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?

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

The Variability of Reasons?

I was reading the entry on moral particularism over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (my adviser is a particularist which is bad ’cause I’m generally a Kantian and he has been making me read Toulmin’s ‘the Place of Reason in Ethics’). So anyway, here is an argument that is presented as an argument for moral particularism,

Particularists suppose that this doctrine [about the variability of reasons] is true for reasons in general, so that its application to moral reasons is just part and parcel of a larger story. For an example that comes from a non-moral context, suppose that it currently seems to me that something before me is red. Normally, one might say, that is a reason (some reason, that is, not necessarily sufficient reason) for me to believe that there is something red before me. But in a case where I also believe that I have recently taken a drug that makes blue things look red and red things look blue, the appearance of a red-looking thing before me is reason for me to believe that there is a blue, not a red, thing before me. It is not as if it is some reason for me to believe that there is something red before me, but that as such a reason it is overwhelmed by contrary reasons. It is no longer any reason at all to believe that there is something red before me; indeed it is a reason for believing the opposite.

This strikes me as a very implausible claim.  First it isn’t clear what the ‘seems’ there is supposed to mean. Does it mean that I have a red phenomenal experience? Or is it that I have a phenomenal belief? If the former it then becomes odd to think of a red experience as a reason of any kind (especially if one is influenced by Sellers’ work)…but let us waive that. Is it really true that the appearence of a red-looking-thing is reason to believe that there is something blue out there? Well, only in light of my belief about the influence of the drug I am on. Buit then it sounds like we are doing exactly what is being denied here. The appearence of a red-looking thing before me is a reason to believe that there is something red out there UNLESS this reason is trumped by some other reason (like the belief in the example).

Given this very plausible interpretation of what is going on here the particularist cannot base his case on examples like this without further argument.

Not as a Means Only

In an earlier post I argued that the categorical imperative entails that we are not allowed to use sentient beings as a means only. The semantic Terrorist challenged me on this (and other things) and argued that I couldn’t really mean it. But I did, and I still do. But what does it mean to not treat something as a means only?

Let’s start with the human case. Does the categorical imperative entail that I cannot ride the bus? Afterall, don’t I use the bus driver as a means when I ride it to work or the club or whatever? Not necessarily. I certainly treat him as a means, but I needn’t treat him as a means only. So, what the categorical imperative entails is that I recognize that he is an individual. This requires no more than a friendly smile, or greeting, and perhaps a ‘thank you’ upon exiting. What this will actually mean in detail will depend on the actual relationships that one has to these individuals. So, one has a duty to treat ones wife as an end in itself, and so too with the bank teller. But what it will actually end up meaning is quite different because of the relationship that one has. So there will be ways that you could treat the bank teller that might count as respecting his being an end in himself, but those same actions would not count as treating your wife as an end in herself, and vice versa.

It seems to me that this general idea can be extended to animals. We have a duty not to treat them as means only, which clearly rules out the way that we treat them now.  But we can treats them as means, but we are obligated to do so in a way that respects their sentient capacities. So, we are not morally required not to use the donkey or horse as a pack animal but we are obligated to recognize that the animal deserves to be treated with respect and in a way that does not cause it unecessary harm or suffering. It also seems that what ones duties are depends on the relation one has to the animal. So, one may be obligated to treat ones pet in ways that do not come up with respect to wild animals (that is, beyond the basics due to all sentient beings).

A Short Argument that Utilitarians Ought Not to Promote Atheism

It has been commonplace in the history of moral theory to argue that having an obligation and being motivated to fulfill that obligation come apart. I have argued that this was the conception that Hobbes and Locke had. Each of the philosophers thought that we could have obligations (even in the state of nature) but that we needed, in addition to the obligation itself, some other motivating reason to fulfil the obligation.  This can be seen as partly what a Kantian moral theory denies, in that they claim that the having of the obligation (or the recognition that one has it) is the only (legitimate) motivation to fulfil the obligation. So, if one has an anti-Kantian view of this sort one will have to appeal to some strong authority as an enforcer of the moral rules. Hobbes himself says that if there were a God then he would be the one to punish and reward those who break or follow the rules, but in his absence we need a strong Earthly authority.

It seems to me, though I admit that this is ultimately an empirical question, that belief in the existence of God and his willingness to punish and reward people who ignore or follow the dictates of morality is a strong motivator to obey said rules. It also seems to me that if people did not have a belief in God they would be more disposed to breaking the rules of morality when they were confident that they would not be caught by Earthly authorities (I mean, God is always watching, but the city of New York has its lapses). This is of course the problem of Hobbes’ intelligent Knave. Even if one is a Kantian about motivation (like I am), doesn’t one have to admit that fear of consequences has more motivational pull that does the recognition of obligation? Certainly not in all cases, but I mean generally among mankind.

Now, the utilitarian believes that the action (rule, preference, whatever) that promotes the greatest amount of happiness is the right action (rule, whatever) but our motivation for performance doesn’t matter. So, on utilitarian views one can do the right thing for the wrong reasons and still count as performing a moral action (though I sometimes think a Kantian has to say this as well). So, a world populated solely by atheists would be one that was less morally good than a world populated (mostly) by people who feared an all-powerful God. This is because, no matter how good the Earthly government’s enforcement of the moral rules is, it will not be 100% and so will not provide as much motivation to avoid immoral acts as belief that there is an all-powerful being who is always watching and judging you would. Given this it turns out that the utilitarian is obligated not only to avoid promoting belief in atheism, but also to promoting theism of a very strict sort.  

 Well, that wasn’t as short as I thought 🙂

Moral Truthmakers

I have been having a very nice discussion with the Semantic Terrorist on my post A Simple Argument for Moral Realism. I thought I would move the discussion to the front since the post was from alomost a year ago. ST gives detailed responses to the seven points I made in response to him; I won’t respond to them all (though all are worth responding to) since I want to honor ST’s request to focus on the issue he (?) is interested in…but I can’t resist saying a couple of things about some of the side issues… 

R. Brown’s point #1: “I never said that [Kant’s] categorical imperative was a truth. What I said was that it allows us to generate truths.”

As far I can tell, no one ever literally generates any truth. Rather we discover certain truths; or, in some cases, mistakenly believe that we do.

I do, of course, understand how one’s discovery of a given truth can lead to the discovery of other truths by deduction. What you seem to be saying, however, is quite different; and I genuinely don’t understand how one can reasonably believe that a mere command can lead to the discovery of any truth at all. [Note: it’s necessary to distinguish between the command (or imperative) itself, and such facts as so-&-so issued such-&-such a command on a certain date to a certain audience.] At any rate, my key point here is that, since commands are not propositions, no command can logically imply any truth.

Logical implication is a truth-preserving semantic relation. So if there’s no truth at issue to begin with then there’s no truth to be preserved by any inference that can be made from it. Indeed, I claim that you can no more cogently infer any truth from a command than you can cogently infer a truth from a cow, or a rock. That being the case, it’s not clear to me what you mean in saying that we can generate moral truths from Kant’s categorical imperative.

Well, I don’t really see why you think this, and you certainly haven’t given any argument for it. So, I like Hare’s view expressed in chapter two of The language of Morals. He there convincingly argues, to my mind, that we can have a logic of imperatives. So, take his example

1. Take all of the boxes to the station

2. This is one of the boxes

3. Therefore, take this to the station

This is clearly a valid inference even though it has an imperative as one of its premises. This is very differnt from the case of rocks or cows, so I think that your argument is a non sequiter

R. Brown point #2: “I was hasty when I said that some actions are contradictory, what I meant, as I suppose you well know, was that some actions cannot be willed without contradiction…”

That’s hardly a significant improvement on your first (goofed-up) claim; for I clearly can will to perform immoral acts. In order for me (or any other non-cognitivist) to take this claim seriously you must first explain what it’s supposed to mean for an ACT OF WILLING to be contradictory. And good luck with that; for ‘tis an obvious logical truth that every act of willing is an act; and so you’re right back in the same pile of crap that you attempted to crawl out of.

Yes, you surely can will an act even if it is contradictory, just as you can believe P and ~P, but that does not mean that there is no contradiction involved. In the Kantian case there are two senses of contradiction at play. One is the sense in which the act you are trying to perform would be impossible to perform if your maxim were universalized. So, take stealing. If it were a universal law that when one wanted something one just took it stealing would be impossible. The other sense of contradiciton is the sense in which I contradict a natural tendancey or desire of rational beings. So, when I try to use someone as a means only I contradict my desire not to be used as a means. The basic point is the same, as Kant points out, when we break a moral rule we recognize the universal nature of the law but try to make an exception for ourselvesm which is oc course nonsense.

R. Brown point #3: “I do, in fact, think that [Kant’s] categorical imperative universalizes to all vertebrates.”

No doubt that sounds nice to vegans and such, but I don’t believe for a second that you really mean it. After all, some moral obligations concerns friends qua friends; and you are not really a friend to all vertebrates — except perhaps in some goofy and insubstantial metaphorical sense.

Huh? I do really mean it…and I don’t get this objection at all….

In any case, my point was that Kant’s categorical imperative is wide open to the objection that too much depends upon how a particular token act is described; and that every token act can be correctly described as falling under several different type acts. For example, Ted Bundy’s act of raping his first victim can correctly be described as (i) the act of raping a woman, (ii) a man’s first act of raping a woman, (iii) the act of Ted Bundy’s raping some woman, (iv) the act of some (male) vertebrate’s placing his (presumably erect) penis into some (female) vertebrate’s vagina either against her consent or at least independently of her consent, etc., etc., etc. Obviously, some descriptions are more complete, or more informative, than others. But how are we supposed to figure out which description is the so-called “right” one? Is it just a matter of consensus? Is it just a matter of opinion?

I agree that this is a hard problem, and as I have argued in most cases this is exactly what moral debate boils down to; trying to figure out how best to describe a certain act. But in this case all of the descriptions involve raping, and that raping is wrong is an analytic truth. The ones that don’t explicitly involve raping involve explicit mention of violation of consent, so in this case there is no interesting problem about description.

R. Brown point #7: “What makes it true is that it follows from the correct moral theory. The [correct moral] theory takes account of the facts and organizes them in an appropriate way; what else would you expect a theory to do?

“George Bush is a transsexual” follows from “George Bush is a sexy transexual”; but that hardly shows that George Bush is a transsexual. It’s foolish to say that a proposition is true because it is implied by a theory. And to say that a proposition is true because it is implied by a correct theory only raises the issue of what makes the theory correct. (George Bush is male because the individual, George Bush, exemplifies the property of being male ; not because someone has come up with a correct theory that implies that George Bush is male.)

The question is not what a theory is supposed to do, but whether any moral theory is the sort of thing that could be correct in the first place. It’s all well and good for you to at least halfway agree with me that correct theories are made true by facts; but you need to actually identify facts that make particular moral claims true. (And you haven’t done that yet. Instead you just keep on talking about how moral truths are made true by [correct] moral theories.)

Well, this is where my constructivism kicks in. What you say is true about George Bush because ‘being male’ is not a constructed property, but ‘being right’ is. The correct moral theory is the one that best captures the goal of morality. The goal of morality is to allow rule-governed cooperation and in order to do that it has to take account of certain basic facts about persons. Among these are included autonomy, that we feel pain and dislike it, etc. The categorical imperative is a constructed principle that reflects our interests and which allows us to see that certain actions are impermissible from a certain standpoint; the moral point of view. Now, you may not like normative constructivism but it does provide a nice answer to all of your worries. We do not have to posit any MORAL facts. All we need are natural facts seen from a certain point of view.

Emotive Realism Ch. 3 & 4

So, I have finished (what I hope is) the penultimate draft of my dissertation and It is in the hands of my committee. I have already heard back from one diligent committee member and he has given the green light (not the chair, alas)…so if I hear back from the other two by the beginning of August (and there are no major problems/objections) I should have enough time to make corrections and have the final defensible draft done by the end of August, which means that my September 10th defense is starting to look attainable!!! (fingers crossed; I hope I did not just now jinx it!!!)

Below are the two last chapters (here are chapters 1 and 2). As always comments welcome!

Ch. 3 -Two Current Kinds of Expressivism: Blackburn and Copp

Ch. 4 -Emotive Realism

(Finally) Responding to Roman

In the comments to my post Some Moral Truths are Analytic I got some very useful and detailed comments. Sadly, I was caught-up in the zombie wars and did not have enough attention to focus on both. But now that we have entered the Zombie Cold War (don’t even get me started on this elitist bullshit!! If I hear ‘epistemic peer’ one more time I might…well, I don’t know what I might do… 😉 ) I can actually turn to thinking about something interesting. To that end I will begin by responding to Roman’s comment (RM, you’re next!)

One of Roman’s concerns is whether or not we should call a justified telling of an untruth-with-intent-to-decieve a lie. As he says

there are cases where it might be morally justified to tell a lie; that doesn’t make the action less of a lie, but it does make it less blameworthy, and maybe even meritorious.

I argue, along with  Kant in the Lectures on Ethicsthat it is wrong to call such an action a lie. This is because a lie, properly conceived, is an unjustified telling of an untruth-with-intent-to-decieve. But it is hard for me to see, at this point, how this is anything except a verbal dispute. We bith agree that the action in question is justified. Are there any reasons to think that Roman’s way is better than mine (or vice versa)? I argued that there are a couple reasons to prefer my way.

One of them is on analogy to other moral words. So we draw a distinction between killing and murder (an unjustified killing) and between reposesing and stealing (unjustified property transfer). Roman agrees with this. He says,

I wouldn’t say that the repo man steals the car, since (if he is a legit repo man) presumably the car does not rightly belong to the present owner.

But this is to agree with my point. The repo man does not steal the car. He is justified in taking the car. But Roman goes on to say,

And I just don’t think that “stealing is wrong” is an analytic truth–it is a moral heuristic that we use, and that generally serves us well, but that isn’t always right. Here’s an example (sorry, I’ve been watching Doctor Who): Aliens are planning to destroy the Earth. For that purpose, they have brought a special talisman that will activate their planet-eating machine. The Doctor, being the nice guy that he is, sneaks into their layer and takes off with the talisman, thereby saving the Earth. Now it is pretty clear that he’s done a good thing, and looking for a word other than “stealing” to account for his action is both misleading and unnecessary, since there are lots of other ways to describe his action (at least on a coarse grained account), such as “Saving the Earth.”

I agree that there are lots of ways to describe the Doctor’s action, but I do not think that stealing is one of them. Sure, we might colloquially say that he stole the tailsman, but if pressed I think we would back off of this claim. If we look up ‘steal’ we will find that it means ‘taking property wrongly’, and it is clear that the Doctor is not in the wrong here (at least with respect to some theories of justification; perhaps all…but that is another debate). To call something stealing is to express our moral disapproval of it, and it is hard to see how the Doctor has done anything that deserves moral disapproval. I admit that this distinction has not taken hold with respect to ‘lie’ but I claim that it should.

Roman goes on to dispute my claim with rtespect to torture. I say that an action,

“count as torture when they [i.e. the causing of harm] lack justification, and something else when they don’t. What it adds to the debate is that it clarifies what the debate is about. Everyone agrees that torture is wrong (even Bush thinks that!). What is at issue is whether or not our tactics count as torture or not”

See, this is where I disagree. I think asking whether a particular activity counts as torture doesn’t clarify the debate; it confuses it, by appealing to our simplified moral heuristics and thus nullifying moral debate before it starts. And Bush is a perfect example of this. He doesn’t think torture is wrong (from what I can tell); he just says that torture is wrong, because saying otherwise would sound really really bad for him. His goal is not to make a moral argument; his goal is to influence public opinion. Which is why he will say that “torture is wrong” but “waterboarding is not torture.” That is: he relies on the strategy you seem to be proposing in order to evade moral debate, not to clarify it. And this is why the people we should listen to on the issue are not the politicians, but the CIA generals who will get up in front of Congress and say something like this: “Yes, waterboarding is torture. That is precisely why we need to be allowed to do it in extreme cases. Something that doesn’t constitute torture–like telling terrorists that their mothers hate them–isn’t going to get the job done sometimes.” And this is where real moral debate, rather than just pointing to the strongest intuition, starts.

I agree with Roman that Bush wants to influence the debate, but I guess I have a higher opinion of Bush than Roman does; I think that he really means it when he says that torture is wrong and that he really thinks that water-boarding is not torture because he thinks it is a justified action. Now, I do not agree with Bush, I think that water-boarding is totally unjustified and so counts as torture, but that is where the moral debate has to begin. NObody really thinks that we should torture. What they think (wrongly) is that some extreme measures are justified.

The second argument for my way of doing things relies on an appeal to motivation. I say,

“it is hard to see what kind of a theory of motivation you can give on a view like the one that you suggest. On my view a person should do what ius right because they see that ‘what is right should be done’ as a tautology. Everyone knows that a morally wrong action should not be done. That’s just what it means to say that it is morally wrong.”

Roman responds,

I don’t really see why your approach would fare any better or worse than mine on the issue of motivation, to which this discussion seems largely irrelevant. “X is wrong, therefore I shouldn’t do it” may be an analytic claim, but “X is wrong, therefore I am motivated not to do it” certainly isn’t. (”X is wrong, therefore I should be motivated not to do it,” on the other hand, might be.) Having a motivational state is not just a case of accepting the truth of a proposition.

But this was not the point. The point was that on Roman’s way of doing things it is not clear why a person ought not to lie; it in fact seems to lead to a contradiction…namely that some wrong actions are right. My way of doing things avoids this problem. No wrong actions are right. A moral agent is committed to doing the right actions and forbidden to do the wrong ones.

OK, there is more to say, obviously, but I have got to go to work!

Some Moral Truths are Analytic

So I have been real busy preparing for next weeks ethis conference at Felician College in New Jersey. I will post the virtual presentation later this week if anyone is interested. Part of the argument that I make is that moral truths are analytic. Below are some thoughts on a different argument to that effect.

One common relativist argument starts from the observation that there is widespread disagreement on matters of morality. This is taken to be some kind of evidence that there is no real fact of the matter here. Where there are facts, like in math, we do not see this kind of disagreement. It is not as though we expect to find some tribe in some remote part of the world that thinks 2+2=5. Now, this is a bad argument, as I think is well known. The fact that there is disagreement about something does not imply that there is no fact of the matter about that thing. If anything it implies that we do not know the truth (that is, if both parties to the dispute know all the relevant facts and are rational).

But even so, it is often pointed out that there is less disagreement than there seems (James Rachels is one classic source for this kind of point) So, to take one kind of example, the Eskimo who leaves their child out on the ice to die does not think that they are commiting a murder. They think that they are performing an action that is justified. What we argue about when we disagree with the Eskimo is about whether the killing is justified or not. Both parties make a distinction between justified and unjustified killings. Both parties think that murder is wrong; the Eskimo denies that putting the child out on the ice is a murder (it is justified by the lack of resources, the length of the winter, and the belief that it is better to die quickly when you are less likely to notice than to have a long drawn out death with a lot of conscious suffering), we assert that it is a murder (it is not justified).

‘murder’ just means ‘unjustified killing’, ‘lie’ just means ‘unjustified falsehood/untruth’ and so ‘murder is wrong’ and ‘lying is wrong’ are analytic truths and mean ‘unjustified killing is unjustified’ and ‘unjustified falsehoods are unjustified’. All rational people know that these are definitional truths just like they know that bachelors are unmarried males or that brothers are male siblings. So the claim that the moral truths are analytic and that what people argue about is whether or not some action is a (say) murder or not, actually better captures what people do when they argue about morality.