Thursday, April 23, 2009

the retributivist instinct, revisited.

last year i wrote a little about jared diamond's article in the new yorker, "vengeance is ours". the new yorker is now being sued by the papua new guinean tribe for making false accusations, and the media ethics project at the art science research lab ( is about to release a 40,000 study entitled "jared diamond's factual collapse: the new yorker's papua new guinea revenge tale untrue". it was diamond's analysis of the facts that i found objectionable, which no factual expose can disprove, and i'm sure that it's very complicated and diamond could probably explain things in a way that made sense of his choices. but in as much as he even finessed the facts it begins to look like he used them to illustrate a conclusion that he had reached independant of particulars. its the worst kind of anthrolopogy and the worst kind of philosophy that begins with an assumed conclusion and chooses the evidence to suit it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the truth is very different from what we are inclined to believe. even if we are not aware of this, most of us are non-reductionists. we [are] strongly inclined to believe that our existence is a deep further fact, distinct from physical and psychological continuity, and a fact that must be all-or-nothing. this is not true.

is the truth depressing? some may find it so. but i find it liberating, and consoling. when i believed that my existence was such a further fact, i seemed imprisoned in myself. my life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which i was moving faster ever year, and at the end of which there was darkness. when i changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. i now live in the open air. there is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. but the difference is less. other people are closer. i am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

when i believed the non-reductionist view, i also cared more about my inevitable death. after my death, there will be no one living who will be me. i can now redescribe this fact. though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connection as those involved in experience-memory, or in the carrying out of an earlier intention. some of these future experiences may be related to my present experiences in less direct ways. there will later be some memories about my life. and there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice. my death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. this is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. now that i have seen this, my death seems to me less bad.

after hume thought hard about his arguments, we was thrown into 'the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness'. the cure was to dine and play backgammon with his friends. hume's arguments supported total scepticism. this is why they brought darkness and utter loneliness. the arguments for reductionism have on me the opposite effect. thinking hard about these arguments removes the glass wall between me and others. and, as i have said, i care less about my death. this is merely the fact that, after a certain time, none of the experiences that will occur will be related, in certain ways, to my present experiences. can this matter all that much?

derek parfit
reasons & persons

Friday, April 10, 2009

enforcers., or, vigilante outting!

several weeks ago, i was privileged enough to be eating dinner with some really wonderful philosophers- my fellow philosophy students, my professors lionel mcpherson and erin kelly, and two guests, tommie shelby and derrick darby. it was maybe the least socially awkward philosophical dinner party that i've ever been lucky enough to be a part of. the conversation, which i've recounted a number of times since (if i've recounted it to you, bear with me-- or, conversely, don't bother), turned, to my delight, to the moral status of vigilante outing! the gist is this:

(1) within the gay community there is an general belief that a closeted person could rightfully object to being outed by another person in the community.

(2) then there is the more radical view that a closeted person has no right to object to being outed, though it may cause them some harm. it might, in other words, be ethically permissible (or even obligatory) to out them on a number of grounds. first (this is the seemingly easier case), the person in question may be doing some direct harm to the community from their closet-- a closeted conservative politician, or evangelical religious leader, say. but the more interesting argument applies to people that we all know, closeted at work, or at home, in most cases to avoid harms and efforts ranging from the tedious to the down-right dangerous. the idea is that by being closeted, they harm the community by failing to bear their part of the burden in the larger struggle to secure benefits that they themselves enjoy, or could enjoy. it's the old free rider problem.

i have lots of thoughts about this! but i'm not going to talk about them here, directly. my view, in short, is that no one is ever, even in the extreme case, morally obligated to out someone, and that outing anyone under any circumstances is probably the wrong thing to do. but my reasons for holding this view are not, i think, conservative. i fully recognize the very real problem that the radical proponent of (2) is openly confronting:

in any community, and particularly within some solidarity group engaged in a struggle for survival, it is essential that the group find some way to protect themselves, both from external threats, and from the internal threat of free riders. the survival of the community itself depends on defending certain borders (literal, ideological, or otherwise), and on each member within those borders doing his or her part to abide by community standards. and yet, each individual within the group must grapple constantly with the temptation to minimize or avoid altogether the burdens of citizenship. if a group is large and its members have a reasonable measure of privacy, there will always be opportunities for this kind of exploitation. so keep it all together-- to maintain the good thing you've got going-- you've got to find a way to police against free riders, and ensure solidarity.

but even if all communities require policing, it might still be the case that the individual acts that policing consists in are not the sorts of things that, in and of themselves, anyone ought to do. going back, for example, to the case of the vigilante outer: it might be the case that if we had this sort of community policing, we'd all be more honest, or that we'd all be forced to join the fight and stay in it or something like that-- if no one had the option of being closeted, it seems reasonable to assume that we'd have more people fighting harder for gay rights-- fighting for their lives, bearing some of the cost of some collective struggle. but it still strikes me as obviously true that the sorts of people inclined to do this sort of outing are going to be morally insensitive dicks. and if they're not-- if they're just good people who decide that it's a job that must be done, despite it's distastefulness, by someone, for the sake of the group-- then they're going pay a high price, selling their souls, so to speak, in the supposed interest of the rest of us. this is not something that i would either do myself, or council anyone else to.

the problem, i think, is this: it's one thing to ask someone to do what's right, despite the cost to oneself-- it's another to ask someone to do something that's wrong as the means to some better end. i don't want to be a free rider-- it doesn't even sound fun or satisfying to me. which is why i try (with occasional success) to do what's right despite the cost to myself, and why i would encourage anyone who asked me to do the same (for their own sake, as well as everyone else's). but i don't think that i can endorse (or even fully make sense of) the notion that it's right to do something that's wrong in the interest of survival. and in this case, it's the survival of a group whose own principles may very well conflict with the actions that must be taken in order for the group to survive.

people sometimes assume or imply that an act that preserves a person or community that is itself good, is a good or at least acceptable act. i don't see why this should be true. it strikes me as obvious that being a good person is going to come into conflict with self- (or group-) preservation. but it's not at all obvious what, when that conflict arises, one ought to do about it.

1 an exception: i don't think that anyone is ever obligated to closet themselves for someone else-- it's unreasonable for someone closeted to expect another person to keep their actual behavior a secret. while it's lame, i think, to out someone for the sake of outing them, it's better when we can live our lives openly, and it's unreasonable for someone who fails to live openly to ask someone they've slept with to fail along with them. though outing someone for the sake of outing them and outing someone just in the course of living one's own life honestly might have the same impact on the person who is closeted, it seems to me that each act has a different moral status.