Friday, June 19, 2009

Kobayashi Maru

What would you do if you were the Captain here? The Kobayashi Maru (if it indeed exists and is not in fact an enemy ruse) is in distress, the crew about to perish. It is located in the (rather puny) Klingon neutral zone, established by binding treaty. Any entry is violation of that treaty and will be considered an act of war. Klingons are notorious for not taking prisoners.

Do you enter? Why or why not?

Other pressing questions: This test is intentionally designed to be a no-win scenario. We know from this clip, what happens if you enter the neutral zone.

How would you design the test to be no win on other options, for example, contacting the Klingons for aid, or simply reporting the transmission to Star Fleet Command?

Think like a wargame planner. How would you make this test not only no-win, but a real sweat inducing, "oh my..what have I done. I really screwed up, there is no way I'll graduate now.." killer?

Also, what is with Kirsty Allie's eyebrows? Highly un-Vulcan.

A Phenomenology of Moral Experience, Part the Fifth

(Wherein things get very dense indeed)

Moral Rules; Differentia

There are foundational rules dealing directly with the continued existence of the social world. These make society possible by ensuring the continued existence of persons, and by ensuring the continued existence of the social network that allows for creation and use of structures of collective intention. Examples of a rule of the former sort would be rules forbidding homicide; an example of the second sort, would be the ‘rule’ requiring honesty at the heart of language:

As we have seen, rules of language are founded upon a more fundamental rule requiring veracity and consistency of use. If human beings do not adhere to this more fundamental practice, communications becomes impossible. Any further goals that require communications also become impossible. This is a key insight in Kant’s lying-promise case. If a society attempted to ‘exist’ that did not expect veracity in the speech act of promising, that society would in fact not be able to exist at all. That is why this rule is seen by Kant as being not only fundamental or foundational, but as brooking no exceptions. Note, while the violator does not threaten lives with his acts, he does threaten the social fabric, which is held together by trust.

Rules against murder do deal with threats to life (obviously) and are (equally obviously) in place to maintain the social network. A society without rules against murder would obviously lack the requisite trust, and would perhaps lack the requisite people if things really got out of hand!

So, there is some set - not fully delineated in our phenomenology- of foundational rules that underlies and makes possible collective intention and thereby other cooperative rules. A rule requiring veracity appears to be one member of this set; a rule against murder is another.

In law we usually attempt to codify these moral rules. It is not often clear where to divide the legal and moral, but taken collectively the legal/moral seems to be one more or less clearly delineated set, delineable from other rule sets because the member rules collectively serve the function of preserving the nodes of social network, as well as the network itself.

Foundational rules concern themselves with:

Creating and maintaining conditions that allow free, autonomous action by individuals and groups (individual and collective intention)
Creating and maintaining conditions that prevent harm, and generate benefits for people and other entities.
Creating and maintaining conditions that allow for personal and social development or fulfillment.

I think we can say this much with little or no controversy. Now we pass into more controversial territory. Most would agree with the forgoing characterization of moral rules. But, there is a bolder position with regard to moral rules; absolutist deontologism, the notion that moral rules are absolute and binding on us at all times: Is it the case that there are foundational rules that are categorical in Kant’s sense? Striving to keep the empirical ‘phenomenological’ approach, what can we say?

We do see evidence that at least some rules are categorical. There are rules we do not take lightly, and in regard to them, we do not readily allow exceptions. In Fred’s case (to return to our simple example) he clearly does not think his self-exemption from the moral rule against theft is justifiable. He feels guilt and shame. He does seem to take that rule in a categorical way.

But, sticking to our empirical guns, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we do indeed allow for exceptions in each of our two sample moral rules. We do allow murder and lying in circumstances we describe as ‘exceptional.’ We say in such cases that a person either has an excuse, or a justification for violating the rule. Perhaps two rules are in conflict, and one has to give. A gut wrenching example dealing with murder would be a Sophie’s Choice dilemma. A less wrenching example concerning veracity would be Kant’s own ‘killer at the door’ case. (Unlike Kant, most folks feel it is permissible to lie in that circumstances, this in order to protect life, prevent harm.) So on the empiricist scorecard; it seems Kant the absolutist seems to have overstepped the data. (Surely he would object that his method is not empirical, but we’ll leave that aside.)

But, that is not all we can from an empirical perspective. Defending Kant, we should stress the fact that we do not allow for exceptions in a great majority of legal cases and indeed in a great majority of cases when we render moral judgment. We tend to be quite intolerant of those that attempt to opt out of moral rules. We are often dragged grudgingly into allowing exceptions, and create rigorous tests for claims to exemption.

So in conclusion, the last two paragraphs indicate that we are not out and out absolutists, but that we do set a high threshold in regard to moral rules. This raises a theoretical question: How can we account for this near categorialty within the theoretical framework of collective intention? Should we?

I think so, because what we find empirically, when we look at the repercussions of ‘exceptional’ cases is temptingly described, from a contractual perspective. We see activity we can easily describe as systematized attempts to reconcile breakages in the set of the fundamental ‘agreements’ that we usually take for granted. Law as an institution and ethics as an institution are methods for such systematic reconciliation, and are carried out by societies of persons, after all. We sure do behave as if we are amending or modifying bodies of mutually agreed-upon rules when we react to exceptional or anomalous cases. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that this contractarian description is not exactly faithful to all aspects of the reality it attempts to represent. We do not agree to be members of society at large. We do not agree in some originary congress, on moral rules. We just find them in our environment. In reality we modify an inheritance we did not create.

The problem here is that according to the contractarian theoretical framework, obligation is created precisely when parties promise with one-another to behave in certain ways. So, if moral obligation, more generally considered is to be explained using this framework, it would seem that we all would have had to made promises to one-another at some point in our lives. But, this is clearly not the case. So, who or what can impose stringent requirements upon us if indeed we have not been bound by our own previous agreements? More generally; can there be requirements without requisite impositions by persons?

Despite the fact that there is no explicit agreement, I do think the experienced stringency of most, if not all moral obligation is the creature of collective intention, and that many, if not all moral obligations are things whose compelling nature derives from an implicit awareness we have that we partake in the benefits of socially generated or protected goods only because others around us cooperate in their maintenance, even if none ever explicitly agree to do so. At some fundamental level, we recognize this arrangement as being something very like a complex mutual promise. In a sense it is “we” who impose restrictions on each member of our human society (ourselves included), not so much through dictum, but through practice, and its implicit presuppositions.

[A competing answer would be the theistic alternative; according to this view, it is God that imposes the requirements, by dictum. Further, his being and his fatherhood accounts for their stringency. I develop this ‘secular’ contractarian alternative. This does not in any way indicate that I think there is no merit to the theistic alternative. In fact, one may consider the two answers to be complementary to one another. I see no reason for a claim that exclusive disjunction pictures the true state of affairs with regard to these alternatives.]

[Another competing answer is that requirements can exist, even if no persons impose them. According to this view, features other than the social account for their obligatory status. For instance, one might say the mere fact that it inflicts pain makes torturing cats for fun wrong, or more precisely, makes it a requirement that we don’t do such things. In reply, I would say that one must include the qualifier “knowingly” in the above. Only a creature that can knowingly do so is capable of doing wrong by harming a cat. A creature that does not know what it is doing is not morally responsible because it cannot grasp a requirement. It may be that in some subtle way this psychological requirement (imprecisely indicated by the term “knowingly”) grounds the moral requirement only because the moral conceptualization works via a conceptualization of the relationship to the cat that is in some sense of the word like the relationship that exists between parties of a promise. I have to conceptualize the cat as something like a Kantian end-in-itself, toward which I have certain promise-like obligations in order to be the sort of being that has moral obligations toward the cat. I leave the project of developing this collective- intention theoretic account of obligations to non-persons for a later time with this one caveat: It may not work. In that case, this paragraph’s competing answer is well taken, and the account here being developed will only account for some moral obligations, not all. It will have to be considered as one component of a complete moral theory]

But, returning to the main thread; how exactly can we make a convincing case that in our general moral obligations we are party to something like a collective intention, and are bound stringently by that collective intention as if it were something we agreed to, even when it is clear that we have never explicitly entered into such promises? Isn’t this an attempt to square a circle, to argue both A and not A?

Also: Can we find a way to accommodate the ‘free commitment’ paradigm with our absolutist or Kantian intuition that moral rules are rules for which we individually have responsibility come what may (even if we believe that they are not really categorical but ‘near’ categorical)?

That absolutist intuition is fundamentally the impetus behind Kant’s ethical thought. It motivates his notion of the categorical imperative. It is the intuition that motivates taking his views seriously. Philosophical theories are compelling if they cash in intuitions. Kant’s theory is no exception to this rule. If there were no such basic intuitive appeal to his absolutist notion of categorialty, Kant’s philosophy would have, to purloin a phrase from Hume, “fallen on the world stillborn.”

Having said that, we should see that there is a prima facie tension between this Kantian notion and the contract-theoretic notion of obligations being essentially dependent upon free commitments. The absolutist intuition tells us that moral rules apply to everyone, whether or not they agree to abide by them. The contractual paradigm tells us that obligations are the child of explicit commitment or promising. It does not seem that we can hold these two ideas simultaneously with regard to the same obligations. Is this an irreconcilable tension? Can we somehow ground the former in the latter, or is that simply too much, at least approaching contradiction? Those are the questions. I think the answers are “yes,” “yes” and “no.”

In order to proceed I need to tie this discussion to our phenomenological description of Fred; Fred feels that he should have returned the full contents of the wallet. He experiences this requirement as something objective in the sense that it compels him despite his own inclinations, and indeed (this is important, and fascinating) despite his insulation from any external discovery of his deed.

This gives strong phenomenological support to the Kantian thesis that there is an obligation that obligates quite independently of Fred’s explicit commitments (or lack thereof.) Now, if we are to nevertheless make an attempt to give an account of this obligation which will make use of the ‘commitment’ paradigm, how do we start?

Well, we would have to give an account of the obligation as being something that is in some way tied to a person or entity that Fred is appropriately related to. This account therefore requires two stages. First, we need an argument that there is indeed such an entity, and secondly, an argument that Fred is indeed in an appropriate relationship to that entity. We next look at these two arguments: