A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 15 July 2015


Compare the following cases:

Cavaradossi has (justly, we may suppose) been sentenced to execution. His lover, Tosca, begs the magnate Scarpia to release Cavaradossi; Scarpia agrees to do so, contrary to his oath of office, on condition that Tosca sleeps with him; she agrees to do so.

Chuck has a strange property that any woman who sleeps with him will shortly after meet her true love. Reba agrees to sleep with him, in order that she might obtain a husband.

It seems to me that Tosca is exploited whereas Reba is not. Yet the trades that they are offered are identical: sleep with a man who they would not otherwise sleep with, and gain their desired romantic partner.

What might explain the difference? Perhaps we may think it is that Tosca risks losing her lover, which is considered worse than merely failing to gain one. But Tosca has no just entitlement to Cavaradossi, since we have assumed he deserved his sentence. This trade is therefore more properly viewed as a gain to her, rather than merely the avoidance of loss.

There are probably more explanations. The problem is that there's one - see below - which upon further thought seems like it might explain the difference, and I can't think of any others because I wrote everything up to this paragraph earlier, but now I'm TOTALLY PISSED AND EVERYTHING IS EVEN MORE AWESOME THAN USUAL BUT I CAN'T DO ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY AND CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY IS BELOW ME EVEN WHEN I'M DRUNK. AND YES, I JUST COMMIT MYSELF TO THE VVIEW THAT THERE IS A "ME" WHICH PERSISTS OVER TIME.

Perhaps it is that Scarpia could release Cavaradossi without sleeping with Tosca, whereas Reba's sleeping with Chuck is necessary for obtaining her a husband. But this is simply a matter of how we have constructed the thought experiment

Friday, 10 July 2015

Some thoughts on the ethics of fantasy, Kantian injunctions, and the importance of words

I had a fairly productive evening walk tonight, getting a fair bit of thinking done. This is my attempt to record it for future reference, to help myself remember it, and perhaps to find some flaws in my thinking. This is of necessity somewhat meandering.

The Ethics of Fantasy

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick at one point briefly wonders if fantasising about a person violates the Kantian injunction not to treat them purely as a means. I wondered if this objection to fantasy holds.

This is not the only reason we might think that fantasy is in some way objectionable. I suspect that there are in fact stronger arguments against it based upon the character it either implies or develops in the person having the fantasy. However, this is the particular line of attack I am considering first.

The argument would be as follows:

(1) Fantasising about a person involves treating them purely as a means.
(2) Treating a person purely as a means is morally impermissible.
(3) Fantasising about a person is morally impermissible.

Does fantasising about a person involve treating them purely as a means?

There are multiple propositions which we might have in mind here:
(a) Fantasising about a person of necessity involves treating them as a means.
(b) Fantasising about a person tends to involve treating them as a means.
(c) Fantasising about a person promotes a habit of treating them as a means.

(a) seems clearly false. You could have a fantasy purely about a person you care about doing well, without any imagining any personal gain from it. (As a side note: does imagining greatness for your descendants count as imagining personal gain, if you foresee being long dead by the time they attain it?)

(c)  is plausible, but seems to fit more neatly with the character-based argument. In any case, it's not something I've greatly thought about.

(b) seems probably true. However, it leaves open the possibility that one could tailor one's fantasies so as to avoid treating people purely as means. To understand how to do this, we will need a clear idea of what we mean by "treating someone purely as a means" and hence why it is immoral.

What is it to Treat Someone Purely As A Means? Why might it be morally wrong?

A couple of preliminaries:
  • Kant thought that all moral law was reducible to his maxims. I am not committed to that claim, indeed I'm highly sceptical that this is the case. Hence, the fact that an act is wrong does not mean that someone is being treated purely as a means.
  • The fact that there are multiple ways of interpreting a claim does not mean that there is a single correct way to interpret it, nor does it mean that all possible interpretations are equally valid.
One particular interpretation of the injunction seems implausible. Suppose that two people with no concern for one another carry out a trade which advantages them both. This is surely morally acceptable. (Perhaps we may think that they ought to have concern for one another - but once again, that's a concern about character rather than about actions.) So clearly, "acting in a way which affects others, motivated only by your own self-interest" is not inherently wrong.

To tighten this slightly, what if one of the traders - call him Bill - would in fact be willing to mug the other trader in order to get what he wants. However, Bill concludes that it is easier and less risky to just trade, rather than to attack the other man. Again we might disdain Bill's character. But his actions are unobjectionable.

At this point, I wondered how we might start positively motivating the view that there are other beings which have moral value, such that we may not treat them purely as means. It will be helpful to have a rough ontology of different "levels of being". At the bottom, we have 'objects', things which are entirely properly used purely as means. For example, a stone.

Why is it acceptable to treat these purely as means? One answer might be that they have no ends, nothing which they may desire. But then what counts as an end? Suppose you have a humanoid which behaves somewhat normally, except that it never forms any intentions of avoiding pain. It dislikes being in pain, but if you offer to prevent the pain or to make it go away, this being will claim to be indifferent. I think it is sensible to conceive of this being having a desire not to be in pain, even if it never acts upon this desire. If we accept this, then "lacking ends" seems like a sensible criterion for being an object. (It may be incorrect as a criterion, but hopefully it will do for now. People should feel free to attack this criterion - I certainly would if I had a better idea).

Somewhere above 'objects' there are 'persons'. Persons are beings capable of critical reasoning.

It makes sense to think that animals are not objects. (What makes the difference, though - the fact that they feel pain, or the fact that they act in ways which we may sensibly conceive of as being "for their own benefit"?) Most people would hold that animals, despite having interests, have fewer rights than humans. What might ground this view?

(a) An inability to carry out critical reasoning
(b) An inability to reciprocate behaviour according to moral rules
(c) A lesser ability to feel pain

If one thinks (c) is the only reason, then one should probably stop pretending to be a Kantian and just come out as a utilitarian.

(a) was suggested to me by Georgi Vuldzhev, another ESFL blogger who (as it happens) studies at MMU. We had a vague intention to meet up, and eventually did so on the day before he headed back to Bulgaria for the summer. He is of a view that I refer to as "human-imperialism", the view that humans (and, if there are any, higher beings) have rights, but lower beings do not and may be used by humans as they so wish. (The semi-intentional perjorativeness of this term comes from the way this view reminds me of the corresponding "state-imperialist" view, i.e. the view that states have rights, but lower beings - such as individuals or minority groups - do not, and may be used by states as they so wish. The state-imperialist view is not so prevalent now as it used to be, but has a strong historical pedigree. Personally I reject the view that states has interests which may be disentangled from the interests of their members, and therefore the view the view that states are in any sense "higher" than individuals. Indeed states - though not their subjects - are properly viewed as mere objects. But I digress).
I didn't think this was an especially good reason at first. I think it is wrong to cause pain to conscious beings, regardless of whether they can reciprocate. After more thought, I wonder if reciprocity might be relevant, albeit in a different way. Suppose there were a species of homo economicae. They feel no pull of morality, and are only interested in it as it affects others' behaviour. Upon entering human society, we implement laws to bind them in certain ways, but although they are in no way malevolent towards us - indeed, we very much benefit from their existence - they remain fundamentally amoral beings.
Suppose one of these homo economicae (call it Flaa) owns a boat, which they use to transport valuable goods. You also own a boat, and while sailing you see Flaa's boat slowly sinking with a valuable cargo on board. You sail over, and could at this point offer to rescue Flaa only on condition that Flaa hand over ownership of all of his cargo (or indeed, all of his property wherever it may be). Host humans would baulk at this offer, seeing it as exploitative. There is arguably an implicit reciprocity, in that we would all rescue each other without asking for compensation beyond any costs incurred in the rescue.
In this case, however, you know full well that Flaa would force you to hand over everything you owned were it you that were drowning. In this case, you might be justified in extracting everything possible from Flaa, since he would not reciprocate any gallant and generous rescue you were to perform. (Is this really the reasoning, or have I merely constructed an elaborate rationalisation for treating an outsider more harshly than an insider?)
Note, however, that the issue is not that Flaa cannot reciprocate: it is that he can, but does not. So I'm still somewhat doubtful. (Also, it's not that I think Flaa has no moral standing, it's that I don't feel the requirement to engage in certain behaviours where he wouldn't reciprocate. So this is perhaps of dubious relevance).

(a) is interesting. I was originally thinking that the key might be the ability to carry out critical moral reasoning; I have broadened it out in order to make it plain that this is the difference between persons and sub-persons.
There is some intuitive appeal to the idea that the ability to carry out critical moral reasoning, to understand why others have value, might be the source of having value in and of oneself. Note that it must be about having this ability, not about actually carrying out critical moral reasoning: otherwise this would disqualify most people. (If the requirement is to understand why people have value, then whoops! Suddenly anyone with an incorrect metaethical theory loses value. If the requirement is merely to understand that other people have value, then that's still disqualifying moral irrealists, which seems very odd).

What, then, do we mean by "can" carry out moral reasoning? One response might be to take it entirely literally, accept that not only children and senile people but also people of low intelligence are of significantly reduced moral value relative to those who can do this reasoning. (As a semi-professional ethicist, this seems like a highly self-serving position; then again, that doesn't make it wrong). Another might be that one possesses the brainpower, if not the mental skills, to carry out such reasoning. (Is there a speed requirement for this thinking, or any kind of requirement to be vaguely correct? Euthyphro was wrong to think that Zeus' command made an action virtuous, even he was not at all close to the moral truth, but he was capable of debate.)

One might think that "can" means that there are members of one's "natural category" who actually carry out moral reasoning. This is wrong on two counts: firstly there are no truly natural categories, and secondly recall the homo economicae. They can have cerebral experiences every bit as rich as humans without understanding or attempting ethics (perhaps they have other feelings to compensate, or the way we experience moral emotions is how they experience the feeling of being or having being irrational). If they are as morally valuable as humans, then critical moral reasoning is not relevant.

(At this point, I was out of new thoughts regarding meta-ethics. I then thought briefly about the Free Thoughts podcast; I have an episode of this on my mobile, but I found it not worth listening to. Indeed, the quality of these podcasts is quite variable, which I suspect may be because the podcast is fundamentally about ideas. If the ideas of the guest are not very good, then there is little or nothing which can be done to rescue an episode.

What are ideas? They need not be either true or false - Marx's theory of historical materialism is an idea, but it is wrong. They should be contrasted with facts, which concern the state of the physical world and are (I think) by definition true. If we accept this distinction, it may then be helpful to admit at least one more category of statement. This category needs a name so that I may think about it, but it is those statements which are true purely in virtue of the terms used: "2+2=4", "In an ideal free market with perfectly rational actors, a uniform product, etc, the equilibrium market price is also the market clearing price", and "No bachelors are married". What should I name this category? I have heard the word "artefact" used by philosophers used to mean something similar, should I use this word?)

The chief danger of choosing a "wrong" name is that it may prevent me from communicating my thoughts to others. There are two main dangers here: 'non-communication' and 'miscommunication'.

Non-communication is where I attempt to convey a meaning, but my intended recipient fails to grasp it. Miscommunication is where I attempt to convey a meaning m, but my intended recipient thinks I mean meaning n (such that m and n are distinct). Miscommunication is the worse of these, since it least it is usually clear when non-communication has happened which makes it easier to fix.

If I choose a name which already means something to other people, then there is a severe risk of miscommunication. If I make up a word, then there is a severe risk of non-communication, but this is much less bad. Hence in general I should prefer inventing new terminology over potentially misusing existing terminology.

In my particular case, then, I should not use the word "artefact". Upon further thought, it occurs to me that "tautologies" is the word I want, so I do not in fact have to coin a new word - however, I should not have shied from coming up with a new word providing I was willing to define it.

Incidentally, is communication the crucial value of language? Surely beauty and brevity also have roles. I would tend to think that communication is the most important consideration, though if these are not well-defined then it may in fact be meaningless to say that one consideration is non-lexically more important than another, given that any assessment of a use of language which attempts to give a combined value based on multiple values will rely just as much on how me measure success on each value as on the actual value we place on each value.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Two Opera Reviews

(The normal purpose of reviews is to guide the reader as to what is worth seeing/doing. Both of these were one-offs, which makes this rather redundant, but feel free to read anyway.).

The final concert I attended in Manchester was Venus and Adonis and Dido and Aeneas, performed by the New London Consort, Anna Dennis, Roderick Williams, and Penelope Appleyard. The musical performance was done on period instruments, and beyond that there is little to say. For an opera, this need not be a bad thing, since the focus is after all the singers. The playing was competent, if uninspired. I didn't notice any errors, but nor did the instrumentalists at any point make me sit up and think "That's amazing!"
A picture presumably of a rehearsal: Roderick
Williams left, Penelope Appleyard left, and one of
the backing singers in the middle. Taken from
Appleyard's website.

Anna Dennis played Venus and Dido. I can't remember a great deal, this being a full month ago now, but her singing was fine - at times unclear, but that's always a risk with sopranos. Roderick Williams played Adonis and Aeneas with gusto - aside from a touch of grey hair (he is 50, after all) he looked every inch the besotted young hunter as Adonis, and just as much the sharply dressed, confident statesman as Aeneas. Penelope Appleyard was a playful Cupid and a sympathetic Belinda, and played both roles well. (As a side note: she looked pretty as Belinda, but this was as nothing compared to how attractive she looked when cross-dressing in order to play Cupid. I'm not certain whether this is a fact about her appearance or about the tenuousness of my heterosexuality).

The background singers were for the most part competent. I wasn't a great fan of the performance of the Spirit disguised as Mercury, though the use of sunglasses to indicate when the singers were evil spirits and when they were court attendants was a nice touch.

The operas were both interesting enough - neither would make a list of my favourite operas, but I am glad to have heard them and would happily listen to them again.

Earlier this week I was at a church in Stourbridge to hear "Opera: The Best Bits!", a concert put on by a local community choir and orchestra who give a charity concert each year with a different theme. I was there due to a family friend being in the choir, and to be honest it was about as mediocre as you would expect. The performers were for the most part competent but not professional, and it showed. Most obviously there was a lack of confidence among many members of the orchestra, which made the slips (when they happened) very easy to hear. The compère was a local boy made good, who is now an actor down in London, but he was horrendously under-prepared: he introduced every song in the exact same way ("This piece is from [opera], which was first performed at [opera house] in city [in year], and tells the story of [frequently inaccurate two-sentence summary]. The hero/heroine does/doesn't die at the end.") and clearly hadn't looked up the pronunciation of some of the names - my mother was struggling to avoid laughing at his reference to "Oh fondue temple saynt".

The choir were barely audible above the orchestra at time, but were otherwise in good tune. The soloists were perhaps the most variable part of the evening - one was a professional soprano who gave genuinely excellent interpretations of Habanera, the Flower Duet and other overplayed mainstays of opera collections, while at the other end was a member of the choir who ambitiously but perhaps unwisely attempted (among other songs) Nessun Dorma but completely lacked the strength of voice to pull it off. It wasn't a waste of an evening, but had I been required to pay for my ticket (aren't parents wonderful?!) I would have baulked at it.

Some housekeeping

You may have noticed that I have not blogged much recently. I hope to get back into blogging more, although this is unlikely to happen immediately as I shall be away at Freedom Week for most of next week and will hopefully not need my laptop for that week.

I have my final results from my degree, and I got a First! This is not tremendously surprising - after the final exam, I thought that there was about an 80% probability that I would get a First - but it's pleasing nonetheless. Roll on Budapest!

Effective Altruists need not be Moral Saints

There is an ongoing debate in philosophy about how demanding our moral obligations can be. One of the most popular objections to utilitarianism (roughly, the view that we ought always to maximise the sum of happiness, regardless of whatever else this entails) is that it is impossible to live up to.

Philosophy Bro has summaries of two of the most important writings on this subject, which I highly recommend reading even if you have no prior understanding of philosophy: Peter Singer's Drowning Child Argument and Susan Wolf's Moral Saints.

Singer argues, very convincingly, that we have almost unlimited duties to help the poor of the third world. Wolf argues that a life which is 100% dedicated to doing good is in fact a rather unappealing idea, and that this kind of existence misses out on many valuable pieces of life.

I actually lean towards agreeing with Wolf here. This means that I reject Singer's ultimate conclusion. But I still think his argument goes a lot further than most people would be comfortable with. For people who (a) can donate money to combating third world poverty while maintaining a minimally decent standard of living and (b) are aware that effective third-world charities exist, I think there is a duty to give at least some of your income to effective charities.

This kind of donation should not ruin your life. No effective altruist that I know devotes themselves 100% to helping people. Indeed, if we're honest I suspect that being involved in effective altruism represents a form of consumption for many members. You meet all kinds of intelligent and interesting people, leapfrog a great deal of inferential distance, and get to hang out with high-status people.

There are a number of different claims that you could make regarding the demandingness of our positive obligations:
(1) We must maximise the amount we give; that is, giving all that we can without damaging our ability to give in future.
(2) We must give all we can above what is necessary for a minimally decent lifestyle.
(3) We must give enough that, if everyone else were to give the same amount (or the same proportion of their income), every single person would have a minimally decent lifestyle.
(4) We must give a modest proportion of our income above what we need.
(5) We must give everything that we are legally obliged to give.
(6) We have no positive obligations.

All of these, with the exception of (5), are statements which I consider plausibly true. My own intention is to give more than is implied by (3) or (4), but less than that which is implied by (2). Living according to (1) seems quite simply impossible.