Philosophy For Inauguration Day


What passages of philosophy are worth thinking about today, January 20th, the day that Donald Trump is to be sworn-in as president of the United States of America? I imagine that there will be a diversity of suggestions.

Here’s mine, from the recently deceased Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. It appears in the section “Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics,” and it’s about how to think about individual actions that have very small or even imperceptible positive effects, and so may seem not worth it.

Some people believe

(The Fifth Mistake) If some act has effects on other people that are imperceptible, this act cannot be morally wrong because it has these effects. An act cannot be wrong because of its effects on other people, if none of these people could ever notice any difference. Similarly, if some act would have imperceptible effects on other people, these effects cannot make this act what someone ought to do.

One kind of imperceptible effect is not controversial. I may cause you serious harm in a way that is imperceptible. The dose of radiation that I give you may be the unknown cause of the cancer that kills you many years later. Though the cause may be unknown, the effect is here perceptible. But, in the cases I shall be considering, the effects are imperceptible.

Consider first a variant of a case described by Glover.

The Drops of Water. A large number of wounded men lie out in the desert, suffering from intense thirst. We are an equally large number of altruists, each of whom has a pint of water. We could pour these pints into a water-cart. This would be driven into the desert, and our water would be shared equally between all these many wounded men. By adding his pint, each of us would enable each wounded man to drink slightly more water—perhaps only an extra drop. Even to a very thirsty man, each of these extra drops would be a very small benefit. The effect on each man might even be imperceptible.

Assume that the benefit given to each man would be merely the relieving of his intensely painful thirst. There would be no effect on these men’s health. Since the benefits would be merely the relief of suffering, these are the kind of benefit of which it can most plausibly be claimed that, to be benefits at all, they must be perceptible.

Suppose first that, because the numbers are not very large, the benefit that each of us would give to each man would, though very small, be perceptible. If we make the Fourth Mistake, we believe that such tiny benefits have no moral significance. We believe that, if some act would give to others such tiny benefits, this cannot make this act what someone ought to do. We are forced to conclude that none of us ought to add his pint. This is clearly the wrong conclusion.

Assume, next, that there are a thousand wounded men, and a thousand altruists. If we pour our pints into the watercart, each of us will cause each wounded man to drink an extra thousandth of a pint. These men might notice the difference between drinking no water and one thousandth of a pint. Let us therefore ask, ‘If these men will drink at least one tenth of a pint, could they notice the effect of drinking any extra thousandth of a pint?’ I shall assume that the answer is No. (If the answer is Yes, we merely need to suppose that there are more altruists and wounded men. There must be some fraction of a pint whose effect would be too small to be perceptible.)

Suppose that a hundred altruists have already poured their water into the cart. Each of the wounded men will drink at least one tenth of a pint. We are the other nine hundred altruists, each of whom could add his pint. Suppose next that we make the Fifth Mistake. We believe that, if some act would have imperceptible effects on other people, these effects cannot make this act what someone ought to do. If we believe this, we cannot explain why each of us ought to add his pint. It may be said: ‘We can avoid this problem if we redescribe the effect of adding each pint. We need not claim that this gives to each of the men one thousandth of a pint. We could claim that it gives to one man one pint.’

This claim is false. The water will be shared equally between all these men. When I add my pint, is the effect that an extra man receives a full pint? If I had not added my pint, is there some man who would have received nothing rather than a full pint? Neither of these is true. There is only one correct description of the effect of my act. It gives to each of the thousand men an extra thousandth of a pint…

What we can appeal to is a claim about what we together do. We can claim

(C10) When (1) the best outcome would be the one in which people are benefited most, and (2) each of the members of some group could act in a certain way, and (3) they would benefit these other people if enough of them acted in this way, and (4) they would benefit these people most if they all acted in this way, and (5) each of them both knows these facts and believes that enough of them will act in this way, then (6) each of them ought to act in this way.

Each of us could give to each of the thousand wounded men an extra thousandth of a pint of water. If enough of us act in this way this will benefit each of these men. And we will benefit these men most if we all act in this way. We know these facts, and we know that enough of us—one hundred—have already acted in this way. (C10) implies correctly that each of us ought to act in this way.

Remember now the Fifth Mistake. On this view, an act cannot be right or wrong, because of its effects on other people, if these effects are imperceptible. The case just described refutes this view. It is clear that, in this case, each of us should pour his pint into the water-cart. Each of us should cause each wounded man to drink an extra thousandth of a pint. Each of us ought to affect each wounded man in this way, even though these effects are imperceptible. We may believe that, because these effects are imperceptible, each of us is benefiting no one. But, even if each benefits no one, we together greatly benefit these wounded men. The effects of all our acts are perceptible. We greatly relieve the intense thirst of these men.

(Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, pp. 75-77)

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RL
RL
4 years ago

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.”
– Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 263.Report

Whoknows
Whoknows
Reply to  RL
4 years ago

“I hope I don’t appear to be a simple minded apologist for globalization when I say that small communities that share a sense of the common good are often repositories for unexamined prejudice, scapegoating, bullying and resentiment. If one is to take virtue ethics seriously, one must attend to the realities of character-formation. And if one looks at the social and political contexts in which character is formed, it is difficult not to notice that local communities which share a common sense of the good life, regularly purchase that solidarity by also having an excluded and reviled other.” Jonathan Lear, on Alasdair MacIntyre (2006 LRB) Report

Eli
Eli
Reply to  Whoknows
4 years ago

Following Eisendstat Id’e say that what is described by Lear is either historically wrong or just confusing small communities with modern-day fundamentalism. Small communities, for MacIntyre, are a necessary condition; not a a sufficient one.Report

Alex Pleskach
Alex Pleskach
4 years ago

“A man delirious or noted for falsehood and villainy has no manner of authority with us.”
–from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
4 years ago

“White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. A standard under­graduate philosophy course will start off with Plato and Aristotle, perhaps say something about Augustine, Aquinas, and Machiavelli, move on to Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Marx, and then wind up with Rawls and Nozick. It will introduce you to notions of aristocracy, democracy, absolutism, liberalism, representative government, socialism, welfare capitalism, and libertarianism. But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination.” Charles Mills, The Racial Contract

“There is an urgent need today for the citizens of a democracy to think well. It is not enough to have freedom of the Press and parliamentary institutions. Our difficulties are due partly to our own stupidity, partly to the exploitation of that stupidity, and partly to our own prejudices and personal desires.” Susan Stebbing, Thinking to Some Purpose
Report

Mohan Matthen
4 years ago

From the SEP entry on Madeleine de Scuddéry, I draw the following, which (putting aside the reference to divine law) is of particular relevance to Americans today: “In Christian humility, Christians know their weaknesses and faults through the precepts of divine law. Developing a genuine remorse for not having accomplished it, they hate themselves and only themselves. They cannot feel the same way about the burden of the faults of others.” Report

SL
SL
4 years ago

But let us honestly state the facts. Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it. -EmersonReport

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

“People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” —- Foucault

Report

LCYK
LCYK
4 years ago

Learning proceeds until death and only then does it stop. . . . To pursue it is to be human, to give it up is to be a beast. . . . The learning of the gentleman enters through his ears, fastens to his heart, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself in his actions. His slightest word, his most subtle movement, all can serve as a model for others. The learning of the petty person enters through his ears and passes out his mouth. From mouth to ears is only four inches–how could it be enough to improve a whole body much larger than that? –Xunzi (trans. Hutton in Ivanhoe and Van Norden, eds.) [學至乎沒而後止也。…… 為之人也,舍之禽獸也。…… 君子之學也,入乎耳,著乎心,布乎四體,形乎動靜。端而言,蝡而動,一可以為法則。小人之學也,入乎耳,出乎口;口耳之間,則四寸耳,曷足以美七尺之軀哉! –荀子]Report

David
David
4 years ago

“Doubt is as rare among the people as assertion is among true philosophers”–Rousseau
“It would be expecting too much for two thoughts to be brought together where not a single thought is present”–Hegel
“Fate can be avoided no more than an already collapsing wall”–KantReport

Pangloss
Pangloss
4 years ago
CD
CD
4 years ago

“Whatsoever we desire from motives of hatred is base, and in a State unjust.”
–Spinoza, Ethics, Part IV, Prop. 45, cor. 2Report

Wayne Fenske
Wayne Fenske
4 years ago

Maybe it’s not proper Philosophy, but it seems a propos.
“That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”Report

Christopher
4 years ago

A morning after thought ….

“The whole history of constitutional government is a commentary on the excellence of resisting evil, and when one cheek is smitten, or smiting back and not turning the other cheek also.
“You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoi, you believe in fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers.”

– William James, VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCEReport

Corey
4 years ago

After the inauguration, I was moved to pick up my books on Pragmatist philosophy and to review some of Richard Rorty’s work regarding the correspondence theory of truth, social and political issues, and of course his 1998 book, Achieving our Country. Some pockets of the Internet have been abuzz with exploring his work as “predictive” of the 2016 election. Here are just a few examples:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hwhz3YtADbI

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/books/richard-rortys-1998-book-suggested-election-2016-was-coming.html?_r=0

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/19/donald-trump-us-election-prediction-richard-rorty

http://www.philosophersmag.com/index.php/reflections/147-richard-rorty-and-how-postmodernism-helped-elect-trump

As a side note/question: How to professional philosophers feel about predicting or having their work characterized as predictive? I imagine it could be a little uncomfortable to some but also, perhaps, validating? Thoughts on this?Report

Jonathon
Jonathon
4 years ago

“Hell is other people.” — SartreReport

Eli
Eli
4 years ago

What an awful way to put Parfit’s philosophy out of context –
The implication, that shouting and rioting is somehow effective (I guess, this is the political context right?) is a horrible misunderstanding. Parfit’s talk about physical effects, not mental. Mental effects, and actions (such as talking, ect) would have a totally different analysis.Report

Critilo
Critilo
4 years ago

“…no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” —Thomas Hobbes; LeviathanReport