With this essay I will propose an account of autonomy that contrasts starkly with the majority of current philosophical discourse on the topic. Much of this discourse, I will suggest, has been misguided by an assumption shared by virtually all of its influential contributors – that agents are capable of actions that are within their power to avoid but nonetheless are not the result of their own autonomous agency. I will argue, however, that this in fact represents a mistake, and that autonomy is actually far simpler than this discourse suggests. By dispensing with this assumption, I will set out an alternate view – ‘autonomy as choice-responsiveness’ – that I believe allows us far greater clarity on the concept. Read the rest of this entry »
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When we use names, we pick out things in the world. When I say ‘Barrack Obama’ for example, I use words to refer to a certain person. And it is often assumed that it is the beliefs I possess about Obama – that he spent time in Indonesia as a child, that he beat McCain, and so on – that make this possible. When we find the man who grew up in Indonesia and beat McCain, this view goes, we will have found my reference. This is ‘descriptivism’: the idea that the reference of names is fixed by their descriptions. It was this view that Saul Kripke sought to deny in his Naming and Necessity. Via numerous examples, Kripke argued that the beliefs a speaker associates with names are neither necessary nor sufficient to fix their reference. I will here examine Kripke’s claims, and suggest that while they do illuminate certain key modifications that should be made to descriptivism they do not ultimately damage its standing as the best available explanation for the way in which the reference of names is fixed. Read the rest of this entry »
This essay is about the relationship between science and common sense. I would like to admit at its outset, though, that it will lack any particularly strong arguments or points to prove, and will, as much as possible, avoid taking a position on any major philosophical disagreements. Instead, I will here take on a different mode of philosophical work, which while perhaps not as exciting as more direct argumentation, is nonetheless something that I believe needs doing – a thorough analysis of the concepts that are at play within the subject. By so doing, I will try to shed light on what I believe are some important and perhaps under-appreciated distinctions that are shaping current debates. Hopefully what results will have some value for that. Read the rest of this entry »
There is a common reaction I receive when I tell people I am partial to the moral theory of utilitarianism; it tends to occur when my interlocutors have a surer-than-average footing in the humanities, and is something quite like indignation. Utilitarianism is well known to these types; it is the villain of moral theories, and they exhibit great pride in their ability to recite its flaws. Utilitarianism ‘leaves some behind’ they say. It is ‘unfair to minorities’. It ‘justifies anything’. A recent Internet video shared amongst a number of my friends captures this mood well. ‘We are not’ it informs us, ‘soft-wired for aggression, violence, self-interest, utilitarianism…’ Public intellectual Clive Hamilton fans the flames. ‘The utilitarian model,’ he writes, ‘in which agents calculate the best means of maximising social welfare without regards to its effects on individuals, is a sociopathic one…’ But this, I believe, has gone too far. In fact, I think that philosophical academia has done public moral discourse a great disservice by promoting the notion that these common charges against utilitarianism stand upon a firm theoretical ground. They do not. With this paper I will examine what are possibly the two most widely accepted moral arguments against utilitarianism, and contend that contrary to common belief, these arguments find virtually no theoretical support in any plausible philosophical doctrine. By so doing I will attempt to show how far I believe our discussion of utilitarianism has gone off the rails, and how a fresh look at some old arguments may be able to right its course. Read the rest of this entry »
With this essay I will attempt to do a few things. First, I will introduce the concept of global justice, and will briefly sketch the positions of the most prominent schools of thought upon it. I will then outline the issue of climate change, and explain why I believe that we should arrive at much the same conclusions about the demands of global justice regarding it no matter which of the aforementioned schools of thought we adhere to. Given these conclusions, I will propose that there can be little doubt that the majority of affluent nations are today acting unjustly in regards to climate change. I will then discuss the implications of recognising this fact for individuals living within such countries, and argue that citizens of affluent nations are obligated, by a negative duty not to contribute to injustice, both to limit their own emissions of greenhouse gas, and to undertake further efforts to rectify the injustice involved in climate change and compensate its victims.
Traditionally, the boundaries of justice were seen to be national borders, and the only globally recognised standard of behaviour to which nations were held was a general moral duty not to violate other nations’ sovereignty. In recent times, however, it has become increasingly recognised that the issue of justice also concerns the interactions between states, and that people may owe obligations of justice to others who live beyond their own borders. This thought, however, has given rise to a number of theoretical debates, and a number of different schools of thought have arisen about what global justice might be.
Four major schools of thought on this question are Liberalism, Utilitarianism, Libertarianism, and Communalism. Liberalism, while it has many different forms, generally entails the view that global justice should primarily be grounded in the provision and protection of a universal set of human rights.
Utilitarianism, on the other hand, is the view that a just international system would, so far as possible, serve to create the best overall outcome, or the greatest ‘utility’. It therefore does not admit of any in-principle recognition of national sovereignty or human rights.
Libertarianism differs from both these views, maintaining that the primary concern of justice should be the protection of individual freedom. Calling upon the common distinction between positive and negative duties – positive referring to duties to take certain actions, negative referring to duties to refrain from taking certain actions – libertarians insist that the only obligations that individuals should have under a system of justice are negative duties not to harm others.
And finally, Communitarianism is the view that there is no one standard of justice that has a claim to be universally recognised, and holds that it is the autonomy of states must be upheld as widely as is possible. Like with libertarianism, however, this autonomy of states is limited by the proviso that it must not be used to harm other states.
So given these widely divergent views, it is a rare issue that would lead theorists from each camp to achieve a consensus position about the demands of global justice. Yet in climate change, it seems, we may have just such an issue. But before exploring why this is so, we will first need to understand a little bit more about the problem of climate change itself. Read the rest of this entry »
This essay will argue against the second century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna’s central theory that all phenomena are empty of svabhava, or independent existence. I will suggest that while the vast majority of our objects do not ultimately possess independent existence, the same cannot be said for the object proposed by monism – the undifferentiated totality of everything – for there is nothing else that this particular object could be dependent upon. Contrary to Nagarjuna’s claims, I will argue, the object of the Monist has svabhava.
Nagarjuna claimed that all phenomena exist only in dependence upon other things, which in turn exist only in relation to others, and so on. He accepted that entities exist in a conventional sense, meaning that conventionally accepted and useful, but insisted that from an ultimate perspective none could be regarded as existing in its own right. Nagarjuna proposed numerous arguments in favor if this view, and it will not be possible to explore them all here. But neither, I believe, do we need to. For as mentioned, the project of this essay is to propose that, counter to Nagarjuna’s belief, there is a particular object that possesses svabhava – the object of the Monist. Due to the nature of this object, there are only a select few of Nagarjuna’s arguments that are applicable.
Yet before we examine these arguments, we should be clear about exactly what is being suggested. The object I have in mind is that proposed by the ontological position known as monism – or at least my understanding of it – which is the notion that on an ultimate level, there is only one thing that exists, which is the totality of everything (henceforth the TOE). To monists, all division of the TOE into a plurality of entities is inevitably based on observer-relative conceptualisations. They believe, to borrow a famous phrase, that there is no way to divide up the world ‘at the joints’, because such joints simply do not exist in an ultimate sense prior to the imposition of an observer’s own conceptual framework. And so, they claim, without any ultimately real divisions reality must be a single unified whole.
It is obvious why such a viewpoint would pose a problem for Nagarjuna. As mentioned above, he claimed that all phenomena exist only in dependence upon other phenomena. In fact, this assertion was the very basis of his entire philosophy. But there seems at least a prima facie impossibility of this being the case if we consider the TOE as an object, for the simple reason that there is no other entity outside of the TOE for it to be dependent on – by definition, the TOE incorporates all possible entities. Read the rest of this entry »
In The Sources of Normativity, Christine Korsgaard sets out to answer what she calls ‘the normative question’ of why it is we are obligated to be moral, basing her theory upon a modified Kantian conception of human agency. This essay will outline her theory, and will propose that it should be rejected, as the view of human agency it is founded upon is suspect.
The normative question is that raised by the moral skeptic. It asks what, if anything, justifies the claims that we make upon ourselves and upon others in the name of morality. It is therefore quite different from, say, questions about what our moral obligations are, or what explains morality in general. Asking about the nature of moral obligations presupposes that we have such obligations, which is precisely what the normative question calls into doubt. And while I can easily offer you an explanation of why my Muslim friends believe it is wrong to eat pork, in order to justify their belief I will need to show you that it is true, which is a different task altogether. Korsgaard, then, does not wish to debate what our moral obligations are, or why it is that we believe we have them. She wants to prove that our moral obligations are real.
She certainly cannot be accused of a lack of ambition. In fact, by attempting to provide a convincing philosophical response to the normative question, she has by her own admission made an attempt – and, in her view, succeeded – at solving a problem that no previous philosopher has conquered. The following is a brief attempt to outline how she purports to have done so.
Korsgaard writes that the normative question arises because of the reflective nature of our consciousness. Unlike animals, she argues, humans are able to abstract ourselves from our own mental processes, and make the content of our minds the object of our attention. So whenever we have an impulse, we are not immediately claimed by it, but instead have a choice, made from a reflective distance, about whether to act upon it or not. Due to the structure of our minds, we must answer this question, and this answer must be normative for us. Read the rest of this entry »
The doctrine of anatta, or ‘no-self’, is possibly the most original aspect of the teachings of the Gotama Buddha. His view that humans possess no real personal identity or enduring soul contrasted with virtually all prior Indian thought, and remains to this day Buddhist philosophy’s primary point of departure from other Asiatic traditions. With this essay I will examine the central argument, based upon mereological reductionism, which Buddhists have used to establish anatta, and will argue that it fails to conclusively prove the doctrine.
One of the most instructive historical explanations of the doctrine of no-self is the first century CE text known as Milindapañha or The Questions of King Milinda. It presents a dialogue between the King and a Buddhist monk named Nãgasena, in which Nãgasena, upon being introduced to the King, promptly summarises the Buddhist position on the self:
‘Your majesty, I am called Nãgasena; my fellow monks, your majesty, address me as Nãgasena; but…it is, nevertheless, your majesty, just a counter, an expression, a convenient designator, a mere name, this Nãgasena, for there is no person here to be found.’
His own name, Nãgasena insists, is a ‘convenient designator’, meaning it is a word that does not denote a real entity, but is simply a useful way of referring to a collection of parts. To explain this, he considers the word ‘chariot’. What we call a chariot, he argues, is nothing more than an arrangement of parts – an axle, some wheels, a pole, and so forth. And everything about it – the way it looks, the functions it performs, its weight, etc – can be explained purely by reference to these parts. So while it may be useful for a society to say ‘chariot’ when we mean such an arrangement of parts, we should recognise that this is just a pragmatic convention, and leave chariots out of our final ontology – that is, our view about which things truly exist.
Nãgasena’s introductory statement to the King, then, asserts that what we refer to as a person, or a self, is the same – merely a collection of various parts. These parts, on the Buddhist view, are what are known as the five skandhas, or ‘bundles’, which are listed as physical matter, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. The Gotama Buddha taught his followers that there can be no self, because like the chariot, there is nothing more to be found within individuals than parts – the skandhas – and no one of these skandhas is a self. The word self, then, is merely a convenient designator that does not refer to anything ultimately real. Read the rest of this entry »
This essay examines John Rawls’ Theory Of Justice’, and argues two things– (a) that liberal ideas of justice must be based on a comprehensive moral theory, or are meaningless, (b) that Rawls’ theory is compatible with either intuitionism and utilitarianism, and thus that instead of having created an alternative to these two, he may in fact have reconciled them.
Liberal ideals of justice must be based on a comprehensive moral theory, or are meaningless.
Rawls advocated the view that the principles of justice should not be grounded in any deeper moral theory, or claims to moral truth, because he wanted his theory to be neutral between competing conceptions of the good within a pluralistic society. He believed that the role of political philosophy is to establish consensus-based social stability between opposed moral theories, rather than to argue for, and justify the imposition of any particular broader moral theory. Consequently, he claimed that his theory of justice stands alone, completely removed from any comprehensive moral theory, or any claims about moral truth. In his words, it is “political, not metaphysical”.
Yet if justice is divorced from any underlying moral theory, it seems to lose its practical worth, for how then are we to know whether we should or should not comply with its dictates? Justice cannot apply to every aspect of life, or else it would be a comprehensive moral theory, which Rawls claims it is not. It then follows that there are certain situations in life which should be adjudicated by justice and others that should be adjudicated by deeper moral beliefs. Yet how are we to know which is which? It would be fanciful to suggest that the dictates of justice will never come into conflict with deeper moral beliefs. If this were the case, Rawls’ philosophy would be defunct, as a consensus would already exist.
So given the inevitability of such conflicts between individual deeper moral theories and justice, what reason is there for complying with justice over one’s morality? Presumably Rawls would like us to do so, yet without referencing a deeper moral theory, Rawls can only argue that we should from the standpoint of his own theory of justice. However this is rather circular: justice is arguing for justice. Such an argument is hardly likely to seem convincing, considering that in the other corner, morality is arguing for morality. The individual is given no reason whatsoever to favour justice over their own moral beliefs. Thus, if Rawls, or any liberal, wishes not only to provide a theory of justice, but also an argument as to why people should follow that theory of justice, they must, at some point, reference moral truth. Read the rest of this entry »
The paradoxes of motion created by Zeno of Elea (ca. 490-ca. 430 B.C)(1) have posed some of philosophy’s most intriguing and durable problems. Thinkers from Aristotle onwards have sought to answer Zeno’s riddles, which according to Bertrand Russell have “…afforded grounds for almost all theories of space and time which have been constructed from his day to ours.”(2) Russell, for his part, believed the paradoxes to have been adequately resolved by nineteenth century mathematics, outlining what he saw to be their solution in his 1914 work Our Knowledge of the External World.(3) This essay will discuss Russell’s analysis of the paradoxes, and will contend that despite his conviction that mathematicians had at last discovered their “true solution,”(4) Russell’s argument is not ultimately the definitive refutation of Zeno’s paradoxes he believed it to be.
To begin, it is important to understand exactly what the paradoxes were intended to prove. It is generally believed that Zeno created the paradoxes in order to defend his teacher Parmenides, who was often derided by his contemporaries for teaching that all reality is a single, unchanging whole, and that all our perceptions of motion, space and time are illusory.(5) Zeno wished to defend his master by showing that it was in fact his opponent’s views of reality which led to the greater absurdity. The paradoxes were therefore intended to vindicate Parmenides by proving that motion is logically impossible, and therefore illusory.(6) They are known respectively as The Dichotomy, The Achilles, The Arrow and The Stadium.
Importantly, not all of the paradoxes are thought to argue against the same views of motion. It has been suggested that while The Dichotomy and The Achilles argue against an infinitely divisible, continuous model of space and time, The Arrow and The Stadium(7) argue against the opposing view that space and time are discrete.(8) Russell for the most part agreed with this, but also indicated that he in fact considered all four paradoxes to be “perfectly valid”(9) if pitted against a discrete conception of motion. It is therefore only Russell’s analysis of The Dichotomy and The Achilles that I will focus on here, as he clearly wished to argue for a continuous, infinitely divisible model of space and time,(10) and agreed that it is only these two paradoxes which argue against this model.(11)
The Dichotomy and The Achilles are essentially two forms of the same paradox. The first states that there is no motion, because that which moves must first travel half the remaining distance before it arrives at it’s goal, and so on ad infinitum. The second states that the quicker will never overtake the slower, because that which is pursuing must first reach the point from which that which is fleeing started, in which time the slower will have moved further ahead, and so on ad infinitum.(12) The problem is essentially the same in both: that if space is continuous and infinitely divisible, one must traverse an infinite number of points one by one in order to reach a goal, which cannot be done. Read the rest of this entry »
Despite having gained widespread acceptance, modern psychiatric concepts of mental illness continue to court controversy. While the psychiatric establishment considers mental illness an unquestionable reality, critics such as Thomas Szasz claim that it is a myth, which holds no relation to the true illnesses described by traditional medicine. As we shall see, neither stance is free from difficulties. This essay will critically examine each of these viewpoints, and by analysing their respective strengths and weaknesses, will attempt to reach a conception of what, if anything, can reasonably be termed a ‘mental illness’.
The prevailing psychiatric conception of mental illness has been dubbed ‘the medical model.’ Adherents of this view essentially believe that mental illness is the result of physiological malfunctions within the brain. Consequently, on this view the only real distinction between mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and brain diseases such as epilepsy is that more is known about the physiological causes of the behavioural changes associated with epilepsy than is the case with schizophrenia. It is assumed however, that mental illnesses do have physiological causes, which will eventually be identified. Psychiatry is therefore seen as being a close relative of traditional medicine, with its illnesses being objective scientific classifications, soon to be vindicated by our ever expanding understanding of the brain.
A major problem with this view however, is that despite the ambitions of the medical model it is ultimately abnormal behaviour which is the crucial factor in the diagnosis of mental illness, not physiological signs. Although psychiatrists undoubtedly believe that their patients do have physiologically malfunctioning brains, there will not be a diagnosis of mental illness in the absence of abnormal behaviour. Conversely, in the absence of any discernable physiological malfunction, psychiatrists are still able to classify abnormal behaviour as mental illness on the assumption that there must be physiological causes, indicating that behaviour is indeed the key factor leading to the diagnosis. Read the rest of this entry »
From academic journals to Hollywood blockbusters, the question of whether or not it is possible for machines to possess mental states has long preoccupied minds. And according to functionalism, the dominant view within the philosophy of mind, there is no reason why they cannot. An opponent of this view is John Searle, whose Chinese room argument sought to show why no computer could ever experience mental states, and therefore why the functionalist conception of the mind is flawed. This essay will contend that Searle’s argument does not undermine functionalism, by virtue of being based on circular reasoning.
Functionalism is the view that mental states are functional states. While holding that mental states arise through physical processes in our brains, it rejects the idea that they can be identified with particular brain states. For example, functionalists argue that the state of pain can result from any number of different brain states, and can also occur within creatures possessing different constitutions from our own. Functionalism therefore defines the state of pain not by any particular brain state, but by the role it plays in relation to certain inputs, outputs, and other mental states. According to functionalism, any physical system with states which replicate these roles can be said to experience pain.
Searle challenged this view by discussing the work of Roger Shank, who purported to have created a computer program which could understand stories. Arguing against this claim, Searle contended that any attribution of understanding or any other mental state to a computer, no matter how complex, is misguided.
To demonstrate this, Searle imagines himself alone in a room, where he is given three batches of Chinese writing which he does not understand. He is then given a set of instructions in English, which enable him to correlate elements of the first two batches of Chinese symbols, and to give back arrangements of Chinese symbols in response to the third. Unbeknownst to Searle, these batches are respectively a script, a story, and a set of questions, and the English instructions are a program. By following the program, he is able to correctly answer the questions regarding the story. Read the rest of this entry »
Also dubbed ‘the ultimate argument’, the success argument for scientific realism contends that we are warranted in believing scientific theories to be true, or approximately true, by virtue of their success. These theories, it argues, are commonly able to explain and predict phenomena in ways that were not previously possible. Yet if such theories were false, this success would be the result of sheer fluke. It is much more likely, the argument contends, that the success of scientific theories is a result of their statements about the world being either true or close to the truth. Hillary Putnam encapsulated this argument in his famous quote: “realism”, he wrote, “…is the only philosophy that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle”. This essay will set forth some objections against the ultimate argument, and will then examine various attempts by supporters of the argument to respond to them. These responses, I will argue, do not adequately defend the ultimate argument from its critics. In what remains, I will then offer what I see as a plausible basis for answering the central question posed by the ultimate argument: how could a false theory be successful?
This question is the central challenge made by the ultimate argument. If scientific theories were not true, how could they achieve their impressive success? Bas van Fraassen has proposed an answer, suggesting that it is hardly surprising that our theories are successful, given that any unsuccessful theory will be discarded. He theorizes that a process somewhat akin to Darwinian natural selection occurs, whereby strong, successful theories prosper, while weak, unsuccessful theories inevitably disappear. Just as the species of animals which have survived natural selection are well adapted to the demands of their environments, so too, he argues, are existing scientific theories well adapted to the demands which the scientific environment places upon them.
Yet as Alan Musgrave has pointed out, van Fraasen seems here to have skirted around the primary issue. While he has provided an explanation as to why only successful theories survive, he has said little to explain why such theories are successful in the first place. Yet this is the challenge posed by the realist. They do not ask why a successful theory survives, they ask how it could successfully predict and explain phenomena if it were not true. Van Fraassen however, seems to be tacitly acknowledging that false theories could be successful due to chance, but is attempting to explain why this should not strike us as absurd, but as merely a consequence of the pre-requisites of theory survival. Realists will doubtlessly be unimpressed by such a move, as it does not answer their primary question, which is how a theory could be successful while being false. Read the rest of this entry »