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Friday, May 15, 2015


I am going to try something hard, and I may just crash and burn, in which case, simply avert your eyes and move on.  Here is the background.  I posted a remark triggered by Michael Eric Dyson's attack on Cornel West, and Chris responded with a link to a different dispute between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky [embarrassed disclosure:  I did not actually know who Sam Harris is until I read the exchange and then looked him up on Wikipedia.]  I read the entire exchange, which Harris posted on his blog.  It seems to have taken place over four days in late April [irrelevant aside:  how on earth does Noam find the time for all of this?  He is even older than I am.]

As it happens, I read the exchange right after lunch.  Now, pretty much every day I have the same lunch:  no-fat cottage cheese, no-fat yoghurt, some sugar, and a lot of seedless grapes on top.  I eat it sitting on my bed watching Television.  Today, I caught a few minutes of the latest remake of King Kong, which I have seen several times before.  This is the one in which Adrian Brody is miscast as the hero and Naomi Watts plays the Fay Wray part -- Jack Black, as usual, is great.  I tuned in as Kong is trying to figure out what he has taken prisoner and Watts is dancing and doing her vaudeville turns in an effort to distract him.

With this as background, perhaps you will understand why I felt so strongly, as I read through the extended Harris/Chomsky exchange, that it really just wasn't fair to put little Sam Harris, hopping and skipping and singing as fast as he could, up against this enormous overpowering Great Ape, Noam Chomsky.  It was like a boxing match between a Flyweight and a Heavyweight.  Noam is so much smarter than Harris, and knows so much more, and is so much more relentless.

Chomsky makes reference to President Clinton's decision to blow up one of the only pharmaceutical factories in Sudan, thereby leaving that poor country with no way to replenish desperately needed medicines.  Harris [you need to read the exchange to get the full story] is trying to defend the view that America, despite all the harm it causes in the world, has good intentions and its actions therefore ought not to be equated with those undertaken by al Qaeda.  He coughs up a hypothetical about al Qaeda good-heartedly blowing up a pharmaceutical factory in the American heartland because it mistakenly thinks that drugs are being produced at the site which threaten to cause uncounted deaths and injuries in American children.  He is trying to separate out analytically consequences from intentions, in order to make a point in what I think he imagines is moral theory.  Chomsky is having none of it, and brushes the hypothetical aside, pointing out that Clinton had every reason to know that the factory he ordered destroyed was indeed making pharmaceuticals and not munitions.  Harris is clearly frustrated by Chomsky's apparent inability to understand this standard move in modern philosophical discussions -- i.e., the use of hypotheticals constructed to make a point about morality.

OK, got that?  What I want to talk about is not Sam Harris or Noam Chomsky or Bill Clinton or al Qaeda or the Sudan, but this technique of argument in contemporary analytic philosophy.  Some of you may be familiar with a relatively recent example of this technique, the trolley car hypothetical in all its variants, about which so many words have been written.  The idea is [I am not kidding] that a trolley car is out of control, bearing down on some people trapped in a car [or whatever], and you are standing on an overpass watching this horrified.  The only way you can stop the slaughter is to push a fat man, conveniently positions, off the overpass so that he will hit the tracks and derail the trolley.  You are not permitted by the terms of the hypothetical to question the factual premises of the hypothetical, which are constructed so that there is no other way to save many lives save by sacrificing one innocent life [the fat man.]  You, we are asked to assume, are thin and your body would not suffice to stop the trolley.  You get the idea.

There are many things you can say about this example, and almost  all of them have been said by one or another eager participant in the debate.  To my way of thinking, the only really interesting thing to observe is that there are actually otherwise apparently intelligent and accomplished university professors who think that this is an appropriate way to talk about Ethics.  Sam Harris is clearly one of them.  In my view, this is utter nonsense -- not this or that or the other particular take on one or another hypothetical example, but the notion that anything of the slightest value can be arrived at in this manner of reasoning.

I am quite convinced that these sorts of thought experiments are nonsense, but it is not so easy to say why  That is why I warned that I might crash and burn.  Let me have a go at it, nonetheless.  

In formal logic, we routinely abstract from the content or matter of an argument in order to reveal its form, about which it is quite often possible to say something extremely interesting.  That is the idea behind the syllogism [If All A are B, and all B are C, then All A are C, regardless of what A, B, and C are, and also regardless of whether in fact all A are actually B, etc.]  Philosophers, entranced for two and a half millennia by the power of such arguments, are forever seeking to import that technique into ethical theory or metaphysics or political philosophy.  I engaged in a bit of it myself in In Defense of Anarchism.  But the process of abstraction on which the process of formal argument depends presupposes that we can precisely and accurately distinguish the several elements of a real world action in such a fashion as will permit us to detach them from one another in constructing hypotheticals.  It also assumes that we can use terms like "intention" as though they were the names of simple identifiable particulars that can be safely abstracted from the complex context in which they are normally embedded.  Harris and Marvin Kalb and all those philosophers talking about trolley cars suppose that we can identify, let us say, President Clinton's intentions in abstraction from the knowledge and circumstances in which they occur, so that we can judge the intentions independently of the actual consequences or the knowledge that actors should have had, or -- and this is quite important -- independently of the institutional, historical, and bureaucratic context of the actions.  And that, I suggest, is wrong.

Whenever one of those factors is cited by someone objecting to the hypothetic example, the person posing the example will wave a hand and say "I will assume that consideration is not operative here."  Let me now say something peculiar, but really quite important.  The dismissal of the objection with a wave of the hand is too easy.  Not wrong, exactly, but too easy.  The right to set aside that consideration has not been earned, by hard study, by experience, by history, or by personal sacrifice.  Philosophy done that way requires no heavy lifting, so to speak.  You can be as ignorant as a new born babe and yet, with a fertile imagination, you think to brush aside the hard-won wisdom of those who have actually been trolley car conductors or military field commanders or operating room nurses or heavy equipment operators by abstracting from it.

Now, to be sure, if all the A's really are B's, and all the B's really are C's, then all the A's really are C's, regardless of the life experiences of those who have dealt with A's, B's, and C's for decades.  But in the real world, there are always hidden filiations, caveats, connections, and exceptions that experience and knowledge [and sometimes the bearing of responsibility] teach us.  And too often, philosophers ignore those and are taken in by the false simplicity and specificity of actually quite complex matters.

So when Sam Harris conjured up that example of the al Qaeda well-intentioned bombing of an American pharmaceutical factory, I cringed.  "Oh Lord," I thought, "it is trolley cars all over again."  And when Noam brushed the example aside, I thought he was right to do so, even though Harris thought he had scored an unacknowledged debater's point.

Well, time to prepare dinner.


Chris said...

There is an additional element to Chomsky's considerations. Harris seems to pose a false disjunction between intending bad and intending good. Chomsky is trying to point out that the level of intention Clinton (and others at the helm of the US empire) attend to possible victims is as cognitive as the level of attention I apply to ants when I walk down the sidewalk. I don't intend evil, or good, when I walk down the sidewalk. But because Clinton and others are totally aloof to the lives in their crosshairs, this makes typical intention disjunctions problematic, and/or insufficient. Furthermore Chomsky - probably correctly - presumes this form of aloof attention is perhaps even more vile than actual evil intentions.

Of course as Chomsky presses the point, there's no sense taking the word of anyone who has committed an intentional act, at the helm of our empire, since nothing stops them from ad hoc retroactive reasoning. But a long history of the real nature of American empire, does suggest that the helmsmen attend to victims the same way we attend to ants.

All that aside… I think you’re wholly correctly. There’s something absolutely rotten about the trolley problem, and as someone inclined to virtue I have to accept two uncomfortable and perhaps not compatible facts: 1) I have no answer for the trolley problem from the virtue perspective, i.e., I don’t know what people should do, 2) It may look like a cop out, but the whole thought experiment stinks since the goal of our life aims is to flourish, and the trolley problem doesn’t help to solve how best I can or cannot go about flourishing.

Musing Marxist said...

Here are some variants on the trolley problem that are more intellectually fruitful than the real thing:

classtruggle said...

"it really just wasn't fair to put little Sam Harris, hopping and skipping and singing as fast as he could, up against this enormous overpowering Great Ape, Noam Chomsky."

Sounds like David against Goliath except I wouldn't root for the 'little dog' in this case.

"There are many things you can say about this example, and almost all of them have been said by one or another eager participant in the debate. To my way of thinking, the only really interesting thing to observe is that there are actually otherwise apparently intelligent and accomplished university professors who think that this is an appropriate way to talk about Ethics. Sam Harris is clearly one of them. In my view, this is utter nonsense -- not this or that or the other particular take on one or another hypothetical example, but the notion that anything of the slightest value can be arrived at in this manner of reasoning."

Exactly! To do so would mean abstracting from socio-historical contexts which really provide the content of ethics. "What is philosophy" (and by extension, ethics) Hegel asked -- "philosophy is its history."

Great post. Thank you Robert and Chris. I noticed Chomsky makes a reference to his book Radical Priorities (2003) where we find the following claim about poor old Hegel:

"Most commentary on the Sudan bombing keeps to the question of whether the plant was believed to produce chemical weapons; true or false, that has no bearing on “the magnitude with which the aggression interfered with key values in the society attacked,” such as survival. Others point out that the killings were unintended, as are many of the atrocities we rightly denounce. In this case, we can hardly doubt that the likely human consequences were understood by US planners. The acts can be excused, then, only on the Hegelian assumption that Africans are “mere things,” whose lives have “no value,” an attitude that accords with practice in ways that are not overlooked among the victims, who may draw their own conclusions about the “moral orthodoxy of the West.”

Chomsky is not alone here -- many of Hegel's critics have claimed that he was racist or provided a basis for modern racism (most notably Popper). If anyone is interested, Sandra Bonetto has written an excellent article refuting these claims. For many readers first coming to Hegel, their own unexplored intellectual assumptions prevent them from really being able to grasp or appreciate Hegel's philosophy.

But what would Hegel have to say about this debate on ethics? Well, in Hegel's Phenomenology, almost a whole chapter on the ethical life (Sittlichkeit) revolves around Sophocles' Antigone. What interests Hegel is the moral conflict that is bound to arise whenever Sittlichkeit is conceived in a certain way. He argued that the way in which a view is reached is not necessarily external to the view itself for a knowledge of the development, including prior positions through which people pass before deciding on a position may make all the difference when it comes down to comprehending that position. Thus, his criticism of almost all positions, is that they are one sided and if they are not pushed to a tragic conclusion, like Antigone's in its encounter with another, equally one sided position, they are maintained. "Tragedy", Hegel writes, "consists essentially in an opposition of divinely ethical rights each of which can justify in action only by infringing the other" (for readers of Marx, this statement will sound strikingly familiar to "There is here therefore an antinomy of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides" (Capital V1, Working Day).

classtruggle said...

Something else I noticed about Harris and Chomsky -- whereas the latter's emphasis is on socio-historical contexts, the former argues a certain subjective orientation with respect to desire exists in all positions regardless of people's specific socio-political setting or their particular background (e.g. class, race, gender, etc.) within that setting.

Carl said...

"the process of abstraction on which the process of formal argument depends presupposes that we can precisely and accurately distinguish the several elements of a real world action in such a fashion as will permit us to detach them from one another in constructing hypotheticals."

No, it really doesn't. It presupposes only that we want to try. If the trolley problem is unsolvable, it isn't because it's ill-formed. It's because we don't know what we believe, or because we don't believe anything relevant. And both possibilities are interesting.

It is very implausible to claim that intentional mass murder is no worse than unintentional mass murder, or to claim that they're indistinguishable. Whether Chomsky takes one of those two positions cannot be deduced from his correspondence with Harris, but it is what Harris was trying to find out, regardless of what descriptions fit the al-Shifa bombing and the 9/11 attacks.

Marinus said...

Part of what's so bizarre and misconceived about Harris's introduction of intentions into the debate is that, of course, there's a very large and developed philosophical literature on this, and it isn't on his side. There is Anscombe's classic pamphlet on exactly this kind of case, Mr Truman's Degree, about why a consideration of the intentions makes the crime all the more heinous rather than excusing it (her book *Intention* being the classic book on the topic of intentions). I imagine you're familiar with this pamphlet, Prof. Wolff, but it would seem Harris isn't, or with the considerations within it.

I haven't commented in a while, but I've been reading your blog since my last comment here, oh, three years ago?

Chris said...

I think it's safe to say that Hegel was an unabashed racist. It's also safe to say that his philosophy can lend itself to non-racist progressive thought, no? There's some overtly racist passages in Hegel. One of my former MA committee members, and one of my phd committee members, happen to both be well respected Hegel scholars, and they never have trouble admitting he's an overt racist.

"It is very implausible to claim that intentional mass murder is no worse than unintentional mass murder, or to claim that they're indistinguishable. Whether Chomsky takes one of those two positions cannot be deduced from his correspondence with Harris"

Chomsky doesn't make that, or take one of those two sides. You're right it doesn't have to be 'deduced' from the debate, because he explicitly states which side he takes and why, and it's not one of those. Did you read the exchange?

Chris said...

Carl, Chomsky explicitly says the following early on in the debate:

"And of course they knew that there would be major casualties. They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?"

And that IS different than intending and not intending mass murder. It's not even attending to victims at all. Chomsky says that is "arguably even more immoral", because it takes a certain pathological disposition to not even recognize that there are innocent human victims in one's crosshairs.

Pierre Gilly said...

Out of nowhere comment: I just read the first chapter of The Poverty of Liberalism and are blown away :)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am delighted. Thank you for telling me.

classtruggle said...

Well, Chris, I am Middle Eastern and I tell you with absolute confidence Hegel was not racist (defined very broadly as an unreasonable/irrational hatred or fear of the 'other') and to my knowledge neither has any Hegelian-Marxist ever claimed such thing a (I'm thinking of Lukacs, Korsch, the founder of Marxist Humanism -- Dunayevskaya who wrote a lot about race and was involved in various women’s/black liberation movements, her student Kevin B. Anderson who has also written about race, and I can go on). Unless I am mistaken, none of Hegel’s main interpreters (considered Hegel scholars) argued that he was racist either (Findlay, Tucker, Paoluccis, Kaufmann, Solomon, Hippolyte, Kojeve, Westphal, Pinkard, Beiser, and Wheat).

Despite these claims, Hegel clearly does not make Rasse or Geschlecht (race), but Geist (spirit) and its progressive realisation of freedom in the world the basis of his philosophy.

Hegel understood race as the “immediate soul” not yet separated from its “natural mode”, which is “subordinate to the concept of spirit, thought and freedom”. Racial differences, according to Hegel, are:

"qualities because they belong to the natural soul, the mere Being of Spirit (dem bloßen Sein des Geistes); but the concept (der Begriff) of Spirit, thought and freedom, is higher than mere Being, and the actual concept is closer to rationality precisely because it is not qualitatively determined…These differences do not therefore affect rationality itself, but rather the mode of its objectivity, and do not establish an original difference with regard to freedom and right among the so-called races (Berliner Schriften, Werke XI, p.531).

In Hegel we find a ‘hierarchy of freedom’ and philosophical arguments concerning its gradual progress and concrete appearance in a series of external forms. These arguments can be refuted and rejected on philosophical grounds, but they do not make Hegel a racist; nor do they make him an advocate of a ‘racial’ view of history.

And so clearly, he did believe that this progress was less advanced in Africa, Asia and America than in Europe, but this has nothing to do with race.

For Hegel, freedom is the key criterion for equality. That should stand to reason. Hegel is sternly against all forms of Slavery -- not only in the USA but also in Africa itself. That explains Hegel's negative judgement about Africa. It has nothing to do with racial characteristics as such, and everything to do with the almost complete absence of freedom in the African States of his time. Yet Hegel also shows that every nation in the world started exactly where Africa sat in 1820. It was and remains a relative judgement based on time and history.

pastrypride said...

We can't reject the whole practice of thought experiments like this. Chomsky himself appeals to one in the course of the argument: he asks Harris to imagine that al Qaeda had bombed an American pharmaceutical factory. Another thought experiment I've recently come across has us imagine how people would react to an armed black man following a hooded white teen-ager who had just bought iced tea and skittles. This seems to me to be salient to assessing the reaction to Trayvon Martin's killing.

No, we clearly are sufficiently able to abstract the relevant features of various situations, including intentions.

Harris's mistake wasn't to try to use such thought experiments, it was to to misuse them. I think part of Harris's problem (and this is only part of it) is that he thinks the doctrine of double effect says that knowingly causing death in the pursuit of a good end is *always* better than intentionally killing. But it doesn't say this--it says that such an act is *sometimes* better than an intentional killing. Once you realize this, you can, consistently with double effect, grant Harris that Clinton's aim in bombing the factory was to kill terrorists but deny that this makes it morally better than 9/11. And once this is acknowledged, then the onus is on Harris to show that this is one of those cases where the intention does make a moral difference. Chomsky anticipates this, and gives his arguments that (a) the end that Clinton was pursuing wasn't a good one, and therefore double effect doesn't apply, and (b) killing someone in the pursuit of a distinct end, without recognizing their humanity, is no better than intentionally killing them.

JW said...

Professor Wolff, you may be interested in my brief discussion of this post at Daily Nous:

marktheknife said...

Robert --

I agree with some other posters here: the problem is not inherently with the thought experiments of philosophers. I do think your critique is interesting though. Let me try working it into my own thoughts on how to critique thought experiments, and see if you find it interesting in turn--

I see there being three avenues of critique for thought experiments:

First, that the thought experiment is internally inconsistent or incoherent; that it sets up axiom-like laws in one place it disregards in another.

Second, that whatever understanding the thought experiment gives us is irrelevant to real life, because the world of the thought experiment differs too seriously from the real world. I think a lot of your post might go this particular route, talking about sociohistorical contexts and lived perspectives.

But I think you're also pointing out an interesting third path, which is we cannot understand certain thought experiments, because their ontology is beyond our mental grasp. This is quite different from the idea that the premises are logically flawed or are unconnected to the real world (as was the case in the previous two critiques). As such, any understanding we get from such a thought experiment is questionable.

I think this is a really interesting point (and I've been thinking about it a lot as a critique of philosophy generally, particularly metaphysics). Because although it feels like we were thinking through things correctly, as we were doing proper logical operations on the "variables" of our thought experiment's ontology, this was an illusion! For we've overlooked the fact the variables themselves had no solution, no understandable content. It's as if we took a math problem where one of the constants involved is the undefined (1/0), and we replaced it with x, and then proceeded to do our algebra, ignoring the fact that, at the end, we'd still have a 1/0 in the equation making it unsolvable.

In the case you point out, regarding intentions, you're denying that the term "intention" makes sense divorced from particular intentions and contexts. I don't buy that, at least in the example given, but that comes down to (I think) our differing perspectives on what it takes for an ontological element to be mentally understandable. (You have tougher rules on the limits of abstraction, for one thing.)

But assuming you are correct, that "intention" is a nonsensical aspect of the ontology, I think the anti-hand-waving part of your critique follows. Specifically, your pointing out to someone "This particular part of your ontology is impossible, ungraspable nonsense," cannot be hand-waved with, "Well, pretend it is possible." It's about as reasonable as handwaving your wrong answer on part 1 of a multi-step math problem by saying on future steps, "Pretend it was correct!"


Hanno Sauer said...

Some of you may be interested in my “The Curious Case of Pushing Buttons. What Can We Learn from Moral Judgments about Unrealistic Cases?”.