Thursday, February 25, 2010

Philosophy Club Meeting Tomorrow [Friday]

Meeting in Kaufman 241 at 1:00. All are welcome.

Monday, February 22, 2010

State of Nature

By Hanno

Dr. Thomason suggested that one way Kant can answer the Gestapo problem [that on Kant's view, it is immoral to lie to the Gestapo even to save innocent lives, which appears to be a reductio, since it obviously is not only moral, but morally praiseworthy] was by claiming that people in Nazi germany were in effect living in a state of nature, and in the state of nature, there are no moral rules. Such a view has a long history, but it is not usually associated with Kant. Kant famously insists that morality is contextless, absolute duty, that applies everywhere all the time. Dr. Thomason is arguing that the usual interpretations are incorrect.

An essential feature of almost all conceptions of morality that descended from the Greeks [and that includes every major philosopher in the West through Nietzsche] is that morality is rational. One ought to act morally because it is rational to act morally. Unless you are an anti-moralist, or an anti-rationalist, there is good reason to accept this view: to deny it is to somehow make it that you ought to do something that literally makes no sense. Morality would be indistinguishable from taboo, and the answer to the question: why should I be moral? would get the answer: no reason. It is easy to see that such a view would immediately undercut any motive to be moral, and since morality is frequently burdensome [where it is not, there is no need for it], people would simply walk away from all talk of moral duty.

That kind of view, possible after Nietzsche, but at a price, was never an option before. Instead, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant, etc., etc., all agree that an action is good if and only if it is rational, and if something is moral then it must be good.

Hobbes began the state of nature view with these assumptions in mind. If some act was not rational, then it could not be good. In trying to develop the basis of political authority, he imagines the world without "a common power to keep us in awe," i.e. a world without government. He argues that in such a world, three motives would force us to do what is rationally in our self interest, anything. First, competition would drive us to be enemies, and since it is irrational to leave an enemy alive to wreak havoc on us later, it is rational to eliminate the opposition. Second, since striking first is always be best strategy, as in battles to the death, the person who would strike second may already be dead, self-defense makes enemies of us all. If we knew who was an enemy, we might avoid this problem, but as we do not, this becomes a serious problem. Even people who seem trust worthy may abuse our trust, and that would put ourselves at risk, something never rational. Co-operation becomes impossible.

To make an agreement where we depend on the co-operation of others is to put yourself in the same danger, and that is never rational. And if it is not rational, it is not good. If morality binds us to that agreement, then it is still not rational, and not good. So morality would be neither, which seems clearly wrong.

An agreement becomes rational only when there is sufficient reason to believe the other person will stick to the agreement. In the state of nature, there is no such reason, and hence agreements are irrational. Once there is a social agreement to abide by agreements, and sufficient coercive powers to bind people to their agreements, all agreements ["contracts"] not expressly forbidden by the common power to keep us in awe are binding and rational. This allows us to be moral agents: now that it is rational to keep agreements, we are morally bound to do so.

If Nazi Germany were the state of nature, then there would be no moral rules. It would be perfectly rational to lie to the Gestapo. It would be good to do so, then, though not morally good to do so. But the cost of such a view is high: it would also not be wrong for the Gestapo to murder innocent people. Such moral restraints are also part of the social agreement, and the assumption is that there is no such agreement. We would then have to say that is is not immoral to lie in that circumstance, but also that it is not immoral to kill. And this applies equally to all.

Nor would it be morally praiseworthy to aid others at risk to yourself. Indeed. this would, on Hobbes view, be irrational, too. It brings no good to yourself, and puts you at risk. Hence, on a Hobbesian view, we have several counter intuitive results. The person who aids a Jew is not being rational, and not doing a good thing. The Gestapo agent, who murders both the Jew and the protector, is also not doing a morally bad thing.

Moreover, to have this position, we would also need some argument to show that Nazi Germany was in fact the state of nature. There is no reason to think so on Hobbes view, at least. The common power did keep everyone in awe. Life was not solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, unless you were an enemy of the state. Those people would not be bound by the agreement, and not bound by morality. That is, Jews in the Third Reich could rationally resist, and use all the means of war to do so. But the people protected by the authority have no such philosophical recourse. We need some reason to think that the state of nature, and hence, a state of war, existed between the people hiding Jews and others. Only then can Kant claim that the moral imperative "do not lie" does not apply to those people living in Nazi Germany.

Other conceptions next

Friday, February 12, 2010

Next Weeks Post

I promised to post about Kant again on Monday, but I forgot that Monday is a holiday here at McNeese. So that post will be delayed till after the Mardi Gras break. for those of you who do not get a break for Mardi Gras, ha ha.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Philosophy Club Meeting

We have started again. We now meet in Kaufman, 241, Fridays at 12:00. Anyone welcome. Even c.e.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

Kant and the Holocaust

By Hanno

After last weeks discussion, I wanted to investigate the Kantian response to the Gestapo argument. It may be, perhaps, that Dr. Furman's and Dr. Thomason's moral views are radically different than mine, that our intuitions are so far off, there is nothing really to discuss. That in and of itself raises some interesting questions about how philosophy works: what are the conditions under which discussion is fruitful? When does it descend into two ships passing in the night?

On the other hand, my colleagues could suffering from what my professors at Penn called "being caught in the gripes of a philosophical position." This means that someone has been working so long with a view that they stick to the implications of the view in the face of obvious counter intuitive results. They either bite the bullet, and accept the absurdity, or pretend to bite the bullet, and maintain what they no longer really believe. They remain consistent, but consistency is easy. Truth? Not so much.

So here we have the argument: it is 1941, Eastern Galicia. Jews in Jewish neighborhoods are routinely rounded up and shot. People who talk to them are shot. People who help them are shot. People in Germany may not have known yet what is happening. But no one in any community with a substantial number of Jews in the former state of Poland, or the newly conquered territory in the Ukraine, Russia, Belorussia, the Latvian states, etc., can have any doubts.

And here are two real examples, not made up for phil 201: "Not far from Trembowla, in a small town of Budzananow, a Roman Catholic Priest, Father Ufryjewicz, saved a whole Jewish family by baptizing them and giving them baptismal certificates, and forging his parish records in such a way that he created for them a complete set of Christian forebears. With false identities that he had created they were able to move from place to place, away from those who might know their real identities, and thus to survive.

In Turka, on the eve of deportation of the Jews in August 19442, sister Jadwiga, a nun who was also the head nurse of the local hospital, hid 12 year old Lidia Klieman in the cubicles of the men's bathroom, which was used as a broom closet. Lidia stayed hidden in the hospital for several weeks. Sister Jedwiga put her in a Catholic orphanage under the care of Sister Blanka Piglowska, who knew she was Jewish. When a suspicion arose in the orphanage that Lidia might be Jewish, it was Sister Blanka who obtained new false papers for her with a new name, Maria Wolosyznska. She then transferred the girl to another orphanage where the mother superior was hiding many Jewish girls. ... Lidia's mother had been denounced to the Gestapo while traveling on false papers, arrested and killed."

I use both of these examples, there are many others, because it is clear the people doing the rescuing had to lie, lie often and frequently, to save the lives of these girls, whose only 'crimes' were that they were Jewish.

On my own intution, these people, called the righteous among the nations, a title bestowed on Non-Jewish people who act righteously, and used now to designate people who put there lives on the line to save Jews with benefit to themselves, are heroes. They have 'moral courage,' the courage to do the right thing even if it may mean, and frequently did mean, very bad things will happen if discovered. I regard these actions as truly morally good and praiseworthy. Indeed, I wish I possessed that sort of courage, and hope never to be placed in a situation where the limits of my own moral courage are tested.

Now on Dr. Furman's account, because these people had to lie to save the lives of the innocent, they are not righteous at all, but are doing something wrong. To lie is always wrong. Our duty to save lives is 'imperfect' meaning it does not always apply. Only when the means are moral ought we do our imperfect duty. Since lying is against a perfect duty, it is wrong. These people, therefore, are not doing something praiseworthy and admirable, but morally wrong. they ought to have told the truth, that the girls and families in question were Jewish. It is true that they will all most likely perish, but that changes nothing. Bad things can happen when you cat morally.

I have no idea why he insists that lying is always bad, unless he sticks to it because lying fails the categorical imperative, that is, the maxim 'If I want x, I ought to lie' cannot be consistently universalized. That is, it is wrong because Kant says so. But I simply refuse to believe that TMF really believes the priest and the Sisters ought to have told the truth, that they would be doing the right thing if they had told the truth, but have in fact done something bad.

On my view if there is a day of judgment, it is the Righteous among the Nations who will have good things happened to them, not the truth tellers. If you really disagree, then our intuitions are so far from each other, there is little to discuss.

Next Week: Dr. Thomason: Kant's State of Nature Defense.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Kant and the Truth, the whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

By Hanno

Dr. Thomason, Dr. Butkus and I were having a discussion at Darrell's [blessed be his place] about Kant and his ethics. At the heart of the discussion was Kant's defense of the absolute requirements of the moral law. In particular, Kant argues that the moral law commands what we ought to do under any circumstances. One of those requirements is truth-telling: we ought to always tell the truth, in any possible situation.

There are two standard objections, though they have a similar structure. Each flows, as I discovered in our conversation, from a moral dilemma created from other moral duties that we have. The first is the classic, phil 101 example of the Gestapo knocking on the door of someone who is hiding Jews in the attic. The Gestapo asks 'Are you hiding any Jews?' The truthful answer is 'yes', which would result in your immediate execution, and the transfer of the hidden Jews to a concentration camp, where they, too, will face almost certain death. On the face of it, one can argue, this cannot be the moral thing to do. It may be argued, correctly, on Kant's view, that there is a moral duty to preserve one's life, and that there is a moral duty to preserve the life of others. Hence, there is reason to think you have a moral duty to lie.

This creates two problems for Kant. If so, the moral duty to always tell the truth is not absolute. There are circumstances where you ought not tell the truth, and the whole picture looks shaky. Second, on Kant's view, reason respects consistency. It is because the maxims can be consistently universalized that they carry the moral 'ought.' Reason has its own motive, separate from the desires of the appetites, which is respect for the moral law, and this respect is grounded in the consistency of moral laws. Just as reason is in awe of the axioms of geometry because they are consistent, and the laws of Physics because they are consistent, so too with the moral law. If this objection is right, the moral laws are in fact not consistent. There are real moral dilemmas. If you tell the truth, you violate one moral law, and if you do not, you violate another. The existence of moral dilemmas thus poses an existential problem for Kant's view: if the system is inconsistent, there is no reason whatsoever to always follow the moral law. Indeed, if the moral law is in fact universal, there may be no moral law at all.

There is another standard objection: the little white lie. Here, lives are not at stake. Indeed, something as trivial [!] as feelings are at play. We picture a situation where truth telling does no one any good whatsoever. In fact, it just creates misery. Telling the truth will make someone feel miserable, and will not make you feel good either. One need not be a consequentialist to accept such a situation. That is, one need not think that only the consequences of an action determine its moral worth. Instead, one need only accept that at least part of the moral worth of an action depends on its consequences [and not the whole]. In our discussion, it became clear that this, too, rests on conflicting moral duties [though I am this minimum consequentialist: if there is no consequence whatsoever, I see no reason why I ought to do as told.] The dilemma for Kant comes from a competing moral duty: kindness. We ought to be kind. But the truth is not always kind, it would seem. Indeed, Nietzsche stated that there is a cruel streak in always telling the truth, a cruel streak which is cloaked in moral righteousness. "I am just telling the truth: you are a horrible lay, and not really smart either." I think Niezsche was correct.

The response to these objections was to insist that there must be a way to tell the truth and meet the moral law. That is, perhaps there is a way you can both tell the truth and be kind. I am not sure how such a response works with the Nazi example, but if true, it works with the kindness example. But I will note: this seems to be an empirical question: is there a way of telling the truth in all circumstances while at the same time being kind? The global claim, yes, there must be, needs a defense, and if Kant is right, an a priori defense.