Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 130

The eros between Socrates and Alcibiades

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Do corporations have character? I’m not convinced, but interesting post by Julian Baggini nonetheless.

The erotics of mentorship.

Why we should bulldoze the business school.

Philosophers should be keener to talk about the meaning of life.

The serious ethical implications of a real (pig) brain in a vat.

The real value of religion is not in what it promises to deliver in the afterlife, but in what it delivers in the here and now.

A well balanced article on the tension between armchair and experimental philosophy.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

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54 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 130

  1. Robin Herbert

    quite obviously, the answer is the latter. Even if it is us, or society, that’s still according to some moral framework, or at least a sense of what is and is not moral. At any rate, that’s a different question from “what does it mean to say that something is permissible,” no?

    No, but let me try to explain why.

    If I was answering that survey and if I would treat the “push the man” option differently to the “change the points switch” option then it would be because I would never blame a person who couldn’t bring himself to bodily push a man to his death.

    But the experimenters would attribute this to me following a moral framework which says that it is less permissable to directly push a man to his death than it is to allow one to die as a consequence of preventing another action, whereas I don’t think that at all. The experiment would include a faulty observation.

    If there was any permission involved it would be the permission I give to others to be a flawed, uncertain persons like me and not to expect too much from them in emotionally charged situations where there is no clear virtuous choice, only less bad ones. Any other kind of permission has nothing to do with it.

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  2. Robin Herbert

    Brodix

    Well the general pattern of these problems is that the protagonist is in a situation where he cannot avoid committing manslaughter. His only choice is how many men (women or children) he wants to slaughter and in what manner.

    As such no normal moral judgement would seem to apply. It seems more absurd than usual to apply a scale of “forbidden, permissible, obligatory”

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  3. ejwinner

    Robin,
    As often happens, you tend to logically over-analyze an issue when it does not correspond with your experience.

    First, let’s dismiss the ‘Trolley problem,’ which I pointed out back in the Sci-Sal days is perfectly useless once one adopts non=traditional Modern Western ‘moral frameworks.’

    So your question is, where do obligations (including those ‘allowable’ or ‘permissible’) come from in the philosophy of ethics.

    Others will have their own opinions here. Let me offer the following, from my essay recently posted at the Electric Agora:

    “The Japanese ethicist Watsuji Tetsuro suggested that the origin of ethics is really founded in the trust we share in community, and this strikes me as more right than the “sympathy” that we find in Hume or Darwin. (7) We do not know if infants can have any sense of sympathy for their parents or other elders, but they certainly enact trust for them. At any rate, we hold a trust in other humans – including the trust that they are human, and thus deserving of respect – and this elicits from us obligations.” https://theelectricagora.com/2018/04/22/a-sense-of-justice/

    Obligations arise simply because: I trust you; I trust you will act a certain way in trust of me. Therefore it would appear incumbent upon me to act in a manner congruent with your trust in me.

    Beyond this, I would go further to suggest that this is not only socially conditioned, but a healthy society cannot operate otherwise.

    Ir either of us acts in a way that betrays this basic trust – consequences follow.

    (I’ve lost track of the article you were responding to, BTW. So I am not defending that, but trying to suggest alternative avenues of thought to what you have presented. Sorry.)

    Liked by 3 people

  4. saphsin

    Are moral incentives for action really ever entirely internally motivated or externally enforced? I take it as a given that rationales for decision making results from our reciprocal interactions with our surroundings. I mean sure there are the cases where “I’m doing it because I love to do it, not because I’m feeling peer pressure” it’s more clear that it has less to do with because people are forcing you to do it, but I’m not very convinced by Robin’s hard stance.

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  5. brodix

    Robin,

    If someone dies and a conscious decision was involved, it would likely involve the legal system. Especially if it is pushing the fat guy. Hopefully your jury pool and sentencing judge are not too overweight.

    ej,

    It does create a situation where the group acts as one, but I’m reminded of Larry Summer’s comment to Elizabeth Warren, about insiders, versus outsiders. So it isn’t so much about morality, as group cohesion, as the group might be acting in a way that could be considered immoral in a larger sense.
    Though trust among thieves is weak.

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  6. Robin Herbert

    EJ

    As often happens, you tend to logically over-analyze an issue when it does not correspond with your experience.

    I would remind you that Massimo asked for that analysis and I initially begged off saying I didn’t have time, that it was too complex. Massimo suggested that this was a non-answer so I tried to oblige.

    Far from being an over analysis, I barely skimmed the surface of the complexity of real world moral impulses.

    My point, lest it be forgotten, was that those surveys used in X-phi and psychological analysis of ethical impulses are woefully inadequate instruments for capturing the moral motives and intuitions we all have.

    You may disagree, but I haven’t seen any argument that would make me revise that conclusion.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. brodix

    Robin,

    “Far from being an over analysis, I barely skimmed the surface of the complexity of real world moral impulses.”

    That’s the consequence of the point I keep making, that good and bad are not some cosmic duel between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic binary code of beneficial and detrimental. Consequently we are constantly sorting through the innumerable factors, trying to find a balance in every situation.

    So we try resorting to codes of conduct that will presumably make some of these decisions for us.

    Sometimes they work and sometimes they lead us astray.

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  8. wtc48

    In his penultimate paragraph, Setiya introduces (via Einstein) a slight but significant modification: what is the meaning of human life? This is probably implied in the common notion of “the meaning of life,” but the extension to life in general vastly alters the situation. Although science has pretty well conceded that there is probably life in some form elsewhere in the universe, for all practical purposes, Earth is it, but it goes somewhat against the grain to attribute meaning to the life represented by lizards and ants, to say nothing of bacteria and viruses.

    Some of the difficulty, I think, comes from the concept of meaning itself. “Meaning” is rather like “color”, a concept that is used in a variety of ways. An object can be defined by its particular meaning or color, but to refer to the universe as a whole as either meaningful or meaningless would make no more sense than to say it was colored or colorless: the concepts only make sense as particulars.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. ejwinner

    Robin,
    A part of the problem seemed to be that you couldn’t quite understand or agree to the philosophical usage of such terms ‘obligatory,’ ‘allowable,’ or ‘impermissible.’ I suggested a way of looking at the matter that would open the door to the broadest sense of the issues involved. If we analyze the matter in terms of ‘who gives permission?’ or ‘why should I give permission,’ we find ourselves in logical webs that lead to either theology or to a hyper-individualism ala Max Steiner.

    When the Athenians first initiated the discussion of ethics in the West, they lived in a community they believed to be paradigmatic (at least if one wished to live “the good life”). So their concern was how to act within that community to strengthen its bonds and realize that “good life.” With the coming of Christianity, the “good life” was re-interpreted to coincide with the interdicts of the Gospel (and of the ‘Old Testament’) and actions were thought needed to conform to the divine commands of those texts. As Christendom fell apart into the sects of the Reformation and then into the more secularized worldviews of Modernity, the initial thought of the Greeks was re-interpreted again into ‘systems’ of philosophy that promised to provide sure answers to the question, as Kant posed it, “what must I do?” It is perfectly reasonable to say these systematic philosophies failed; indeed whole philosophic movements developed in adversarial response to such systems. But it seems wrong headed to assume that philosophers engaged in these developments and counter-developments don’t really know what they’re talking about.

    “My point, lest it be forgotten, was that those surveys used in X-phi and psychological analysis of ethical impulses are woefully inadequate instruments for capturing the moral motives and intuitions we all have.” As my dismissal of the Trolley problem indicates, I would not disagree with this.

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  10. SocraticGadfly

    From what i’ve seen, studies of toddler-age or slightly thereafter young children indicate sympathy can and will arise roughly the same time as trust.

    This is not to dismiss trust as partially being part of ethics, but just to say that, at a minimum, biologically, sympathy can also be part of it.

    And, I think it still is.

    Both sympathy and trust, in turn, are connected biologically to our “in-group” tendencies and xenophobia of some degree or another toward outsiders.

    Ethics, then, means, to bring Hume more fully back in, noting the “is ≠ ought” and, whatever our particular ethical stances and whatever ethical issues we value more highly, making both trust and sympathy part of ethics.

    That said, neither one of those two attributes is involved in details of our stances on some ethical issues nor our ranking of levels of ethical concern.

    That comes from cultural evolution.

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  11. Philosopher Eric

    Alan,
    So year after year your students would make an elemental mistake regarding Thomas Nagel that you were thus quite able to predict, though you couldn’t effectively counter it until after testing, if ever? That’s unfortunate.

    Secondly, I agree that supernaturalists are ultimately selfish beings, and may not quite see it that way given the platitudes of their various faiths. But do you agree with me that we naturalists are ultimately selfish beings as well, and may not quite see it given our morality paradigm?

    I don’t mind philosophy continuing to explore “rightness and wrongness”, as befits a purely humanistic endeavor that isn’t out to develop a community that has its own generally accepted understandings. This helps further mark it as a gratuitous element of human culture, or something to potentially appreciate. But I also believe that there are realities associated with what’s valuable, and so without such direction our mental and behavioral sciences are effectively attempting to construct a jigsaw puzzle where certain important pieces have been taken out of play. Apparently our morality paradigm prevents these scientists from exploring what’s valuable, since it would be immoral to do so in a way that lacks moral guidance. So just as the modern supernaturalist is deluded as you’ve noted, the modern naturalist seems to be as well. I believe that we must permit mental and behavioral scientists to begin exploring value beyond what is moral, in order for these fields to significantly advance.

    Any thought about my proposed solution to this proposed conundrum?

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  12. brodix

    ej,

    “we find ourselves in logical webs that lead to either theology or to a hyper-individualism ala Max Steiner.”

    Yet what if we step back and take into account this tension between opposite sides of a dynamic as more elemental than the particular configurations? Between the group and the individual, node and network, the entity and its environment, product and production, etc.

    “It is perfectly reasonable to say these systematic philosophies failed; indeed whole philosophic movements developed in adversarial response to such systems.”

    Then it might better explain why any particular/singular model, or philosophy, will necessarily generate a response, or opposing point of view.

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  13. brodix

    wtc,

    “to refer to the universe as a whole as either meaningful or meaningless would make no more sense than to say it was colored or colorless: the concepts only make sense as particulars.”

    It is like trying to make sense of good/bad outside of context. Or up/down, yes/no, on/off, etc.

    Context defines content.

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  14. SocraticGadfly

    i get curious when people have personalized icons, also when they change them. Massimo I know went to a sillhouette of himself. Robin’s is supposed to be “Thomas Herbert” per Google image search. A relative? I switched from Hume to a pic of myself that I fancy as being Dan Dennett fils.

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  15. SocraticGadfly

    Dan, i had looked yours up, too, and thought so. And your other is Aldous Huxley, I know. We’d had a fair amount of Dennett talk on last week’s Friday roundup, so I figured, what the heck. At least to ME, that pic of me looks like a Dennett scion.

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  16. Alan White

    Eric–

    The Nagel book was a first writing assignment, partly to assess student’s writing abilities but also to assess reading comprehension of a book that is both clearly written and targeted for high-school-level readers. But I also warned every class–read and re-read Nagel’s last chapter–it has a very subtle point that can be missed by concentrating only on his negative remarks about religion and his final remark–life may not only be meaningless [in the absolute sense] but absurd [again, in the absolute sense].

    Supernaturalists and naturalists (broadly construed) share a lot–they are human beings after all. One cannot broadly brush either as selfish or not–large segments of both fall into either category. I’ve known lots of religious folk who genuinely care more about others than their own individual fates, and lots of non-religious folk who spin opposite. Formation of character in accordance with a reasonable balance of self-interest and altruism seems–to me and I’d guess Massimo too–to be a great starting point for a moral point of view. And that requires no posit about ultimate reality or even solving the Euthyphro problem, because it just stakes out a place for morality that serves the best interests of all humanity, individually and collectively.

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  17. Massimo Post author

    Since we are sharing icon’s origins, mine is a profile picture (obviously) while wearing my favorite fedora hat and attending an exhibit on the evolution of sex, at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan…

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