Tag: Ethics

Plato’s Crito: When should we break the law?

By: Spencer Case from 1000-Word Philosophy

Plato’s Crito describes a conversation that takes place in 399 B.C.E. in an Athens prison, where Socrates awaits execution.

Not long before, an assembly of more than 500 Athenian citizens convicted Socrates of corrupting the youth and impiety, essentially failing to respect the gods of the city. Socrates denied these charges. Moreover, he insisted that his public philosophizing, far from being subversive, was for the benefit of Athens and in the service of the god Apollo.

The jury wasn’t convinced, however, and found him guilty. They were further incensed when, during the sentencing stage of the trial, Socrates suggested that his “punishment” should be a lifetime supply of free meals at the prytaneum, or central hearth, an honor typically reserved for Olympic champions and the like. These antics did not play well and Socrates received the death penalty. A religious observance delayed the execution for a few weeks, but it now appears imminent.

Enter Crito, a friend with deep pockets and deeper affection for Socrates. Early one morning, Crito shows up at Socrates’ cell with an escape plan. He bribed the jailer and, with the help of other friends, has arranged for Socrates to be whisked away to Thessaly, another Greek city-state. There Socrates can live out his remaining years in exile with his family, who will also leave Athens. Everything has been taken care of except for the hardest part: convincing Socrates to agree with the plan (43a-44b, 45c).

Anyone who knows Socrates knows that this isn’t going to be easy. Crito is determined to save his friend’s life, however, and so he comes armed with a battery of arguments. Crito knows that Socrates isn’t afraid of death, and so he wisely appeals to considerations that are the most likely to resonate with Socrates: his sense of honor and his obligations to others.

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China’s ‘social credit system’: What would Lao Tzu say?

By: Brannon Gerling

Can China’s new ‘social credit system’ ethically enlighten its citizens? How would Lao Tzu (6th c. B.C.E.), the central figure in Taoism—that cherished self-exiled sage sapped by the stultifying monotony of the Zhao dynasty—treat all this ado?

Unlike Confucius’s style of virtue-based ethics which rest heavily on the sharpening of moral character, Lao Tzu’s less earthly Taoist ethics individually and transcendentally induce ethical development and hence resist the groupthink requisite for social engineering. The Chinese people’s best means to contest the regime’s new method of domestic persecution lies in their nexus to Tao. They must, as Tzu says in the Tao teh Ching, “hold fast to the original path in order to control the realm of the present.”

The Basics

Many Westerners referring to China’s new social credit system relate it to the dark-humored Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” and the characters’ angst caused by the manic ritual of social rating isn’t unrealistic. Some of the penalties for an inadequate score will bear similar resemblance to the show: travel restrictions, throttling of Internet speeds, banning (citizens or their children) from choice schools, employment obstruction, difficulty securing loans, and, of course, public shaming.

Who might comply with the story’s credit system or cathartically screw it like the main character does in a mortifying maid-of-honor speech at her pseudo best friend’s wedding? Who really cares?

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) cares and is designing the system with ideal timing: deep learning is wielding big data to digitize everything from genome editing to reconstructions of human thinking. Perhaps the meek or stalwart will be able to ignore the credit system by living inconspicuous or prudent lives, but they will still be scrutinized. A growing network of 200 million CCTV cameras across the public and private domain will use facial recognition, body scanning, geo-tracking and other surveillance tech to track the massive swathe of addicted gamers and screen timers ushered into the largest digitally organised personality heist in history.

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Just War Theory

Ryan Jenkins from 1000-Word Philosophy gives an account of just war theory.

War is a profoundly destructive institution, yet most of us still believe there are good wars. Authors as far back as Cicero, and in various cultural traditions,[1] have sought to answer this question: When is a war just? The just war tradition (or just war theory) is one subset of military ethics.[2] Recently, interest in just war theory was ignited by Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (2006), published in the wake of the Vietnam War. More recently, profound challenges to “traditional” just war theory—under the banner of “revisionism”—have shaken the foundations of the ethics of war (McMahan, 2009; Rodin, 2005). This article will explore the criteria of traditional just war theory before briefly discussing the revisionist school’s recent critiques.

Jus ad Bellum: Justice in the Resort to War

Traditional just war theory concerns itself with two questions: (1) when it is just to go to war and (2) how may a war be justly fought?[3] (These two areas usually go by their Latin names: jus ad bellum and jus in bello, respectively.) This way, we can say that a war was just to declare but fought unjustly, or perhaps vice versa.[4]

When is it just to resort to war? (Notice this moral question is separate from when war is prudent or popular.) Traditionalists hold that a state must satisfy several criteria: just cause, right intention, last resort, proportionality, probability of success, and proper authority.

Theorists usually think the only just cause for declaring war is self-defense: that is, as a response to an actual aggression. Pre-emptive war—declaring war on a state because it is believed they will be a threat—is clearly a Pandora’s box. Instead, we must meet a high evidential burden in order to justify war, and a merely suspected attack is not enough.

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The Worth of a State: Tribalism versus Individuality

By: Glen Paul Hammond

Man’s commonest weakness, [is] his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side.

This is what Mark Twain saw as the motivation behind much of the evil that human beings perpetrate in the world.  In his essay, The United States of Lyncherdom, Twain sought to understand how good, ordinary people, “the vast majority of whom are right-hearted,” could participate in the hideous act of vigilantism and the unlawful, public lynchings that took place in the United States after the American Civil War (243).  It was not a deep-seated evil that resided in the hearts of individuals, according to Twain, but a herd mentality that made it impossible for any individual to oppose the group.  He called it Moral Cowardice and stated that it was “the commanding feature of the make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000… (243).”  Any group spurred on in a fervor of declared moral correctness would be near impossible for any, but the strongest individuals, to oppose. Although the human propensity to belong to a group can and has been utilized for much good in the world, society must also be mindful of the fundamental flaw in the herd mentality.  This article will attempt to outline this flaw and, in so doing, expose the danger it poses to liberal democracy.

Human beings are social animals and one of the consequences of this is the inevitable tension that exists “between values associated with individuality and values associated with conformity” (Aronson 13).  Several empirical studies attest that even when there are no explicit constraints against individuality, the human animal’s desire to belong creates, in part, a propensity to conform.  Examining a set of classic experiments in his book The Social Animal, Eliot Aronson explained that subjects were motivated by two important goals: “the goal of being correct and the goal of staying in the good graces of other people by living up to their expectations”(Aronson 20).  Yet, the studies showed that, even when the group was obviously incorrect, a disproportionate amount of individuals went along.  This, in essence, revealed that  an individual’s desire to be part of the group overrides the need to be correct and that, as a means to resolve any inner conflict, many individuals fully adapt to the herd by proceeding to rationalize the group’s ultimate correctness.  In so doing, the individual satisfies both inherent needs, and popular opinion becomes the moral compass under which the individual happily operates. This, however, is the crux of the problem.  Twain’s cautionary stance against the corrupting power of moral correctness is uncomfortably close to much of the apprehension many feel today toward political correctness (PC) and his concept of the herd mentality is dangerously similar to an understanding of what is motivating the current thrust behind identity groups. Thus, the old dialogue of individuality versus tribalism is re-emerging.

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What Is Truth?: On the Need for an Old Paradigm

By: Richard Oxenberg

I. Introduction: What Is Truth?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate: “I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate famously responds, “What is truth?”

This question has reverberated through the ages, not least because different religions and different cultures – as Pilate’s question suggests – have presented us with very different versions of what they have called “the truth.” Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and others have fought violent battles to promulgate and defend their particular version of “the truth.”

These bloody ‘truth’ battles played a significant role in motivating the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was the hope of the early scientists and their champions to find a reliable and verifiable method of distinguishing true from false, a method based on generally available evidence that would yield truths of universal validity – truths that all informed, intelligent, and rational people would be able to agree upon.

The sciences have been hugely successful in their endeavor. Our ability to predict and control events in our physical environment has advanced immeasurably due to the employment of modern scientific methodologies. There can be no question about this.

What might be questioned, however, is whether the sort of truths the modern sciences provide are the truths we fundamentally seek. Aristotle writes, in his Metaphysics: “The science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative of the sciences, and more authoritative than any ancillary science; and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in the whole of nature.” When Jesus speaks to Pilate of “the truth” he is not, of course, speaking of what we would think of as “scientific” truth, he is speaking of the truth concerning “the supreme good.” Indeed, it might be argued that the very success of the physical sciences has led to an obscured understanding of just what we seek when we seek “the truth.”

My contention in this essay is that we need a paradigm shift in our conception of ’truth’ – one that will return us to the philosophical insight that the highest truths are those concerning “the good.” Let us call this “philosophical truth.” The pursuit of philosophical truth employs different methods and procedures than are offered by the sciences, methods and procedures that must be, by the very nature of what they pursue, less rigorous and reliable than those of the hard sciences. Still, to recognize the importance of pursuing these higher-order truths is, I believe, an imperative of our time. We have increasingly become a culture that – as the saying goes – knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We know, as never before in human history, how to do what we want. Our problem is that we don’t know what to want.

How do we begin to think meaningfully about truths pertaining to “the good”? First we must endeavor to locate the domain of value within our own experience. Let us, then, turn to a consideration of this.

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On the Biblical God: A Brief ‘Transreligious’ Reflection

By: Richard Oxenberg

Let me begin with a simple observation: The God of the Bible – or, better, God as he is literally depicted in the Bible (and here the use of the masculine pronoun ‘he’ is entirely appropriate) – does not exist.

The evidence for this is overwhelming. Perhaps the most telling is, simply, that if such an entity existed he would make it clear to us. The Bible tells us, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Dt. 6:5). It tells us “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3). It presents us with command after command to be followed on the authority of this God. Clearly, this is a God who wants human beings to know that he exists and to trust him and obey him.

So, then, why would such a God hide himself from us? Why would he allow us to flounder about in confusion? Why would he allow us to wonder whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or atheism has it right? Why would he not make his existence as clear to us as the sun’s existence, or the moon’s existence, or the existence of anything whose existence we do not question?

Theologians twist and turn trying to answer this question, but the bottom line is that there is no good answer. The reason this God does not make his existence clear to us is because he does not, in fact, exist – at least not as he is literally depicted in the Bible and in Western religion in general.

This forces upon us the following conclusion: Either the depiction of God as presented in the Bible is entirely bogus, or it points beyond itself to something true and real that somehow lies behind the literal portrait.

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Judge Posner on Meta-Ethics and Rational vs. Nonrational Argumentation

By:Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

Moral theory is like a system of mathematics that has never gotten beyond addition.R. Posner

Introduction

In his book, Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, Judge Richard Posner offers a serious critique of the professionalization of moral philosophy that has gone largely ignored by that social milieu. More broadly, his meta-ethical views explaining the nature of morality, which I will reconstruct in this piece, are quite incisive. I generally agree with Posner’s skepticism towards moral realism, and will not attempt to problematize his arguments in this regard. However, in his attempt to delineate different types of moralists (“moral entrepreneurs” from “academic moralists”) he draws some dubious distinctions.

Particularly concerning is his distinction between rational and nonrational argumentation.[1] In my view, it is political rather than philosophical; a sort of social artifact without internal logic. There is, of course, such a thing as a bad argument, but this is not equivalent to a nonrational argument – at least in Posner’s schema, and in academic parlance more generally. Rationality/Nonrationality can be a marginally useful distinction of style, but I argue that it is often misused to track content and thereby unreflectively weaken the normative weight of radical arguments.

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