Monday, February 19, 2018

Fetuses don’t play the violin

Abortion is one of the most controversial topics in America today, but among philosophers what is not controversial is that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” is one of the most important and influential articles on the topic. Anthologized countless times, whichever position you take in the abortion debate you cannot claim to have an informed opinion without considering Thomson. Principally driven by her creative and memorable ‘violinist thought experiment,’ Thomson changed the game by granting the central pro-life assumption—namely that the fetus is a person with full moral status—and then arguing that abortion is permissible anyway.

For the uninitiated, Thomson asks us to imagine ourselves kidnapped by the ‘society for music lovers’ and hooked up the titular (innocent, unconscious) ‘violinist’ who is using our kidneys to stay alive. If you unhook yourself the violinist will die. Does the violinist’s ‘right to life’ oblige you to stay hooked up to him for 9 months? Thomson says no: even if the violinist/fetus is a person, no person has the right to use another person’s body against their will.

My concern here is not the conclusion itself as much as it is the methodology Thomson employs. My skepticism towards thought experiments has been a theme for my posts here at The Dance of Reason (see here and here) and Thomson’s are no exception. The violinist was the first of several thought experiments Thomson employed in her article, and part of what makes it such an instructive example of philosophical methodology gone wrong is how seamlessly Thomson crafts each new experiment to counter a successive series of objections. Thomson asks us to imagine diseases that can be cured by the touch of a stranger’s hand; a baby expanding like a balloon and crushing a person to death; humans procreating via ‘people seeds’ that implant in unsuspecting stranger’s carpets. Each thought experiment has a rationally comprehensible connection to the objection that comes before it, yet a common response to this whirlwind of imaginative scenarios is that we’ve lost sight of something crucially important: the biological realities of sex, pregnancy, gestation and birth.

Thomson’s experiments are an excellent example of what happens when philosophers find themselves accountable to nothing other than their imaginations. The relationship between philosophy and science fiction is so strong in no small part because both thrive on imagining what happens when we push past our current limitations. But just as bad science fiction is often born out of concepts that outstrip their connect to the world in which we live, bad philosophy is often born out of imagination untethered to the subject attempting to be illuminated.

To be blunt: I have no idea at all what morality demands of people in a world in which human beings procreate via people seeds that gestate in carpets. Moreover, I’m not sure anyone else does, either. What kind of moral values would be most important if babies could expand rapidly enough to crush a person in a house? How much stock should we put in our intuitions about whether or not it is permissible to unhook ourselves from a stranger using our kidneys to filter his blood? That’s not how biology works, that’s not how ethics works, that’s not how any of this works.

Our moral intuitions are delicate things. They are rooted in our evolutionary history, honed by our cultural upbringing and exist to help us navigate moral decisions in the actual world. When you strip the biological and cultural context out and throw those intuitions into fantastical scenarios they quickly loose perspective. Such ‘intuition pumps’ are easily abused in the hands of a creative philosopher who wants to lead their audience by the nose to their preordained conclusion.

None of this is to say that Thomson’s position is incorrect. To the contrary, I think her basic conclusion is true: regardless of their moral status, fetuses have no right to use a woman’s body against her will. And I understand the impulse to invoke a thought experiment, as pregnancy is such a biologically unique phenomena that it’s hard to find ways to triangulate our intuitions about it. But we don’t need to appeal to fantastic, intuition-pumping hypotheticals to establish Thomson’s point. There are a set of rare, but real-world cases that suffice, namely the phenomena of ‘sleepwalking rape.’

The broader phenomena of ‘sexsomnia’ (people initiating sex while neurologically asleep) is well documented by psychologists. There are several cases in which men accused of rape have, with the help of expert clinical testimony, successfully exonerated themselves in court by arguing they were asleep at the time of the attack.[1]

So let’s ask the following question: would a person being raped by a sleepwalking rapist be justified in killing their rapist in self defense? Like both Thomson’s violinist and a fetus[2] the sleepwalking rapist is both a person with full moral status and innocent of any crime. If a woman killed her sleepwalking rapist would we call that an unjustified killing? I think people could have an honest disagreement here, but I suspect that most people (even pro-life people) will say that it would be justified.

The exact implications this has for abortion is, of course, open ended. There are all sorts of ripostes that a pro-life person could give in an attempt to allow killing a sleepwalking rapist while still maintaining that abortion is wrong. I don’t imagine any single argument can settle this highly controversial issue once and for all. My point here is simply to say that philosophers would be well advised to avoid highly unrealistic thought experiments when actual cases from the real world work just as well, if not better.

[1] And of course, others attempting that defense have failed and been sentenced accordingly.
[2] Like Thomson I am assuming for the sake of argument here that the fetus is a person in the moral sense with full moral status, even though also like Thomson I do not believe this to be the case.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Two Suspicious Concepts

Philosophical questions get answered when we develop concepts that provide novel access to reality. This is how what started as profound philosophical questions about matter became routine questions in chemistry.  Intractable medieval disputes over political legitimacy became routine exercises of democratic politics. 
However, ‘routine’ does not mean easy, as chemistry majors and campaign managers can surely attest.  So we should be suspicious of concepts that make answering philosophical questions a bit too easy.  Maybe they don’t give us novel access to reality.  Maybe they just provide the spurious appearance of an answer.
I’m starting a list… 
1.  Person
The philosophical concept of ‘person’ developed in the Christian theology of the Trinity (three natures, one person) and the Incarnation (one person, two natures).  It entered modern philosophy in a psychologized version with Locke: 
“…(A) thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection…that can consider itself the same in different times and places.” 
Locke treats the concept as applying to kinds.
The following claim I take to be uncontroversial: 
(O)  Our existence conditions, the ‘what-it-is-to-be-me,’ are the existence conditions of a kind of organism. 
It is normative for the kind of organism we are to think, reason, consider itself the same in different times and places, etc. 
That is, human beings are persons. 
Those of us who cannot think, reason…etc., do not fail to be human beings, just to be fully-functioning ones.  So we don’t fail to be persons, just to be fully-functioning ones. 
Some philosophers, Mary Ann Warren for instance, have revised Locke’s concept of ‘person’ to designate a sort of status human organisms can achieve, like being a sorority sister.  Thus human beings are persons only if they have the capacity to think, etc. – and not if they don’t. 
(Does anyone know where this conceptual revision is ever argued for?)
Philosophers like Peter Singer go even further and change ‘person’ from a status into an odd sort of kind itself.  The what-it-is-to-be-me isn’t ‘human being’;  it’s actually ‘person.’  On this view a human organism is born, develops mentally until it can think, reason, etc.  At this point something comes into existence:  a person.  When a human organism ages and loses its cognitive capacities, that curious entity – up to then co-located with the organism somehow and using it to get around – goes out of existence. 
How is this not Platonism?  How does a philosopher who believes such a thing get to look down on a pious Christian (an adherent to a “deviant” and retrograde tradition according to Singer) who thinks the soul is ‘infused’ into the body? 
The concept of ‘person’ in contemporary philosophy makes reaching certain conclusions easier than it should be. 
I propose avoiding it.
2.  Gender
Great effort has been expended to construct a concept of ‘gender’ different from the sex of an organism.  (There is one already, but it’s a grammatical distinction unhelpful here.) 
What could ‘gender’ be as opposed to sex?  Three possibilities:
a)  A social construction by which boys are supposed to (just for instance) wear pants and play with guns, girls to wear dresses and play with dolls. 
This is superficial.   It doesn’t really rise to a philosophical issue.  Such social constructions can change overnight – and have.
     b)  A deeper social construction by which fundamental social roles and sentiments are different among males and females. 
Now it’s very likely true that such fundamental roles have a conventional, not just a biological, element:  We’re convention-making organisms after all. 
But those conventions must be as old as behaviorally-modern humans (50-80,000 years), since they evidently precede the human departure from Africa.  This is sufficient time for those conventional facts to have become realized in our genes, to have become organic facts themselves.  So on this account ‘gender’ is not a concept independent of ‘sex,’ but tied to it by natural necessity.
Furthermore, there is no longer any modal Archimedean Point where we can imagine our having been different.  The counterfactuals are over the modal horizon:  the organisms in those counterfactuals would not be us. 
That leaves…
      c)  A psychological phenomenon:  our gender identity is our “deeply held sense of [our] gender.” (GLAAD)  And that sense may part company with our organic sex.
What is the phenomenology of (3)?  What is this ‘deeply held sense of…gender’? 
In examining my own case, I find myself at a loss.  I just don’t know what ‘feeling male’ is like (or female either). 
My predicament is like Hume’s baffled response to Locke on personal identity. 
“There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our SelfFor my part, whenever I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other…I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe any thing but the perception.” 
I have no ‘sense of gender’ or ‘internal experience of gender identity.’  Nor am I ‘intimately conscious of what [I] call [my] Sex.’ 
I have no Dude Qualia, none at all.
Some people deny this.  They claim to have this feeling: “I have been born into the wrong body.”
But if (O) is uncontroversial, who is the ‘I’ who has been born into the wrong body?
At this point the gender theorist turns Platonist too.  There is some ineffable ‘I’ whose existence conditions are not those of an organism, but is somehow connected to one.
I propose avoiding this concept too.
Next candidate for the list: ‘Idea’.
Anybody have additions to my list?

Thomas Pyne

Philosophy Department
Sacramento State


Monday, February 5, 2018

Did Jesus Look Like Joseph?

Before playing the role of pilot Poe Dameron in Episode 7 (and 8, and 9) of the latest Star Wars trilogy, actor Oscar Isaac was playing the role of Joseph of Nazareth (sometimes called “Saint Joseph”) in the 2006 film The Nativity Story. 

One creative liberty that film took in portraying Joseph’s ambivalence about being the social but not biological father of Jesus is a scene I remember well, which the Catholic Register then noted as follows:

“Even after the angelic appearance in his dream, Joseph continues to wrestle with uncertainty and doubt, notably in an affecting moment on the journey to Bethlehem involving an innocent comment from a street vendor.”

Let me fill in some details of this scene.  A street vendor notices a very pregnant Mary traveling with Joseph, and says something like this to the couple (sorry, I am still trying to track down the exact quote on DVD or YouTube): “there is no greater blessing than to see your own face reflected in the face of your child.” This comment leads Joseph to react with stunned silence, and a far-off look in his eyes, since he realizes that he might never have that particular type of experience with this particular baby.

Did Jesus look like Joseph?

You might be wondering why I am asking this question in the first place.

The answer is that I’ve thinking about CRISPR recently. Hold on, let me explain.

I’ve been revisiting questions about the relative importance of genetics in the identity of a human person.

And I’ve been imagining what innovations in applying new genetic technologies within human populations might most push the envelope.

So, naturally, I have been wondering what might happen if someone somehow found an ancient DNA sample from the historical Jesus. And then sought to use it, now, to do some sort of genetic engineering.

You know, harmless stuff like enhancing my “capacity for compassion genes” (if such there be) to be more like the genes Jesus had.  Or creating a genetic replica of Jesus in the lab, to make a genetically ideal human person (this is a twist on the premise behind the comedy Twins, featuring actors Schwarzenegger and Devito).  Or making a Disney-themed fun-park with live genetic replicas of Jesus. (I would call this “Jurassic Jesus” as a nod to the premise of another movie franchise, but blogs and even t-shirts have already taken that label for something different.)

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Anyhow. Imagining such dystopian applications eventually pushed me back to a more basic question: what would the genome of Jesus be like in the first place, and especially in its relationship to the genome of his human (foster) father Joseph?

More precisely, I found myself asking Q1, not Q2:

Q1: Should someone who believes the Apostles Creed—especially the bit “I believe...in Jesus...who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary...”—believe that Jesus bore a family resemblance to Joseph, even though they are not directly genetically/genealogically related in the standard way?

Q2: Should someone who does not believe that bit of the Creed believe that Jesus bore that resemblance?

(Q2 seems uninteresting, unless you think that sons sometimes do not look like their fathers, or that Jesus had a different human father than Joseph.)

Q1, of course, relies on an unstated premise: that the family resemblance between a son and his father is based upon one or more similar phenotypes, which are, in turn, themselves based upon one or more similar genetic structures. 

I know, I know, there are exceptions to this general rule; Jesus could have learned to imitate Joseph’s smile, gait, beard, hair, and handlebar mustache, without there being any genetic similarity between them at all.

Still, that unstated premise is why Q1, a question about phenotypic appearance, is really just a proxy for a question about genotypic similarity:

Q3: Should someone who believes the Creed believe that Jesus was genetically similar to Joseph, in ways like a son is typically genetically similar to his own biological father?

I admit that I do not think I know the answer to Q1 or Q3. But since I am just beginning to think it through, I wanted to ask for suggestions from the readers here.  Any suggestions are welcome.

Relatedly, I have also been reflecting on a different intersection between CRISPR and the incarnation.

This intersection concerns a possible future innovation of adding human genetic sequences to non-human individuals, in larger and larger amounts, so that the eventual individual produced by such alterations is a human person.

The following proposition might be suggested for approaching such a case:

P1. If an individual is a human person at one moment of its existence, then that individual is a human person at every moment of its existence.

Two corollaries (I think) immediately follow from P1:

P1-C1: an individual cannot become a human person and continue to exist.

P1-C2: an individual cannot cease being a human person and continue to exist.

But Richard Swinburne, in his book The Christian God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), says this on pp. 192-193:

“The central doctrine of Christianity is that God intervened in human history in the person of Jesus Christ in a unique way; and that quickly became understood as the doctrine that in Jesus Christ the second person of the Trinity became man, that is, human.  In AD 451 the Council of Chalcedon formulated that doctrine in a precise way…Chalcedon assumed that human nature is not (or not invariably) an essential nature.  That is, just occasionally, an individual could become human or cease to be human while remaining the same individual.  It then affirmed that the one individual, the second person of the Trinity, who was eternally divine, became also (at a certain moment of human history, about AD 1) human (i.e. man).” 

In other words, P1-C1 is false.

And that means P1 is false.


Right?


Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, December 11, 2017

Evidence of sexual harassment and assault

The epistemology of testimony has received some attention lately, though not by that name. The epistemology of testimony is the part of philosophy in which we study when you should believe what people say (and why). Recent high-profile reports of sexual harassment and assault have resulted in a lot of discussion about whether and when we should believe these reports, which is really just a case of applied epistemology. So, if anyone ever tells you that philosophy doesn’t matter, here’s a good example of when it does.

I’m an evidentialist, which means that I think that what you should believe is determined entirely by your evidence. ‘Evidence’ is a tricky word, but as I use it, it refers to a specific kind of reason for believing something. We can have all kinds of reasons for believing things: I can believe that unicorns exist because it’s fun, believe what Maria says because she’s my friend, or believe that a job interview will go well because that will make me more confident. None of those reasons are evidence for those beliefs, though. Evidence consists of reasons that indicate the truth of something. Seeing a bunch of unicorns would give me evidence that unicorns exist, for example, because that experience would indicate that unicorns really do exist. Having experience with Maria being very reliable would give me evidence that what she says is true, but just the fact that she is my friend would not. And, sadly, if my last dozen job interviews have gone poorly, that gives me evidence that this next one will also go poorly. According to Evidentialism, you should believe something just in case you have these kinds of truth-indicating reasons for doing so.

There’s an argument for initially believing reports of sexual harassment and assault, though, that relies on a different kind of reason. It goes like this:

When we first hear a report of sexual harassment or assault, we must either believe it or disbelieve it. Disbelieving these reports has very bad consequences. Among other things, it sends the message that these reports are not taken seriously or treated as credible, which makes future victims less likely to report assault or harassment. So, we should initially believe reports of sexual harassment or assault.

The conclusion here does not require that we always believe reports of sexual assault or harassment, regardless of any other information we might discover. That would be unreasonable, as, on investigation, some (low) percentage of reports will turn out to be false. The conclusion is only that, when we first hear a report, prior to any further investigation, we should believe it.

If Evidentialism is true, though, this is a bad argument. The fact that believing or disbelieving something has very bad consequences is not evidence for or against that thing. The consequences of a belief do not indicate whether it is true. So, the premises here do not support the conclusion.

And even if Evidentialism is false, this is still a bad argument, because the first premise is false. On hearing a report, we aren’t forced to choose between believing it and disbelieving it. We also have the option of suspending judgment, of forming no belief either way, which does not obviously have the same bad consequences as disbelief. Disbelieving a report requires believing that the reporter is either lying or mistaken about their own experience, but suspending judgment does not. And suspending judgment while looking for further evidence seems to, at least in some important respects, take the report seriously.

As is often the case, though, this is a bad argument for a true conclusion. We should initially believe reports of sexual assault or harassment, but not because failing to do so would have bad consequences. We should believe them because a report of harassment or assault is evidence—it is a truth-indicating reason to believe that the harassment or assault occurred. It takes no special insight to know this, just the familiar principle that when someone says that something happened, that is evidence that it happened. We appeal to this principle all the time. It’s how I have evidence that Abraham Lincoln was shot, that Taylor Swift has received ten Grammys, and that my grandfather went to the gym last week. It’s also very often how we have our first evidence that any kind of crime has occurred.

Of course, this evidence can be defeated by further evidence. We might uncover a reason to doubt a particular reporter’s reliability or sincerity, or we might have a general reason to doubt the credibility of a certain kind of report. Absent this evidence, though, failing to initially believe reports of harassment or assault is failing to believe what is supported by our evidence. It is, also, believing that a report is not credible without any evidence for that belief—a further violation of Evidentialism and an (epistemic) injustice to the reporter. So, according to Evidentialism, we should believe reports of sexual harassment or assault, unless we have some other evidence to doubt them.

We might worry, though, that believing reports of sexual assault or harassment by default would also have bad consequences, raising another kind of challenge to Evidentialism. Those believed to have committed sexual assault or harassment face a range of possible consequences, including loss of employment and prison time, and when the reports are false, these consequences will be unjust. Shouldn’t we at most suspend judgment until a thorough investigation is completed, so as to avoid these unjust consequences?

But this worry confuses the evidence required for belief with the evidence required for action. It’s true that we shouldn’t terminate or imprison people without first conducting a thorough investigation, but it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t believe the reports that lead to those investigations. If Evidentialism is true, then if you have a good evidence to believe something, you should. This is consistent with saying that you should seek more evidence before taking action.


Brandon Carey
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, December 3, 2017

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...to get a better version of this post.

Actually, my colleague Clifford Anderson addressed net neutrality on this blog here. The issue has been getting so much attention recently because of an upcoming Federal Communications Commission vote, which will likely reverse the Commission’s June 2015 reclassification of internet service providers as Title II (of the 1934 Communications Act) telecommunication common carriers.

In internet-speak, “edge providers” (like FAMGA -- Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon) are contract carriers. They, like a typical market service, provide their content and apps subject to mutual agreement (either with us or, more usually, advertisers). From the beginning of the commercial internet until 2015, this was true of internet service providers, too. Their reclassification as common carriers, however, made ISPs subject to FCC regulation, like telecommunications companies and other public utilities are. The primary stated aim of this reclassification was to ensure access neutrality for online content. 

If the December 14th Commission vote goes the way most people expect it to go, ISPs will basically return to the status quo ex ante. Title II will no longer apply to them. Instead, ISPs will again be under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, which will again be responsible for pursuing cases to protect consumer privacy and data security, including cases involving fraudulent, deceptive or otherwise unfair and anti-competitive business practices.

Notice, then, that this isn’t a move from public utility-style regulation to no regulation. Rather, the effect will be a shift in the regulatory modus operandi: from a set of prescriptive rules under the FCC, to a framework based on case-by-case enforcement by the FTC to ensure ISP transparency, including transparency about how ISPs handle customers under various service plans.

Which of these regulatory regimes best ensures that internet access is broadly available, and not subject to unreasonable restrictions or abuse of ISP market power in certain areas, is an empirical question. Unfortunately, it’s become a source of ideological hand-wringing, often giving rise to speculations about a dystopian internet future.

One consideration in examining the empirical question is the history of the development of the internet in the period from the 90s to the 2015 reclassification. The most significant tech policy for the early internet was the 1996 congressional update to Title 47 telecom law in Section 230, which carved out significant legal space for an environment of permissionless online innovation.

The early 90s internet was basically just a few big newspapers and a bit of porn (with pics like this taking upwards of 45 frustrating seconds to load). You might check your email or maybe buy a few books (just books!) on Amazon, too, but you’d shortly free up your telephone line and turn on whatever Must See TV (literally must, since streaming options didn’t exist) happened to be programmed viewing at that precise moment. But in this deregulated environment, in the span of only about 20 years, we now have access to an amazingly creative, entertaining, dynamic and connected virtual world that now even extends into meatspace (with Uber, AirBnB, etc., and driverless cars just around the corner). All this happened, of course, without FCC-enforced net neutrality regulations.

Actually, the early 90s internet is a strikingly accurate picture of the worst dystopian fears of net neutrality advocates who want public utility regulation for ISPs. Then, we purchased access to the internet by purchasing access to content centers, like CompuServe or AOL. These ISPs only provided access to their associated content, forum sites and users. The rest of the WWW was blocked. Over time though, and pretty quickly, ISPs have come round to the current model where they provide genuine access, and FAMGA, et al. provide content, apps, and other services.

Again, this happened without public utilities-style FCC prescriptive regulations. Are there reasons to think the pre-2015 environment was a bad basis for internet innovation and access to continue apace?

One worry I have already alluded to concerns limited ISP competition. Most customers have at least two wireline competitors, but some still only have one. ISPs will, if they can, abuse situations where they have market power. They have it, of course, largely because we’re still living with the structure leftover from when local telephone and cable networks were public monopolies.

But this is why we have an FTC -- to address complaints about anti-competitive practices (and, by the way, the FTC doesn’t have legal enforcement authority over Title II public utilities). I think more should be done to promote ISP competition, but in addition to wireline services, there is also competitive pressure from cellular and satellite providers. As long as barriers to market entry are sufficiently low, I would expect this pressure to provide consumers with the internet they want.

Even if these worries are more serious than I’ve credited them, are there reasons to think FCC regulations would address them in ways better than FTC oversight? Would the FCC be a better guarantor of openness and access neutrality? I’m doubtful. After all, one of the FCC’s primary functions is to be a media regulator concerned with content and I’d rather not have the FCC anywhere near internet content. More, it turns out that the open internet rules the FCC devised based on its Title II authority expressly permit ISPs to block, filter and curate content. Finally, if the regulatory structure administered by the FCC is more costly for ISPs than what it takes to satisfy the FTC, then it’s possible companies will have less revenue to devote to infrastructure investments in areas currently underserved.

Look, I’m just a philosopher, not a tech analyst or economist. Some of this might be off (but I’m happy to have a go defending it). I more hope to have convinced you that this is one of those policy debates that’s not about ends, but means. Whatever side of this you’re on, it’s quite probable that the people you’re demonizing want the same things you want.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Are you an Oughtist or a Noughtist?

People who have beliefs about the way the universe fundamentally is can be divided into two distinct groups.

The first, and by far largest, is comprised of folks who believe that the universe is organized normatively. Roughly speaking, they believe that the most comprehensive true account of why things happen the way they do will make essential reference to the way things ought to be. Call them Oughtists. The second group is composed of those who deny this. They believe that the most comprehensive true account of why things happen the way they do will tell us the way things fundamentally are, not the way they ought to be. Call these folks Noughtists.

There are different sorts of normativity, the moral sort being the most familiar. Moral Oughtists believe that the universe is organized according to principles of right and wrong. Almost all religious people are moral Oughtists, as are many others who decline to describe themselves as religious but do believe in a moral order: fate, destiny, karma, etc. Traditional religious Oughtism rests on the belief that the universe was created by a supremely good deity. But you'd be no less an Oughtist for believing that it was created by a supremely evil one.

Occidentally speaking, Oughtism can be traced to Plato. Plato developed an account of the universe according to which everything aspires to the form of the Good. Noughtism is most commonly traced to Plato’s most famous student. Aristotle argued that, as Plato’s forms do not belong to this world, they can have no explanatory significance for this world.

But Aristotle was only slightly noughty. He subscribed, e.g., to fundamentally normative principles of motion. In particular he believed that the heavens are a place of perfection and that celestial bodies move uniformly in perfect circles for eternity. They don’t just happen to do this; they do it because this is the most perfect way. Aristotle’s Oughtism persisted for 2000 years, during which time human understanding of the universe increased very little.

It would be handy to say that the death of Oughtism coincided with the birth of science. But Oughtism is not dead, so this is clearly not true. What’s truer is that the birth of science resulted from an increasing inclination on the part of a very small number of very odd ducks to inquire into the world without judging it.

People like Galileo, Kepler and Newton remained Oughtists in the sense that they sincerely believed the universe to be of divine origin. But they took an unprecedentedly noughty turn in ceasing to believe that we could come to know how the universe works by thinking about how a divine being might go about building one. This peculiar mixture of hubris and humility lit the fuse that produced the epistemic explosion that, in a few short centuries, created the modern world.

The story of the growth of scientific understanding is the story of the full retreat of Oughtism. It slinked over the scientific horizon with the general acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin expressed the vaguely oughty opinion that “there is grandeur in this view of life.” But ordinary folks see it for what it is: a ghastly story of nature “red in tooth and claw,” devoid of any overarching purpose or meaning. Indeed, it is so offensive to our moral intuitions that most moral Oughtists continue to reject it as an account of the true origin of people.

Modern scientists still sometimes speak of their theories in normative terms, especially aesthetic ones. Einstein, e.g., was not religious, but he insisted that “God does not shoot dice,” an oughty expression of his conviction that randomness is too ugly to be an essential feature of the way the world works. But Einstein didn’t arrive at the general theory of relativity by contemplating the nature of Beauty; nor did a single one of the experiments by which it was subsequently confirmed attempt to ascertain whether it is beautiful enough to be true.

So, epistemically speaking, we live in a pretty weird world. We owe it to the expulsion of Oughtism from the playground of science. If this had not occurred, we would all still believe oughty theories of reproduction, disease, poverty, war, social hierarchy, famine and natural disasters. We would still believe in witches and the efficacy of curses. We would know absolutely nothing of galaxies, germs, cells, molecules, atoms, electrons, radiation, radioactivity, mutation, meiosis, or genes. Quotidian items like light bulbs, cameras, watches, automobiles, airplanes, phones, radios, computers, vaccines and antibiotics would not even exist in our imaginations. Yet knowing all of this causes very few to reject Oughtism as a general worldview.

Why is an interesting question, and not one I mean to discuss.

I conclude with the following observation: Most philosophers, even those who believe themselves to be very noughty indeed, are Oughtists at heart. This is because almost all of us, even the most “analytic,” assume that our normative intuitions are a reliable guide to the nature of reality.

There are several reasons for this, but I think the most important one is that philosophers are naturally drawn to features of the world that are normatively non-neutral. This is obvious in the case of intrinsically normative concepts like justice, virtue, responsibility and reason. But it is also true of most other traditional philosophical topics: free will, personal identity, mind, meaning, causation, consciousness, knowledge, thought, intelligence, wisdom, love, life, liberty, autonomy, happiness. All of these carry a positive valence (and their opposites a negative one) that we presume to be essential to them. Hence, we confidently evaluate any proposed theory according to whether it causes us to experience the correct level of (dis)approbation.

This is why, for example, most of us instinctively recoil from theories that propose to reduce phenomena associated with life, mind and spirit to the “merely” physical. They do not have normative implications and therefore do not satisfy the Oughtist need to understand these phenomena as exalted states of being.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State