Bad Utilitarianism

Bad Utilitarianism

 

There are those who believe we have a moral obligation to donate a substantial part of our wealth to foreign aid if the net utility of doing so is maximized. Thus we should give away (say) 10% of our wealth to charity, even if we are not well off by local standards. If this means sacrificing the quality of our children’s education, then so be it—the world will be better overall. And the morality of the charity will be better if the sacrifice is greater, up to the point of equality of utility between giver and receiver. But let us consider an extreme case: a lot more of our wealth will be available for utility maximization if we simply do away with our children, because then we can send all the money that would have been spent on them to people in foreign lands. They will be made happier by doing so, though admittedly your child will not be. In fact your child won’t be unhappy at all because he or she will no longer exist. So you will have increased the amount of happiness in the world by not spending the money on your child. Come to think of it you need not limit your generosity to doing away with your (expensive) child; you could also sacrifice your spouse. That would really free up a lot of money for happiness-increasing charitable donations. Admittedly, your spouse and child will now be dead and you will be utterly miserable, but you can console yourself that other people have benefitted hugely from your generosity. You have done the right thing! Your conscience is clear—in fact, it is radiant. Does anything think this is a reasonable (or even sane) way to act? Wouldn’t it be downright evil?

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Music and Language

 

 

Music and Language

 

The analogies and connections between music and language are striking. This is most apparent in the case of song, but it applies quite generally. Music is made up of notes, phrases, bars, tunes, riffs, verses, movements, symphonies, operas, albums, etc. It has compositional structure. It proceeds from a finite base and generates a potential infinity of combinations. There are introductions and conclusions. Speech has melodic properties, pitch variation, pauses and crescendos. Music comprises rhythm as well as melody, some of it predominantly rhythmic. Poetry forms an intermediate link between the two. We use the vocal apparatus for both. We hear tunes in our head as well as words. Arrangements of words can suggest melodies to us, carrying a kind of latent melodic structure. Children learn music and language at roughly the same time, and have an innate aptitude for both. Both involve the internalization of rules and patterns (scales and grammar). There is a sensitive period for language learning and probably also for musical learning. We tend to be wedded to the forms of our own language and also to the musical forms to which we were early exposed. Language and music are universal to the human species and contain universal properties, though culture clothes each differently. They both have a social dimension and are used communicatively. No other species possesses both aptitudes, though there may be glimmers of them in other species. Both require a process of segmentation to divide up the incoming auditory stimulus into discrete units of sound. They clearly interact all the time, song being the obvious point of intersection. It would be wrong to identify them or claim some kind of priority of one over the other, but they coexist in mutually supportive ways. Songwriters make a profession of fusing them, and the brains of listeners respond to the fusion. Each has production and reception aspects: we make music and listen to it, as we produce utterances and comprehend them. Each admits of a competence-performance distinction. There is an abstract underlying structure to both as well as a sensorimotor expression: we hum and whistle tunes while tacitly cognizing and computing musical forms, and we utter words while unconsciously processing syntax. There are hidden dimensions as well as conscious manifestations. The major scale is not English grammar, but the two function similarly. Notes are discrete entities arranged into rule-governed patterns, as words are discrete entities arranged into grammatical sentences. Both can be said to express emotions and to be about something.

            Given these points of analogy and overlap, it might be useful to apply them to two well-known theories of language—those of Chomsky and Wittgenstein. Can Chomsky’s theoretical apparatus be applied to music, and can Wittgenstein’s characteristic ideas be similarly applied? I will be brief about both questions. I have already mentioned innateness, universality, sensitive periods, and competence and performance with respect to music; and the application of these notions to musical ability is obviously plausible, if not platitudinous. Less obvious is the question of cognitive architecture: what comparisons can be made at this level? I would emphasize the distinction between underlying competence and sensorimotor vehicle: linguistic competence is generally expressed in vocal speech, but this is not essential, as witness sign language.[1] Is something similar true of musical ability? Isn’t it always tied to the auditory and vocal? Yes, but this does not appear to be a necessary truth: we can imagine beings that possess our musical competence but lack our auditory faculties. That is, the abstract mathematics of music, involving pitch variation and rhythm, might be grasped by them but expressed via a different sense, say vision. They might see musical forms—melodies in the shape of patterns of light. No doubt their aesthetic experience would be very different from ours, but their brains could be performing the same abstract computations as ours as they process the visual input. For them musical form would be expressed in the way dance expresses musical form for us. If dance is music made visual, then their light shows would also be music made visual. They might even enjoy visual muzak. The point is that deep cognitive competence is separate from sensorimotor expression in both cases. Some aspects of what we call music derive from the abstract structure and some from the contingent sensorimotor system—just as Chomsky suggests that the same is true for language and vocal speech. Second, music is hierarchical: it consists of strings of notes that break down according to hierarchical principles. One musical phrase may be composed of other phrases that together form a structured whole. There are recurrent elements and backward-looking resolutions. There are “meaningless” combinations of notes just arbitrarily strung together. Chomsky talks about the Merge operation that generates new wholes recursively: the operation joins one linguistic unit with another, which can then combine with other units, and so on up.[2] And the same thing is true of musical forms: one note gets Merged with another, thus forming a new unit that can be Merged with another. Musical compositions are formed by a process of something like recursive combination. The mind has to grasp this structure in order to comprehend the musical piece. For example, we must keep track of the root note in order to appreciate a “return to the root”, and the “blue” note is defined by its place in a series of notes. We can break a symphony down into movements, themes, phrases, and individual notes—and similarly for a song composed of verses and chorus. So musical and linguistic comprehension involve a similar (but not identical) set of cognitive capacities, in particular an appreciation of hierarchical structure. Tree diagrams capture this structure in both cases, as they do for other hierarchical systems.

We can thus envisage a cognitive science of music similar to a cognitive science of language. Many of the same basic ideas will apply; the Chomskian apparatus will be applicable to both. There is an innate competence genetically represented, a natural and predetermined learning period, an outer expression and an inner architecture, an abstract structure capable of multiple sensorimotor externalizations, a computational procedure that generates infinitely many combinations from a finite base of primitive units, and a sharp competence-performance distinction. If we imagine an alternative intellectual history in which these ideas first gained a foothold in the study of music, then we can picture a theorist urging a similar approach in the study of language as against entrenched empiricist-behaviorist assumptions. As it is, we have Chomsky’s basic approach developed for the case of language first and then extended in the direction of music (or so I am suggesting). In my alternative history Chomsky’s counterpart writes books called Musical Structures, Music and Mind, and Aspects of the Theory of Music. He revolutionizes the field of musicology, construed as the study of musical psychology. It’s not all Markov processes, conditioned responses, blank slates, and Verbal Behavior (Chomsky’s counterpart writes a review of a book entitled Musical Behavior by the well-known Harvard psychologist B.F. Skynner).

            In the case of Wittgenstein we can imagine a similar possible world in which his counterpart, call him Wettgenstein, recapitulates the actual man’s history but in the field of music. In this imaginary world the philosophy of music is regarded as the central area of philosophy (they have a very musical culture) not the philosophy of language. Wettgenstein’s first work Tractatus Mathematico-Musicus is concerned with this subject and advances a highly abstract theory of the nature of music. It begins with the resounding words, “The world of music is a totality of tunes, not of notes”. He goes on to assert that tunes are complexes of simple notes. Auditory sequences mirror these complexes construed as objective features of the universe (“the music of the spheres”). A note is not a readily perceptible sound but a metaphysical posit. An auditory experience of music pictures these Platonic-Pythagorean entities by means of lines of projection. This is the hidden essence of musical form as we experience it. The mathematical properties of music are stressed. Heard music is held not to be capable of expressing the pictorial relation between itself and musical reality—this can only be shown by music. Music is really an abstract calculus tenuously related to what we actually hear. There is such a thing as an ideal musical notation capturing the form of the musical facts. Music is something sublime and otherworldly. So said Wettgenstein’s Tractatus, albeit obscurely. But in his later period he revised this theory of music: in his posthumous work Musical Investigations he rejected his earlier theory and replaced it with a new set of ideas (he was wary of calling this a theory). Here he spoke of musical games, musical practices and customs, music as use, of our musical form of life, of the rules of music, of the music of other tribes, of the concept of music as a family resemblance concept, and allied ideas. He repudiated his earlier static pictorial theory and replaced it with a dynamic behavior-centered theory. He compared his new theory with an already existing theory of language that mobilized the same set of ideas: for it was accepted by everyone that language functioned in the way Wettgenstein now claimed that music does. For instance, everyone believed that the concept of language is a family resemblance concept, so Wettgenstein could call on this acceptance to motivate his new theory of music–that there is no one thing in common to everything we call music just a series of overlaps and surface similarities in the heterogeneous musical family. There is nothing hidden to music—no deep structure—just a human social practice. It has a purpose, a role in our lives, but it isn’t any kind of sublime supernatural abstract structure. True, music can sometimes bewitch us as to its nature, but if we study it in its context of use we can see that there is nothing “queer” going on. Music is like language: a motley collection of old and new games with no underlying essence. It is a mistake to criticize one sort of music for not resembling another sort. Music is like a city composed of old and new buildings—just like language. There is nothing sacrosanct about the major scale! Other cultures use other musical scales and are none the worse off for it. Music is part of our natural history, like eating, drinking, etc. So the later Wettgenstein contended (still obscurely however).

            The actual Wittgenstein, despite being highly musical himself, says little about music in his Philosophical Investigations, preferring to draw his analogies from games; but we can envisage him invoking music in order to make his points about language. For music does appear to fit many of his suggestions: there are a great many types of music, music is woven into our daily lives, it is an activity that occurs over time, it is rule-governed, and it doesn’t lend itself to abstract theory. A theory (“description”) of music is really an anthropological exercise not a mathematical one—as Wittgenstein claimed for language. I am not saying Wittgenstein is right to see things this way, only that it would be natural for him to include music in his thinking; it could be used to support many of his contentions about language. In fact at one point he does bring in music to explain a point about meaning: in section 184 of the Investigations he discusses remembering a tune and asks, “What was it like to suddenly know it?” He says it can’t be that the tune occurred to the person “in its entirety at that moment!” Yet it must have been present in some sense—but in what sense, he asks. This is a version of a general problem he discusses particularly in relation to meaning: how I can know at a particular moment the meaning of a word if the meaning is the temporally extended use. He is raising a question in the philosophical psychology of music to illuminate a question about language and meaning. My point is that he could have invoked music in other contexts to advance his contentions—e.g. to explain his idea that language is a family resemblance concept, or to explore the concept of rule following. In fact it has been cogently argued that game is not a family resemblance concept, since it can be precisely defined; but no such thing has ever been done for the concept music.[3] On the face of it, Wittgenstein’s general theoretical apparatus applies quite naturally to music, so it would have been a good model to use to develop such a view of language. No one would think that a Tractatus-like view of music was correct (pace early Wettgenstein)!

            Music is not central to philosophy and psychology as they are currently practiced (it is consigned to aesthetics), but it has some promise of providing a useful area of comparison to other cases (as well as being interesting in its own right). It fits well with the perspectives developed by both Chomsky and Wittgenstein (different as they are). This is why it is helpful to consider what intellectual history would look like if music not language were the central focus of inquiry in both fields. As things stand we can only note the parallels and wonder how the subject would look if pushed further. I don’t see much prospect of a fundamental unification, but heuristically the comparison has its virtues.[4]                      

 

[1] See Berwick and Chomsky, Why Only Us (2016), p.74f.

[2] See Chomsky, What Kind of Creatures Are We? (2016), chapter 1.

[3] See Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper (1978), for a definition of games.

[4] We can imagine a book written by a Kripke counterpart about Wettgenstein’s Musical Investigations that claims to find a skeptical paradox at the heart of it about musical rule following. How do we know that a musician is following the major scale, say, given that his behavior so far is compatible with using some deviant scale in the future?

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Footnote to “Identity of Selves”

[1] A consequence of this is that it is in the nature of every mental state that it belongs to a single self: every mental state needs a subject, but there can only be one subject, so it is part of the essence of being a mental state that it can be instantiated by only one subject. This applies to selves existing in other galaxies too: they also must be identical to the selves that exist in our galaxy. There is actually just one self in the entire universe. For nothing differentiates one self from another no matter where it is (or where the body that houses it is). Once we abandoned the belief in many gods and replaced it with a belief in one God; we might similarly abandon the belief in many selves and replace it with a belief in one self (capitalized as Self).

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Identity of Selves

Identity of Selves

 

It is plausibly urged that there can be no identity without identity conditions (“criteria”): for example, material objects are identical in virtue of being spatiotemporally coincident, or sets are identical if and only if they share their members. Likewise, we could say that distinctness requires conditions (“criteria”) of distinctness: no two things can be distinct without this distinctness consisting in something, such as difference of spatial location or diversity of set membership. Distinct things must be distinguished by something, in virtue of something, as a consequence of something; they can’t be just barely distinct, primitively so, inexplicably so. This principle meets with no ready counterexample: material objects are distinguished by their location, sets by their members, events by their causes and effects, numbers by their position in an arithmetical series, hairstyles by their shape, and so on. But what about selves—what distinguishes them from each other? What does the (alleged) fact of distinctness consist in here?[1] We normally think we are distinct selves from other people (as we say), but what kind of fact is that: can it be seen and heard, can it be detected, can it be conceived? It is easy to appreciate that it can’t be spatial location, because selves don’t have (definite) spatial location (save derivatively on bodies); and if they did it need not coincide with the location of the body or brain (there could be several selves in one body or brain and a single self spread across several bodies). It is not even clear that selves could not all occupy a single location. Nor do selves have the identity and distinctness conditions of sets or numbers or hairstyles. They need their own sui generis identity and distinctness conditions. We can’t say they are distinguished by overall mental state (including character and personality), because distinct selves can have identical overall mental state and because mental state changes over time (and across possible worlds). Intuitively, the self (ego, subject, soul, “I”) is a transcendent entity not reducible to any other category of thing with its distinctive identity and distinctness conditions. It is a kind of vanishing point, a pure locus of awareness, an indefinable something, not even in the world. This entity is not distinguished from others of its kind by anything perceptible, or even thinkable. It is thus a prime candidate for the null identity condition: selves are distinct from each other just in virtue of being selves—primitively, inexplicably. They may indeed be the only entities in reality with this property—the bare-distinctness property. My self differs from your self just in virtue of being a distinct self; nothing further can be said. That would certainly be surprising and anomalous, but (it may be claimed) it just has to be accepted: when I look at another person I must say to myself, “That self is not identical to this self (me), but I have no idea what makes them non-identical”.[2]

            But there is an alternative to this unsatisfactory conclusion, namely that selves are not distinct. We don’t even know what it would be for selves to be distinct. We talk this way, but we don’t know what it means. Rather, what it is to be a self is to be the only self, as a matter of conceptual necessity: for there is no coherent concept of self non-identity. We know what bodily non-identity is, or brain non-identity, or overall mental state non-identity: but we don’t know what it is for selves to be non-identical. There is simply no fact that could constitute such distinctness. No fact that we can produce adds up to the alleged fact of self-distinctness. The only proper conclusion then is that there are no such facts, and hence no such thing as a plurality of selves. Compare God: suppose someone maintains that God could have a twin or a very similar God-like brother. Theological scruples aside the problem with this suggestion is that there is nothing for such a distinction between gods to consist in, since God does not exist in time and space (or is arranged in a certain position in a series of gods). Any being like God would have to be God, because the grounds of possible distinctness don’t exist where God exists. Nor has anyone ever supposed otherwise (the Greek gods existed here on earth): God isn’t a spatial being so his distinctness from other gods couldn’t consist in a difference of spatial location. It is the same with the self: spatial separation can’t be the ground of self-distinctness (this is most obvious when we consider dualism). The difference is that we can perceive the bodies of human selves but we can’t perceive God’s body (he doesn’t have one), so we easily slide into self-pluralism for human selves but not for the divine self. But human selves don’t admit of plurality either since they have no conditions of identity and distinctness.[3] It is impossible for selves to be distinct—there can be no such fact. The single human (and animal) self has many different states of which particular creatures may be conscious, but these states have but one subject, which participates in the life of each creature. Believers in metempsychosis think that a single self can exist in different animal bodies over time, so that each animal shares a single self; the same thing could be held about the selves (sic) that exist simultaneously in human and animal bodies—there is just one despite an appearance of multiplicity. The various animal forms mask the identity of the reincarnated subject for believers in metempsychosis; according to self-monism, the diversity of bodies masks the underlying identity of conscious subject. And this means the necessary identity of conscious subjects, since selves constitutionally have no identity and distinctness conditions—they must therefore be all one. Appearances must be illusory; or else there are no such actual appearances, just a metaphysical prejudice. If you ask the man or woman in the street whether he or she is identical self-wise with other people, you are not likely to get a firm reply. True, people distinguish themselves from each other according to material-object and individual-organism criteria, but do they consciously think that their innermost self is ontologically distinct from other such selves? Maybe they could quickly be brought round to the self-monism doctrine (apparently it is widespread in the East). After all, the principle that difference requires differentiation has the look of self-evidence; and no one thinks it’s easy to say what a self is, or where one begins and ends. At any rate, it would be too strong to say that a belief in a plurality of selves arises simply from the operation of the senses like other illusions: it really doesn’t look to me as if I am not the same self as you (contrast the lines in the Muller-Lyer illusion). Perhaps we can be said to have discovered by philosophical argument that all selves are one and the same, but this may just be a piece of knowledge added to a previous agnosticism or simple lack of interest, not a revision of what the senses tell us about the self. Admittedly, according to self-monism it is true that we marry ourselves, love and hate ourselves, compete with ourselves, help ourselves out, or harm ourselves; but we need not regard ourselves as otherwise identical, because the same self can have a different body, personality, and lifespan. Your spouse may indeed share your self but not your body and your body’s history—these are distinct from yours. The self is a pretty rarified and obscure thing, so it won’t matter much practically whether other people share yours or not—though the felt gulf between oneself and others (human and animal) may well strike us as less wide and sharp under the new dispensation. We make errors of identity all the time (as Frege reminded us): this one is just more metaphysical than most, and therefore less practically important. Depending on temperament, it may gladden the heart or wound one’s pride (the prince is the same self as the pauper, the judge and criminal likewise). I myself welcome a deeper kinship with animal selves, while finding my identity with other human selves mildly disagreeable, but that’s just me. What is most startling perhaps is that this state of affairs could not be otherwise: it is built into the nature of selves that there can only be one of them, simply because there is nothing (no fact) for the distinctness of selves to consist in. I really don’t know what it would be to be someone other than me.

[1] I put it this way to remind the reader of the Kripke-Wittgenstein discussion of meaning. Kripke asks what fact could constitute meaning and comes up with nothing; similarly we can ask what fact constitutes the distinctness of selves and we come up with nothing. Therefore, it may seem, meaning doesn’t exist and selves don’t either; but we can save meaning and the self by adopting a radical revision in how we think of them, as will become apparent. We avoid a “skeptical paradox” by rethinking our habitual conception of the things in question. In both cases, we give up the picture of the isolated particular.

[2] This would be like adopting an irreducibility view of meaning in the face of the Kripke-Wittgenstein challenge: it is just a brute fact that one self is numerically distinct from another, as it is a brute fact that “+” means addition. That kind of response may have some plausibility for meaning, but for the self is runs hard up against the principle that there can be no distinctness without distinctness conditions (which holds for even the simplest kinds of entity such as elementary particles). Not for nothing has the self been deemed peerlessly problematic. We don’t even know how to count them! It’s a lot simpler to think there is just the one.

[3] The closest analogy I can find is universals: what makes one universal distinct from another? Not spatial location obviously, and not position in a series, or membership, or shape: but we can say that universals differ when they admit of different instantiations—or else they would indeed collapse into each other. The self seems unique in its lack of differentiating conditions. Solipsism turns out to be true, but not in the way it was originally intended. (Another option, of course, is that selves don’t exist at all.)

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Djokovic

So the Australians have shown themselves even stupider than the Americans. I blame the British. 

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One’s Own Mind

 

 

One’s Own Mind

 

Several times in The Basis of Morality Schopenhauer remarks on the mysterious nature of compassion (or altruism). He says: “When once compassion is stirred within me, by another’s pain, then his weal and woe go straight to my heart, exactly in the same way, if not always to the same degree, as otherwise I feel only my own. Consequently the difference between myself and him is not an absolute one.” (85) This is followed by: “No doubt this operation is astonishing, indeed hardly comprehensible. It is, in fact, the great mystery of Ethics, its original phenomenon, and the boundary stone, past which only transcendental speculation may dare to take a step.” (88) In the Appendix Schopenhauer returns to the mystery and proposes to explain it (though not without introducing further layers of mystery). His basic idea is that there is in fact no deep distinction between what we regard as separate selves: we are all one at the level of Kantian noumena—the “intelligible self” (as opposed to the “phenomenal self”) is a single entity. This means that all so-called compassion (altruism) is a species of egoism, since to benefit others is to benefit the noumenal self that I ultimately am.[1] I am you, so concern for you is concern for myself. He writes: “Now, as regards that side of the self which falls within our ken, we are, undoubtedly, sharply distinguished, each from the other; but it does not follow therefrom that the same is true of the remainder, which, surrounded in impenetrable obscurity, is yet, in fact, the very substance of which we consist. There remains at least the possibility that the latter is in all men uniform and identical.” (136) He goes on to argue that space and time individuate phenomenal selves, but noumenal selves do not exist in space and time, and so are free to coincide according to their transcendent nature. The plurality of selves is an illusory product of the human spatiotemporal form of subjectivity; beneath it a monism of the self reigns. As Schopenhauer remarks, this doctrine of Self-Monism is of ancient origin and distinguished lineage (though more in the East than the West): he mentions the Upanishads, Pythagoras, Spinoza, the New Platonists, and others. Hoping to make the view more palatable and down-to-earth, he compares it to dreams: “For just as in dreams, all the persons that appear to us are but the masked image of ourselves; so in the dream of our waking life, it is our own being which looks on us from out our neighbors’ eyes,–though this is not equally easy to discern.” (141) So-called other minds (selves) are my mind (self) elsewhere.

            This is no doubt a startling, not to say vertiginous, doctrine, hardly calculated to elicit immediate assent; indeed it may appear quite batty. But perhaps it can be given a more quotidian rationale—perhaps we can even argue in its favor. It may turn out to have roots in familiar observations about the nature of the self. At any rate, I propose to inquire whether the doctrine admits of something like demonstration, or at least to break down intuitive resistance to it. Can it be ruled out a priori? Does it describe a logical possibility? Is it upon closer examination a rather natural view to adopt when once we take the true measure of the self as ordinarily conceived? Let us begin with a datum: when one person encounters another the fact of bodily separateness is a presentation of perception (an “impression”), but the fact of personal separateness is not. Your body looks to be separate from mine, at some distance from mine, but your mind doesn’t look to be separate from mine, at some distance from mine. I see your body in space located at a certain position, which is not where I see my own body as located: but I don’t see your mind as similarly located in relation to me. If it is separate from my mind, this separation is not a perceptible fact—not a fact of “intuition”, as Kant would say. Rather, it is matter of inference, of belief, of hypothesis even. It is not a given. So why do we think this way—is it a justified assumption? How can we rule out the idea that what you assume to be another mind is just your own mind in another guise? To answer this question we need to venture out into modal space. Is there a possible world in which a single mind is distributed across a plurality of bodies? That does not seem difficult to conceive: the several bodies, with their accompanying brains, work together to realize a single mind, functionally and phenomenologically unified. There might be coordinating communicative contact between these bodies that keeps them on a single track. Social groups can be functionally unified; well, in this possible world the bodily group houses a single mind. Our brain, after all, consists of a grouping of separable organs occupying different positions—why not conceive of a mind that takes this arrangement a step further? Thus when these bodies encounter each other they are encountering a single mind multiply located. People sometimes speak of a “hive mind” to describe highly social species like bees and ants: couldn’t there be a world in which this is literally true of some organisms–one mind existing in many bodies? Or suppose a scientist was to remove one of your cerebral hemispheres as you slept and insert it into another body: couldn’t you find yourself (unbeknownst to you) talking to someone that literally has your mind in his body? That is, there is now a mind that is partly in one body and partly in another. And couldn’t this process in principle be repeated to produce many bodies sharing a single mind? How do we know this wasn’t done to all of us by super-extraterrestrials years ago? It isn’t logically or conceptually excluded. What if some tech billionaire had his mind uploaded into many different bodies: wouldn’t this be a case of a single mind in many bodies? Couldn’t your unconscious mind be located in a different body from that housing your conscious mind? You might then be able to chat with someone whose brain holds your unconscious mind (yours is already full of your conscious mind). The possibilities are endless. So Self-Monism is metaphysically possible: there could be a possible world in which a single mind shares many bodies. It doesn’t of course follow that our minds could exist in such a form, but it does show that some mind could—the idea is not contradictory or metaphysically impossible.

            What makes minds (selves) distinct? If minds are individual brains, then it is the spatial separation of brains: this kind of materialism thus implies that human minds are a plurality, because brains are. But if dualism is true, then we don’t have spatial separation to deliver the individuation conditions of minds: what then makes suchminds separate? What indeed? In fact, it is hard to see how dualism doesn’t lead to self-monism: for how can disembodied minds maintain their non-identity? Here matters become obscure: what is the principle of individuation for minds under dualism? Causal connections to the body won’t do it, since there is nothing to prevent different immaterial minds from interacting with the same body, or the same immaterial mind interacting with many bodies. In the case of dualism, space can’t ensure plurality, so dualism looks like it will entail the identity of all minds; in any case, something would need to be said to prevent this result.[2] What seems clear is that nothing we know rules out the identity of all human selves: it is an epistemic possibility that this is so. The mind of a fellow creature might be a part of my mind, as my mind is a part of its (human or animal). The relation between my mind and other minds might be like the relation between different regions of the same country: both are parts of a larger whole. When I speak of “my mind” I actually refer to this larger entity—as it might be, the Kant-Schopenhauer noumenal single self, or a vast Humean totality of atomic “ideas”. To be sure, I am not aware of all my mental states, as I am not aware of the states of my unconscious; they are distributed across many sub-minds that together compose the single overarching mind. We can model this set-up on what we know of the individual mind: it too is composed of a number of sub-minds (“modules”) that don’t always have access to each other. The individual mind is really a composite structure—a kind of hive mind. Thus we entertain such notions as multiple personality, hemispheric specialization, separate computational modules, cooperating homunculi, and so on. If the mind of man is already a congeries, why can’t what we think of as an individual mind be made up of smaller minds distributed across organisms? Why make such a sharp distinction between one mind and another if one’s own mind is a mixed bag of sub-minds? Why not believe in the extended mind in the sense of one mind existing across separate bodies? Why let the way bodies look shape the way minds are individuated? Doesn’t this give rise to an illusion of separateness on the part of minds? If we lived in a world in which self-monism is stipulated to be true, it would still look to us as if self-pluralism were true, simply because of the nature of perception of the physical world—we would jump to the conclusion that selves had to be distinct. We tend to think the mind is more unified than it is, based on introspection and perception; and we also tend to think it is more isolated than it is (according to self-monism), based on the way we perceive the world.[3]

This is not to prove the truth of self-monism but rather to break down barriers that rule it out a priori. For it is certainly true that we don’t perceive the truth of self-monism: minds don’t look as if they are all part of a larger mind. That is a metaphysical speculation, prompted in the first instance by the mystery of compassion. It explainswhy compassion is based on sound metaphysical instincts: it is not just as if I am present in the other feeling his pain but I actually am there. He is part of me. In order to prove this we would have to show that the idea of many separate minds is impossible—that minds must form a unity. Such a proof might take the form of showing that nothing could give rise to a distinction of selves, because space can’t do it and nothing else is available to play the individuating role of space. I haven’t given any such proof (and neither has anyone else that I know of), but I have given reason to think that the view in question is not devoid of coherence and motivation. Schopenhauer thinks self-pluralism is a prejudice of the West, arising perhaps from the Christian religion (individual salvation) or the politics of capitalism or too much empiricism; we might be able to shed it by enlarging our imaginative possibilities. Maybe if we tried thinking of other people and animals as parts of ourselves, in order to strengthen the grip of altruism, we would come to find the view natural as well as ameliorative.[4] It might become second nature to us. My mind doesn’t leave off where my body ends but extends into the minds of others in a wonderful mystical synthesis! My mind and your mind are joined at the hip, so to speak. Perhaps the question ought to be: How do I know that your mind isn’t mine? 

[1] If altruism appears less altruistic under self-monism, egoism is less egoistic under a more pluralistic view of the individual self: if each self is a congeries of mental elements, then there is a question as to which of them a given act benefits. Thus we can distinguish between benefiting my higher self or my lower self, my id or my superego. Egoism will be relative to a chosen sub-self, some closer than others to what I regard as my central self. I could be quite cruel towards one of my sub-selves (think of split-brain patients).    

[2] There is a similar question about the individuation of things like angels or gods: how can we make sense of qualitatively identical but numerically distinct examples (tokens) of these types, given that spatial separation can’t do the job? Compare: how do Cartesian minds differ numerically if they are qualitatively identical?

[3] It might also be suggested that our language encourages the illusion of self-plurality in addition to the way we see things: the personal pronouns make it seem as if persons are rigidly distinct from each other. I am not you, sheis not him, and this person is not that person. The words are clearly distinct, but are the denotations?

[4] Likewise the malicious individual might think twice if she believed that the other person is really herself in another guise.

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Right and Ought: Schopenhauer on Kant

 

 

Right and Ought: Schopenhauer on Kant

 

In The Basis of Morality Schopenhauer undertakes a wholesale critique of Kant’s moral philosophy. He begins by attacking the very idea of a categorical imperative: morality should not be conceived as consisting of imperatives at all; the concept of the “moral law” is defective; moral rightness should not be analyzed in terms of duties, obligations, or ought-statements; and there are no unconditional obligations anyway. Kant, he thinks, has unknowingly modeled ethics on the Decalogue, which presupposes a “theological ethics”: commands from God, fear of punishment, desire for reward. He writes: “Kant, then, without more ado or any close examination, borrowed this imperative Form of Ethics from theological Morals. The hypotheses of the latter (in other words, Theology) really lie at the root of his system, and as these alone in point of fact lend it any meaning or sense, so they cannot be separated from, indeed are implicitly contained in, it.” (17) A consequence of this assimilation is that ethics emerges as a form of egoism (“Eudaemonism”), since it builds ethics on the (long-term) happiness of the individual. I think Schopenhauer is onto something here and I propose to articulate it in my own way. This has radical consequences for our understanding of the nature of moral value and the way we have to come to talk about morality. The concepts of command, duty, obligation, and ought are not properly speaking moral concepts and should be jettisoned from moral philosophy (!).

            The quickest way to see this is to focus on the imperative as the canonical form of an ethical pronouncement. An imperative utterance has an addressee and an agent, as well as some expectation of reward or punishment (which can take many forms, ranging from approval or disapproval to cash payments or imprisonment). This is part of the semantics of the imperative mood: someone gives the command and there are consequences for obedience or disobedience. Legal propositions are like this. In the case of theological ethics we have God as legislator and enforcer—hence the “divine command” theory. Thus it is in the interests of the addressee (us) to obey the commands, which makes morality a matter of enlightened self-interest. But in fact morality is not like this (true morality), since here we act irrespective of self-interest. So we can’t base morality on these concepts: morality does not issue from commands expressed in imperative form that we must obey or else pay the penalty. God could issue such commands, but without God the idea is pure anthropomorphism. There is no agent of such moral commands and no system of reward and punishment (unlike the law). In fact, as Schopenhauer says, morality has no intrinsic connection to this set of concepts: we have no moral duties or obligations, and there are no moral laws. These concepts belong to theological ethics (or human-based ethics), which is not true ethics. Of course, such duties or obligations can exist alongside ethics, but they don’t form its essence: for we may indeed be rewarded or punished for our response to imperatively expressed commands (by God or by other people). But these facts can’t constitute our moral reasons for acting as we do, on pain of reducing ethics to prudence. The rightness of an action (thought, desire, person) cannot be analyzed as compliance with a moral command. All commands have a conditional or relative structure, being predicated on the existence of a commander equipped with the power of sanction. I obey the command on condition that I want to avoid the consequences of non-compliance. But this has nothing to do with morality proper. Kant’s problem, inherited from the Christian tradition that shapes his moral outlook, and contrary to his intentions, is that he is tacitly assuming a theological conception of ethics, which works from a basis of self-interest. According to Schopenhauer, then, we should separate morality completely from these ideas; it is indeed contradictory to speak of categorical imperatives (imperatives can never logically be categorical) or moral laws or moral duties. That is to try to locate morality in a sphere alien to it—the sphere of commands, consequences, and retributive agents. There is a sharp conceptual separation between the right and good and the imperative form, with all that it implies. There may be a correspondence between the two, but there is no identity, no reduction. We have got used to talking this way because we have lived for so long with theological ethics, but it is the wrong way to talk (to think). It is impossible to base ethics on a foundation of commands.[1]

            It might aid intuition to consider a strange possible world, namely one in which the ruling god is morally imperfect. Suppose the inhabitants of this world are morally superior to their god in respect of moral judgment, so that they find themselves disagreeing with his moral decrees. Suppose, for example, he holds that lying is always wrong, without exception, and will punish you if you infringe this rule. The people in this world realize that this is not morally correct, since there are clear exceptions to such a rule. They will then be confronted with a dilemma: either you obey the god’s rule and thus behave immorally, or you disobey his rule and get into trouble with said benighted god. The god is obliging you to follow his rule (his imperative), but you judge that this obligation is contrary to true morality. If the punishment isn’t so severe, you might disregard this imposed obligation and do what you know is right; if it is severe, you might say “This is morally wrong but I am obliged by my god to do it anyway”. In the same way the law may oblige you to do what you deem wrong—just as your job may require you to carry out certain duties that morally repulse you. This is often the case with what are called contractual duties: you have signed the contract so you are obliged to carry out its commands whether they are moral or not. But you can’t have moral duties or obligations in this sense because there is no enforcer and no contract: morality isn’t an agent with the power to force compliance via the mechanism of self-interest. To suppose otherwise is to commit a category mistake. But what other sense is there? Is it that “duty” and “obligation” are ambiguous, sometimes meaning compliance to an authority and sometimes not? No, we have just got used to thinking of morality in terms of theology, where God is conveniently deemed morally perfect. Then what God commands and what is right never come apart: but that doesn’t imply that we can analyze right and wrong in terms of the concepts of duty and obligation. God may issue infallible imperatives, but the nature of our moral reasons is not analyzable in terms of conformity with these imperatives. But there is no other notion of an imperative; morality itself cannot issue imperatives, save perhaps metaphorically. It may be as if morality commands you to do this and not do that, but it cannot literally do any such thing. So it is a category mistake to suggest that moral rightness is conformity with a categorical imperative (a contradictory concept if Schopenhauer is right). When I say of an action that it is right I am not saying that it is obedient to a categorical imperative (or a hypothetical imperative): that is to import into morality an alien conceptual structure. This is Schopenhauer’s opening criticism of Kant, and he would appear to have a solid point. But the point extends far beyond the details of Kant’s system; it applies to the entire apparatus of duty, obligation, requirement, prescription, law, edict, and directive. Action does indeed follow from morality, but not because morality somehow commands or demands it—morality is not the kind of thing that can do such things. Proper conduct might be entailed by the Good, to put it Plato’s way, but not because the Good (an impersonal being) issues imperatives. After all, imperatives are speech acts, and moral values don’t speak. Neither do they oblige in any ordinary sense (“I was obliged by my hosts to take my shoes off before entering”), so how can they impose obligations?[2]

            How does this point apply to “ought”? Schopenhauer says: “What ought to be done is therefore necessarily conditioned by punishment and reward; consequently, to use Kant’s language, it is essentially and inevitably hypothetical, and never, as he maintains, categorical. If we think away these conditions, the conception of obligation becomes devoid of sense; hence absolute obligation is most certainly a contradictio in adjecto.” (16) Here we may find ourselves losing sympathy for Schopenhauer’s position: surely we can say that we ought to do what is right! But is the connection between right and ought really that tight? In my imaginary possible world the inhabitants might find themselves ruefully reporting, “I know it’s wrong to tell the truth in this case, but I guess I ought to do it anyway or there will be hell to pay from you-know-who”.  And how can “right” mean “ought” in view of the following fact: you can explain why you ought to do something by saying that it is right but not by saying that you ought to do it? Why ought I to give money to charity? Because it is morally right to do so—but not because I ought to (that just repeats the explanandum). There may well be a correlation between right and ought, but we shouldn’t try to analyze the former by the latter. And there is certainly a use of “ought” that is purely egoistic, as in “I ought to take my umbrella with me today”. Then too there is the legal use of “ought”: “I ought not to drive above the speed limit” etc. So it is not clear that ought is the right concept to use in giving the basis of morality; maybe Schopenhauer is right that it belongs to the old theological conception of ethics. At best it has been extended into morality and thereby acquired a moral connotation, but the root notion is non-moral—like obligation, duty, etc. Our language of morals may (must?) reflect our metaphysics of morals, and that may be tainted (soaked) in theological conceptions of right and wrong. Perhaps we do better to stick with the unadorned “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad”, “virtuous” and “evil”.[3] The utilitarian may dispense with the notion of ought in the metaphysics of morals, saying simply that it is right to maximize happiness and wrong to cause needless suffering—what we ought to do is none of his concern. At any rate, a foundational use of “ought” needs to persuade us that we are not buying into thinly disguised theological ideas. Certainly we must reckon with forms of words like, “You ought to do such and such or else”.[4]

            How does deontology look if we take Schopenhauer’s strictures to heart? It is commonly formulated using the notions of duty and obligation, but it need not be so formulated. We can say simply, “Lying is wrong, stealing is wrong, murder is wrong, generosity is good, justice is right, equality is desirable”—we need not resort to the imperative mode of moral expression. We need not speak of “prima facie duties” but of “prima facie rights and wrongs”. So deontological ethics would not perish with Kant’s Judeo-Christian imperatival picture of moral discourse (as in the Decalogue). As Schopenhauer observes, Kant just assumed this apparatus at the beginning without much in the way of motivation or questioning; but we are not compelled to follow him. Perhaps this is one of those cases in which ordinary speech is so saturated with questionable metaphysical theory that what it is natural for us to say is false to the underlying realities. We find it hard to get away from the commander-and-enforcer model of morality given (apparently) rigorous shape by Kant. Morality does not consist of super-imperatives but of indicative statements of rightness and wrongness, good and evil, etc. Plato didn’t have much use for this dictatorial apparatus and Eastern religions are not wedded to it either; it is very much a feature of Western Christianized morality founded in Judaic law. It goes along with personified pictures of the world, and with (idolatrous?) religious art, thus failing to do justice to the impersonal abstract nature of morality. Things are just good or bad; no one has to issue shrill imperatives exhorting us to do this or that or face the consequences (e.g. God’s displeasure). From this point of view, the categorical imperative is irrelevant and nonsensical, certainly not the basis of morality. Morality is inherently non-legislative.

[1] Notice how the phrases “morally permissible”, “morally forbidden”, and “morally compulsory” tacitly introduce the notion of an agent; but morality itself can’t permit or forbid or compel—only agents can do these things. An odd kind of animism pervades such moral language.

[2] We speak of being “morally obliged” and “legally obliged”, but these must be completely different senses of the term “obliged”: the latter implies legal sanction imposed by humanly created laws, but the former implies no such thing. Why do we speak in this misleading way? Perhaps we mean by “morally obliged” something like “will be criticized morally for not doing such and such”, or perhaps we are speaking metaphorically. It seems clear that we are borrowing the legal notion of obligation and applying it to the moral case—quite misleadingly. Morality has no obliging power, unlike the police force and law courts. 

[3] It would be strange (false) to say that God himself has moral duties or obligations or ought to do such and such, yet what he does is clearly right and good. So God doesn’t fit Kant’s theory of the right and good: God isn’t subject to any moral imperative, hypothetical or categorical. When then must we be? Kant’s theologically based theory of morality fails to apply to God!

[4] The prudential “ought” has nothing to do with morality and clearly means “ought given one’s long-term interests”. The same might be said of the putative moral “ought”, which therefore doesn’t really belong with morality. Or are we to say that “ought” is radically ambiguous?

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