Thursday, October 12, 2006

October Open Thread

1) Be sure to send in any submissions to the upcoming Philosophers' Carnival by tomorrow.

2) Suppose that leftists were to elect a woolly-headed pacifist to the presidency, who then disbands the entire police force. He and his supporters refuse to accept any responsibility for the crime wave that predictably follows: "We removed a tool of state oppression. All subsequent crimes were committed by the criminals, not by us, and the responsibility lies with them alone." Conservatives would shake their heads in disgust at such disastrous naivety. Yet they use identical reasoning to excuse Bush for the violence in Iraq. [HT: Alex] Go figure.

3) This is an open thread, in case anyone wants one. What philosophical puzzles are currently on your mind?


  1. 2) thinking that way makes one front up to some to concequentialist facts that very few (conservative or liberal) are willing to admit

  2. (Thinking out loud): Doesn't this argument lead inevitably to the conclusion that we're responsible for everything? I assume it's possible to think of a chain of causes and effects from my action to any subsequent event (cf. the butterfly effect in chaos theory), so, does this lead back to the arguments about determinism?

    I guess my intuition is to see this as a dualism — either I'm responsible or I'm not responsible. I'm not keen on dualisms like this, for various reasons, but particularly because they often seem to oversimplify and hence miss the essence of the idea. Therefore, perhaps it's more constructive to consider the degree of responsibility, but it's difficult to see how the degree could be assessed in practice; perhaps this is a major reason why there's so much heat and so little light over this particular example (Iraq)?

    Just thoughts — I know little about topics like this from their historical/ philosophical bases.

  3. Pete, we could avoid that problem by focusing on the foreseeable consequences of our actions. It seems intuitively clear that the person who disbands the police force -- or invades a foreign country without planning for post-war reconstruction -- is more responsible for the resulting chaos than the butterfly whose innocent flapping of wings played some obscure role in the causal chain.

  4. I guess that leaves us with “foreseeable” and our good bad measure to explain.

    1) Is being stupid or uninformed a defense?

    And if so should one blame a Bush less on those grounds assuming he is either less intelligent or less informed? (I.e. blame smart people more than less intelligent people).
    Is the butterfly’s guilt dependant on if it understands chaos theory or not? Or does it have to personally foresee the consequences?
    Similarly is bad choices made on the basis of willful ignorance better than straight out bad choices? (I.e. forseeability could be manipulated)

    2) How do we measure good and bad
    Inaction vs. action
    - if we hold inaction to not matter but action to matter and good deeds to be unvalued but bad ones to be valued (a negative scoring system - which is what normally seems to happen) then maybe the smart ‘butterfly’ SHOULD know flapping its wings will inevitably cause problems and shouldn't do it.

  5. Richard, I'm very sympathetic. I think the planning for Iraq was horribly incompetent and will make Bush go down as one of the worst, if not the worst, Presidents of the last 100 years. Having said that though I do think one has to consider limits of power and likewise some responsibility for individuals.

    Put an other way, to what degree do the Sunnis bear responsibility for not contributing to the government the first two years? I'll grant you that at a certain point both Sunnis and Shiites (especially Al Sadr's forces) deserve equal blame.

    The problem with Bush is that he inexplicably thought Iraq was going to be like France in 1944. I still can't figure out why.

  6. To get a closer analogy, you'd have to replace an oppressive police force with a completely non-oppressive one but a foreign one, with the eventual goal of replacing them with a local, self-sufficient police force that also isn't oppressive. That alone makes it silly to compare it with removing a police force and not replacing it with anything.

    You'd have to add that people from outside the country who hated the people who did this came in to undermine the new, outside police force and to stir up the local people to violence in a way that no one would have predicted, even the strongest detractors of the initial policy (people did predict instability but not that terrorists from around the world would turn it into the main battleground of their global efforts).

    The other factor is that people who want to blame this all on Bush are generally unwilling to blame the people who are actually doing it. If the response is that Bush bears no responsibility for his actions, that would be bad. I don't think that's what this is, at least in its most careful forms. I think it's rather that the primary responsibility of an evil action is with the evildoer. The responsibility of those whose actions allowed for it would then be at best secondary. Even that is going to be subject to certain restrictions, including (1) what the 1person could reasonably have foreseen regarding the relative good and bad of the various possibilities and (2) whether the person did what reasonably should have been expected to stave off the bad. I would argue that there was some failure in (2), though I would qualify that far more than Bush's critics do. I don't think there's anywhere near as much as people assert with (1). I don't have much truck with the kind of consequentialism that places responsibility with actual consequences rather than foreseeable consequences, and I tend to think what was knowable at the time about the negative consequences is a lot less than some are now saying. The fact that some pundits did suggest very negative outcomes leads people to say now that they knew ahead of time what it would be like, but I don't think so. They were a minority voice among the many voices, and I'm not convinced their analysis was entirely based on what could be known to begin with.

  7. Jeremy, the differences you point to are irrelevant to my analogy. The point is simply to illustrate the possibility of indirect responsibility for harmful results, and hence refute the people who fallaciously argue, "terrorists are responsible for terrorism, and therefore Bush isn't".

    I don't know any "people who want to blame this all on Bush [and] are generally unwilling to blame the people who are actually doing it." Such people would certainly be in a ridiculous position -- as, again, the criminal analogy makes clear. The terrorists (criminals) are still the ones directly responsible for their actions. But the politicians who irresponsibly enabled them also warrant severe criticism. In such cases, there's plenty of blame to go around.

    I'm presupposing that pursuing regime change with no plans for how to rebuild the country afterwards is indeed a predictably bad idea. Of course, if you reject that premise, the rest of the argument is moot...


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