Thursday, January 20, 2005

Raz On Contempory Philosophy

Joseph Raz, a commissioning editor at Oxford University Press, made the following observation in a conversation:

Perhaps in our hyperactive world the mode of progress in philosophy has changed. Perhaps it now lies less with the singular achievements of exceptional thinkers like the classics of modern philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and others, and more in the cumulative products of hundreds of worker ants. This would suggest that the history of philosophy may assume the relation to philosophy that the history of physics has to physics. It would even make the ephemerality and forgetfulness of the age less regrettable. I doubt, however, that that can be the whole story. It is probably yet another manifestation of the lack of clear horizons in contemporary philosophical thought.


Cooly McCool said...

Yes, this is now my excuse for my lack of an interesting thesis for this year. Things aren't very clear on the horizon so of course its second rate and this is because of the rest of the philosphic community.

After all, isn't learning ethics really is just about how to shirk responsibility for your actions? Or maybe that's just postmodern ethics? Anyway, that's the crux of what we do? Ethics that is.

MH said...

That the purpose of ethics, post modern or otherwise, is to develop means of shirking responsibility is a dangerous interpretation. Dangerous because it opens up fields of action that may not have any ethical basis.

A posibly better position would be to take the view that ethics is about trying to find ways of 'creating self'. If we view the ethical process as the process of determining action, and we take the position that we are, to a great extent the history of our actions, then the actions we chose become us. To this extent we cannot shirk responsibility for our actions.

Cooly McCool said...

Are you suggesting that responsibility is a basis for identity? If so, how can anyone have a consistent identity or even an identity at all when "moral luck" is considered? Granted existentialism tries to sidestep the problem by insisting that you are not your 'facticity,' but this hardly works. You may not be your facticity, but responsibility still dissolves and as such so does indentity.

What we can maintain, moral luck considered, is that values are placed on actions and individuals, and responsibility enforced, even for that which is beyond our control - which would appear to be most of what we do. It is probably very difficult to assert a conception of ethics based on actions and responsibility. This seems counter intuitive itself I must admit as responsibility and agency appear to be the fundamental elements of ethical theory. But I propose, and I feel Foucault and most post-modern ethicists would agree, that we should instead be interested in the creation of value for specific relationships involving the ethical agent. These include relationships between the agent and his actions, the agent and other agents, the agent and himself, and so forth. In the concept of agency is of course responsibility, but what is accorded ethical worth is the agents relation to the act and its subject. This has a historicizing effect that escapes a reasonable amount of the problems raised by 'moral luck' while also avoiding making undue claims about identity.

I would like Martin to note that my last post was made in a state of reduced responsibility, and that it was meant to be more self deprecating than serious.

MH said...

In a sense I am saying that responsibility and identity are related; perhaps not that responsibility is a basis for identity, but that they are related.

Basically, the suggestion is that an individual must take responsibility first and foremost for them-self. If there is to be any sort of ethics there must agents and these agents must take responsibility for their own existence; they cannot shirk that primary responsibility by saying that their existence is another’s fault and that their actions should be blamed on this other. If the first act of an ethical agent is to take responsibility for them-self, then they are taking responsibility for those things attributed to self, such as identity. Further, if the agent takes responsibility for them-self, then the agent must also take responsibility for all other actions they undertake (including the shirking of responsibility – is there more than one genus of responsibility?) even in if the whole field of ethical action is far more complicated and strewn with moral chance.

Now, in such fields of action, it is in the process of taking responsibility for self that the agent actually begins the process of valuing actions. A and B exist in relation to each other, A is an agent and B is an event. Now it is only if A takes some level of responsibility for B that B can actually be valued by A. In explanation (using a current example); A does not like his sister’s boyfriend and plans to end their relationship. The event of terminating the relationship is B. Now to determine whether the exercise of power is ethical, A must understand that he is able of causing event B; effectually he must take responsibility for B upon himself. In realising that he can cause B, A must then determine if he should. One of the factors in his determination is going to be the fact that he must take some level of responsibility for causing B. Of course, in actuality, the whole process is much more complicated, but this should make my idea more straightforward.

Further, it is the process of determining actions that agents to the point where they actually have to make such decisions. In many ways they have to take responsibility, not for the outside factors, but for their response to them – which the agent can control.

Cooly McCool said...

I am willing to grant that ethics is about valuing action and action requires agents and therefore responsibility. But posed with the dillema of moral luck and other inherent problems with the notion of responsibility (and no great response to issues of identity), should we not ask "what value has been attributed this action?" rather than "what value does the agent of this action have?" In your original suggestion - that we are largely the history of our actions, it appears that the actions must have been valued in some capacity before the agent can even be considered at all. The value of an action may be altered by which agent has performed it: its hard to praise the incidental 'good' action of a 'bad' person.

The action which I feel however to be of fundamental importance is the action of attributing value - of creating it. The agents responsibility for this ebbs away like any other action. But we can examine and come to some useful position by asking why was that value created? What were the historical factors that made it possible? What purpose did it serve?

So by describing value as establishing the position relationally of two 'things' of which one is an agent, responsibility may be of consequence to that relation, but it also allows a greater field of ethical consideration, especially responses to contingent states of affairs or events for which the agent has little or no control of how he will act, but has been granted by those contingencies a range of possible actions. This is the state we find ourselves, even in taking responsibility for ourselves. We are limited by historical circumstance to a range of possible ways in which we may establish ourselves as a person. These limits we have no control over. Responsibility seems here to be of little consequence.

Samuel Douglas said...

Reponsibility, pah!
Hume would not accuse one billiard ball of malicious intent when it collided with another ball causing it to travel away, would he?
I think we can safely say that Humes balls prove that all this talk of responsibility is bunk.

michael said...

Sam, are Hume's balls resposible for there no longer being responsibility, and if not is that because responsibility is really tied up with personal identity and you are visciously asserting that Hume's balls are not people too?

I think here that responsibility is still relevant, but is has a sliding scale of value in proportion to the size of the range of possible ways in which we may establish ourselves.

A point I would like to make again: systems of ethics are produced by Man (or men) for Man, they do not exist in their own right. Kant does not have a large following in that respect anymore.

Martin is arguing here from a deep existentialist cartesian framework, and as a result must leave the World to its own devices and focus on the individual who is all powerful. this then, to follow the Sartrean line must then be assumed to be the same for all men - individuality in terms of ethics is then only an illusion (which certainly raises questions for personhood, and thus for resposibility). Rowan is looking at a picture of Man-as-part-of-the-World – an altered Foucauldian picture - that allows him to have an amount of power distributed through the system. Here when the World has more power the man has less – the greater the amount of moral luck (or other agents, or the World in general) the smaller the amount of resposibility, and vice-versa. Using the actions that Foucault sees as the centeres of power, centres that are out of an individual's direct control, Rowan brings out the power/value component in the morality question by reafirming the system of truth creation that again highlights the primacy, but here not of Man, but, of the Individual over ethics, hightening the concept of responsibility. Martin’s framework results in a static, timeless picture that I think has generally been left behind in favour of the dynamic view put forward by Rowan. This shift in trends is a good example of the “lack of clear horizons”.

A thought for Raz; I am sure that things will become more clear with the benefit of further and further removed hindsight.