Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jobs for Moral Philosophers

Assistant professor, tenure track. AOS: Kantian or Deontological Ethics. Candidates must have unqualifiedly good wills, present themselves with dignity, and be able to work autonomously for extended periods. Successful candidate will be capable of reason and have the 'I' in her or his representation, though need not necessarily confine moral concern to other rational beings. Truthfulness and Ph.D. categorically imperative; teaching and legislative experience desirable. Noumenal salary.

Assistant professor, tenure track. AOS: Utilitarian Ethics (Act or Rule). Small department (in which each member counts for one and only one) seeks candidate who can get results; greatest good as important as greatest number. PH.D. and teaching experience desirable only if they yield the best outcome.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Kantian Environmental Ethics

Since Kant thought nonhuman animals and the rest of nature were simply implements for the use of humans and other beings (if any) capable of reason, it seems difficult to understand how he might be useful for developing an understanding of our environmental responsibilities. To do so, therefore, we will need to make a distinction between Kant’s personal views and assumptions, on the one hand, and the implications of the conceptual framework he developed for moral philosophy on the other. It may well turn out that not all of his views are entailed by his theory.

Take, for example, the idea that the will or intention of a self-reflectively conscious being, of one who “can have the ‘I’ in his representation,” is the basis of moral value and a necessary locus of respect and dignity. Kant assumed that among the creatures we encounter only humans have this quality, but we have good empirical and conceptual reasons to think that such ability comes in degrees, so it could represent a spectrum that includes many sentient animals other than ourselves. Moreover, as we have seen, the environmental matrix fostering and supporting all such beings appears sufficiently integrated and fragile that a Kantian ethic would entail robust (albeit indirect) respect for nature -- it is literally impossible to confer moral respect on oneself and others without taking great care with the natural world on which we all depend.

Thus we can happily assent to Kant’s insight about the moral primacy of persons without sacrificing either the moral significance of nonhumans or the possibility of a potent environmental ethic. This way of reading Kant is a bit like Korsgaard’s strategy, which might be worth another look.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Intrinsic Value Revisited

The question of the morally relevant intrinsic value of the planet, the biotic community, nature, or the material world as such remains elusively open.

Here's a thought: suppose we grant the sensible proposition that morally relevant intrinsic value arises from the capacity to value in morally relevant ways. Suppose also, however, that the process by which these capacities arise is sufficiently integrated into nature that it is impossible to respect valuers without taking their environment very seriously. In other words, nature understood as an integrated system produces and contains all the morally relevant intrinsic value that there is (or perhaps we might say that MRIV is endemic to nature), so in that sense nature has (literally contains) intrinsic value.

Would it follow from this that nature as such is due the dignity of moral concern we owe to beings capable of valuing, those sentient and sapient centers of consciousness to whom we normally direct our moral attention? That question might still be open.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The "Last Man" thought experiment

In Jamieson's summary version of Routley's famous "Last Man" example, the planet is dying and the last living person knows (somehow -- we can't worry too much about these epistemic details) that it can never regenerate. So in his own dying act he (perhaps only a guy would think to do this) blows up what's left. Does he do anything wrong? By hypothesis the rest of sentient and sapient life is already gone, so it's just mountains and gorges and atmosphere and oceans and insentient species (crustateans, microbes...) that he destroys, all permanently devoid of sentient life. He eliminates all future sunsets, of course, but no one would have seen them anyway, so there's no possible cost even to anyone's aesthetic quality of life.

It would not be fruitful to fuss much over the wackiness of this imaginary scenario. What is interesting is the way, setting aside its implausibilities, it tests our intuitions. Those inclined to imbue a mountain as such, or a species of bacteria, with morally relevant intrinsic value would have to say that the guy does something wrong, though it is difficult to put our finger on what, precisely -- who or what is harmed that is even in principle capable of caring one way or the other? The act might reveal a (soon to be moot) character flaw, but it disrespects no-one, has no consequences that could possibly matter to anyone, etc. On the other hand, if we claim he does nothing wrong we must contend with what for many of us is a strong sense of loss in the contemplation of that last, trivially violent act.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where does Intrinsic Value Come From?

Jamieson charts various construals of intrinsic value, but before we can decide between them we need to understand where intrinsic value comes from. My suggestion is as follows:

What we might call quantitative value (e.g. how big or hard something is -- the quantities of its primary qualities) inheres in everything: the weight (or more precisely, the mass) of a stone is a determinate value inherent in it insofar as it is a structurally coherent object. The more structurally integrated the object is, the more durable and persistent are its quantitative values, and the more clearly differentiated it is from other things.

Qualitative value, then, emerges as the systemic complexity of objects give rise to new kinds of internally interactive objects, such as organisms with brains. As this kind of complexity increases, at some point it crosses a threshold and a new kind of valuing emerges: the conscious capacity to prefer, and hence evaluate, things that the subject perceives (or conceives). This emergent capacity goes by different names (intentionality, will, autonomy...) but most generally it is the process whereby a conscious being places value on the things around it.

Only once such a capacity has emerged, I would argue, is there what we should properly call 'intrinsic value' -- the sort of value that is relevant to moral analysis. This valuing process is intrinsic not merely because it inheres in subjects, but because it is constitutive of subjectivity as such: it is the process that defines subjects as individuals. Value (of the relevant sort) thus comes from the activities of valuers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Short Argument for Examining Life

“The unexamining life is not a life for humans” -- Socrates (Plato's reconstruction)

Consider the following argument for one interpretation of Socrates' proposition:

1) Due primarily to our intellectual abilities, humans as a species are capable of doing great harm to each other, other sentient animals, and the surrounding environment.

2) Humans (with normal cognitive function) are capable in principle of deliberating, individually and in groups, about their actions and the consequences of their actions, and choosing a course of action on the basis of such deliberation.

3) When humans act without careful deliberation and cooperation, the consequences of their actions are often very harmful.

4) When humans act cooperatively but without systematic examination of the value and disvalue of motives and consequences, the harm is often multiplied.

5) Everyone always ought to avoid doing harm if it is avoidable.


6) Humans (with normal cognitive funtion) ought to engage in a shared process of self-examination, including examination of their behavior and its consequences -- and thereby seek to discover and follow the least harmful courses of action.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Kierkegaard Manuscripts Turn World of Philosophical Humor on its Head

NEWSFLASH – Atrophied Philosophers (AP): Announcement of the recent discovery in Copenhagen of two previously unknown manuscripts is rocking the intellectual community. Found in a previously overlooked secret drawer in a desk believed to have belonged to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, best-selling author of such humorous classics as 'Fear and Trembling,' 'The Sickness Unto Death,' and 'Concluding Unscientific Postscript,' they represent the first addition to the famous thinker’s comedic oeuvre in over 150 years.

Most gratifying to the small community of scholarly devotees of Kierkegaardian wit, if authenticated they may forever change our understanding of the great philosopher’s sense of humor, perhaps even settling the question of whether he had one. The two manuscripts, written in what looks like Kierkegaard’s handwriting but attributed to “Climatus Changicus,” an apparent pseudonym, were found together. The first appears to be a sort of instructional manual for maneuvering rowboats, 'Either Oar,' and the second a draft of a novela about successful marriage: 'Neither Snore.'

Noted Kierkegaard scholar Nails Thongstrap, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Uncontrollable Giggling at the University of Copenhagen, comments: “These new discoveries appear to be pseudononymous drafts for another of Kierkegaard’s works, the name of which I can’t think of just now.“ Asked about the probability of the works’ authenticity, Thongstrap conceded: “There remains the possibility of course that these are very clever forgeries, but even so it would still follow logically that they are very clever.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Limitations of an Economic Model

Peter Barnes proposes a Commons model as a way of incentivizing conservation that avoids some of the pitfalls of conventional "two-sector" economic thinking. I suspect it is a very good and practical idea, and it will be better for the world if we implement it.

Barnes's proposal remains, however, within the paradigm of conventional economic thought, and perhaps replicates uncritically some of its problematic assumptions. Leopold insists that some important things are not economically productive, and so will be impossible to generate an interest in, even if we were to propertize them without privatizing them, as Barnes suggests.

Consider an endangered species such as the snail darter, a tiny, nondescript fish that will never be a source of revenue for anyone, not even as a tourist attraction. What would motivate us to protect it? The knowledge that species diversity is a marker of ecosystemic health, and that the snail darter in particular is an indicator species for the health of specific ecosystems, is a cogent reason but so indirect as to be nearly useless (absent an act of Congress -- aways liable to be repealed or undermined by the next president) when powerful economic interests incline us to damage its habitat.

I take Leopold's point to be that there is thus no substitute, over the long term, for an actual change of heart toward the snail darter, to value it not instrumentally but for itself. That is, we need not a strategy for manipulating self-interest, as though that were the only reliable motivator, but a different value system altogether -- an ethic.