Kant on Duty and the Categorical Imperative

Kant’s emphasis is on the universality of the maxim of a man’s action. Can he, for instance, mislead the person who is to loan him money by claiming that he has or will have sufficient funds in the future to pay him back?

Kant firmly answers in the negative, for to universalize this principle would be to render it self-contradictory. Note that while Kant states that taking the loan in this instance would of course be to one’s own personal advantage, we must instead ask whether it is right. It is advantageous, but is it good? This question later finds itself expressed in a slightly different manner by G.E. Moore in the open question argument.

For Kant, it is not enough that the universalization of a maxim leads to terrible consequences. Indeed, for him it is totally irrelevant, and he takes great pride in adopting such a position. Like Plato, he is suspicious of material objects and downright hostile to philosophical anthropology masquerading as a complete system of morality. While anthropology is taken somewhat into account, Kant says that it must first and always be preceded by a proper metaphysics of morals. But back to consequences: in order for the universalization maxim to fail, it must fail based on formal considerations only, or else it will lose its semblance of mathematical precision and certainty. Therefore, Kant claims that the flaw inherent in the loan example is actually one that is self-contradictory—it would make the very institution of ‘promising’ impossible. 

Here Kant brings in another part of the Categorical Imperative. If, for some reason the man cannot see that his false promise is self-contradictory upon universalization, he should at least be able to see that this false promise treats the originator of the loan as merely a means to an end, rather than an end in himself. This is a formalization of the principle delivered by Jesus: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Arguably, however, Kant goes much further by developing his entire ethical system around rational autonomy, a concept not without its difficulties. Kant was working within a mechanistic philosophical background, in which he attempts to solve the problem of the dichotomy between rationalism and empiricism. He had Scholastic metaphysics on the one hand, and Hume’s Epicurean materialism on the other, in addition to Newton’s ground-breaking work in physics. His task, then, was to reconcile the two by accounting for abstract, a priori knowledge, since his account of morals absolutely required it—no a priori knowledge, then no ethics because the only alternative foundation would be empiricism. Although Hume awoke Kant fromhis dogmatic slumbers, he was hardly ready to adopt such a staunch empiricism. Borrowing Hume’s distinction between relations of ideas and the facts of experience, Kant developed the notion of the analytic and the synthetic.

Analytic knowledge was knowledge that was necessarily true; it was achieved by examining the concepts and their relations with one another. Hence, it’s not necessary to get off one’s armchair and explore the world to conclude that the statement: ‘All unmarried men are bachelors’—is not only true, but necessarily so. It would be ludicrous to suggest that we could empirically discover a counterexample. Mathematics is in a similar category, although since it speaks directly to the empirical world, Kant calls this synthetic a priori knowledge. This is the most fascinating of his claims. There is nothing significant about forming tautologies in one’s own mind. They are true, yes, but trivially so. But this is a different claim: synthetic a priori knowledge is that which is created purely by abstract reasoning and speculation, but is nevertheless necessarily true. It sounds similar to Plato’s theory of the forms, but has a little bit less of an excess in the department of ontology. So when talking about theorems of triangles, one really means to say something about the real world, even though one comes to this knowledge by pure speculation, according to Kant.

As it is in mathematics, so it is in ethics. Treating a person merely as a means to an end is wrong because it violates dignity. What are we to make of this ethereal idea? Kant conceives of dignity as rooted in rationality and autonomy, together. The reason why we as subjects have the property of dignity, while an object does not, is because an object does not have freedom of the will. This is where Kant develops the ought/can distinction. To have a duty to do something, you have to be able to do it. I do not, for instance, have a duty to obey the law of gravity, for it is nothing I can either do or not do. It just is. In the same way, since an object has no will, applying moral categories to it would be futile.

The second part of the equation is rationality. One must be autonomous in the sense that one’s moral choices are not influenced by external causes or circumstances, but rather by internal contemplation. Furthermore, to add to autonomy, one must do one’s duty for the sake of being moral; that is all that is permitted if the action is to be moral. Hypothetical imperatives do not count. While it certainly is a nice thing to volunteer in a soup kitchen, if you mean it only for self-interested reasons, then it becomes properly amoral, that is, devoid of any moral content, whatsoever. But with rationality, one must be essentially rational and for the most part be in active operation of reason. And Kant divides the two because he considers coma patients to be essentially rational, but not rationally operative, and so this is where the concept of dignity encounters some potential problems.

Kant’s position on morality closely resembles that of Plato, but he also imparts teleology into his equation in claiming that nature does nothing in van; it is purposive. However, Kant differs from Aristotle strongly because Kant believes that character plays no role in determining morality. It is far too arbitrary a metric to be considered. Rational autonomy cannot be encumbered by character, race, gender, or physical appearance.

Hobbes and Locke on the social contract

For Hobbes, the social contract is the necessary outflowing of reason in action. Conditions in the state of nature are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, and so to escape the state of nature, collective rationality is invoked to end the war of all against all. In this war, there is no room for the products of civilization, since the rights that do exist in nature only exist insofar as they serve a survival purpose. And of course, this does not describe collective survival, but rather individual survival. Everyone has the right to anything. This is not normative, but is a law that is established by necessity (due to the continuous conflict in the state of nature). The reason this law is invoked is because of the nature of Hobbesian agents. Hobbes supports his views on two points. First, he develops a lengthy and sophisticated account of psychology as being driven by underlying physical mechanisms.

It really is, for Hobbes, merely a matter of deduction. Since human beings are wholly materially objects, we can study how they operate in an exhaustive manner—that is, in the same way we examine other bodies in motion and create mathematical descriptions that always obtain in the physical world, so can we with humans. This is what Hobbes is after. It is this continued motion that sets the passions into play. And as a result of scarcity and equality, every solution to escape the state of nature will inevitably fail until agents realize (seemingly at the same time) that completely following the rights of nature is ultimately inimical to their interests, and so they consent to a compact, which creates the Leviathan, the source of order, stability, and is the ground of morality and justice. This contract creates asymmetric obligations, in that the right to revolution is not kept with the citizens. Instead, the only way to nullify the contract (individually) is if the sovereign utterly fails in protecting the lives of his subjects, for that exactly is the entire justification of the social contract, namely that the social contract is better than the state of nature, for in the state of nature, the state of war is continuous, and any other state of affairs created by the social contract is a state of peace.

Locke’s conception of the social contract, like Hobbes’, is based on the notion of consent, although Locke’s account is far more robust. On his view, the asymmetry dissolves, and citizens have the ability to revolt if the government refuses to abide by the terms of the contract, although he recognizes that this is fairly tendentious because there never is any clear delineation between when revolution is unacceptable versus acceptable. This will be explored later. The key difference between Hobbes and Locke is that Locke is very clear that morality is grounded in eternal law, which is revealed to us by the exercise of reason. Reason is the method by which we come to an understanding of natural law and its obligations. What causes us to form the state are the inconveniences that arise from the state of nature. Of course, in Locke’s time, the word ‘inconveniences’ was much stronger than it is today. Nevertheless, the state of nature is a state of perfect freedom, equality, and the laws of nature. Since the liberty afforded is not one of license, every individual has the right of executive power to enforce the laws of nature, even if aggression did not take place against that particular person. Acts of aggression result in alientation of rights through the state of awr. Thus, the aggressor can be treated like a wild animal—killed, if necessary. But partiality and the problems of the practical administration of justice drive tehe formation of the state, which must be formed through the free consent of the people because of self-ownership and equality.

The state, then, exists to promote the public good by being a neutral third party executor of justice, which is defined in terms of property rights, for that is what Locke’s analysis of rights I, namely that all rights are actually property rights, and so the most obvious model to adopt to respect at least a good number of our moral intuitions would be self-ownership, although since God is the ultimate owner, it is more like a derivative form of ownership that is constrained by God’s commands as revealed through the laws of nature.

Locke’s view has more plausibility just because of his grounding of morality. Regardless of whether one approves of his theistic foundations, other more modern thinkers have removed God from the equation and provided a purely secular account of natural law, so that should not overly count against him. Secondly, he does provide extra moral reasoning in the form of through experiments just in case one does not agree with the ontological foundations. His descriptive account of the state of nature also seems to be far more accurate—both anthropologically and philosophically, although it too is plagued with errors. In terms of relative standing, Locke’s account takes our moral sensibilities into account, provides an adequate description of the state of nature that is not predicated on wildly implausible metaphysical assumptions that includes an obsession with geometric axioms and deductive certainty afforded by them, and describes a transition that is not beset with a host of game-theoretic problems. Hobbes’ sovereign, on the other hand, is free to engage in whatever activities he chooses because his actions literally determine right and wrong. Thus, the sovereign is susceptible to the Euthyphro dilemma: is it good because he does it, or does he do it because it is good? Either option seems devastating to his account. Furthermore, his psychological conception of humans is very questionable, and so any conclusions reached should be shadowed in skepticism. He also fails to provide an adequate account of the transition out of the state of nature that is plausible (given the agents posited), and has no real basis for using terminology such as rights, justice, obligation, and  the like, since political philosophy is concerned with normative justification as opposed to mere historical or anthropological description, Hobbes’ account seems to lack the sort of force required in this endeavor.

Aristotle on Essence

Talk about functions is an import of certain metaphysical doctrines peculiar to Aristotle. He sees the furniture of the world as being composed of substances, each of which has an essence. This essence contains the properties that make the substance unique from other substances. In effect, essence is what separate cats from children. In our empirical experience, we encounter a large variety of different cats: some have no fur, some are spotted, some have no tail, some are brown, some like to swim, etc. These various properties listed that are nonessential are called accidental properties. That is, we can conceive of the cat as being orange instead of brown, and it would still remain a cat. All of this terminology has recently been resurrected by Kripke and Putnam in terms of possible worlds analysis, although their new synthesis is a somewhat bastardized version of Aristotle. For Aristotle, you cannot possible run a substance through possible world analysis and removing properties, in order to find essential properties. You must first being the inquiry with the essential properties already abstracted from the substance, else you would have no knowledge of what can go and what must stay, i.e. accidental versus essential.

While this is a seemingly abstract analysis, it is an important one. Like Plato, Aristotle bases all of his positions on certain metaphysical doctrines. His ethics, politics, physics, and biology, can only be understood with reference to metaphysics. Now within essence are four causes: efficient, material, form, and final. This excerpt from the Nichomachean Ethics is meant to illustrate the operation of the final cause, using a hypothetical imperative. If X wants to be a good X (good in terms of functioning properly of excellence), then there are certain steps that must be taken in order to achieve this end. Here the acorn and oak tree is not particularly useful, because unlike an inanimate object that just ‘tends’ on its own to fulfill its final cause. Man is a different sort of an animal. He is, in fact, a rational animal. Acorns do not write treatises on how to achieve the end of an oak. They do not have wills; they are not conscious agents. They are simply directed towards a given end because their essence has the potentiality for that end, and they are unable to thwart it. That would depend wholly on external circumstances, such as the appropriate amount of soil, light, water, etc. (efficient causes). As a side note, some do object to man ‘flourishing’ because it is usually given with the analogy of inorganic life. However, according to Aristotle, inanimate objects cannot achieve eudemonia. They are like the noncitizens of the city state.

Notes on Machiavelli

Machiavelli equivocates on the term vice, referring to it in instances that (1) are devastating to a prince’s rule, and (2) actions that are viewed to be immoral, but that nevertheless seem to further the reign of the prince. The second category seems to be an anomaly, since these elements are usually though to be virtuous. Nevertheless, in a public/private split, Machiavelli recognizes that the actions are both virtuous and vicious, in the sense that although they bolster the prince’s reign, they are regrettable.

-Necessity is the ultimate arbiter
-Men are beasts, since the laws that should appeal to men as men are most often not efficacious. Thus, given human nature, the use of force—and the use of it well—is a necessity.
-If all men were good (moral), the necessity of adopting the fox and lion would not be useful, but since men are not good, this justifies deceiving them and employing the wiles of the fox and the strength of the lion.
-Machiavelli does not show regret at war. When  he does pause, however, is not on war itself, but at the means used in conducting war, which he thinks are unbecoming of a prince, regardless of whether or not they are useful—another equivocation (tis time on ‘virtue’ rather than vice) on virtue. (35). These methods are ‘virtuous’ in the sense that they acquire empire, but not in the sense that they violate glory.
-Virtue: conformity to necessity within the bounds of glory, and for Machiavelli, glory seems to be the term under which a hint of morality can slip in, so he does not completely separate morality from politics; he merely severely limits its practical application to politics, for to act morally (given the fickle nature of his subjects) would be the antithesis of rightly-ordered, stable rule.
-Choose/prefer good over evil, but do not hesitate to part from good when necessary.
-The fact that people in general are wicked is the sort of justification that Machiavelli uses for his doctrine of necessity. It is regrettable, but a brute fact about human nature. The first wrong justifies the second wrong, for Machiavelli seems to think that if it were not for a corrupted human nature, then none of these methods recommended would be permissible. They would be judged immoral and done away with. It’s a necessity, but a bitter one, which is praised through clenched teeth. It is not a wholesale embrace of evil.
-He frames it in terms of departure from and forced to, which supports my interpretation that morality is the default position, but the facts of human nature literally compel a prince into virtu, and virtu is given some moral justification as well, since a prince’s terrible rule would result in the absence of glory and honor and the presence of anarchy—human nature unchecked and unbounded by law (77).
-Fortune gives opportunity for virtue. 

Locke, Scanlon, and Mackinnon on free speech

What are the limits to free speech or freedom of expression, if the end goal is a free and democratic society in both the private and public spheres?

John Locke begins by arguing from the perspective of a Christian in contending for freedom of expression—because coercion to force someone to conform to a certain persuasion leaves their consciences untouched and instead promotes a fake civil society under which men are forced to suppress their deeply held convictions at the behest of the public good, or the prevention of licentiousness. Locke repudiates the idea that the Commonwealth’s task is anything other than the protection and advancement of civil interests. These civil interests include basic goods which Locke holds to be essential: life, liberty, health, and the protection of private property, which can be anything from immovable to capital. Only the enforcement of these ideals is the duty of the civil magistrate. All else is viewed by Locke as illegitimate, for God has not bestowed upon the Civil magistrate jurisdiction in these matters.

Conscience is God’s domain alone, Locke maintains. Moreover, not even consent could be sufficient to extend this power to the magistrate. Man is bound from ceding matters of the mind and of persuasion. This is self-evident to Locke, because outward actions alone as representing submissions to civil authority in the matters of a prescribed religion would not be faith, which is what religion requires. One must really believe, being persuaded in his own mind that faith is something valuable, something worthy of pursuit. Forced belief is not only unprofitable and ultimately unsuccessful, but it damages the recipient, according to Locke. No effort by other men to coerce people into believing what they are set against can be accomplished.

Locke concludes by stating that all men should equally enjoy the same rights that all men do. His reasoning is deeply ingrained in theology, in particular man’s relationship with God, and the authority afforded to the Commonwealth by God.

A second approach is provided by Thomas Scanlon, who argues that the Millian principle shows that we have good reason to think that freedom of expression ought to be near absolute. The autonomous individual, Scanlon writes, is a logical result that can be deduced from Mill’s writings in On Liberty. Scanlon’s argument is that the Millian principle prescribes that the power of the state is directly limited in relation to the faculties possessed by autonomous agents, namely rationality and sovereignty. This autonomous individual is capable of weighing different courses of action, that is, he is a purposeful being that calculates means and ends in deciding what course of action to pursue. We need not worry how rational an individual is, and indeed if the requirement was perfect rationality, then none would qualify. There is no test for rationality—it only matters that man is by nature rational.

As such, since autonomous individuals do not respond to stimuli in the same way other objects do, an individual cannot in acting (which is defined as purposeful behavior) have done so without independent consideration of an idea or imperative. Reasons are used in order to weight the evidence for and against he idea. Scanlon therefore thinks that the law cannot be used to prevent individuals from coming to hold false beliefs, as rationality dictates that that duty is wholly theirs. Not even harm resulting as a consequence of acting upon false beliefs provides justification for interfering with freedom of speech because again, the individual acts based on his judgment by weighing courses of actions. Of course, Scanlon is reasonable enough allow for legal responsibility to be extended to those who advocate, to those not in full possession of their cognitive faculties, e.g. children or invalids, the committing of a crime. The other caveat results if someone were to coerce or aid you in a crime. As limitations, these seem reasonable, but Scanlon does have a very permissive view of freedom of speech. His argument, in removing the theological undertones, provides a plausible basis for affirming that not only should we have the right to freedom of expression, but that its limitations are so scarce as to make them near non-existence in practical application. This so far does not lead us towards a justification of more broad instance of limitation.

Catherine Mackinnon argues that there are good reasons for limiting free speech. Equality and freedom emerge from the debate as two valuable goods that must be balanced in relation to each other. She states that free speech has been inordinately valued by societies around the world, while equality has been tragically neglected. The more speech that the dominant have, the less equal society becomes. In this regard, all individuals cannot be placed on the same level, for their amount of influence that they have on public opinion and discourse varies drastically. However, those that are dominant in society have the ability to widely disseminate their views at the expense of social equality. Mackinnon emphasizes the damage done to equality by the existence of racism, sexual harassment, and hate propaganda.

As she holds that these views are demonstrably false, Mackinnon believes that we are justified in prohibiting their expression. The state’s job, then, is to ensure that equality is preserved by prohibiting types of speech that do great damage to society, and by giving equal access to speech. While Mackinnon’s arguments do seem decent, they fail to address the Millian claim that once firmly held beliefs often tend to be absurdities. However, since this is discoverable only through the passage of time, the view that they can be legislated and vigorously enforced seems overconfident, especially since a great majority of our beliefs have been overturned over time.

Hume on skepticism

For Hume, there are no formal or final causes, just efficient and material, and even then he sheds considerable doubt on our abilities to determine induction and causality. Although he is part of the Enlightenment project as a whole, he nevertheless finds it necessary to denigrate reason to the status of slave to the passions. Its principle function is rationalization of actions undertaken, as a result of passions.

Actions cannot, according to Hume, be reasonable or unreasonable. They can only be laudable or unlaudable. So, he says, it’s not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his finger. This attitude is quite prevalent in the Treatise, although it softens up later in the Inquiry, for if taken absolutely literally, it would be self-contradictory. His exposition on the failure of reason requires a hefty dose of reason, so it is much like him sawing off the branch on which he is sitting.

In the Inquiry, he later acknowledges that reason may be a part of causing us to act, but the sentiments still are our prime motivation. His conception of morality is what Kant most complained about. Hume’s mostly engaging in philosophical anthropology. He’s demonstrating how humans do act, but not how they ought to act. But this criticism for Hume is irrelevant, since if there is no such thing as objective morality, then anthropology is sufficient. Any talk about duty is merely perspectival and illusory, which leads us to his main reasons for rejecting objective morality.

The first is the is/ought problem. Hume states that we cannot derive prescriptive statements from descriptive facts. It presents a challenge to the majority of moral systems, since they rely heavily on factual premises, in order to reach moral conclusions. But for Hume, this is nothing more than a deductive fallacy. This criticism alone, however, is not enough to totally defeat objectivity. He has to next introduce a newer epistemological division: relations of ideas and the facts of experience. Relations of ideas are statements that are trivially true; they’re tautologies, like ‘all unmarried men are bachelors.’ They say nothing new about the world, or anything particularly profound. On the other hand, we have facts of experience. Those are the fleeting, contingent observations of inductive reasoning, on which morality could never be based because of the is/ought problem.

So, according to Hume, since an objective account of morality cannot comfortable fit between the divisions, morality cannot be an expression of reason, but is instead based on the emotions and passions, which vary from culture to culture and from person to person. There is nothing objective in the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’. They are nothing but an expression of personal approval or disapproval. A.J. Ayer and the other logical positivists later adopted this account wholesale, saying that when someone says murder is wrong, all they are saying is “boo murder!” Good actions, then, are those actions which tend to be preferred by people—like pleasure. And bad actions are the inverse: they cause pain.

This division of Hume’s is an attempt to improve upon Locke’s empiricism by importing Stoic and Epicurean (materialist) elements. He also has a large influence on Adam Smith’s work, and Hume already developed some fascinating economic theories of his own. For him, the most important feature of his philosophy is skepticism. He is suspicious of the claims of revealed religion, skeptical of induction and causality, skeptical of the meaningless postulates of Aristotle and the Scholastics, skeptical of attempts to create an objective morality, and skeptical of radical change at the hands of the societal rationalists. He aims to tear reason down from its lofty position and place it where it belongs, as slave to the passions and desires. We may not agree with him, but we can recognize the extent of his influence and appreciate subsequent attempts to answer him.

Hume’s critique of social contract theory

 The debate between contract versus convention is a continuation of the clash between individualism and communitarianism. Although social contract theory as far as we can tell originated with Socrates, it was assimilated during the Enlightenment era to support projects that Socrates would have had nothing kind to say about. Rather than justifying the state or the community, social contract theorists (SCT) of the modern period were occupied with tearing down state authority to the level of the individual. Instead of SCT being a one-way contract, with the state having the right to enforce any terms or to reach any decision whatsoever, it was seen as something artificially created, adopted through autonomous agency, and limited.

It did not represent hidden, ultimate obligations that the community burdened the individual with. Rather, it was the individual’s assent to the existence of the community that gave it is power, and this consent was seen as absolutely necessary, a thought which continues to be prominent today in theories that justify the state altogether.

As for social contract theories that went too far, Hume was ready to ridicule. His thought experiment making light of tacit consent as justifying the authority of the state or community was this: suppose someone is drugged and then dragged onto a ship in the middle of the ocean. We would feel ridiculous to say that he consents to the orders and authority of the captain simply because he does not throw himself overboard. Likewise, for the poor artisan living on subsistence wages, how can we say that he consents because he is unable to move to a foreign country where (1) he will likely starve to death, and (2) cannot even speak the language, etc.? This is essentially Hume’s criticism of the more overbearing types of social contract theory.

Hume’s view of legitimacy and justification is based on convention. Government is not justified because of some mysterious contract that everyone must have entered into at some seminal point in history. It is instead justified because of its utility. Owing to his non-cognitivist approach to ethics, Hume had no moral justification to offer for the state. Rather, he thought that it was rationally justified because it provides utility—far more utility than would be provided in its absence. Hume was no anarchist. He was quite conservative in his politics. The utility invoked was not really related to utilitarianism. It does not describe pleasure or happiness, and there is no calculus of utils. What Hume means to say is that utility is to be identified with usefulness. And this is an easy enough question to answer. All Hume has to show is that the existence of a state provides more overall use and benefits from that use than its non-existence. It provides impartiality, safety, security, a framework of rights and responsibilities, creates shared values, promotes economic exchange and prosperity, etc. If these things are not possible without a state, then the problem for Hume is solved.

Again, there might be a problem for Hume in trying to calculate aggregate utility, but he takes it as commonsensical that the majority of people prefer flourishing to suffering, freedom to slavery, peace to war, and prosperity to poverty. Of course, one could just stonewall and claim that for them the opposite would be true. Hume would then have nothing to say; he just assumes that the majority’s preferences would side with him over the others. Thus, while there is no morality behind obedience, it makes sense to keep one’s promises and obligations on a rational level; if we did not, society would cease to exist, and that would remove all utility.

There’s some agreement with Hobbes here. Both view the non-existence of the state as totally unacceptable. There could be no division of labor and no arts, no industry, no production, etc. For Hobbes, it would be the war of all against all, but for Hume it would just be less utility; he would reject Hobbes’ view of human nature.

Similarly, Locke believes in a state but does not believe that the state of nature would exist as Hobbes assumes. It would be livable; the reason that we want to form a state, however, is so we can avoid the problems inherent in taking enforcement into our own hands. Since natural rights exist apart from and prior to the state, the right to their enforcement must also exist (executive power). So everyone who suffers violation can pursue justice, something that Locke acknowledges will cause mischief. 

What’s Hume’s conception of justice?

Justice, according to Hume, is an artificial virtue, which springs from the difficulties that scarcity presents. Justice here is related to property rights. He notes that where there is no scarcity of goods (for example water and air), there are consequently no disputes, since they are easily accessible by all in abundance. And, as he further points out, land in some country is also viewed this way—it being so plentiful that no rules are really necessary. But Hume takes it as self-evident that there will be conflict over scarce resources. If the majority of land is occupied, my use of this land precludes the use of this land by another, and these others might be motivated to dispossess me of this land.

His solution is not to abolish the institution of private property, as private property is far too ingrained. Nor would we want to, for there are tremendous benefits to be gained from decentralizing resources into the hands of the industrious. Where there is no scarcity, justice is of no use at all. Its primary use is that of utility; but Hume readily acknowledges that if it ceases to perform its function and wealth becomes centralized enough so that a minority of the population has all the wealth, he argues that justice can easily be discarded because it does not have the same status, as say, a natural law would. It is useful for certain ends, and if it cannot fulfill its function, it is suspended until later needed.

Hume further illustrates his understanding of justice through an example of a war between barbarians and a civilized nation. Justice in this case can readily be abandoned, since the war begins precisely because both cultures have incompatible notions of justice. If the barbarians do not observe the rules of war, there is no reason why the civilized nation should hold its head high and accept the casualties. The rules of justice serve no purpose here. That justice is useful to society is self-evident, but the real question is whether its beneficial consequences can be the sole foundation. Hume intends to argue for this radically reductionist account of justice, which he distinguishes from the natural virtues.

The natural virtues arise out of the disposition of men towards one another. While Hume’s account is agent-centered and mildly egoistic, it is a far cry from Hobbes’ crude oversimplification of selfish desire as being the ultimate reason for action. Hume criticizes this heavily for being naïve; clearly there are other motivating factors at play. Hume labels these the sentiments. We can have benevolent sentiments, altruistic ones, kind sentiments, etc. We are free to name them as they appear without constantly having to reduce them to raw egoism. While Hume does admit that there is a possibility that egoism may be the only true foundation of action, he does not think it very likely, and argues strongly for a more thick conception of human action.

There is nothing more than this, however. The sentiments do not lead us to facts of the matter about morality. Morality is one of those concepts that must go the way of most metaphysics, according to Hume. His Epicurean materialism will not let it in the door. His first assault on the notion of objective morality is that reason is impotent in guiding us to action; it is cold and dispassionate. But, Hume says, we are clearly motivated to act in ways which we think are moral. So, he concludes, their basis cannot be rational. In the Inquiry, Hume softens his original approach in the Treatise, admitting that reason does play a part, albeit a small one. It is still for the most part a slave to the passions, to be used to rationalize our actions. These actions cannot really be called reasonable or unreasonable, but are merely laudable or unlaudable.

The second attack on morality comes from the is/ought problem. All the moral systems, which he had previously analyzed, all made heavy use of factual premises to lead to moral conclusions. But, Hume says, that is a formal deductive fallacy. One cannot infer something that was not first in the premises, and since statements of fact have no normative content, it follows that the majority of moral systems have been taken by Hume and dashed on the rocks. Although he agrees with Aristotle on his emphasis on character, Hume’s account differs because it is non-cognitive, a term that would later by heavily used by Ayer and the logical positivists to demonstrate that since morality is neither analytic nor synthetic, it must be based purely on emotions, and any claim beyond that is merely illusory.

Brief notes on Hobbes

Equality: people are similar both mentally and physically, such that no one is invulnerable or able to dominate others exclusively, which is why a state will not arise naturally, unless instituted by contract. Groups will rise and fall because of this principle of equality, and so will not be able to make any claim to statehood gradually.

-People shun death and wish to preserve their own lives
-People are partial to localities
-People have very limited benevolence
-People use good and bad to denote personal preferences
-Anxiety about the future leads to the adoption of religious beliefs
-In the state of nature, we have a natural right—to preserve self in whatever way is deemed necessary. This becomes a virtually unlimited right, thus continually functioning as a source of war and conflict.

Hobbes’ various normative theories are distinct from the crude subjectivism displayed by those in the state of nature. Whereas theirs is a morality based on ad hoc and arbitrary preferences, Hobbes’ theorems are based on deduction from geometric-like axioms. He does this to achieve a certain level of objectivity and certainty in his moral inquiry. This is meant to cure the intellectual defects inherent in the philosophies of past thinkers, as their systems amount to nothing more than an expression of preference to attain some sort of end in mind. Hobbes’ theorems, by contrast, are intended to encourage the submission of people to political authority, since they guide towards peace. While the state of nature is a state of perpetual war, he conceives of men as being rational in the sense that they know peace inhibits and obscures their own flourishing and so are encouraged to pursue the theorems which lead towards the institution of the sovereign.

-Hated Aristotle and the Scholastics and heaped ridicule on them.
-Was an ardent materialist
-His translation of the Peloponnesian wars by Thucydides clearly influenced his political thought
-Conflict between the supremacy of Parliament and the King
-King Charles I advocated the divine right theory of kingship and forced loans when Parliament ignored his request for finances to support his military campaigns against Spain, as well as a trade war with France.
-Religious tension with Puritans against Anglican dogma dictated by the state.
-Behemoth -> history of the English civil war
-Few scholars have examined the Biblical allusion Hobbes makes with reference to the Leviathan. In the book of Job, the Leviathan is portrayed as a King over the Children of Pride. By referencing the Leviathan, Hobbes communicates a clear picture to his religious readers exactly in what manner the sovereign will govern. Leviathan’s role is to put an end to the prideful passions of his subjects, which lead to endless wars.
-Prisoner’s dilemma -> the theorems lead us out of it
-Hobbes is a contractarian. The state is an artificial entity.
-No natural order
-We have a certain human nature (although he denies final causes)
-Three causes of quarrel: competition, diffidence, and glory
-Leviathan: The first general theory of politics in English
-A large portion is dedicated to commentary on psychology and religion

Material impact in semantics

I want to introduce a new term I’ve been using lately: material impact. The context is subterfuge in semantics. Sometimes the carving of the ‘semantic landscape’ lasts a little too long for comfort, especially when the term isn’t crucial to the argument. Supposing an argument makes use of 200 terms, and only 4 of those terms are very relevant to the success of that argument, it makes little sense to dwell on the ‘justifications not given’ for the 196 other terms. Assumptions have to be made at some point. There can always be a justification of the justification of the justification until we get back to first principles through ‘principle chaining.’

The idea is that if term X for phenomenon Y is used in argument Z does not materially impact the success of the argument, then there shouldn’t be much reason to dwell on ‘X’ endlessly. We might as well make up a word, or in terms of a phenomenon, we can ‘just-for-the-sake-of-argument’ construct a bogus causal mechanism to more clearly illustrate the phenomenon.

 I’m not being clear, but for now I need to keep the above in very abstract terms, otherwise I’ll lose sight of the insight I’m having here if I use more concrete examples. The principle will get obscured in the irrelevant details of the concrete. It can happen, even if you once had a clear idea of what the principle was in order to construct the concrete properly in the first place.

‘Whatever term you’d like to use, the term itself doesn’t materially impact the argument.’ It’s a signal to move beyond semantics and into mechanism/phenomenon. Interestingly enough, as I noted, sometimes it’s very difficult to get a grasp on the phenomenon without reference to a causal mechanism, but it’s fine to just construct one out of thin air that sounds superficially plausible. That there is a causal mechanism is granted, given the phenomenon, but the exact precise details of the mechanism is irrelevant to the actual existence of the phenomenon itself, so sometimes it’s just helpful to ‘posit a mechanism.’

If I’m trying to explain the differences between X and Y, or I’m trying to account for some phenomenon Z, I don’t want hang-ups around the causal mechanism to obscure the relational differences between X and Y, and I don’t want it to obscure the existence of the phenomenon. If phenomenon Z exists, then there must be a causal mechanism to account for it (at least within the system—I’m going to bracket out discussions about whether the system as a whole needs a causal mechanism, too—I’m just talking about normal, day-to-day events within this physical system).