Plato’s suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Philosopher Timothy Williamson over at TMP Online writes a long essay on the nature of philosophical dialogues. Worth the reading, particularly his suggestion that dialogues may have more than just pedagogical value, they could still be useful as a form of scholarship.

Another long read, this one by Michael Specter at the New Yorker. Specter explores the surprisingly difficult question of whether we might be able to develop healthy fast food (not at all an oxymoron).

The trouble with nutrition research, and why it’s a good idea not to pay too much attention to the latest study.

Economist Angus Deaton argues that helping poor countries is much more complicated, and often downright counterproductive, than most well intentioned people think.

A rather debatable article in The Stone about considering ourselves mammals, rather than humans or primates, in order to reduce our tendency to specieism. I’d be curious to hear what my readers think of it.

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

68 replies

  1. Just for example, isn’t it amazing how few philosophers have devoted any serious time and attention to the vexed moral question of how to kill or enslave people who aren’t like us?

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  2. This conversation has been an interesting example of how ideological commitments shape viewpoints. Ideology is, by necessity, an extreme position. It has its own logic and it is immune to countervailing evidence. It thus lacks flexibility and cannot accommodate nuanced pictures of the world. It resists alternative viewpoints and this resistance is usually determined and tenacious.

    Why do people adopt ideologies? And why are people so passionately devoted to their ideologies? It is a persistent feature of our society and so these are important questions.

    Ideologies do have positive features. They act as an irritant that causes us to re-examine our assumptions. They sharpen our arguments and makes us more aware of why we hold the beliefs we do. For that to happen we must overcome our irritation and harness all the patience we can muster. But even Stoics find themselves tested.

    A related phenomenon is that of the querdenker or contrarian. The querdenker can be reliably depended on to oppose any received position and usually does so with determination, intelligence and insight. Querdenkers are usually not committed to any ideology since that that would be a contradiction of what a querdenker stands for.

    Of the two phenomena, the querdenker is far more valuable because of the absence of fixed commitments. The querdenker is a useful irritant. We need the querdenker to overcome our tendency to adopt overly rigid viewpoints and thus the querdenker is the polar opposite of the ideologist. Even so, a degree of Stoicism is needed to deal with the continual and provocative challenges of the querdenker.

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  3. Blog mixing with the EA? Well why not! So over there Dantip has asked if we think that thoughts can be immoral in of themselves. Then over here we have a standard “Coel versus those who’d dismiss him as a Scientismist.” Fun fun! Quite refreshingly, this one does seem to have resolved in an admirable fashion — a realization that agreement cannot be reached given that separate definitions for the term “morality” are being used. I do hope for similar results over at the EA, but we’ll see.

    Furthermore I’d love to receive more feedback regarding the morality definition which I’ve presented (found in this comment: http://theelectricagora.com/2015/10/30/repugnant-thoughts/comment-page-1/#comment-646). It certainly does fall on Coel’s side. The premise is that morality only exists in us, as a product of our empathy and theory of mind forms of qualia. So do chimpanzees tend to feel troubled when they perceive suffering in others? Do they have concerns about how they are perceived by others? Yes I’m quite sure that without such “morality,” they’d never have become such a social creature.

    Now Robin Herbert, I see that you don’t much like the way that Coel and I lean in this regard, and stated the following just above: “The purpose of a moral system is to make decisions which transcend all of that if we can.” Yes it should be perfectly reasonable to go “emergent” with this term, and whenever I am considering your ideas, I’ll then need to interpret your meaning through your definitions (even when I prefer my own). This bit of logic seems so obvious to me, and yet often seems to be ignored in practice at all levels.

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  4. Hi Robin,

    Incidentally, I wish people would stop talking of evolution as though it had some kind of agency, so that our features have “functions”

    While the agency is metaphorical, it is a valid and indeed necessary way of talking about ourselves. The “function” of our legs is to move us around. The “function” of our eyes is to gain information about our surroundings. Etc.

    We evolved co-operating with those on whom we depend for survival but also to best chase away or kill those with whom we compete for survival, which doesn’t seem to fit with that nice sounding “living in a cooperative and social ecological niche” “function”.

    You are indeed right that we evolved with a range of emotions and tendencies, including tendencies that we label “aggression” and “selfishness” and including the tendencies that we label “moral”. It is indeed the case that, from the point of view of why evolution programmed us with moral feelings, the “function” of such programming is to facilitate social and cooperative living.

    Similarly, moral systems cannot be called anatomical features.

    You wouldn’t call “walking” an anatomical feature, but it is a function of the anatomy, and in the same way moral systems are a function of the anatomy.

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  5. Hi Coel,

    Like it or nor, the decision to kill or no to kill, to enslave or not to enslave are decisions about morality, the way most people use the word. Or would you prefer to say that decisions we label.’immoral’ fall outside of the subject of morality?

    So if morality can be said to have a function in Biology, then it is to.promote behaviours which will increase the probability that certain patterns of molecules will survive, be it by promoting cooperation, murder or rape. If you said that the function of altruism was to promote cooperation, then you would be closer to the mark.

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  6. Hi Philosopher Eric,

    Let me correct you on one thing. Theory of mind does not mean that you are concerned about what others think of you. It refers to a set of methods by which we can determine what others are thinking or feeling. It is usually innate, but that can be learned. You can have a full set of functioning ToM skills and not give a toss what others think of you.

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  7. Hi Robin,

    Like it or nor, the decision to kill or no to kill, to enslave or not to enslave are decisions about morality, the way most people use the word.

    Indeed so.

    So if morality can be said to have a function in Biology, then it is to promote behaviours which will increase the probability that certain patterns of molecules will survive, …

    Yes, which is more or less what I said.

    … be it by promoting cooperation, murder or rape.

    Except that the decision to label something “moral” as opposed to “immoral” is a human value judgement, and humans tend to attach the label “moral” to cooperation but not to murder and rape. (Though that’s not an absolute rule, as exemplified by ISIS.)

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  8. Hi Coel,

    “You wouldn’t call “walking” an anatomical feature, but it is a function of the anatomy, and in the same way moral systems are a function of the anatomy.”

    Very well, we can agree that moral systems are a function of the anatomy in the same way that quantum physics, the Theory of Relativity and the Riemann Conjecture are functions of the anatomy.

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