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Big Things

I've had my hands full with three contractually obligated papers. Which is a good thing, because they represent three guaranteed items to put on my Faculty Activity Report for my annual evaluation. Yet as I worked on these things, I kept thinking about some of the BIG papers I've been wanting to write. Papers that will communicate ideas that I regard as particularly creative and insightful. Papers that, if still unwritten when I am on my deathbed, will make my last moments full of regret.

Because I am too busy with my contractual obligations to work on these things, I got out a large yellow sticky and wrote at the top of it BIG THINGS. Just like that, in all caps and underlined. The papers are:

1. The Evolution of Morality
2. Actual Motivations for Taking Sides in What Should be Nondebates (Nature/Nurture; Person/Situation)
3. The Hidden Legacy of S-R Psychology and a Complementary Alternative

The seeds of these essays already exist:

1. http://drj.virtualave.net/other/religio/morality.html
2. http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/5/j5j/papers/rome.html
3. the above link and also http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/5/j5j/papers/KLI.html

It's now just a matter of fleshing out the essays. Maybe I can get a sabbatical to do this next year.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 18th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
I am fascinated by your Real Utilitarianism page (http://drj.virtualave.net/other/religio/morality.html).

It seems to me that the main thrust of your thesis is that "good" should only ever be used in the sense of "useful". To put it another way, "good" should always be paired with "for".

X is "good for" accomplishing Y = X is "useful for" accomplishing Y


X is "good for" accomplishing Y = X is "causally efficacious for" accomplishing Y.


X is "useful for" accomplishing Y = X is "causally efficacious for" accomplishing Y.

In other words, it sounds like you are arguing that the word "good" simply has no meaning unless it is in the context of accomplishing some goal which can never be "good" in and of itself.

If so, then it looks what you're doing is trying to eliminate the concept of virtue altogether.

Take the statement "John is good."

By Real Utilitarianism, you would need to ask "John is good for accomplishing what"?

But suppose Daisy blinks and says "Well, John is good because he is kind!"

Daisy is saying that John has the attribute of kindness, and that John is good because kindness is a virtue.

What is the position of Real Utilitarianism on this? Do we say John cannot be called good simply because he is kind, or do we ask what kindness "is good for accomplishing"? If it's the former, then we've essentially eliminated the concept of virtue. If it's the latter, then it's not too difficult to show all sorts of things which kindness is good for.

All virtues are causally efficacious towards achieving some end. All vices are causally efficacious towards achieving some end as well. So ultimately, limiting "good" to only mean "causally efficacious" has the effect of eliminating (or trying to eliminate) the entire concept of the morally "virtuous". Why do this when "useful" is a much better word to describe "causally efficacious"?
Apr. 18th, 2005 08:17 pm (UTC)
Recasting virtue
I'm thrilled by your enthusiastic questioning. It surely beats being ignored.

Real Utilitarianism does not eliminate virtue at all. In fact some of my thinking about goodness was inspired by Robert Pirsig's recounting of Aristotle's analysis of arete in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In this analysis, a knife possesses arete (goodness, virtue, quality) if it performs the function it was designed to do, viz., cutting. A sharp knife is good for cutting, so it possesses arete. A dull knife is not as good for cutting. It is a poor quality knife. I actually published an empirical study of virtue; it is available at my special Virtues Web site: http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/5/j5j/virtues/

The goodness of kindness (or any other virtue) is comprehensible only in terms of what it is good for accomplishing. In fact, it is the different things that the different virtues can accomplish that makes them distinctive virtues. I am not at all trying to eliminate virtues. Rather I am trying to specify what they are useful for achieving.

You suggest that "useful" is a much better word than "causally efficacious." Better for accomplishing what? ;-)

I actually hesitated to use the phrase "causally efficacious" because it sounds pretentiously pseudo-intellectual. You could substitute "useful" without losing much meaning and it would sound less pretentious. Obviously I finally decided that, despite the anticipated undesirable effects of using "causally efficacious," this phrase must be good for something. That something is demonstrating that moral behavior is a physical cause that has physical effects, just like any other physical cause. I am hoping the phrase is good for my attempt to naturalize ethics. I must also admit to being influenced by the recent emergence of "efficacy" as a hot topic in social psychology. My choice of language may not be efficacious in converting the masses, but may be useful in convincing my professional colleagues. ;-)
Apr. 18th, 2005 11:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Recasting virtue
Well, I'm not picking on your use of "causally efficacious" at all, mind you. It's a good way of putting it, and probably more philosophically rigorous than "useful".

I think what I am getting at is if you limit "good" only to what is "causally efficacious" then you effectively neutralize the positive moral connotations of the words "good". If that which is "causally efficacious" essentially means that which is "useful", then the word "good" simply becomes a neutral word, and no more positive than "bad". Why eliminate all of the positive connotations of the word "good" other than "causally efficacious"?

That which is causally efficacious is often good (in a positive senses), but that which is causally efficacious is not always good (in a positive sense). In fact, you could claim that the Nazis were quite causally efficacious at killing 6 million Jews, but hardly anyone is going to argue that simply because they were good at killing Jews, it therefore made the Nazis "good" in a positive sense.

Apr. 19th, 2005 01:09 am (UTC)
Re: Recasting virtue
Ah, I think I see your point now. To call an act "causally efficacious" is cold and clinical, whereas to call an act "good" is to express positive feelings of approval. When we call another person "generous," "kind," [insert any virtue term], we are not merely saying that the person is good at accomplishing something, we are also indicating that the person's behavior makes us happy. (We are also attempting to manipulate the person into continuing the behavior we like by expressing approval, but let's focus on the emotional consequences.)

In other words, the person's generosity, kindness, etc. is good for making us happy. Nazi gas chambers were good for murdering Jews, but not for making us feel good, so we're not going to call those atrocities good. Because happiness is something we usually desire, the ability of an act to bring us such positive feelings is a special case of an act that "is causally efficacious in bringing about a desired result." It is a very important special case, because it is a possible stopping point in an otherwise infinite regress of evaluating the goodness of a consequence. I don't discuss this in the essay, but I use the following example in a course I teach:

Is hammering good?
Well, it is good for driving nails.
Is driving nails good?
Well, it is good for constructing a bird house.
Is constructing a bird house good?
Well, it is good for providing shelter to songbirds.
Is providing shelter to songbirds good?
Well, it is good for attracting songbirds to your backyard.
Is attracting songbirds to your backyard good?
Well, it is good for encouraging singing in the yard.
Is singing in your backyard good?
The singing makes me happy.
Is your being happy good?
Are you nuts?

I think people will generally accept that desiring to have positive feelings needs no justification. There are fine points that need to be discussed, such as whether the positive feelings help further a person's long-term happiness (being inappropriately happy can get you in trouble) and how the pursuit of melancholy (watching a tragic movie, listening to plaintive music) fits in (is there some positive satisfaction in the intentional pursuit of sadness?) Nonetheless, positive affect is generally considered an appropriate stopping point for evaluating goodness, so I thank you for bringing up the emotional connotations of goodness.
Apr. 19th, 2005 01:32 am (UTC)
Re: Recasting virtue
It's funny you should mention the infinite regress part, because I started to write an example and show how picking apart each end and asking if it was "good" could eventually lead to absurdities. But you've already got that covered, I see. I will think about it more and more, but honestly? I like your concept of Real Utilitarianism; I'm still mulling things over in my head at the moment.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 19th, 2005 01:34 am (UTC)
Please feel free to link (or copy, with attributions) this blog entry and/or the online essay. Spread the meme.

It seems to me that your concern is that a good act must be good for everyone before it can be considered "truly" good. The Master Po aphorism indicates how this is sometimes not possible. Goodness is sometimes relative--what is good for the mouse is not good for the farmer, and what is good for the cat is not for the mouse. Within their microcosm, there is no "common good" for all three simultaneously.

For your car parts example, your neighbors apparently think that dumping is good for getting rid of trash without paying disposal fees. It is not good for the land owner's property value. It is not good for the aesthetic experience of passers-by. That is a major point of the essay: goodness is limited and local, not absolute. Hammering is good for driving nails, but not inserting screws, which require a different action.

This does not rule out the possibility that in scenarios such as the dumping, "good enough" win-win alternatives exist. What is good for one person does not have to be bad for another. Individuals can agree to voluntarily limit consumption so as not to overgraze the commons. And that is good for everyone's long-term survival.

If you follow the link to the Kung Fu episode, you'll see the following exchange:

'Then is there no evil for men? Each man tells himself that what he does is good, at least for himself.' - Caine
'. . . a man may tell himself many things but is a man's universe made up only of himself?' - Po
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