Does benevolent theism imply pre-existence?


In Purpose in the Universe (previously discussed here and here), Tim Mulgan argues that benevolent theists’ attempts to resolve the problem of evil by invoking postmortem existence (i.e. an afterlife) are only successful if humans also enjoy some kind of pre-existence (or reincarnation). This additional metaphysical baggage gives ananthropocentric purposivism (AP) — whether in theistic or non-theistic form — an edge over benevolent theism. Although it is not decisive, it does strengthen the argument that, all things considered, AP is more likely to be true than benevolent theism.

Here’s how the argument works. Benevolent theists may respond to the problem of evil by pointing out that a benevolent god could ensure that everyone enjoys a postmortem existence that is sufficient in duration and quality to greatly outweigh any evils befallen during one’s life. The benevolent theist can accept that there are evils in this world, while denying that there are any unredeemed evils.

Mulgan responds that a problem of evil remains, however, even if postmortem existence is of the highest quality and infinite duration. Every life could still be improved by preventing any evils from occurring in the first place. Even if we can’t assume that a benevolent god would follow a principle that commits to maximizing the quality of each life, or the quality of some state of affairs, it does seem safe to assume that a benevolent god would avoid gratuitous satisficing. Satisficing occurs when there is a threshold above which any outcome is acceptable; gratuitous satisficing occurs when such a threshold is observed even though one could achieve an optimal outcome at no additional cost. For an omnipotent being, it appears that satisficing is always gratuitous. For God, “good enough” doesn’t cut it. If divine benevolence rules out gratuitous satisficing, no postmortem paradise is sufficient to provide a solution to the problem of evil.

Suppose, however, that some other defence against the problem of evil seems promising — a free will theodicy that posits contra-divine freedom (i.e. the freedom to act contrary to God’s will), for example. A CDF-based theodicy may explain why there are evils in a world created by a benevolent god. But it struggles to account for the manifest unfairness in the distribution of evils. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. CDF does not explain this.

If evil exists because of CDF, and we have CDF because CDF is valuable, God has good reason not to create a world without evil. But does God have good reason to create a world with an unfair distribution of evils? Mulgan thinks not. God could create a world that is just like ours, except that people in this world enjoy pre-existence. The details of how and where pre-existing people exist can be set aside. We need only specify two salient characteristics of pre-existing people. First, they exercise robust moral agency before birth. Second, they are morally responsible for the exercise of that agency at all times, including after birth. If God could create a world with pre-existing people of this kind, then he could create a world in which there is no unfairness in the distribution of evils because there are no undeserved evils. Evils would be deserved in virtue of one’s conduct during pre-existence. If moral desert has any value, then a world where people get what they deserve is better than a world where people don’t get what they deserve. And even if there is only a marginal difference in quality between these two worlds, the prohibition on gratuitous satisficing requires God to create the world with pre-existing people. Therefore, Mulgan argues, benevolent theism implies pre-existence as well as postmortem existence.

If Mulgan’s argument is successful, benevolent theism is in trouble. In fact, I would go further than Mulgan does; if benevolent theism really does imply pre-existence for these reasons, then benevolent theism is almost certainly false. Many will balk at the apparent metaphysical extravagance of pre-existence. The relation between pre-existence and worldly evil Mulgan describes also depends on highly controversial assumptions about personal identity and the grounds of moral responsibility. But more importantly, I cannot accept the moral attitude towards victims of the most profound abuse, oppression and misfortune that this view encourages. Like Mulgan, I’m generally more confident in my considered moral judgments than my metaphysical judgments. If a metaphysical view implies that the victims of the Holocaust deserved everything they got, I am warranted in rejecting that metaphysical view. If benevolent theism is to continue as a live option in a religiously ambiguous universe, Mulgan’s pre-existence argument must be confronted.


Referendums vs. democracy: tax policy edition

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 7.32.48 PM

The August 4 episode of PolitiCoast has an excellent interview with Professor Lindsay Tedds, a tax economist at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration (and a blogger at Dead for Tax Reasons). The interview takes up almost the entire running time and covers a wide range of topics that will interest regular readers of this blog, including basic income, the minimum wage, the NDP leadership contest, and some sharp but fair criticism of the new provincial government’s tax policies. It’s well worth a listen!

Here I want to focus on Tedds’s comments around the 29 minute mark, where she argues forcefully for replacing the outmoded Provincial Sales Tax with a value-added tax — effectively reintroducing the Harmonized Sales Tax. There is already a political consensus that the PST is seriously flawed and in need of reform. And as Tedds points out, two independent reviews of BC’s tax system have recommended replacing the PST with a new VAT. This recommendation is consistent with conventional wisdom on tax policy that cuts across the political spectrum. During the politically charged debate over the BC HST, progressive economists like SFU’s Krishna Pendakur and the CCPA’s Iglika Ivanonva both expressed support for the principle of value-added taxation. And as I have noted previously on this blog, all of the Nordic social democracies fuel their comprehensive welfare states with value-added taxes at far higher rates than the short-lived HST.

Regardless of VAT’s merits, it is generally assumed that this option is political poison. Tedds’s frustration at this fact is evident:

I really hate that we can’t go back to this simply because — what was his name? — Gordon Campbell screwed up the implementation of that. The PST is a terribly inefficient tax to have; we would do much better with a GST/HST and we could implement it such that it was [progressive].

Campbell’s disastrous implementation of the HST is an important part of the story. But the main problem, I think, is the fact that the HST was repealed in a referendum, and referendums are perceived as uniquely authoritative democratic instruments. This perception is, however, deeply misguided.

The normative core of democracy is not government by ballot, but government by discussion. In representative democracy, even when even when it is said that “the people have spoken” in determining the outcome of a general election, the verdict is always provisional and in any case concerns only the composition of a body selected for the purpose of carrying on discussion. But all too frequently, the purpose and function of referendums is to end discussion by means of the ballot. In a referendum, the conceit is that “the people” speak rather than discuss, and that having spoken, further discussion is superfluous at best, and an affront to popular sovereignty at worst.

The idea that referendums represent a purer form of democracy, then, could not be further from the truth. Democratic government depends on mutual recognition that our judgments are fallible and thus subject to revision. Certainly there are some key features of a democratic regime that are, as Rawls put it, “not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” But these are rare exceptions, and I find it hard to believe that certain technicalities of the tax system are among them. When prominent political actors treat the public as though we are incapable of conscientiously revising political judgments after further consideration or in light of new information, they treat the public as though we are incapable — or unworthy — of democratic government. It is up to us to determine whether this treatment is warranted.

Why I’m supporting Jagmeet Singh for leader of the NDP


The deadline to join the NDP in time to vote in the upcoming leadership election is August 17. Before the window closes on this crucial phase of the campaign, I want to let my friends and family know who I’m supporting and why, and to invite everyone who is eligible to sign up for the party and join me in supporting that candidate too. Just to cut the suspense, I’m supporting Jagmeet Singh. But before I explain why, I’m going to take stock of the other candidates, all of whom have considerable merit.

During this campaign, Niki Ashton has powerfully articulated the message that the NDP must preserve and strengthen its identity as a party of the left, embracing traditional social democratic policies such as expansion of the universal welfare state and a major role for socially owned enterprise in economic development. Beyond the specific policies it contains, her platform also demonstrates keen insight into the scale and diversity of the injustices and other problems facing Canada today. And as a campaigner, Ashton has clearly come a long way since the previous leadership contest.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that Ashton is in some sense fighting the 2012 leadership campaign all over again. In that election, Ashton was the only one to depart significantly from the moderate policy consensus among the other candidates and offer an openly socialist platform that made few concessions to conventional wisdom about the requirements of electability. But this time around, Ashton’s view that the NDP must provide a strong left-wing alternative does not distinguish her from the other candidates, all of whom have assembled impressive packages of progressive policy. This has not stopped her campaign from leaning heavily on the message that Ashton has a special claim to represent a progressive direction for the party. The effect is bewildering; it’s as though Ashton is paying no attention to the circumstances of the contest or the content of the other candidate’s campaigns. This does not bode well for Ashton’s prospects as leader of a campaign in a general election.

Ashton’s ability to lead effectively is also called into question by her failure to attract significant support from the party’s elected officeholders, despite having been an MP for nine years. Members of the federal caucus must work closely with and under the direction of the party leader, and their prospects for re-election depend on the leader’s ability more than any other single factor. This gives members of caucus a greater stake in the outcome of the race than almost anyone else, and their familiarity with the requirements of the job gives them unique insight into relative merits of the various candidates. While support from caucus is not a decisive factor, her shortcomings in this respect do contribute to my reluctance to support Ashton’s candidacy.

Finally, I am skeptical of Ashton’s interest in growing the party. Thus far, her appeal has been directed narrowly at people who identify strongly with the political left and are predisposed to support her platform. Identifying and mobilizing current supporters is an important part of a winning electoral strategy. But it cannot be the whole of a winning electoral strategy. People who do not thrill to the mention of socialism and are skeptical of certain policies must be brought on board. Ashton’s failure to reach out and broaden her message is the single most worrisome aspect of her campaign thus far. Taking all of these issues into consideration, I cannot support Ashton’s bid for leadership.

Of the four candidates still in the race, Charlie Angus is the longest-serving MP, having first been elected to office in 2004. His record in parliamentary politics reflects deep convictions nurtured by his roots in the Catholic Worker movement; his tenure has been especially noteworthy for his tireless advocacy for First Nations. Angus has a reputation as an excellent constituency MP, but he does not hide from the responsibility to exercise his own judgment in deciding how to cast his vote in the House. Among people who were members of the party before the start of the campaign, Angus is believed to have the highest level of support, and not without reason; he’s has been around for a long time, and he’s earned a lot of trust.

Considering Angus’s relatively long career in Parliament, however, it strikes me as worrisome that he has been able to attract so little support from his colleagues; Angus has the endorsement of only one current MP. Moreover, his platform has not left much of an impression. Angus would be my third choice for leader, more because his campaign has not given me any reason to rank him higher than because of any glaring defects.

Guy Caron has been the breakout star of this campaign. Like many people, I suppose, I was completely unaware of Caron before he declared that he was entering the race with introduction of a universal basic income as his flagship policy. He immediately made an impression on me as a charming, compassionate and intelligent person with an exciting policy agenda, which was lent extra credibility by his background in economics. Caron’s early entry into the contest helped set a high standard that other candidates’ policies would be expected to meet. But as the campaign has proceeded, Caron has shown that he’s not just a wonk; he has thrown himself into the work of organizing and carrying his message to people across the country, with special attention to neglected rural communities.

Considering his relatively low profile prior to launching his leadership bid, Caron’s difficulty in attracting support from politicians at other levels of government is not surprising, and it makes what success he has achieved in this regard (comparable to Ashton’s) all the more impressive. Despite some minor misgivings (particularly regarding his criticism of Jagmeet’s Singh’s proposed reforms to OAS), I would be happy to see Caron win, and if he doesn’t, I hope to see much more of him in national politics in the years ahead. Overall, Caron would be my second choice.

My first choice for leader is Jagmeet Singh. Singh was hyped as a possible candidate long before he entered the race, but I was skeptical that he’d step forward. Ontario will have a general election in the not too distant future; if the NDP won, Singh would be a shoo-in for a senior cabinet post, and if the NDP lost, Singh would be a shoo-in to replace Andrea Horwath. Staying put in provincial politics seemed like a better bet. Obviously, however, Singh did enter the race, and despite a shaky start, I think he’s more than lived up to expectations.

On the policy front, Singh has impressed me most with his commitment to building on proven antipoverty programs, including expansion of the Working Income Tax Benefit and increased benefits for low- and middle-income seniors and persons with disabilities. Transfers are the single most effective tool for cutting poverty and inequality, but with the exception of Caron, the other candidates have mostly neglected this option. Singh’s transfer programs have the edge over Caron’s, in my view, because they are phased out more gently. Caron’s basic income is only available to persons whose income falls below the Low Income Cut-off (LICO, a regional poverty measure defined by Statistics Canada). For every dollar earned above the LICO, the basic income payment is reduced by a dollar. In other words, people who fall below the LICO face a marginal tax rate of 100% on all employment income. A policy that imposes the highest taxes on those with the lowest incomes in the name of fighting poverty is perverse. It is also likely to discourage people from seeking paid employment. Singh’s transfer programs, on the other hand, are designed to be phased out gently. Under the new Working Canadian Guarantee, for example, full-time minimum wage earners will still have their incomes topped up.

Aside from paying for transfer programs, taxes can also help fight poverty and inequality directly. Singh has committed to a more progressive income tax system, higher taxes on capital gains, a new estate tax, an end to tax exemptions for expensive perks, and a new Royal Commission on tax fairness to recommend further reforms. These policies would reduce inequality by “levelling down” the top end of the distribution. But as Emmanuel Saez has argued, higher taxes on top earners weaken their bargaining power relative to lower earners and shareholders, encouraging downward redistribution and investment. The same measures that “level down” those at the top can also “level up” those at the bottom. There’s more to Singh’s platform than taxes and transfers, of course. But I think his policies in this area are representative of the thoughtfulness that pervades his entire agenda.

As noted above, it takes more than good policy to make a good leader. You also need the confidence of your colleagues. And Singh has this in spades. Compared to the other candidates, he has attracted the most support by far from New Democrats in provincial legislatures and the House of Commons.

A prospective leader should also be capable of growing the party in terms of both membership and electoral support. It goes without saying that the NDP cannot form government without dramatically increasing its share of the vote, and it can’t achieve this without the support of a huge number of volunteers. Generating enthusiasm among current members is important, but it’s not enough; we need to attract new members too. The historic winning coalition Singh built in Brampton — and his re-election with an increased plurality — speaks to his ability to draw support from beyond the ranks of party diehards. As Tom Parkin’s account of Singh’s advocacy for the reformed Ontario sex education curriculum demonstrates, Singh is ready and willing to step out of his comfort zone and make a sincere appeal even to an unfriendly audience. This is an indispensable quality for the next leader of the NDP.

So far, this race has made me feel excited and optimistic about the future of the party. No doubt this is partly because as long as the leadership contest is going on, the media and the public are paying an unusual amount of attention to the left-wing alternative. But this won’t last. The balloting will end, a winner will be named, and the left will no longer be able to count on the public’s attention. We need a leader who will make people take notice when we can’t just assume that people will take notice. We need a leader who can win the confidence of the country, not just the party. Jagmeet Singh is that leader.

Please join and vote:


Nuclear weapons in philosophy and film

bscap0008ld2From Missile by Frederick Wiseman

I’ve been interested in nuclear weapons and warfare since I was very young. The first novel I remember reading was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien (better known for the wonderful Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH); I read it over and over, and even made a paper doll of the radiation-proof “safe-suit” from the book for show and tell. With nuclear war is back in the news (just in time for the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing) I figure I should say something about it, but I struggle to articulate anything meaningful on the subject.

One thing I want to get across, though, is that there is a serious risk of nuclear war any time nuclear weapons exist in any quantity on this planet, not just when nuclear war is in the news. Effective mutual deterrence depends on the rationality of nuclear-armed states; if states are guaranteed to behave rationally, then they are guaranteed not to enter into a nuclear conflict with one another. A corollary of this is that nuclear war is only possible if states behave irrationally. If states behave irrationally, they behave unpredictably. So the circumstances most likely to lead to nuclear war are inherently unpredictable (except insofar as some circumstances make irrational behaviour more likely). It follows, I think, that we should feel no more secure when nuclear war is off the front page than we do when nuclear war is on the front page. We should feel secure only when significant progress has been made towards total nuclear disarmament.

That said, here are some of the things which have influenced my view of nuclear weapons and warfare, and which I would want to influence others.

50 Years After Hiroshima by John Rawls

Rawls was the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. But before that, he was an infantryman in the Pacific theatre during the World War Two, and witnessed the devastation in Hiroshima first hand shortly after the end of the war. His wartime experiences led him to abandon his plans to enter the Episcopalian priesthood, turn down an officer’s commission in the Army, and devote himself to the study of philosophy. This short essay on the ethics of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just war doctrine and the nature of statesmanship is the only thing he ever wrote for a popular audience.

Some Paradoxes of Deterrence and The Toxin Puzzle by Gregory Kavka

In the first of these short and accessible papers, Kavka argues that nuclear deterrence raises a number of moral paradoxes. Strict utilitarians and uncompromising Kantians can avoid these paradoxes, but only at great cost to the plausibility of those doctrines, and it is unclear how they can be so revised as to provide a satisfactory solution. If our moral thought breaks down when trying to deal with the ethics of deterrence, maybe we should try to escape from reliance on deterrence as a means of securing peace. In the second (very short!) paper, Kavka casts doubt on a central assumption of nuclear deterrence: that we can rationally intend to perform an irrational act.

The War Game by Peter Watkins (writer & director)

Watkins’s first film was made for BBC television in the mid-Sixties, but it was not broadcast for another twenty years because it was judged to be “too horrifying for the medium”. Here Watkins uses his signature documentary style to chronicle a fictitious nuclear attack on Britain at the human scale. The result is extraordinary. It is tempting to agree with the sentiment behind the BBC’s judgment, if not the impulse to censor.

Threads by Barry Hines (writer) and Mick Jackson (director)

A feature-length cautionary dramatization of full-scale nuclear war (before, during and after) as seen from Sheffield.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (story) and Nazim Tulyakhodzayev (director)

An animated adaptation of Bradbury’s story about an automated house going about its business after the end of the world. The story had previously been adapted for the American radio programs Dimension X and X Minus One.

Missile by Frederick Wiseman (director)

Sadly, this film is not easy to find online, but you might have some luck through the library. In this film, the prolific documentarian’s subject is the 4315th Training Squadron, where US Air Force officers are trained to operate the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. Wiseman’s signature style eschews narration, talking heads, title cards, and music, yet he still manages to convey a critical, nuanced and sometimes darkly humorous perspective on this institution and the context in which it operates. A review can be found here.


The paradox of the paradox of redistribution


The paradox of redistribution* refers to the fact that welfare states in which a greater proportion of spending goes to universal programs tend to be more redistributive than welfare states in which a greater proportion of spending goes to targeted programs. If programs are evaluated one by one, it might seem that targeted programs will in almost every instance make the poor better off (not counting programs that deliver public goods* like environmental protection, law enforcement and national defence). But the paradox of redistribution suggests that the poor will actually be better off when targeted programs are a relatively small proportion of overall spending. Effectively targeting the welfare state at the poor means giving up targeting in the design of many of the individual programs that collectively constitute the welfare state.

Chart from Social Democratic America by Lane Kenworthy

The paradox of redistribution only goes so far. It does not tell us that all programs ought to be universal rather than targeted. That conclusion would be absurd, given that some programs are needed to address special needs that not everyone has; it is not possible even in principle for such programs to be universal (unless they are conceived of as a form of insurance; regardless of this view’s merits, it is incompatible with the definition of universalism from which the paradox of redistribution arises). Nor does the paradox tell us which programs ought to be universal and which ought to be targeted. It does, however, mean that the efficiency of targeting in a particular case is not dispositive with respect to the wisdom of targeting in that case. If our standard of justice demands that we design the welfare state so that on the whole it provides the greatest benefit to the least advantaged, it may be prudent to design some programs according to other criteria.

This raises a problem for those who categorically reject means testing (i.e. income or wealth targeting) as a matter of principle rather than political prudence. If universality is a fundamental principle of justice, it is unjust to give priority to the poor. But as a matter of fact, the paradox of redistribution shows that welfare states that incorporate a greater degree of universality do give priority to the poor. If giving priority to the poor is unjust, then we should adopt a less redistributive welfare state. And the way to do this, apparently, is to make more programs targeted at the poor. Thus it appears that no feasible welfare state is consistent with the categorical rejection of income and wealth targeting as a matter of principle. Call this the paradox of the paradox of redistribution.

*Thanks to Luc Turgeon for referring me to this fascinating paper by Olivier Jacques and Alain Noël.
**In the technical sense of nonrival, nonexcludable goods.

Is Old Age Security a universal program? (Response to Walkom)

Baseless accusations of infidelity to party principles? That’s a paddlin’

At the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom has a column describing Jagmeet Singh as “unorthodox” due to his support for a substantially increased, income tested seniors’ benefit (the Canada Seniors Guarantee). In Walkom’s view, this policy would mark a departure from the NDP’s traditional commitment to universal social programs. It would also conflict with the NDP Policy Book’s commitment to “maintaining the universality of Old Age Security.” However, Walkom also admits that Old Age Security is already an income tested program. Benefits are clawed back so that high-income OAS recipients must eventually return all payments to the government.

How can Old Age Security be income tested and universal? The only plausible response, I think, is that OAS can be understood as a form of insurance against poverty in old age. This insurance policy covers every single Canadian, because any Canadian threatened by poverty in old age is eligible to receive OAS payments. In this respect, OAS is a universal program, but it is income tested because of the very nature of the risk it insures against (i.e. low income in old age).

This raises a problem for Walkom’s critique. The NDP’s commitment to maintaining the universality of OAS is only coherent if OAS is in fact currently a universal program. If OAS counts as a universal program in virtue of providing universal insurance against poverty in old age, then Singh’s proposed Canada Seniors Guarantee must count as a universal program as well. Just like OAS, it provides universal insurance against poverty in old age, albeit with more generous payments. So if the NDP has a coherent policy on universality and the OAS, Singh has not in fact departed from that policy. If, on the other hand, OAS is not a universal program, the NDP does not have a coherent policy on universality and the OAS from which to depart. In neither case can Singh’s proposed reform of seniors’ benefits be characterized plausibly as out of step with the traditions of the NDP.

Incommensurable values and moral revisionism in Mulgan’s theory


In a previous post on Tim Mulgan’s Purpose in the Universe: The Moral and Metaphysical Case for Ananthropocentric Purposivism, I argued that the moral argument for AP seems to be self-undermining. Confidence in certain moral convictions is needed to justify objectivism about value; objectivism about value, in turn, is needed to justify AP. But if AP is true, it seems that we should not be confident in any of our moral convictions. And if AP implies extreme moral skepticism, Mulgan’s argument falls apart.

I think this objection can be avoided, but only at some cost to Mulgan’s revisionist ambitions for a moral theory consistent with AP. The saving move is to allow multiple incommensurable values. Mulgan follows Joseph Raz in defining incommensurable values as follows: “A and B are incommensurable if it is neither true that one is better than the other nor true that they are of equal value.”

Suppose that the objective values are incommensurable and include both human-centred values like virtue, pleasure and justice and non-human-centred values like beauty, intelligibility, and the elegance of natural law. Because these values are incommensurable, each would play a role in selecting a universe to actualize (either directly, as in axiarchic forms of AP, or indirectly, as in theistic forms). Only universes that instantiate all of these values would be actualized, and we know from our experience of this world that a beautiful, intelligible and elegant universe that is also hospitable to human-centered values will certainly contain horrendous evils. So if values are incommensurable, we can take our convictions about human-centred and non-human-centred values at face value at both ends of the argument for AP.

Mulgan believes that AP implies a highly revisionist account of human morality; once we understand the true, non-human-centred order of values, our views on the right and the good must be radically revised. But Mulgan’s argument for AP only succeeds if AP’s moral implications are quite conservative. The truth of AP would actually make very little difference to the content of a correct moral theory, because the non-human-centred values do not come into conflict with familiar human-centred values. AP may explain the circumstances in which we find ourselves theorizing about morality, but it sheds no light on the object of that activity.

Against Parfit’s Time-Dependence Claim


Parfit’s non-identity problem depends on what he refers to the Time-Dependence Claim (TDC). The TDC is a feature of certain theories of personal identity across possible histories. According to the TDC,

If any particular person had not been conceived when he was in fact conceived, it is in fact true that he would never have existed. (Reasons and Persons, p. 351)

Every human is grown from a particular egg cell and a particular spermatozoon. The timing of conception determines which egg will be fertilized by which spermatozoon. Different egg or spermatozoon, different human. So, different time, different human — at least, according to the TDC.

The non-identity problem needs only the TDC, not any particular account of personal identity, and there is no theory the follows uniquely from the TDC. Rather, Parfit thinks any credible theory of personal identity across possible histories must accept the TDC. Parfit supports this claim by negative argument, i.e. considering and rejecting a number of alternative theories of identity that are not dependent on the TDC. Without the TDC, all of these alternatives have unacceptable implications. He concludes that whatever the correct account of identity across possible histories turns out to be, it must include the TDC.

The views Parfit considers are as follows.

1. The Featureless Cartesian View. Identity is something like a featureless Cartesian ego or primitive thisness that does not depend on anything more fundamental. I am Stephen only in virtue of having this particular thisness. I could have had any parents, been born in any time or place, or had any number of other different characteristics. In principle, I could have been a rock!

Parfit rejects this view on the grounds that I could only be aware of my identity as a Cartesian ego if I am directly aware of this identity; because a Cartesian ego is a pure thisness, identity cannot be inferred from any other quality I might have. Because I could only be aware of my identity if I were directly aware, and I am not directly aware of my identity, I have no reason to believe the Featureless Cartesian View and thus I can reject it.

2. The Descriptive View. The identity of an individual depends on a list of necessary properties, but these properties do not include having been grown from a particular egg and spermatozoon.


3. The Descriptive Name View. The identity of an individual depends on a list of necessary properties that would be given to describe a particular named individual. Parfit gives Kant as an example. In this world, Kant wrote a number of books including Critique of Pure Reason. Authorship of Critique of Pure Reason is a candidate for the list of necessary properties that Kant’s identity depends on. In any other world where some individual wrote Critique of Pure Reason, etc., that individual is Kant.

Both Descriptive Views have counterintuitive consequences. If one of Kant’s necessary properties is that he wrote Critique of Pure Reason, Parfit points out, then it is logically impossible that Kant could have died at an early age before writing any books at all. (A further difficulty, I think, is that this raises the equally thorny question of how we are to determine the identity of books across possible histories!) The Descriptive Views may be weakened so that authorship of Critique of Pure Reason, etc. is not a necessary feature of Kant, but it is peculiar to Kant. In any possible world where Critique of Pure Reason was authored, that author will have been Kant. Parfit’s objects that this leads to an unacceptable picture of human history in which the identities of individuals (like Kant) are supplied by impersonal historical facts (like the fact that there is a Critique of Pure Reason). Rather than explaining historical facts by reference to persons, we are forced to explain persons solely by reference to historical facts.

4. The Origin View. The identity of an individual depends on them having grown from particular sperm and egg cells. I am Stephen in virtue of having grown from two particular cells. I would exist in any world where an organism was grown from those particular cells, and I would not exist in any world where no organism grew from those particular cells. This is Parfit’s view.

This fourth view is no less troubling than the first three. The Origin View makes my identity dependent on the identities of particular sperm and egg cells. So what are the identity conditions of particular sperm and egg cells?

There are, again, four possibilities. Individual cells may not be a candidate for having Cartesian egos, but they are candidates for having thisnesses. This answer has all the same problems as the Featureless Cartesian View, and in fact it seems to entail the Featureless Cartesian View. If the Featureless Cartesian View is true, I could have been a rock. If it is true only of sperm and egg cells, they could have been rocks. If we accept the Origin View of personal identity and the Featureless Cartesian View of sperm and egg identity, I could have been a rock garden!

The Descriptive Views are not as obviously problematic, and I’m not sure it runs into the same problem as the Descriptive Views as applied to people. After all, we do not expect sperm and egg cells to possess historical agency. But no description will be able to identify particular cells without reference to the origins of those cells or the identities of the people they come from.

This leaves the Origin View. As applied to cells, I suppose this would mean that the identity of a particular cell depends on it being constituted by particular molecules. Different molecules, different cells. Different cells, different person. And now we need to know the identity conditions for molecules. It seems that this cycle would continue all the way down to the level of fundamental particles. This implies that individuals could not exist in worlds that were even slightly physically different from one another. The Origin View is inadequate as a theory of identity across possible histories because it denies the very possibility of identity across possible histories.

Parfit claims that this list of possible views is exhaustive. If this claim is false, he has failed to establish the Time-Dependence Claim. In fact, all of the views Parfit considers are unacceptable. There must be other alternatives. Until these alternatives have been explored, we should not accept the Time-Dependence Claim.

Even if the universe has a purpose, we can’t assume that we matter to it

Unfortunately we can’t rule out that the possibility that the purpose of the universe is to be food for a space monster

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Tim Mulgan’s most recent book, Purpose in the Universe: the Case for Ananthropocentric Purposivism, in which he makes a case for the proposition that the universe has a non-human-centred purpose. In Mulgan’s view, the world is religiously ambiguous, meaning that reason and evidence do not decisively favour one religious view over all others. Atheism and theism can both be reasonable responses to the available evidence. In this book, Mulgan aims to defend the reasonableness of AP as a third option in a religiously ambiguous world.

Mulgan’s background is in moral philosophy, not metaphysics or philosophy of religion. Accordingly, he lays the foundation of the book’s argument by setting out a number of first order moral commitments. Prominent among these is the claim that we have stringent obligations not to harm future generations. In Mulgan’s view, the only kind of moral theory capable of accounting for the truth of this conviction is objective list consequentialism (I have previously responded to Mulgan’s criticism of contractualism on this score here and here). In an objective list consequentialist theory, consequences are assessed according to objective criteria, in contrast to subjective consequentialist theories like hedonistic or preference utilitarianism which assess consequences solely by reference to agents’ mental states.

With a set of first order moral commitments in hand, Mulgan makes a brief foray into meta-ethics. Mulgan does not think non-cognitivist theories (according to which moral language expresses only sentiments or imperatives which are merely disguised as propositions) can provide credible accounts of moral talk and moral thought. Everyday moral experience is most consistent with moral cognitivism. Cognitivists about morality believe that positive moral claims are truth-apt, meaning that they can be either true or false. Some cognitivists are nihilists (also sometimes called error theorists). Nihilists believe that all positive moral claims are false. But most cognitivists are moral realists, meaning that they believe some positive moral claims (i.e. at least one) are true.

Following J. L. Mackie, nihilists often appeal to the supposed metaphysical “queerness” of moral facts. But Mulgan’s strategy of building his argument off a set of reasonably secure convictions about right and wrong puts nihilism on the back foot. We have supreme confidence in first order moral judgments like “it is wrong to boil a baby for fun” (to use one of my teachers’ favourite examples), whereas we are rarely so secure in our metaphysical judgments. If moral facts seem queer given our metaphysical beliefs, we are better off revising our metaphysical beliefs rather than our moral beliefs. If this seems hard to swallow, Mulgan points out, it is not clear how the argument from queerness can be restricted to only rule out moral facts considered as a subset of normative facts more generally. If accepting the claim that moral facts are intolerably queer commits us to the more extreme position of “global normative nihilism”, which entails that there are no true positive claims about mathematical or logical truth on account of intolerable queerness, we can be even more confident in rejecting Mackie’s argument for nihilism.

However, Mulgan does think that the argument from queerness is getting at something very important. In his view, moral facts do seem to be intolerably queer in the context of a strictly naturalistic ontology. It follows that the presumption of strict or global naturalism which dominates contemporary meta-ethics ought to be abandoned. Morality, and normativity more broadly, is most at home in an ontology that includes non-natural or supernatural facts (by non-natural facts, Mulgan seems to have in mind sui generis normative facts, while supernatural facts denote facts about the divine such as the attributes or commands of a perfect being).

Having established that non-naturalism or supernaturalism can (at the very least) be reasonable, Mulgan is off to the races. Much of what follows falls under a wide-ranging survey of arguments for both theism and atheism, including classical and contemporary versions of ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments for theism, and, on the atheist side, arguments from scale, religious diversity and (most importantly) evil. Mulgan argues that the theist arguments are only successful in establishing that there is a cosmic purpose, while atheist arguments can only succeed in establishing that human well-being is irrelevant to the cosmic purpose. Theists draw the further conclusion that there is a human-centred cosmic purpose, while atheists draw the further conclusion that there is no cosmic purpose at all. These further conclusions are not unreasonable, and they could very well be true. But the conclusions do not logically follow from the arguments deployed in their support. Taken together, the most compelling arguments for theism and atheism are at least as consistent with the thesis that there is a cosmic purpose to which human well-being is wholly irrelevant — in other words, ananthropocentric purposivism.

If we’re not relevant to the cosmic purpose, then what is? In theory, the possibilities are endless. Maybe we don’t matter, but some aliens do. Or perhaps the purpose of the universe is to realize some objective aesthetic value — the instantiation of the most beautiful physical theory, for example. When Leibniz proposed that this is the best of all possible worlds, the criterion of goodness he had in mind was nothing like what we would expect in a human centred morality; the best world according to God, Leibniz argued, is the world where the greatest diversity follows from the simplest laws.

In some respects, a non-human-centred morality makes a rather good fit with consequentialism. Consequentialism is often criticized for assessing consequences by means of aggregation of harm and well-being. Strict utilitarianism, for example, dictates that aggregate utility must always be increased, even when this would be better for no one — in fact, even when this would be worse for everyone. By indiscriminately summing utilities across distinct lives and taking only the sum of all utilities to have any direct moral importance, utilitarians are said to ignore the moral significance of the separateness of persons. AP helps support the consequentialist contention that persons simply do not have any moral significance to ignore. Consequences, impartially and impersonally assessed without any regard for the well-being of individual creatures, are all that matter according to the cosmic purpose.

At this point, however, I wonder if Mulgan begins to undermine the foundations of his own argument. His case for AP is cumulative, meaning that each step in the argument depends on the steps that have come before. The entire argument therefore depends on the reliability of the moral commitments he began with. These commitments are shaped by careful reflection about everyday human moral experience. But if AP is true, we should regard everyday human moral experience with extreme skepticism. There is no guarantee that there will be any points of contact between human moral experience and the real world of objective values; moral nihilism could very well be true with respect to humans! If we accept AP and consequently accept that a restricted moral nihilism may be true with respect to humans, then it’s not clear to me how we can have the degree of confidence in the existence of objective values that is necessary to make AP a reasonable proposition in the first place.

I expect that Mulgan will have anticipated and attempt to address this objection in the book’s final section, which he dedicates to constructing a moral theory consistent with AP. I’m really looking forward to tackling this section, but it’ll have to wait — my school library doesn’t have a copy of the book, and my inter-library loan period is up!

Related reading

Derek Parfit: “Why Anything? Why This?” Part 1 & Part 2
Tim Mulgan: “What if God is just not that into you?”
Tim Mulgan in conversation with Beverley Clack and Jonathan Cottingham. Moderated by Peter Dennis. (Audio)

Politics is not just a contest in domination

At Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson has responded to Jeet Heer’s complaint that a certain segment of the left is driven by “a vision of politics as a contest in domination”. Robinson’s response is more or less that politics is a contest in domination, so the complaint doesn’t stick. While I don’t want to defend Heer’s column, I do think Robinson’s response merits some pushback.

As Robinson notes, people in society hold conflicting values and interests, and it is not always possible or desirable to accommodate all values and interests. There is no compromise to be struck between racists and anti-racists, for example. For racists to win, anti-racists must lose, and vice versa. Politics, in Robinson’s view, is simply the struggle for dominance between fundamentally antagonistic values and interests. It makes no sense to complain about politics being conducted as a pure struggle for dominance, because pure struggle for dominance is what politics is. Rather than trying to twist politics into something that it’s not (and cannot be), we should focus on what’s really at stake, i.e. which values and interests should properly dominate.

Of course Robinson is right to say that some political values and interests ought to take priority over others and there’s nothing inherently aberrant about adversarial politics. I’m not sure this really constitutes a proper response to Heer, who seems to have been complaining about domination of and by people, not values, but never mind that. Still, Robinson overreaches with the suggestion that politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. In fact, viewing politics as a realm of pure conflict renders many perfectly ordinary political phenomena inexplicable.

Robinson anticipates the objection that his view cannot explain why there are such things as political coalitions. Not so, he says; coalitions are useful tools in the struggle. If participating in a coalition confers an advantage over the enemy, then one should participate in a coalition. This response is not satisfactory. Robinson’s view explains why it would be prudent to form or join a coalition. But how could coalitions possibly exist if politics is only about conflict?

I understand a coalition to be an alliance of groups with both shared and conflicting values, interests and priorities. Members commit to pursuing shared ends while compromising on points of disagreement. Such compromises may take a number of forms. One approach is simply for coalition partners to compete for power within the coalition’s internal structure; in some cases, as in certain political parties, this competition may be highly organized and include a system for official recognition of internal factions. Another is for the coalition to simply avoid taking positions on areas of disagreement between the coalition partners. In some cases, the coalition may try to strike a balance between each side’s preferred position. Or one faction or another might just give up on the issue entirely.

So if coalitions exist, then groups with opposing interests and values can and do interact in a mode other than that of unrestricted warfare. That means that if some group or other is criticized for treating politics as warfare, it will have to find some excuse other than the claim that all politics is warfare, because that claim is clearly false.

A couple of final remarks. First, it’s a little distracting that the term domination is deployed so heavily here, because in political theory, domination tends to be a morally loaded term implying subjection to arbitrary power. Robinson cannot be using domination in this sense, because he thinks correct values (which are by definition non-arbitrary) can dominate. What he has in mind is really power rather than domination, I think.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the view that politics is unrestricted warfare between incompatible values implies that a society ordered by the correct values would have no need for politics. At the root of the ostensibly hardheaded, no nonsense view of politics as warfare, it turns out, is a kind of prissy anti-politics that casts all political disagreement and conflict as a symptom of social disease. I do not find this characterization remotely plausible.