Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bear with me

I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts in defense of philosophy into words. You may now take a moment to laugh and comment that you'd have a hard time defending such a hobby, too. You have an inkling of what I'm up against ;) But I shall have something to present to you that I can be proud of. Just wait.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Brief World Cup note

Given the Netherlands win, I can now realistically hope for a Netherlands v Germany final. Just need Germany to beat Spain and Argentina, which isn't impossible but it'll be a rough fight for them. I'd be surprised if Uruguay could stop the Netherlands from getting to the final. Here's hoping for Germany!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Most Basic Philosophy Question

I'm not sure if this actually would be the most basic philosophy question (a more basic one might be "Why do philosophy in the first place?") but it is certainly a fundamental one: namely, do we even ask our questions the right way?

If you read a bit further in the link to the trolley car problems that I put up, then you'll notice that there is a lot of discussion on exactly why the moral answer changes through apparently irrelevant changes in the question. For example, quoting wikipedia:
Unger also considers cases which are more complex than the original trolley problem, involving more than just two results. In one such case, it is possible to do something which will (a) save the five and kill four (passengers of one or more trolleys and/or the hammock-sleeper), (b) save the five and kill three, (c) save the five and kill two, (d) save the five and kill one, or (e) do nothing and let five die. Most naïve subjects presented with this sort of case, claims Unger, will choose (d), to save the five by killing one, even if this course of action involves doing something very similar to killing the fat man, as in Thomson's case above.
What's interesting about this difference is that most people will avoid choosing to kill the fat man above when the choices are phrased as being between killing the fat man or letting 5 die. But when you phrase the question this way, with a continuum of answers, people seem to choose killing the fat man (or a situation analogous to killing the fat man). Does the moral calculus change? Not from what I can see. But the answers do.

As the wikipedia article states, Unger draws the conclusion that these questions don't enlighten moral questions, but rather just explore psychology. I don't think we need abandon the philosophical merit of these discussions (after all, there's an argument for the idea that morality is derived from the way human beings are inclined to treat each other and wish to be treated by others), but Unger's problem is illuminating. When we do philosophy, we often try to seek at deep truths. We do this by trying to discover a pertinent question and drive towards it, isolating it and discovering why it's important. Philosophy is packed full of such thought games, ranging from the trolley car problem to discussions about what it would mean to copy one's self and how that relates to the identity of the mind.* But all these thought games, while allowing us to drive deep at an aspect of a problem, have another aspect which we need to keep in mind as philosophical inquirers: the limitation of perspective.

More Housekeeping

Comments should now be open to all. You can comment anonymously, use a name, use a Google account or some other stuff. Please feel free... No, strike that. Please feel obligated to comment! I'm relying on you readers for answers :D

Edit: also, bear with me as I play with themes and appearances for the blog its self. I don't intend to change much with regards to layouts and the like, but I'll probably keep fiddling with various aesthetic things until I find something that I like.

The Most Basic Economic Question

The study of economics has had something of a renaissance since the recession hit. Everyone wants to know how to understand why we suddenly seem to be much less wealthy. Indeed, it's an intriguing question: how can the mistakes of some lenders and borrowers in mortgages result in a recession that shreds jobs all over the market? Economists have offered many competing and contradictory answers for why this crash happened and what needs to be done to fix it, but either way people seem to be listening.

I don't actually understand economics very well: it involves a complicated set of rules and understandings whose relation to reality is not entirely clear. One thing I do understand, however, and one thing that economists of any school will agree on is that good economic policy should serve to bring about the biggest growth. Some economists believe this growth comes better from a powerful consuming middle class, others feel that it relies on rich investors seeking ways to turn their money into even more money, but every economist I read seems to agree that maximum growth (often in terms of GDP growth) is the ideal.

Bundled into that question is an implicit endorsement of utilitarianism, or the philosophy that the greatest good is that which grants the greatest amount of happiness to a given group. That's necessarily endorsed by valuing GDP, because GDP is merely a way of measuring utility over a nation. It doesn't on its own give clues as to how that utility is divided among citizens, it just tells you on aggregate what utility the nation has. The interesting question here, it seems to me, is this: is the goal of economic growth in the form of GDP growth actually a good one to pursue?