The benefit of empirical data in relation to moral reasoning

After some consideration about the recent interest in experimental philosophy, I must state some charitable features of the role of psychological data:

1. (perceived) Asymmetries: Moral theorising is often percieved and practised as an a priori excercise. A utilitarian may say that moral decisions may be made on the basis of the amount of welfare or gain or investment into one’s own ends ( which include, inter alia, happiness); but this kind of view may be too simplistic. Why?

If we were to accept a few propositions a priori we may asses moral situations with these generic principles, this seems obvious. If we consider utility as our moral desiderata, we may say that some moral situations are parallel; such as whether to forsee the death of a minority to save a majority, or to perform animal testing. We may find, through empirical studies that what moral situations are a priori (through these normative ethical principles) symmetrical are in fact, perceived as asymmetrical. To follow up on this thought, consider the Knobe effect.

The conclusion of these kinds of studies is not to say something simple like, there is empirical data to refute a normative thesis (this never will work), but it is simply not as easy to apprehend moral situations viz moral principles without considering the influence of our background psychological dispositions (c.f. priming studies [Doris 2003 et. al])

2. The Kantian appeal: This argument comes straight from my dissertation, which in itself is more or less an argument from Kant. Kant believed that human anthropology assists us in knowing about human beings. We know about human nature in various ways; through the people we meet in our lives; through media, like television, film, literature; and through empirical and ethnographic study of others. Sociological and anthropological data can tell us about the ways in which human beings do in fact behave, my favourite examples for this kind of thing is Goffman in the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where he spend some time analysing hotel staff in the Shetland isles.

The crux of Kant’s point was that given a moral system (in his case that was his deontology, but we don’t need to commit to any moral system for this line of argument), we still need empirical knowledge of people so as to know how to apply it. Consider the platitude of do not lie, we might be able to manipulate a social situation so as not to lie, but not to tell the truth, or not to bring the offending issue at hand, or non-participation in any situation where you may be brought to lie. Knowing how to apply moral principles is not enough to help us as agents, having the know-how and practical wisdom of the conduct of human beings would help as well.


The anti-secular

As a default position, I would say that I’d consider secularism to be a reasonable notion. That is, if we are to understand the notion of secularism as the separation of the influence of religious groups onto social and civic institutions. That said, it has come to my attention of two things that seem interesting cases.

1. Judaism has a system of ethics which is referred to as ‘law’. The significance of Jewish law that makes it really distinct is that a great many issues are considered under the Jewish framework of beliefs. Whether to turn a light on or off on the Sabbath is considered to some, a difficult issue. What kind of car should one buy, what food to eat and so on. It would be absurd to say that one should not be allowed to be informed by a religious conviction or doctrine or system of beliefs, but this seems to stand in a tension (but by no means a contradiction), with the notion that religious institutions should have no influence over social and civic affairs. There seems an important sense in which the notion of the secular is lacking in acknowledging this.

2. There is such a thing as an Islamic bank. I don’t know too much about it but I do understand that it has different problems and different benefits. In the current climate where finance and the financial system is in turmoil, it may seem an interesting and perhaps welcome difference to consider doing things differently. What makes an Islamic bank ‘Islamic’? The early bankers (so Max Weber will have us believe) were Calvinist protestants, we wouldn’t say that those early banks were ‘calvinist banks’ or ‘religious banks’, but happened to be in such and such a social background and situation that most of the banking founders were protestant calvinists afraid of going to hell*.

*Caveat: Consider the Weber thought as a counterfactual, in the sense that Weber’s actual historical evidence and account is wholly questionable.

We need more terminology about the notion of the secular.


More words: Fail (and win), Protectionism, Humanism

Let’s talk about some words that have come up lately. Normally I write a piece every so often about a new word that comes into the public consciousness or is part of that series of tubes (that in itself is a reference that only a select number will get) known as the internet. I shall address three words today. Fail, an internet term that has gained so much notoreity it has become very difficult for me to understand. Antoher word is one that has come up in the news, I pinpoint the date roughly around the first day after it was announced that some Italian workers were being employed for a building project, and sparked a national discussion about foreign workers (the word foreign itself should have an article on it, I note).

The final word is an old word that has new meaning for people, some old European customs have been forgotten in such a way that the people who rediscover it think its new, like atheism.

Fail/win, the epic new words of the day

Internet culture has its fashions, and this one is going to be around for a little while (unlike the Christian Bale tirade). The concept of fail, I think, unifies internet phenomena into a single and possibly user-friendly concept. Some older internet citizens may remember the phenomenon of Engrish, which involves laughing at horribly translated English by (usually) Japanese translators on public signs and posts etc. The notion of the fail builds on the singular phenomenon of Engrish and also combines it with embarrassing videos of the kind you might see on ebaumsworld, bizarre news stories, and recently, user-submitted footage used to explicitly exploit or embarrass (often for righteous causes) others. Let me give three examples of a fail:

Exhibit 1: Product placement

This is a piece that shows very poor product placement, to suggest very strongly that this is the worst possible name for a product that you could give. Another example of this is a fish bone remover which involved the product name of boner.

Exhibit 2: Humiliation

This involves a slightly sinister (excuse the pun) enjoyment of someone’s misfortune, often this involves physical pranks, trying to impress people but ending up (usually) head first in the concrete (toboggan fail for instance).

Exhibit 3: Win

This is where the concept of a fail comes to confuse me. A win, I suppose is the opposite of a fail, but there are so many ways that a win is realised, a win can involve pointing out a fail, pre-empting failed product placement, or is actually simultaneous win and fail. There ones are generally funnier and rarer than a fail, it is, if you will, a superfail, (or you might say, epic win).

Now on to the other terms at hand.


I hate ‘isms’ people throw them about in such a way that they don’t know what it involves (relativism and postmodernism especially) such that it ruined the original meaning of the word, which, whether you agree with it or not, actually had something important to discuss. In the example I noted, they are even seen as simultaneous.

Protectionism is, one of those words, that seem to me made up to just be an ism, and not a doctrine; for instance, relativism is a philosophical doctrine, perfectionism is an ism. There are notably ambiguous cases of -isms; stocism in the normal non-philosophical usage, scientism and rationalism are terms which are often abused. In some respects the putative term of rationalism is so redundant it is more a normative epistemic imperative than a doctrine concerning reason. Reason again is another word that is abused. But it is not so clear that protectionism is a wood cooked up by journalists and fed into the meat grinder (ie. newspaper press). It sounds as if it’s a genuine doctrine and term, although if anyone is an economist let me know if there is a literature on this issue.

What is protectionism? I suppose the two big factors about defining it are:

1. There is a major economic recession and oncoming national unemployment (okay, so three factors)
2. It has the word ‘protect’ on it.

National fears of unemployment + the word ‘protect’ = Protectionism. It seems to be the notion that there is a desiderative imbued in the employer’s preference set to recruit people who are in the local area (oh, and are skilled and competitive, people forget to mention or acknowledge that part).

There are some legitimate issues about the discussion of this ‘protectionism’. One thing is that it is polarising and polemicising the issue of unemployment to look like an issue about foreigners taking local people’s jobs away. Dress it up as you may, but this is a foil for racism and xenophobia. On the other hand it is, and I gasp as I say this, a serious issue that major political parties aren’t fully addressing. The serious issue is that economic deprivation leads to wider social problems.


This is a word that, during the early to mid naughties, I heard many people say that Humanism was a post-war phenomenon and since the late seventies it became as empty as Church of England masses (I’ve also heard from the same person that Anglican was a synonym for being an atheist). This same person, who has many coinable phrases, also used to say that humanism was atheism+ churchgoing.

I’ve found that lately with the mobilisation of the New Atheists, and the increased records of student grassroots initiatives for secularist causes; we find that it’s not a bad time to come out as an atheist. The notion of freedom of speech had been discussed over the past two weeks with the whole Geert Wilders insident, and the anniversary of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. It would be nice to cite lovely enlightenment period quotes but you have heard enough of that from Michael.

Although I am discerning about the reduncancy of the label Atheist (especially when it seems to imply that you have to have a PhD in a science/engineering subject and or philosophy to be part of it), and the fact that so many people are just default atheists without feeling any need to identify with anything). Humanism seems to be a thing I welcome, especially for Michael and Sinistre* as they mentioned that there is a new ‘non-religious’ ‘thought for the day’ podcast by the Scottish Humanist society and they can hear their favourite philosophers Anthony Grayling and Julian Baggini [!].


On Britishness

What is British about a drink from India? What is British about having a permanent or semi-permanent residence in an African commune, Spain, or the Antipodes?

While the labels of English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh are labels which have entirely native customs, idioms, stereotypes and practices associated to them. The notion of the British is homogeneous, countries and many customs that have come to be associated with the label British, we may be surprised to find that things that are iconic of the British are often of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origin, but we may find their origin as far as the Caribbean. This was the irony that characterised Britishness over the past two centuries.

Some people have come to recognise that the next century may see English as a universal language, but we may find that this would be the remaining heritage of the west. We may find a cultural shift, in these difficult economic times. Our values may change, our standards and expectations may accord to what is realistic, and Brtitain’s shocking debt that shall emerge after the recession may cause permanent damage. A further irony still, would be the universal legacy of the English language without the international dominance of the formerly native English speaking nation.


Some ‘did-you-know’s

1. Apparently Jung gave seminars on Kundalini yoga (presumably signifying some knowledge of Indian philosophy)
2. Some people (not myself) consider Idealism to have links with Vedic and Buddhist philosophy
3. Some x-phi philosophers (or x-phiers) have noted a significant difference in epistemic intuitions between undergraduates from China and UGs from the USA



It may be easy to make the mistake that a majority perspective is the correct one.

I recall a conversation where an evangelical Christian was making an appeal to faith, saying Christianity has millions of members, why is it that there are so many?

An answer such as because they’re stupid is still an acceptable possibility, it entails nothing of the truth of the matter what a majority believes.

A similar worry is voiced by Appiah on an article on the x-phi movement. Studies that quantify the opinions of what people think about moral situations do not really settle the truth of the matter, or what is actually morally relevant. Quantifying what people think about moral situations and their moral calculus is an interesting empirical fact, from which we may derive interesting sociological observations, but what it adds takes a lot more explanation to reach the level of ought propositions.

Furthermore, if a majority deem someone to be the finest artist or best musician, it is really the test of time as to whether they are an ephemeral and temporamous popularity, or if their appeal has anything that is close to universality.


Not quite the best..

After some thought on this issue for a few months I have come to consider Gilette products to be quite pedestrian, quite proletarian, quite chav-esque. It’s tagline is the best a man can get; well surely, that’s defeatist attitude, resorting to the bottom of the pit; to the (false) platitude that what is available is the scope of one’s aspirations.

Gilette has way too much alcohol (or some kind of hydrocarbon), and has a very old man kind of scent. A very military one scent fits all approach. I remember (I must repeat this anecdote a great many times), that I once had a theology tutor who once told us that Microsoft Word is the most evil piece of software; because it tells us what is good or bad english. If one is to put Jane Eyre (I can’t really remember the exact example but it was 19thC English Literature) into MS Word; we shall find that the spell and grammar checker will deem many things incorrect.

Gilette does not go well with me; single brands should not lay claim to a whole market. Also, it makes my face dry (ironic for a moisurising post-shave balm).

I do like the blades though.


The name of Tigger

I was watching an episode of the New adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a bastardisation of A.A. Milne’s stories after Disney had obtained the rights to the characters, and thus could do anything they wanted with it (beyond the original canon).

I saw one interesting episode where Tigger was bouncing in the mud and Rabbit made the other toys pin Tigger down into a bucket and washed him. After tigger was washed, he had lost his stripes. When Rabbit, Pooh and Piglet saw him, they were asking who he was. Tigger said to Pooh, “It’s me!”, and then Pooh said, “yes I know you are, but what is your name?”. They refused to see or comprehend him as being a Tigger, so they thought he was a rabbit (due to having a tail and ears), but after a mistake at gardening, Tigger was convinced that he was not a Rabbit, so he thought maybe he was a bear. Pooh then made Tigger steal some honey, after being stung and not doing well with disturbing a bee hive, Pooh was convinced that this red tiger was not a Tigger.

Throughout the story, whenever Eeyore passed by, he kept referring to him as a Tigger despite all the other characters not being able to see Tigger and being confounded as to who this red feline was.

What is criterial of Tigger? is it his stripes? his attitude (being bouncy)? or, as Eeyore (and the percieved final answer of the show), what was inside the toy that was criterial. Eeyore said that he saw him as a Tigger the whole way through because he was looking not at his apeparance but what was inside. It looks like Eeyore has Kripkean intuitions about reference.



A fertile mind or a fertile idea?

If one pursues a fertile idea, does one consign themselves to personal and intellectual staleness?

Conversely, does the fertile mind say anything about its activity? Is the fertile mind eclectic, studious, or the polymath.

I suppose having strong elements of both will always be ideal, but coming down to one; what is more important? Can we continue to argue of old issues and debates to the effect of having overly technical terminology so as to prevent the kind of repetition that is inevitable from being age-old issues; or does intellectual fertility as a mindset allow for a freshness and interplay of perspectives in such a way that invokes originality?

It would seem that there is a subtle difference between one who seems to have depth as the scholar of the fertile idea, and one who appears to have depth as the one with a fertile mind.

With the former, depth in a specific issue is a well-rehearsed and tired routine.

With the latter, depth comes not necessarily out of expertise, but the surprising depth, clarity, and summation that comes from the sporadic and spontaneous entertainment of the idea itself.