Archive for November 2006

Trolleys and planes

November 26, 2006

Got back from vacation. Spent a week in New England visiting my parents and cousins. My parents worked me like a dog while I was up there. They are putting gutters on their house and needed to have trenches dug for the drain pipes. My back was so tired it was almost in spasms and I am still sore from the ordeal. Thank God I could come back home and rest!

Since the days up there are so short, sunset was around 4:00 PM each day, I did get a chance to read some. The book I took with me was Moral Minds by Marc Hauser. It is very interesting and requires some reflective thought about what causes us to come up with our ethical framework. He proposes three different classifications: the Kantian who builds his ethics on reasoned universal principles, the Humean who correlates ethics with emotional response, or the Rawlsian who uses unconscious analysis to form intuitive judgements prior to reason or emotion.

One part I found fascinating was the famous philosophical thought experiment about the runaway trolley. He gives the basic formulation and then throws two variations at the reader. One has the large person on a small diversion that will slow the trolley and give the group time to escape the trolley’s path, the other has the large person in front of a massive rock that will stop the trolley. Hauser informs us of two principles that explain some of the moral grammar involved. The principle of prohibition of intentional battery forbids unpermitted, unprivileged bodily contact that involves physical harm. The principle of double effect which allows foreseen harm to occur as long as that it is a side effect of the act rather than the primary intent of the act, and the primary intent must be weighted towards an objectively justifiable utilitarian good.

The thing that got me thinking about these experiments was that the ones that involve either battery or redirection sans rock, is that they seem far less certain to accomplish their goal. Even though we are supposed to take it as fact from the wording of the experiment that they will stop or sufficiently slow the trolley, my intuition refuses to accept that as a fully believable consequence. The original formulation tells us that we are dealing with morons walking on a trolley track oblivious to the world. Slowing down the trolley may not have any effect at all. I find it a little bit easier to imagine a person that is large enough to stop or derail the trolley, but that also seems unlikely. Even if it was likely, the personal nature of the assault, as well as involving someone who is much more of a bystander than another moron walking on the tracks, takes away all of its moral legitimacy.


Saturday Book Quote

November 11, 2006

A quote from the book Monty Python and Philosophy in the chapter “Tractatus Comedo-Philosophicus” by Alan Richardson, where he coins the phrase reductio ad humorum.

Wittgenstein does not quite release himself from the hold of the idea that there must be some sense to “I know this is my hand.” After all, Moore asserted it in all seriousness when doing philosophy. From our current perspective, we can see this “special scenario” in which the claim makes sense: as a philosopher, Moore is doing something like stand-up comedy. The standard rules of sense-making in the world are altered or suspended because we are in the realm of comedy. Here is the place at which the subversiveness of Monty Python’s humor comes to the fore: If philosophy is bad, unconscious comedy, then the philosopher seeks to make the world into the setting of his comedy. But, in skits like the hijacking skit, we discover that people who engage in the world in ways philosophers claim to do not live in our world, and their actions in their worlds render those worlds less comprehensible to us than is our world. The search for clarity and precision that is the stock in trade for philosophers makes the world harder to engage in and more opaque…

Saturday Book Quote

November 4, 2006

Seems there has been a conversion of faith on the right side of the blogosphere. The impressively smart John Derbyshire has decided to leave the Christian faith. This prompted me to remember a sweet little book called Just Shy of Harmony, where a Quaker pastor has lost his faith. The following passage occurs after he told the church elders of his situation.

  “We can’t let this get out,” Fern wailed. “What will people think? They’ll think we’re all atheists, that’s what they’ll think. There go our chicken noodle sales. Did you think about that, Sam? Did you think how this might affect our noodle sales? Of course you didn’t. You were too busy thinking about yourself. It used to be if people didn’t believe in God they had the Christian decency to keep it to themselves.”

  Sam hung his head. This is what I get for casting my cares on the body of believers, he thought.

  Asa Peacock cleared his throat. “I think we’re being too hard on Sam. He’s come to us with a problem, and I think we need to help him, just like he would help us if we were struggling. Sam, what can we do for you?” Asa reached across the table and laid his hand on Sam’s.


  Dale started to say something, but Miriam saw where it was headed – before long they’d be embroiled in a three-hour theological debate on whether God listens to the prayers of a struggling man. She interrupted him. “Sam, I want to thank you for being honest about your doubts. I can’t help but think we’re partly to blame. I’m certain we’ve been a discouragement to you in many ways.” She paused, and her voice softened. “It has been my experience that doubts about God always begin with doubts about people. I know when you came here you had high hopes for our little church. I suspect we haven’t always been enthusiastic. We could, and should, have done more.”

Natural Law

November 2, 2006

  There are some interesting arguments going on with Dr. Feser over at Right Reason.  He is probably the best defender of natural law philosophy that I am aware of, although that is a pretty small set to choose from.  Strangely enough, he is as much at odds with “new” natural law philosophy as he is with modern philosophy.  The traditional natural law, as he explains it, is based upon Aristotle’s metaphysics while the new natural law is based upon Locke’s principles of being owned by God.

  Since I find talk about God distracting, I will concentrate on Aristotle’s metaphysics.  To cut to the chase, Aristotle created a synthesis between Plato’s highly dualistic universe and the sensible one we live in.  He expressed his theory of causes as four:  material, formal, efficient, and final.  Nowadays, many people reduce it to just two in material and formal, since efficient causes are just a stage towards the final cause and actualization of the formal cause.  He explained final cause, or telos, in terms of what the nature of a thing is aimed at.  For ethics, this means human happiness in accordance with virtue.

  Virtue is then defined as moral control of the irrational appetites, often simplified down to the concept of moderation in habit or the golden mean.  To determine the rational and objective middle course is not to follow blindly an overreaching principle, but to make a prudential judgement based on the facts relative to the situation.

  Intellectual virtue is also at the top of his list of nobler things, in particular the contemplation of truth.  Which is a tad bit convenient a thing for a philosopher to choose, but nobody (including Aristotle) is immune from self-aggrandizement.  The utopian schemes of Plato, with his philosopher-kings as guardians and noble liars, is testimony to that fact.