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Jessica asked:

What is a moral environment?

Answer by Paul Fagan

A moral environment, here interchangeable with a moral community or society, for me, should encapsulate both of the qualities of longevity and a shared code of conduct that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants. Initially this may seem to be an obtuse answer but I will attempt to explain my standpoint.

With regard to longevity, I would not expect an amoral community to be long-lasting. Even if all agreed that the correct code of conduct included lying, thieving and cheating; the element of cooperation that I believe persons need, as beings that intrinsically belong to a community, would not be present. Society would reduce to a few individuals leading lives that are ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

This leaves the problem of just exactly what are the values and practices that inhabitants of a moral environment would need to agree upon. This is very tricky to answer and is an intense area for debate as human beings have a tendency to adhere to differing philosophies.

There is often the tendency to imagine what a moral society would look like by adopting a particular political philosophy and then extrapolating it to all areas of life. Plato’s Republic and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice represent just two of them. They are often interesting academic activities and quite good reads; but their problem for me is that living persons are often influenced by, what may be termed, ‘cultural relativism’ and would find it difficult to jettison the identity, history and baggage that comes attached with their own culture. I have written on this before and now borrow from my earlier piece entitled ‘The Consequences of Cultural Relativism’:

‘…the culture that a person inhabits, sets norms and standards, that inculcate a person. This may become a ‘mindset’ that a person is either unwilling or unable to reject. This affects many obvious aspects of life such as the clothes persons feel comfortable wearing or the food they prefer: however, it should be appreciated that the process sinks deep into a person’s psyche reaching areas that one may not be aware are affected…it causes problems when assessing whether persons from other cultures have behaved rightly or wrongly. Generally, one’s own inculcated variant of cultural relativism would be expected to encourage criticism of other cultures; with more criticism generated the further a culture is distanced from your own…ideally, the good philosopher should be able to dispense with their own cultural relativism when judging others.’

Hence, cultural relativism discourages the understanding of other environments. To explain, just say a society had practised infanticide as a way of birth control (as attributed to the ancient Spartans by Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/lycurgus*.html): then most modern persons would consider this to be an immoral society. However, if the majority of inhabitants of this society felt this to be agreeable conduct; and the society in question had flourished for centuries, then it would also seem to contain the longevity that made it a moral society.

Hence, I would conclude that a moral environment is in the eyes of its beholders: which may not be a satisfactory answer for many, but one should understand that we have a high tendency to judge others by our own cultural relativism.

Most good books concerning ethics have sections concerning ‘cultural relativism’, but it is described in greater detail by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy; where one chapter is entitled ‘The Challenge of Cultural Relativism’ (1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill), pp. 15-29).

 

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Robert asked:

What’s the difference between a rule-utilitarian and a Kantian? Is there really a difference?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This question is really a big area for debate and a small article such as this one, will never do it justice. However, I will attempt to give the questioner a few helpful pointers.

At first glance, rule based-utilitarianism and deontology (of which Kantianism is a famous variant) may seem to be similar because they both seemingly need ‘rules’ to operate: but there are differences and a major one will be explained.

For me, the difference lies where each particular school of thought places value. For instance, the utilitarian, as a consequentialist, will wish to achieve an end-state which may require rules to achieve this. However, the Deontologist, who may value wholesome interactions between people in their daily life, would wish for codes of conduct to be applied continually. Hence, there may be both a noticeable time difference and a geographical difference when each of the valued goods is realised: the utilitarian’s goal may be realised eventually and distantly, whilst the deontologist’s goal should be realised universally and constantly.

When giving examples of how utilitarians and deontologist differ, often very ludicrous examples are offered; and self-confessed utilitarians or deontologists are prone to use such examples even though they are unlikely to face such dilemmas in their own lives. A typical example is as follows: Sharon wishes to kill Tracey and one may avoid an act of murder by pretending not to know Tracey’s whereabouts. Here, the utilitarian may lie about the matter without any qualms; viewing murder as a potentially wrongful end-state. Contrast this with the deontologist who may believe that one should always act honestly as lying to another person is reprehensibly using them as a means to an end (although it should be noted, that in these cases like this, some variants of deontology will allow some acts that save a potential victim’s life).

Examples like this are often aired and may be found to be quite irksome as they strictly define persons within a single philosophy and do not reflect reality: when faced with this situation the hardened deontologist is likely to momentarily become a utilitarian.

Concerns for realism aside, for me, the important point is what one values the most: an end-state or rightful behaviour. To this end, deontologists and utilitarians alike may construct as many ‘rules’ as they desire to ensure the attainment of their respective desiderata and so focusing upon ‘rules’ is relatively unimportant.

Here, I have attempted, in a very simplistic, manner to demonstrate an important difference of two schools of philosophy. For further reading, in a similar simplistic vein, the reader may like to refer to Ben Dupré’s 50 philosophy ideas you really need to know (London : Quercus); which features a very good section introducing ethics. After this, the reader may like to peruse James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy (London: McGraw- Hill). I hope this helps.

Gerald asked:

Do you believe plants are as aware as humans about their surroundings and themselves? If not, why not?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Personally, I do not believe that plants are as aware as humans about anything; whether this is their surroundings or themselves. For me, plants do not need to have such a highly developed faculty for awareness and this has been dictated by the survival strategy they have employed as organisms. In essence, their survival strategy requires them to produce many potential offspring to ensure their continuance; in turn this requires plants to have a facet, possibly what we may even call a quality, which we may refer to as ‘unawareness’. It should also be noted that this strategy is successful as plants continue to flourish and have existed for aeons.

Here, I will attempt to demonstrate how plants have benefitted from a level of unawareness. But prior to this, if we consider a concept such as awareness to be akin to consciousness, then it should be realised that many philosophers would consider it difficult to transfer the very subjective, human experience of consciousness to other organisms. That said, some would be tempted to ascribe senses, such as awareness to ‘animals’ rather than vegetation; just exactly where this defining line may be drawn is an area for debate and as a starting point the reader may like to visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for ‘Animal Consciousness’ (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/). Additionally, it may also be noted that a few philosophers are willing to entertain the possibility that plants and single-celled organisms possess a form of consciousness; notably Alexandra Nagel in his ‘Are Plants Conscious?’ (http://www.esalq.usp.br/lepse/imgs/conteudo_thumb/Are-plants-conscious.pdf). Moreover, the reader may like to read the article ‘There is Such a Thing as Plant Intelligence’ by Simon Worrall in National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/160221-plant-science-botany-evolution-mabey-ngbooktalk/).

However, let us imagine a plant, whose seeds are distributed in the wind by whichever way the wind blows. Now, if the plant was aware that for its offspring to flourish, its seeds would need to be distributed to the west as the east was unsuitable, then it would only release its seeds to an easterly wind. But if the climate changed, and the west became unsuitable whilst the east became verdant, then all of its offspring would perish. Additionally, if plants repeatedly reacted to such events in their environs it may divert resources from a tried and tested survival strategy. Hence, it is in a plant’s interests to be unaware; but more than this, it may be argued that plants must have a necessary and sufficient level of unawareness in order to survive and procreate.

That said, it would seem that plants are aware, in some manner, that their immediate circumstances are not ideal: for instance, when they stretch and writhe to maximise their exposure to sunlight; in a similar manner, plants rejuvenate themselves after being predated by herbivores. But these local tribulations are probably a limit to their awareness and their survival strategy rests for its success upon many other compatriots germinating in suitable conditions and an abundance of plants that predators cannot deplete. Overall, it should be realised that plants easily accomplish all of the functions they need to survive but seemingly without the necessity of a highly developed faculty for awareness.

Emmanuel asked:

Invoking ideas from consequentialism non-consequentialism and/or virtue ethnics, what ethical issues are raised by the heart and stroke foundation endorsement of certain foods? Does it matter, ethically, that there is anything left to the buyer beware sentiment when it comes to advertising and endorsement? What are the responsibilities of the consumer to remain informed and vigilant when it comes to consumer issues and advertising marketing rubric?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s endorsement of certain foods would seem to be an educational act to enable people to make sensible life-choices. Now these sorts of choices would be applicable whatever personal philosophy one chose to follow in life; as such, I would consider this to be an act of meta-ethics, being influential upon the vast majority of philosophical schools.

Within any liberal society, all but the most incapacitated or children would expect to keep abreast of the latest information when purchasing the majority of foodstuffs. However, the most damaging foodstuffs would be expected to be prohibited or controlled: for instance, in the United Kingdom, alcoholic beverages are highly taxed and this is one measure by which their consumption is controlled; other measures include restricting advertising and restricting sales to adults.

With regard to the consumers’ interaction with the world of marketing, in this litigious age, the most erroneous claims may expect to be heard in court; or dismissed by increasingly knowledgeable consumers who may even refrain from buying the product. In the past, a notable confectioner claimed that eating one of its chocolate bars on a daily basis would help one to ‘work, rest and play’. However, for the aforementioned reasons, this type of claim would be unlikely to be made today.

Looking at how differing schools of philosophy may consider potentially harmful foodstuffs, three are briefly noted here; being utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics.  The utilitarian, when attempting to maximise utility, by attempting to attain the maximum good for the maximum number of people, may discourage the consumption of the more harmful foods but possibly offer incentives to eat healthy foods. The deontologist may expect to live by a code of conduct, whereby the more harmful foods would not be sold or promoted to persons without their full knowledge of the product; hence, consumers would not be subjected to deceit or become a means to an end for unscrupulous manufacturers. The virtue ethicist would be educated and habituated to consume potentially harmful food on a moderate basis and perhaps a chocolate bar would comprise an occasional treat; in this manner, a virtuous society would collectively regulate their consumption.

It should be noted that the examples here would be expected to minimise potential harm but not ban a foodstuff outright; and this state of affairs may occur when it is realised that most foodstuffs may be beneficial in certain circumstances. For instance, using the example of a chocolate bar, if one considered chocolate bars to be harmful, because they may contribute to obesity; one should still appreciate that giving a chocolate bar to a starving person may assist that person immeasurably.

To conclude, philosophical schools may provide an ethos to control potentially harmful foods. And it is arguable that in certain western societies, an ethos is needed to control the rise of obesity. For that purpose, an example of controlling foodstuffs is already provided by the restraints placed upon the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Natalie asked:

What fallacies do you find most interesting and why?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In responding to this question, I follow its spirit and give a very indulgent answer by demonstrating a particular type of fallacy that I find to be interesting: other panel members may have their own favourites. Often fallacies are grouped into two types: ‘formal fallacies’ used in logical structures where an incorrect premise may invalidate a whole argument; and ‘informal fallacies’ common within semantic reasoning and discussion. Here, I demonstrate a type of informal fallacy which often originates from of a group of persons who are experts in their field and their opinion contains much credence and immediately convinces many of its validity. The problem starts where the experts have drawn the incorrect conclusion from the information available; and this is further compounded by persons in power adopting the conclusion, without too much questioning of its validity, as it supports their cause. Often such fallacies are the first argument opening a debate and beg to be repudiated. Furthermore, being quite original, they generally do not involve the deliberate weakening of another’s argument or the deflecting of attention from another’s argument.

Here, I will provide a recent example of such a fallacy, which eventually collapsed. It originated from the world of economics and was fervently endorsed by some politicians. It occurred during ‘the Brexit debate’: which discussed whether the United Kingdom (UK) should relinquish its membership of the European Union (EU) prior to a referendum being held to decide the matter; (now, I hasten to add that this does not indicate a stance for or against Brexit, as it attempts to be impartial and allows us to learn by recounting events which actually took place).

Two events preceding the referendum held on 23 June 2016 are quite telling. Firstly, on April 2016 the British government distributed a leaflet to all households in the UK describing why they felt it would be better for the UK to remain within the EU; they believed that a ‘leave’ vote would rapidly bring forth disruption in society resulting in an ‘economic shock’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/why-the-government-believes-that-voting-to-remain-in-the-european-union-is-the-best-decision-for-the-uk/why-the-government-believes-that-voting-to-remain-in-the-european-union-is-the-best-decision-for-the-uk#fn:15).  The document was replete with references from notable economic experts including banks, reputable universities and the International Monetary Fund.

Secondly, anticipating the referendum on the 15 June 2016, a member of the government’s opposition, namely Alistair Darling, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, joined with the then current Chancellor of the Exchequer to warn of the need for an emergency budget if the UK voted to leave the EU; the budget would require the populace to suffer tax hikes in order to fill a predicted government deficit (https://www.politicshome.com/news/europe/eu-policy-agenda/brexit/news/76168/george-osborne-and-alistair-darling-warn-emergency). This type of fallacy may be said to fall into the category of fallacies known as ad baculum: where the arguer attempts to sway the undecided by disproportionately emphasising the consequences of not supporting the arguer’s stance (and the reader may like to review the entry ‘argumentum ad’ in The Oxford dictionary of Philosophy for definition of many common fallacies; other dictionaries are available).

However, after voting to leave the EU, the immediate economic hardship failed to materialise and to this day, the UK’s economy remains stable. Many experts have been forced to backtrack and reassess their contribution to the debate; (see https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/oct/04/imf-peak-pessimism-brexit-eu-referendum-european-union-international-monetary-fund as one example). However, it provides an example of politicians seemingly throwing a deliberate fallacy into the debate in both a Machiavellian and clumsy manner.

The questioner also asks ‘why’ some fallacies may be interesting.  For me, this example reminds us that we must have the confidence to form our own opinions and maintain a healthy scepticism towards both the experts and those in power. Such fallacies may grow unchecked until they face the acid test which is their undoing. They may be compared to the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes as they convince many of their validity; but when they are disproved, they are rejected rapidly.

Alex asked:

In Nicomachean Ethics, book 2, chapter 6, paragraph 10-11, does Aristotle suggest a notion of ethics that is fixed among human societies or does it depend on social context?

Answer by Paul Fagan

On my reading of the extract, I cannot detect any suggestion of fixing ethics or adjusting it for social context. I would consider it to be only part of a greater definition of what constitutes moral virtue; but particularly an argument supporting the doctrine of the mean. With regard to assessing whether Aristotle favoured ethics to be either firmly fixed or dependent upon social context, in my view, would require one to read widely and refrain from focusing upon the smaller extracts. This is because one runs the risk of taking the passage out of context and ascribing the wrong meaning to it.

Bearing this in mind, we may ask ourselves, what was Aristotle’s mission with regard to introducing his version of morality? From my readings of both Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, I would provide the following brief summary for the purposes here. To attain the desirable good of a healthy society, attaining the related good of citizens living well is also required. To achieve this underlying aim, Aristotle wished to instil a morality in individuals to produce people of upstanding character: for instance, at the very least, they would exercise the virtues of self-reliance, courage and generosity: (James Rachels, in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, lists of 24 virtues which he describes as a ‘reasonable start’ (Rachels 1993: 163)).  Now such virtues would be intrinsically valuable in their own right; however, Aristotle realised that executing some virtues required individuals to make sacrifices and so he recommended introducing an habituation process which included a common education for all. In turn, this would also encourage solidarity amongst citizens leading to a cohesive society with shared values (although, with that said, a few exceptions may be made: such as those individuals who could never become habituated and who would be cast out from society). Overall, a very prescriptive view of virtue ethics has been provided.

However, from a practical point of view, one may expect some differences in the way virtue ethics may manifest itself in differing societies. For instance, physical factors such as climate, altitude and geography may affect peoples’ lifestyles and therefore affect the values that they hold. As would the diet available to people in any particular location: vegetarian societies may find the idea of slaughtering animals to be taboo. Also the customs and religion inherited by any particular society may inform their values. Therefore, societies would exist with different virtues being privileged over others, resulting in the manifestation of differing versions of virtue ethics in those different societies. Hence, social context would be an important factor when virtue ethics is realised in any particular society (and The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes this type of ‘cultural relativity’ as a particular criticism of virtue ethics: see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/#ObjeVirtEthi).

From this, I would quite simply conclude, that although differing societies wishing to live virtuously may attempt to abide by a standard concept of virtue ethics, it would manifest itself differently due to differing social contexts.

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