would clearly have made a free choice because the chip in their brain is irrelevant to that process.  However, it’s also clear that they were going to vote for Party A no matter what happened.  So the fact that there was only one possible outcome doesn’t mean in this case that they had no free will.  I think Fischer at least analogizes regulative and guidance control to these two examples, making the case where their deliberation process chooses Party A the guidance case and so in a case where we have only that sort of control it looks like we would still be making a free choice even if we really “couldn’t choose otherwise”, since no matter what happened the person was always only going to choose to vote for Party A.

The problem I see here is that I don’t think that any real kind of determinism is going to allow for even that kind of control, and so semi-compatibilism can’t get off the ground.  Let’s alter the example to add that someone else inserts another chip that completely controls the person’s decision-making process to walk them through a decision-making path that ends with them deciding to vote for Party B.  They walk through that process and decide to vote for Party B, and then the chip is triggered and they end up having that decision changed to vote for Party A.  So they didn’t freely choose to vote for Party A at all, I think we can all agree (even Fischer).  However, let’s then change it so that the person who inserted the second chip instead sets it so that their decision-making process gets them to vote for Party A.  As before, the first chip is irrelevant to the outcome, but now we have to ask if the person made a free choice to vote for Party A.  And it looks like they didn’t, because their entire decision-making process was determined by an agent outside of themselves to without fail come to that specific conclusion.  It’s not only the case that they couldn’t have done otherwise, but also that they couldn’t have decided otherwise.  And if they couldn’t even have decided otherwise, there seems no room for any kind of control, whether regulative, guidance, or anything else.

What this shows is that it isn’t sufficient to show that a decision was the result of a deliberation and our decision-making processes to show that we should think that it’s free.  It’s entirely possible that under determinism our entire decision-making process was determined before it was even engaged, and so that it’s just “going through the motions” to produce a predetermined decision, and so has no causal impact on the outcome at all.  And if nothing in our decision making processes has a real and meaningful causal impact on the outcome, then our decisions don’t seem to be free at all, not matter what type of control we talk about.

So Fischer would need, at a minimum, to show how we can have a specific type of control that still remains even if determinism is true.  And he would need to address it in the forms of determinism that are more likely to be true, and hard determinists and libertarians both agree that that’s the very strict causal sense that would determine the entirety of our decision-making processes and so would look a lot like the example of the chip that I added to his Frankfurt example.  I did not see how he could escape that case in his chapter, and so see his semi-compatbilism as having as serious issues as other compatibilisms and so that it doesn’t really give us any advantage here.  It’s true that he can concede that we would lose one type of control and so not have to argue over that anymore, but he doesn’t seem to have shown that the same mechanism that eliminates regulative control doesn’t also eliminate guidance control and every other sort of control that we could have as well.

Next is the position that I have the least sympathy for, which is hard determinism or, as they — and many others, I suppose — call it, hard incompatibilism, which I don’t like as a term because libertarians are hard incompatibilists as well, which is precisely why they are libertarians.

“Bargaining with Eternity and Numbering One’s Days: Medicine, Nietzsche and Doctor Strange”

April 19, 2021

So, while browsing online for things, I came across the book “Doctor Strange and Philosophy” edited by Mark D. White which, in the tradition of all of the other “Philosophy and Pop Culture” works, uses aspects of mostly the Doctor Strange movie to discuss philosophical issues.  So I get to start here with the first essay in this collection, which is “Bargaining with Eternity and Numbering One’s Days: Medicine, Nietzsche and Doctor Strange” by George A. Dunn.  Basically, in this essay Dunn examines the Western medical approach and materialistic approach of reducing physical bodies mechanistically to the status of machines and then trying to deal with them as if they were machines to simply be “fixed”, tying it directly to the notion of control.  If bodies are machines, then we can control them, and so we can make them do what we want them to, and so anything that they do that’s out of our control is a failure that we need to overcome.  Dunn traces this tradition back from Strange himself — who, to be fair, is much more arrogant about it — to Descartes and Francis Bacon who at a minimum treated the body that way (Descartes clearly did not think of the mind or soul that way, and it is likely that his view of the body is in part what drove his rejection of the idea that the mind can be reduced to body).  Dunn compares this to the Eastern ideas expressed in the movie as well as to Nietzsche’s own criticisms of the idea, where he at a minimum believed that adversity was necessary to make something worthwhile out of people (the old “it builds character” argument) but might go so far as to demand that we consider suffering good in and of itself, a beautiful part of life — according to one rhapsodic passage that Dunn quotes — that we need to learn to love and not seek to avoid.

People following my posts in general should see the link to the Problem of Evil, at least as interpreted in the modern sense as the Problem of Suffering.  So while I don’t think that we should love suffering, I do think that in order to develop we need there to be adversity and that will cause some suffering.  As someone Stoic-leaning, then, I don’t see suffering as being inherently bad or something to be avoided or railed against.  One could indeed try to reduce unnecessary suffering, but that would be a practical consideration and not a moral one.  But then when it comes to medicine it can indeed be argued that that is a practical rather than a moral field and so trying to eliminate all the suffering it possibly can is the right approach for medicine.  We might not want to import that attitude into every aspect of our daily lives — and the criticisms of Eastern philosophies about the West being overly materialistic are really about importing that as an overall moral standard for all — but in medicine it seems a not unreasonable approach.

But the most interesting point in the essay is Nietzsche’s view or thought experiment of the “eternal return”, where someone is told by a demon that they will be required to live this very life out over and over again.  Now, at first I didn’t get the thought experiment and thought that it was basically a “Groundhog Day” loop, except over a longer scale, but where you can do different things and make some changes, at which point I thought that everyone would leap at the chance, even if they had experienced suffering during it.  But then I realized that the life was going to be exactly the same, which means that we would, in fact, make the exact same mistakes.  This would be a more challenging scenario, as we have all done things in our past that we would like to change and that we regret.  Could you live your life again knowing that it was all going to turn out the same?  Now if you remembered your previous lives, this could indeed be torture, as you would see your mistakes coming and be powerless to change that.  This would probably make for a good concept for Hell, come to think of it.  But if we take that obvious torment out of the picture and instead posit that the demon says that you will relive your life to infinity but won’t remember it, then whether or not this is torment depends on how satisfied you are with this life, which ties into one of my own main principles.  If you are trying to happy, then you might look back on all the times you failed to achieve that and lament being damned to a life where you can’t ever improve it.  But if you strive for contentment then you can look back on your life and be content with it, warts and, more importantly, mistakes and all.  So the more you accept that life isn’t perfect, the more willing you will be to accept the demon’s words as at least neutral and not the curse you might think it to be.

Now, Nietzsche thinks that you should be able to do this after your “loneliest loneliness”, which for many people will be difficult for emotional reasons.  But I think that most people should be able to look back on their lives and find the good things and the bad things and, hopefully, note that the good outweighs the bad and that reliving it would not be horrible torment.  It’s an interesting way to make that point and to get people to look at the bulk of their lives and not the most dramatic mistakes and sufferings that they’ve experienced.

Robert Kane and Determinism

April 16, 2021

I still intend to write about Mark D. White’s discussion of Batman, but several months ago there was a post at Tippling Philosopher I believe about free will where someone included a bunch of references to read on free will, which I recently decided to pick up and start reading, and I want to comment about the first chapter that I’ve read.  It’s from a book called “Four Views on Free Will”, and contains entries from Robert Kane, John Martin Fischer, Derk Pereboom, and Manuel Vargas.  I’ve read Robert Kane’s chapter, as should be obvious from the title, and want to talk about it.

Now, you might wonder what I’d have to talk about here, because Kane is a libertarian about free will and so am I.  But his defense of free will raises some interesting points and I think fails in a very interesting way, so that’s what I want to focus on.

To start with, I think he is completely right that libertarians should focus less on the “alternative possibilities” angle where we thinks that things could have happened differently and more on where the ultimate responsibility for the action lies.  If the ultimate responsibility for the action lies outside of the agent, then we haven’t really made a choice at all and pretty much everything that we want any kind of free will for is lost.  This also aligns better for a debate with compatibilists, because it gives them something to care about that they cannot simply assume into existence.  Focusing the debate this way forces the compatibilist to find a way to say that the agent is still ultimately responsible for their actions in a determined world, while the hard determinist has to accept that it isn’t merely moral responsibility that we might lose, but responsibility entirely, and so are forced to reject agent responsibility or else accept what is essentially a compatibilist position.  This, then, would focus the debate more on the specific issues that each side must address and where they actually do disagree (as some hard determinists, like Jerry Coyne, end up blurring the lines to avoid the consequences of their positions).

Another reason to do that is that the alternative possibilities angle was in general more of a heuristic than a position statement, but oftentimes people have taken that as if it was a position statement and so tried to refute the idea of free will simply by trying to split hairs over what it would mean to be able to choose otherwise.  This goes all the way back to at least John Locke with the question over whether someone who decides to stay in a room but unbeknownst to them the door is locked and so they actually can’t leave is staying in the room of their own free will (which would be absurd from both the standard free will perspective and the perspective of where the ultimate responsibility arises).  It also leads to the heuristic of libertarians wanting the world and the entire past to stay the same and yet for there to be a different outcome, which doesn’t work either.  It presents libertarians as insisting on decisions being indeterminate, but libertarians importantly want to make sure that decisions happen because of reasons.  They’re perfectly willing to accept that in order to make a different decision, our reasons would have to change.  They just don’t want something completely outside of us to change our reasons without us having to make an act of will to at least allow the change.

So Kane is also correct, I think, to accept that at the time of the decision our choices might indeed be determined by our reasons (meaning our beliefs and desires) but that the exertion of our will is required to form, at least, many of these reasons.  Kane calls these Self-Forming Actions and might imply that they don’t happen all that frequently, but I think at the very least we can both agree that we can take SFAs to either block the formation/acceptance of a reason or change one that’s existing.  However, if this doesn’t happen before we make a decision we will indeed act according to the relevant reasons that we have that we considered at the time while doing deliberations.  This, then, means that even libertarians will concede that if you know a person well enough you will be able to predict what someone will do, because they will ideally act according to the reasons they have.  For example, if the cafeteria is serving a choice between Sloppy Joes and poutine — to reuse an example from a Philosophy of Science class I took long ago — anyone who knows me will be able to predict with almost perfect accuracy that I will choose the poutine.  First of all, I really like poutine.  Second of all, I don’t really care for Sloppy Joes at the best of times.  Thirdly, even if I was tempted to go for the Sloppy Joes, it would be risky for me to try that at a cafeteria since I wouldn’t be sure how spicy it would be or if it would contain fried onions which make me sick.  So if someone knew my reasons, they’d know what I was going to choose.  But they would indeed need to know my reasons.

Now, Kane tries to defend libertarianism against the charge that it requires or posits something outside of the normal mechanisms by positing one that works inside our normal mechanisms, which is where I think he goes wrong.  He bases it on the idea of parallel processing in the brain, and as I understand it posits that what happens in decisions is that we have two or more different threads processing at the same time, and when that parallel processing is resolved we’ve made a decision.  He spends a lot of time trying to show that this is indeterminate in the right way without being just by chance, but I think the big problem with it is that it’s actually far too deterministic.  I think that both compatibilists and hard determinists could easily accept that mechanism as in fact proving their case, and not Kane’s.  Compatibilists could argue that this is indeed how our decision-making processes work, as we have multiple parallel processes that work through the various options and a resolution mechanism that settles on the ultimate decision, but because these are all brain functions and all brain functions are determined as per science.  The hard determinist could use this method to argue that all we have is an illusion of decision-making, caused by parallel processes happening and so producing the experiences of making a decision, but ultimately all of that is determined and so our decision-making processes don’t really do anything, and so choice is an illusion.  It doesn’t seem like a good move to try to preserve libertarian free will with a method that easily supports the other two positions — and, potentially, supports those positions better than libertarian free will.

The problem is with trying to come up with a method that fits with the “normal” mechanisms, because any attempt to do so will feed right back to the argument that all the normal mechanisms are deterministic.  Libertarians need there to be some other type of mechanism in play to avoid the counter that the mechanism they are trying to use is either deterministic — and so can’t justify libertarian free will by their own definition — or probabilistic and so ultimately by chance, which doesn’t work for libertarian free will either.  However, I think that libertarians can make a dent by insisting that all they want is an intentional mechanism, one that makes selections on the basis of ultimate meaning and not just on symbolic processing.  Why this works, I think, is it properly ties the debate over libertarian free will to the broader philosophical debate over how humans and other things can reason based on the semantics of statements as opposed to simply “reasoning” on the basis of their syntax, which ties it directly into pretty much everything humans do and everything that makes them different from other things.  Yes, the very same people denying the need for semantics in making decisions will deny we need it for everything else, but at this point libertarians can point out that they aren’t trying to invent something just for free will, but something that covers off and solves all of those specific problems.  If we can generate real understanding with a mechanism, then that mechanism can also have causal powers and so can also be the mechanism that makes our decisions for us.  So just as Kane moves towards centering the free will debate around ultimate responsibility which gets him alternate possibilities for free, I think libertarians can move the discussion towards having to be able to make decisions on the basis of the real meanings of our reasons and beliefs and desires and get free will from that (mostly) for free.

This would also fit in with the usual criticism I make of determinism — whether compatibilist or hard determinist — that by all of those mechanisms the actual reasons we think we have for making the decision may not be the actual ones that have the causal impact.  The inner perceptions that the brain gives us for our deliberations may indeed come apart from what the underlying brain mechanisms actually “represent”.  So hard determinists and compatibilists need to show how their mechanisms can guarantee that the reasons we work through while reasoning are indeed causally effective and are doing the work.  They need some kind of reason-based mechanism to make it all work … and if they invent one, then it’s actually them who risk inventing a mechanism that supports libertarian free will better than their own positions, since all libertarians want is for us to have unique mechanisms that are reason-based rather than the alternatives.

So while I think Kane’s way of framing the debate is a good one, I think his solution works better for his opponents than for him.  I intend to work through the other four views and will comment on them in the future.

Save Vs Death: A Reflection on the Lifecycle of PCs

April 12, 2021

The next essay in “Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy” is “Save Vs Death:  A Reflection on the Lifecycle of PCs” by Christopher Robichaud.  In it, he takes on the advice on death given by Socrates and argues that what you can learn about life and death from Dungeons & Dragons is far more useful and meaningful, which is obviously something that it would be rather difficult to pull off.  Let’s see how he does it.

Well, the big problem is that he focuses strongly on Socrates’ view that the really important things in life are the things of the mind or soul and not of the body, and so that we should minimize our focus on the material things and instead focus on the higher things.  From this, Socrates argues at his death — since he believes that he has a soul that will survive death — that he will finally achieve what he’s wanted all along:  the ability to perceive and experience the greater pleasures of the soul without the interference of the body.  Now, I haven’t studied Socrates in detail nor that specific speech of his, but in my opinion Socrates’ first idea is right:  the body can be a distraction from more important or valuable things.  But I wouldn’t agree that we should give them all up or seek to eliminate them.  The base pleasures are, nonetheless, pleasures and there are a number of times in our daily lives where we have the time and possibly even the need to engage in them.  There’s no shame in, for example, preferring to eat tasty food rather than plain food since we need to eat food to survive and that little pleasure can be good for us.  So I don’t seek to eliminate the body entirely, but instead of eliminate its undue influence on us.  So don’t avoid tasty food, but also don’t give up the higher pleasures in order to seek out the lower ones, no matter how tempting that may be.

But does Robichaud offer us anything else?  His main lessons to take from D&D all revolve around how the luck of the dice determine our fate.  First, he talks about how we get attached to our characters but that at any time they could die because of a bad roll, so we need to accept attachment but be prepared to give them up if their time has come.  The second is that our abilities are determined in a lot of ways by luck, so we shouldn’t be too proud of them nor should we think that we really earn what we gain using them, since we aren’t responsible for them.  For the second, he ties it into a fairly standard social justice line about thinking that the money we earn from our labour is what we ourselves have earned, when in reality luck played a very large roll in our being able to achieve that.  And yet the problem there is that it conflates two different meanings of earned.  If I work writing computer software and earn my money doing that, there is a sense where someone can point to my abilities and all sorts of other things and say that luck played a large role in getting me there and so I didn’t really “earn” it.  But when it comes to things like taxation and the like the fact remains this:  I did the work for that amount of time and it was deemed to be worth that much of a salary, and so no matter how I got there I definitely earned my pay.  If I was standing around somewhere and someone came up, needed someone to do something, and offered me pay to do the job, that pay would be the result of luck as well, and the person who was delayed getting there who could have done it as well as me could indeed say that it was only luck that got me that pay.  And yet, I did the work anyway, and so no one else would have a claim that I didn’t earn the pay I made through my labour.

That’s actually the problem with Robichaud’s claim there.  He ties it to labour, not to abilities, but we always do earn the pay we get from our labour, and our abilities help us get into the position to be able to earn from our labour.  So we do have a right to the fruits of our labour, because that its indeed the one thing that we actually always do for ourselves, and to tax that or claim that for others on the basis that we didn’t earn it is always false.  Positions in society that make it easier for us to generate money from our labour come from luck, perhaps, but not the actual fruits of our direct labour.

So I don’t find Robichaud’s alternatives all that profound, and even find them to be in general a bit debatable.  Perhaps Socrates has more to say than Robichaud allows.

Does Kant Argue that Keeping a Secret Identity is Immoral?

April 9, 2021

So in digging up and digging through my books on “Philosophy in Popular Culture”, I came across a book written by Mark D. White called “Batman and Ethics” where he makes an overall argument about Batman’s ethics in a book-length examination.  I must have bought this while browsing at some point — either in person or online — but never really got around to reading it until now.  Anyway, I don’t really agree with his argument and so am going to examine the book itself in some detail later, but he did raise an interesting issue.  In examining Batman’s potential deontological leanings — he himself thinks that Batman’s main mission is driven by Utilitarianism — he talks about Kant’s argument against lying and then questions whether by that it would be moral for Batman to lie to protect his secret identity.  After all, Utilitarians can justify it on the basis of the harm it would do to his loved ones, but Kantians would not be allowed to make that move.  So does Kant’s universal prohibition on lying also prohibit lying to protect a secret identity?

Now, White starts by arguing that the reason that Kant would prohibit it is because it would be treating others as means instead of also as ends, but that of course was not the most famous, at least, argument that Kant made about prohibiting lying, which is that it fails the universalizability portion of the Categorical Imperative:  you cannot will that it become a universal principle without it becoming self-defeating.  White does address this later, but I’m going to start with this one and then examine the “means and not as ends” examination later because, again, this one is the more famous and important argument against lying from Kant.

So, why can’t we universalize lying?  Well, the main reason we’d have to lie is to make it so that the person or people that we tell the lie to will believe that something is true when, in reality, it’s false.  So imagine that we made it so that it was a universal duty to lie.  Well, no one would believe us when we told them things, at which point lying was self-defeating, as we would be unable to convince anyone that something that was false was really true.  Thus, that rule is self-defeating:  as soon as we made it, it would defeat the purpose of making it in the first place.

Now, as I and a fellow student when I was taking some graduate courses noted while waiting for class to start, the main criticism of Kant specifically and deontology in general is that it makes these set universal rules and there can never be any exceptions to it, but the universalizability constraint in Kant never actually says that.  If we couldn’t universalize the overarching rule but could universalize an exception to the rule, then it seems to me that that would be allowed.  So to take a trivial and probably non-moral example, take this example from the Order of the Stick.  Because they are selling most of not all of their potions for less than they cost, they are going to go out of business, because even though the low prices can increase their business they won’t make any money on what they sell.  So you can’t make a general rule to see all your potions (or other products) at below cost to drive traffic because that would defeat the purpose in the first place:  to get more customers so that you’ll make more money.  All that getting more customers in that case will do is drive you out of business all the faster.  However, you could make a universal rule to sell some popular potions at below cost in order to drive traffic to the store presuming that while they come to your store for the cheap prices on those “staples” they will just do all of their shopping there and so you will indeed make more money overall.  So that’s an example where you can have an overarching rule that can’t be universalized but we can universalize an exception to that rule.

So the biggest example used against Kant is in general the murder/Nazi one, which is the same counter in a different context.  If you were hiding some Jews from the Nazis and the Nazis come and ask you if they are there, the argument is that Kant would say that it would be morally wrong to lie to them — because lying is always morally wrong — but this doesn’t seem to make sense.  So let’s try to universalize the exception:  “Lie when the Nazis come and ask you if you are hiding Jews”.  And when we do, we realize that the exception can’t be universalized either.  The point of lying to the Nazi is so that they will think that the Jews aren’t there and so won’t search the house and find them.  However, if it became known and a universal law to lie to the Nazis in that case they wouldn’t believe you.  They’d know that someone answering that they weren’t there was either telling the truth and they weren’t there, or was lying and they were there.  So in general they’d search the house anyway, which would mean that the lying wouldn’t achieve the goal it was intended to achieve.  So it would still be self-defeating to do so, and so would be more reasonably morally wrong by Kant.

So, then, let’s return to the question of a secret identity.  Could we universalize the exception “Lie to protect your secret identity”?  Well, if someone asks you if you are really Batman, what is the result if you say “No” if it is known that it is a universal law to lie about your secret identity?  As with the above, they won’t believe you.  But what they won’t know is whether you are indeed that superhero, or whether you are telling them the truth that you aren’t.  Which means that they will get no confirmation or denial from you on that, and so will have to rely on their own investigations and their own feelings to decide if they think you are that hero or not.  So if all it is is asking for a confirmation, it looks like it can be done without being self-defeating, because all it does is make it so that you don’t confirm it.  And in this case not answering at all could be a confirmation, as my first manager once said that if he knew that a rumour was false he would say that it was but if it was true he couldn’t confirm it, which would mean that if you could get him to neither confirm or deny a rumour it meant that it was true.

Okay, but what about active deception, such as having someone else dress up in the costume while the secret identity is in public?  Well, it’s clear that this can be universalized in the exact same way, because the worst case of making it a universal law is that people can’t trust whether that sighting is indeed proof that their theory is wrong.  So it would pass the universalizable criteria.  But it does seem like it risks treating that person as a means to an end and not as an end in themselves, as you would be using them to disprove a theory about who your secret identity is.  This is especially the case if they are a reporter or something and are likely to spread the message that you are clearly not your secret identity.  So let’s look at whether doing that would be treating that person as merely a means and not as an end in themselves.

Now, first, for anyone other than a villain it can be said that they are merely using you as a means to an end — at a minimum, to their own knowledge — and not as an end in yourself (obviously, it can be said for villains as well but most villains are not going to have a problem with being accused of acting immorally).  So those people may not be acting morally to start with.  After all, if they don’t really need to know it, then why are they so adamant in trying to find that out?  They should expect that if they needed to know your secret identity, you would tell them, so they can have no good reason for digging that out.  So in keeping something from them that they don’t need to know, even through deception, we merely preserve our own moral autonomy and our own privacy, and stop them from violating our own moral rights.  In short, we would simply be refusing to allow them to treat us as merely a means to their ends.  But this is, of course, predicated on the second part of the principle, that they can rely on us to tell them if they need to know.  If they did need to know and we refused to tell them just to preserve our secret, then we could be accused of using them as merely a means to protect our own secret.  So if a hero will tell the people who need to know — and Clark Kent in Smallville is probably the ur-example of someone who wouldn’t, in general — but keep it from and even actively deceive those who don’t need to know, then it doesn’t look like they would be treating them as merely a means and not as an end in themselves.  And we can obviously make a universal law of “Keep from others by any reasonable means your secret identity unless they need to know” without it becoming self-defeating.

So I don’t think that Kant would oppose keeping a secret identity or even lying or deceiving to protect it, or at least not from his basic principles.  It would take a far more detailed philosophical argument than the ones I’ve examined here to make that work.  So if Batman wants to be a Kantian, he’s probably all right on that score.  Of course, he’s almost certainly not a Kantian …

Mojo’s Tribe Has Spoken

April 5, 2021

So the next essay in “Supervillains in Philosophy” is “Mojo’s Tribe Has Spoken” by J.J. Sylvia IV and Sean Walters.  In this essay, they explore the X-Men villain Mojo, the extradimensional TV producer who constantly kidnaps members of the X-Men to film them fighting various fights so that he can display them to the audience of his dimension and so retain his leadership of it.   In essence, he’s the ur-example of the corrupt TV executive, willing to do anything to anyone as long as he gets increased ratings.

Their first point of interest is Mojo potentially being able to justify his actions using Utilitarianism.  He can try to argue that while his shows do cause the X-Men to suffer, they cause the people in his dimension lots of pleasure, and so all of their pleasure outweighs the suffering of the X-Men, and so what he is doing is actually morally right.  This is, of course, a rather common criticism of Utilitarianism, that it allows the pleasure of the majority to cause great suffering for the minority.  The authors do bring up Mill’s extension of arguing that it is not just quantity of pleasure but quality of pleasure that matters, and the pleasures denied the X-Men would seem to be of a higher quality than the pleasures of those who are merely watching it.  Obviously, this defense has been pretty controversial as well, since it requires that the Utilitarian define how to determine what are the higher and lower quality pleasures.  The authors do work through an idea that perhaps those in Mojo’s dimension can no longer experience the higher pleasures, but that if they tried them maybe they’d like them, and talks about how tying desires into the morality like Utilitarianism does can make it seem subjectivist instead of objectivist.

I am not a fan of Utilitarianism precisely because it is vulnerable to these sorts of criticisms.  It seems to me to be difficult to to avoid sacrificing the few or the one for the many without making it so that people are able to put themselves first in ways that Utilitarianism was built to prevent.  For the quality of pleasures argument, even here Utilitarianism needs to justify it on the basis of being a deeper or more fulfilling pleasure, while those who appeal to that sort of thing like Kant and Greek philosophers like the Stoics and Aristotle have the better argument that they are indeed higher and more fulfilling even if they don’t happen to be things you really like.  But what Utilitarianism really needs is what those systems already have:  an ability to say that something is just plain unacceptable no matter how good the consequences of doing it are, meaning that while they don’t have to completely ignore consequences they need to insist that at least sometimes the consequences do not matter at all … which is something that consequentialist philosophies absolutely cannot do.

The more interesting comment is about the audience itself, and the impact of those sorts of shows on the audiences and participants.  While Mojo produces the shows, he can always argue that he’s just giving the audience what they want to see, and what they want to see is violence and destruction and all of those “bad” things.  In this way, he offloads at least some of the blame for that to the audience and away from himself.  He’s merely providing the audience with what they want, and if he didn’t do it, someone else would.  The authors link this to reality TV shows in our world and note that the shows themselves ramp up the conflict and embarrassment at times precisely to appeal to the audience, and to give them what they seem to want … regardless of the consequences of those who are participating in the show.

However, there are some gentler reality-type shows.  The authors talk about how the shows ramp up the stress in order to generate conflict, but shows like “Canada’s Worst Driver” admit that they ramp up the stress, but not to generate conflict, but instead to put people in situations far more extreme than they ever will be in so that they can learn the skills they need for the situations that they will be in.  The goal is to take a varied group of bad drivers — some because they lack the skills, some because they have skills but a bad attitude — and make them better drivers.  While it has never happened, I’m sure that the host of the show, at least, would absolutely love it if everyone made a perfect final drive and they had to consider that they were all rehabilitated (since he is the “examiner” on the final drive and, well, doesn’t want to die [grin]).  And while there is conflict because few of them actually think that they are bad drivers, the point is to make them see that they are bad drivers and understand their own flaws.  One contestant was a good driver who just drove too fast, and the week he was sent home he was sent home at least in part because on one challenge he technically failed it because he didn’t hit the minimum speed required to pass it.  So he had learned what he needed to learn:  that speed is not necessarily safe.  This is the whole point of the show: to make them better.  When they did their season bringing back some of the worst drivers, in the very first episode they showed that this is what they cared about.  First, one of the worst drivers who had come back had had her husband retire since her appearance on the show and so had pretty much stopped driving, so they sent her home because what she learned on the show really wouldn’t matter to her.  I’m sure she would have made some embarrassing mistakes in the show, but that’s not what they were after.  And while they don’t normally let more than one person go in an episode, they sent the worst driver from the very first season home because he had improved so much that he clearly didn’t deserve to be there.  They could have technically kept in and followed their own rules, but it wouldn’t have helped him anywhere near as much as confirmed that he had improved enough to go home.

And over the seasons, they also had a number of heartwarming moments.  One of the most memorable was when they told the drivers that riding a bike was good practice for driving, and one of them said that he had never learned to ride a bike (and clearly wanted to), the host took the time to teach him how to ride a bike.  In general, if the drivers are willing to accept their mistakes and are willing to learn, the hosts and judges are more than willing to go the extra mile with them.  And in that season with the worst drivers, one of them had had to go off her medication because she could no longer afford it and was basically breaking down pretty much every episode, and what they did when they realized that was pull her off of the cameras for a session with the therapist on the show (who is one of the judges and instructors) and then sent her away from the show with references so that she could get the help they needed.  They could have made hay out of her breakdown, but instead decided that being on the show wasn’t helping and that they didn’t want to exploit her in the hopes of getting some “great” scenes.

The other examples I have of “gentler” reality shows are also Canadian ones, starting with “Over the Rainbow” and continuing through “The Great Canadian Baking Show”.  While most of these competition shows seem to be very competitive with all of the contestants being very unfriendly and unhappy when they don’t get the marks they feel they deserve or don’t advance as far as they think they should (especially if others they think are worse move on), what I liked about both of these shows is that the contestants seemed to be willing to help each other and were happy for those who won or did well and genuinely sad to see them go.  So while the authors in the essay talk about reality shows selecting contestants to generate conflict, these shows didn’t seem to.  Nor did they set up situations to generate conflict.  They challenged them, but mostly in ways for them to individually show what they could do and to express themselves.  This let them all feel like they weren’t set up to fail, had done the best they could, and that it just wasn’t enough.  So there was no reason to feel anger at those that they didn’t think deserved it as much as they did, and so they could quite often feel just honoured to be there.

So, how does this apply to the overall point of the essay and this post?  These are gentler reality shows, moving in the opposite direction of many others that seemed to be ramping up conflict and aiming at emotional breakdowns.  And they were, as far as I can tell, relatively successful.  People still watch them, and at least for the baking show ones enough to get multiple seasons.  So while many network execs try to double-down on the more extreme and probably harmful aspects of these shows, could these sorts of shows draw an audience by doing the exact opposite?

Mojo would protest if challenged to create “gentler” shows that the audience doesn’t want that, and so if he does that his ratings will drop.  But people can only watch what’s available, and so might simply choose the “best” out of the options they are presented.  Every single “innovative” show or game or music or video game started by doing something that wasn’t being done, and arguing that people would watch it or play it or listen to it if only it was available to them.  Mojo can claim that the people won’t watch the other shows, but in general he doesn’t know that because he won’t try that, and so ends up in an escalating war with his rivals for the most extreme forms of the show to avoid boring the audience … which is something we also see with network executives in our world.

Mojo and the executives will, of course, point out that while that might be true, they can’t really take the risk.  For Mojo, guessing wrong will end his rule which will almost certainly end him.  And for the network executives, while a network can survive a couple of flops too many will put a network in really, really bad shape … and will certainly cost them their jobs and reputations.  So it’s easy to say that they should do these new things, but a lot harder to get them to actually do it and justify that to them, so they end up copying what everyone else is doing that has worked in the past.  Of course, new things still happen when someone decides that the risk is worth it, and if the risk pays off then everyone copies that.  And so on and so forth.

Mojo is deliberately designed to be an exaggeration of TV networks and reality TV, so it’s no surprise that a lot of what we see in his stories maps quite well to the same issues we see in those fields itself … and so his challenges are merely an exaggeration of the challenges faced there as well.

Does Christianity Not Care About Others?

April 2, 2021

I had originally been planning to talk about something else today, but my growing dissatisfaction with that idea and my ability to express it properly left me open to an alternative … and then Adam Lee provided it in a recent post by, essentially, arguing that at least some parts of Christianity explicitly do not care about others, but only about themselves.  This, of course, will come as a great surprise to most Christians, certainly, given how Christ’s message is quite explicit about caring about others and doing unto them what you would want done unto yourself.  In fact, one consistent criticism of Christians is that they don’t seem to take the admonishments to give all their money away to the poor seriously and so violate Christian principles by not caring about others enough.  So Lee is really going to need to make a really good argument here to pull that off.

Right from the start, the big problem he has is that what spawned this argument was not any explicit argument or discussion about helping others, but was the fact that someone — Erick Erickson — decided to criticize wokeness, something that Christians and assorted others have indeed been talking about for some time.  Lee’s description of the situation is pure rhetoric:

To distract from real issues of justice, the devotees of this right-wing religion are stirring up fear of imaginary boogeymen, like “wokeness”. This term originally signified awareness of racial-justice issues, but – like “political correctness” in the 90s – it’s become a meaningless snarl word for anything and everything that conservatives hate. Another of these right-wing scarecrows is “cancel culture”, which has come to stand for the idea that anyone should face any consequences for expressing abhorrent opinions.

From the start, a lot of people on the left are concerned about “cancel culture”, which is not so much that anyone should face any consequences for expressing abhorrent opinions but more the concern that people are facing a) incredibly serious consequences, like losing jobs and their actual incomes for b) expressing ideas that some very vocal progressives find abhorrent.  And the reason concern there, from my perspective, is that those who advocate for cancelling are pretty vague on what ideas and opinions really count as so abhorrent to justify very harsh and the harshest consequences that are being called for.  Sure, we might think it reasonable to censor people who are explicitly calling for a group to be eliminated, but when the canceling might be extended to people who simply question the policies they are advocating for — because that counts as “eliminating” the group — then maybe things are going too far.  And ultimately, as we look at “wokeness” and “political correctness” we can see the same path:  it starts from something that at least could be reasonable but then expands to things that, at the very least, look silly, and instead of recognizing those appearances and at a minimum defining a set philosophy that can show how those things aren’t silly, they double down on them and attack those who disagree not for being wrong, but for being bigots.  And we cancel bigots, don’t ya know?

So it should be clear that Lee’s definitions here are entirely self-serving.  He is defining the terms based on what works for him, while ignoring what anyone else might have to say or think on the matter, and then classifying all opposition as right-wing bigots because they happen to disagree.  This is indeed quite common as any group that argues for something even remotely right-wing adjacent — no matter how liberal they are of have been — gets classified as “right-wing”.  They can’t simply disagree, they must be shifting to the right, as evidenced by this post by P.Z. Myers where he essentially does that to Glenn Greenwald.  They use ideas about the internal states of people to define their positions, but then define those internal states entirely based on assertions based from their own worldviews and not the worldviews of the people disagreeing with them.  I cannot find a better example of how attempting to rely on empathy is actually a terrible way to do things, because this is precisely when empathy fails:  when someone else has a worldview radically different from yours.  They can’t understand those worldviews, don’t think they should need to try, and so end up simply classifying them as “evil”, and cannot even conceive that they could possibly be wrong.  It is literally equivalent to the child who can’t conceive that the child has information that a person does not, and so that the person will look in the wrong place for the toy that has been moved.  For them, they can’t conceive that someone might have different information than them and so might come to a different conclusion than them, so their disagreement on wokeness or progressiveness must be due to underlying bigotry or deliberate obtuseness.  They can’t conceive that the other person might simply be using that information to come to the wrong conclusion.  That they might be using that information to come to the right conclusion is an idea that they can’t even begin to entertain.

But back to the comment that Lee is going to reply to:

To understand cancel culture, understand this — Christian eschatology says you gain your salvation through a direct relationship with Christ, regardless of others. Secular eschatology says the woke can’t inherit the earth so long as the non-woke are still around and not silenced.
 
Lee’s first point talks about how Erickson used the wrong word in talking about eschatology there (Lee says he should have used soteriology instead) which is a meaningless point, and his second point is that Christianity has not exactly been known as a bastion of free speech, suppressing speech that disagreed with it, which is a fair point (but one that I don’t think addresses Erickson’s point, which I’ll get into later).  So the first two points are basically throwaway points.  The big key point that Lee wants to address is this:
 

But the third thing I have to point out, and the real reason I wanted to write this post, is this short but telling phrase:

Christian eschatology says you gain your salvation through a direct relationship with Christ, regardless of others

The only thing this can mean is that Christianity – at least in Erickson’s vision – is a religion for people who care only about themselves. All you have to do is say the magic words, and you’ve fulfilled the requirements that God set out. Securing your salvation is a solely individual matter and requires no consideration or concern for other people.

Wait, what?  That’s the only thing it can mean?  As opposed to the more obvious interpretation that you will gain your salvation as a Christian if you are a proper Christian whether or not anyone else is a proper Christian?  In fact, by Christianity it’s actually probably easier to gain your own salvation if no one else is a Christian because you will be given loads and loads of opportunities to show that you will maintain and stick to your Christian beliefs regardless of what pressures exist for you to abandon.  Erickson contrasts this with wokeness in the sense, it seems to me, that the woke don’t feel that they’ve attained their goals — here referred to as “salvation” — until everyone agrees with them or is woke as well.  In addition, Christians accept that as long as they have a relationship with God that counts whether or not they are openly expressing it, in this case proselytizing about it.  They don’t need to stand on the public square and declare themselves to God, nor do they need to openly condemn others who are falling short or badger them into proselytizing with them.  While they may do that, they don’t need to in order to be Christians.  In fact, some of the most effective Christians at expressing that worldview are the people who just quietly live in their faith and act according to it (who are referred to by people like Lee, in general, as being people who are just generally good people and who don’t get that from their religion).  For the woke, however, being silent about wokeness isn’t enough.  If you don’t call out or condemn others for not being woke and don’t demonstrate your wokeness, then you are falling short of the woke ideal.  You can’t simply not discriminate or be a bigot yourself, you must condemn those who do strongly and cancel those who the call goes out to cancel or else at best you aren’t an ally and at worst a hidden bigot yourself.  So that’s the distinction that Erickson, I believe, is trying to make here.

And in essence this follows, I think, quite reasonably from the atheistic strain of progressivism.  For those who are religious, as Lee will note, this world is not as important as the next world, so it is more important to develop a close relationship with God than to make this world a paradise.  For atheistic progressives, however, this is the only world we have, and so we must make this one as close to a paradise as we can.  People who are not willing to work to make it that way, then, are impeding the goal the progressives have and that they think everyone should have (again, which is common to Christians as well, except that it’s a different goal) and so they know that they cannot achieve their goal without everyone working for it.  I think the more extreme reactions are based on frustration and suspicion.  Frustration that a lot of people seem to be willing to stand by and do nothing or let others carry the burden, in a way that often means that the burden is too great for those who are left and so their measures fail.  Suspicion that they are only playing lip service or are even deliberately working against them in order to maintain their own positions (this is a charge often explicitly leveled against any kind of privileged progressive who doesn’t seem to work hard enough on progressive issues).  So they insist that the collective must act here because without that they will not get the world they want, and as this is the only world they have it really is the case that the others are ruining it for “everyone”, meaning them.

Now, progressives could have a similar individualistic notion to Christianity as expressed by Erickson, by adopting more of a Virtue Ethics approach instead of what looks like the Utilitarian one they advocate for.  They could strive to eliminate bias and bigotry from themselves first and then just go out and act accordingly, and at most “proselytize” in the sense of asking everyone to examine themselves and do the same.  And I do thing that some progressives do have this attitude of trying to improve themselves first and foremost and at least hoping that if most people do this then the problems will go away.  I believe that they are most often referred to by the more socially-oriented progressives as “part of the problem”.

So, no, that actually isn’t all that could mean.  And from there, Lee goes on to engage in even more … creative interpretation:

In fact, to judge from his phrasing, you should distrust anyone who claims that religion asks anything more of you. Anyone who tells you that you have a duty to repair injustice, to overthrow oppressive systems, to help the poor and downtrodden, to show generosity to the needy, to welcome the stranger, to expose the mighty who’ve abused their power… all those ideas are “woke”, anti-Christian, and to be rejected.

Later, Lee will point out that there are a number of Bible passages that contradict that very idea and promote all the things that Lee claims Erickson is clearly rejecting.  All from one quote that is clearly referring to how one does not need other people to be saved in order to gain salvation under Christianity but that under the woke ideology if not everyone is saved then no one is saved.  From this, he concludes that Erickson is really saying that no Christian should ever help anyone else and that it’s unChristian to do so.  That’s some pretty creative interpretation right there.

Lee goes on to call out other Christians for saying the same thing:

If it were only Erickson who thought this way, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this post. But this ideology isn’t just increasingly common, it’s the dominant strain of thought among the religious right.

For instance, this site (which attacks “social justice”, another conservative boogeyman) says, “The biblical exhortations to care for the poor are more individual than societal.” This site adds that the only legitimate role of a pastor is to preach “individual sin and salvation” rather than to criticize “supposedly structural racism”.

The first quote is calling for Christians to give individually rather than to insist that society do so, which doesn’t make the case that we shouldn’t care about others (and, in fact, expresses the exact opposite).  The second quote fits into what I talked about above, where it could be calling for individuals to not be racist instead of taking on the supposed societal and governmental racism (which Lee should approve of as it would require talking about political systems and he’s all about separation of Church and State).  None of these mean that they don’t think that the people, as individuals, shouldn’t care about others or about these issues.  They just say that the duty of religion is to the individual and not to the overall system per se.  Or, in essence, that their moral view is a Virtue Theory.  Well, colour me shocked

And next, of course, is where Lee refutes his own point by pointing all the cases where Christianity, in fact, insists that individuals indeed should care about others:

Now, you could say – and I have – that the Bible itself refutes this idea. In passages like Matthew chapter 25, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus states that helping others isn’t an optional extra but a requirement for salvation (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”). Another famous passage, from James chapter 2, says that faith without good works has no power to save anyone.

So Lee here must be going after conservative Christians who disagree with Social Justice ways of going about this, specifically through services provided by the government.  But he doesn’t have a general argument that he can make here to do so, and the quotes he provides don’t work to establish that.  So all he ends up doing here is insisting that because they don’t want to help people the way he wants to help people, then they must not want to help people at all.  This, of course, ties right back into my earlier point about empathy and how it fails.  The thing is, he could make an argument that his way is the best way to do it and so that if they oppose it without, at least, showing a more effective way of doing it then they would be in effect violating their own religious principles and so should at least take a good long look at themselves to see how they can resolve this issue (especially since for many of them they probably could be even individually doing more than they do).  But this would not allow him to claim that they don’t care about others and would require him to engage directly with their worldview, and that’s something that people relying on empathy have a difficult time doing.

Then he says something so ludicrous that my reaction to it was a main impetus for my writing this post:

However, Christianity the belief system can’t be separated from those who practice it. Even if the Bible were the best book ever written, if millions of people have cited it as justification for acts of horror and bloodshed, we’d logically have to conclude that the Bible promotes evil. It would be absurd to argue that we should ignore the belief system as it’s actually practiced in favor of some purely theoretical version.

To be honest, I think I just realized how this one statement captures the entire woke mindset:  if being a progressive and adopting that belief system doesn’t make you a perfect person, then something must be terribly wrong.  It can’t be an error in the belief system, so it must be that those progressives who fail to live up to that didn’t really adopt that belief system.  Because of course anyone who adopts a belief system will practice it properly, free from error and free from other influences that might cause them to err.

Christianity, ironically, is actually less perfectionist than this.  It accepts that we all sin, and that we won’t practice it perfectly.  It accepts that people may get things in the Bible wrong, sometimes in ways that cause great evil.  It accepts that people can use the Bible to also justify great evil.  As Shakespeare put it in “The Merchant of Venice”:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

But Lee insists that if a book can produce evil from those whom he himself here admits are misinterpreting it, then it must also be evil.  So if people misinterpret Darwin’s work and get to eugenics, that should completely invalidate evolution, right?  Or at least Darwin’s work, with is the foundation for it, no?  See, the issue here is that Lee isn’t arguing that the views actually do follow from the Bible, like so many other atheists do.  Here, he is conceding from the start that the Bible isn’t expressing that.  He isn’t arguing that it should be less ambiguous to not allow for such errors, given that it’s supposedly the Word of God.  No, his explicit argument is that if someone can misconstrue a belief system so that it leads to evil then the belief system itself is evil.  That … does not seem like a well-motivated argument …

He then tries to move on to show that the supposed attitude of not caring at all about others — by reducing actions to the individual level instead of the societal level — is a common thread in Christianity and even that it is supported by the Bbile:

For obvious reasons, the Christian slave owners of the antebellum era preached that Christianity tells us how to get to heaven, but says nothing about conditions in this world. They taught, as many Christians through history have taught, that this life is just a brief blip before another existence of infinitely greater importance. Salvation is the only thing that matters, and therefore suffering and injustice should be endured, not resisted. (And, to be fair, the Bible supports this idea as well.)

So, let’s look at the two Bible quotes.  The first one is Matthew 5:39, which is basically this (including 38):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

So this one is an admonishment against the retributive system of morality of the Old Testament.  While there can be a lot of interpretations here, speaking from the perspective of moral philosophy this probably links up to the idea of not responding to evil with evil lest you become evil yourself.  It does, of course, say in general that you should endure suffering and injustice, but doesn’t insist that you shouldn’t do anything to alleviate suffering in others.  Especially since it leads into the later admonishment to love your enemies as opposed to hating them (Matthew 5:43).  So this doesn’t support Lee’s contention, especially in light of other parables such as “The Good Samaritan”.

The next one is actually even more clear that it isn’t saying what Lee thinks it does.  It’s Ephesians 6:5-8:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

What this says is pretty much in the last line:  do good and obey because everyone will be rewarded for doing good, regardless of their position, so act according to that.  Lee could use this to argue that Christianity doesn’t argue against overturning the unjust practice of slavery and so by that insists that one should not oppose an unjust society, but Mark 12:17 is probably a better example of that:

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.

As it would suggest that they shouldn’t oppose taxation of a purported oppressor.  But it of course can also be interpreted as acting secularly when that is what is required and religiously when that is required, which then wouldn’t preclude toppling unjust regimes as appropriate.  So Lee would have to establish that doing good as per Christianity could never involve opposing injustice at the societal level, and he hasn’t done that … and his quotes don’t do that either.

This idea survived the destruction of slavery, and it’s been used ever since to defend bigotry, plutocracy, and unjust hierarchy. Even if white male evangelicals have all the power and all the wealth, that’s unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The poor and the meek should keep their heads down, concentrate only on their own souls, and accept the world as it is without seeking to change it.

I’m not sure how this links to the quotes that started this, and since Christianity is actually pretty strong on the idea that being poor and being meek is more godly and so those leaders shouldn’t be seeking it, it’s a rather odd statement to make … but it fits with Lee’s overall view of Social Justice and privilege, which explains why he said and focused on it without, you know, establishing that anyone, in fact, actually believes that.  It is, of course, not unreasonable to think that Christianity is advocating that where you are on that scale of power and wealth isn’t all that important to whether or not you are good or a good Christian, and Lee could call out a number of Christian leaders for seeming to seek power and wealth more than godliness, but he almost presents it as a conspiracy theory here where all of the Christian leaders interpret the Bible in ways to justify their own wealth and power and to deny it to their followers.  It is … unlikely that this is widespread, and the simplest answer is more that they are hypocrites that are at worst taking advantage of those common beliefs rather than building the entire theology around it.  And note again that we are quite far afield from where he started.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to recognize this self-serving propaganda for what it is. It’s a last-ditch effort to defend privilege by those who have no better argument than the naked assertion of “God said so.” Nonbelievers and progressive religious people both have solid grounds to reject this idea, and we can both agree that real justice requires a transformation of society, not just of individuals.

So, riddle me this, then:  if we did indeed properly transform individuals, would the society not follow the individuals, especially in a democratic society?  If Lee had shown that the Bible was indeed actually saying that we shouldn’t transform society at all or in those ways, then he’d have a point.  But he didn’t.  All Erickson has done is note that for Christianity we don’t need society to be transformed for our own salvation, whereas for the “woke” society’s transformation must follow our own transformation or else it was, presumably, all for nought.  We cannot be saved under the woke ideology unless society is fully transformed.  That makes the salvation of the woke dependent on the salvation of everyone else.  No wonder they are so bitter that so many people are not as woke as they are.

Should Bruce Wayne Have Become Batman?

March 29, 2021

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Should Bruce Wayne Have Become Batman?” by Mahesh Ananth and Ben Dixon.  This essay takes a strong Utilitarian approach focused on that of Peter Singer to criticize Bruce Wayne for using his wealth to buy himself massive training and incredible gadgets to become Batman and protect one city instead of at the very least taking that money and spending it to provide food, water and shelter for the people who are starving.  If we take Singer’s strong take on utilitarian morality, then we should agree that the greater good is better served by that and even by Bruce Wayne giving all all his money than to keep it, and we should probably agree that we should also give away any money that we have that we use to purchase luxuries as well.

While I’m a strong opponent of Utilitarianism in general, here I just want to focus on criticizing Singer’s much stronger take on the issue, and let’s start with that question itself:  should Bruce Wayne have become Batman?

The problem with that take is that the villains that Batman takes on are villains that arguably aren’t really capable of dealing out devastation at the same level as, say, a major famine, they are still villains who, if left to their own devices, will kill thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people in incredibly horrible ways.  The Joker, for one, is a villain who has come up with many, many plans to do just that.  Perhaps those that are more strictly criminal like the Penguin, Two-Face or Killer Croc won’t, but for those who would or could it certainly seems callous and morally suspect to say that stopping them is significantly less of a priority than giving money to charity to help feed starving people (especially since Bruce Wayne does donate to various charities as well).  Stopping such evil people does seem like a worthy goal even if it requires resources that could arguably be spent on other causes that might, in theory, save more people.

But even for the more criminal villains, it seems that the same argument could be used with respect to police forces.  After all, they are paid for using tax revenue by cities and other governments that also do things like provide for the homeless and for those who are struggling in various ways.  One could, then, argue that we should indeed literally defund the police and use its budget to create soup kitchens, provide health care and housing for those who don’t have it.  After all, the lives improved and saved by doing so will almost certainly exceed those that would be killed in various crimes and murders, and those people will be far more destitute and in need of monetary help than those who happen to be mugged or burgled in the crime spree.  But we would, I think, generally intuitively reject such a move, as it seems to be the precise wrong thing to do and would seem to be immoral.  And I think this is for a couple of reasons.

The first is that we see, I think, inherent moral goodness in stopping explicit evil and stopping evil from causing suffering to other people.  While perhaps not all criminals are evil, some clearly are and certainly Batman’s villains are.  So we do think it morally praiseworthy to oppose evil and do think that it’s acceptable to use resources that could, say, feed people in order to do so.  The second reason is that we feel that the government, at least, has a moral obligation to provide protection for people who live under their jurisdiction.  The idea that they would refuse to do so and instead shift all of that budget to providing those other services seems like they are refusing to fulfill one of their moral obligations.  We could also argue that because Batman both can stop these violent criminals and is willing to stop these criminals that he also accrues a moral obligation to do so, despite the insistence that he should use that money for other things.

This leads into the second big issue I have with Singer here, which is the clash between the strong and moderate version of giving in Singer, as outlined by Ananth and Dixon.  The strong version of giving is that one should give until one would cause themselves as much suffering as they would be relieving by giving it to others.  The moderate version is that one should give until one has to sacrifice something morally significant to do so.  Singer doesn’t see any reason to hold the moderate version instead of the strong version, which in general will require almost all people to divest themselves of almost all of their wealth and to forgo almost all of their luxuries — and any luxuries that they might want to provide to their families and friends — in order to relieve poverty, even in far-flung places.  Well, perhaps not so much to relieve poverty because the argument can be made that the level that it would in theory require will leave most people at a level that we would consider poverty.  But I think it is a huge misunderstanding of morality to make such a claim.  If Singer can make a strong moral case that morality will in general demand that strong a sacrifice, then the moderate case and the strong case are the same case.  But if there are situations where someone could have a moral obligation that would require them to give those resources, then it is obvious that that moral obligation would trump anything else Singer would have to say.  So it seems to me, then, that there is no reason to hold the strong version of giving a priori.  Thus, Singer should always start from the moderate version and then show that morality will ultimately at least almost always lead us to the strong version, instead of mostly — at least in the quotes provided by Ananth and Dixon — dismissing the moderate version in favour of the strong one.  The moderate version is the one justified by general morality, while the second one can only ever be justified by specific reasoning.

Of course, it turns out that Singer’s strong version isn’t really workable anyway.  The first major issue is that one of the ways that capitalism makes it so that people have money that they could decide to spend on luxuries but instead should give to various effective charities is because we don’t all have to work simply to the level of subsistence anymore, and so we don’t all have to be involved directly in producing necessities.  So we can in fact make money by doing things that aren’t strictly necessary.  Singer tends to use the example of a movie ticket or DVD as an example of something frivolous, but we can see that such things aren’t actually all that frivolous when we look at all the people that are employed in that industry.  Just watch the end credits of a major blockbuster movie to see all the people that were employed in creating it!  And that doesn’t even take into account the people who are employed directly at the theatre and so are only there because people will buy movie tickets and watch movies.  Singer’s move, then, would risk eliminating the actual economic system that allows people to have money that they have to decide between giving to charity or using to go to the movies, by eliminating all luxury spending and so reducing everyone to only being able to work on producing necessities … leaving no money available to give to charity.

On top of that, there’s an issue that if we did manage to convince everyone to follow Singer’s strong version without destroying the economy, it would be quite likely that there would be enough resources to go around so that everyone could at least get to subsistence level, and so people could, then, return to buying luxuries.  But who would be lucky ones that would be able to do that?  At least some people wouldn’t be able to do so, so how would we decide who are the ones who don’t get to keep some of their money for luxuries?  Or perhaps there wouldn’t be enough money to go around.  Then how do we decide which people don’t get the money to raise them to basis subsistence level?  So either we have to make a tough choice as to who gets advantaged and disadvantaged with a moral system that isn’t properly set up to do that, or else we would all live at a basic subsistence level with is the only way to achieve a moral balance.  That … does not seem particularly inviting.

The issue is that Singer ignores the concept of general versus specific moral obligations.  He’s essentially arguing that we all have a specific moral obligation to help those people because we are capable of doing so, but then once he does that he cannot allow for us to have any other specific moral obligations that would trump that.  It also leads us into the issue that if we don’t need everyone to contribute to help those people then we have no way to determine who should help and who shouldn’t.  Ultimately, then, the issue is that Singer wants to make it so that we all have an individual, specific and personal obligation to do that as opposed to a general obligation that we can fulfill at a societal level.  But the people he is appealing to here don’t have an actual specific moral obligation, and so we can very much get into the situation where we all end up pointing to someone else and saying “You first!”.  Yes, this is problematic — as we see in Bystander Syndrome — but it is how it works when we try to make a specific moral obligation out of a general one:  if we have to potentially sacrifice something then we will be inclined to wait for someone else to do so first than to do it ourselves.  And this is what generates the choices outlined above where we can ask who are the ones who can pursue their luxuries or who are the ones who don’t get subsistence level if things don’t work out equally and universally.  Singer would need to create a real specific moral obligation between each person and some specific person or area to make this all work, and you can’t do that through utilitarianism, especially the strong version of giving that he relies on.

And to return to Batman, Batman has a specific obligation to Gotham City, that he tries to fulfill the best he can.  He prevents crime as Batman, and diverts his resources as necessary to fulfill that obligation.  He gives to charitable causes in Gotham, and diverts his resources as necessary to take care of the poor and needy in Gotham and fulfill that obligation.  And he keeps Wayne Enterprises running to maintain an economy for the city, and maintains his resources to fulfill that obligation.  Given all of this, Bruce Wayne seems to be using his resources in a morally admirable way, fulfilling his specific obligations first and then turning to more general ones like saving the world through the Justice League and helping out those who are suffering in other countries.  Singer et al are going to need a far better argument than they have made in order to show that his decisions are, in fact, not morally admirable.

The Case of the Dangerous Detective

March 22, 2021

The next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is “The Case of the Dangerous Detective” by Ronald S. Green and D.E. Wittkower.  It is essentially a dialogue where they ask why detectives might be considered dangerous, starting from Holmes and working their way through gumshoes and film noir detectives.  They then relate them to people like Socrates who were considered dangerous because their ideas challenged the basic ideas underpinning the societies and so they were a threat to the established order, both in the sense that they challenged those who were in power and in the sense that they risked overturning the basic beliefs that kept the society running.  They finish comparing them to some Asian traditions that have similar themes of overturning the basic ideas and beliefs of a society.

However, I find it quite strange that they used Holmes as an example here.  To the audience, Holmes is not at all a dangerous figure.  We are in no way frightened of him or his view of deduction, and in fact we very much admire him even if we cannot be like him ourselves.  Moreover, he doesn’t actually pose any threat to the established order of his time.  He works closely with the authorities and his reaction to them is not one of cynicism about how they are too corrupt, but instead of exasperation over how stupid and unobservant they are.  Ultimately, Holmes is a case where the authorities need and rely on him, and through both him and Mycroft they maintain the established order by doing the things that the authorities need doing but can’t do themselves.  So rather than subverting or challenging the established order, Holmes instead supports and maintains it.

Noir detectives and gumshoes, however, are a better example of that sort of thing and so do mostly exist in a more cynical world where the authorities are instead corrupt.   The gumshoe is well aware that the authorities are corrupt, but is in general driven mostly if not entirely by self-interest.  How they end up challenging the authorities is in general not from any real desire to overturn this corrupt world — since at a minimum they think it impossible for them to really impact it — but they get drawn into the conspiracy in general when they try to solve a murder that is itself connected to the conspiracy (the board game “Android” explicitly embodies this in its mechanics, as any piece of evidence can be placed on the conspiracy or on the murder, and players get points for solving the murder and for linking to the conspiracy and having accrued elements that can be impacted by or impact that conspiracy).  Usually, they find that the corruption is much deeper than even they thought it was which forces them into taking a stand and actions that they wouldn’t normally take.

So what is the same between gumshoes and Holmes is that in some sense both of them are independent operators, taking on cases for their own reasons and not out of any real sense of loyalty to the state or to the authorities.  But gumshoes are entirely self-interested and want to stay completely out of things, while if Holmes believed things were as corrupt as they generally are in film noir he’d take steps to correct it.  Another important difference is that Holmes would be able to ferret out any such conspiracies if he put his mind to it because of how intelligent and observant he is.  So in Holmes stories he is free to have the authorities be “stupid” in the sense that they are at most as intelligent as we are and are far less intelligent than Holmes because he can be superior to them without being any kind of threat to them.  However, in film noir that won’t work.  We need the conspiracy to be at least as smart as if not smarter than the detective because we have to be able to believe that the conspiracy is capable of building such a conspiracy that needs lots of effort and even luck to unravel and that seems impossible to deal with.  While having the power certainly contributes to its success, it can’t be just that they have the power and other people don’t.  They have to be smarter than most of their opponents and so better able to hide what is going on, and often the detectives don’t start to unravel it because they are so much smarter than those running it but instead because the powers-that-be either push things too far or get unlucky when trying to do something that they need to do in order to maintain the conspiracy.  Thus, the detectives are usually not geniuses, and often only solve things through dogged determination rather than through brilliant deductions.

Ultimately, though, what makes them the threat they are is that they ultimately don’t care about the established order, at least not at first.  They don’t benefit from the conspiracy and so have no interest in maintaining it.  This also aligns them with loose cannon detectives in that they are not only outside of the established authority, but are often actively opposed to it.  In D&D terms, they are ultimately entirely Chaotic in outlook and approach.  Compare this to Holmes who morally and in terms of thinking is far more Lawful, even though at times he will bend the laws and rules if he thinks it appropriate.  This is another reason why gumshoes and even loose cannon detectives would fit as being a threat to the establishment, as they don’t care about it and have no interest at all in maintaining it.

However, what we see in such works is that while in general they are considered “dangerous” to the authorities, the audience themselves don’t in general consider them at all dangerous.  We, instead, actually cheer for them.  For gumshoes, that’s because they are opposing corrupt authorities.  For loose cannon detectives, it’s because they are breaking the rules in order to do what needs to be done and get justice.  In essence, they are a threat to authority in a world where either the authorities are corrupt or where the laws are being abused by those who are evil or corrupt, and so the fact that they as individuals are standing up on their own and opposing that is something that the audience wants to see.  But then, we’re an individualistic society, and so are more willing to see an individual triumphing over a corrupt or unconsciously oppressive society as a necessary victory.  If we lived in a society more like the Cardassians from Star Trek our views of them might well change, as we saw when Garak compared literature with Bashir in Deep Space 9.  A society where we are expected to subordinate the individual to the society will be far more skeptical of individuals who “play by their own rules”, because the rules will be there to benefit everyone and those who want to question that will risk tearing down that which allows for the benefits that society grants them.  In a noir world, there may be benefits to the individuals in society but that come at a great cost, but a more communitarian society likely will tend to present the individuals as those who want to cost others for their own shallow personal gain.  So the gunshoes would be a threat to both the established order and the audience in that case.

Holmes, as a detective, isn’t dangerous to either the audience or the established order.  Gumshoes are a threat to the established order but not usually to the audience itself.  The philosophers and the like Green and Wittkower compare them to are perceived as being dangerous to both, mostly because the authority is not seen as overtly corrupt and the benefits of breaking down the established order do not seem to outweigh the benefits.  Ironically, while in fiction we are more individualistic in reality we seem to be more communitarian, unwilling to challenge the established order and risk losing its benefits.  And perhaps that is why our more individualistic society enjoys that so much in its fiction, where that can happen in a way where we, ourselves, are not at all threatened by it, and where the “danger” is not at all our own.

Supernaturalism

March 19, 2021

In my obviously copious spare time, I was following and posting on a post over at Cross Examined on a version of Soft Theism, and came across a number of comments talking about naturalism and supernaturalism and repeating the old canard that people claim that things are supernatural and so therefore outside of science because they don’t want to have to subject their beliefs to scientific scrutiny.  The comment I replied to is here, but there are at least three comments with the same theme, a common one among atheists.  And as I noted, it’s completely untrue.  It’s almost never purported supernaturalists who claim that the supernatural is outside of science or even, in general, that the things they believe in are supernatural.  Or, at least, they aren’t the ones that start it.  No, in general what actually happens is that they believe that something exists that naturalists say would violate the natural laws, but since they do think it exists that forces them to accept that it is supernatural.  And then when naturalists insist that the supernatural is outside of science — or that science rules it out — they are then forced to place the thing they believe in outside of science as well.  The entire conflict is driven by naturalists and naturalism; most purported “supernaturalists” wouldn’t believe in the supernatural at all if it was proven that the things they believe in were actually natural, and they’d be happy to use science to demonstrate their beliefs if naturalists would stop insisting that it couldn’t be done.

And we know this is true.  Take ghosts.  The only reason those things are considered supernatural is because naturalists insist that they must be.  This has never really been a major point among most people who study or believe in ghosts.  If someone could prove that ghosts as they conceive of them exist — disembodied spirits of the dead — but that those things were wholly natural, pretty much everyone who believes in ghosts would shrug their shoulders and accept that the best way to study them might well be with science.  We know this because, well, ghost hunters and the like have been trying to study them with science for ages.  In fact, the entire field of parapsychology was invented entirely to attempt to scientifically study such things.  They’ve tried to do scientific investigations.  They’ve tried to come up with proper scientific experiments.  And from what we see in the studies of parapsychology and in the movies and TV shows that rely on it, they’ve come up with some tools and some correlates to study.  The field of parapsychology is not denigrated because it’s trying to hide from scientific scrutiny, or because it isn’t at least trying to do things scientifically.  No, it’s denigrated for no other reason than its subject matter.  Traditional scientists just don’t think such things exist and dismiss out of hand any attempts to study it that don’t start and end with dismissing it as delusions and hoaxes … even attempts to show that it has a real, natural explanation.

And this is revealing about the natures of naturalism and supernaturalism.  Naturalists treat supernaturalism as if it was the same sort of thing as naturalism, and so treat it as a worldview or ideological commitment.  But there is no supernaturalist worldview.  Nothing follows from “supernaturalism”.  All “supernaturalists” have is a belief that at least one thing that naturalists think can’t be natural really does exist.  They don’t claim that the supernatural exists in general.  They don’t necessarily think that anything else that is claimed to be supernatural exists.  They don’t necessarily think that anything else that is claimed to be supernatural really is.  They don’t necessarily even think that the thing they think exists is necessarily supernatural.  They don’t necessarily think that anything else that is considered supernatural can’t or shouldn’t be studied by science.  They don’t necessarily think that the thing they think exists can’t or shouldn’t be studied by science (as evidenced by parapsychology).  “Supernaturalists”, then, don’t have an ideological commitment related to their purported “supernaturalism”.  They may have them related to, say, religion or other things that underpin their supernatural belief, but those are separate from or ground their purported “supernaturalism”.

Naturalists, on the other hand, do have such ideological and worldview commitments.  For them, it is their naturalism that drives their rejection of purportedly supernatural phenomena and their insistence that the supernatural is unscientific.  Some shake that out as a claim that science could never study the supernatural, which then causes them to argue that since these things are outside of science then they can’t be studied and/or can’t be real.  Some shake that out with the belief cited at the beginning of this post, with an accusation that supernaturalists want to consider their beliefs supernatural to put them outside of science and so outside of scrutiny.  But in doing so they treat supernaturalism as a worldview when it actually isn’t.  This is why I have now become entirely suspicious of the claims of naturalists who want to say that we should by default prefer natural explanations to purportedly supernatural ones, because if they really wanted us to simply follow the evidence then it should only matter when the actual evidence itself would cause us to prefer the “supernatural” explanation, at which point it doesn’t seem like trying to calculate the probability of that claim being true on the basis that we’ve managed to prove some other cases where we eventually found a natural explanation that worked for them.  If the evidence is on their side, why the desire to discredit the supernatural explanations a priori?  And if the evidence isn’t on their side, then what’s the justification for ignoring what the evidence in this specific case is leaning towards?

But now I can see the issue:  they aren’t doing this on the basis of an evidence-based worldview.  No, they are doing this on the basis of a naturalistic worldview, and then accepting and rejecting claims and evidence entirely on the basis of that worldview.  And then in considering their opponents as doing the same thing, they invent a worldview of “supernaturalism” out of whole cloth and then claim that their opponents are acting on the basis of that invented worldview and so can be discredited on that basis alone.  But supernaturalists qua supernaturalists don’t have that sort of worldview, so naturalists end up invalidly asserting that their opponents are acting in the precise bad ways that the naturalists are actually acting.

This is also why I have been constantly insisting that I’m not any kind of supernaturalist, but instead simply reject naturalism.  You can reject the naturalistic worldview without adopting a supernaturalist one, and in fact other worldviews — like religious ones — will indeed cause one to do that.  As it turns out, almost no one has any kind of supernaturalist worldview, especially not the people that most naturalists think have one.  The naturalists are just plain wrong about their opponents.

We need to focus more on remembering that it’s naturalists that have and act entirely from their worldview, not those who think that at least some supernatural things might exist.  That, then, will allow us to point out that it’s naturalists who have tried to place the supernatural outside of science, not those who think those supernatural things exist.  They are making the invalid epistemological move here, not us.  We need to remind them of that.