Archives for posts with tag: philosophy

I want to take issue with some remarks made by Russell Blackford in the context of a review of Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life. I believe that he misunderstands the utilitarian project. He writes, for example:

Once we question the burden of utilitarianism, any attempt to justify it becomes circular.

It is true that utilitarianism has no a priori foundation; this is true of all moral systems. I share his resistance to Singer’s suggestion that we avail ourselves of “the point of view of the universe”. It’s close to obvious that the cosmic point of view is tout ça m’est égal — nothing we humans do can make much difference to the sum total of everything existing.

But this does not mean that every argument for utilitarianism is circular, only that, as Wittgenstein said, every explanation comes to an end somewhere. The idea that there could be an objective justification for any moral system is a myth. Religious apologists tell us that they have such a system; in their case, the claim is risible, but the idea of such a possibility has caught on. We need to discard it. There is no a priori basis for any ethical system; that’s not how life works. But it doesn’t have to be a priori to be convincing, practical, or beneficial.

The justification for utilitarianism is utilitarian. But this is not a circular argument. It starts with the factual observation that we are conscious beings with desires and aversions. One can imagine a universe in which this were not true, so it is not true a priori; still, for us humans on this planet it does happen to be true. Call it contingent if you wish, but in this world it is a fact. Now, the observation of this fact is easiest in the first person, but one sees routinely, indeed one cannot help seeing, that it is true for everyone else as well. I am clearly a conscious being with desires and aversions, and just as clearly I am surrounded by similarly configured beings. This means that everyone in the world divides experiences and situations into preferred and rejected; sought and avoided; enjoyed and detested. Everyone in the world can sincerely say, “From my point of view, temporarily putting aside everyone else, I prefer a world in which A, B and C happen, and not-A, not-B and not-C do not.” This means that it is at least conceivable that there exist (potentially) worlds in which everyone on Earth is happy, is satisfied, has no reason to complain.

OK, right away, several hands go up. And, yes, dozens of philosophers have devised hundreds of clever cases, designed to show either that the utilitarian proposal is incoherent, or that it would not have the positive results that are claimed for it. What if, for example, some people are only happy if their neighbors are suffering (sadists) — or when they themselves are suffering (masochists)? Such hypotheticals miss the point. Any system is going to have gray areas, edge cases and outliers. Such problems are not special to utilitarianism. Let’s stick to the basics for a bit.

What is the utilitarian principle? What does it tell us to do? It says that when deciding on a course of action, it is best to take account of your actions’ probable effects on all the sentient beings around you, and to choose those actions which will maximize (to whatever extent this is possible) the satisfaction of the preferences of those beings. Why is this the “best” thing to do? Because it maximizes utility. Do we know that maximizing utility is a good idea? Not “objectively”, but not a single person whose utility is getting maximized is likely to object! And if everyone who is affected is in favor, isn’t that pretty much all the approval one could ever need?

Here is what I take to be a second misconception. In the same piece, Blackford writes:

Utilitarianism’s burden would destroy our freedom to live our own lives, turning us, in effect, into slaves of the general utility of all others. … Utilitarianism requires us to treat ourselves and other individuals as mere instruments in the greater cause of maximising general utility, which is incompatible with having loving relationships where we care for other individuals for their own sake. … A utilitarian must suppress the dispositions to show love or loyalty, or friendship or tenderness, if ever she believes they are detracting from her goal of maximising general utility.

It seems to me that this description ignores the symmetry of the utilitarian ideal. I am no more a slave to others’ utility than I am to my own. Besides, how on Earth would maximizing general utility be incompatible with having loving relationships? There’s a heck of a lot of utility in loving relationships. Under what conditions would there be a genuine conflict between my loving someone and my being kind to others? That sounds like a very special situation, which means that the considerations mentioned earlier apply. First, there will always be puzzling cases, and second, all systems will have them, not only utilitarianism. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet describes a world in which to help one person is inevitably to harm another. And the playwright’s explicit moral is: that world is far from optimal.

See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.

Arguing that utilitarianism is wrong-headed strikes me as perverse — like insisting that “aim for the best result possible” is not known with certainty to be good advice. What the heck is the alternative? Utilitarianism is not so much an argument about how things should be as it is an observation of how things are. People do suffer, and you can sometimes prevent it. And if you can, you should probably want to. That’s what it is to be good. The typical counter-proposal seems to amount to, “You can’t tell me that I have to care about other people.” Well, that’s true. You don’t have to care — but not caring hardly constitutes a coherent framework for moral action.

The idea that religion brings meaning into people’s lives is absurd. You can’t get meaning from any book. Neither can any person give it to you. In fact, there is only one place that this kind of meaning can come from. You put it there, you bring it out, you make it happen — if you choose. And the method, as many wise people have pointed out over the years, is to give it away. If you can give your care and your attention to someone or something real, that’s when meaning will enter your world. When you do something for people because you sincerely want them to be happy; when you make something beautiful just because beauty is a good; when you’re kissing your lover or child and meaning it, there is meaning in your life.

Many people have requested a one-page summary of the new book. This one is under 400 words. [Slightly revised 8 June 2010.]

Roy Sablosky: NO ONE BELIEVES IN GOD (second draft, November 2009)

  1. It’s not about belief
    1. That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
      1. Their “beliefs” challenged, people are often enraged, as if you had threatened not their opinions but their safety.
      2. One joins a group, not its beliefs. Self-described Catholics may differ profoundly with their church elders on important issues; they are Catholics despite their beliefs.
      3. Notoriously, church elders routinely flout the “beliefs” they most fervently espouse.
    2. Claims of belief are implausible where the tenet in question is nonsensical.
      1. Religious propositions are incoherent. (This is probably by design. A slogan is catchier if no one knows what it means.) In the sentence “Jesus loves you” for example, both the subject and the verb are impossible to characterize or observe. Such a statement is perfectly empty: it is a pseudo-proposition.
      2. Since they are without meaning, religious statements can be neither meant nor believed. Thomas Jefferson: “I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” Ludwig Wittgenstein: “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.”
    3. Therefore, no one really believes in the teachings of any prophet or the existence of any god. It cannot be done. It does not happen. People who think they are doing it are mistaken.
  2. Religion is made of memes plus authoritarianism
    1. Religious “beliefs” are memes. Just like germs, they are contagious; and just like germs they evolve through natural selection. The religious memes circulating now have evolved over thousands of years to be very, very good at what they do.
    2. People are naturally deferential to authority figures.
    3. Authority and memetic self-replication combine to form religion.
  3. What we should do
    1. Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
      1. End all tax breaks (that is: subsidies) for religious organizations and their personnel.
      2. Eliminate chaplaincy programs at all levels of government, including the armed services.
      3. Remove legislative impediments to abortion and birth control.
      4. Outlaw the teaching of antediluvian codswallop in public school.
      5. Government should ratify only civil unions, not “marriages”. Anyone willing and competent to sign such a contract should be allowed to.
    2. Revise the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No proposal having a religious rationale or using religious terminology should become a law.

[Update 26 JAN 2010: fixed the links.]

I have finished my book. You can download a PDF of the whole thing. Once you’ve read it, please find me a publisher. Thanks.

This is approximately the talk I gave on October 3rd at the Atheist Alliance International convention. You see, that presentation was not recorded; so I did it myself, a few days later, at home in Sacramento. Therefore, this video shows something similar to what you would have seen in Burbank. Here is an abstract:

As Wittgenstein observed, “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.” Religious propositions have no meaning, so they cannot be meant; and if they cannot be meant, they cannot be believed. One cannot believe a pseudo-proposition. “I believe in God” (for example) sounds like a report of an internal state, but that cannot be exactly what it is. What, then, is it, really? If the person making this statement it is not meaning or believing, what are they doing? Here at last is a question about religion that can be answered! Such “professions” are not reports of private mental states, they are public tokens of affiliation. Thus, the “sincerely held beliefs” paradigm used throughout our society (in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, for example) is wildly inaccurate. This has important implications for cultural debate and for public policy.

There isn’t a choice between conservative and liberal philosophies. This is because conservatism is not a philosophy. Let me explain.

Liberalism is a philosophy. Liberalism defines the general welfare—Bentham’s “greatest happiness for the greatest number”—as the center and purpose of all decision-making; and proceeds from there to consider how best to organize and govern the society.

Conservatism is not a philosophy. It is a pattern of behavior. The conservative works toward wealth and power for himself and his friends. All decisions are made on this basis. But when speaking about his decisions, he describes them in liberal terms. He claims to be motivated by concern for the general public. He claims to be working for the general good. Asked to describe the difference between himself and a liberal, he will say that very broadly they have similar goals; their differences come down to how they propose to get there. But this is not true. Conservative decisions are not designed to benefit the general public, only the plutocrats and power-brokers. Conservatism is not a different technique for serving the public; it is a technique for fleecing the public.

Therefore, public servants cannot and do not choose to adopt either a liberal or a conservative philosophy. They choose either to care about their community or to only pretend to care. They choose to tell the truth, or to lie.

So-called “conservatives” are liars. They pretend that there is a conservative approach to solving community problems, which can be contrasted with the liberal approach. But the conservative approach to helping the community does not exist. Conservative methods do not help the community, because they are not intended to. The conservative approach is not to care about community problems. Therefore, as soon as a conservative starts telling you how he’s going to help you, he’s already lied to you twice. The second time was when he said that he thought his plan would help you—he doesn’t think so. The first time was just before that, when he said that he wants to help you. He doesn’t.

[YASHWATA’s note: This is the 13th chapter of Bertrand Russell’s astonishing History of Western Philosophy, first published in 1945. A lark, a flying carpet, a bright stroke brushed with verve and wit across three millennia, this brief chapter wings us from a consideration of Plato’s cultural and ethical milieu to a simple explanation of the necessity of democracy. As always, Russell makes it look easy. There are more insights available in these 1,300 words than in most other whole books.]


The Sources of Plato’s Opinions

Plato and Aristotle were the most influential of all philosophers, ancient, medieval, or modern; and of the two, it was Plato who had the greater effect upon subsequent ages. I say this for two reasons: first, that Aristotle himself is an outcome of Plato; second, that Christian theology and philosophy, at any rate until the thirteenth century, was much more Platonic than Aristotelian. It is necessary, therefore, in a history of philosophic thought, to treat Plato, and to a lesser degree Aristotle, more fully than any of their predecessors or successors.

The most important matters in Plato’s philosophy are: first, his Utopia, which was the earliest of a long series; second, his theory of ideas, which was a pioneer attempt to deal with the still unsolved problem of universals; third, his arguments in favour of immortality; fourth, his cosmogony; fifth, his conception of knowledge as reminiscence rather than perception. But before dealing with any of these topics, I shall say a few words about the circumstances of his life and the influences which determined his political and philosophical opinions.

Plato was born in 428-7 B.C., in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. He was a well-to-do aristocrat, related to various people who were concerned in the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. He was a young man when Athens was defeated, and he could attribute the defeat to democracy, which his social position and his family connections were likely to make him despise. He was a pupil of Socrates, for whom he had a profound affection and respect; and Socrates was put to death by the democracy. It is not, therefore, surprising that he should turn to Sparta for an adumbration of his ideal commonwealth. Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.

The purely philosophical influences on Plato were also such as to predispose him in favour of Sparta. These influences, speaking broadly, were: Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Socrates.

From Pythagoras (whether by way of Socrates or not) Plato derived the Orphic elements in his philosophy: the religious trend, the belief in immortality, the other-worldliness, the priestly tone, and all that is involved in the simile of the cave; also his respect for mathematics, and his intimate intermingling of intellect and mysticism.

From Parmenides he derived the belief that reality is eternal and timeless, and that, on logical grounds, all change must be illusory.

From Heraclitus he derived the negative doctrine that there is nothing permanent in the sensible world. This, combined with the doctrine of Parmenides, led to the conclusion that knowledge is not to be derived from the senses, but is only to be achieved by the intellect. This, in turn fitted in well with Pythagoreanism.

From Socrates he probably learnt his preoccupation with ethical problems, and his tendency to seek teleological rather than mechanical explanations of the world. “The Good” dominated his thought more than that of the pre-Socratics, and it is difficult not to attribute this fact to the influence of Socrates.

How is all this connected with authoritarianism in politics?

In the first place: Goodness and Reality being timeless, the best state will be the one which most nearly copies the heavenly model, by having a minimum of change and a maximum of static perfection, and its rulers should be those who best understand the eternal Good.

In the second place: Plato, like all mystics, has, in his beliefs, a core of certainty which is essentially incommunicable except by a way of life. The Pythagoreans had endeavoured to set up a rule of the initiate, and this is, at bottom, what Plato desires. If a man is to be a good statesman, he must know the Good; this he can only do by a combination of intellectual and moral discipline. If those who have not gone through this discipline are allowed a share in the government, they will inevitably corrupt it.

In the third place: much education is needed to make a good ruler on Plato’s principles. It seems to us unwise to have insisted on teaching geometry to the younger Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, in order to make him a good king, but from Plato’s point of view it was essential. He was sufficiently Pythagorean to think that without mathematics no true wisdom is possible. This view implies an oligarchy.

In the fourth place: Plato, in common with most Greek philosophers, took the view that leisure is essential to wisdom, which will therefore not be found among those who have to work for their living, but only among those who have independent means, or who are relieved by the state from anxieties as to their subsistence. This point of view is essentially aristocratic.

Two general questions arise in confronting Plato with modem ideas. The first is: Is there such a thing as “wisdom”? The second is: Granted that there is such a thing, can any constitution be devised that will give it political power?

“Wisdom,” in the sense supposed, would not be any kind of specialized skill, such as is possessed by the shoemaker or the physician or the military tactician. It must be something more generalized than this, since its possession is supposed to make a man capable of governing wisely. I think Plato would have said that it consists in knowledge of the good, and would have supplemented this definition with the Socratic doctrine that no man sins wittingly, from which it follows that whoever knows what is good does what is right. To us, such a view seems remote from reality. We should more naturally say that there are divergent interests, and that the statesman should arrive at the best available compromise. The members of a class or a nation may have a common interest, but it will usually conflict with the interests of other classes or other nations. There are, no doubt, some interests of mankind as a whole, but they do not suffice to determine political action. Perhaps they will do so at some future date, but certainly not so long as there are many sovereign States. And even then the most difficult part of the pursuit of the general interest would consist in arriving at compromises among mutually hostile special interests.

But even if we suppose that there is such a thing as “wisdom,” is there any form of constitution which will give the government to the wise? It is clear that majorities, like general councils, may err, and in fact have erred. Aristocracies are not always wise; kings are often foolish; Popes, in spite of infallibility, have committed grievous errors. Would anybody advocate entrusting the government to university graduates, or even to doctors of divinity? Or to men who, having been born poor, have made great fortunes? It is clear that no legally definable selection of citizens is likely to be wiser, in practice, than the whole body.

It might be suggested that men could be given political wisdom by a suitable training. But the question would arise: what is a suitable training? And this would turn out to be a party question.

The problem of finding a collection of “wise” men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one. That is the ultimate reason for democracy.

—Bertrand Russell. 1945. A history of Western philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 104-107.

If you rather relish the puzzlement of not knowing, for sure, if you’re asking the right questions, you are a philosopher at heart, whatever your training.

Daniel Dennett, McGill University Commencement Address [pdf link], May 28, 2007

When an object is significant and important what makes it hard to understand is not the lack of some special instruction in abstruse matters necessary for its understanding, but the conflict between the right understanding of the object and what most people want to see. This can make the most obvious things the very hardest to understand. What has to be overcome is not a difficulty of understanding but of the will.

MS 213, as quoted in Kenny, The Wittgenstein reader, 2nd edition, Blackwell, 2006, p. 46