Sunday, May 08, 2005

Tracting the Intractable


Here is an article from The Philosophers Magazine in which five "intractable" problems are given. Here is my take on each:

1.) "Suppose I have two close friends, Peter and Paul, and Paul tells me, swearing me to secrecy, that he is having an affair with Peter's wife, Pamela. Peter does not know this. If I tell Peter, at the very least Peter and Paul's friendship will founder; very possibly so will Peter's marriage. Peter has an interest in knowing that Pamela is having an extramarital affair; Paul has an interest in Peter's not knowing. Now, we can easily suppose that perhaps Peter is a serial adulterer himself, or that, unbeknownst to me, he and Pamela have an open marriage."

Richard Ashcroft first concludes " is possible that if we think clearly enough there is no dilemma at all: there is a right answer, something which I ought to do, and it is the role of moral thinking to bring this answer to light. But perhaps some dilemmas cannot be dissolved in this way."

He then launches into a discussion about how difficult dealing with this dilemma is. Personally, the comment "perhaps some dilemmas cannot be dissolved in this way" seems a bit feeble. Okay, maybe for the sake of brevity corners needed to be cut. However, he happened to cut the one on which I think the whole lever of perspective pivots. Whatever you do will have elements of right in it, and elements of wrong into it. Problems of full information aside, this is the kind of real life situation which is not ever going to leave you with a clear conscience. Even if you have a strong principle of your own, you have the additional consideration of whether to impose it on anyone else. For me, the correct conclusion to draw here is that the facts of the case are more important than the general principle. The character of the people involved, and your own guesses about the future are what determines what you will do. If you have strong principles one way or the other, decide whether you have the right to impose them, then follow them. If you are uncertain, then consider the specific case.

2.) "“What is it to be human?”.

Stephen Burwood concludes this is a tough one. I conclude that it is a meaningless question. There is no sensible answer. This, to quote Wittgenstein, is not a question in search of an answer, but in search of a sense. It could be answered a million different ways without anyone being mistaken about what was said. This is because the meaninglessness of the question leads us to answer instead other questions, such as "How do you identify a human?", "What are the key properties of a human?", "What about being a human is most important to us?", "What is a mind?" etc etc. In itself, the question is unanswerable.

3.) "We used to believe that one thing could not be in two places at once. We used to believe that nothing went faster than light. We used to believe our common-sense notion of reality would make sense all the way down. These beliefs have all been thrown into doubt as the debates over quantum theory have taken a bizarre new twist."

Executive Summary: Quantum phyics is weird.

J B Kennedy concludes that quantum physics is largely defying philosophical examination, and that further knowledge is springing only from experiments, which we then use without fully understanding what the results mean for metaphysics.

J.B. Kennedy is right.

4.) "But what does it mean to say that some particular event has a certain probability? Either the coin will land heads, or it won't. Where does the ½ come into it?"

David Papineau concludes that there is a contradiction between probability and determinism. Very original. He points out that the jury of science is still out.


5.) "The dualism of practical reason". The problem here is personal happiness and growth in the face of the suffering of society. How can a moral person reconcile personal benefit against the suffering of society?

Bart Schultz concludes that he's not sure, and that this is a debate worth having and that it's interesting.

He's right. For myself, I balance my own desires against those of others. I don't think I should sacrifice luxury so that others may have it, assuming that the process of earning it was equitable. I should sacrifice luxury to meet the needs of others, but only within my purveiw. Foreign countries in need are helping themselves, and should be helped by my government. But to sacrifice 100% of my luxury for the needs of the citizens of another country is to make a mistake of personal responsibility. The problem is this - the needs outweigh *my* capacity to meet them, especially over short timescales. One should never take from others, but the key issue is ones duty to sacrifice for others on the basis of need.

In short I see it as follows: I have the right to live for myself. Living for others - sacrificing my individuality for others to purely serve their purposes - is to mistakenly lower my own importance. But living with regard for others - assisting them where our lives intersect, encouraging governmental spending on welfare, acting with proper knowledge of the lives of others - those are genuine responsibilities. One cannot heal the entire world, but one can make it a little better.



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