Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Dogmas of the New Atheists

I am atheist, I do not believe in god, or even God. I've never believed. I've tried, but it never really worked. But that never bothered me too much, I have no problem living without a god or gods. What is starting to get to me is these so called New Atheists. They annoy me to no end for a few reasons. They love them some Muslim bashing. They make claims about theologies about which they obviously know nothing. But most of all the claim to hate dogma, all the while holding dogmatic stances.

The First Dogma: Reason above all else.

Fairly self explanatory, but perhaps I'll expand. This is the apparent belief that only the use of reason applied to evidence we find in the real world can give us knowledge of the world. I've never seen this explicitly defended by the new atheists, though there are certainly philosophers, not even recent ones, who have argued for or against this position.

The Second Dogma: Causality

It may seem a silly thing to call a dogma, but it is one nonetheless. There is no one who has, to my knowledge, proved causality. I don't even know how one would go about doing such a thing.

The third Dogma: What Science can show us in the world is what really exists.

This is one of my favorite. Why? Because it clearly contradicts the First dogma. How can the fact that, as even scientists agree, theories are always tentative and are thus unable to exactly describe the world, assuming there is one, be supported by reason? Clearly the problem is the second dogma, there must be something causing those theories to be what they are.

Finally I'd like to address a point that annoys me to no end: Ockham's Razor. It is not a law of nature nor of logic. It is not always right. It is a convenience when working up a theory and is often the best way to theorize, but to say that does not mean one can use it as an argument against God, or against whatever you which to turn it. Why can I not coin Shakespeare's Razor, that says that one should always multiply entities? I suppose it wouldn't always be helpful, but neither is the stubborn belief that the simplest explination is always the closest to the truth.

P.S. And the Philosopher hating is getting on my nerves. Science wouldn't exist if it weren't for philosophers. A whole lot of stuff wouldn't, so quit with the barbed remarks. If you really think reason is so great then I suggest you try to reason your way through some philosophy before you dismiss it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On who and what is left out

A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle
-James Keller
There are a number of problems with Rawls’ conception of political justice. The greatest of these is the issue of what entities are considered in the original position. In Justice as Fairness these entities are restricted to those parties which possess “the two moral powers.” This is the major problematic aspect of Rawls’ conception of political justice because it assumes that the only entities which involve themselves in society, or are forced to be involved in society, are humans with “the two moral powers.” This is patently untrue. Society forces its rules upon not only those with “the two moral powers” but also on those without them. This includes not just humans who lack one or both of these powers, for whatever reason, be it developmental disability or the result of an accident, but also animals which are ruled by human law.

The problem with Rawls’ original position is not just that it is restricted to specific people, but it is this combined with the fact that those negotiating in the original position are self interested that causes problems. If we assume self interestedness and assume that the entities which can enter into the original position are limited, in Rawls’ case by the capacity for moral development, then we come up against a situation where any entity not included in the original position is considered to have only derivative value in the resulting conception of political justice. We see this in Rawls in that he gives no justification for the protection of those entities outside those included in the original position. Because of this we have a result that I would find terribly unjust, that any entity not included in the original position has no protection except those that entities which are included in the original position choose to give them.

This becomes a problem further because the goods of those entities which are included in the original position differ by group or individual, and because the comprehensive systems which those groups or individuals adhere to give differing amount of value to entities not included in the original position, down to no value at all. If there exists a comprehensive system which gives no value to those entities which are not included in the original position then individuals which adhere to said comprehensive system can make a compelling argument that the system of political justice allows them to treat entities not included in the original position in whatever way they may wish, up to and including torture and killing, because to stop the individual from acting as such would violate their rights, assuming that the entity acted upon has no derivative value for other entities included in the original position.

For example, if I am included in the original position then I am given rights and allowed to pursue my goods. If I have a comprehensive system wherein torturing animals is a good, say as a religious rite, then the government which results from the two principles must allow me to torture animals to at least some extent. This is because of the second principle in which the difference principle says that if there is a possible state of distribution of goods where the goods of the most advantaged are increased then the goods of the least advantaged must be maximized. Practically speaking this means that the political institutions must be put together in such a way that even if the majority of people think that no one should be able to torture cats, their goods, or their comprehensive system in this case, must be forwarded in such a way so as to allow me some of my goods, cat torturing that is.

What this means even more so is that it is not only limited to cats, but I can also include in my goods the damaging of any entity of which I am allowed ownership. So any animal or plant or even people who do not have the capacity for moral development, because they were not included in the original position. So a sociopath or someone who is developed or incapacitated such that they have little to no rational ability are also not protected by the original position. This lack of protection means that such a person is fair game for whatever treatment society wishes to heap upon them, perhaps as a medical guinea pig or as slave. This differs little from many older political systems but in the extent of entities to which protection is extended. For hundreds of years blacks in America were held as slaves with the justification being that they were not mentally fit to live as free people. Similarly, women have historically held, and in many places now hold, a position subordinate to men on similar rationale. Rawls’ conception of political justice does away with this subordination in theory, though not necessarily in practice, a topic outside the scope of this paper.

To give an existing wrong for which there is no provision in Rawls’ conception of political justice we need only look to the practice of factory farming. As I write this there are an enormous number of animals being treated in a way which if a human was subjected to it would be considered inhumane in the extreme. But Rawls’ conception of political justice gives no protection for these poor creatures. One could argue that they are not a part of political society and thus do not deserve inclusion in a conception of political justice, but this returns us to the situation of the sociopath or developmentally disabled. They are necessarily a part of society because they have been forced into society. They have been born and bred, quite literally, within the milieu of the state and contribute to society in a real way. Do they not as such deserve real protection and not just derivative value?

There are a number of possible ways to allow for the intrinsic value of those entities excluded from Rawls’ original position. One of these ways would be to include them as full parties considered in the original position. This has the drawback of being too inclusive. We cannot expect a mouse to have the same rights and privileges as a person who has full capabilities for rational thought and it is absurd to say that a mouse should be able to hold political office. However, if we accept that all entities should be considered to be covered by the two principles of justice then we would have to allow for mice or rabbits or dogs to hold office, or at least structure society such that their opportunity to hold offices is supported. This option seems out.

A second option is to include them in the original position but only in regards to the second half of the second principle. The reasoning for this is that we know that these entities participate in society and we know that they have goods which they would pursue, and so we know that if they had a choice of distribution and they behaved rationally then they would choose the difference principle, for the same reasons that Rawls gives for those entities he includes in the original position. This would result in a protection of those entities not included in the original position by Rawls and would not lead to conundrums such as whether a mouse or rabbit should hold office. I’ll admit some influence from Nozick on this point, as he recommends that the principle of utility might be used in regards to animals in a political state; but, the argument against the utility principle in Justice as Fairness give reason for people to choose the difference principle, so why not for those other entities not included?

It might be argued that this arrangement still puts the entities not included in Rawls original position at a distinct disadvantage, and I do not disagree. The point here is not to perfect the theory of justice as fairness, but to make it more fair. We can look back to the case of factory farming for an example of how this would be more fair. The cows, or whatever animals are farmed, will be included in the calculations of the difference principle. In this case we would find that we could not, most likely, allow the mistreatment of the animal as an acceptable trade off for the good of someone eating meat. This would hold in other cases as well, such as for the sociopath or the developmentally disabled. In addition, nature would be necessarily preserved as habitat for animals, or, if we wanted to include nature in general in our calculation, nature would be protected in and of itself. The last of the suggestions would clearly bring up issues far to complex to cover in a short paper, but it should be left open for consideration.

An additional argument might be that including entities which lack the two moral powers will denigrate the position of those whom Rawls includes in the original position. On the surface this seems to be a fair objection, but in fact it is just another way of saying that said entities lack moral standing. It is good to remember here that both the first principle of justice and the first part of the second principle are prior to the difference principle. Or put another way, If I light a candle while under a spotlight it does not decrease the light but increase it. The point is to expand the conception of justice.

I hope I have shown that Rawls’ conception of political justice is lacking and that it can be expanded so as to include more entities within it. I for one cannot countenance a theory of justice which allows for torture and murder simply because of reasons of rationality or moral ability. The inclusion of those entities not possessing those traits can be included in such a way as shown above without denigrating those previously included in the original position.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Animals and Rights

After reading Rawls' Justice as Fairness the biggest thing that hit me was the lack of any talk about non-human animals and where they stood in terms of political justice. He made it pretty clear, by omission, that are given no intrinsic value but only were of derivative value, that is, they are only valuable insofar as they are valuable to humans. As far as I'm concerned this sort of anthropocentric view is totally unsupportable. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, If viewed only as of derivative value then all sorts of abuses and poor treatment can be justified. What is wrong with the horrendous conditions of factory farming if the animals treated as such have no intrinsic value? Ultimately this would lead to the extinction of nearly all, if not all, non-human species of animals, as one by their simple existence got in the way of some human right of free travel, or the human good of eating meat.

Second, where do we draw the line between those who are protected and those who are not protected by society? It's easy to say that humans should come first, but lacking a religious argument there is little support for that position. One could argue that it is human rationality that sets us apart from animals, and other forms of life, but I'd imagine that there are developmentally disabled people out there of lower intelligence than some exceptionally intelligent animals, or there is the possibility thereof. But does that mean that it's okay to kill and eat those persons? Or do we simply define the level of protection as covering any animal which has a certain level of intelligence? This too has problems. It is essentially an ad hoc solution that is based on an ideal of anthropocentric thought, wherein we, humans, are the standard by which all other animals are judged. But the problem is that the vast majority, if not all, animals are of such intelligence that they cannot be allowed political rights to the extent that humans enjoy them.

What this boils down to is essentially that we have a species we call human (Homo Sapien) and yet we have no conclusive way to pick every individual humans out as being different from non-humans, except by our intuitions. In evolutionary biology it is a difficult thing to delineate what a species really is. Many of the definitions of species end up making delineating basically arbitrary. For example, the use of genetic markers for defining species does not rely on some innate aspect of a species, it relies on humans saying "you get to be in this species if you have this DNA."

Why is this important? Well, we're going to figure out what exactly we mean by human, and who gets to be human before we can talk about justice.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Language and Colonialism: escaping the trap.

Over at KTM's blog there is a good post on the problems of studying and/or talking about other cultures without the discourse being inherently orientalizing or colonial due to the imposition of our words upon the social structures of others. I find that I run into this problem a lot in philosophy discourse.

Right now I'm reading translations of Neo-Confucian philosophers, a term made up by the west, and one of the frustrations I have is that they, the translators, translate essential concepts into English. My preferred method would be to leave a number of concepts in the original language as to better understand what the authors are saying as opposed to making it easier to misunderstand by using words I know already, words which have connotative meaning that situate the original texts in such a way as to beg misinterpretation.

One of these words is li, not to be confused with li though both are problematic in terms of translation. Li is generally translated as pattern or principle, but both those translations lack the meaning of li, they are used simply as English substitutes for a Chinese word that is rich in connotative meaning.

Of course, the best method for studying philosophy in another language is to learn that language, but it seems a bit much to expect anyone who wishes to know something of Chinese philosophy to learn Chinese, there'd be no end to the language learning.* But, it doesn't seem to much to ask to do our best to situate the words in their own discourse and not simply drop in an English substitute.

*Not that that would necessarily be bad, mind you.