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On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.
On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans’ bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.
If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, ‘Leftie,’ and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, ‘Leftie’ will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of ‘Leftie’s’ act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by ‘Leftie’ are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and ‘Leftie’ are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available; however, the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.
Assume that the brain’s choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.
What should the brain do?
– Michael F. Patton Jr., “Tissues in the Profession: Can Bad Men Make Good Brains Do Bad Things?”, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, January 1988
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
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My Huxley article just came out. I’m afraid it makes me sound like a libertarian. Many thanks to my friends at Lit Verlag Press.
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toddbeckett asked: Soooo... Whats with the name? The despotism of custom is everywhere...
Hey Todd, this is a quote from JS Mill. It simply means that we are repositories of received opinion and that there is therefore no neutral hermeneutical vantage point for inquiry—there is no way to get behind things like customs, loyalties, and constructs without deferring to other customs, loyalties, and constructs. We are in the business of managing or coping with life’s contingencies.
On Good Morning America (GMA as it’s been recently re-branded), G. Stephanopoulos interviewed D. Rumsfeld about his new book, Known and Unknown. I certainly recommend neither “GMA” nor Rumsfeld’s new book, but an interesting point was raised that deserves some attention. You might have missed it while your mind was being boggled by Rumsfeld’s revisionist historiography and the remarkably odd an uncircumspect juxtaposition of commentary on Mubarak and Hussein (one darling dictator and the other brutal dictator). Stephanopoulos interjected a compelling question about the cost of the war in Iraq. But first, he noted that there have been over 4,000 US deaths (a figure which does not include private contractors or post-conflict suicides), over 32,000 US casualties (which does not include the severest cases of PTSD), over 100,000 Iraqi casualties (from what I’ve seen this figure is radically deflated), and, that the US has spent over 700 billion dollars on the war (another conservative figure). After these harrowing statistics, Sephanopoulos asks:
It seems like the one question that most people want answered is the one you most don’t want to address: What responsibility do you bear for these costs?
To this, Rumsfeld deftly sidestepped the issue:
Well, of course, everyone involved in that administration bears some responsibility for the costs of our government’s actions.
When I heard this, two thoughts immediately came to mind. First, as Arendt points out, “Where all are guilty, no one is.” By deferring to the collective responsibility of the administration, Rumsfeld is implying that no one in particular is responsible for the costs that Stephanopoulos enumerated. But also, by addressing the problem this way isn’t Rumsfeld turning the tables on us? For aren’t we all vaguely complicit in the actions of the Bush administration since we are all participators in this political system? Rumsfeld downgrades personal responsibility for a watered-down variety of political guilt. And then, secondly, what if we take Rumsfeld’s confession at face value, that “everyone in that administration bears some responsibility”? What sense can we make of the political responsibility he defers to?
To address this second point, when talking about responsibility generally, I think it is best to sideline the idea that ‘responsibility’ indicates a metaphysical or dispositional state—that responsibility is worn like a millstone around the neck to which we can all point. We might all be better off seeing responsibility in the vein of social practice. This suggests that when we say “he is responsible” what we really mean is either a) he is being held responsible, or b) he is holding himself responsible/he is taking responsibility. According to this rubric, Rumsfeld is certainly not holding himself responsible; and, tilting our heads sideways, one could argue that Rumsfeld was held responsible in that since he become enough of a political liability he could not longer persist in politics—he was forced to resign.
Leaving the matter here, though, is very unsatisfying. To be sure, for those of us who think Rumsfeld played a major role in one of the great crimes of the previous administration, the war in Iraq, the fact that he bears no apparent political responsibility is troubling as it is frustrating. It seems that since we are left without recourse to hold Rumsfeld politically responsible, the best we discontents can do is to contribute to a climate of shame and reprobation that makes the possibility of Rumsfelds less likely in the future.
To my mind, Richard Rorty is one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. I would encourage everyone to pick up this very accessible collection of his essays. I mean, consider a few choice titles:
“Truth without Correspondence to Reality”
“A World without Substances or Essences”
“Ethics without Principles”
These essay titles are humorous and perhaps startling because they offer such an unexpected counterpunch to how conventional philosophical terms, like ‘truth’ and ‘reality’, have been talked about. To be sure, these titles are indicative of a philosophy that does not consider ‘truth’ or ‘knowledge’ to be the object of inquiry. On the surface, this indicates some serious challenges: for what is philosophy if it offers us no real insight or methodological fulcrum to accurately represent things as they really are? The answer to this will certainly be dissatisfying to many, and I’m afraid that there is no knock-down argument to overcome this dissatisfaction.
Rorty says that we should get rid of “the notion, which has ruled philosophy since the Greeks, that the office of knowledge is to uncover the antecedently real, rather than, as is the case with our practical judgments, to gain the kind of understanding which is necessary to deal with problems as they arise.” This “dealing with problems as they arise” is what Rorty sees as the philosophy of coping. He agrees with Dewey who wanted to “shift attention from the eternal to the future, and to do so by making philosophy an instrument of change rather than of conservation.” Rather than nailing down the concrete particulars of eternity, we cope with life’s contingencies with the hope of making life a bit more bearable in the immediate future.
To many, this may seem like warmed-over relativism—that with no grounding, a philosophy focused on coping, change, and social hope rather than representation and fundamental truth would have to be ad hoc and arbitrary. Here Rorty reminds us that “we can never be more arbitrary than the world lets us be. So even if there is no Way the World Is, even if there is no such thing as ‘the intrinsic nature of reality’, there are still causal pressures. These pressures will be described in different ways at different times and for different purposes, but they are pressures none the less.” On a basic level, this simply means that we have inherited a world that is not of our own making, and we speak a language that is not of our own creation. This is nothing shocking or all too controversial. But, it only follows that as repositories of social commitments we are better seen as managers of these commitments (and contingencies) rather than representers of reality; this is due to the very entanglements and biases implicit in those commitments.
Chief among the commitments Rorty thinks we are better off without is the belief that we have evolved to represent reality rather than cope with it. Why should this be so, he asks? Instead, Rorty asks us to take serious a claim I attributed to Brandom in an earlier post—the apparent success we attribute to our ability to represent reality might be better seen as a sophisticated kind of coping. What we have taken for granted as “knowing that” might simply be an effective variation of “knowing how.”
While I do not recommend O’Connor’s Spiritual Writings, there are several gems to be found here. For instance, she writes:
Everybody who reads Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas I would rather like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.
The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist…
These two passages speak to what is most enjoyable about O’Connor’s work—the fact that she eschews the pedantic pettiness of “Christian realism” allows us to happily misread her as a hillbilly nihilist.
I leave you with some of my favorite quotes from Wise Blood:
Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.
“I believe in a new kind of jesus,” [Haze Motes] said, “one that can’t waste his blood redeeming people with it, because he’s all man and ain’t got any God in him. My church is the Church Without Christ!”
Our talk of external things, our very notion of things, is just a conceptual apparatus that helps us foresee and control the triggering of our sensory receptors in light of previous triggering of our sense receptors. The triggering, first and last, is all we have to go on.
In saying this I too am talking of external things, namely, people and their nerve endings. Thus, what I am saying applies in particular to what I am saying, and is not meant as skeptical. There is nothing we can be more confident of than external things—some of them, anyway—other people, sticks, stones. But there remains the fact—a fact of science itself—that science is a conceptual bridge of our own making, linking sensory stimulation to sensory stimulation; there is no extrasensory perception.
I listened at first, puzzled, then with concern, and now, with sadness, to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event. President Reagan said “we must reject the idea that everytime a law is broken, society is guilty, rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”
In philosophical terms, what Palin is speaking of here is an individualistic versus a communitarian account of moral responsibility. The former sees the self as unbound by prior moral commitments, while the latter sees the self as born (thrown) into an array of encumberments and largely inherited social/moral obligations. For the individualist, the individual is a radically autonomous moral unit where the epicenter of moral freedom is found in individual choice or will. From individualist accounts of moral responsibility you will hear things like: “I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don’t know that I should have to pay for someone who did.” (Rep. Hyde), and, as Palin quoted, “We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty, rather than the lawbreaker.”
There is, on the face, something deceptively obvious to these expressions. Our notion of criminal guilt is predicated on an individualistic account of moral responsibility. It is difficult to imagine a legal system built otherwise (though it might be worth trying). Seeing all guilt in this light, however, is rather limiting and, well, flattening. For those interested, I highly recommend a short lecture given by Karl Jaspers in 1945, The Question of German Guilt. In the process of contemplating whether collective German guilt is plausible, Jaspers offers a compelling taxonomy of guilt. His categories are as follows: 1) criminal guilt, 2) political guilt, 3) moral guilt, and 4) metaphysical guilt.
There is much to be said about these categories—indeed my thesis is dedicated to this topic. It suffices to say that metaphysical guilt is rooted in a communitarian view of moral responsibility; it is our vicarious, indirect, unavoidable complicity in moral, political, or criminal crimes due to the fact that we live in community with others. This speaks to the fact that crimes are committed on our behalf, in our names, in our presence with disconcerting regularity (factory farming, slave labor in chocolate production, sweat shop labor in textile production, the war in Iraq, etc). Yet, metaphysical guilt is not criminal guilt; the manner in which blame is talked about and apportioned is unique to each. For Jaspers, there is no appropriate way to apportion blame for metaphysical guilt; it is best seen as a source for moral reflection and inner transformation. As such, we are best served by a moral posture which takes into consideration: In light of my metaphysical guilt, how can I best live with myself? This is, of course, no trivial matter because, if one has ears to hear, we are all implicated. Take an example as to what this kind of reflection looks like. Alasdair MacIntyre explains: The young German who believes that being born after 1945 means that what the Nazis did to the Jews has no moral relevance to his relationship to Jewish contemporaries bespeaks an unprecedented level of moral shallowness. While this example may seem a bit overblown, it can be easily translated into relevant terms: The individual who sees no correlation between the casual use of violent political rhetoric and political violence is morally shallow.
The kind of guilt we are talking about when we say that Palin is guilty for using violent imagery and rhetoric is metaphysical guilt. I’m afraid if one is not already disposed to think of moral responsibility in communitarian terms then one will not be inclined to take responsibility for inadvertent, vicarious complicity in a crime. And while it is a bit unfair to single out Palin’s guilt specifically, we still have every reason to wonder at and fear her moral shallowness.
(This is a book I helped edit as a research assistant for Gregory Fried.)
While ostensibly about torture, wiretapping, and the limits of executive power, the animating question at the center of this exposition is a pragmatic one: “How do we survive?” or, perhaps better, “What do we survive as?” The “we” here is, of course, participators in American democracy, but it can also be seen as generalizable to all liberal democracies and representative-style governments. Framed this way, the Frieds suggest that a national security set on survival at all costs obviously misses something—no doubt. This is reminiscent of the idea that for a liberal democracy to remain one it must fight with one arm tied behind its back.
But this is not a book about how liberal democracies pragmatically cope with troubling contingencies like terrorism and existential threats; it is a book about absolutes. Indeed, as the title suggests, something might be wrong because it is wrong. This is what morally delineates torture from wiretapping: torture is wrong because it is wrong, but wiretapping is wrong merely because it is illegal. As such, the Frieds conclude, certain executive actions might be post hoc ratified by Congress, as in the case of wiretapping, but not with torture. The Frieds differ as to how this plays out. Solicitor General Fried thinks prosecuting the Bush administration for authorizing torture might unsettle the body politic. Dr. Fried, on the other hand, thinks it to be a matter of restoring national integrity. On this point, I certainly side with Dr. Fried.
I led with the question “What do we survive as?” because I find it to be a more compelling one than “Is torture or wiretapping absolutely wrong?” I have no comprehensive argument as to why this is so except my own suspicion that all absolutist accounts are merely ways of rationalizing moral preferences. That is, our hope to survive as X leads some of us to conclude that aspects of X must be absolutely so. This is another way of saying that in spite of our tendency to think in terms of absolutes, human needs and desires carry with them their own rationalizations and justifications. To put this in more starkly pragmatic terms, Robert Brandom suggests what we call “knowing that” is always merely a kind of “knowing how.” What we think of as “knowing that” something is true, for instance, can always be understood as a component of the “knowing how” of successfully coping with life’s contingencies.
As Augustine, Pascal and Bosch so profoundly understood, moreover, the great enemy of religion is not science, not the active profession of unbelief, but rather the silent and pervasive plausibility of earthly need as a metaphysics of ordinary life. In the desires and needs of the body, human life can find all its justification.
Ignatieff explores what is lost by focusing on the narrow, political process of translating certain human needs into the language of rights: food, clothing, shelter, medical care. The assumption here is that the transformation of needs into rights, broadly speaking, falls under the auspices of politics. He explains, “Politics is not only the art of representing the needs of strangers; it is also the perilous business of speaking on behalf of needs which strangers have had no chance to articulate on their own.” Understood as such, the tension between liberal and conservative political points of view is less about what constitutes human need than it is about which needs should be enshrined in the language of rights.
Here, Ignatieff is addressing the limitations of rights language. So even though he certainly assumes that “Rights language offers a rich vernacular for the claims an individual may make on or against the collective”, one can see that Ignatieff does not take the time to recapitulate a politically liberal defense in favor of the broad construal of rights language to cover basic physical needs. Instead, the novelty of this book is that it is largely dedicated to the problem that rights language is “relatively impoverished as a means of expressing individuals’ needs for the collectivity.” Indeed, this book confronts the fact that the rights language of liberal democracies can only reasonably accommodate a rather small set of all plausible need. The much broader set of need includes: dignity, fraternity, love, belonging, respect, etc.
Ignatieff suggests that this might merely be a crisis of language. That is to say, in the same way (human) rights language emerged as not only a plausible but a normative standard for human conduct, so too might a language of solidarity and belonging emerge that takes seriously the post-Humean “pervasive plausibility of earthly need as a metaphysics of ordinary life.” The task still remains, Ignatieff explains, “to find a language for our need for belonging.” Indeed, if and when such a language emerges, it will certainly take seriously the need for strangers.