Saturday, October 15, 2005

Intrinsic Environmental Value

In response to my post on Ethics and Rationality, Gillian wrote:
His post made me wonder whether ethics is really just about taking others' interests into account. I'm pretty sure pristine environments don't have interests, but wouldn't it be wrong to pollute them, even if no-one's interests were harmed?

Like "logicnazi" in the comments, I'm inclined to simply respond "NO". It's a view I do hear occasionally, but I'm at a loss as to why anyone would hold it. I'm hoping someone might leave a comment here defending the view.

The idea that the environment has intrinsic value strikes me as so unmotivated that I'm not sure how to argue against it. But perhaps an example could help illustrate. Suppose that in the future, all sentient beings live on the moon, so as to preserve the pristine natural environment on Earth for pleasurable holiday tours and such. Now, an interstellar "trolley" comes hurtling towards the moon, with a massive nuclear bomb on board that will kill us all. But we can pull a lever that will change its course so as to impact Earth instead, wiping out all the plant life there. These are the only two options: wipe out all sentient beings, or else the natural environment. Which should you do?

Well, obviously we should let the plants die rather than us. But that's still consistent with the plants having some intrinsic importance, albeit less than us. But I want to make a stronger claim. I claim that there is no reason at all to oppose pulling the switch. It is certainly bad that people will never again have the pleasure of experiencing the natural environment. But this result is guaranteed to happen either way: whether by the plants dying, or by all sentient creatures dying instead. Once all the conscious beings are dead, the beautiful environment has no value, for there is no-one left to experience it. So there is nothing at all to be said in favour of letting the plants live, in this situation. If you share this judgment, then we have established that pristine environments have merely instrumental value. If your intuitions differ, I really don't know what else to say...


  1. I would say plants and animals have value irrespective of humans. So I would say it would be wrong but no "very" wrong.

    let us take a more apropriate example - Lets say there was a huge nuclear bomb heading towards the earth and the moon would you pull a lever to divert the second bomb to miss the earth?

    I suggest I would. Not only do the plants have an intrinsic value but so too does what they might evolve into.

    However if your pristine envoronment was an ancient human museum I might not care so much. having said that I would save that too under most circumstances (except where the humans or plants had to die) since I would see it as having some small value in as far as an alien might one day find it!

  2. I think it's an unfair question. "Environment" in the question might as well be a black box: We don't have enough information. For all we know it's logically impossible to "harm the enviroment" without "harming human beings"

  3. I can sympathise with both sides, but I think the difference between them lies partly in different interpretations of “interests.”

    On the one hand, I can see what might motivate Gillian’s intuition. Even if noone needed the environment for purposes of power, medicine, food, nature walks or artistic inspiration, many people would probably be reluctant to pollute it, and I can almost see why: it is an old and majestic thing, filled with the kind of richness, energy and variety that one doesn’t find on the moon, and to destroy it would be like losing Shakespeare or Homer or Aristotle, whom we would like to remember even if most people’s interests would be undamaged by their loss. Nevertheless, if we take “interests” to include all of these “woolly” and sentimental interests, aalong with every single other human interest, then Richard is pretty obviously right. That is, if the environment could be destroyed without any of these woolly and sentimental interests being harmed (now or in the future) then it is very hard to see anything wrong with polluting the environment.

    Richard: On the matter of the interstellar trolley, you say that “obviously we should let the plants die rather than us.” Is it really “obvious”? If we thought about it rationally, and if we were certain that the trolley would kill with such abruptness and efficiency that no human beings would either survive the impact or suffer from it, then I’m not sure why we “should” kill the plants rather than us.

    That might sound inhuman and absurd, but I think it is “wrong” only in the sense that it is “wrong” to pollute an environment that noone cares about; that is, it strikes us as “wrong” because it is so hard to imagine a world in which the death of all human beings would harm the interests of no human beings, accustomed as we are (quite rightly and intelligently, in most non-philosophical contexts) to associate death with suffering and loss.

  4. Richard,

    This is interesting because there is a rather famous thought experiment which typically elicits an intuition contrary to yours. The 'last person on Earth' example runs something like this. You are the last person on Earth and have a desire to destroy nature so far as this is possible before you go. Is there something wrong with acting on your desire (bracketing concerns about destroying organisms that might in the future evolve into creatures like us to deal with gnz and mt type worries)? I cannot now recall who the author responsible for the thought experiment is (tip of the tongue, ugh). I suppose I have a negative reaction to someone who would act on such desires but am not convinced that this reaction bears on the permissibility of the action or the badness of the actor. I suspect the latter. Still, even if this is the reaction, do we not have to explain why we look at this actor negatively? I think it is because there is something wrong with his desire and the natural explanation of this is that his desires do not line up with what is valuable.

  5. Oh, but I [calm down computer-smack!] published by accident as my computer is acting up ...

    I meant to add this. There is a part of me that thinks there is something wrong with acting on this desire because there is something wrong with the desire but then again, imagine that scientists discovered thousands upon thousands of planets with pristine forests far off in a distant galaxy we shall never visit.

    'Oh, that's good' or 'Oh, what wonderful news' both strike me as very (very) weird things to say.

    If they added, and there is a ring of planets filled with bunnies living in bucolic surroundings hopping about merrily, it seems far less odd to say 'Oh, that's good' or 'Oh, what wonderful news, there are millions upon millions of happy bunnies and no one will make them into stew'.

  6. Clayton, the last man argument was given by Richard Routley.

  7. Clayton: "I have a negative reaction to someone who would act on such desires but am not convinced that this reaction bears on the permissibility of the action or the badness of the actor."

    I think the "negative reaction" occurs because, in almost any situation other than the situation that the thought experiment picks out, the wanton destruction of nature is quite understandably regarded as a wrong act. I suppose this is partly because most of us value nature for its beauty, usefulness etc., and partly because we usually consider "destruction" of any kind to be harmful and wrong. In short, we have a negative reaction to the last man's destructive desire because we would not want to live with a person like that. The thought experiment confuses us because we are not used to considering a world in which these otherwise "wrong" desires have no effect on other human beings.

    Do you agree?

  8. You seem to pre-suppose only human interests have moral/ethical value. Ok, so you probably don't torture puppies. But if you acknowledge that it'd be wrong to do so "even if no-one (human's) interests were harmed", (and where no human's interests were served, let's add) it'd be a starting point. Ok, I know we eat animals and otherwise abuse them. And we've pretty much had a go at all the environments we can. But isn't it completely arbitrary to limit our concern to the well-being of one species? As but one of many species, and sharing with other "higher" animals many characteristics- doesn't it follow that the "others" whose interests we should consider might not just be human "others"? Stop me before I start raving about the life force.... But it seems pretty arbitrary to extend our morality from tribes to nations to races to "all mankind"- and stop abruptly at that point.
    On a slightly different tack, I'm happy to forget about "intrinsic" value and insist environments, pristine and/or otherwise, have value to us. We didn't spring from a cosmic vacuum; nor can we inhabit one. So placing our moral considerations into a contextless abstraction is neither possible nor desirable. In your "thought experiment" it'd be hard for me to chose the moon full of people over a humanity-free earth, even without giving any value to other life. Partly it's pure sentimentality: I love this planet, and value it highly. But there's more to it than that. The earth provided an environment in which life could become human- and presumably could do so again. That's not something you can say of the lifeless moon.

  9. Rob. Agreed on the animal thing, but I don't think it alters the discussion much. It just makes it more complicated.

  10. I should clarify that, for the sake of the thought experiment, we are assuming that (1) humans can survive after the plants are destroyed, and (2) the plants will never evolve into sentient beings.

    "You seem to pre-suppose only human interests have moral/ethical value."

    Only if humans comprise "all sentient beings". I think it's more plausible to hold that animals have interests too, and thus must be taken into moral consideration.

    Clayton -- I must admit I don't find the 'last person on Earth' example at all compelling. I think Mike is right that we recognize such a desire would normally be harmful to human interests, and so judge it 'bad' for that reason. But it does nothing to show that the environment itself has intrinsic value.

    Perhaps a better example than either discussed so far would be one where an asteriod is going to impact a pristine environment in an otherwise lifeless universe (which we may suppose permanently lacks any conscious beings). Is this destruction in any way a bad thing? I don't see how.

  11. "...the plants will never evolve into sentient beings."

    Does that matter?

  12. only in philosophy do we get questions like this:
    "I'm pretty sure pristine environments don't have interests, but wouldn't it be wrong to pollute them, even if no-one's interests were harmed?"

    "I'm pretty sure" could be sarcasm in any other quarter, but the "pristine" qualification makes you wonder if the city dump environment might be regarded differently. No, you judge the writer to be on the level. [And ignoring animal rights activist groups.] That is until (s)he writes "wouldn't it be wrong to pollute them, even..." and you can taste the earnestness.

    Is this a trick question people? It is a necessary truth that polluting is bad, no? [Polluting carries with it moral connotations; or as the electrical engineers might say "the moral character of Polluting is embedded in it"; as Python would have opined " all references to Polluting being 'Good and Jolly' are null and void"] Ergo, it is wrong to pollute no matter if the environments have interests or not, no matter if your mother has argued some pollution is good, no matter if you can't help but pollute...

    What hangs on the outcome? Do we have a larger respect for the environment? Not really. Do we have more insight into ethical conduct? Not especially. Do we have a more robust facility for handling ethical problems, having just had an exercise that has left everyone breathless? I don't think so. Is it an instance of sharpening our lexical cartography: how to use the word 'wrong' in some contexts? Are we going to be satisfied with that? The outcome is that we are better speakers?

  13. Mach T,
    Thanks for the reference. Routley. I was almost doubled over searching for a name that began with 'M'. Yeah, I must admit I don't find his example compelling. I offered it in business ethics the other day and almost couldn't do it with a straight face. When I admitted I didn't find it compelling, I was outflanked to the left by some of my students. Didn't expect that to happen. Mike B, I think you said what I now want to say. Does anyone else think that the discovery of far off happy bunny land is a discovery that the universe is better than we thought? I love bunnies. This intuition is one I'd fight for.

  14. Calmo: I admire your cynicism, but don't share it. Perhaps we could rephrase the question:

    "I'm pretty sure pristine environments don't have interests, but wouldn't it be wrong to destroy/contaminate with human waste products/otherwise intrude upon them, even if no-one's interests were harmed?"

    I think it is reasonably clear that we are using "pollute" in this sense, rather than the sense of "action that involves the environment and is ethically wrong."

    But the question is still a bit dodgy, I guess: how can we harm something that doesn't have interests?

    As for the worth of the discussion, I think that you both ignore some of the discussion's benefits and underestimate the importance of becoming "better speakers." We learn something about the the word "wrong", but we also learn something about its use: we learn how it can confuse us when it is taken out of the context in which it is usually found, and put in the context of a thought experiment. We also learn something about how easy it is to ignore certain kinds of "human interest". Further, we learn a bit about humans and animals, and we get to talk about bunnies. Lastly, we get a splendid opportunity to discuss the significance of philosophical discusison, and to talk about bunnies.

  15. I find it difficult to imagine any logical method of valuing things that would consider everything below lets say a chimp to be ABSOLUTELY worthless and not at least have some intrinsic worth. It implies to me that the moral dividing like is arbitrary.

    However I agree the word "pollute" is "loaded" and had connotations and in addition our intuitions dont cope well with certain types of hypothetials particularly those that require evaluation of a world in which we have been destroyed.

  16. Thank you Mike B (for the reply admiring but not sharing my cyncism).
    It was those bunnies that had me worried that I may be engaging in something that was entirely frivolous.
    My sense of humor is sometimes confused with my even me. I am working assiduously on my own case as I type.
    Your rephrasing of the question to specify a particular, technical (and counter-intuitive) [No, down-right fraudulent] use of the word "pollute" is a step backwards.
    How about if instead of "pristine environment" we use "city dump" which already collects junk and concentrates pollution in one spot?
    So my revision:
    "I'm pretty sure garbage dumps don't have interests, but wouldn't it be wrong to add pollutants to them, even if no-one's interests were harmed?"
    And of course the answer is: Yes.
    But in a philosophical discussion that is not the response we are looking for. No, it is explication, expansion, excruciating examination of possibilities, and all that. (It is.)[No it's not.]

    So we might be encouraged to add: "Yes, it would be wrong but in the limit of all possibilities, it is the smallest wrong." Another little bit of garbage onto a large heap.

    Mike, you figure this is just 'dodgy'?

    "But the question is still a bit dodgy, I guess: how can we harm something that doesn't have interests?"
    The bunnies want to know whether you recognize them as having interests or not. The lawyers who noticed that bunnies are mentioned in your will, are waiting outside. (The other human beneficiaries don't like it.)
    But the SPCA is also waiting, knowing that bunnies are an endangered species and so, more than their particular interests are at stake. The global gene pool may suffer a permanent loss should you fail to recognize them.

    "Having interests" means something quite special wrt persons. [Hard to gauge philosophical sophistication but there is a large body of work that falls under the title Personal Identity. Are you with this? Me neither.] Sure, there are boundary conditions for nearly everything and we can find the mentally handicapped person who has a legal quardian to safeguard and express those interests on his/her behalf.
    This is a stretch: my dog has interests. (Even if it is for that bitch in heat.)
    So is this: those lovely trees (that are about to be cut down in the city dump to make way for my additional piece of garbage) have interests. (Even if they are heritage trees and are defended by a raving bunch of ex-loggers.)

    And so doing philosophy for me IS about and CANNOT get too far away from the language we use to express ourselves. [A good philosophy student has command of the language, among other things.] That is always a philosophical matter --deciding what you want to call philosophical, but if you don't use the ordinary language we share, why should I bother with you? [Even if you are, say, a Hegelian scholar, I'm not going to get very far if I am constrained by Hegelian dialectics to use a technical language to examine it.] This is different than asking you for a justification of your practice.
    You likely find this terribly cynical: What the hell are you doing?
    I ask myself this very question. [There is no hope for him. Where are those bunnies?]

  17. Calmo: I admire your sense of humour, and try to share it. I would like to say that you are wrong, or that you are right, but I'm not sure what you are saying. I can only pick out one statement and hope that it doesn't distort your argument too much:

    "Your rephrasing of the question to specify a particular, technical (and counter-intuitive) [No, down-right fraudulent] use of the word "pollute" is a step backwards."

    I sympathise heartily with your suspicion of technical and fraudulent philosophical terms, but I’m not sure that such suspicion is justified in this case. I’m a great fan of dictionaries myself, and somewhere else on this site there is an extremely loving and long-winded comment promoting the use of dictionaries, which I would love to claim credit for, and would do so if Wittgenstien hadn't got in first. I don’t have the OED to hand, so here’s the online Dictionary’s definition:

    POLLUTION: “undesirable state of the natural environment being contaminated with harmful substances as a consequence of human activities”.

    I admit that the word “undesirable” tends to support your “trick question” argument: it could refer to “ethically undesirable” or just “not in the interests of humans.” If we take the “ethically undesirable” part out, we get your trick question. If we ignore it (and I think most of us have implicitly understood that we are ignoring it) then we have something interesting to discuss. Do you disagree?

    I agree that many philosophical arguments are a bit silly and futile (if that’s what you are saying), but I like this one, because it asks us to wonder whether existence is inherently better than non-existence, or life inherently better than non-life. I say that, if the entire human race (and the animals, if you want) were wiped out without any individual suffering at all, then there’s nothing wrong with setting off the nuclear bomb or whatever that does the trick. This is more interesting when you apply it to individual lives, and it invites us to ask: is there anything wrong with death if no living thing suffers as a result of it? Chaps like Socrates spent all their life preparing for death, and people tend to get awfully rattled about the whole business of Nothingness and Extinction, so its nice to know that there is this straightforward way of easing our anxieties, especially if it makes the business of living more pleasant.

    If you really want a practical real-life application of these ideas, have a look at the post on the Catholic doctor who withholds contraception on the basis that "life is a gift." The comments on that post tend to discuss relatively abstract matters of "substantive freedom" and so on, and they are interesting topics, but another interesting topic is the topic: how can we convince the Catholic doctor that his views are silly? An answer to this question could make gainful use of some of the ideas on this comment string.

  18. Mike,
    I have failed miserably when you tell me that you admire my sense of humor.
    You have no idea the pains I suffer to make this bloody bleeding entertaining forchrisake. Admiration is the last thing I want, need, or can suffer at a time like this.
    Here is a perfectly good, I mean reasonably good, English speaker contesting the simple claim that the word 'pollution' is neither good nor bad.
    Wait til I tell your mother. (Alright. Your father, if you missed out on the former.)
    You learned to speak better than you are presently exhibiting.
    This is retrogressive philosophy and if I knew your instructors I would give them an earfull about the miserable job they did with you.

    You ask:
    "Pollution...[these dots here are to protect the sensitive ears and eyes from a repeat pounding of the above]...."undesirable" but if ethically so, we could ignore it, "then we have something interesting to discuss."
    "Do you disagree?"

    (torturing me and the entire English speaking world with that.)
    We are appalled. Not the slightest bit entertained. Enraged rather than engaged.

    Philosophy is not about ignoring the way we speak. Or dragging some old German fart out of the woodwork just to be able to pronounce his impressive sounding name. It may be about more than speaking well, but some of us, Mike, have to start somewhere.
    This means you.

  19. Great. What's the first lesson?

  20. First lesson?
    I don't know of any lessons in Philosophy.
    I'm not even sure I'd recognize what a lesson in philosphy looked like. [It's not pondering over some maxim by Kahlil Gilbran like my Commerce friend thought.]
    I even think I could read the entire body of philosophical literature and not find that lesson. Maybe my standards are too high.

    Not a promising start.

    Let's suppose I did find that lesson.

    calmo: "Mike, this is your 1st lesson in philosophy: This be it."

    Mike: "What kind of a lesson is that? --This be it."
    calmo: " Excellent. You dispute my authority in telling you unilaterally what will count as a lesson in philosophy."
    Mike: "Ah.....I'm not sure...'excellent' you say?"
    calmo: " Even better. Why should you trust me to adjudicate your performance in anything, let alone what counts as a lesson in philosophy?"

    Sometimes the lesson, if there is one, would end here, but there is often an additional line that snuffs out much of it like so:
    Mike: "You are absolutely right calmo, I am better than excellent."

  21. Clayton, I'm inclined to think that both the pristine forest and the bunny-worlds have intrinsic value; but I don't think in either case that someone who holds that they do have intrinsic value is committed to saying that the world is better off with them -- i.e., I don't think it's necessary for someone who holds that these things have intrinsic value to hold also that value is additive (so that more things with intrinsic value makes the world a better world). For instance, the person who attributes intrinsic value could hold that the intrinsic values are noncommensurable. Rather, the commitment is just that the value involved need not be the usability of forests or bunnies for anything, or the fact that they indicate something else that is good, or anything like that; that is, it just needs to be the case that the bunnies are in some way good, even independently of their value as related to anything else. The same with the forests; e.g., we might be relieved that there are pristine forests humans can never mar, and such a relief would seem to suggest that there is an intrinsic value, however slight, to pristine forests, regardless of whether pristine forests make the world better. (A question comes to mind; I'd be interested in hearing people's views about it: Is 'makes the world a better place' a case of intrinsic or extrinsic value? On the one hand, we often associate it with intrinsic value. On the other hand, it seems to make the value relative to something else, namely, the whole world.)

    Likewise, and for similar reasons, I don't think the person who attributes value to pristine forests is committed to saying that their destruction is a bad thing (so I don't think either the last man argument or Richard's asteroid suggestion bear directly on the problem).

    I find this subject interesting because it's closely related to a dabbler's interest of mine, namely, early modern theories of taste. In a sense, the way we usually phrase the problem really makes intrinsic value a matter of taste, and the question about whether something has intrinsic value is a question of whether having a taste for that thing is an instance of good taste. Thus, the question becomes whether it's good [rational, sensible, etc.] taste to like bunny worlds even without regard for anything beyond the bunny worlds themselves. I think this 'taste test' is a better test than tests that consider the destruction of the object, or whether the object's existence makes the world better. And it puts the emphasis where I think it should be, namely, what it is that is guiding our value judgments in the first place (our 'standard of taste', to use the early modern phrase). In the case of the bunny worlds, I see no reason why it wouldn't be good taste to like bunny worlds simply for the fact that they have bunnies.

    But I tend to such intuitions in part because I tend to agree with the scholastics that, properly speaking, 'good' and 'being' are convertible; on such a view anything that exists has some intrinsic value (although not necessarily the same kind or degree of intrinsic value), since everything that exists is good in some way and to some extent given that it exists at all.

  22. calmo: I was hoping you could clarify your position rather than compose a witty dialogue. But I have a feeling that you will express either disgust or disbelief at that statement, and then compose another dialogue, just as witty and just as confusing. It would be nice to find a sentence that we could agree on, but I'm not very interested in finding it, because we probably don't really disagree on anything at all.

    Brandon: why not also: "everything that exists is bad in some way and to some extent given that it exists at all." ?

  23. Mike B.: If your question is about why the scholastics hold that 'good' and 'being' are convertible and not 'bad' and 'being', the reason is that their account of badness is that it is privative; their account of goodness is that it is not. (The reasons for both are independent of issues about convertibility.) So badness is convertible not with being but with privation of being. It has the advantage of being a simple, straightforward, and powerful approach, since it just makes goodness and badness opposites. The only disadvantage that ever seems to be attributed to it even by its opponents is that it seems to some to trivialize evil; which would be a serious disadvantage, but it's controversial whether it actually has it.

    But it is in theory possible to hold both that everything that exists is bad in some way and to some extent given that it exists at all, and that everything that exists is good in some way and to some extent given that it exists at all, if one does it so that things are never good and bad in exactly the same way. I don't know of anyone historically who accepts such a view; it would be a very complicated view to hold, and would probably tend to slip into purely ad hoc claims. It's also possible for someone to hold just the badness thesis; which makes for a very depressing view, but isn't impossible. I don't know any major historical figure who developed that position, either. It has the disadvantage that it's harder to fit with most people's intuitions than the scholastic view.

    But all of these views would support a claim that everything that exists has intrinsic value inasmuch as it exists (intrinsic badness is as much an intrinsic value as intrinsic goodness, despite our tendency to think in terms of the latter).

  24. Brandon wrote:

    I'm inclined to think that both the pristine forest and the bunny-worlds have intrinsic value; but I don't think in either case that someone who holds that they do have intrinsic value is committed to saying that the world is better off with them -- i.e., I don't think it's necessary for someone who holds that these things have intrinsic value to hold also that value is additive (so that more things with intrinsic value makes the world a better world).

    That seems right. Damn.

    My initial response was to say that there must be some (merited) response of the form 'That's good', but it is fair to point out as you do later that the bearer of goodness might be the world as a whole in which case the part needn't be good for its own sake but upon reflection that doesn't seem like that will patch things up in the right way.

  25. So, the first lesson in philosophy was a bust. I'll get over it.
    (The lesson was: there are no lessons.)
    [This was dismissed as witty, no engagement on the idea that it might be an activity, let alone any further remarks on the apparent self-nullifying character of the claim.]
    I must. (I was not always familiar with these philosophical puzzles or "witticisms" as they are called by the uninitiated.) [It is a blessing to be uninitiated.]

    The first example of doing philosophy was dismissed as a witty dialogue. (Damn. You don't know what fond hopes I had for it.) I did need to compose your side of it because, I'm an impatient SOB and frankly, you aren't up to speed.
    See, I can hope still.
    I'm sure I can infect you with this philosophical attitude. [Reports of its magisty and grandeur have been greatly exaggerated, I warn you.]

    Really, you need to abandon statements like this: "It would be nice to find a sentence that we could agree on,..."
    Philosophy is not about being nice, civil or any of that rot. Agreement is possible in philosophy but it is not the goal. No, really it is more of a gesture that the session is over and the parties agree to disagree usually. It is not what you want to focus on. It is the shabbiest part of philosophy, this agreeing business. Riveting engagement is the heart.
    Philosophy is personal and has no respect for the norms. It is philosophy's job to dismantle conventional wisdom. Yet, it requires language, that set of norms, for its life.
    Meditation is not philosophy.

    What am I doing? [This is my core philosophical question that counts as 'doing philosophy'. When one makes a philosophical claim, this question is not far from whatever the claim is.]
    I am trying to show Mike what philosphy is. This is the question: What is philosophy? It is a philosophical question. (It means I am not going to the dictionary for help because I'm not asking a purely linguistic question.) I am personally trying to figure this one out for both of us. I know what it is, but am, so far, unable to pass this knowledge to Mike.
    It's not easy and I don't think I'm very close to giving you, Mike an inkling of what it is that I do that is "philosophical" and what I see you doing that is not. You think I'm playing with this topic, but I am dead serious, desperate in fact. [Seeking engagement]
    How can one teach philosophy if not by example?
    Plato provides us with a model of behavior (Socrates) for what counts as doing philosophy. I could have just pointed you there. You've likely been there, but even if you hadn't, the personal engagement is missing.
    I'm not a sub-contractor in philosophy. Second thought, if you still feel like I'm trying to harpoon you or paste you with witticisms, try reading one of the dialogues again. See, real students of philosophy shouldn't be offended by this, but I can see you, Mike could take this as a personal insult.

  26. calmo: I'm still not sure whether or not this discussion is worthwhile, and your claim that you are "dead serious" only partly eases my doubts: if you are willing to say "The lesson is that there are no lessons", then you are probably willing to say something like: "of course I'm dead serious, that's why it's all such a joke." Anyway, here's an attempt to carry on the discussion (although, if by carrying on the discussion we are not trying to reach an agreement on something, then I sure what we are trying to acheive).

    I think your "think about Socrates" idea is a good idea. I don't have time to go and read the dialogues, and find engagement with them, so instead I will give my view on what Socrates was doing in his dialogues (I haven't read many), and then you can explain how my view differs from yours.

    As far as I can remember, Socrates was:

    1) Holding dialogues. That is, he was having conversations involving two or more people. He believed that, even though there is much self-interest and sophistry in most dialogues, it was still possible to come to true conclusions through a dialogue, provided that all the participants agreed to be as honest, reasonable and patient as possible. He had a rather exhalted idea of "truth", which most people don't share today, but even the most ardent postmodernist can probably agree that some statements are truer than others, and that self-interest and sophistry draw people towards what we call "falsehoods".

    2) He held dialogues to distinguish himself from those people who held monologues, or speeches. He was opposed to speeches on the grounds that they tended to encourage self-serving rhetoric. In dialogues, on the other hand, there was a constant interchange of ideas between the various participants, which meant that noone got so left behind, or so far ahead, or so confused, or so angry, that the pursuit of truth collapsed into insult and rhetoric. Instead, there was a gradual and even development of ideas. In order to draw people into the discussion, and to keep them there, Socrates had to begin with fairly basic ideas that everyone could agree on, and build on them with basic logical steps and straightforward analogies. He tried not to introduce a term without giving a thorough account, in ordinary language, of what the term meant.

    3) He also employed quite a bit of art in order to convince people that he was right. I'm not sure if he did this deliberately, knowing that, if one dwelt in the cave and spoke with the people of the cave, then one could not avoid using the methods of the cave, and construct arguments out of the shadows on the walls, rather than from the pure Light that spilt eternally from the shining emptiness of High Truth; or if he did it without realising how superb an artist he was. Certainly Plato was an excellent dramatist.

    4) The dialogues helped him and his friends to find the truth. They sought the truth for partly personal and partly public reasons. They wanted to experience the divine thrill of finding the eternal, unchanging things. They also wanted to make the ordinary, sub-real world better than it currently was, where by "better" they seem to have meant something like: "a society in which more people are happier, and which matches more closely our ideals of unity and symmetry." It is not entirely clear whether or not Socrates beleived that this ideal society was possible, but he was fairly confident that the existing society could be improved, and that holding good dialogues was an excellent start.

    5) Socrates had a good sense of humour, and was very fond of irony. He would make statements that appeared to be paradoxes, but which, on closer consideration, were quite profound. Nevertheless, he tried, whenever possible, to make himself immediately understandable to any ordinary person.

    Please tell me where I have gone wrong.

    PS: You don't strike me as the kind of thinker who would glue labels to him/herself, but is there a name for the kind of philosophy/thought/argument/engagement/art that you are practising?

  27. Mike, this is philosophy.
    No joke.
    I happen to have read only Western literature that might be called philosophical literature. So I don't have a more specific name for it. It is characterized by critical examination of the claims/views presented. If you were educated in Europe there may be a different body of literature that would be studied. The study of Marx here does not come under the Philosophy umbrella (History of Ideas?), Hegel and possibly some Eastern views (Religious Studies?) may be taught at some schools as philosophy courses.
    It is a small matter. Doing philosphy shows no respect for the schools that are no less demarcated by the scholars who claim to support them. The thinking part is everything. And of course that is personal, something you are thinking, not representing someone (or school) else.
    I will reread my Plato and pick out a dialogue tonight that might illustrate what doing philosphy is all about.
    Thank you for putting up with me.

  28. Calmo, I don't mean to be a spoiler, but I do think 'sophistry' is a more accurate label than 'philosophy', since the latter is supposed to have substance in addition to style. Certainly if you compare the two sub-discussions found on this page, there seems a strong contrast between the constructive discussion of whether the natural environment is valuable-in-itself, as opposed to your (perhaps wittier) exchange of words that say nothing much at all.

    (Though, in fairness, there was plenty of substance and clarity in Mike's previous comment, at least.)

  29. Hello Richard,
    Sophistry was defined in oppositon to the Socratic practice pretty much as Mike outlines in 2) above. Or rather, philosophy is born out of that older custom/practice called sophistry in the figure of Socrates. Not that critical thought was not invented until then, but this figure and I think the times, incubated this new culture that we have come to identify as philosophy. [I prefer not to define philosophy in this manner by pointing to a historical practice that started in Greece in the 4th century BC.]
    Your remark:
    "Certainly if you compare the two sub-discussions found on this page, there seems a strong contrast between the constructive discussion of whether the natural environment is valuable-in-itself, as opposed to your (perhaps wittier) exchange of words that say nothing much at all."
    meets my philosohical ear in this fashion:
    1)"Certainly" --certainly if it were 'certain', you wouldn't need to write "Certainly" (It IS a small point, my ear IS picky, but this is how it works.)[This is merely a matter of style. Nothing hangs on this detail other than the criticism that you need to pay very close attention to the words you use to express yourself.]
    2)"the constructive discussion" begs the question and is my point of departure. (ie: my main argument: this is not philosophy) I fail to see the constructive element and so I ask (Mike)'what are you doing?' not perceiving very much is happening. (Any argument can be said to either beg the question [the conclusion is already contained, and not argued for, in the premise][an unproven argument] or disclosed in the premise and restated again in the conclusion making it a tautology [a vacuous argument])
    [The philosophy I do, looks closely at that criticism: How does your statement beg the question? Is there merit to the claim that what Mike was doing was constructive? What light did it shed? How are we informed by this conclusion? Where might this lead? Is it consistent with what we already know? Are there any limitations that need to be studied?
    The questions are important.]
    3) wit may be entertaining but a lousy proxy for doing philosophy. I take it as a criticism: a remark that was intended to engage but that repels/distracts instead.
    4)"exchange of words that say nothing much at all." expresses our mutual regard for the other's work. I am sure I can persuade Mike that doing philosophy is this. (critical, analytical, and mercilessly personal) And not that. (what he has been doing --the thought experiments).

    Do you have a favorite socratic dialogue from Plato's collection? I am going to make a selection.

  30. I quite like the Euthyphro, but I'm no student of ancient philosophy.

    Your basis for rejecting the original discussion was silly. Obviously the word 'pollute' was being used in a value-neutral sense; you could simply replace it with the word 'destroy', if you'd prefer. There was no "trick question", and no-one else had any difficulty understanding Gillian's question in the sense in which she intended it. It's a substantive question whether the environment has intrinsic value, though a difficult one to answer, hence the debate and disagreement, and proposed thought experiments which may help develop our understanding of the issue.

    As for the second complaint you raised: if you don't consider it an interesting or worthwhile question, that's fine, no one is forcing you to discuss it. I just find it a bit irritating when people join a discussion only to complain that not enough "hangs on the outcome" of it. I mean, what are you doing here if it isn't where you want to be?

    But never mind, the original discussion seems to have ground to a halt in any case, so I'll move along and allow you to continue your exchange with Mike...

  31. As to pollute
    Calmo of course is being excessively argumentative by calling your usage "fraudulent" An I’m not sure if his alternative is any better although his perspective may be that of a different philosophy.
    Still I think you can say pollute is being used in a value neutral sense but I’m no sure your average human can handle that. I.e. they cannot separate out the connotations and therefore their intuitions scream out for a certain answer.

    Doesn’t framing a discussion along the lines of "those who believe X should discuss elsewhere" to an extent pre define the conclusion you are going to come to?
    I guess it happens anyway afteral usually a person will not argue a question they believe to be useless but it is always possible it IS useless and they have valuable information to add.
    Also I note that calmo’s writing style probably makes people want to argue with him (or admire his difference without taking on his points. Having said that that may well apply to me also hehe

  32. Thanks for your preference of the Dialogues Richard. (It matters not to be a scholar --a great handicap in doing philosophy as others give you respect for who you are and not what you do/say.)
    Can you be serious with this remark:
    "Obviously the word 'pollute' was being used in a value-neutral sense;"
    THIS is the silly statement. You have to go to extreme lengths to remove the 'bad' connotations that are attatched to the meaning of this word. "Yes, officer I was littering but it was not bad polluting but the other sort: good polluting." [This is my handicap: I use the language, the common language because that is all I have, to exress myself. You and Mike slaughter it and don't recognize it in your 'thought experiments'.]
    Imagine a person scattering debris in the environment. So far we have not colored this activity with our moral brush. "Scattering debris" has no moral connotations --it could be that it is part of a land reclamation program to enhance the environment. That would make the activity morally 'good' and we signal this with the word 'enhance'. If we chose to write "part of a land recalmation program that denigrated the environment for aquatic species", we send the other signal, yes?

    This is an exercise in liguistic analysis (the title of the practice varies, it is no matter.) and they are not always so blunt or simple. But they are not 'thought experiments'.

    "It's a substantive question whether the environment has intrinsic value," Again, the lengths one has to go to in order to imagine the case where the environment may have no intrinsic value, is staggering. What sort of environment has no intrinsic value? Imagine a real experiment in clinical psychology where the parameters are strictly controlled (in your words, 'to exclude intrinsic values'). But they don't, the parameters exclude unwanted variables not values. I can see that the 'scientific method' may have led to the expression 'thought experiment' and its abuse.
    Last thing before I peruse my Plato:

    "I just find it a bit irritating,..."
    This is so mutual.
    And personal. And very much a part of doing philosophy: being irritated.
    And an irritation to others. Why do I bother? Am I a sadomasochist?
    What am I doing? Going against the flow by asking. That's for sure.
    Hopefully not.

  33. I have to concur, geniusNZ,

    "Still, I think you can say pollute is being used in a value neutral sense but I’m no sure your average human can handle that."

    but I, unlike you, want to be regarded as an average human. With average curiosity. With average language skills.
    And unlike you, I want to defend the average human language against certain abuses that not only do not respect it, but masquerade as a practice of philosophy. I find it fraudulent and a smear on philosophy's good name.
    [Defend yourself, for you have mauled my pet and I am greatly offended. How dare you pass these "thought experiments" off as doing philosophy. You have not even left the sandbox. What kind of nonesense are you spilling with this garbage? Please use a totally private language to chat it up so I don't have to hear it. The dogs barking is more honest than this tripe.]

    Philosophy is a passion for some of us.

    Euthyphro, the lawyer prosecuting his father, is an excellent choice Mike.

  34. Richard: thanks for your remarks, and your blog-space.

    Calmo: In comment #14 and comment #17 above I gave some reasons for discussing the "intrinsic environmental value" problem. Some of them are the kind of reasons that you, as point point 3) above suggests, are interested in. I also gave a dictionary definition of the word "pollute", and pointed out how an interesting discussion could stem from a certain (not too brutal) reading of the dictionary definition. I also pointed out that I share some of your suspicions about philosophical language and thought experiments.

    Also: can you give some reasons for your prose style, and explain why you prefer that style to the more conventional style?

  35. Mike, style is not something I worry about. I am not interested in being polite or flowery or cute/witty. Engagement, however I can get there, is all I'm after. It may be presumptuous to think that your style is conventional, just because it is accepted/tolerated here. [This is a small matter, but I remind you philosophy is about challenging conventions.]
    My screen does not enumerate the posts so numbering them is not an expedient way for referencing your previous remarks. We do not need the dictionary to confirm the meaning of "pollute". We are perfectly familiar with this word. [Some of us may need to look up the meaning of, say, "jejune" because we don't know it or its uses. This is not a case of "jejune".] But let's not go to the trouble of looking up the word, find something that does not suit our purposes ("undesirable") and prune it out.

    So far I have seen nothing that would make
    discussing the "intrinsic environmental value" problem an interesting philosophical problem other than as an illustration of the power/weakness of the philosophical method employed.

    Richard has suggested Euthyphro, one of the shorter Dialogues from Plato which in my opinion is a good example of doing philosophy (and which even has a mention of 'pollution' in it).
    I have Hamilton's edition of the Collected Dialogues (5th printing 1969) and would love to go through it with you if you are so inclined.

  36. I'ld love to do so, if you could first say what you mean by "engagement", and if you could explain why you are determined to "challenge conventions", yet unwilling to depart from the conventions of word-meanings.

    Also: I too am not especially interested in being polite or flowery or cute/witty. Instead, I am interested in making myself as clear as possible. I am not sure whether or not you are interested in doing the same, but your prose style, with its disjointed aphorisms and oddly placed parentheses, and spasms of candour that may or may not be sarcastic, does not help matters. It is engaging, but not very clear.

    Also: I referred to my earlier comments to point out that, as those comments tend to show, I can sympathise with your view on some mattters.

    Anyway, lets engage with Socrates.

  37. Great.
    My conventions are only my efforts to be understood and whatever 'style' I may have is only an outcome of that interest.
    I do need to say something about the parathetical remarks. I can only maintain coherency with them. I am distracted by other elements that are going in different directions. Many would not appear if this were a real dialogue without the need of an interface.
    (I think of them as alternate voices and sometimes pronouns like 'you','he' can refer to the previous voice, not the reader.)[He has not accomplished any sophistication as a writer.] (I might have added that using the first person, but he is right.){This is the limit of his parenthetical order and not often used --much to the relief of his readers who are not accustomed to multi-personality disorders.} ['Multi-personality disorders' is over-done but not the layers of voices/elements that fill the gap in this clumsy interface.](None of these parenthetical remarks would appear if this were a flesh and blood dialogue.){It would go differently face to face, but not necessarily better.} (I am no more disordered than the next person.)


    If you have the same text, I can refer to passages (like a scholar)[He is generally not fond of scholars, so pretending to be one may be touchy.] by referring to the page number or if the edition is different, the text number( eg. 5d).
    Like the rest of the Dialogues, the editors introduce us to the passage --like a maitre di showing us to our table. (They want us to enjoy the meal.)
    Can we use the introduction of the Dialogue as a point of departure?


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