Archive for February, 2008

Here we go again…

February 23, 2008

… yet another article that begins with the overused sentiment that yet another question philosophers (gosh, these people must be really stupid!) have been unable to make any progress on has finally been addressed (successfully, naturally) by SCIENCE, and hence there is hope for an answer, at last.

While the question “Whence morality?” has been addressed by many thinkers, it is not the question “which has troubled philosophers since their subject was invented.” The question that underlies most philosophical reflection about morality (or ethics, rather!) is: what should we do? how should we live? The question is not primarily about why we engage in moral judgment, but rather which moral or ethical judgments to make. Such questions have prompted further questions about the meaning and epistemic standing of moral claims, and many interesting philosophical answers have been developed. Naturally, we do not see any of them mentioned in the article.

But note the rhetoric: philosophers are TROUBLED by questions – they don’t investigate questions, or give answers to them, no it is questions who trouble them. They are similarly passive with respect to their entire subject: it was invented. By whom, one might ask. Nor has their been any development in the subject – which presumably makes it permissible to ignore contemporary philosophers.

Aside from some serious questions about the science in this particular case, the most annoying fact about the article is not just that it fails to mention any of contemporary philosophical normative theory or meta-ethics, but that the author can be certain to get away with it. Why is that?

Tax invasion

February 23, 2008

It is mostly small countries, many of them in Europe. Their most important good: privacy. Laws that hide bank accounts and protect data. What they fear most: attention. Naturally then, Liechtenstein was not pleased when German officials began far-reaching investigations, tracking down a large number of German citizens with secret accounts in Liechtenstein. The claim: tax evasion, on a very large scale.

There are some legal issues about how the crucial data was obtained (apparently the BND (the German secret service) bought the information from an undisclosed source). But mostly reactions in the news have ranged from outrage at the systematic way in which monetary elites have manipulated the system to sheer schadenfreude about them being caught.

But it actually seems difficult to agree with either sentiment. Not just because most people engage in some form of instinctive tax evasion – the difference in absolute numbers and income level is too significant for that. It is more the nasty suspicion that this is not a victory for the man on the street at all. In fact, neither side seems particularly worthy of empathy. The moral standing of the monetary elites in question has suffered a number of severe blows in the past few years due to numerous other scandals. But can we really rejoice in the triumph of a state that is essentially a success in eliminating privacy?

Beyond the legal issues, moral questions are lurking. Questions about the legitimacy of taxes and the duties one might have to society, questions about privacy and respect thereof in light of the opportunity of obtaining data.

Science & Soccer

February 8, 2008

You play it in a team. The rules are fairly clear and roughly the same everywhere in the world. Competition and prestige are high. Billions of dollars are being spend on finding the greatest talents and putting together the best teams. You have to make your career when you’re young. The older you get, the more likely you are going to be stuck with management work.

It’s hard to be really good. If you are, however, you can work almost anywhere in the world.

A possible argument?

February 3, 2008

The following is from the first chapter of E. J. Lowe’s The Possibility of Metaphysics:

“The idea is that the realm of metaphysical possibility is a genuine one which needs to be explored, or at least assumed, before any claim to truth in actuality can be legitimated by experience. And this is a realm which cannot, of course, be explored solely by the methods of the empirical sciences, precisely because they merely purport to establish what is true in actuality on the basis of experience, and hence presuppose metaphysics. But it may be objected here that the only sort of possibility which the empirical sciences presuppose is logical possibility – and that this can be established without recourse to a distinct discipline of metaphysics, because logical possibility is simply a matter of compliance with the a priori laws of logic. In short, it may be urged that the only precondition which needs to be met by the theories of empirical science, before they are tested in the court experience, is that they should not entail a logical contradiction. However, in the first place, the deliverances of experience itself can only be assessed in the light of metaphysical possibility and, in the second, such possibility is not merely tantamount to merely logical possibility as characterized a moment ago.” (p. 9)

Many things could be said about this purported argument, especially about the claim that empirical science is only concerned with actuality. But even the most sympathetic reader cannot fail to notice that the first sentence and the first clause of the attempted response to the objection look a little bit too similar. Given that second clause of the response seems to do nothing but deny the objectors claim, the response as whole seems to fail.