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Prior Knowledge

Friday, August 26, 2005

Tackle the ball, not the player

When National announced it would cut taxes, the reaction of many was that this was a cynical ploy to gain votes. When the US invaded Iraq, many suspected that its real motivation was narrow economic interests. When scientists insist that cloning, stem cell research, and other controversial technologies could result in therapeutic benefits, their claims are often put down as hyperbolic attempts to gain more research funding.

These reactions, if true, seem like strong criticisms but they are actually all examples of the same fallacy. Ad hominem arguments attempt to refute a claim by criticising the person who makes it rather than addressing the claim itself. In other words, these examples all tackle the player rather than the ball.

Imagine we discover that Einstein’s work was motivated by a desire for everlasting fame rather than a love of knowledge. What would follow about the truth of his theory of relativity? Absolutely nothing. Surely we wouldn’t think that this discovery gave us reason to reject the theory of relativity.

Imagine we discovered something similar about Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid. This would in no way affect the truth of his belief that the apartheid regime was an evil one that he was justified to resist.

We might revise our assessments of Einstein and Mandela as virtuous men, but these discoveries would not affect the truth of what they said.

Exactly the same point can be made against all ad hominem arguments. The question of whether taxes should be cut is independent of the motivation of whoever proposes such cuts. What the US’s motivations were has no bearing on the truth or otherwise of its claim that the war against Iraq was justified. Perhaps scientists are merely trying to get research money, but it could still be the case that their research could have therapeutic benefits.

If ad hominem arguments are mistaken, why are they so common? The answer, I suggest, is that they are so easy. Take the tax cuts issue. Whether taxes should be cut is a complex question that requires weighing up many factors. These include not only questions of fact but also what principles to apply to these facts. The factual questions include: How would tax cuts affect government spending? Would cuts be made in health and education or only to ridiculous tertiary courses? The questions of principles include: Do income earners have a right to what they earn? Would tax cuts benefit the worst off in society or mainly the better off? Instead of cutting taxes, could there be a better use for the money? Since it is such a burden to have to consider all these questions before coming to a view on tax cuts, it is tempting to avoid them by focusing instead on the motives of the National party.

Why bother trying to assess the justifications for war against Iraq, its benefits and costs, when we could just say ‘but the US is only after oil’?

And what about cloning? Many people recoil at the thought of having to assess that complicated issue. Far quicker to wait for scientists to propose it and then vilify their motivations.

But assessing social and political issues is not that easy. To decide whether taxes should be cut, whether war is justified, and whether cloning should be allowed, we have to assess the merits of the issues themselves rather than the motives of their proponents.

There is one worry remaining. I’ve suggested that ad hominems, though fallacies, are common because those who make them are lazy. This of course sounds like an ad hominem.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

a principle relevant to our organisation of economies

How ought we to organise economic institutions? As part of the answer, I suggest that the libertarian right to produce, market and consume anything at all so long as it has no evident harmful effects should be balanced against a principle of producing and consuming only that which we need (or rather, not too much more than we need).

A prudential reason for the latter principle is that we are not likely to be able to predict all the harmful effects of some product or some pattern of consumption and that concerns of harm minimisation would suggest that we forego various products and patterns of consumption that are not 'relatively' necessary. An obvious example of unforseen ill-effects of a product is the automobile and its reliance on oil. An example of the ill effects of an unnecessary pattern of consumption would be the huge amount of international trade. With the growth of international trade many nations are moving away from a state of self-subsistence where localities or nations can provide for their own basic needs. Concerns of comparative advantage are often presented to argue that it is more efficient overall if some country produces, say, rice, while another produces microchips. This leads to a dependency on large amounts of petroleum to transport goods from country to country or even continent to continent. This dependence is a consequence that looks increasingly unwanted in light of the environmental impact of the consumption of large amounts of oil. The suggested principle might require us to try to return part of the way towards localised, self-subsistent economies.

Another reason for the principle is to do with justice. In the past few centuries, the desire for relatively unnecessary products (or their consumption beyond relatively necessary amounts) has often been satisfied by the military conquest of a resource-rich area of the globe or by the subjugation and exploitation of some group of persons. Consider, for example, the injustices attached to the growth of industries heavily dependent upon gold, spices, cotton, coal, diamonds and oil. The scope of the 'unless the product has harmful effects' proviso in the free-market view is usually limited to a concern for the health of consumers insofar as it is directly affected by the consumption of the relevant product and a rather narrow circumscription of the production process that does not include, say, facts about whether the necessary inputs were obtained justly.

While current state regulatory agencies generally want new products to reach the market unless they are harmful, the suggested principle might recommend that we allow new products to reach the market only if they are 'relatively necessary', cannot be supplemented by other products which can be produced and consumed with less impact on the environment and less injustice and whose effect on the environment and on issues of justice is acceptable.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Truth is finally here


Pastafarianism or Flying Spaghetti Monsterism draws on overwhelming observable evidence in order to back its claim that evolution has had, and continues to have, a guiding hand. Due to the irreducible complexity of elements of the natural world, science must consider the possibility that the universe was designed by a greater intelligence.

This is Bobby Henderson's counter-theory to both Darwinian evolution and Christianity. As the case for intelligent design to be taught in schools is increasingly heard in the USA, FSM has seized the opportunity to be heard. FSM seeks to be taught alonside both evolution and Christian intelligent design theory. The argument goes, all those in favour of free speech should allow FSM to be taught in schools. To do otherwise is to be arbitrary and biased. The message of His Greatness the Noodly Splendor should be heard!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Kant's analytic/synthetic distinction

Kant's analytic/synthetic distinction differs from the common distinction that passes under the same name. Importantly, it seems that Kant's distinction survives the attacks levelled by Quine at the analytic/synthetic distinction in his 'Two Dogmas' paper. (I here follow Richard Smyth's explanation of Kant's distinction in Smyth's book 'Forms of Intuition'. Smyth does not compare the distinction to the contemporary one and neither does he relate Quine to Kant.)

The common use of the terms 'analytic' and 'synthetic' is to refer to a distinction between types of truths. Analytic truths are logical truths and may also include truths of meaning or of convention (though Quine disputes this latter inclusion). Synthetic truths are factual truths.

For Kant, the distinction is between types of justification rather than types of truth. He is concerned with our epistemic right to a given judgment or belief. We have an epistemic right to a judgment if, given the best existing evidence, we cannot be faulted on epistemic grounds for holding that judgment to be true. Epistemic right is an objective rather than a subjective notion in the sense that we are concerned not with the evidence that a particular individual happens to possess, but by the best possible grounds that can be produced from existing evidence.

Consider the class of judgments to which we have a right given available evidence. Within this class of judgments we can distinguish different ways in which the right is secured. The a priori/a posteriori and analytic/synthetic distinctions capture these differences.

Some judgments are such that their justification requires an appeal to experience. An obvious example is - 'The cup in front of me is red'. These are a posteriori judgments. All a posteriori judgments are also asynthetic. All judgments in the class under consideration that are not a posteriori are a priori.

A priori judgments can be split into analytic and synthetic ones. Analytic judgments are justified solely by virtue of logical relations among other judgments that do not themselves need justification from experience.

The analytic judgment 'All bachelors are unmarried' is justified by merely logical relations among a further set of judgments that includes the definition of 'bachelor'. At this step the following Quinean objection can be raised. Quine points out that all statements, even definitions, are made true by the world. The definition of 'bachelor' is made true by facts about our liguistic community and therefore essentially involves the empirical world just as the truth of 'the cup is red' is essentially involving of the world.

But Quine's point that there is no non-natural truth-maker and that the only truth-maker is the empirical world is irrelevant to Kant's distinction. For, Kant's distinction is between types of justification and not types of truth. The fact that analytic judgments may appeal to meanings that originate in the world does not mean that we must appeal to some particular set of experiences in justifying them. The question of origin is separated from that of justification. Though both the 'bachelor' statement and the 'cup' statement are made true by the world, there is a crucial difference in how we justify the two. In particular, justifying the latter- but not the former - requires an appeal to experience.

Subtracting the class of analytic judgments from the class of a priori ones leaves the synthetic a priori ones. What justifies synthetic a priori judgments? Kant suggests that they are justified by the presuppositions of all knowledge. These include Kant's 'forms of intuition'. Unlike analytic judgments, synthetic a priori ones are non-trivial and informative. Since they rely on the presuppositions of all knowledge, they can inform us a little about what shape our knowledge of the world will take.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Morally Right ?

Here is one of the questions that I am having difficulty in grasping.
Let us take the case of
A fire that has just started at a scientist's office (who works on stem cell research and the development of embryos and has just successfully developed the ideal set of 6 embryos). The doors of the office are unusable for exit since the fire has covered the entire corridor.So the fire brigade arrives and the fireman comes in through the window. He can only take one (thing) back.
Now, does he :
a) Rescue the scientist and let the embryos perish?
b) Rescue the embryos and let the scientist perish?

[First i would like to propose this to all the bloggers and then maybe put what i have figured out across!]

Monday, August 15, 2005

When reasoning fails

One of the justifications given for the US’s war against Iraq was a humanitarian one: Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator and quite apart from any risks he posed to other countries, the people of Iraq would be better off without him. The common response to this is to point out that there are plenty of other regimes with terrible human rights records, so why doesn’t the US invade these countries too? Surely this shows that the humanitarian justification for the war should not be accepted.

This seemingly convincing argument is actually a fallacy. Suppose I see you give $10 to charity. If I point out that there are at least a dozen other equally worthy charities, does this show that you acted wrongly? Surely not.

What if the other charities were somehow even more worthy? (Similarly, perhaps the people of Myanmar are worse off than Iraqis under Saddam were.) While it would have been better to give to the more worthy charity, this still does not show that you were wrong to give money to the less worthy charity.

What if you did not have enough money to give to the other charities? That would of course be a good excuse, but let us assume for the sake of argument that it’s not true. Say someone with ample disposable income gives to charity. Pointing out that they could have given more to other charities still does not show they acted wrongly by giving to only one.

It might be thought that giving to charity is different from going to war since the latter is a life-and-death matter. But suppose John rescues a child he sees drowning in a park pond. Does John act wrongly when there are several other children also drowning in the pond, even when he knows this? What if he could have saved more but chose not to? This example and the charity case show that while it would be even better to give more to charity/ save more drowning children, it is not wrong to give only $10/ save only one child. Giving only $10 and saving only one child are better than doing nothing.

There is a general lesson to be learnt here. In arguing the rights or wrongs of any issue, consistency is generally thought of as a virtue. If in situation X the right decision is Y, then in any other situation the same as X, the right decision is also Y. But the examples above illustrate that sometimes inconsistency is better than consistency. While consistently doing the right thing is best of all, inconsistently doing right and wrong things is better than consistently doing wrong.

Translating this into the terms of the invasion of Iraq, critics of the humanitarian justification seem to assume that it would have been better for the US to refrain from war completely rather than wage war against Iraq while at the same time doing little or nothing about Myanmar, Zimbabwe, etc. But surely the reverse ranking would be better. It would be best if all unjust regimes in the world were overthrown. But the inconsistency in attacking Iraq but not other regimes which violate human rights is preferable to doing nothing at all. The failure to try to overthrow all unjust regimes in the world is not a reason to refrain from overthrowing at least one of them.

Trust and paternalism

The distinction between moral and nonmoral paternalism is as Richard puts it:
"I take it the idea is that moral paternalism goes against the person's own values, whereas non-moral paternalism does not."
Are seatbelt laws the latter? Richard says "Someone might really dislike helmets, or not want to mess up his carefully styled hair whenever he cycles. To force him to wear a helmet anyway would thus seem to be a case of forcing values upon him that he does not share." I think this would be a case of MORAL paternalism. So, one and the same law could be moral paternalism towards some people and non-moral towards others. Towards the latter it is more justified, but some way would have to be found to exempt the former. If there is no way, or there is but its too cumbesome or expensive to implement then maybe the paternalism is justified anyway - but then the justification would be that moral paternalism towards a few is justified because of the gains from nonmoral paternalism towards the many.

Richard also asks whether the case where I force my friend into art galleries actually a case of non-moral paternalism? "Perhaps we assume that our friend shares our values..." This is possible of course, but again the friend may not share our values. It might be precisely because he does not value art that i decide forcing him is the only way to show him what he's missing out on. It seems to me that Raz is right that a friend so forcing is more acceptable than government doing so, but that if it were non-moral paternalism e.g due to weakness of the will, government action would be more acceptable.

Richard says: "The strongest argument against paternalism comes from the value of autonomy, of course. But if we set that aside, surely the only other grounds for opposing it are utilitarian."
I think the autonomy argument is over-rated, partly because autonomy is such a slippery concept. Why is autonomy so valuable? Are we just to take it as a fixed point that autonomy is a fundamental value? Seems to me that autonomy has to be the conlcusion of an argument rather than a premise.