Ethics Archives



More Generally: Philosophy (441)
More Specifically: Authority (1) Deontologism (4) Divine Command Theory (1) Meta-ethics (3) Moral Psychology (1) Reactive Attitudes (1) Utilitarianism (3) Virtue Ethics (1)

September 16, 2013

That's Not How We Do Things in the Kingdom of Ends...

The Russian news agency Ria Novosti is reporting (via the LA Times) that an individual in the Russian city of Rostov-On-Don put an end to an argument about Kant by shooting his opponent. (The opponent's injuries are not critical; that means it's ok to laugh, right?) I love the last paragraph of the article: The attacker now faces up to a decade in prison for intentional infliction of serious bodily harm, police said. That sentence would give him time to more thoroughly study the works of Kant, who contemplated a universal law of morality. If our friend spends a little...
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July 20, 2012

Rule Utilitarianism and Divine Command Theory in Berkeley's Passive Obedience

Berkeley's 1712 Passive Obedience is the closest thing to a systematic work of moral theory he ever wrote, and it isn't very close. The overarching argument can be paraphrased as follows: We have a negative moral duty of passive obedience to government. No negative moral duty admits of any exceptions - i.e. we are morally obligated to fulfill our negative duty in absolutely all cases. Therefore, We are morally obligated passively to obey the government in all cases. The work is concerned primarily with the defense of (1) and (2). (A few terminological clarifications. A negative duty is just a...
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April 7, 2012

The Pseudo-Voltaire Principle

Voltaire famously didn't say, "I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." There is, however, something quite important in the sentiment, which Voltaire of course endorsed, and it can be generalized beyond the case of speech. Call the following the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle: It often happens that there is an agent S and domain of action A such that: (a) S has the exclusive right to make decisions with respect to A, so that it would be morally wrong for anyone to attempt to interfere with S's implementation of her decisions with...
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February 6, 2012

Quote of the Day: Kant on the Task of Moral Philosophy

A reviewer who wanted to say something censuring [The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals] hit the mark better than he himself may have intended when he said that no new principle of morality is set forth in it but only a new formula. But who would even want to introduce a new principle of all morality and, as it were, first invent it? Just as if, before him, the world had been ignorant of what duty is or in thoroughgoing error about it. But whoever knows what a formula means to a mathematician, which determines quite precisely what is...
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January 11, 2012

Berkeley and Motivational Internalism

Motivational internalism is a view about moral language or evaluative language in general and its relation to motivation. According to motivational internalism, if someone says 'x is good' but is not in the least motivated to pursue x, then that person is either insincere or not a competent user of the language. This is not supposed to be a fact about human psychology (that all humans pursue the good), but rather a claim about how the word 'good' works: something good is something which is to be pursued, so if you call something 'good' without taking it to be something...
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March 22, 2011

An Argument from Reactive Attitudes for the Existence of God

In The Second-Person Standpoint, Stephen Darwall notes the fact that "we speak of being grateful for good weather" as a possible objection to his view that reactive attitudes are 'second-personal'. He goes on to dismiss the objection on grounds that such gratitude "evidently involves the conceit that the weather is a free gift, as if from God" (p. 73). This remark struck me because I have known people who feel a sort of psychological need to believe in God in order to have someone to be grateful to (or, in other cases, angry at) for events beyond human (or animal,...
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February 4, 2011

Malebranche and Robert Adams on Creating the Best

Leibniz famously argued that the actual world must be the best of all possible worlds (BPW). His argument, which he repeated in several places, went something like this: The actual world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being. An omnipotent being can actualize any possible world. A perfectly good being always chooses the best outcome from among its choices. Therefore, The actual world is the BPW. Most people have found the conclusion of this argument incredible, and sought ways to escape it. The logical problem of evil is essentially an argument to the effect that the only premise...
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November 29, 2010

Leibniz and Frankfurt on Freedom

The history of the debate on free will is sometimes narrated as follows: first, we have the 'classic compatibilists', starting from Hobbes, through Locke, Hume, and the positivists. At first these fellows square off against libertarians like Bramhall and Reid, who are (so the story goes) deservedly obscure. The debate is terribly unsophisticated: the compatibilists hold that freedom just is the ability to do what you want to do, the absence of any sort of external constraints. The libertarians require some kind of magic 'contra-causal' agent causation they can't explain. They slowly die out as English language philosophy is purified...
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August 20, 2010

Normative Skepticism and the Existence of God

As I discussed in my last post, Sobel argues that the main requirement anything has to fulfill in order to count as a god is that it must be deserving of worship. However, as Sobel argues on pp. 24-25 of Logic and Theism, this requires that it makes sense to talk about something being worthy or unworthy of worship. An error theory of the normative (a view that questioned whether statements about 'worthiness' and other such things were ever correct), such as the view espoused by J. L. Mackie, would have the result that no matter what might exist in...
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July 9, 2010

Authority, Authoritativeness, and Objectivity

I've just finished reading John Foster's new book, A World For Us: The Case for Phenomenalistic Idealism. Foster had previously defended idealism in his 1982 The Case for Idealism, and many of the basic arguments are the same, though I think the structure is cleaner and easier to grasp. (I've also just finished reading the restored version of Stranger in a Strange Land, so every time I write 'Foster' I'm thinking of the archangel - but that's beside the point.) The main motivation behind Foster's idealism, all the way back to 1982, is the thought that if anything is to...
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April 29, 2010

Meta-ethics on the Brain

Last night I had what might actually be the strangest dream ever. It was much weirder than hilzoy's now-famous (among philosophy bloggers, at least) synthetic a priori dream. In my dream, some space aliens discovered that platonism was false. They were very disturbed by this because, they thought, without platonic objects, there was nothing to serve as the ontological ground for moral facts. So the aliens convened a galactic council, and held a sort of lottery. Earth lost the lottery, so the aliens were rounding up all the humans and putting them into a simulation. In the simulation, the humans...
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April 19, 2010

Kantian Ethics Simplified

It is probably a safe bet that no view which has ever been successfully explained in a blog post can correctly be attributed to Kant. I won't try to falsify that claim in this post. What I will try to do is to present a sketch of a simple (probably too simple) moral theory that shows why I find Kantian ethics attractive. The fundamental principle of this ethical theory is the following definition: Wrongness =df. the property an action has iff it is the direct result of a practical judgment whereby the agent is committed to a practical contradiction. An...
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April 13, 2010

Morality as a System of Assertoric Imperatives

I recently read Philippa Foot's paper "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" for an ethics class. The paper, as the name suggests, puts forward the view (which Foot has since rejected) that the imperatives of morality are merely hypothetical and not, as Kant had argued, categorical. What this means is that morality tells us how we should act if we want certain things, such as justice and the general happiness of humanity. As Foot recognizes, an untoward consequence of this view is that, if it is true, we can't sensibly tell people that they should want justice or the...
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March 9, 2010

Deontic Utilitarianism, Liberty Utilitarianism, and Deontologism

I just came across the following passage by J.J.C. Smart in Smart and Williams' Utilitarianism: For and Against: What Bentham, Mill and Moore are all agreed on is that the rightness of an action is to be judged solely by consequences, states of affairs brought about by the action. Of course we shall have to be careful here not to construe 'state of affairs' so widely that any ethical doctrine becomes utilitarian. For if we did so we would not be saying anything at all in advocating utilitarianism. If, for example, we allowed 'the state of having kept a promise'...
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January 11, 2010

Doing What You Believe to be Right vs. Doing What Is Right

Many, perhaps most, people disagree with the majority of my moral beliefs. When I find myself in a situation to advise such people, I often try to persuade them to adopt my moral beliefs, but if this fails I generally advise people to follow their own considered beliefs, rather than mine. Similarly, where there are disagreements on matters of fact, I take it that it is most important to persuade people to believe according to their own considered evaluation of the evidence available to them. Attempts to show that the evidence best supports my own position are secondary. The reason...
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December 31, 2009

Preventing Terrorism "At All Costs"

Insofar as there is any debate about airline security measures at all (and there is not as much as there should be), the debate typically assumes that we ought to prevent terrorism "at all costs". But this is simply false. Last night I saw a segment on the local news here in Johnstown, PA, where a "terrorism expert" (it wasn't clear exactly what his qualifications were) said that we could catch terrorists much more effectively by engaging in religious profiling. Apparently a federal legislator recently said the same thing. What these people are pointing out is something that should be...
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July 13, 2009

"Kant's 'Bad' Examples"

I have posted another paper to my workbench, entitled "Kant's 'Bad' Examples". This is the paper I was working on when we were discussing Kant on sexuality (follow-ups here, here, and here). Many contemporary 'Kantian' ethicists ignore or even malign Kant's applied ethics. I argue that this is misguided: when Kant's theory is properly understood, it can be shown that many of his supposedly objectionable conclusions are well supported by it. I consider five of Kant's applications and argue that each of them can be supported by means of his theory of personality and the role it plays...
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April 7, 2009

Repenting For Fear of Hell

Paul Gowder is discussing a recent case in which a man by the name of Elwin Wilson who used to be a violent racist and KKK member has changed his ways and gone around apologizing to the people he harmed or otherwise offended. Paul wants to know how we ought to respond to Wilson's repentance, given that Wilson states that he changed his ways out of fear of hell. Brandon's comments on that post are insightful (he notes, among other things, that the article gives another reason for Wilson's repentance: Wilson evidently believes that there will be blacks in heaven)....
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March 22, 2009

Kant's Argument for Monogamy

In my previous post on The Problem of Sex in Kant's Ethics, I ended with Kant's argument for monogamy, on which I declined to offer any commentary. I am going to offer a brief reconstruction here (go back to the previous post for the original text).

The argument can be understood as follows:
  1. Sex involves the use of the other's 'sexual attribute' as a means
  2. It is impermissible (contrary to right) to use what one has no right to
  3. One cannot have a right to the sexual attribute of another without having a right to the whole person...

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March 6, 2009

Moral Wrongs and Civil Rights

The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on challenges to Proposition 8 yesterday, and The New York Times seems to expect that, surprisingly, the court may rule more or less the way I want them to: that is, they are expected to rule that the state must extend all the same substantive rights to gay couples as to straight couples, but if the voters don't want to call them both by the same name they don't have to. The NYT article happened to note that there were some protesters outside the courtroom, and one of them was holding a sign that read...
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March 4, 2009

Quote of the Day: Kant Against the Objectification of Women

Kant has something of a reputation as a misogynist. This reputation is not entirely undeserved. However, in his 1775-1780 Lectures on Ethics, Kant gives voice to a line of reasoning which, at least in its general outline, will be familiar to most readers from certain strains of 20th century feminism: There is no way in which a human being can be made an Object of indulgence for another except through sexual impulse ... it is an appetite for another human being ... Because sexuality is not an inclination which one human being has for another as such, but is an...
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March 3, 2009

Dude, Where's My Teleology?

In introducing duties to the self considered as an animal being in the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes: There are impulses of nature having to do with man's animality. Through them, nature aims at (a) his self-preservation, (b) the preservation of the species, and (c) the preservation of his capacity to enjoy life, though still at the animal level only. - The vices that are here opposed to his duty to himself are murdering himself, the unnatural use of his sexual inclination, and such excessive consumption of food and drink as weakens his capacity for making purposive use of his...
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February 21, 2009

The Problem of Sex in Kant's Ethics

According to Kant, "Sexual union (commercium sexuale) is the reciprocal use that one human being makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another." (The Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Mary Gregor, p. 61) A thing that is used is generally used for something, and, indeed, in this section Kant mentions two purposes for which "the sexual organs and capacities of another" are used in "sexual union" (he does not say that these are exhaustive): "begetting and bringing up children" is said to be "an end of nature, for which it implanted the inclinations of the sexes for each other," but...
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January 28, 2009

Quote of the Day: Kant Smacks Down Eudaimonism With Some Greek Word Play

If this distinction [between 'pathological pleasure' and 'moral pleasure'] is not observed, if eudaimonism (the principle of happiness) is set up as the basic principle instead of eleutheronomy (the principle of the freedom of internal lawgiving), the result is the euthanasia (easy death) of all morals. (Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Mary Gregor, p. 143)
For the record, I think that, whether accidentally or intentionally, Kant radically distorts ancient eudaimonism. Eudaimonia doesn't mean 'happiness' in the English sense of that word, which comes from 'hap', meaning 'luck' (as in 'perhaps')...
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January 20, 2009

Topics of Thought for This Quarter

Although I only very rarely post life updates to this blog, it is my custom here to list the subjects I am studying each term because it generally has some bearing on what interesting philosophy I will be blogging about. This quarter I am taking courses on the following topics: Early Modern Social Contract Theory. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. I am already considering a paper topic: grievances against the state. (A timely subject.) Hobbes seems to say that you can't sue a sovereign (whether sovereignty is held by an individual or a group) unless he/she/they intentionally set up a process...
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December 24, 2008

Valicella on Private and Public Morality

Bill Valicella of The Maverick Philosopher has an interesting discussion on the distinction between private and public morality. Valicella supposes that there is an inherent tension between any Socratic, Platonic, or Christian ethics and the requirements of a stable state. A couple years ago, in my post on rights, obligations, and abortion (which continues to be one of the most popular posts on this blog) I argued that there was no inherent contradiction, or even tension, between the idea that I have a libertarian right to retaliate for an offense against me, but an obligation of private morality not to exercise that right...
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February 12, 2007

What Is Love? Part 1: The Theory

In honor of Valentine's Day, I would like to present today a philosophical theory of love ... This first post will give my theory of love in outline, and a second post will discuss the different types of love in light of this theory. The theory that I hold to is this: Love is a deeply internalized belief in the intrinsic value of the beloved. I believe that this brief definition is able to take account of essentially all of the important facts about love (though I don't have any pretensions about actually listing all of the important facts about love in a single blog post, or even about knowing them all!). Let's take it apart ...
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Topic(s): Ethics , Philosophy
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January 1, 2007

Plato on Homosexuality

A month or so ago, I published a post which has been rather popular on Christianity and Homosexuality. In it, I discussed Paul's statements on homosexuality in contrast to the "received view" in Greco-Roman "polite society." I referred then to Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus, early and middle dialogs, respectively, which contain useful information on the practice of pedaresty in classical Athens. (If you are interested in interpreting Paul, it is important to note that classical Athens is some 400 years earlier...
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November 30, 2006

Christianity and Homosexuality

In the very first Carnival of Citizens, there is a post at HeartFulls (a blog with which I was not previously familiar) in which the author wants to know how Christians deal with homosexuality. She seems to be particularly concerned with the question of gay marriage (which is presumably why this post was included in the Carnival of Citizens). She cites a few Scripture passages that are commonly used in arguments, but doesn't present a clear picture of how and why these arguments cause Christians to hold the positions they do (presumably, she doesn't know quite how these passages are interpreted, which is why this is part of her "I want to know" series). In this post, I will try to explain how these verses are interpreted, and how they should influence Christians' actions, especially in the political realm...
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March 5, 2006

Rights, Obligations, and Abortion

A while ago, in a post on abortion, I had a brief discussion with Jeremy Pierce about the distinction between rights and obligations. Since we are discussing abortion again, I thought now would be a good time to clarify what I mean by this distinction. I will also discuss briefly how this applies to the abortion debate. First and foremost in this distinction is this: rights belong to the province of public or political morality, whereas obligations belong to the province of private or individual morality. Political morality has to do with the existence and nature of morally appropriate government,...
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