It Sometimes Begins with Emerson

I just did this survey, “put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.” (You have to be an APA member to take it.)

https://delaware.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4McDN9ZhI7GVYCp

It was fun. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first encounter with philosophy, which, contrary to the old saw, didn’t begin with Ayn Rand. It began in a high school English class on American literature, where we read Emerson and Thoreau. I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers, but whatever you call them, they were my first contact with anything describable as philosophy.* I found them pretty enthralling, and still do. As it happens, I’m re-reading Walden for the first time in a couple of decades, and enjoying it immensely. One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists. I was offended at the time, but by George, he was right. Continue reading

An Essential Question

Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.

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Aristotle, Seneca, and Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

Aristotle gets a lot of flack for defending slavery. It’s not bad enough that he accepted it, like so many Greek thinkers before him; he went to the trouble of arguing for it. Worse still, his argument is, by almost universal scholarly consensus, pretty bad. The gist of the argument is that some human beings are so rationally deficient that they cannot lead autonomous lives and therefore need to be ruled by others in order to keep out of trouble, or at least in order to live decently; slavery is actually beneficial for them, and they’re better off being slaves than being left to their own devices.

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Mega-Bleg: Plato, Aristotle, and the Jews

This is the sort of question that never occurs to me when I teach Plato and Aristotle back home (itself a rare event), but it’s the kind of question I’m sure to get asked while teaching them here in Palestine next week. And damned if I know the answer.

Were Plato and Aristotle acquainted with Abrahamic monotheism?

Put more concretely for purposes of historical inquiry:

Were Plato or Aristotle familiar with the Jewish people or the Hebrew Bible?

I’ll bet that David Riesbeck has an answer, but I pose the question(s) above (as well as those below) for anyone with answers. Continue reading

Brains, Computers, Metaphor, Synecdoche, and People

Aeon has an interesting piece by psychologist Robert Epstein on why the brain is not a computer. In one sense, this is just a truism. Computers are machines made by human beings, whereas brains are animal organs that have evolved over a very long period of time; computers are made of metal chips, brains aren’t; computers aren’t neurochemical, brains are; brains can do lots of things that computers can’t (yet, anyway); and so on. This truism, though, depends on a rather imprecise, colloquial sense of the word ‘computer.’ More strictly speaking, a computer is just any device that computes, that is, “performs high-speed mathematical or logical operations or that assembles, stores, correlates, or otherwise processes information.”1 In this sense, many cognitive scientists believe that the brain is literally a computer. While it is of course not a ‘device’ designed by human beings, it nonetheless performs mathematical and logical operations and assembles, stores, correlates, and more generally processes information. Indeed, to many people, and not just cognitive scientists, it might seem that the truism is that the brain is a computer in this sense.

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The Philosopher’s Tomb

Looks like the archaeologists have found Aristotle’s tomb:

ATHENS — A Greek archaeologist who has been leading a 20-year excavation in northern Greece said on Thursday that he believed he had unearthed the tomb of Aristotle.

In an address at a conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, commemorating the 2,400th anniversary of Aristotle’s birth, the archaeologist, Konstantinos Sismanidis, said he had “no proof but strong indications, as certain as one can be,” to support his claim.

Everyone join me in wishing our buddy Aristotle a happy birthday. We’re still talking about him after all these years! What a guy.

Next question on the agenda: so who owns the tomb? Seriously.

Shameless Self-Promotion

I have been delinquent in contributing to this blog lately, and so it’s perhaps especially shameless for me to throw myself back in for the purposes of self-promotion. But I’m shameless, so I’m going to do it. After all, one reason I’ve been delinquent is that I’ve actually been getting work done, and there’s more than a slight possibility that a few readers will find the items promoted here of some interest.

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Morals and the Free Society: 9. Aristotelianism, Part 1—Natural Human Functions Can Be Investigated Scientifically

Here is the ninth chunk of the argument. To return to the eighth chunk, click here. To advance to the tenth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


The basic tenets of a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics are, I think, familiar. Therefore, I shall just provide a basic sketch of the sort of view I have in mind without dwelling overmuch on the details. The aim is to show how an Aristotelian ethics might resolve the difficulties that have been identified for any moral view that hopes to provide a moral vision for a free society. Those difficulties, to repeat, are: first, to provide a reason why agents operating within a free market should care about observing (a) the rules that create the free market (basically, individual rights to one’s own person and property) and ideally also (b) additional principles that reduce transactions costs, such as candor, loyalty, reliability, zeal for just punishment, and fair-mindedness; and second, to reconcile this reason to care about maintaining the free market with the sort of motives and behavior that are appropriate within the free market.

I take the fundamental claim of an Aristotelian ethics to be that the highest value for any organism is to be a good organism of its kind. Continue reading

Killing in the Name Of: Jason Brennan on Abortion and Self-Defense (1 of 2)

Jason Brennan has a post a few weeks back on abortion and self-defense (Nov. 30), written in the wake of the Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs (Nov. 29). The point he makes is simple, and the argument he offers is, very narrowly construed, sound. But construe the conclusion slightly differently than he does, and the argument misses the point in an obvious way.

The claim in short is that if you think that abortion is murder, and its victims are innocent, you have the right to defend the innocent by force. If the force in question requires killing those who perform abortions, so be it. Brennan invokes a lot of “common law” reasoning to bolster the plausibility of the conditional*, but the appeal to common law is a dialectical fifth wheel that does no real work here. He’s just assuming what we all assume–that you can kill a killer.  After some thought-experimental invocations of superheroes, we reach the conclusion that if you believe that abortion is murder, it would be permissible for you to go around killing abortion providers.  Here’s the conclusion of the argument, put in the mouth of the would-be fetus defender:

“I will, if necessary (if there are no equally effective non-lethal means), kill any would-be child murders to stop them from killing children.” Again, this seems heroic, not wrongful.

Note the parenthetical. What we have here is a conditional claim whose antecedent involves another conditional. Let me re-phrase it slightly, without loss of authorial intention, but with a little gain in clarity:

If necessary, and if there are no equally effective non-lethal means, then kill those whom it’s necessary to kill in order to stop the killing.

Lots of modal claims going on there. Let’s rephrase once again:

If necessary, kill those it’s necessary to kill in order to stop the killing, but if it’s not necessary, do not do so.

What does “necessary” really mean here? I take it that “necessary” means “necessary for bringing about some end.” But the end is not plausibly construed as “bringing abortions down to zero, full stop, by all available means, regardless of any other normative considerations.” The end in question is some complex goal, e.g., a just society or the common good or whatever, where superordinate higher-order features of the goal regulate subordinate features, including strategies for achieving this or that political outcome.

So the anti-abortionist’s ultimate goal is not plausibly described as “do what’s necessary to stop the killing.” It’s “do what’s necessary to bring about the common good, stopping the killing in a way that’s compatible with bringing about the common good.” I’m pro-choice, but it seems to me that anti-abortionists (or pro-lifers or whatever we call them) are entitled to a plausible conception of post bellum considerations, no matter how militant they are about ending abortion. They don’t just want to end abortion, full stop. They want to live in a just society without abortion, and it may not be possible to do that if you try to end abortion by killing people. In any case, the two things–stop the killing and live in a just society without abortion–are not the same thing.

Suppose that abortion really is murder. In that case, killing abortionists would be one obvious means of stopping abortions, but killing would also likely have seriously adverse consequences. It might increase hostility for anti-abortionists to the point of instigating widespread persecution against them. It might even start a civil war. Further, it’s easier in talk than in practice to kill all and only the “right” people during a terrorist/vigilante campaign. Once the killing begins, the enterprise of killing is often overcome by some terrorist/vigilante equivalent of the fog of war, and the wrong people get killed with amazing frequency. Any of those outcomes could obtain, and any of them might end up being worse for the anti-abortion cause (much worse) than not killing abortion providers.

It’s hard to be precise about expected outcomes of this sort, so people reasonably disagree about them. Some people think that a campaign of killing would, all in, be good for the anti-abortion cause. Others disagree. Obviously, both the complexity of the calculations and the possibility of disagreement about them might help explain why even fervent anti-abortionists have a (disjunctive) principled reason for not going around killing abortionists. They may either think that doing so is self-defeating, or they might think that doing so might very well end up being self-defeating, and not worth risking, as long as there are relatively peaceful (or at least orderly) political means for achieving the same ends with fewer collateral damages.

In recent times, the history of the abortion controversy begins with a deceptively liberating case from the pro-choice perspective (Roe vs. Wade) and proceeds from there to a series of restrictions on the original Roe vs. Wade restrictions on abortion, so that abortion, though nominally legal in the U.S, is in many ways embattled and under siege. In other words, opponents of abortion rights have done a pretty creditable job of subverting the right to abortion by purely legal means. Of course, abortions do still take place, and on the anti-abortion view, those abortions are murder. But the question is whether a campaign of vigilante killing would have purchased more for them than the political-judicial campaign they’ve actually enacted. Hardly as obvious as Brennan’s argument suggests.

It’s an open question whether anti-abortionists could, by purely legal means, do a better job of subverting abortion rights than they could by killing abortionists. The United States ended slavery by warfare in 1865; Brazil ended slavery without warfare in 1888. Anti-abortionists could in principle plump for a Brazilian approach to the abolition of abortion on the grounds that while that approach would take longer, it might prove more counter-factually stable than a faster-acting but more violent approach. Arguably, violence would be counter-productive and self-defeating, possibly catastrophically so.

Since it makes no sense to enact a self-defeating strategy, and it’s highly risky to enact what could be (catastrophically) self-defeating, anti-abortionists need not worry that Brennan’s argument pushes them into wanton murder. Contrary to Brennan, “the” issue involved in the abortion debate is not just the moral status of abortion (though I agree that that’s the fundamental issue) but what to do about the fact that abortion is a complex issue that elicits widespread disagreement. In other words, the philosophical issue is not just the theoretical one of whether or not abortion is murder, but the practical one of what to do about the fact that certain ways of disagreeing about it are potentially murderous.

Now consider Brennan’s list of would-be objections to his argument:

There are a number of objections to this line of reasoning, including:

  1. It’s wrong to engage in vigilante justice.
  2. Batman must allow people to murder children because he has a duty to obey the law, and the law permits child murder.
  3. Batman must not kill the child-killers, but must instead only use peaceful means.
  4. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because it probably won’t work and won’t save any lives.
  5. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because they mean well and don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.
  6. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the claim that “killing six-year-olds is wrongful murder” is controversial among reasonable people.
  7. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the government or others might retaliate and do even worse things.

I think these objections are either implausible (e.g., 2 is absurd), or are at best mere elaborations of the necessity proviso of defense killing. (E.g., #4.)

Putting aside (4), Brennan is right to say that these are pretty pointless objections. Objection (4) is where the action is. (Construed a certain way, [4] might well entail [1]: vigilante justice might be wrong because it’s likely to be ineffective, and it’s irresponsible to engage in a political strategy that might very well backfire. But I think Brennan intends [1] to mean that vigilante justice is deontically wrong qua violation of the law, full stop. So I’ll ignore it.)

Brennan dismisses (4) as a “at best a mere elaboration…of the necessity proviso of defense killing.” Well, that’s one way of putting things, and not a literally false one, I suppose. But it’s very misleading: a “mere elaboration” of a proviso can also explain why the proviso cannot be enacted under foreseeable conditions, and (4) does just that. In other words, what Brennan calls a “at best a mere elaboration” ends up explaining why, once we leave the thought-experimental laboratory, his suggestion makes no sense in the real political world where it’s supposed to have application.

Digression: the same sort of “elaboration” is the strategy behind what’s come to be called “contingent pacifism” in the just war literature; contingent pacifism is the strategy of justifying de facto pacifism by construing just war provisos in such a way that they can almost never be satisfied in the real world. This literature suggests that depending on how one construes its claims, just war theory (and its doctrine of necessity) can lead either to very hawkish policy prescriptions or to pacifism. But if the same theory leads different theorists to contrary outcomes with respect to the same issue, the differences between the different applications of the theory–the contingencies in question–can hardly be philosophically trivial. If my version of a doctrine leads me to wage war, and your version of the same doctrine prohibits you from ever going to war, it makes no sense to say, “Don’t worry, we’re agreeing on the theory; we just disagree on the contingencies.” In this case, the disagreement on the contingencies could mean the difference between a decade of war and a decade of peace. Conceptualizing that difference is a paradigmatically philosophical task.

Back to abortion: Not killing abortionists because you could get arrested, and/or because it would undermine the anti-abortionist cause, and/or because the collateral damages would be too high, and/or because it could start a civil war are not trivial considerations, whether “morally” or “practically.” From the first person perspective of an agent deciding what to do–not what to write in a blog post–these are all considerations of paramount importance. They make the difference between going ahead and killing someone and deciding not to. So a reader could grant 99.9999% of Brennan’s argument in principle, but still think that the 0.00001 remainder makes a crucial and theoretically significant difference to political practice. And he might insist that Brennan’s way of rendering the argument reveals a blind spot in his thinking about the relation between theory and practice.

I’d put the latter issue like this: Taken as an academic exercise, with all qualifications duly noted, and abstracting entirely from what would be necessary to enact his advice in practice, Brennan’s argument is perfectly sound. Taken as real-world political advice, however, and factoring in all relevant considerations–including prudential considerations about expected consequences–Brennan’s advice is myopic and insane. It seems to me that when the theoretical version of a prescriptive argument ends up sound, but the practical version of it is insane, we’re obliged to think harder about the relation between arguments, theory, and practice.

At a minimum, I think we’re obliged to note the huge gap that obtains between theoretical prescriptions and practical ones. It sounds oxymoronic, but it isn’t. A theoretical prescription is a prescription offered ex hypothesi, as an exercise in deontic logic, without pretending to guide real-life practice: it notes a normative entailment; it doesn’t claim to tell people what to do. A practical prescription is a prescription intended to guide practice, all things considered; it doesn’t just note an entailment, but tells us, all in, what to do.** Put differently, there is a huge difference between saying, “Your views entail that you should go out and kill people–but don’t actually do that, for God’s sake, I’m only pointing out where your views lead!” and saying, “Your views entail that you should go out and kill people–and if that’s where your views lead, so be it. So get your gun and hop to it!” Brennan is saying the former (I think), but you could be excused for interpreting him as saying the latter. The lesson here is paradox-like but not paradoxical:  A prescriptive argument can be sound and yet defective as advice.

The underlying disagreement here, it seems to me, is a version of Hobbes versus Aristotle on prudence. Aristotle takes phronesis (‘prudence’) to be an intellectual virtue that guides individual, first-personal decisions. Despite its practical, individualized, contextualized, consequence-sensitive, first-personal nature, Aristotle insists that phronesis a legitimate object of philosophical inquiry and a legitimate source of knowledge (Nicomachean Ethics, VI.5-13). A view like this puts a certain premium on the nuts and bolts of deliberation, from acceptance of the premises that motivate an action down to the details of what ultimately produces the action in the real world. On an Aristotelian view, what’s philosophically interesting is not just the abstract schema that the agent accepts but how the agent translates that schema into the particularities of a particular action. “Translating a schema into the particularities of a particular action” is the work of phronesis. 

Hobbes denies that prudence so conceived has any significant epistemic value (Leviathan, IV.46.1-6):

… we are not to account as any part thereof, that originall knowledge called Experience, in which consisteth Prudence: Because it is not attained by Reasoning, but found as well in Brute Beasts, as in Man; and is but a Memory of successions of events in times past, wherein the omission of every little circumstance altering the effect, frustrateth the expectation of the most Prudent: whereas nothing is produced by Reasoning aright, but generall, eternall, and immutable Truth.

Prudence, in short, is unscientific. It yields contingent, changeable, contextualized truths, neither important enough nor counterfactually stable enough nor wide enough in scope to count as genuine philosophical knowledge. How the agent translates an abstract schema into action is philosophically uninteresting. What matters is the schema–the model– itself. From this perspective, an inquiry into what the agent is, all things considered, to do seems too fine-grained, variable, and messy to be a genuinely philosophical or genuinely worthwhile activity.

Contemporary Hobbesians (as I’m thinking of them) prize thought-experimentation and social science at the expense of mere first-hand experience, and at the expense of an account of the requirements of first-personal deliberation (i.e., prudence). First-personal agents disappear from view, as do their deliberations and deliberative needs. From this perspective, the mere prudence required for intelligent political action is unworthy of philosophical inquiry. Anarchist Hobbesians have a plausible-looking rationale for this insistence: on their view, politics is an unworthy occupation, so it stands to reason that the epistemic virtues it require are themselves unworthy of sustained reflection.***

As I see it, one of the most valuable contributions of neo-Aristotelian theorizing (in the Nussbaumian mode) is to put social science and thought-experimentation in its place, and insist on the first-personal perspective of the agent and her deliberations–along with history, psychology, and common sense. On a view like this, it isn’t enough to know that if abortion is murder, and self-defense is justified, you can infer that defensive killing would be justified to save fetuses from murder. You need to know whether, even if that argument is sound, you should actually be out killing people. If so, you need to know whom to kill, when and how; how to prevent predictable disasters that arise when you start killing people; and how the killing enterprise fits into the larger aim of achieving the common good. That sounds like “mere strategy” to some people, but on an Aristotelian view, it’s precisely the kind of knowledge that the just and wise agent has, and that the political philosopher studies in order to grasp the nature of justice and wisdom.

Anyway, thought experiments and social science are of some, but relatively little value here. Eventually, thought experiments run out of prescriptive steam for the obvious reason that life isn’t an experiment. Social science runs out of useful things to say because we can’t do experiments on novel courses of action that no one has yet tried–but we can’t refuse to do novel things because there’s no existing social scientific literature about them, either. A virtue like phronesis is indispensable here, both for deliberative agents and for theorists theorizing about what such agents do. If you’re going to do something–e.g., engage in political action–you have to know how to do it, and the only way to know how to do something is to have done it (or have rehearsed doing something as much like it as possible). You need the kind of knowledge that Hobbes denigrates and that our neo-Hobbesians ignore. 

Bottom line: even if you think abortion is murder, don’t do what Jason Brennan tells you. (PS: It’s not really relevant to my argument, but in case you’re wondering, I’m pro-choice on the abortion issue. I believe in abortion on demand from the moment of conception until birth, with some moral reservations about late abortion, while rejecting legal restrictions on it.)

*I corrected this sentence. It originally said, “antecedent of the conditional,” but what I meant was that Brennan invokes common law to bolster the plausibility of the conditional as such.

**I reworded the latter clause after posting. The previous version (which I’ve now forgotten) was wordier and somewhat unclear.

***”Anarchist Hobbesian” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but I don’t think it is. It could mean (a) an anarchist whose meta-philosophical views map onto Hobbes’s and/or (b) an anarchist whose account of political authority maps onto Hobbes’s, but who infers on that basis that no states have authority.