Scanlon and “Justifiability to Others”

T. M. (“Tim”) Scanlon is best known for his advocacy, especially in his book What We Owe to Each Other (1998), of the moral theory of contractualism. Contractualism is broadly the idea that morality is based on a social agreement or “contract.” It can in principle refer to any contract-based moral theory, within a certain range to be described in a moment, but in practice it refers to Scanlon’s theory unless the context makes clear that something else is meant. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) article on “Contractualism” by Elizabeth Ashford and Tim Mulgan says that contractualism is distinguished from contractarianism by being grounded in the equal moral status of persons. Contractarianism, especially of the sort identified with Hobbes and Gauthier and Buchanan, tries to derive morality from an agreement that individuals make based on their own self-interest. A contractarian theory imagines people forming an agreement which each sees as maximizing his own personal self-interest and nothing else, and in particular without regard to the interests of anyone else. By contrast, contractualism imagines that people are deciding mutually agreed-upon principles from a position in which each person accepts every other person as a rational autonomous agent of equal moral importance with himself. Scanlon claims (5) that this conception of the social contract can be traced back to Rousseau.

The key concept of contractualism seems to be justifiability to others. In what follows, I shall explain what “justifiability to others” means in Scanlon’s contractualism and why I think it lies at the root of a serious deficiency of the theory.

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MacIntyre, Individualism, and Modern Moral Philosophy

In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre published the book that would make him famous (in the small world of professional philosophy): After Virtue. I read it soon after it was published, and it was way over my head. The book promoted the importance of history of philosophy, Greek philosophy in particular, and virtue ethics. Indeed, I believe it was a major stimulus to the revival of virtue ethics in analytic philosophy that took place soon thereafter. I recall it having the status of an “it book.” Still, the book’s main argument was abstract and somewhat obscure, so that although I was eager to be persuaded, I was left feeling that I mainly just didn’t understand it very well. I also figured it was my fault, because I didn’t know enough to comprehend the historical argument.

I still have my original copy of After Virtue, full of my marginal comments and handwritten notes shoved between the pages. But I haven’t reviewed any of it now. Instead, this post is stimulated by my happening upon a brief passage at the end of MacIntyre’s discussion of Joseph Butler in his 1966 book, A Short History of Ethics. This passage presents what seems to me a précis of the argument of After Virtue. It may be that this is not fair. To the extent that it isn’t, then obviously the comments and criticisms I make here will be inapplicable to the argument of After Virtue. That’s all right: the argument given in A Short History of Ethics is interesting in itself and worth commenting on. That will be my task in what follows.

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The End of History (for Physics)?

In a trio of blog posts from 2010 (see here, here, and here), Sean Carroll defends the striking claim that, as far as concerns the basic physical principles that underlie the phenomena of everyday life, physics has been completed.

[T]here’s no question that the human goal of figuring out the basic rules by which the easily observable world works was one that was achieved once and for all in the twentieth century.

That’s right: “once and for all.” If asked for the basic, underlying story about why a table is solid or why the sun shines or what happens when a person flexes a muscle, modern science gives its answers in terms of “the particles of the Standard Model, interacting through electromagnetism, gravity, and the nuclear forces, according to the principles of quantum mechanics and general relativity.” One hundred years ago, explanations by this story (i.e., body of theory) could not be given, because this story did not exist. “But—here’s the important part—one thousand years from now, you will hear precisely that same story.”

I think Carroll is right, and I think the philosophy of structural realism can help to illuminate why. The purpose of what follows is to explain these points.

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Anti-Fascist Answers to Would-Be Thought Police

[Note: This post began life as a reply comment to Irfan’s recent PoT post: “Anti-Fascist Questions for Anti-Woke Warriors.” But it got to be too long for such a format, so I’m posting it on its own. However, I haven’t changed its tone of direct address to Irfan or bothered to summarize Irfan’s post or make long excerpts from that post. Thus, for the present post to be intelligible, one ought first to read the original post linked above.]

Hi Irfan,

I disagree with pretty much the entirety of your fundamental argument. No surprise there, I guess. However, I also found that argument thought-provoking. It has stimulated me to develop some thoughts on these questions that I’ve had incubating for some time. So, in what follows, I’ll concentrate on what seems new (to me, anyway) and try to avoid rehashing what we’ve been through before.

It seems like your argument can be summarized as, “Sometimes a lynch mob gets someone who richly deserves lynching. Therefore, lynch mobs are cool.” Stated thus baldly, I would hope it is obvious both that the conclusion does not follow from the premise and that the conclusion itself is unacceptable on the merits. The mafia, for example, does not become a good institution that should celebrated and promoted under the banner of social justice activism just because it so happens (as surely it must) that a just outcome is sometimes brought about by a mob hit.

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A Puzzle in Aristotle: Why Must There Be an Unmoved Mover?

A well-known doctrine of Aristotle’s is that of the unmoved mover, the first cause of the eternal motion of the universe. Aristotle’s key argument for the necessity of an unmoved mover is presented in Physics, Book VIII, chapters 4–5, where he argues, first, that everything that is in motion must be moved by something (ch. 4) and, second, that a thing cannot move itself (ch. 5). I have long been puzzled by this argument, and lately I have come to think it’s not just my ignorance—there really is something wrong with the argument. My aim here is to explain what it is.

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Western Civilization or Universal Culture or WEIRD Culture?

It is common to think of Western Civilization as rooted in classical antiquity, the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the languages, history, and cultural attainments of Western Europe. It is also common to think of Western Civ as particularly favorable, and maybe even essential, to modernization as exemplified by the industrial revolution and the modern market economy. An example of both these ways of thinking is Huntington (1996). But this view is open to challenge, and in this post, I want to examine two such challenges: Scott Alexander’s “universal culture” and Joseph Henrich’s “WEIRD culture.”

In a Slate Star Codex post, How the West Was Won, Scott Alexander argues that what people often call Western culture is really universal culture, the omnivorous culture of “what works.” For example, “Western medicine” is really just whatever has been found to be the most effective at curing disease, maintaining health, etc. It is driven fundamentally by empirical standards, and in that sense is nonideological, and so the contrast with “natural” or “traditional” or “Eastern” medicine is bogus, in at least two ways. First, despite claims of its opponents in these other camps that “Western” medicine is forcing a certain conception of health or science or efficacy onto people, the truth is that it is the opponents who are playing that game, not “Western” medicine, which will adopt indiscriminately whatever can be shown empirically to get the job done. Second, there is nothing geographically Western about “Western” medicine, except insofar as the “what works” approach to medicine first began making spectacular progress in the West in the nineteenth century, and Western Europe and the Anglosphere nations have maintained a lead ever since. But it is not peculiarly “Western.” For one thing, it will take new ideas from anywhere, indiscriminately; the criterion is efficacy, not region of origin. For another, it can be adopted anywhere—and it is. Its essence is a rational standard of acceptance, as opposed to any ties to tradition, culture, region, or ideology. It is an accident of history that “Western” medicine was developed in the West.

Alexander gives some other examples of what he claims is the same phenomenon: Coca-Cola succeeded because it is “refreshment that works,” egalitarian gender norms “work,” sushi “works.” And note that sushi, of course, was not invented in the West. That’s the point.

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Zombies Are Impossible

Nonphilosophical Zombies

No, not those zombies! They aren’t merely possible, they are actual, as you can see.

Rather, our topic today is philosophical zombies, beings that are physically identical to us but without conscious experience. Thus, a zombie version of yourself, for instance, would be atom-for-atom identical to you. It would share all of your behavioral dispositions: it would walk like you, talk like you, have the same tendencies to be angry, happy, or sad as you, report any information that you are able to report, and perform any tasks that you are able to perform. It would also remember everything that you can remember, know everything that you know, and it would have all the same politics and cultural attitudes and biases as you. At least, it would do all these things as near as we could tell. It would be behaviorally and neurophysiologically identical to you. There would be no way for another person to tell that your zombie twin was not you merely by comparing you with it, no matter what tests he might arrange. Nevertheless, your zombie twin would not be the same as you, because it would not have consciousness. That is, it would not have subjective experience. In the phrase widely adopted from Thomas Nagel’s well-known essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, there would be nothing it is like to be your zombie twin.

Philosophical zombies are a way to make vivid an old philosophical argument, going back at least to Descartes, known as the Conceivability Argument. In the present version, the idea is that it is conceivable that the world could be just as it is physically down to the last elementary particle, but without conscious experience. That is, we could have had the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe just as it is, including the evolution of life on earth and the human species, and physically everything would be just as it is today, including all of us having discussions just like this one, although none of us nor any other beings have conscious experience. By conceivable, I mean there is no contradiction in this scenario and no reason that science can discover, whether physical, psychological, or otherwise, why it could not have happened. If this scenario is conceivable, then it seems we must conclude that consciousness is epiphenomenal: it is nonphysical, it cannot be explained by the physical, and its presence or absence makes no difference to the causal, functional, or physical order of nature.

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Thomas Reid and the Theory of Ideas

Thomas Reid photo
(c) Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

All of Thomas Reid’s thought seems to grow out of his resistance to the skeptical conclusions of Berkeley and Hume. On the one hand, Reid is an effective critic, because he understands their arguments so well. By his own account, he started out as a convinced Berkeleyite and lost his enthusiasm only when he saw the skeptical scorched earth left by Hume. Instead of Berkeley’s real (albeit nonmaterial) and known world, with Hume there is not only no external world, there are no minds, no necessary relations of cause and effect, no rational inductive inferences, etc. Reid decided there must be something wrong, and identifies the problem as the theory of ideas (or “system of ideas” or “ideal system”), which he attributes to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke (10; information on page references is given at the conclusion of this essay). He argues that Berkeley’s and Hume’s reasoning is mostly correct, derived by pursuing the theory of ideas more consistently than Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke had done. Thus, the extreme conclusions of Berkeley and Hume were due not to errors of reasoning but to errors of their starting points.

On the other hand, Reid’s effectiveness is undercut, in my view, by his failure to supply a convincing alternative to the theory of ideas. He should not be blamed for this. After all, it took philosophy more than 200 years after Reid to resolve the errors of the theory of ideas and put the philosophy of perception on a new footing. In my view, this has now been done with Intentionalism, and we shall see that Reid made promising steps in this direction. But he doesn’t go far enough, and as a result, he does not produce a fully convincing account of perception. He also fails to produce a plausible account of the contribution of the senses to conceptual thought, as the theory of ideas claims to do. Finally, I think Reid’s appeal to “common sense” is another reason he failed to convince. The notion of the authority of common sense—as a set of supposedly unchallengeable, quasi-axiomatic tenets, such as that there is an external world that we know by sense-perception—is fundamentally dogmatic and anti-intellectual, and it’s no surprise that philosophers generally denigrate it.

Thus, although Reid produced trenchant criticisms of the theory of ideas, these did not get the attention they should have. Every theory has problems and inadequacies. Accordingly, thinkers do not abandon a theory merely because it is in difficulties and arguably falsified or refuted. Rather, people abandon a theory when they have a better theory. Now that this is in our grasp, Reid suddenly looks a lot smarter than he used to.

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Academized Paper Writing Service

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Article Recommendation: “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance”

Yesterday I read an excellent article by Tomas Pueyo titled, “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance.” It is pretty long, but it is the best single thought piece I have seen on what to do about the coronavirus problem. Pueyo is the author of an alarmist article on the severity of the coronavirus a week ago that went viral and gained him a large audience. I hope this article gets as many reads as the previous one.

The main thrust of the piece is an outline of a plan for dealing with the problem, one that is similar to what I have argued in some comments here. (That, of course, is what makes him so wise.) His basic strategy, indicated by his title “The Hammer and the Dance,” is to implement immediately a lockdown (the Hammer) in the short term, to last only a few weeks, followed by some more relaxed strategy (the Dance) modeled after the efforts of countries like South Korea and Singapore. The short term lockdown, similar to what California has recently imposed, would be implemented not because it is a good idea in itself (he thinks it is not), but because we are at present so woefully unprepared to do anything more moderate, such as widespread testing, and quarantining and tracing the social contacts of identified cases. Exactly what the “Dance” would consist of is something we would have to figure out; he is necessarily vague about this, since we as yet know so little about what we’re fighting. Still, I find his strategy hopeful, and it is the most sensible program I have yet seen.