Breaking Promises

Consider two scenrios

1. I promise to pick you up from the airport but then my mom dies and I have to leave town before you get to the airport. I feel bad that I cannot honor my obligation but I figure I’ll call before you get to the airport and explain. Hopefully you can take the subway.

2. I promise to pick you up from the airport but then Don’t Forget the Lyrics comes on and I decide to watch it. It is the season finale and though I have Tivo it is so much better to see it live. I feel bad about not honoring my obligation, but hey you can take the subway and I’ll explain later.

It seems clear that in the second scenerio I have broken a promise to you. But have I done so in the first case? It doesn’t seem that way to me. True I do not keep my promise to you, but I do not break it either; I am excused from the obligation all together. What exactly constitutes an excuse from an obligation is soemthing that we debate about a lot, but the point is that these kinds of cases do not threaten the universality of ‘it is always wrong to break your promises’. This is because in the kinds of caes that we normally describe as cases of breaking promises that morally good are really misdescribed. The promise is not being broken since one is excused from the obligation.

The very same thing happens in the case of lying. Everyone recognizes a duty to tell the truth and that lying is wrong (indeed, as I argue ‘lying is wrong’ is analytic) but we think there are some circumstances where one can be excused from this duty and so can tell a falsehood. Now what counts as a proper excuse is something that we can debate, but that there is this distinction seems undeniable. I have suggested that we opt for a bit of reformationism and reserve ‘lie’ for ‘unjustified falshood’. This way someone who tells a justified falsehood doesn’t lie (this was Knat’s position).

So what do you think? Do you think I have broken my promise to you in scenerio 1?

My Body has a Limp

Over at TAR Brian Weatherson offers an argument for thinking that the mind and body are not identical. He begins by discussing Ryle’s example of a limp and ask us to consider two sentences

5. I have a limp

6. My body has a limp

He suggests that 5 is true but 6 is false and that it is a kind of category mistake. This suggests that I am not my body (since I seem to have properties that my body doesn’t). He then goes on to say that this provides evidence for his favored view that people are events and so natually couldn’t be bodies.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that 6 will be true or false depending on whether 7 is true or false.

7. I am my body

If 7 is true then 6 will be true if 5 is. If 7 is false then 6 will be false independently of whether 5 is or not. Weatherson’s 6 is defective in the way that 8 is

8. Superman wears glasses

It sounds weird but we will ultimately admit that it is true because we accept ‘superman is Clark Kent’ and 8 follows from that and ‘Clark Kent wears glasses’. So his intuition that 6 is defective isn’t evidence that the mind and body are distinct; it is evidence that Weatherson thinks that they are.

The Terminator and Philosophy: Call for Abstracts

The Terminator and Philosophy

Edited by Richard Brown and Kevin S. Decker

The Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture Series

Please circulate and post widely.

Apologies for Cross-posting.

To propose ideas for future volumes in the Blackwell series please contact the Series Editor, William Irwin, at

Abstracts and subsequent essays should be philosophically substantial but accessible, written to engage the intelligent lay reader. Contributors of accepted essays will receive an honorarium.

Possible themes and topics might include, but are not limited to, the following:

“Can We Really Change the Future?” or “Killing Sarah Connor”: Cyberdyne Systems, time travel and the grandfather paradox; Skynet and John Connor: philosophy of technology and creating our own enemies; “Sentience, Sapience, and Self-Awareness”: issues in philosophy of mind; Neural Net to Supercomputer to ‘Software in Cyberspace’: Skynet and multiple realization;“Is Skynet Justified in Defending Itself?” the ethics of war and artificial intelligence; “Irrefutable Delusions”: Sarah Connor, Delusional Beliefs, and Standards of Evidence in T2;“Stop Miles Bennett Dyson”: Sarah Connor’s transformation into a killer (is violence contagious?) or Sarah Connor’s transformation from ‘80’s ditz to Feminist Icon; “Judgment Day is Unavoidable” or “No Fate but what we Make”: eternalist vs. presentist perspectives on the original versus modified timelines; “John Connor is the Most Important Person in the World”: causality and the meaning of life; “To Preserve and Protect”: the contrastive values of human versus artificial life; “What is a Terminator?”: The Ontology of Fictional Objects; “I Have Data Which Could be Interpreted as Pain”: machines, consciousness, and simulated perception; The T-1000: adaptable machines and emergence; How Did They Build Skynet?: “truthmakers” and knowledge with no source; Andy and the Turk: killing the innocent to save the innocent or Are scientists responsible for their inventions?; “Terminatrix”: the T3 gynoid , feminism, and trangressive cyborgs; “Should we Stop the Future?”: Conservatism and the “Terminator Argument” in bioethics; “The Closest Thing to a Father I Have”: John Connor & the Terminator; “Desire is Irrelevant, I am a MACHINE”: Who is Responsible for the Terminator’s Actions? Or freewill vs determinism; “Assume the Shape of Anything it Touches”: The Metaphysics of Transformation in T2 & T3; The Govinator: Fantasy and reality in politics; Does the Future Exist now?: The nature of spacetime and reality; Embodied Artificial Intelligence: Is AI actually possible, and if so, how close are we to creating it?; Monstrous Technology: From Frankenstein to the Terminator.

Submission Guidelines:

1. Submission deadline for abstracts (100-500 words) and CV(s): September 8, 2008.

2. Submission deadline for drafts of accepted papers: November 3, 2008.

Kindly submit by e-mail (with or without Word attachment) to: Richard Brown at

Wordle Up

OK, so I just discovered wordle (ht: IT)…way too much fun! I got a little carried away and used my dissertation and a couple of my papers to make these pieces…I promise to stop now!

My Dissertation: The Semantics of Moral Communication

Another version of the diss

Yest another diss --10,000 words!

Consciousness, (Higher-Order) Thoughts, and What It's Like

Language, Thought, Logic, and Existence

Polygamy & Incest

One thing you sometimes hear from the anti-gay marriage folks is that if we ‘change the definition’ of marriage to allow for same-sex marriages then we will have to allow polygamist and incestuous marriages, perhaps even people marrying animals (I actually think we should seperate marriage and civil unions but I ignore that issue in this post) . To start with the easiest first, animals. Whatever else marriage is it involves promise-making between two agents capable of making promises. This automatically precludes the possibility of marrying animals (in the cultures that allow people-animal marriage there is usually the background assumption of reincarnation thus the animal is thought of as something that can make a promise).

But what about incest? What is wrong with incest? This is a difficult question to answer. By incest I mean consenting sexual relations between related individuals (this rules out child molestation). But how related? It is legal to marry a 2nd or 3rd cousin. Is this incestuous marriage? Well, what about a brother/sister or father/daughter marriage? Should these be allowed? Arguably not. IF, as some people think, marriage is generally intended to encourage and support child rearing then the state has an interest in forbidding these kinds of marriages. Incestuous sexual relations of this sort almost always lead to children that are genetically damaged. In fact this is probably the reason that we are disposed to find this kind of behavior so revolting. But if the incest is really between consenting adults and precautions are taken against pregnancy then we should not automatically rule this as immoral. I think that, in a very, very, small number of cases it might turn out that this was allowable, but we still would not have to approve of incestuous marriages.

So, what about polygamy? If we endorse gay marriage are we committed to allowing polygamist marriages? First we must ask if there is anything wrong with these kinds of marriages? Martha Nussbaum has recently defended polygamy. I must confess that I find her views reasonable. If all parties consent, and if women are allowed to have multiple husbands (polyandry, apparently) as well as men having multiple wives, it is hard for me to see why we should care about this. Why does it matter if the Big Love people do what they do. True this isn’t for everyone, but no one is asking for it to be.

But even so, are we committed to allowing polygamy? I am not convinced that we are.

UPDATE: See the comments section of Nussbaum’s post for some interesting arguments against polygamy from Thom Brooks.