Monday, December 29, 2014

178. Moral instinct

The analysis of morality according to the causality of action, discussed in the preceding items in this blog, may suggest that moral conduct is a conscious, deliberate affair. It may suggest that there is a deliberate matching of perceived situations with conscious moral principles, to be confronted, next, with interests and motives of the agent in question, in some rational trade-off. But while this may occur, morality is largely subconscious and driven by emotions.

In item 119 I proposed that even animals could exhibit moral conduct, in particular in altruism, as demonstrated in Frans de Waal’s experiments with apes. This claim was based on an analysis, in item 46, of how altruism may have survived in evolution, to evolve into an instinct, in tension with a rival instinct for survival and self-interest.

The drive to survive as an individual and the drive to be a loyal member of a community, in give and take, in some degree of altruism, are both deep instincts of human conduct, and constitute rival mental frames of action. Depending on the situation one may be in one frame or the other, and events may trigger a shift between them. One may be in a benevolent frame until one feels threatened in one’s existence.

I discussed this earlier in my treatment of trust, in items 68-73.

How would all this be embodied in the brain? How do cognitive habits form, even in competition with each other? Cognitive scientist Gerald Edelman proposed neural Darwinism. Associations in thought arise from more or less random tentative connections between parallel neural networks, triggered when those are active simultaneously in specific conditions. Such tentative connections are reinforced as a function of experienced success (presumably arising on an in some sense ‘higher’ level of neural circuitry). There may be competing emerging circuits, selected according to success, as a function of conditions. Hence the notion of neural ‘Darwinism’. This is how I read Edelman.

Much, if not most, of this goes on subconsciously, and this explains how much of our thought and action is subconscious, limiting the scope of free will, as discussed in item 5 of this blog.

So, the morality of action, and the perception of moral action, may shift according to conditions, triggering one mental frame or the other.

How does all this work out in terms of the causality of action discussed before? The mental frame one is in, loaded with feelings of threat or safety, self-interest or benevolence, depends on conditions (conditional cause) and on one’s position as an agent (efficient cause), and will determine what motives (final cause) are salient, and will colour or select the moral sense one attaches to observed situations (formal cause), or even those observations themselves (material cause). In this, one may be driven by emotions such as those of fear or bliss.

Actual conduct may then be in conflict with what one would rationally see as morally justified action. The resulting tension will evoke excuses in terms of the causes of conduct. One claims not to have seen, not to have judged appropriately, to have been unable to act appropriately, or to have had competing obligations.

Monday, December 22, 2014

177. Tolerance and forgiveness

The debatable ethics that I propose in this blog requires the ability and commitment of tolerance, in an effort to understand and perhaps forgive what appears to be moral failure.

Kevin DeLapp (p. 152)[i] proposed three forms of tolerance: normative, epistemic, and pluralistic. Normative tolerance entails ‘this is not my business’. It is close to indifference. Epistemic tolerance is modesty: ‘I don’t know, can’t judge’. Pluralistic tolerance entails the recognition that there may be alternative moral views or systems. Thus one may recognize as different but valid a consequentialist ethic where only outcomes matter, not motives, as well as a Kantian ethic where motives matter regardless of outcomes. This view can perhaps be seen as relativistic.

Epistemic tolerance may yield the effort to understand apparent moral failure, in recognition of the complexities, dilemmas and tragedy that may be involved in moral choice. What appears to fly in the face of one’s moral principles may upon scrutiny hide a commonality of such principles. Epistemic tolerance may lead to forgiveness.

For this, I propose, the causal analysis discussed in preceding items in this blog may help, with an analysis of the material, formal, final, efficient and conditional causes of action.

In debatable ethics this is to be combined with ‘voice’, extending the benefit of the doubt, listening to reasons given, and the effort at empathy. Only when that persistently fails should one resort to the ‘exit’ of censure, condemnation, or separation. That is also what I recommended for the building and maintenance of trust, in items 68-75 of this blog.

Concerning the material cause, one may find that the culprit did not see or have the morally relevant information on what happened.

Concerning the formal cause, one may find that he/she did not see or understand the moral salience of what happened.

Concerning the final cause, one may find that he/she saw a conflict between what was morally required and what was in his/her interest. Here the motive matters. 

Concerning the efficient cause, one may find that he/she had conflicting moral obligations. In case of tragedy all options were bad.

Concerning the conditional cause, one may find that he/she was following different moral principles, at odds with one’s own.

Concerning the exemplary cause, finally, one may find that he/she was following a bad example that to him/her was presented as a good example or an example of customary conduct.

All of these depend, in one way or another, on upbringing, education and social conditions.

So when does forgiveness arise? Clearly, when there was lack of perception, lack of moral ability, conflict between obligations, or tragedy, forgiveness is easiest. With respect to motive especially there is need for debate. How understandable was self-interest in comparison with moral obligation? That depends on the moral principles and their underlying ethic that were at play.

What if one disagrees with the underlying ethic? One may accept that it is an established ethic, even if one disagrees with it. This is pluralistic tolerance. Then a debate is in order to compare the alternative ethics. Here, voice may meet its limit, in the inability to agree or accept, and this may yield exit. When one can only see the other ethic as evil or unacceptable under any circumstances, exit is inevitable.

Such debate may stall in the inability to cross cognitive distance, or in emotions attached  to morality, obstructing empathy and understanding. Then a knowledgeable and wise third party may help, as a go-between, to help cross cognitive distance, defuse suspicion, dampen emotions and make repairs when debate is torn. Or in other words: to help voice and try and prevent exit. Providing an exemplary cause.   

[i] Kevin DeLapp, Moral realism, London: Bloomsbury, 2013

Monday, December 15, 2014

176. Moral failure

The multiple causality of moral conduct set out in the preceding item in this blog can be employed to analyse moral failure.[i]

It can be put together in the following scheme

material cause > formal cause  >  final cause > moral action
perception           moral ability  >   motivation        |
                                        |                          |              |
                            conditional cause     efficient cause
                            moral principles       moral position, role
                            context of action               

Moral failure can now be traced to lack in one or more of the causes.

First, moral principles may be lacking. Second, one may fail to have the requisite perception of a situation. Third, one may be unable to see its moral salience in relation to the specific context of action, or one may be unable to conduct the requisite action (for example inability to swim and make a rescue). Fourth, there may be lack of motivation to act accordingly. One may disagree with the moral principles (people ‘should be left to fend for themselves’), be weak in will, be simply too lazy, give priority to self-interest (afraid to drown oneself), or be confronted with conflicting duties (leaving an infant in hazard on the embankment if one jumps in). The last depends on the position of the agent and roles he has to play.

Moral role models help to develop especially moral ability and motivation. Think of parents, friends, teachers, sages, etc. Here literature may help, as an exercise in moral judgement, as I argued in items 92 and 120 of this blog. Take, for example, Ian McEwan’s latest book (The childrens act), in which a judge is faced with a series of moral conflicts and paradoxes. 

In tragedy, the moral agent has a choice only between morally bad options. The classic case is that of the Greek general Agamemnon who had to choose between sacrificing his daughter or the army he led. As DeLapp pointed out, here moral failure can be condoned, but it would be morally dubious if the agent were not plagued by qualms of self-doubt or self-recrimination.

As DeLapp also pointed out one may profit from a morally dubious situation without being causally responsible for it. The example he uses is profiting from discrimination (in getting a job, say), while disapproving of it. But the question then is how much effort one is making to ‘change the system’.

In item 166 I discussed the issue of moral justification of harm that is foreseen but not intended. Collateral damage of bombing, for example. I showed how this can be approached distinguishing between guilt and punishment. To establish guilt one should look at one’s responsibility as a cause of harm. For punishment, on the other hand, mitigating circumstances are taken into account, such as the ones discussed above, lack of ability, pressure of self-interest (e.g. survival), conflicting obligations. Past conduct and expectations of future conduct also matter. Did the culprit admit guilt, express regret, and was that credible in view of past conduct?

What about the conduct of bankers in the recent financial crises? They made profits while hiving off risks of failure onto society. They claimed that they were not aware of the risks of their conduct for society (material cause), or that their conduct was dictated by the demands of capital markets or organizational culture (conditional cause), or that they obeyed prevailing ethics in financial markets (conditional cause), and were unable to escape from them (formal cause), or were forced by the responsibilities of their positions (efficient cause). Those arguments are either not credible or not adequate. They are mostly excuses for masking the self-interest of profit, bonus or job (final cause).  

[i] As in the preceding item in this blog I employ the moral issues raised by Kevin DeLapp, Moral realism, London: Bloomsbury, 2013. However, my arguments and conclusions differ.

Monday, December 8, 2014

175. Morality of causes

 In the preceding item of this blog I discussed the causality of morals: where do moral principles come from? Here I discuss the morality of causes: how do moral principles affect behaviour?

In classical Greek philosophy it was assumed that knowing good automatically produces doing good. Clearly that is not the case. Sociopaths know of good and bad but don’t care, or even enjoy going against that knowledge. We often suffer from weakness of the will: we know how we should act but are not motivated to do so. And there may be other causes that enable or prevent moral conduct. 

To proceed, I make use of a multiple causality of actions, going back to Aristotle, that I used before in this blog, in items 96-99. Multiple causes are tailored to human conduct, with an efficient cause (the agent), a final cause (motives, goals), a material cause (available material, means, resources), a formal cause (method, skill, technology), a conditional cause (conditions that ground, enable or disable, the other causes), and an exemplary cause (a role model).

I now propose that these different causes of conduct determine how morality affects conduct, yielding a morality of causes. This, I propose, may help in the practical implementation and adjudication of morality and in dealing with moral complexity.

In the preceding item in this blog I proposed that cultural principles are social, cultural constructs that are not arbitrary but emerge from selection in the evolution of societies. I now propose that moral principles yield the conditional cause of moral conduct, which  also requires other causes.

Moral principles are institutionalized in legal, educational, medical, and other practices and standards. Together, they enable, constrain, and impel moral conduct. They are external to the agent.

To have an effect on conduct, moral principles must be supported by the motivating factor of the final cause, goals and desires, internal to the agent. This includes emotional drives of guilt, shame, and fear of social retribution. It also includes a balancing of moral considerations and the flourishing of the agent’s own life.

How this works out depends on the efficient cause, i.e. the moral agent, with its corresponding positions, roles and responsibilities. This may include features of the networks in which agents are connected (such as structure of the network and positions in it). 

These positional features of the agent determine the requirements and available options for moral choice, with complexities of responsibility towards different individuals and institutions, and the resulting moral dilemmas. A politician or manager has to weigh individual and collective consequences of possible actions. The collateral damage of bombing, for example. A parent has to include responsibilities towards his/her children.

Next, moral conduct is also affected by availability of the means needed for requisite conduct, in the material cause, and requisite abilities and know-how, in the formal cause.

The material and formal causes, and to some extent also the positional features of the agent, are external to both the agent and the moral principles.

The material cause entails the materials for moral deliberation, such as relevant logics, practices, literatures, precedents, cases, and illustrations.

The formal cause entails knowledge and skill, in the ability to see events as morally salient, to engage in moral conduct, and to argue in moral debate, given the complexity and context-dependence of moral considerations. They yield the ability of Aristotelian ‘practical wisdom’. 

The exemplary cause is the ‘moral hero’ who can manage the complexities of Aristotelian virtue ethic well, in practical wisdom. This can be an exemplary manager, politician, arbiter, judge, or author, for example. Moral decisions vary with the context, and cannot be codified in universal protocols. The moral choices of the hero cannot be copied from one situation to another, but exemplary behaviour concerns the ways in which he/she goes about navigating moral complexities.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

174. Moral realism?

 Moral realism claims that there are foundations for morality beyond subjective opinion and social convention.[i] In a strong form it proposes that moral precepts are independent from our thought, beliefs or opinions. In a weaker form, it proposes that they are not ‘up to us’.

 Where do I stand in this, with the ‘debatable ethics’ proposed and discussed in this blog? My stand is realist in the weak but not the strong sense. I believe that morality is not independent from our thought but that it is not (entirely) ‘up to us’ either. The possibility remains that its source lies partly in our thought and social convention and partly in some ‘outside’, more objective conditions.

A key question concerning claims of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, is ‘good or bad for what or whom?’ That in itself already entails that they are not ‘independent from us’. 

Morality is constructed in interaction between people. In Wittgenstein’s terminology: they are part of language games. In that they are not purely subjective and are largely social. The self needs debate with others, with different views, to test its own moral views. But realism requires that morality is not up to us even ‘if we all agree’. What, then, lies beyond language games, beyond tacit or explicit social consensus? Is there any more ‘objective’ warrant?

I think morality is also subject to an evolutionary selection mechanism as an external cause. I am confident, but cannot be sure and cannot prove, that moral systems that go against the flourishing of life and society will sooner or later fail to survive, and will succumb in revolution or disintegration.

But what, then, does flourishing of life and society entail, and how ‘given’ or ‘objective’ is that? Much more than in nature, in society the conditions that constitute the evolutionary selection environment that determines the survival or failure of morality are not fixed or given and are to a greater or lesser extent affected by the morality they select. In other words, to some extent there is co-evolution between society and its selection conditions. To some extent societies create the survival conditions conducive to them.

The flourishing of life and society may come to mean submission to some authoritarian regime. As I argued earlier in this blog, Fukuyama’s claim that ‘history has ended’ in the definitive victory of the liberal capitalist democracy is not valid.

All this makes my moral stance realist only in a limited sense. It is not the strong realism that most moral realists like claim. My moral realism is also weaker than my realism of knowledge of the natural world. There, the evolutionary pressure of the laws of nature that constitute the selection environment of our thought is more rigorous and more independent from our thought than in morality.      

[i] For a recent discussion, see Kevin DeLapp, Moral realism, London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Monday, November 24, 2014

173. Where does argumentation stop?

Earlier in this blog I endorsed the idea (attributed to Wittgenstein and Heidegger)[1] of social action in the world, or language games, as the cradle of meaning, but I objected to the all too easy acceptance that judgement of adequacy or ‘truth’ is simply up to consensus, established practice. That would yield an unacceptable, horrendous surrender of personality, creativity and responsibility.

Personality would be sacrificed to the collective. There would be no room to deviate and create something new, a new game with new rules.

Such radical social, cultural relativism would entail surrender to prejudice and discrimination. It would entail submission to the rule of powers that be. Large-scale aberration from justice, like the recent financial crisis, would be taken for granted (as indeed it seems to be, in view of the limited rebellion against it).

Yet, argumentation does indeed have to stop somewhere, and some basic conventions, terms of discussion, have to be taken for granted, to avoid infinite regress.

So, how far should argumentation go, and how can it escape from prejudice? How can individuality and sociality, self and other, be combined? How can unity and variety, and stability and change be combined? Those questions constitute perhaps the biggest theme in this blog.

While I accept pragmatic, temporary stops to argument, I cannot accept permanent ones. Indeed, that would be against the spirit of pragmatism that I employ in this blog, because it would raise temporary truth to the level of an absolute. One should not too easily assume incommensurability between language games (or paradigms) and accept differences of view as irreconcilable.

Earlier in this blog (item 21) I criticized some basic elements of the Enlightenment, but here I maintain its basic value of commitment to discourse, debate and attempts at mutual understanding.     

I discussed cognitive distance, as a source of variety for creation, and the need to ‘cross it’ in order to realize its potential.

How does that work? One central tool to trigger understanding between views (or paradigms, or language games) is metaphor: describing one thing in terms of another. This can be elucidated in terms of the scripts discussed earlier in this blog. In those terms, metaphor would entail the attempt to substitute items from one script into another, or to import a node from one script to another. Or in linguistic terms, to exchange connotations.

There is an evolutionary argument, from evolutionary psychology, why gaps between rival language games or paradigms should not, in principle, be unbridgeable. The human species developed ways of cognition that contributed to survival in the world, and that, I propose, has somehow become part of our shared genetic make-up. Perhaps that will sometime show up in brain science.

As a result there is a fundamental similarity between people in how they see the world. That similarity is greatest where it concerns interaction with nature, with its stable laws, in what I would call ‘first order similarity’.

In this blog I argued that this has also led to what I called the object bias, whereby we try to make sense of abstract notions on the basis of metaphors taken from experience with physical objects in time and space.

As a result, socially, culturally and morally cognitive distance is greater. Nevertheless some common basis remains, if only in the basic, primary, natural, physical experience that supply those metaphors used to make sense of abstract notions. I would call that ‘second order similarity’.

[1] See Lee Braver, 2012, Groundless grounds; A study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, MIT Press.

Monday, November 17, 2014

172. What do you have in mind?

 In thought and language, we treat abstractions as if they were objects in time and space. That is what in this blog I called the object bias (in item 29). One major instance is the container metaphor: people are ‘in love’, ‘in the mood’, ‘in error’, ‘in panic’, and so on. Also, we have things ‘in mind’.

As if thoughts were entities contained in our brain, as stowed away in a drawer, which we can ‘look at’ from within that brain. In fact, ideas are as much outside the brain, in practices, habits and institutions, as in it. There is no private language, as argued by Wittgenstein. To make sense we need corrections from others. Making sense is playing a ‘language game’. One cannot have an idea and ‘look’ at it from outside the idea. Some things are not selected but happen to us. There are things we do not believe but ‘have’. It is odd to say ‘I believe I have a pain’.

So what, if anything, do we have ‘in mind’? As I discussed earlier in this blog, I propose that we do have ‘representations’ in the mind, of a sort, in the form of neural pathways that are constructed from our interaction with things and people in the world. But one cannot step out of a representation and ‘look at it’ ‘from outside’. One dwells in it. One cannot have the cognitive cake and eat it too.

Also, I proposed that much of our thought is based on scripts, structures of connected nodes, which represent structures of logic, causality and action. The classic example is a restaurant script of entering, seating, food selection, eating, paying and leaving. The order and precise content of nodes was upset with the invention of the self-service restaurant. There, selection of food is not from a menu but from a display. If you do not play the game and sit to be served, you get no food.

Scripts are triggered in the mind by circumstance, and perception is unconscious assimilation into scripts, attempting to find a fit into a node of a script.

I imagine that in the brain such scripts are embodied in patterns of connection between neurons. That, I propose, is the embodiment of Wittgenstein’s language games. The scripts emerge as a function of perceived success or failure, with corresponding emotions, with neural connections strengthening or weakening (in adaptation of synaptic thresholds) or arising anew. Neural networks that occur simultaneously, or under similar conditions, more or less often, are tentatively connected. This is the embodiment of association.

The triggering of a script by circumstance embodies what in social psychology is known as framing. Scripts entail prejudice, stereotyping. If observations cannot be fitted into scripts they are ignored, not even registered. If something does fit into a node or several nodes of some script, the rest of the script is attributed to it, in ‘pattern recognition’. People ‘see’ things that are not there.

This prejudice limits substantive rationality, but in evolution it probably was adaptive, in speedy recognition and action, conducive to survival and procreation.

All this, I propose, is how the formation of ideas and meanings from practice, discussed in foregoing items in this blog, is embodied. In terms of the theory of meaning: a script represents what is identified in reference, or denotation, and the ‘slots’ of nodes and features fitted into them constitute the sense or connotation that produces reference.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

171. Realism and empathy

 If thought arises from action and interaction in the world, as argued in earlier in this blog, then it would be odd to doubt the existence of reality.[1] To renounce belief in it would be to renounce the origins of oneself. Here, Descartes gets turned around: not ‘I think therefore I am’ but ‘I am, therefore I think’. I, the world and others exist, and as a result I think.

However, the assumption of the existence of reality, taking it for granted, the absurdity of denying it, does not imply that we know it as it is, independently of our thought, or even what such knowledge would be, or what ‘independence of our thought’ would mean. We cannot simply step out of our conceptualizations of the world.

However, occasionally, and with great effort and trouble, fundamental concepts of the world can be shifted. One example is the radically counter-intuitive notions in modern physics and cosmology, which work only because they are formulated in mathematics, not ordinary language. My efforts to see through what I call an ‘object bias’ in thought and language, earlier in this blog, are another example.

Another argument for the existence of reality is that without it one cannot make sense of evolution. Evolution requires a selection environment that exists more or less independently from the forms of life that are selected for fitness, indeed the notion of ‘fitness’ would not make sense without it.

As noted by Braver, for similar reasons it does not make sense to doubt the existence of other people or empathy, the possibility of some understanding of what others feel and think. However, the very word ‘empathy’ misleadingly suggests that selves pre-exist before they interact.

We develop a sense of identity by inference from what we see other people do or say, and by trying to look at ourselves from their perspective. Without empathy we could hardly develop ourselves. It is precarious to be an autist.

In sum, reality and empathy are to be taken for granted. David Hume already recognized that humanity is based on custom, habit and empathy.

In this blog I have paid much attention to the notion of trust: what it means, its viability, its basis, and its limits (items 68-73). I argued that empathy is crucial for it: the ability to view one’s actions from the perspective of the other.

Rational self-interest of the autonomous individual, as assumed in economic theory, is self-defeating. For life, to be a self, one needs socialization and that requires empathy, with a non-rational foundation in feelings and perceptions (Braver, p. 170). Wittgenstein saw that trust must come before suspicion (Braver, p. 166).

How would the economy look from this perspective? Soon in this blog I will start a long series on that: on economics and on markets.

[1] Here, as before, I employ Lee Braver, 2012, Groundless grounds; A study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, MIT Press.

Monday, November 3, 2014

170. Wittgenstein and Heidegger as ethical opposites

 Wittgenstein and Heidegger had strikingly similar ideas concerning knowledge and meaning, as based on habit and practice, discussed in preceding items in this blog. David Hume had similar ideas. So did Aristotle, with his notion of practical wisdom. Here also, the meaning of a concept varies across contexts, in practical conduct, is not fixed, exact and universal. Knowledge is mainly unreflected know-how, acquired in learning-by-doing.

The criterion of adequacy of action and speech lies in legitimacy in established language games. Meanings arise within games and are diffuse, varying across different games for different practices.

In ethics, on the other hand, Wittgenstein and Heidegger are opposites.[1] Wittgenstein took the path of Schopenhauer, and Buddhism, in wanting to subdue the will and lose the self, in ataraxia. Heidegger, by contrast, similarly to Kierkegaard, and to Nietzsche, celebrated the will, commitment to existence, and thriving of the self, taking ownership of life, choosing to choose. They gave rise to existentialism.

Braver (2012, p. 50) put it as follows: ‘What Heidegger seeks to ignite, Wittgenstein stamps out’. I side with Heidegger on this.

But how can Heidegger reconcile this individual, voluntaristic choice with his earlier recognition of submission to community judgement (‘Das Man’) of adequacy and legitimacy? How to move from ‘das Man’ to individual authenticity?

The source of this problem lies in the view that social practice precedes meaning and knowledge, and that therefore the human being is ‘thrown’ into the collective of ‘das Man’.

I propose the following. People indeed develop thought from action in the world, in interaction with other people. But they do so along individual life paths, and as a result the cognition they develop varies, yielding what earlier I called cognitive distance.

How, then, can people get away with differences of view and cognition, given the discipline of social practice? Because meanings are diffuse. They may vary not only between language games but also between people.

More precisely, the logic of this derives from the analysis of meaning that I gave, at several places in this blog, as having two faces: reference and sense. Social practice is viable as long as people categorise, identify things as something, with the same result, in a given context or language game. But underlying that common reference is a variety of sense between people, a variety of connotations attached to a shared concept, on the basis of different experience along different life paths. They identify the same things differently.

One can deviate in thought, interpretation, intention and skill while sufficiently conforming to the rules of a game. A game can be played in different styles.

Tapping from different individual repertoires of connotations, people take part in different language games, and this difference in patterns of practice develops, confirms, and consolidates their differences in sense.

If this were not the case, if there were not this variety between people, how could new practices and language games arise or spin off from existing ones?

[1] Here, as before, I employ Lee Braver, 2012, Groundless grounds; A study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, MIT Press.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

169. Truth on the move
The best-known notions of truth are static, concerning a state of knowledge. Here I add a dynamic notion, concerning a process of learning.

In item 25 of this blog, I discussed static notions of truth. The dominant notion was that of correspondence of ideas and knowledge with reality, on the basis of objective sense data. A second notion is the view of truth as coherence with a relevant body of knowledge, including accepted facts and logic, or in other words plausibility. A third is the pragmatic view, where something is true if it is fruitful, i.e. contributes to successful practice.

I combine the coherence and pragmatic views into the notion of warranted assertability. This includes both practical success in action and consistency with accepted facts, related knowledge and logic. It is a matter of debate what the relevant existing knowledge, logic, and accepted facts are.

A different notion of truth concerns truth to form or fidelity to some ideal, in ethical and aesthetic truth, as in ‘he is a true friend’ and ‘that is a true work of art’.
I adopt a wider notion that includes both warranted assertability and fidelity to ethical and aesthetic ideals, which I call adequacy. This re-establishes the ancient idea of bringing together the true, the good and the beautiful.

Truth in a dynamic sense lies in a process of trying to achieve truth in a static sense.

The most notorious dynamic notion of truth lies in the philosophy of Friedrich Hegel. In his view, absolute truth, in an absolute spirit, manifests, realizes itself step by step in the course of history. This notion was adopted in the historical materialism of Marx.

An ominous result was that an appeal could be made to people to submit to suffering as a sacrifice to progress towards a horizon of truth and justice. And what is to be sacrificed is up to the ideologues, the Politbureau or the apparatchiks, to decide, as the visionaries of historical necessity.

Nietzsche’s view is closer to my heart: what matters is the ongoing search for truth, not the illusory claim to have reached it. 

Final truth cannot humanly be achieved. In this blog I argue that adequacy is imperfection on the move. Things will come to be seen as truths that now seem absurd, unthinkable.

Can the static and dynamic notions of truth be reconciled? I propose two ways for this.

The first way is this. My ideal, my view of the good life, a flourishing life, is to utilize one’s talents in a creative contribution to the hereafter that one leaves behind, in a dialogic fashion, in debate and collaboration with others.

Then, truth in the form of fidelity to that ideal yields a dynamic notion of truth, in the ongoing striving for truth in the form of adequacy, defined above, combining warranted assertability with fidelity to ideals of ethics and aesthetics.

For the second way to reconcile the static and dynamic views I use the notion of the regulative vs. the constitutive. This is related to a distinction made in the philosophy of science between the context of justification and the context of discovery. The regulative, in justification, lies in criteria for good argument, such as factuality, logic, and coherence with what we know, and fidelity to ideals. The constitutive, in discovery, lies in the process of achieving such adequacy. How that may work is a different story (see item 31 in this blog). 

The first and second ways of reconciling the static and dynamic views of truth amount to the same.             

Monday, October 20, 2014

168. Word as process

 Following the preceding item in this blog, the puzzle now is this. On the one hand words can refer to things (objects or abstractions) that have some identity, i.e. some stability across different contexts. On the other hand meanings are context-dependent. They arise in relation to meanings of other words in specific action contexts or ‘language games’. So how can we reconcile this ‘identity’ across contexts with dependence on context?

What is the identity of these spooks that change as they move from room to room, while retaining their appearance?

The solution I proposed earlier in this blog, using established theory of meaning, is that meaning has two faces. One face is static reference to something, when one identifies something as something (a chair, say), and the second face is the dynamic sense or of how one does the identification, and how that is affected by contexts of action old or new. Reference stands to sense as a picture to a film.

Features by which we identify, in making sense, constitute the connotation of an expression. Which features are picked out depends on the context. ‘Chair’ refers to one thing in talk of academic appointments and quite another in talk of interior decoration. And new kinds of objects may turn up to serve as a chair. Connotation is a moving penumbra, as it were, which accompanies a word as it is applied across contexts. It is a bundle of shifting potentialities.

Saying that features are selected for identification would suggest some deliberate, rational choice. In fact the features are picked up, largely tacitly, in ‘framing’, prompted by the context.

I elaborated this in terms of the hermeneutic circle (in item 36 of this blog). Meanings of sentences are functions of the meanings of individual words in it, as recognized in analytic philosophy, but at the same time the meanings of the words depend holistically on that of the sentence, which does not sit well with analytic philosophy.

As recognized by Wittgenstein and Heidegger, the crux and cradle of meaning lie in practice. Semantics (theory of meaning) follows and arises from pragmatics (language use). There, I think, lies the fundamental basis for pragmatism.

While analytic philosophy neglects the birth of meaning in practice, pragmatic philosophy neglects the abstraction of concepts from practice. In that abstraction most of the fuzzy set of connotations is shed. The sun is at its zenith and the penumbra is slight. Abstraction violates, kills perhaps, what Wittgenstein called the ‘form of life’ of words.

But we need abstraction to go from one context to another, plucking experience to employ it elsewhere. But when applied in a novel context the abstraction needs to be enriched again, cloaked in connotation, as a form of life, as it is absorbed in the crucible of the context, being amalgamated with other words there.

All this is reflected in the double meaning of being as a thing and being as a process. Old philosophy was built on the first, and later philosophy (of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger) on the second. It is both, along the hermeneutic circle.

Monday, October 13, 2014

167. Word and object

 Here I start a series that continues an earlier discussion on language, meaning, and cognition.

 In ‘old’ philosophy, ideas, reason and meanings are seen to be foundations, preceeding and guiding action in the world. Looking at the world objectively, from outside, we are supposed to analyse, plan and act. Ideas are seen as representations judiciously attached, item-by-item, to things in the world. Meanings are seen as objects attached to words. The philosopher Quine used the ‘museum metaphor’: meanings are like exhibits in a museum, with words as labels. Words and their meanings are given, fixed, a-temporal.

That is boring, since it precludes novelty and surprise, scary even, since it imprisons us. 

As analysed by Braver[1], Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and before them David Hume, turned the logic around. Practice, action and habit in the world are primary, in time, origin and quality, and ideas and meanings arise from them, as frozen frames, snapshots cut from a film. Thinking is a response to action, and then also a basis for further action. Most of the time, competence is tacit; we have no reflective awareness of what we are doing. Meaning is not analytic, applying to independent items, but holistic: words have meanings in constellations of words in expressions. Meaning depends on the context of action. Meaning is not substantial but functional. To understand the meaning of a word one should look at how it is used. For this, Wittgenstein used the term ‘language game’. Meaning is a role in that game, and meanings vary across language games.

There is no rock bottom, absolute, unambiguous, context-independent, constant meaning. In justifying what we say or do we reach a point where one can only say: this is how we do it. Meanings and considerations of validity or justification are relative to a language game. As in chess one can say that a move is legitimate or not, while it does not make sense to ask whether chess is true.

It is meaningless to talk of the justification of linguistic conventions by describing what is represented, because any such justification presupposes the conventions. We cannot talk of what transcends our talk.

By postulating meanings independently from practice we impose a separation between subject and world and then question how meaning is connected to the world.

I sympathise with this analysis, but the problem now is this. One of the most pervasive and tenacious language games is to talk about things in the world, designated by words, in a separation of subject and world. If old philosophical intuitions arise from that game, and if language games form the basis for judging validity, aren’t those intuitions valid? Either old philosophy is justified or there is something not quite right with the story of language games.

So, where do we go from here, with what theory of meaning? I have discussed my view in earlier items of this blog, and I will return to it in a following item. I propose that it is entirely reasonable to use words to refer to things, as more or less independent entities, apart from practices. That is what we use language for.

As I argued before, a problem arises only when we use intuitions from objects moving in time and space metaphorically to grasp abstract concepts such as meaning, identity, knowledge, concepts, culture, etc. I called this the ‘object bias’.

Meanings themselves are not like objects moving in time and space. A word when shifted from one sentence to another shifts its meaning.

As I discussed earlier, in items 146 and 148 in this blog, a second problem with the story of language games is that it appears to imply radical relativism. If meanings are tied to language games and have no sense outside them, does that mean that meanings are incommensurable between language games, and that debate between them is hopeless? Or do meanings allow for some connection between games?
In different language games, some words are often the same. Their meanings vary with the game but are nevertheless connected, in the process of meaning development. Could this not yield a bridge between the games? The rules of chess and draughts differ, but they can be compared. Wittgenstein used the notion of ‘family resemblance’. That may apply to la

[1] Lee Braver, 2012, Groundless grounds; A study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, London: MIT press.

Monday, October 6, 2014

166. Guilt of unintended harm

Is there a moral justification of harm that is foreseen but not intended? This is a puzzle in ethics (the doctrine of double effect).

What if I drive when drunk and cause an accident? What if I use excessive violence to protect myself? What if I protect someone while risking to harm others? What about collateral damage? What if bombing IS can be expected to also kill innocent bystanders? 

There is an ethic of consequences and an ethic of motives. On the one hand, if I am the cause of harm, I should take responsibility. On the other hand, surely, intention, the question whether I did harm intentionally, or from incompetence, or by accident, is ethically relevant. However, a claim of accident may be a mask of intention.

Consider the issue of free will, discussed in item 5 of this blog. If there is no free will, nothing is done intentionally, and if lack of intention is an excuse for doing harm, then no harm is morally wrong.

When does collateral damage become a mask of intention to punish a population, or to wreak vengeance, or to set an example?

In this blog I have argued for a debatable ethics that takes both consequences and motives into account, as well as competencies, multiple obligations, and circumstances. How does that work out?

Enzio di Nucci gives an answer.[i] Look at how courts of justice operate. One should distinguish between guilt and punishment. To establish guilt one should look at one’s responsibility as a cause of harm. For punishment, on the other hand, mitigating circumstances are taken into account.

Was the harm an accident, a fluke of hazard, or lack of competence, lack of attention, an act of fear or panic, or a matter of conflicting obligations?

I push someone and he/she falls down the stairs. I claim that it was a playful push, but was it? Or was it a devious murder?

For punishment, past conduct and expectations of future conduct also matter. Did the culprit admit guilt, express regret, and was that credible in view of past conduct?

In my work on trust I proposed that just ‘saying sorry’ is not enough. To recover trust one must explain how things went wrong, what one intends to do to mitigate the harm and to prevent similar harm in future.

Even in establishing guilt, in some cases mitigating circumstances are taken into account, as in manslaughter (accidental, but still culpable) versus murder (intentional). That may happen even in case of intentional harm. For example: in panic, you shot a harmless intruder.

A celebrated recent case was that of Pistorius (the ‘blade runner’), who shot his girlfriend, unseen, through a door, and claimed that he thought she was an intruder. He was cleared of the charge of murder but convicted of ‘culpable homicide’ (manslaughter). Was that a just verdict? It depends on the further evidence.

Collateral damage makes guilty: one has been the cause of it. But the defense may be that it was justified by a larger purpose, and proportionate to it. That would matter before the International Court of Justice. Is there evidence for hidden intent, with collateral damage as an excuse?

One may also be found guilty of neglecting to act, as when one stood by as someone was drowning. Was this culpable? Was there a good reason, such as inability to swim? Or mitigating circumstances, such as freezing cold water? Or conflicting obligations, such as having to leave one’s child unattended on the slippery embankment?

The practice of courts appears to illustrate well how debatable ethics works out.

[i]  Enzio di Nucci, 2014, Ethics without intention, London: Bloomsbury Press.

Monday, September 29, 2014

165. Absolute terror

Earlier in this blog, I argued against universalism and absolutism. Here I try to connect that with the current crisis surrounding IS (ISIS, ISIL).

 Should terror be fought with universal values, or are those precisely the source of it? Moral universalism leads to nationalism, intolerance, discrimination, missionary zeal, conquest and suppression. It is totalitarian in its absolutist claim to apply always and to everyone. The human being cannot achieve the absolute, and reaching beyond human limitations makes the world inhumane. This applies as much to the presumed universal blessings of Western democracy, capitalism and market, as it does to those of communism, Christian faith and Islam.

But, one may object, terror surely is an absolute evil? Does that not demand an absolute counterweight? What terror is, is often the judgement of a dominant power concerning its rebels. The rebels are inspired by their own absolutisms of faith or ideology.

What is terror? If it is defined as violence against innocent bystanders, then the interventions in Vietnam, Iraq en Afghanistan were terrorist, as earlier colonial interventions by the Netherlands in Indonesia, France in Algeria, Belgium in Congo, Great Britain in India, etc.

If terror is defined as a deliberate targeting of the population, then the use of nerve gas by Italy in Eritrea in the 1930s, the bombardment of Dresden in WWII, and the atom bombs on Japan were terrorist.

The boundary between these two definitions of terror is not sharp. It depends on how much collateral damage one accepts.

In what regard, then, if any, is the terror perpetrated by IS (or ISIS, or ISIL) worse than bombardment with much collateral damage?

Is it perhaps the manner of violence? Is the physical, personal closeness of the knife and sword of IS worse than the distant, impersonal slaughter by bombs? Or is it an affront to our sensibility of civilisation? In its past, the West overcame its own bloodshed by the sword, progressing to bombs, and it is an affront to history, the cultural achievement of the Enlightenment, to be thrown back into barbarism.

Not only outcomes count, in suffering, blood and death, but also motives. Terror seems more acceptable when it aims to curtail aggression, or terror (as now regarding IS), or to enforce peace (as formerly in Kosovo). Or when it arises from compassion with victims, as now concerning IS. However, IS will claim that it also acts from compassion and protection against injustice, suppression and violence regarding Sunnites.

I propose that the horror is deepest when terror is based on some absolute, in religion or ideology, transcending humanity, devoid of all reasonableness, limit and moderation. Devoid of human virtue. That arose before, in the holocaust, the Pol Pot regime and Rwanda, and now in IS.

But wait. The Enlightenment produced its own absolute, that of reason, replacing the absolute of God. That yielded the rational choice of economics, which yielded markets, resulting in an absolutist market ideology. Now, markets do not seek terror, violence against the population. Nevertheless, it does produce violence. Is it a sufficient excuse that this effect is not intended? In philosophy this is an issue of debate. The claim that violence was not intended may be a sop, turning a blind eye, masking intention.

My conclusion is this. While Enlightenment thought and market capitalism are absolutist, in contrast to IS the terror of bombarding IS is based on debate, in press and parliament, in a weighing of pros and cons, with an ear for opposition. It is a case of the debatable ethics that I plead for in this blog.

The tragedy of bombing IS is that without doubt it will call forth the next wave of extremism and terrorism, but a point was reached where nevertheless action had to be taken.

The worst tragedy is that the very absolutism of the worst terror also forms its attraction. Especially to some young people, attracted by the transcendence of the absolute, rising above the mortal self, the lure of the pure, and the unconditional, in a flight from the nihilism and shallow materialism of Western society, and from the compromise and hypocrisy of adulthood. They flee from the absolute of markets, back to the absolute of God, dropping democracy and destroying freedom and reasonableness. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

164. Trust as virtue

 Trust yields a good illustration of virtue ethics. Trust is not a moral obligation but a virtue. It requires character. It is contingent, not universal: one should not always trust, blindly or unconditionally, but depending on experience, customs and conditions. Trust can be both emotional and rational. It can yield dilemmas. It requires actions that are appropriate to specific circumstances. It requires practical wisdom to perceive and judge what is salient in those circumstances.

Here I pick up elements from the earlier analysis of trust in this blog (in items 68-73).

As I discussed there, trust is a matter not only of intentions but also of competences. One must not only have good intentions but also the ability to act upon them.

Trust is emotional since it is accompanied by risk, fear, hope and doubt. It is rational in the analysis of reasons why the trustee, the trusted person, organization or system, may or may not be trustworthy.

Trustworthiness requires virtues of character, such as being reasonable, forbearance, commitment, endurance, consistency, empathy, openness, courage, and the right amount of self-confidence.  

A shortage of self-confidence breeds suspicion, out of an excessive sense of vulnerability. Too much self-confidence blinds one to risks or overestimates ability to deal with them.

Trust requires courage because it presupposes acceptance of uncertainty. If one were certain about what will happen and what people will do, there would be no talk of trust.

Trust requires reasonableness, forbearance, and reciprocity, give and take, in taking appropriate action. When something goes wrong one should not immediately conclude foul play. One should extend benefit of the doubt and give an opportunity to explain what happened. Disappointment of expectations may be due to a mishap that is no one’s fault, a shortfall of competence, or lack of attention or commitment, rather than bad intent. Then one must have endurance and commitment to help improvements. In other words, one should not immediately go for ‘exit’, but give ‘voice’ a chance.

Conversely, when one makes an error, one should own up to it, explain, help to redress damage, and show how one aims to prevent similar errors in future. One should also be open concerning one’s fears. That gives the other side an opportunity to take action to mitigate them. In other words: trust requires openness.

Empathy is needed to understand the motives and position of others, including threats they suffer, in order to take them into account in forbearance, and to judge risks and reliability.

Trust is not ‘being nice’. Precisely because there is trust one can afford to be critical.

More trust can allow for less control, but trust is not boundless and where it ends control must start. Trust is not unconditional. In case of persistent error or cheating, controls are tightened, or voice turns into exit.

Trust is imperfect. It breaks under pressures of survival, as in times of crisis. Then self-interest is likely to prevail, and relations may break. The challenge then is to end a relationship in as trustworthy a fashion as possible, helping to limit the damage it causes, and helping the other side in the exit.

One may also face different, conflicting obligations, to family, job, community, and conscience, and one may have to choose.

Finally, apart from trust as a means to govern relationships, it also has intrinsic value: for many people, for virtuous people, dealing on the basis of trust is more agreeable and is part of humane relationships.

In sum, trust requires virtues of courage, self-confidence, forbearance, openness, reasonableness, endurance, and voice. One should analyze specific events in specific conditions, with an open mind, to arrive at appropriate action. One can encounter conflicting obligations. One should seek a balance between trust and control, between self-interest and altruism. And trust also has intrinsic value.

The capability of trust is a good example of what Aristotle called ‘practical reason’.