Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rules, imperatives, and noncognitivism

On Friday, Paul Boghossian gave a talk on epistemic rules. (I think it's the same paper that's in pdf form here.) On the way to discussing the Kripkenstein stuff, he claimed that rules are normative propositions and not imperatives. Being a cognitivist, I was generally sympathetic to his view at the time, though I thought some of his arguments didn't do as much to establish his thesis as he thought.

I've been thinking about rules more, though, and I'm seeing some reason to regard them as imperatives. Here are two ways we talk about rules that resemble the way we talk about imperatives.

-We usually don't say that rules are 'true' or 'false', just as we don't say that imperatives are true or false. Propositions, however, are different.

-It's natural to talk about following rules and following imperatives. It's a little less natural to talk about following propositions.

Even if this and other things convince us to regard rules as imperatives, though, I don't know how much it's going to help noncognitivists in ethics and other domains, because these imperatives might be best regarded as derivative from normative propositions anyway. (It'd be something like this -- accepting an imperative commits one to accepting a normative proposition, and the truth of the normative proposition determines the goodness of the imperative.) All the worries about embeddings, etc, are still out there when you're talking about non-truth-evaluable things. So it's open to the cognitivist to just say, "Well, we're going to need something truth-evaluable to explain embeddings and moral reasoning and the intuition that we need some substantial notion of moral truth to ground moral discourse. So assuming that Gibbard and Blackburn and those guys can't deliver all that, we can concede rules to the noncognitivist and still win."

Against what I've written just above, I suppose the noncognitivist could try to turn the tables by explaining the acceptance of normative propositions in terms of the acceptance of imperatives. This just seems kind of weird, though, because normative propositions are going to require truth-makers, and now the noncognitivist is going to have to posit normative properties or tell some kind of story about why we keep holding on to our normative propositions when there aren't any properties out there. So it looks like the noncognitivist can't have anything to do with genuine normative propositions.

In an amusing but irrelevant side note, one of our first-year graduate students has affectionately nicknamed Boghossian "Bog Hoss".

Friday, April 25, 2008

It has been an unusual morning

As I was walking to the philosophy department, a bird crapped on my head.

Then as I started walking home to clean up, I saw two birds having sex.

I do not know how to interpret these omens.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

How Good People Can Be Guilted Out Of Their Rights

I was talking about abortion with two students today -- we've read a few articles on the issue, including Judith Jarvis Thomson's defense of abortion and Don Marquis' anti-abortion argument. Thomson's argument is a particularly interesting one, because she argues that abortion is permissible even if we regard the fetus as a person with the same rights as you or I. This is one of the many picturesque thought-experiments in her piece:
suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not--despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won't do--for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.
One of the two students (I think they're on opposite sides of the issue) wanted to argue that even in this case, you're responsible for the upbringing of the person-plant, and that a woman similarly has the obligation to nourish a fetus within her for nine months after it's conceived, even if she used contraception. She justified her opinion by talking about how bad she'd feel if she had an unplanned pregnancy, even if she had used birth control. Someone who did something like that, she said, ought to bear the consequences. And here I discovered something interesting about the issue of abortion, and about the debate over rights in general.

Our beliefs about rights often come out of our emotions, and sometimes this process leads us to the correct conclusions. Consider the indignation we feel when we think of slavery and segregation. We're outraged by these practices, and when we see them through the emotional coloring of outrage, we see them as injustices where human rights are violated.

But this way of figuring out what rights you have is deeply fallible. Many good people, for example, have some tendency to blame themselves even in cases where they really shouldn't. They have a strong desire to do things the right way, and they hold their actions to very high standards. And when something goes wrong, even though they did everything in their power make sure it went right, they feel very bad.

(With my students, I brought up a case where someone makes some complex machinery doing absolutely everything possible to make it safe, and an employer installs it exactly as he should, and the worker follows exactly proper procedure, but something one-in-a-trillion goes wrong, and the worker is killed. In this case, nobody may be to blame, but the maker and the employer are good people, it's hard to imagine them not feeling bad about their role in the death. Both of my students agreed that in such a situation, people could feel bad but not be blameworthy. This generated one of those Amazing Philosophy Moments when my anti-abortion student realized that this would make the conception of an unwanted child a similarly non-blameworthy occurrence. Her friend was excited to see her say that, which is why I think they're on different sides of the issue.)

The range of things that most good people will feel bad about, then, is wider than the range of things where they do wrong or violate someone's rights. So -- and this is what I found striking -- it's frighteningly easy to convince good people that they have fewer rights than they do. If you can make them interpret their bad feelings as feelings that they've committed an injustice, you can get them to believe that they -- and others in their position -- lack certain rights. (I'm sure this is especially significant with young women who are taught by a patriarchal society to feel guilty about premarital sex.)

There's a bunch of other stuff here that I find really interesting -- the naturalness of the idea that childbirth is a rightful punishment for having sex, for instance. And, of course, the premise Thomson famously grants -- that the fetus is a person. Maybe we'll get a chance to discuss that next time, because they want to talk with me again tomorrow afternoon.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Hooray for trees!" he gibbar'd

One of the things I want to do before I leave Texas and our big library is read up on the recent history of the cognitivism / noncognitivism debate. I'm talking about stuff like the Simon Blackburn vs. Bob Hale exchanges of the 1980s, though I don't have enough of a grip on the area to know if that's the most important stuff out there. (In particular, I don't know what the most important Blackburn texts are.) But in general, guys like Gibbard and Blackburn versus their best opponents is the debate I'm interested in.

Do people have any suggestions for what I should make sure to read? (Or for what I should make sure not to read, if you're so minded.)

While I'm at it, I'll plug Andy Egan's paper on Blackburn, which seemed really good when I read it, though again I'm not quite strong enough on the ins and outs of Blackburn to know what to say.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I'm fine with rejection

It's pretty cool how accepting a job makes you like rejection letters a lot more. I get one, and I'm indifferent to the fact that I didn't get the job, while being mildly pleased that St. Podunk's College and someone who wanted to teach there found each other.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

On dearths of posts

One thing that had reduced my posting frequency over the past year+ was that some faculty suggested that I not blog too much while I was on the job market. Insofar as this was because they didn't want anyone on a hiring committee to google my name and see something disagreeable or think I was distracted by other issues, I followed their advice, and I kept the content of this blog mostly philosophical, since it's the first google hit for my name. (The Garance post below was an exception, but that was a special situation.) Insofar as they were trying to make sure I didn't waste too much time blogging, I kind of didn't follow their advice and kept up my usual pace at Ezra's place, and then at Cogitamus.

I can't promise a return to the past frequency of posting, but now that I've accepted a job, I imagine that there'll be more action around here in the next couple months. I'll start crossposting my Cogitamus stuff, for one thing. And when I go to the other side of the world and finally get a high-quality camera phone, who knows what kind of exciting pictures and stuff might show up.

Update: You know, I really shouldn't be allowed to finish this post without mentioning that more dancing-related wackiness will be featured in this space as well. Like that of last night, when I was out at Beauty Bar and my dancing secured the attention of a mid-sized bachelorette party for an extended period of time.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

In which the werewolf is admitted to paradise

Like many of us kids fresh out of philosophy grad school, I sent off a total of 99 job applications this year. I applied all around the country and the world, to places from Louisiana, Nebraska, and Idaho to Wales, Bulgaria, and Turkey. When I read Jobs For Philosophers and saw that the National University of Singapore had five tenure-track jobs, I mostly thought of it as a crazy place I'd mention in conversation to illustrate how I'm scouring every corner of the globe for philosophical employment.

Today I accepted one of those jobs. Now that I've visited the place and seen the details of the offer, it looks like a complete dream job. They'll have me teaching a light load of two courses per semester to bright and motivated students. This will give me plenty of time to focus on research, which is something they want me to do and which I can do very well. I'll have a lot of good colleagues -- the Philosophy department at NUS has 19 academic staff, including political philosopher and eminent Mill scholar C.L. Ten. Crooked Timber readers will note that one of my colleagues will be famous academic blogger John Holbo (whose super-cool wife is fellow Crooked Timberer Belle Waring). More good colleagues are probably on the way -- they were hiring 5 people this year. The food is amazing. Amazing tropical fruit and delicious Asian food with spices and weird meats and coconut milk are cheap and plentiful. And the money is enough to blow a grad student's mind. In going from TAing to an Assistant Professorship, my salary is going to multiply by something like 4 or 5. My plan is to live on half of it, save a quarter, and spend the rest on a variety of bold schemes to promote the good of humanity.

Now for a story that longtime readers might appreciate. Before giving my job talk, NUS had me give an hour-long presentation to the graduate students and advanced undergraduates to prepare them for the talk and also evaluate my teaching abilities. Since my talk was on the Humean theory of motivation, I taught them about the puzzle involving cognitivism, internalism, and the Humean theory -- if you accept all three, you end up having to say that humans can't make moral judgments, so you'd better deny at least one of the three. I'd planned the talk to include about 20 minutes of student questions, but a third of the way through, the students hadn't asked me anything.

So I looked at them and tried a trick that I had spontaneously come up with in the previous session of the lecture I've been teaching at Texas. I said, "If someone asks a question, and it's a good question, I'm going to dance." Amid lots of giggling, a brave young man raised his hand and asked a question -- I've forgotten what it was now, but it was good, and the students laughed again when they saw me dancing. After that, good questions flowed freely. When students see that their teacher is willing to do comical and mildly embarrassing things to reward student participation, they get the idea that class really is a place where they're suppose to participate.

I wondered at the time what the NUS faculty evaluating me thought of that stunt. They didn't express emotion in any obvious way, and it seemed kind of high-risk, high-reward -- would I look like a dynamic, exciting teacher, or a maniac?

Apparently they didn't think too badly of it, because they've offered me an amazing job.