Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A problem with an argument by Hume.

I started to re-read part 2 of Book 3 of Hume's “Treatise”, the beginning of the section entitled “of justice and injustice”. The first argument on Sect 1 (477-480 of the Selby-Bigge (SBN) edition, p. 307-308 of the Norton and Norton Edition (NN)) strikes me as wrong, in so far as it is based on a conflation of two senses in which moral actions could be said to be morally "good".

Hume argument seems to be the following:

1. what confers the moral quality to an action (its moral admirability) is the moral quality of its motive

2. therefore the first motive of the action cannot be a regard to the virtue of that action.

In HUME's words:

premise 1:

'tis evident, that when we praise any action, we regard only the motives that produc'd them, and consider the actions as signs or indications of certain principles in the mind and temper. The external performance has no merit. [...] And the ultimate object of our praise and approbation is the motive, that produc'd them. (p. 477 SBN,p 307 NN)

the argument:

It appears therefore, that all virtuous actions derive their merit only from virtuous motives [...]. From this principle I conclude, that the first virtuous motive, which bestows a merit on any action, can never be a regard to the virtue of that action, but must be some other natural motive or principle.

This argument seems to me based upon the conflation of two ways in which the moral quality of an action can be understood. If we distinguish them neatly, it is clear that (2) does not follow from (1).

What (1) says is that the moral goodness of the motive is the only thing that confers moral goodness to the action, in the sense of making it admirable or praiseworthy. But this is compatible with thinking that what makes person's p motive to do F a morally good motive is the fact that p F-ed because, in his light, F-ing appeared as just, honest, courageous, or morally required.

Hume's argument seems to require the conflation between:

A. the moral goodness of the action, understood as what makes the action F (or better, the action -type F) just/honest/corageous/required, in the perspective of the agent who F-s


B. the moral goodness of the action, understood as the fact which makes p's F-ing morally admirable, in the perspective of a spectator.

(B looks like a judgment or reaction towards the performance of a particular action, but is really a judgment or reaction towards the character of the agent, grounded in that agent's performance of a particular action. The evaluation of action here is a mere proxi for an evaluation of character, as Hume clearly recognizes.)

We can think (and, I believe, should think) that the moral goodness of an action F, understood as A (what makes the action of type F, in that circumstance, just/honest/courageous), derives at least in part from the circumstances of action, features of the reality outside the agent. At the same time, we may think - without contradiction - that the goodness of the action in the sense of B (what makes admiration or praise towards the the fact that p's F-ed appropriate) is solely a fact concerning p's motive for F-ing, the fact that he chose to F because F appeared to him as what justice/honesty/ or courage required.

Hence the two types of judgment, one concerning the appropriateness of an action, given the circumstances, in the perspective of the agent, and the other concerning the fact that an agent behaved in a praiseworthy way, in the perspective of a spectator, are clearly distinct, and we do not run in a circle, contrary to what Hume argued, by saying that we admire p's performance of F (or p on the ground that he F-ed) because of p's motive, and that what makes p's motive in F-ing a virtuous one, is the fact that p F-ed because he saw F as what virtue required. That is to say, the first motive of a virtous action can be, contrary to what Hume argued, a regard to the (conformity to) virtue of the action itself.

Given that Hume is such a great philosopher, and that he cannot have failed to see this point, could anyone of you explain what is wrong in my distinction or in my interpretation of the argument?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Seneca's version of the "philosophy of swine" objection.

The following is one of Seneca's argument for the Stoic thesis that the human good consists in virtue- Seneca actually uses the expression "honestum" "Quicumque beatus esse constituet, unum esse bonum putet quod honestum est".

This argument has some resemblance to what Crisp calls the argument "of the philosophy of swine", but it is, I believe, more elegant and effective.

Seneca first of all argues that, if there are other goods beside virtue (honesty), like for example
sensuous pleasures (libido), or banquets or riches; it would follow that a man can be more happy than a god, because the gods cannot enjoy the latter. The argument which interests us is symmetric and involves a comparison between man (sorry: humans) and animals.

Seneca argues that the apparent goods are available in greatest quantity to (non human) animals than to men (sorry: humans). For example, they can eat more, have more sex, more strength, they do not suffer from cheats, they know no shame and penitence.

Seneca's conclusion is: judge whether it deserves to be called good that in which animals overcome man. "considera tu itaque an id bonum vocandum sit quo [deus ab homine], homo ab animalium vincitur".

Two questions:
1. this argument has some rhetorical effect. What is the principle underlying this effect?
2. what is the relation between this argument and the "philosophy of swine" objection to hedonism? See the "well-being" entry on the S.E.P. Are they the same argument? Are they based upon the same underlying moral intuition?

Hedonism and Stoicism: a comparison

One of the latest defenders of hedonism (thousands of years after Epicurus) is Roger Crisp.

In his article (Well-being) on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Crisp provides the following defence of hedonism from the “philosophy of swine” objection (basically the same argument can be found in his most recent book “Reasons and the Good”:

Bentham tended to think of pleasure and pain as a kind of sensation, as the notion of intensity might suggest. [...] Thomas Carlyle, for example, described the hedonistic component of utilitarianism as the ‘philosophy of swine’, the point being that simple hedonism places all pleasures on a par, whether they be the lowest animal pleasures of sex or the highest of aesthetic appreciation. [...]
Now this is not a knockdown argument against simple hedonism. [...] But there is an alternative to simple hedonism, outlined famously by J.S. Mill, using his distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures (1998 [1863], ch. 2). Mill added a third property to the two determinants of value identified by Bentham, duration and intensity. To distinguish it from these two ‘quantitative’ properties, Mill called his third property ‘quality’. The claim is that some pleasures, by their very nature, are more valuable than others. For example, the pleasure of reading Shakespeare, by its very nature, is more valuable than any amount of basic animal pleasure. And we can see this, Mill suggests, if we note that those who have experienced both types, and are ‘competent judges’, will make their choices on this basis.
A long-standing objection to Mill's move here has been to claim that his position can no longer be described as formally hedonist. If higher pleasures are higher because of their nature, that aspect of their nature cannot be pleasantness, since that could be determined by duration and intensity alone. And Mill anyway speaks of properties such as ‘nobility’ as adding to the value of a pleasure. Now it has to be admitted that Mill is sailing close to the wind here. But there is logical space for a hedonist position which allows properties such as nobility to determine pleasantness, and insists that only pleasantness determines value. But one might well wonder how nobility could affect pleasantness, and why Mill did not just come out with the idea that nobility is itself a good-making property.”
What could be a Stoic reply to this contemporary revival of the “Epicurean” position? Let us imagine a dialog between a stoic and a hepicurean, respectively S. and H.

S: you insist that nobility can determine pleasantness, but only pleasantness can determine value. However this cannot be a defense of hedonism, since admitting that nobility can determine pleasantness leads to think that the goodness of the lives of different people depends from their nobility. This leads some support to the stoic position according to which nobility or honesty is the only authentic good.

H. But this position is indefensible since a honest or noble life is not good when it does not contain also pleasure.

S. An authentically noble person would always gain pleasure from acting virtuously. If she does not, she is not authentically virtuous.
H. But this is obviously false! Consider the honest judge's lack of pleasure in applying certain laws to certain cases, for example when he has to expropriate the poverty of a poor and honest man to give it to a rich and evil man.

S. Well, the judge is not authentically honest, or he lacks pleasure when he does what is just. The judge you are imagining is not doing something just, because he is applying unjust laws. This is not to say that he should bend the laws. Rather a honest person would not occupy such a role as the judge in a country which has unjust laws. Summing up, a law is either a good law or a bad law; and that if it is a good law, the judge should be pleased to apply it, while if it the law is a bad one, an honest judge should not apply and should resign office.

H. This view of the law is totally unplausible. A good or just law is a law whose consistent application fosters human happiness. But we can have no guarantee that a just law will do always more good in every particular case. As Hume clearly saw, even the best law can produce more harm than good in some particular case of its application. Therefore it is perfectly natural for a judge - who, being human, possesses sympathy - to lack pleasure in applying some just laws, in particular circumstances.1
S. A good law must be such that its application produces most of the time more good than harm, and hence a honest judge will find pleasure in his exercise of honesty more often than not. So the honest will be happy in a country that has good laws.

H. But then a judge cannot be both happy and honest in country whose laws are imperfect or unfair, say because they produce harm rather than good in most cases!

H. But is that a paradox? My view leads to thinking that no judge can be perfectly honest (and therefore happy) in a society like ours, society which has some laws which can only be applied reluctantly. It leads to thinking that people who cover a certain social position cannot be perfectly happy and honest but in a society with just laws. Is that such a paradoxical result?

1As Hume puts it:

"A single act of justice is frequently contrary to public interest; and were it to stand alone, without being follow'd by other acts, may, in itself, be very prejudicial to society. When a man of merit, of a beneficent disposition, restores a great fortune to a miser, or a seditious bigot, he has acted justly and laudably, but the public is a real sufferer. Nor is every single act of justice, consider'd apart, more conducive to private interest, than to public; and 'tis easily conceiv'd how a man may impoverish himself by a signal instance of integrity, and have reason to wish, that with regard to that single acct, the laws of justice were for a moment suspended in the universe" (Treatise on Human Nature, 3.2.2, 497)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Humeans, Kantians and Aristotelians as parents.

What would be the characteristics of a Humean, a Kantian or an Aristotelian parent?

The Humean mother would give a lot to her child, moved by the sentiment rather than by an abstract sense of duty. She would support the son in everything he does and see his satisfaction as hers. She would be moved by sympathy.

But the human mother may not be the best type of mother when she has more than one child. If you have two children, you must be fair between them. And acting from sentiment may not be the best way to achieve fairness. Notice that treating your children as equals does not mean giving them equal amounts of resources (i.e. money).

Consider the following example: one of your children has a great musical talent, and she is accepted by a prestigious school. You need 2000 $ a month to support him and give him this chance. The other child goes to the university in the same city where the family lives. Suppose she has failed her applications to a better college in another city, or support she did not even apply. Does it follow that the mother should give 2000 $ to the other daughter, say, to live on her own, or, if she prefers to live with the family, to spend for holidays or other leisures? I do not think so.

Treating children as equals does not mean giving them equal share of resources. It requires to achieve more complex objectives such as for example, supporting their talents equally, giving them the same opportunities equally, and the like. And this is not done, in most cases, by giving them equal shares of resources, to spend as the two children like.

The humean mother can be a very good mother when she has only one child, but may have troubles when she has more than one child. For in order to treat her children as equals, she cannot simply be guided by her sentiments.
If you let your action be guided by the sentiments you may very easily end up favoring a child over the other. This will especially be when the mother finds one of the two children easier to get along with, or nicer. (According to some psychologists even beauty could condition such responses.) Or, to make a more usual example, when you recognize yourself in the career of one child more than the other. The typical example is that of a parent who wanted to become a philosopher (or a pianist, or a novelist, or to get a degree), but could not do it, and projects this ambitions on her children. (I'm sure you are familiar with this from your life, or novels and films) Suppose that such a parent has two children: one that wants to study philosophy at the university (or to study piano, or to become a writer, or simply to get a degree), and another who does not like education and finds a job immediately after the high school. The first child is much lazier than the first, she does her degree very slowly and unsuccessfully; the second is hard-working, and has even chances of setting an activity on her own. But the Humean parent treats the first child much better than the second, he favors all of her aspirations, pays her summer schools, etc... The Humean parent, who follows the voice of her hearth, is very supportive with the one of the two children, but not enough supportive with the other, the one, let us say, who has not studied but has a good idea for a business and needs the support of her family to realize her dream.

The Kantian mother, by contrast, tries to deal with the requests of her child by applying principles. In this way she avoids being misled by sentiments and prejudices. The Kantian mother adopts the principle, for example, that she should not spend the family's money to support the living expenses of a child who does not want to find a job to support herself, or the principle that she should deprive herself of money, if one child has a real opportunity, but not simply to support the hobbies or leisure activities of the child. She tries to assess if she is following a reasonable principle, instead of listening to what her hearth tells her. If the principle sounds reasonable to her, she applies it. She can be consistent because she applies the same principles to all her children: hence she can be do what fairness requires, even in complicated situations. So she will use the money for her children , when the children really need them, and she will have the strength to say “no”, when the son asks for them, even if, had she followed her hearth, she would have give him money, just to see him happy. This mother knows that if she is unable to say “no” to a son, because she loves him a lot, she will be depriving all her other children, who do not ask so much, of resources that they are entitled to have. If any other child will be in a similar situation, she know that she will follow the same principle. In this way, she can assure herself that she is treating her children as equals, and that she is not being swayed by prejudices or emotions.

But even the Kantian parent is not a perfect parent, even if she may be in general fairer than the Humean parent. The problem of a Kantian mother is that there is no antecedent criterion to establish which concrete rules should be applied in a situation that presents itself in the novel way. The Kantian mother wants to apply the principle “treats your children as equals”. She understands this as “apply the same concrete rules in your decisions towards both of your children”. But the the rule “treats your children as equal” is silent on what specific behavior should be used to deal with the first child, when the mother faces a novel situation concerning his life. The only thing that fairness commands, is that, whatever rule the mother applies to the first child, she ought to apply the same rule when she deals with a similar situation involving the second child. But the imperative of treating your children as equals is silent on what counts as a good rule to apply in the first case. The Kantian mother risks to make twice as much mistakes as the Humean mother, and to do them for the sake of respecting her principle of fairness.

For, if the Kantian mother makes a wrong decision when dealing with the situation of the first child, for example because she does not support her ambitions enough, she is going to do a wrong decision when dealing with the situation of the second child by applying a similar principle,even if she realizes now, dealing with the second child, that she could have been more generous with the first as well as with the second.

The problem arises because the Kantian mother, as well as the Humean mother's behavior, is not free from the influence of (possibly uneducated) sentiments. Suppose that the Kantian mother loves the second child more than the first, or tends to favor the second child more because she identifies more easily with her. Suppose that this mother has failed to be appropriately supportive of the first child's ambitions (because she does not identify with her, or does not love her enough.) Now the situation materializes, in which the second child has an important opportunity. The mother realizes now that it would not be generous enough towards her child, if she does not do some extra sacrifice in order to support her ambitions. She also realizes, a fortiori, that she has not been as supportive with the ambition of the first child as she should have been. She realizes, that is, that the principle which she applied in the first case was not reasonable, or that it was not reasonably applied. But given that she wants to treat her children as equals, she must decide not to support the ambition of the second child as well. A humean mother would have acted unfairly, by supporting the ambitions of the second child even thought she behaved in a different way with the first. A Kantian mother acts with fairness, but in this way fails to be appropriately generous with both children.

The problem of the Kantian mother shows the limitations of the Kantian approach in ethics. Sticking to principles and applying them in an universalistic fashion is not a guarantee of acting in the right way, unless the decision made in the first case of the application of the rule was a reasonable one in the first place.

The Aristotelian mother should overcome the problems of both the Humean mother (who acted as her sentiments or feeling moved her to act) and of the Kantian mother. The Aristotelian mother understands that it is not enough to apply reasonable rules consistently, if she does not have the practical wisdom to know how a certain rule should be applied in the first place (for example knowing how to apply the rule “be generous and supportive of your children's ambitions when they face good opportunities" in practice). Aristotelian morality realizes that knowing how to apply such rules means also having well-developed and rational sentiments and dispositions. For the problem of the Kantian mother was that she was had not been generous enough with the first child, and had failed to support her adequately when she needed this support. What prevented her to act with the right degree of generosity was her insufficient degree of empathy towards the aspirations of the first child, or her (unconscious) lack of sympathy towards the first child (a problem that did not arise when the second child found herself in a similar situation.) Aristotelian ethics knows that without a therapy of this mother sentiments towards the first child, this mother cannot apply the right rule and make the right decision in the first case. The Aristotelian mother tries to act reasonably, but knows that reason cannot tell her how much to give to her children, if it is not accompanied by well-developed emotions.

These are roughly the reasons, which lead me to favor the Aristotelian picture of morality, in which reason penetrate and shapes the sentiments, to both the Humean, based upon the sentiments, and the Kantian one, based upon pure reason.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Non-transitivity with no irrationality.

Can there be cases of non-transitivity in choice with no irrationality? Michael Mandler (A difficulty choice in Preference Theory) argues that it is possible.

First of all let us define non transitivity.

If x, y, and z are three goods, we have a failure of transitivity if

y ≥ z

x ≥ y


z > x

what is the interpretation of the symbols ≥ (weakly preferred to) and > (preferred to)?

Mandler distinguishes two possibilities here: an interpretation according to which preference corresponds to judgments of welfare level; and one in which it corresponds to choice in forced or unforced circumstances. Here I shall discuss the second type of interpretation. The first interpretation, Mandler argues, creates a problem with completeness: it is not plausible to expect a rational agent to be able to say, of every two alternatives, if he is better off with a as with b, or with b as with a, or as much well off with a as with b. Why? a and b may reflect complex situations, for example a policy choice having a certain impact on the environment and a certain impact on comfort, and the individual may not be able to assess as better, worse or indifferent different combinations of comfort and environmental value: he may not know what to choose.

This problem is avoided by imagining that we force i the subjects to make a choice, for example, we may imagine that unless the agent choses a good or another, we give him an electric shock. In such situations, choices can always be elicited.

The proposed interpretation of the symbols according to the forced choice interpretation is the following:

a > b : in all choice situations in which a and b are available, the subject consistently chooses a

a b : in at least some circumstances, the subject chooses a (but in other he may choose b).

Is the interpretation of a ≥ b meaningful and coherent with our idea of rationality? Yes: to see why it is enough to think about situations in which subject have a status quo bias. The situation above may be one in which the subject tends not to exchange a good b with another good a , when he has the good b, but in certain situations may choose the good a when b is available.

It is crucial for the example that this point sounds clear. Let us therefore make an example. Suppose that

x = car

y = bike

z = scooter

We may interpret the expression z > x as “every time the subject is offered the alternative between a scooter and a car, the subject chooses a scooter”. Notice that with this interpretation of the symbols, it is very hard not to ascribe a welfare meaning to the choice behavior in question, namely that the subject consider himself better off with a scooter than with a car.

The important step in Mandler's reasoning is that no such welfarist interpreation is forced on us if we interpret a ≥ b in terms of forced choice.

Imagine a subject who has some concern for both the environment and her own comfort. This subject may have inherited from her brother an old but well-functioning scooter. Let us also assume that he could sell the scooter and buy a bike with the same money. We may imagine this subject to show status quo bias: she may not sell the scooter to buy a new bike. Yet, we may imagine that this subject moves to another city, in which he faces a situation not at all different from the first. He may have the same amount of money to spend, and decide to buy a bike instead of the scooter. Notice that the subject need not have changed her mind. She may still ascribe a higher value in terms of environmental cleanness to the bike, and a higher comfort value to the scooter. We may imagine such a subject as one that has not got a clear idea of the exact trade-off between environmental value and comfort value. This subject is not necessarily irrational. We may express the preference of this value as

y ≥ x under the forced choice interpretation. Hence y ≥ z would signify: “there are circumstances in which the subject would choose a bike over an available alternative of a scooter.”

Notice that the difference with the interpretation in terms of welfare judgment: the subject does not need to think of himself as equally well off with the scooter or with the bike: he need not have no settled idea on the matter.

Now let us tell a story about a rational woman who has non-transitive preferences. The subject who has the preferences

y ≥ z : the subject weakly prefers bike to scooter

x ≥ y : the subject weakly prefers car to bike


z > x : the subject strongly prefers scooter to car

This subject may be not irrational. He may always prefer using a scooter to using a car, whenever given the possibility. This behavior could be interpreted as judging the scooter to be better than the car both in terms of comfort and in terms of environmental impact. This subject may also weakly prefer the bike to the scooter, meaning that in certain circumstances of (forced) choice, she may decide to take a bike instead of the scooter. And there may be circumstances in which the subject does not select the bike over the scooter, even if she has the opportunity to: as we have seen, the subject may have inherited the scooter from his brother, and show status quo bias.

What is the significance of these examples? The standard demonstration of transitivity in rational choice theory is based on the idea that a subject with non-transitive preference could be brought to ruin by exchange, as in the famous money pump example. A subject who strongly prefers apples to pears, bananas to apples, and pears to bananas, starting with pears may be willing to pay 10 c to get apples, then 10 c to get bananas, and eventually other 10 c to get pears. Hence the subject would come back to the status quo with a net loss of 30 c; then the process may start again, and in a sufficient long time the subject will be ruined.

But with weak preference interpreted in terms of forced choice, the money pump may not even get started. For the subject in the example may show status quo bias and refuse to exchange the scooter she inherited with a bike. That is to say, although the bike is not chosen from the set {bike, scooter}, when the scooter is the status quo,, it may well be chosen when the bike itself is the status quo. And similarly, the car may well be chosen from the set {car, bike} when the car is the status quo. Since the agent must always choose the scooter from the set {scooter, car} (and she can be said to be better off with a scooter than with a car), we have z > x (that is, there are no circumstances under which a car is chosen when there is a scooter available.) (See Mandler “A Difficult Choice in Preference Theory”, in Varieties of Practical Reasoning, MIT Press: p 397). As Mandler writes “Transitivity is therefore violated, and the case for the rational necessity of completeness and transitivity fails. Status quo bias and other discordant evidence have been widely interpreted, by both economists and others, as a strong repudiation of the standard economic model of rationality. And status quo bias indeed contradicts the standard model. But ... the phenomenon is not a sign of irrationality in the sense that status quo bias puts agents in harm's way. Hence, it is not any thesis about the prevalence of genuinely rational behavior that must be overturned; it is the economic account of rationality that must give way.” (ibidem).