Friday, December 7, 2007

Applications of Philosophy, Quite Literally

I am thoroughly ecstatic! I actually have managed the impossible feat of finishing two of my nine PhD applications. These applications have taken almost a month's time, and I am still ironing out the kinks to my writing sample--an entire semester long affair. I will have the esteemed privilege of getting feedback from Andrew Feenberg, Canadian Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology, and renowned Heidegger scholar trained by Marcuse himself. Of course, this is a privilege coming with the price of meeting his criticism of my writing sample right before they are sent out. My writing sample and finishing up my Plato paper while meeting the grading deadlines of my tutorials. I have yet to supervise the giving of their final exam.

Whew! Wipes brow.

Although I do not know how many people actually read this blog, but heh, that's my philosophical life thus far. Almost done with the MA.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Opposite of My View on Torture

It comes as no surprise this moral philosopher has published such an abhorrent view in an international journal. Most of the time, if "international" appears in the scholarly journal's title, then that should signify how "unrecognizable" that journal is. (I have no qualms about committing ad hominems in my own blogspace. The virtue comes in recognizing one's own pronouncement as a fallacy)

A Defense of Torture

In response to this article, I can only claim that we have competing intuitions. I start from the intuition that for principles to matter and spell out exactly how we ought to act, they must be able to stand on their own. Even if I were a particularist or contextualist, the role of principles as spelled out in a codified law, such as due-process still stand on their own feet without collapsing them away by offering the intuition of ticking-time bomb scenarios as ultimate defeasibility of my position. The reason why I cannot accomodate the intuition supporting torture is that I do not think the intuition can be accomodated---period, end of story. I find myself repeating myself on this point: To truly value a principle, such as in our jurisprudence, is to think such a principle so laudable that the value endorsed speaks about who our character as a nation. This may sound like rhetorical nonesense, but I will explain.

A character of a person is determined by the set of principles and values that person endorses. The set of endorsed values form the practical identity people see as a salient criteria used in judging people morally. For example, if Jones is honest all the time and he lied about X, then we should think something is up for why he lied about X. Similarly, if he then changed from an honest person to constantly lying, Jones' honest reputation and good character become undermined by the complete change of character. Let's assume his lying is based on endorsing the value of his wants and desires over others no matter what. In fact, he firmly admits that committing himself to principles of putting himself ahead of others, including in truth-telling, is something he sees himself as neglecting from years of being an upstanding honest person. He acquires a new character somewhere over time. Thus, practical identity is a moral feature of our experience used in judging the character of moral agents. By extension, this holds for a state.

Practically speaking, the United States is like Jones. When in times past if the United States called attention to human rights violations, then the world would listen. Now, the Junta in Burma are slapping down democracy and our want to call attention to this in international circles is defeated by our inconsistency on the one hand of judging others to be violators of human rights when at the same time the US cannot honor commitments of non-torture. This is an inconsistency in what we say we value from how we act. Our practical identity of a free nation is supplanted by the truer picture of our character. In essence, our practical identity is held as a salient feature for morally judging the US. This is a consequence of the inconsistency between a nation founded on the rule of law with those in power causing the split between the good principles we value from putting their wants ahead of what is truly morally good.

Following through on the deontological intuitions regarding torture

First, the link of absolute agreement:

The view I am going to espouse may seem practically absurd, but it is the one I share being a deontologist over a utilitarian. Before proceeding, I give a brief definition of the two. A deontologist is anyone who feels there are inviolable principles of duties that must be adhered to independent of consequences. Deontological principles are good for their own sake. A utilitarian is anyone who thinks principles of duty should try to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Put another way, for the deontologist there are inviolable principles of morality that are independently objective, and should be adhered on their own intrinsic merit. These principles indicate what it is as a nation we value, and one of them is the rule of law above the political and tactical expediency that the promise of torure brings. Let's put this into the often cited example of a ticking time-bomb scenario so favorable to many pragmatic conservatives.

Suppose there is a ticking time-bomb, a nuclear bomb to be more precise. The bomb will destroy a major metropolitan city in the contiguous United States unless it is found. US police authorities have every justifiable reason for thinking that they have in their custody a person involved in the bombing plot. Further, let us concede that from a meta-perspective he truly is a fully knowledgeable participant in the concealing of the nuclear bomb. So far, Mr. X has been resistant to all conventional interrogation methods, and the detonation is just hours away. Do the police authorities now with impending nuclear calamity have justification to torture Mr. X since all avenues of interrogation have failed?

The principles embedded in the rule of law are constraints on what we can and cannot due when it comes to treating prisoners, people subjected to the due process of law. If due process is suspended, then the values of our law do not apply, and our failure to be consistent with the very same principles we endorse for our greatness are betrayed to the expedient. This is not an option since no one can make for them an exception to the demand of morality behind these principles, and as such, in keeping with the fairness principles of the rule of law, I put forward something like:

(1) Principles consistent with a fair rule of law prohibit the torture of any detainee.

From there, we move to our particular case:

(2) Mr. X is a detainee

Therefore, (3) Mr X should not be tortured

The tension here is that there are rights versus the possibly good consequences torture would engender---the safety of thousands of innocent civilians. Rights are inviolable, and no matter of interpretation or matters of convenience can get us past them. They form the values of what we as a society truly value, and those values are worth dying for since so much is put behind how enlightened our principles are. Do rights trump utility? I think they do, so here is the basic absurdity of this view that many Americans may not agree with.

By not torturing Mr. X, the authorities rightly lay claim to what is most valuable, the principles of fairness within our rule of law. If people die in this scenario, it is because the government chose rightly not to torture Mr. X. If all legitimate and moral manners of treatment of Mr. X led to the detonation of the nuclear device, then the government did all it could that was morally right in trying to rectify the scenario, and the preventable blood on the government's hands is the price we all pay for adhering to a morally fair rule of law.

One likely objection here is that I have reached an absurd conclusion. Certainly, consequences matter more than deontological prohibitions on one's actions since the consequentialist qua utilitarian would get us out of this scenario by choosing to torture Mr. X. The loss of so many can hardly be the greatest good for the greatest number.

My response is more formal. I think that consequentialist positions that try to bring about their state of affairs cannot reliably demonstrate how consequences will play out. Consequences take on a life of their own in human action, but what is controllable on our part as moral agents is that we can at least control the intention behind our actions. The deontological focus of intentions is within our power to judge what is good. Thus, the story goes that we judge what principles to adhere to, and conform our actions to those principles that ring true for all time.

Moreover, there is a plight attached to the utilitarian. For the utilitarian, it matters not if you use others as pawns to maximize the good for the greatest number. One could sacrifice another in this scheme for the greater good of the many even if it meant torturing one to save a city. Clearly, a single act of torture is wrong on any count, and as a deontologist, I bite the bullet on that account. On this view, morality is not something to be shed lightly simply as a matter of convenience.

Due-process rights are a culmination of two centuries of case law. They did not spring up over night, and they are very easily forgotten as the current situation with the Bush Administration easily shows. I hope this post has shown that practices like waterboarding or any other form of torture are wrong, and how torture looks from the deontological moral point of view.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Tasering of a University Student

Andrew Meyers seemed overzealous, enthusiastic and passionate about asking a question of a U.S. Senator. His agressive posturing at the question booth may have alarmed some security detail accompanying Senator Kerry, even if question period was over, and he really wanted in there. However, these two facts do not justify the tactless use of force with a stun gun. The free expression and exchange of ideas was haulted at University of Florida, Gainesville when Kerry by his inaction legitimized the use of violence. His voice sounded like a man transfixed and amazed at what transpired.

Now, the use of force by the police is not justified in the sense that through his passion to ask why did Kerry concede the 2004 Election he neglected to have a cooperative voice with the police officers. He only saw them taking him away, and the fact that he did nothing wrong as he emphatically states reinforces the stupidity of the police officers who have been suspended on administrative leave pending a ruling of an independent commission of some type or other. These officers should have had more capacity to calm him down. Perhaps, Kerry could have intervened with the microphone and informed the officers he felt in no real danger from a passionate youth upset at the results of the Bush reelection.

Universities are calm places where the pursuit of learning and growth of individuals is encouraged without hindrance of external forces. Any time violence is used on campuses anywhere the immediate intuition is why must that have to occur. Universities are sacred for their respite from the "real world". They are like secular churches and parents across the country entrust the safety of their young adult children to the forces that govern these institutions. If these forces violate the trust given to them, they must be held accountable for the transgression of violating trust, and here the transgression is in using violence to calm Meyers, the effect ripples throughout all universities where we empathize a great deal with what Meyers experienced.

Perhaps, it resonates on another abstract level for me since I knew people personally at Kent State. A best friend, and best-man to my wedding and wife both attended Kent State. Several professors at my school went to Kent State as well. Every May on the campus of Kent State there is a serious mentality of never-again, and public commemoration to continually remind a nation of the wrongness of violence against a citizenry at large, especially on a campus.

Violence is a breaking of order and peace. Order and peace are needed for any campus to support its mission as a learning environment. In addition, we must also ask what happens to political interrogation of public officials if the quaint procedures of discourse are not adhered to? Should we always abide by the time they give us, the public, (which is not long ever really) or should we make a serious inquiry of them when we really feel they must answer for what they have done?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Some introductory thoughts concerning Husserl

Concerning justificatory standpoints, human agents have two: the first-person standpoint, which I take to be phenomenology in the Husserlian sense and the third-person standpoint of the sciences. In Thomas Nagel's What is it like to be a bat?, Nagel observes the difficulty with reconciling the first person phenomenology with the objective viewpoint. He supports the belief that what is needed is a phenomenology based on the third-person viewpoint.

At present we are completely unequipped to think about the subjective character of experience without relying on the imagination-without taking up the point of view of the experiential subject. This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method-an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination.1

In the same vain, others have moved to eliminate the first-person standpoint altogether. Some are eliminativists like Dennett and Churchland. Each sees the first-person as problematic and inconsistent in providing insights into the nature of why we must either abandon completely or simply believe in the first-person pragmatically. They feel that neuroscience can account for subjectivity. For instance, Churchland writes:

Our mutual understanding and even our introspection may then be reconstituted within the conceptual framework of completed neuroscience, a theory we may expect to be more powerful by far than the common-sense psychology it displaces, and more substantially integrated within physical science generally.2

What each of these moves entails is a view of the first-person as incapable of moving beyond the realm of the subjective and offering an exact theoretical picture of what exactly is consciousness in the fullest objective sense. Since the first-person standpoint is incapable of providing an objective account, there must be a problem in that it cannot reach beyond itself. This makes it incapable of other possibilities, namely, intersubjectively demonstrating objective knowledge to others or that the other exists. Solipsism is a consequence of the skepticism concerning the first-person standpoint from the naturalistic third-person standpoint.

Thus, there are two issues at work here; two issues I see as inseparable. First, I see Husserl's suspension of the naturalistic attitude as an answer to the problems of wanting to eliminate the subjective, first-person standpoint altogether. I see his criticism and the phenomenological reduction as a corrective measure against this eliminative impulse. Secondly, the charge of solipsism is interrelated since if one keeps to the naturalistic attitude, then one will eventually opt for the naturalist position regarding how to explain agency.

1Nagel, Thomas, “What is it like to be a bat?” The Philosophical Review 83, No. 4. (Oct., 1974), pp. 449.

2 Churchland, Paul, “Eliminative Materialism and Propositional Attitudes.Journal of Philosophy 78, No. 2 (Feb., 1981): pp. 67

Saturday, June 2, 2007


Dennett sees people as having propositional attitudes only as a useful fiction. It is a pragmatic move to suggest that other people have subjective experience of beliefs and desires. The subject is in no way constitutive of what is really going on inside our consciousness. Instead, we cannot even really talk of a genuinely existing inner mind, subjectivity or interiority---to do so commits one to the ontological absurdity of thinking of the first-person perspective as actually truly existing. The push to naturalize and ground consciousness in a way compatible with the physical sciences is where our philosophical commitment should lie.
I want to suggest a new, or perhaps older appropriation of Husserl's talk of the first-personal. Strictly speaking, I want to construct a theory of agency that centrally treats intentionality as a focal point from which all standpoints when facing the world are related through. Heidegger said famously "we are already under way." We are borne in a world set in motion from our own point of view. There is no other way to view the world except through our subjective experience. It is within phenomenology by turning to the immanent structures revealed in intentional experience that one can begin to see what is truly constitutive of the world. My knowledge is a product only because I am conscious of the world. It is this impulse I want to articulate somehow in Husserl that reverses the push to naturalize.
When viewed scientifically, everything about our human condition becomes easily reduced to parts without taking into consideration the immanently given in subjectivity. Reasons for this are many. First, talk of subjectivity as abstracted from the concrete experience of the world is seen as an aberration and leftover from the German Idealists. Subjectivity is metaphysical aloof and an impractical concept to hold in any contemp0rary metaphysics. Husserl connects up our transcendental reflection with the immanent, that is, with the concrete presentation of the world thrust upon us by its only forceful presence. There is nothing metaphysically aloof when concrete experience is joined to the transcendental.
Looking at the problem of agency, one finds it difficult, if not impossible, to sweep away the subjective. This is my main intuition. I am against calling the use of our language referring to beliefs and desires, as well as other areas of phenomenology, as useless fictions in the Dennettian sense. Instead, we do have feelings; we do have sensations, feelings, impressions, beliefs, attitudes and faculties. To ignore how we experience ourselves as a subjectivity fundamentally is absurd.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Santa Fe

In the musical Rent, Tom Collins, an impoverished homosexual philosophy PhD in New York City, sings about leaving it all behind, retreating to Santa Fe. I have been feeling a similar pull, but opposite side of North America. I have decided that while being in Canada is fun and all, I cannot help but romanticize about opportunities never afforded to my slighted perception. As an American, there is no reason I cannot just pick up and move to New York. Part of me just wants to up and leave. Retreat, never come back!

Philosophy grows more and more consuming. I am at ease with it though. I am finding more and more reprogramming happening to my mind as I anticipate grading student papers for a "decent argument." I have accepted the analytic idea of a good argument as a pedagogical aim of philosophy itself, substituting what I once held stood for philosophy in terms of phenomenology. Once, I regarded philosophy the task of thinking prompted by wonder itself.

Retreating to NYC or hiking in the forests of the low mountains of the Eastern US is where I want to be now.

Just wishing for another world,