Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rawls' "A Theory of Justice"

The following is a brief treatment of the main ideas in John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice. Rawls’ theory of justice has two parts. First, there are two principles of social justice, which he puts forward as the most acceptable principles of justice. Second, he argues for these principles by means of a hypothetical social contract argument. I will start by explaining the two principles and then discuss his social contract argument.

For Rawls, principles of justice have to do with the distribution among members of a society for desirable goods such as rights, freedoms, wealth, and opportunities. Such good he calls primary goods, which he defines as things people want regardless of whatever else they want. They are wanted in this way because they are general means essential for achieving most of our aims in life. Rawls’ first principle of justice focuses on one of these goods, liberty. It says that liberty should be distributed equally and that citizens should have an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all. Rawls calls this the Equal Liberty Principle.

The second principle deals with social and economic goods and here inequality is allowed if two conditions are met:
  • First, the inequalities must make everyone better off than they would be if such goods were distributed equally, and they must do this in a way that those who end up in the lowest positions are as well off as they can be.
  • Second, everyone must have and equal opportunity of ending up in the best of positions and they have this when positions are allocated on the basis of qualifications, and everyone has an equal chance of developing whatever socially useful talents they innately, which Rawls calls Fair Equality of Opportunity.
The first part of the second principle is called the Difference Principle and the second part the Equal Opportunity Principle.

The Difference Principle states that any societal change may be considered just and depart from equality if and only if it benefits the least advantaged. Inequality, in Rawls’ view is acceptable if it makes everyone better for it, but it must not just maximize the overall utility by benefitting the most advantaged. It must maximize the benefit to the least advantaged or as it is called, maximizing the minimum or Maximin. The minimum is maximized when any attempts to raise it would be counter-productive and would make those on the bottom worse off than they would have been if such attempts had not been made. In this sense, Rawls defends a welfare state whose crucial concern about justice is for those worst off. Transferring money directly from the rich to the poor is not the only or best way to raise their condition. Funds for better education, better employment skills, guaranteed health care might be more appropriate to fit into the Difference Principle to Maximin.

I will now discuss Rawls' social contract argument in support of his two principles of justice. Rawls understands a society as a group of people who cooperate for the production of mutual benefits. Principles of justice are principles about the appropriate allocation of these benefits and of the burdens necessary for their production. Rawls' core idea is that the best principles of justice are those which would be chosen by people in a situation which is fair to all those doing the choosing. The best principles of justice, he argues, are those which people in a fair situation would choose. He calls this fair situation the original position. He argues that in this hypothetical situation, the choosers are self-interested, rational, and required to come to a unanimous agreement. The most important condition is that the choosers are under a veil of ignorance about their own social relations and talents. They do not know their social class, their abilities, or their conception of the good. Rawls argues that a position with such a veil represents fairness between free and equal persons and that persons in this original position would choose his two principles of justice.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Concerning De Vitoria's "De Jure Belli"

Just War Theory traces its roots to Cicero over 2000 years ago but is more popularly associated with St. Augustine in the 5th century C.E. Just War Theory is broken up into the jus ad bellum concerning the conditions that must be met for war to be justifiably initiated and the jus in bello concerning the tactics that may be justifiably employed during war. Catholic theologian and philosopher Francisco de Vitoria is considered one of the first modern theorists to formulate rules of war related to the jus ad bellum and jus in bello. He developed five jus ad bellum propositions in De Indis et de Jure Belli (c. 1532), a treatise related to the wars the Spanish Conquistadors waged against Indians in South America. Those propositions are as follows:
  1. Difference of religion is not a just cause for war.
  2. Extension of empire is not a just cause of war.
  3. Neither the personal glory of the prince nor any other advantage to him is a just cause for war.
  4. A wrong received is the only just cause for commencing a war.
  5. Not every kind and degree of wrong can suffice for commencing a war.
I will detail de Vitoria’s argument including premises and appeals he used to develop his conclusions. I will then discuss a difficulty with his argument related to differing religious worldviews and interpretations of a “wrong received”. Lastly, I will argue that he provides a prima facie argument against the initiation of an unjust war but that it could be strengthened to fit the modern world to include a provision concerning just trade.

De Vitoria structures his treatise as responses to questions in the form of propositions and doubts in numerical order. The first question related to the jus ad bellum asks what is the reason and cause of a just war. His first proposition is that difference of religion is not sufficient to be a cause of a just war. He appeals to St. Thomas Aquinas on this point and adds, “… religion forms conscience and conscientious acts in ignorance of natural law are not guilty in justifying our penal interventions.” As a devout Catholic, he seemed to abhor the subjugation and slaughter of people in the name of religion as the Conquistadors were doing in Central and South America. The second proposition is that extension of empire is not sufficient for initiating a just war. He claims self-evidence on this point and sets up a reductio ad absurdum with an example of two belligerent states waging war against each other in the quest of empire. The contradiction is that since each state would be justified and therefore innocent, it would be unlawful to kill combatants on either side.

The third proposition is that neither the personal glory of the prince nor any other advantage to him is a just cause for war. He supports this claim with the premise that even though the prince is the only authority to initiate war, he should subordinate both peace and war to the people. The quest for glory and personal gain mark the difference between a lawful king and a tyrant in this respect. De Vitoria appeals to Aristotle to note that since the prince derives his authority from the state, he ought to use it for the good of the state. Lastly, he comments that the difference between freemen and slaves is that slaves are exploited for the good of the master while freemen exist in their own interest. De Vitoria makes this analogy to the jus ad bellum to show the difference between a prince initiating a just war on behalf and in support of the people to that of a tyrant conscripting subjects into an unjust war for glory and personal gain.

The last two propositions relate to the initiation of a just war based on wrongs done to the state by other states. The fourth proposition claims that the single and only cause for commencing a war is a wrong received. This would include war in self-defense and offensive war for avenging a wrong. De Vitoria appeals to Augustine and Aquinas for support in addition to the Bible relating to taking up the sword against an enemy. Specifically, he says, “ … a prince has no greater authority over foreigners than over his own subjects unless they have done something wrong.” From the Bible he quotes St. Paul from Romans, “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The fifth and last proposition claims that not every kind and degree of wrong is sufficient for commencing a war and so he introduces the notion of proportionality into the Just War Theory. The premise for this claim is that fact that not every crime warrants death or atrocious punishment. De Vitoria also makes an appeal to the Bible by citing Deuteronomy that says, “… the degree of punishment ought to correspond to the measure of the offence.” These five propositions make up de Vitoria’s first canon of warfare. Besides the principles listed above, he argues that a prince should only reluctantly initiate war and live in peace as St. Paul urges in Romans. The prince should also remember that, “… others are his neighbors, whom we are bound to love as ourselves, and that we all have one common Lord, before whose tribunal we shall have to render our account.”

It is important to frame de Vitoria’s argument within history to understand the importance of his contribution to Just War Theory and its implications in a modern context. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs led by Cort├ęs took place between 1591 and 1521, 11 years before de Vitoria wrote his treatise in 1532. The battle of Tenochtitlan alone saw the deaths of 40,000 Aztecs in a single day in the name of conquest, glory, and religious justification. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and began the Protestant Reformation that would lead to violence such as the Knights War of 1522 and the Peasants War of 1524 that left over 100,000 dead. Religious based violence and war was spreading throughout Europe and would continue to do so until the signing of the peace treaties of Westphalia in 1648. As such, de Vitoria was ahead of his time with his propositions that war based on religion, empire, and glory was not a just cause for war. This is even more striking considering he was a Roman Catholic at a time when corruption and politics within the Church was rampant and led not only to the Reformation but the imprisonment of Pope Clement VII and the end of the Italian Renaissance in 1527. His claims, however, are not without difficulties and as I will show, need to be reformulated to include just trade to fit in the modern world.

Although religion is not a just cause for war as de Vitoria claims in his first proposition, it is the source through which morality and therefore right and wrong are determined. As such, this leaves open his fourth and fifth proposition to religious interpretation as to what qualifies as a wrong received and a just cause for war. Religious worldview colors the determination of both proportionality and threshold of a wrong received therefore entailing that a wrong received in one culture with one type of religious worldview would justify the initiation of a war while the same wrong to another culture with a different religious worldview would not meet that same threshold. The controversy surrounding the 2005 Danish Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons that resulted in a Fatwah issued by Mahmoud-al Zahar, the leader of Hamas, is an example of difference in belief of wrong received based on religious worldview. For most people in the U.S. and Europe, the issue was a matter of free speech and not considered the level of wrong that much of the Islamic world held it to be. To many Muslims, the cartoons were blasphemous to the point that many, including Mahmoud-al Zahar, believed that violence against Denmark and the cartoonist was justified. The argument for or against such an edict is beyond the scope of this essay; however, it is clear that religion, arguably in an indirect manner, continues to play a role for the justification of violence. A stronger formulation of de Vitoria’s jus ad bellum would have to include not only the proposition that religion is not a just cause of war but cultural and/or religious wrongs never meet the threshold to initiate a just war.

The modern world is certainly different from the world of de Vitoria with borders meaning less now than ever before. Trade is also different today than in his time with a global economy that has affected political dynamics, interdependency, and, in a sense, justice. Even though de Vitoria provides a prima facie argument against unjust war, his propositions must be reformulated to fit in this modern world. National self-sufficiency is desirable but mostly unattainable with global resource distribution scattered and uneven. Unjust trade practices, sanctions, and prime resource control create a potential for suffering that may justify a wrong that meets the threshold of a just cause for war. As such, a provision for just trade would have to be added to his jus ad bellum to insure against this. Skyrocketing food prices around the world has led to violence in Haiti and Africa while 15% of all gas in the United States comes from bio-fuels derived from food. 2 billion people are starving while 860 million cars are in use throughout the world, 62 million in the U.S. alone. It may be justifiable in the modern world to initiate a just war to demand this right to subsistence against the unfair advantage of trade. De Vitoria’s intent was the elimination of all war and the propagation of peace among all peoples of the earth. If he were alive today, trade would be a legitimate concern for him in the attainment of such peace. Further, his principle of justice, in a modern context, would have to more clearly define "wrong received" and account for war in the name of humanitarian intervention and preemptive war in the name of self-defense along with how his principles would be used under the current U.N. charter.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Concerning Shue's "Basic Rights"

In his book Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy, Henry Shue argues that everyone has a right to subsistence and that this right is as important as the right to physical security. This argument runs counter to a common view that the right to physical security is more stringent than the right to the necessities of life. In addition, the common view could be argued to hold that the right to life is a right that is overridden or justly violated only in extreme conditions, while the right to an adequate diet or minimal health care are more easily overridden. I will provide a brief overview of Shue’s argument and what he means by a basic right, right to security, and right to subsistence. I will also explain why people, in his view, think it is easier to justify rights to security than rights to subsistence and why Shue rejects this reasoning. Lastly, I will evaluate and expand on Shue’s argument from a cost perspective that subsistence rights are basic and just as important as security rights.

Shue approaches his argument by first defining a moral right as providing, “… the rational basis for a justified demand that the actual enjoyment of a substance be socially guaranteed against standard threats.” The rational basis allows for insistence to the right without shame and resistance to the denial of the right. The actual enjoyment of a substance refers not precisely to enjoyment of the right but rather to enjoyment of what the right provides such as liberty, security, or food. For a right to be socially guaranteed against standard threats arrangements must be made, mostly by a government in the form of laws, for people to enjoy the right. “Standard” in this case means a reasonable level, not absolute level of guarantee. In other words, a guarantee against any murders would not be feasible but a system that provided strong deterrents, law enforcement, and a judiciary to as much as possible minimize the instances of murder would be considered reasonable and “standard”.

From this framework, Shue proceeds to define a basic right as right that is essential to the enjoyment of all other rights. When a right is basic, “… any attempt to enjoy any other right by sacrificing the basic right would be self-defeating, cutting the ground from beneath itself.” In other words, a basic right is the foundation from which other rights build upon and without which we literally could not live without. As such, non-basic rights such as free speech or assembly may be justifiably sacrificed, if necessary, to protect basic rights. The question then is what qualifies as a basic right. Shue answers by first arguing that security qualifies as a basic right because no other rights can be enjoyed if a right to physical security is not protected. The argument is more formally structured as follows:
  1. Everyone is entitled to enjoy something as a right.
  2. Everyone is entitled to the removal of the most serious and general condition that would prevent or severely interfere with the exercise of whatever rights the person has.
  3. Therefore, anyone who is entitled to anything as a right must be entitled to physical security as a basic right so that threats to his or her physical security cannot be used to thwart the enjoyment of the other right.
Shue also claims that the basic right of security is universal because the argument applies to everyone.

The order of Shue’s reasoning within his argument is important because up until now, few would disagree that physical security is a basic right. This is important in his argument for subsistence as a basic right because of the similarity he will draw between security and subsistence. By subsistence or minimal economic security, he means access to unpolluted air, unpolluted water, adequate food, adequate shelter, and minimal preventative health care. He recognizes that his claim is a form of distributive justice but refrains from treating broader economic rights at this point. In addition, he limits the scope of the basic right of subsistence to at least those who cannot provide for themselves. As such, the same considerations that support physical security as a basic right support subsistence as a basic right because no one can fully, if at all, “… enjoy any right that is supposedly protected by society if he or she lacks the essentials for a reasonably healthy and active life.” The same reasoning applies to prevention of deficiency of essentials for survival and indeed may be more basic than physical security because a healthy individual may be able to fight off an attack where physical security is violated while a hungry or sick individual could not fight off such an attack. Both security and subsistence are equally essential to a normal, healthy life and before exercise of other rights are possible. This is not to say that a right to security and subsistence are means to the enjoyment of other rights but are instead inherent necessities. He concludes by referring back to the definition of a moral right to show that a social guarantee of protection against threats to both security and subsistence is necessary because giving less priority to a basic right rather than to non-basic or other moral rights is “literally impossible”.

Shue attempts to show that the common view of accepting security and not subsistence as a basic right lies within the view of negative and positive rights. A negative right is a right of noninterference or simply leaving people alone while a positive right is giving to others or redistributing wealth. The prima facie argument against a basic right to subsistence relies on the view that subsistence is a positive right and therefore secondary to the negative right of security. Shue rejects this argument and suggests that both security and subsistence impose positive as well as negative duties. These duties include not depriving the right-holder the object of the right, protection of the right-holder against such deprivation, and aid to those who have already been deprived. In the case of security, Shue claims that it is impossible to protect a right to physical security without taking or making payment for positive action such as salaries for police officers, judges, and maintenance of correctional facilities. In the case of subsistence, he shows that fulfillment of the right to subsistence may not involve a redistribution of wealth or grants of commodities but rather protection from individuals or institutions that would otherwise harm them and prevent them from providing for themselves. According to the opposing view, this is a negative right related to security. Further, he briefly discusses the misconception that negative duties cost less than positive ones and suggest that this argument rests upon “… empirical speculation of dubious generality.” Shue does not deny that reasonably guaranteeing a right to subsistence would involve some form of redistribution of wealth but only that denial of the right to subsistence based upon the premises that security only involves negative duties while subsistence involves only positive duties is fallacious. Shue briefly mentions the cost of security versus the cost of subsistence to further weaken the claim that it subsistence is not a basic right or at least secondary to the right of security. I will expand upon this concept and show that in many respects, the right to subsistence may actually be cheaper than the right to security. I will also show that the resources of security, like subsistence, favors the rich and therefore also involves a redistribution of wealth to socially guarantee security as a basic right for all.

Controversy has surrounded the concept of redistributing wealth for centuries and has been the subject of political philosophers from Immanuel Kant in the 18th century to modern philosophers such as Rawls, Pogge, and Singer. In regards to the costs associated with the
realization of subsistence rights in comparison to actual costs associated with maintaining security rights, the common view is that achieving the right to subsistence would be costly and therefore involve a substantial redistribution of wealth. Based on current spending in the United States alone, I argue that costs necessary to achieve subsistence rights domestically and make a significant increase to achieve international subsistence rights are obtainable without any additional cost to the American taxpayer. In 2007, the United States spent an estimated $693.3 billion for all military expenditures and domestic police protection, corrections, judicial, and legal activities. Based on these statistics alone, the annual per capita expense for security in the United States is, at minimum, $2,311. In contrast, the United States spent $49.9 billion in total foreign aid and its domestic food stamp program in 2007. Assuming all U.S. foreign aid went strictly to subsistence, this equates to an annual per capita expense of $161 or 7.1% of the per capita expense of security. As Shue has shown, security and subsistence rights both involve positive and negative duties thereby defeating the argument against subsistence rights on the grounds of redistribution of wealth. Further, as the numbers indicate above, a simple shift in expenditures would go far to achieve subsistence as a basic right without any further cost to the American taxpayer. For example, a 9.5% decrease in military spending could effectively double the current U.S. expenditures for both foreign aid and domestic food stamp program. One could argue that U.S. security expenditures are necessary and the funding required to achieve subsistence as a right, even domestically, would overburden the taxpayer and more specifically the wealthy. With over 700 military bases in 130 countries and an unpopular war in Iraq that costs approximately $5 billion a month, I find arguments either against subsistence as a basic right or as an unachievable ideal both weak and immoral especially since it is clear that shifts in expenditures could make a difference without any further taxpayer cost.

Concerning Hobbes' "Leviathan", Morality, and Human Nature

Thomas Hobbes may not have realized when he published Leviathan in 1651 that he would establish a base of Western political thought that would still be relevant over 350 years later. One of the most novel and controversial ideas to come out of Leviathan regarded the function of morality. Hobbes took a pessimistic view of human nature and believed that morality did not exist outside the constraints of the state or in our natural state without government. To fully understand Hobbes’ claim to our natural lack of morality and its function within society, I will first provide an overview of natural condition of mankind and the doctrine of egoism upon which his treatise is built. I will also briefly discuss the social contract, the origin of the state, and function of government. I will argue that Hobbes’ view of human nature and morality is problematic because egoism does not adequately explain human motivation and would not allow the initial creation of the state. Lastly, I will show that Hobbesian philosophy is still of value concerning international affairs within certain limitations.

Hobbes claims that nature endowed humans with a rough equality of ability. No one is born with an overly significant amount of strength or mental ability. He envisioned a state of nature for humans as a natural condition without laws, rules, or government inhabited by people with this inherent rough equality of ability. Further, everyone is of equal value and may act in any way necessary to protect or advance their interests. Most importantly, everyone would act out of self-interest at all times moved by short-term passion rather than long-term reason. The doctrine that individuals always act out of self-interest and self-interest alone is called psychological egoism and is key to Hobbes’ argument. He also believes that due to unchecked self-interest and this base, rough equality, “… ariseth, equality of hope in attaining of our ends” leading to competition for resources. Add to the equation the quest for prestige, respect and glory also inherent to human nature and a dangerous mixture is created. In fact, in a state with no laws and punishment where self-interest rules and competition for resources, justified paranoia, and quest for glory are ever present, enemies and violence are everywhere. This means that the state of nature is actually a state of war.

Life then in the state of nature then is, “solitary, poore, nasty brutish, and short.” For Hobbes, two Laws of Nature counter an unimaginable, uncivilized life without morality. The first Law of Nature is that humans should try to attain peace. If peace is not possible, one would have unlimited rights as in the state of nature. The second Law of Nature states that if everyone agrees to peace in mutual rather than individual defense then it is within reason to give up all rights inherent within the state of nature. These rights would be given to that entity that would enforce all agreements made within this social contract. That entity is the state or sovereign. In exchange for peace, rebellion, questioning authority, and breaking the social contract is expressly forbidden even if that sovereign abuses power to become a tyrant. The point is that even the worst state of government is better than the state of nature.

For Hobbes, morality does not exist in the state of nature nor is it part of human nature. The origin of government came about from the inherent desire of peace in a state of constant violence and passion for all that could not be possible in the state of nature. This includes culture, art, enterprise, and property that would be impossible without cooperation and a system that enforced certain rules of behavior. The function of government is simply to enforce the rules of cooperation necessary for society to function. Another way of stating the function of government is that it instills fear of punishment into its subjects. Morality functions then as promoting the rules of cooperation that restrain self-interested behavior. Since self-interest is natural, morality is unnatural and law is equivalent to coercion and lack of freedom. This is the price, however, we must pay for peace, progress and protection of our life, property, and enterprising interests. It is interesting that Hobbes believes that the very sovereign that allows our elevation out of the state of nature is, in fact, in a state of nature with other sovereigns. This makes sense because there are no sovereigns to govern sovereigns and therefore, no fear of punishment or reason to act out of anything other than self-interest. For Hobbes, morality from an international viewpoint does not exist.

Hobbes’ justification of authoritarian government is problematic and in many respects implausible. First, absolute psychological egoism would not allow our species to live more than a couple of generations at most. Life driven by passion without constraint would be too destructive to imagine. Mothers would not care for their babies who, more than likely, were fathered out of rape. If a baby were lucky (or unlucky) enough to make it to childhood, no one would take the time to teach her anything entailing no communication above a grunt or a club on the head. Without communication, the first social contract would be impossible. Hobbes’ first Law of Nature conflicts with the motivations within a state of nature. Only through reason is the social contract possible and as Hobbes stated, “A Law of Nature … is a Precept, or generall Rule, found out by reason …”. In the state of nature where reason is utilized to promote self-interest or protect oneself from the violence of others, reason would be overwhelmed and therefore, not allow cooperation necessary to begin to agree on even the simplest social contract. Some sense of morality and cooperation must have existed in humans before the first government originated. Ethical egoism is the doctrine that we should act according to self-interest while psychological egoism which is the doctrine that is part of our nature to always act according to self-interest. It is unclear whether Hobbes was an absolute ethical egoist or not but it is clear that absolute psychological egoism is not plausible. Lastly, it could be argued that altruism is a fantasy but there does seem to be evidence of genuine giving to others without personal gain of any sort. All of the major religions of the world promote altruism and abound with stories of self-stories of selfless giving in history and everyday life. The existence of communication, cooperation, and altruism seems to point to a more optimistic human nature than Hobbes claims thereby weakening his argument for the justification of authoritarian government. Lastly, it seems that Hobbes did not fully believe in a world completely without altruism thereby making his state of nature more of interesting thought experiment.

It is important to note that even though his argument is weakened, it does not entail that his political philosophy is not of value. As it concerns international affairs, Hobbesian philosophy is evident and sometimes necessary concerning relations between states. This is due to the difference between individual and populations along with the abuse of power that may develop within a regime. Imperialism that led to World War II and the U.S. invasion of Iraq could be argued to be an example of Hobbesian political thought in action since both are of questionable morality and seem to be driven by national self-interest. Political and military intervention by nations against other nations to stop genocide as in Darfur is also Hobbesian because of the questionable legality of interfering with another sovereign state. It could be argued that the United Nations makes such an intervention legal. Further, international morality and altruism also go against the Hobbesian idea of a state of nature between sovereigns, however, it is clear that disregard of a sovereign’s right to rule is both morally justified and Hobbesian. Much more could be said regarding Hobbesian political thought and international relations that is beyond the scope of this paper. Even though still somewhat controversial, it is likely that aspects of the philosophy of Hobbes will remain an important part of Western political thought.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Moral Nihiism, Moral Skepticism, and the Function of Conscience

Philosophers have searched for moral truth and argued for varying principles that allow for the determination of right and wrong action since before the time of Plato and Aristotle. Plato developed his system of ethics based on the Theory of Forms while Aristotle developed a teleological theory of ethics in Nicomachean Ethics. The Enlightenment of the late 18th and early 19th century saw the birth of the deontological ethical principles of Kant and consequentialism of Mill. The late 19th and 20th century, however, saw the development of a different idea of ethics in the form of moral skepticism and moral nihilism. The claim that either moral knowledge is impossible or moral value does not exist, defined respectively, is more popularly associated with J.L. Mackie from Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong and Michael Ruse from Biology and the Foundation of Ethics. I will provide a detailed overview of arguments for moral nihilism and moral skepticism and distinguish the differences between the two. Both arguments are difficult to argue against since the denial of the validity of moral belief does not provide much of a base to argue against; however, I will show how the phenomena of conscience may defeat the arguments for either moral skepticism or nihilism.

Moral skeptics conclude that no moral belief is justified and deny the possibility of real knowledge to anything’s moral status. Moral truth may exist but moral skeptics claim that discerning this truth is impossible. Adam Morton suggests that, “… many of our firm moral beliefs may be mistaken (perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with telling lies).” The simplest argument in support of moral skepticism is based on the fact that people from different cultures, backgrounds, and educational levels disagree on certain moral truths. For example, the U.S. Republican Party that represents 55 million Americans supports an anti-abortion platform based on the idea that the procedure is equivalent to murder and therefore always wrong. The Democratic Party on the other hand, represents approximately 72 million Americans and supports a platform that abortion is not always wrong. If so many people disagree then maybe knowledge on any moral claim is unknowable. Other arguments for moral skepticism include Rene Descartes’ argument against justification based on the contrary hypothesis. He argues that if a contrary hypothesis to any belief cannot be ruled out then that belief is not justified. For example, if I believe that I will not get in a car accident while going down to the corner store, but cannot rule out that I won’t, then my belief is not justified. This is an argument that supports generalized skepticism but seems especially poignant related to moral knowledge. If I believe that torturing babies is always wrong but cannot definitively prove otherwise then according to this argument, my belief cannot be justified. Again, this does not speak to the existence or non-existence of moral truth but only that knowledge of that truth is impossible.

Moral nihilism, however, supports the claim that nothing is morally wrong and therefore knowledge claims of right and wrong are meaningless. Moral skepticism is an epistemological position while moral nihilism is a metaphysical one. The moral skeptic may allow for the possibility that torturing babies is wrong, although epistemically unjustifiable, while the moral nihilist would not assign a truth-value either way. Moral disagreement supports the moral nihilist claim in addition to arguments from the field of evolutionary psychology. The inherent value of some moral conduct may have nothing to do with moral truth but is inherently valuable in propagating the species. Torturing babies does not allow the passing on of their genetic code, which is bad from a species, survival perspective. Moral skepticism claim that knowledge of moral truth is unattainable while the moral nihilist claims that moral truth does not exist. I will show, however, that the phenomena of conscience and may provide a counter argument that the moral skeptic or nihilist may not be able to defeat.

John Henry Newman was a 19th century philosopher and Catholic Apologeticist who argued for the rationality of religious belief. In Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford, he explores the difference between natural and revealed religion to start his argument supporting this claim. He attempts to show that natural religion as an abstract, individual spirituality arises out of the faculty of conscience. Newman states, “… conscience implies a difference in the nature of actions … brings with it no proof of its truth … and subdues the appetites.” It is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate his religious claims but there is no denying that conscience exists among individuals across all cultures and time periods. According to Newman, moral systems arise from instances of conscience and the avoidance of discomfort. In other words, if I feel bad the first time I torture a baby then I will be less likely to do it again in the future. Differences in reasoning, appeals to authority, or culture may lead to the development of differing moral systems and therefore moral disagreements between groups. Reason, affect, and environmental influences subdue conscience in this respect. I argue that this process leads to a corruption of what the conscience was pointing to in the first place which might be moral truth.

Evidence supporting the faculty of conscience pointing in the direction of moral truth is that certain acts are universally looked upon as immoral. Stealing and murder without justification are an example of what may be a universal moral truth. I argue that no culture at anytime has looked favorably upon these two types of acts without some sort of justification. From an evolutionary point of view, my claim is problematic because conscience as a natural phenomenon is explained by propagation of the species instead of pointing in the direction of moral truth. Conscience then is simply a function of natural selection and supports arguments for moral skepticism and moral nihilism. Justification for moral belief or the existence of moral truth may be illusory to pass on the genetic code. Evolutionary psychology is arguably controversial because speculation on the origin of behaviors is not easily verified. It is here, however, that moral skepticism and nihilism have a weak spot from which to start a strong counterargument. If even one instance of conscience prior to the development of moral system could be shown to have no evolutionary benefit then conscience may point in the direction of moral truth and therefore weaken their position. For example, some acts of altruism are not easily explainable as an evolutionary benefit and as such are candidates for such a counterargument. The argument would be tricky because it would also have to be immune to a claim of environmental influence such as how a child is raised within a culture. The key would be to show an instance of conscience that was universal, therefore strongly supporting it as natural, but explanatory by neither a nurture claim nor an evolutionary claim. If this can be shown then it would provide a starting point from which to argue for moral principles. All we would have to do at that point is agree on what principles most directly point to moral truth … but that’s another question.

Friday, February 6, 2009

On Ryle's Knowledge-How and Knowledge-That

Oxford philosopher and linguist Gilbert Ryle wrote The Concept of Mind in 1949 that proved to be influential in the fields of philosophy of mind and epistemology. His thesis rejects what he calls “The Official Doctrine” of Cartesian dualism that claims that the mind and body are separate entities with different properties. According to Ryle, the mind is categorically different from the body but integrated or simply the same to allow intelligence and the exercise of intelligence observable in behavior. His project is mostly ontological but he also introduces the epistemological concept of knowledge-how and knowledge-that to distinguish between two types of knowledge that also supports his argument for an integrated mind and body. I will provide a brief overview of Ryle’s theory of mind along with what he terms a category mistake in reference to descriptions of the mind. I will then discuss his argument for knowledge-how and knowledge-that in addition to showing how this concept supports his argument for integration of the physical and the mental. Lastly, I will discuss difficulties with Ryle’s thesis and argue that even though he introduces a much broader view of the mind compared to the classical Cartesian model, he still does not provide the scope necessary to explain certain types of knowledge.

According to Ryle, a category mistake is using the same terms to describe properties of the body to that of the mind. Quite simply, the mind and the body are of two distinct logical descriptive types, not similar types that vary by degrees. This is not to say that mind and body are separate as a Cartesian dualist would claim but rather that they have different properties that integrate in a fashion to produce intelligent action. The idea of mental substance compared to physical substance does not make sense because substance refers to matter that is part of the physical world. Location, divisibility, extension, and lack of these properties are also terms that have been used to define the mind. To Ryle, this is illogical because again, those terms are derived from the physical world. As he states, “… saying that ‘there occur mental processes’ does not mean the same sort of thing as ‘there occur physical processes’, and therefore, it makes no sense to conjoin or disjoin the two.” It is important to note that he means that they cannot be conjoined or disjoined in a descriptive sense not in an ontological or functional sense. To Ryle, the workings of the mind are not distinct from the actions of the body. They are simply the same. Vocabulary commonly used to describe the mind or mental processes are, as such, merely a different manner of describing action.

According to Ryle, mental processes are merely intelligent acts. There are no mental processes that are distinct from intelligent acts. The operations of the mind are not merely represented by intelligent acts but are the same as those intelligent acts. Acts of learning, remembering, imagining, knowing, or willing are not merely clues to hidden mental processes or to complex sequences of intellectual operations but are the way in which those mental processes or intellectual operations are defined. Logical propositions are not merely clues to modes of reasoning; they are those modes of reasoning. Ryle argues that there is no hidden entity called "the mind" inside a mechanical apparatus called "the body.” The workings of the mind are not distinct from the actions of the body and are better conceptualized as a way of explaining the actions of the body. The concepts of knowledge-how and knowledge-that illustrate not only Ryle’s mind-body integration in this respect but support a counterintuitive epistemic ideal that justified true belief may not be sufficient to define knowledge.

Ryle describes knowledge-that as propositional in nature. He describes knowledge-how as being skill-based and “of the limbs”. The best way to distinguish the two kinds of knowledge is to use the example of riding a bicycle. When one learns how to ride a bike, she does not learn physics, anatomy, and physiology before jumping on but stumbles her way to proficiency with the help of training wheels and a patient parent. If she did learn the theory of the science behind riding a bike to analyze how to ride it she would be exercising knowledge-that which probably wouldn’t help her much the first time she placed your feet on the pedals. Think of knowledge-how as the knowledge that builds and utilizes muscle memory, coordination, and balance. Proposition formation is not involved with knowledge-how and therefore justification in the strictest sense cannot be claimed. Sometimes we know how to do things without being able to formulate how we know. In regards to riding a bike, imagine trying to explain to someone that has never seen a bicycle before how to ride a bike without showing them or talking them through it with a bicycle present. It would certainly be a challenge if not outright impossible. This is an example of Ryle’s knowledge-how.

Knowledge-that would, however, come later when racing the bicycle in the Tour de France and reasoning your way through the science of increasing your performance. Knowledge-that is what Descartes would classify as the mind in the dualist separation of mind and body by using argumentation before deliberative action. Ryle conceptualizes integration between mind and body with action according to rules and standards as defining intelligence. It is important to remember that knowledge-that is not a priori to knowledge-how or vice versa. Drinking a glass of water without spilling it all over you is an intelligent action that is an example of knowledge-how only. Designing a landscape architecture project would first require knowledge-that in the planning stage and both joint knowledge-how and knowledge-that in the actual drawing of the plans.

The epistemological distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that is important to fully understand Ryle’s ontological position of mind and body. He places himself in a tricky position by arguing for these two types of knowledge because of his theory’s relationship to dualism and materialism. His thesis refutes dualism but knowledge-that does function like the proposition-driven mind as in the traditional Cartesian sense. One version of the intellectualist model argues that reason functions deductively and is the source of all knowledge or justification. Ryle’s knowledge-that functions similarly but does not represent the whole picture or the only source of knowledge or justification. Knowledge-how, on the other hand, implies a type of materialism that he wants to avoid because of categorical difference he posits between the body and the mind. The functioning of the mind is the same as the body but since they are categorically different, the mental is not exactly the same as the physical as a materialist might claim. It is arguably correct to say that Ryle places himself on a spectrum with dualism on one end and materialism on the other. His claim that we have both knowledge-how and knowledge-that minimizes the slippery slope in either direction even though proponents of both camps might disagree in favor of their own position. For example, a Cartesian might claim that the knowledge-how of the riding a bike is simply reasoning functioning deductively or like knowledge-that without the attention given to other types of reasoning such as with logic or math.

The output of knowledge-how and knowledge-that including Ryle’s conceptualization of knowledge and belief are also important to understand his ontological position of the mind. According to Ryle, consciousness might be analyzed into what Ryle calls “episodes” of behavior. These episodes of behavior are events that actually occur so can be empirically observed. In addition, when we describe people we do so in terms of dispositions to behave in certain ways, which means that they will do certain things if a certain situation arises. Therefore, their “mental” state of belief and knowledge can be analyzed as potential behavior, which would be observable if it occurred. Ryle uses the example of cigarette-smoking to show that actually smoking a cigarette is an episode but to say that someone is a cigarette smoker is a disposition because we do not mean anything about their consciousness, merely that they have a disposition to buy cigarettes and smoke them. Knowledge for Ryle then is when a person ‘knows’ something they have a disposition to be right about it when the situation arises. A person has belief if they have a disposition to behave in a certain way when the situation arises. This is the epistemological link to his ontological position that distinguishes him from and provides a broader picture of the mind than classical Cartesians or materialists.

The Concept of Mind no doubt contributed significantly to the field of philosophical psychology in addition to epistemology. Many of the difficulties of his theory are beyond the scope of this essay; however, I will argue that knowledge-that and knowledge-how do not provide the scope necessary to explain certain types of knowledge. For example, intuition does not seem to fit within either type of knowledge or as a combination of the two. By definition, intuition is the faculty if attaining knowledge or cognition without rational thought or inference. It is not propositional like knowledge-that and it is not of the limbs or muscle memory like knowledge-how; however, it is at least a small part of how we define certain kinds of knowledge and belief. For example, it is a common view that “Mother’s Intuition” sometimes allows a mother to know when something is wrong without any direct evidence or justification. Ryle might argue that this is a form of knowledge-how but it does not seem to be a part of the body like drinking a glass of water or riding a bike. Further, religious belief seems to be outside Ryle’s two types of knowledge in the same way as intuition. For most non-theologians or those that claim to believe in God but are inconsistent with religious practice, ‘knowledge” and/or belief in God is not propositional or even arguably rational and certainly not an example of knowledge-how unless one were to claim that being religious is somehow built into our bodies. The complexity of the human mind and how we come to claim knowledge or belief is beyond Ryle’s theory of mind. This is not to say that his refutation of Cartesian dualism is fallacious, only that more work on his project is necessary to fully describe the human mind.

The Humean Problem of Induction

David Hume wrote An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1748, eight years after the less than successful reception of his book A Treatise of Human Nature. Enquiry reworked some main points of Treatise (Book 1) that would prove to be highly influential in philosophy, especially in epistemology. In §4 and §5 of Enquiry Hume formulates an argument that would come to be known as “The Problem of Induction”. The problem of induction raises doubts relating to the validity of empirical claims such as those made by using the scientific method. I will provide an overview of his argument along with implications of his conclusions related to inductive reasoning. I will then discuss Hume’s claim that justified belief is not possible when the assumption is made that the future will resemble the past. Lastly, I will argue that Hume is distinguishing between two different types of knowledge that does not exclude inductive reasoning because of the difference between philosophical skepticism and ordinary life.

Hume begins §4 by distinguishing between "relations of ideas" and "matters of fact”. Relations of ideas are propositions that do not require experience or are a priori. Relations of ideas are also logically true and as Hume stated, “… discoverable by mere operation of thought without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe”. Denial of such a proposition would lead to a contradiction just as denial of the statement “all bachelors are unmarried” would be contradictory. Hume argues that matters of fact deal with experience or are learned a posteriori and cannot be disproved by an appeal to reason. If I make a matter of fact statement such as “it is raining outside” one cannot disprove my statement by reasoning alone but may do so by looking out the window and observing the sun shining. Hume suggests that we know matters of fact about unobserved things through a process of cause and effect. I have knowledge that my essay is due next Wednesday and that the sun will rise tomorrow by referencing a syllabus or inferring from past experience. But how do we know of the principle of cause and effect? He suggests that this knowledge cannot be a priori but “… arises entirely from experience, when we find that any particular objects are constantly conjoined with each other”. He also points out that matters of fact allow for the possibility of contradiction. For example, it is not inconceivable that the sun will implode and not rise tomorrow (matter of fact) unlike the concept that tomorrow a triangle will have four sides (relations of ideas).

Hume starts Part II of §4 by reminding us that the nature of our reasoning concerning matters of fact relates to cause and effect while the foundation for that reasoning rests upon experience. It is here that he asks upon what do we rest the foundation of all conclusions from experience. He distinguishes between two types of propositions:
1. “I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an effect,”
2. “I foresee, that other objects, which are in appearance, similar, will be attended with similar effects”

The first proposition refers to present and past events while the second refers to future events based on past events. Hume argues that we cannot know that the future will resemble the past by means of demonstrative reasoning of matters of fact since there is no contradiction in suggesting that the future will not resemble the past. If all our predictions about the future are based on this principle and that principle is derived from past experience, we cannot know that it will remain true in the future except by assuming that principle from the outset. Hume suggests that we infer to the future similarities from the past but that there is no form of reasoning that can justify these inferences with absolute certainty.

At the end of §4, Hume confesses that he may simply have failed to identify an argument that could give a rational foundation for inferences to the future. He claims, however, that we learn to infer matters of fact not through reasoning but through the conditioning of custom. For example, a child or “brute beast” knows from experience that a flame will burn. Hume does not suggest that we abandon experiential learning or inference to the future from past events but only that, from the point of view of a philosopher, there is not a reasonable, discernible argument that can justify such an inference. In this respect, he is only a philosophical skeptic not a skeptic as an ordinary person.

In §5 Hume attempts to show how and why we necessarily make inferences from the past to the future and other inductive connections even though he showed in the prior section that true justification is not possible. At the beginning of §5, he expands on the differences between the ordinary life and that of “academic or skeptical philosophy”. He warns the reader that passionate philosophy, like religious thought, runs the risk of being inclined to “… reason us out of virtue, and of social enjoyment.” He claims that nature always wins out against abstract reasoning but argues that there is value in further enquiry to discover the principles behind natural processes. In this case, he is referring to the type of reasoning required to justify assumptions made by inferring past events onto the future. The main point in the beginning of this section is to remind us that he is not advocating deep skepticism relating to induction in everyday life but has the right to do so in a philosophical sense.

Hume then sets up a thought experiment to understand the process of cause and effect by asking us to imagine someone that has been thrust into the world with the strongest faculties of reason and reflection but without experience. He claims that this person would see a succession of events but would not be able to discover what would come next because he would not yet have a sense of cause and effect or custom. The world would not make sense because without custom, reasoning concerning matters of fact could not extend beyond memory and sense experience. We could not speculate nor act if custom did not give us the ability to see certain actions as having certain consequences. According to Hume, “Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone, which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past.”

Hume argues, however, that all reasoning from experience ultimately falls back upon simple impressions. What I know about current events may rest upon the impression I get from the local news channel and what I speculate about the future might be based upon impressions I am making in the present. In other words, our speculations about unobserved matters of fact rest upon a constant conjunction with our present impressions. Hume suggests that we make inferences by means of the imagination but distinguishes between fiction and belief. Fiction is the product of pure imagination while belief is a combination of imagination and a certain sentiment that we cannot control which corresponds to reality. When memory or sense impression is present to us, custom will engage belief and we will infer from that impression to what it is constantly conjoined. This force of custom functions on our beliefs and helps us make sense of the world.

Hume then reduces his argument regarding how we make inferences to three principles of connection as follows:
1. Resemblance – the likeness or absence of likeness relating to ideas or affect.
2. Contiguity – sequential or proximity to ideas or affect.
3. Causation – relates to the belief of correlation between events.

These 3 principles “… are the only bonds, that unite our thoughts together, and beget that regular train of reflection or discourse…” Custom and the three principles of connection allow us to find harmony between the course of nature and the succession of our ideas without which we could not function. He does not claim to understand the prima causa to the phenomenon but he notes that this has not stopped enquiry in other phenomena of nature. He concludes §5 by reinforcing the idea that inference is essential for human subsistence even though it is susceptible to error, sometimes slow in operation, and does not appear in the first years of infancy. Lastly, he comments that just as nature has given us use of our limbs without knowledge of the muscles, nature has also given us instinct through which the principles of inference and connection are utilized without knowledge of how this truly functions to justify belief.

The implications of Hume’s skepticism are profound. Although he allows for the contrary by appealing to the ordinary life, from a philosophical standpoint, Hume’s argument could be interpreted in 2 ways:
1. When we reason inductively we are assuming the future will resemble the past and we can never justify that assumption.
2. When we reason inductively we are blindly following a way of thinking that cannot be shown to be reliable.

Interpretation #1 is implicit in §4 Part II and is what he is generally known for as a skeptic. If we cannot reliably or rationally justify any inferences based on previous connections then everything we believe will happen must be irrational. Accordingly, the only reasoning we may trust is a priori or based on immediate sensations. Even then, impressions are subject to error and as such, may not be used as rational justification of belief. This supports both interpretations because the justification of only immediate sensation excludes inductive reasoning of any sort because connections necessarily involve temporally prior events. In that respect, we are blindly following a way of thinking that cannot be shown to be reliable. The fact that we sometimes make judgment errors or have false beliefs only supports this notion. Hume is an empiricist but strictly so because of the doubt he associates with any reasoning by connection. The implication of Humean skepticism is also profound to science because observations and connections are inherent to the development of hypotheses and models of prediction. In a nutshell, Hume supports the claim that most reasoning cannot be trusted and therefore cannot be justified. As I will show, however, Hume would not argue that we abandon science, question every single belief we possess, or claim that we are irrational by nature.

At the beginning of §5 Hume distinguishes in more detail between rationality related to the philosophical skeptic and that of an ordinary person. He does so because he realized that the knowledge and arguments of the time justified his argument against inductive epistemic certainty. He also realized that acceptance of his argument in day-to-day life was not only unrealistic but infeasible as well. He is correct to claim that epistemic certainty is out of reach due to the nature of our senses and reasoning; however, our nature, senses, and reasoning seem to do a good job of keeping us alive and moving along the path of progress. Humean skepticism would grind life to a halt if we fully accepted that every connection and association might be faulty. What would prevent the child from repeatedly putting her hand into a flame other than inductive reasoning? The real value of the argument against inductive reasoning lies in epistemology and science because it is important to remember that our reasoning may be faulty and that our belief may not be fact. The evolution debate is an example of why this important. Observation and connections across multiple fields of study strongly support the theory of evolution yet many skeptics dismiss it as “only a theory” and not fact. This is frustrating for those that support the theory but it only encourages further study to find support that will answer the challenges of the skeptics. It may be possible that science or philosophy will eventually provide a valid argument for inductive reasoning that defeats Hume’s claim. Until then, Humean skepticism demands constant academic questioning that can only benefit those that walk through everyday life with somewhat faulty reasoning.