Saturday, November 27, 2010

Aristotle's Virtue Ethics: Is There Only One Right Way?

"Failure is possible in many ways, but success is possible in only one." --Aristotle

Is there just one right answer for success? This sounds correct as an intuition or as a general rule. In any skill, such as hammering a nail, there is an indefinite list one could make of the things that the hammerer could do wrong: the hammerer could miss the nail, hammer sideways and bend the nail, hammer too hard and put a dent in the wood after, hammer to softly so that the nail never goes in, etc. As a skill, hammering accords with the doctrine of the mean as well: in order to hammer correctly, one should not have excess nor deficiency of force, one should find the right weight distribution from which to hold the hammer and have it work efficiently, one should hit the hammer to the nail at one point of contact, neither too far one way or another, and at the right angle, etc. In the small skill of hammering, there seems to be little room for interpretation about the right thing to do. With building in general, however, or, even more broadly, architecture, there seems to be much more to be said about what the right thing to do is. On the same neighborhood block with the same terrain and foundations, many houses are built with differing floor plans, landscape designs, and colors. There does not seem to be one correct way only to build a house. If there were, architecture as an art would end because a master of architecture would always determine what the one way to build a house was for any given parameter, and were there many similar foundations and parameters, the same houses would go up. Architects, like many artists, prefer variety. Success is not one answer, but many possibilities. A master architect will make the most of the possibilities such that his or her structure will be the definition of excellence for that lot, and will be defined by his or her apprentences as the one correct thing to do. But this does not change that the architect could have gone in a completely different direction from the outset and could have still made such a defining structure in some other way. Simmilarly, It does not follow that when the master architect happens to build upon another lot of the same parameters, he or she will not build a completely different structure that will then define excellence. And so, while intuitively there are so many more wrong acts than right acts, there may be, for a true master of a skill, an indeterminite number of right acts as well, though admittedly probably not as many as wrong acts.

This holds true for virtue. In social situations, there are many acts one could make that would make him or her look petty, trivial, boorish, or just insane; and a limited number of actions that would make him or her look respectful, witty, and intelligent. And yet, it is not clear how limited the latter is. Being witty is just about finding a creative or unexpected outlook and uncovering that outlook in a creative way. The creative way cannot be just any way: it cannot be too esoteric as to be not understood, yet it cannot be too exoteric as to make the listener think that anyone off of the street would have understood. And yet, even for all of the ways that being witty can go wrong, it does not follow that there is just one way to be witty in a given situation. A master of conversation would make use of all possibilities, and which ever one happened to facilitate one possibility in a particular situation, the conversationalist would use it to his or her advantage.

Compatibilism is Nonsense: W.T. Stace's distinction between free acts and unfree acts is like picking between aspects of a Necker Cube

The compatibilist philosopher W.T. Stace defines free will as follows: "[Free acts] are all caused by desires, or motives, or by some sort of internal psychological states of the agent's mind. The unfree acts, on the other hand, are all caused by physical forces or physical conditions; outside the agent." Free will for Stace becomes a dualism of inward states and outward conditions.

Stace brings up one example of a borderline case (a case that could be free or unfree) as being a thug who threatens to shoot you unless you give him your wallet. In giving your wallet, did you act freely? You did if you apply the definition, Stace says, because your action was caused by your fear of death. However, Stace futher says that most people would say that you acted under compulsion because the gun "at your forehead [was] so nearly approximated to actual force that we tend to say the case was one of compulsion. It is a borderline case." After this example, Stace strangely drops his examination of borderline cases altogether.

It is not that there are boarderline cases that is or would be a problem for Stace's definition. The problem is when every supposed paradigm case, such as going hungry in the desert or signing a waiver by police force, is taken to be a paradigm case (of being unfree in the examples I just gave) because it is not examined with the same scrutiny Stace uses for his one example of a boardeline case. Because an action has been shown to be compatibilist free does not mean that it has been shown not to be compatibilist unfree. I take that same scrutiny Stace uses in the borderline case to show that there are no paradigm cases to be found, only borderline cases.

If I am at Carl's Jr. and I have only fifty cents, I can only get one cookie, and not a hamburger I want. I get the cookie. For Stace's definition, this is clearly an action caused by outward conditions. A free action must be caused by inward states. I am at Carl's Jr. I am hungry. I have only fifty cents. Something bigger and meater would be better, like that hamburger, but I will get the cookie and see if that satisfies some of the hunger. I could keep my fifty cents, but I'm hungry. I get the cookie. For Stace's definition, this is clearly an action caused by inward states. And so, which apect, the inner or the outer, caused this action? Stace might argue that this is another borderline case. Yet, which action could be said to be apart from both inward states and outward conditions, where one and the other could not be made an explicit part of that action like aspects of a necker cube?

Perhaps Stace had in mind another concept for what makes an action free or unfree that is not contained in the definition that he provided. Perhaps the distinction shouldn't be the inward vs. outward, but my desires vs. my undesires.

In this case, I do not desire to type up this paper. However, I desire a good grade. Why do I desire a good grade, isn't it just a letter and a number? On second thought, I don't desire a good grade per se, but recognition, and this grade might help me get that. Not likely, a lot of people get good grades, what's so recognizable about that? That's true, getting a good grade is not that recognizable, and could even make one miss out on other life-enriching.Yet, I see that I don't desire a good grade so much as I despise a bad grade. And so, I don't desire a bad grade and I don't desire typing this paper at the same time that I desire typing this paper and I desire getting a good grade. I don't mean to appear as if I'm merely playing a language game here; However, it should be clear that any action now has aspects of both desires and undesires. I desire to type this paper because I desire a good grade, I desire to learn, I desire to get work done, etc. At the same time, I don't desire to type this paper because it is difficult, it is late, I am tired, etc. A distinction between desires and undeasires is crucial for my alternate conception of Stace's definition here because acts done when the person does not desire them are unfree and ones done when the person wants to do them are free. A person starving in the desert does not desire to go without food and is therefore acting unfreely. A robber with plenty of food goes to rob a bank because he doesn't desire living a less-than-luxurious lifestyle, and is therefore acting unfreely. Stace says that determinists still a have moral responsibility to put robbers in prison because Stace does not desire being robbed, and is therefore acting unfreely. If every action can be seen as a product of both a desire with an accompanying undesire then Stace's distinction about free an unfree acts is meaningless, as both are an aspect of every action like aspects of a necker cube.

Let's look at one more distinction between free and unfree acts that Stace might have meant when he made his definition. An action is free when it is caused by an agents beliefs and desires and an action is unfree when it is caused by another's beliefs and desires.

Let's examine a robbery. A cashier is held at gunpoint and told to hand over the money in his register. For the cashier's part, nothing about his desires or beliefs caused the gun to be pointed at him. The gun is there due to desires outside of the cashier, namely those of the robber. The cashier desires that he live. The cashier opens his register and hands over the money.

The way that you tell that the cashier is not acting on his own desires is that, without the robber and his desires that point his gun at the cashier, the action of the cashier handing over the money would never have occured. The action of the cashier is unfree. The action of the cashier would have been different if it were not for the robber's desires. However, at the same time, the The way that you tell that the cashier is acting on his own desires is that, without desiring to live (such as if the cashier were suicidal), the action of the cashier handing over the money would never have occured. The action of the cashier is free. The action of the cashier would have been different if it were not for the cashier's desires.

An example need not be so drastic as this. The cashier had desired a job and so had applied to become a cashier, and so his action to do so would have been different had he desired instead to remain unemployed. However, his action to apply for this job also would have been different were it not for the desires of the founder of the business to open up shop. And so, was the cashier's action to apply at this particular job free or unfree? This distinction suffers the same problems as the other two, namely that both aspects are a part of every action like aspects of a necker cube. The problem with this last distinction, in particular, becomes clear when we take another's desire over an agent as causing an action as being something apart from what that agent also desires, namely to follow (or even not to follow) what the other person desires.

One further example may show glimpses of the problem with distinguishing betwen free and unfree acts. Let's look at the robber again with any of the previously mentioned distinctions that one cares to use. The robber desires more money and so robs the cashier. Clearly, this is a free act, as the robber's actions are caused by his motivations for more money. However, the robber is compelled to use a gun because of the cashier's desire to keep his job and not just freely give money to strangers. Clearly, had it not been for the cashier's desire to keep his job, the robber would not have acted with a gun. The robber's action is unfree. This may sound morally reprehensible, but that is not the subject of this argument. What's so strange is that Stace mentions as his borderline case such a robbery, then admits that it is one example of a borderline case, that the definition is still sound for most other actions, and then drops the subject altogether, not caring to take an ordinary example or another of his previous examples in oder to see if they would hold up to such distinction.

Every action has both aspects of inward states, or desires, coupled with outward conditions, undesires, or another's inward states. Therefore, every action is both free and unfree, and Stace's distinction is meaningless.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Descartes' Mirage

"All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived."--Rene Descartes, Meditation I

In the Meditations, it is never clear what Descartes has in mind by claiming that the senses have deceived him.

A deception occurs when a falsity is put forward as truth. I can hold up a cup and say that it is a spoon, and this deception would be one of language and of our cultural practices involving cups and spoons, and the proper naming of them. The deception of the senses, however, is not one of language or culture.

Let's turn to some paradigm examples and see if we can investigate what is meant when one believes that the senses have deceived. One prominent example of the deception of the senses is the mirage in the desert.

A desert marine would see a wavy spot on the horizon as being heat and humidity, and not as being a lake, based on all of his experiences with discriminating desert landscapes. If a kid finds himself in the desert and wants water, he would see the desert landscape in an entirely different form from that of the marine. More specifically, the desert landscape would show up in a much more limited and largely meaningless and indistinguishable form. The boy has perhaps seen water in the distance before. One aspect that water in the distance has is that it has a wavy aspect. The horizon, through his senses, then shows up as having a lake. However, there is no lake there. Are the child's senses deceiving him?

No, the child picks up on the aspects about the desert landscape that he has uncovered in his life in other situations. Being in a new environment, aspects that correlate with past experience are very few. What little significance there is comes from the aspects he has uncovered in other situations where he has had experience with wavy spots. This uncovering of aspects is what makes environments familiar or foreign. One aspect of a lake is that it looks wavy in the distance. Another aspect of a lake is that it does not constantly retreat to the horizon as one moves toward it. This would not be lakes as the child has experienced them. And so, the child will have to redefine lakes in order to incorporate this aspect of retreating toward the horizon, or he will have to say that this wave that also retreats toward the horizon is something he has not dealt with before. If the child continues to find more aspects of this wavy thing in the distance that do not correspond with lakes, he may very well drop this notion that it is a lake. In this, the senses have not deceived, but are used to uncover more and more aspects of the situation. The wavy spot is still a wavy spot to both the child and the marine. As more and more aspects are uncovered about the dessert landscape, the child may become as adept as the marine and even discriminate aspects of the desert that the marine has not been trained or experienced to see. This would be the idea of a 'wild' native who has become adept to the environment from constant interaction with it.

If I may be so quick as to use another prominent example, and hammer the point further, let's use this analysis on a child in a supermarket who mistakes a stranger for his mother.

If a child takes another lady in the supermarket to be his mother, then he has seen those aspects that do indeed make the person his mother. This is not a deception of the senses. Once more aspects are uncovered that reveal this stranger lady to be a stranger, the lady has to be reassessed as being another woman. The senses have not deceived, but are rather the basis from which a deception could be assessed in the first place. The child correctly says, "Alas, I was mistaken!" not because his senses need to be fixed, but because what he took to be solely aspects of his mother are now seen to be aspects of other women as well. The child no longer equates merely blond hair with being his mother, and perhaps now notices that there are many nuances (aspects) of the mother's blond hair that are different from the blond hair of the stranger, and so the child can now discriminate these nuances. The blond hair itself, however, has not deceived anybody. What the children in both the desert and supermarket examples have gained is a greater world, one that has more and more aspects uncovered as meaningful. The blond hair is the same blond hair and the wavy spot in the desert is the same wavy spot in the desert for the experienced and inexperienced alike.