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caro: Welcome back. We'll start with Irfan's session in just a moment. I have some additional instructions which should make things go more smoothly this time. Please listen carefully.
caro: Open a SECOND browser window. Leave this one just the way it is. In the SECOND window, go here: This is where your own comments are being sent. You'll have a clearer idea of where you are and what sort of organization I'm trying to maintain in the thread. You can ask me "private" questions there, though of course everyone else in the whole world will see them; they just won't disturbe the speaker. IRFAN: For your own sanity, do not open a second window!
irfan: Ladies and gentlemen, Irfan Khawaja will not be speaking to you tonight. His time is up. I have taken it over. You were to hear a presentation on Viable Values. That is what... Heh, heh just kidding! It's me, guys, Irfan. I'm here.
caro: Welcome, Mr. Khawaja! Our next speaker is in fact here. A doctoral candidate in the midst of his dissertation in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Khawaja specializes in ethics.
caro: Sorry: Let me repeat the instructions at the top of this page. [repeat] I'm communicating with you in the other discussionwindow, so you'll want to open that now....
caro: From Chris Sciabarra: Irfan, long time no speak! In keeping with some of our earlier discussion about scholarship, I was wondering if you could provide a bit of discussion about something that was lacking in Tara Smith's book, namely, the similarities and differences between her approach and that offered by the neo-Aristotelian, and Rand-influenced eudaimonistic theories of people like Den Uyl, Rasmussen, Hunt, etc.
irfan: Actually, let me start by thanking you, Chris, for the kinds words about my paper and presentation. I didn't think that what was lacking in Smith's book was primarily something remedied in the writers you've mentioned. If I had to identify a weakness, it's what I would call underdetermination. In other words, Smith was offering very large generalizations, but she could have done more to indicate the kind of inductive evidence required to bear them out. There's a certain inductive and explanatory complexity that the book leaves out. I also thought she could have dealt more specifically with Utilitarianism and some other positions in the literature.
caro: (Another note: if the user.html doesn't reload like this one, reload it manually. It might then do it by itself.)
caro: From Chris: you're welcome... but what interests me here is this: is Smith offering something different from Den Uyl, Rasmussen, et. al., or is it a new formulation of the same idea?
irfan: Oh--I see what you mean. Let me start with the Rasmussen-Den Uyl contrast. I think what differentiates them is that Smith's is a more explicit and clearer formulation of the conditionality thesis. I've never been quite clear on how R-D conceptualize that thesis. Consequently, she is more insistent on egoism; they tend to dismiss that term, and downplay egoism as an issue. So there is a broad similarity (eudaimonism), but Smith's formulations are significantly different. In the case of Hunt, i think the difference is more stark. In "Flourishing Egoism," Hunt takes the good of others as a ground-floor reason for action. I think that's a mistake, and Smith is insistent about NOT making it. I don't think Hunt's position is a consistent form of egoism, in fact.
caro: From Robert Campbell: In his Appendix on Categoricity vs. the Choice to Live, Irfan says, "Life's conditional character becomes a guide for action when and only when one chooses to value and live, i.e., chooses to engage in goal-directed actoin, and chooses to promote one's life by goal-directed action." Psychological question: who chooses to live, when, and how? Objectivist philosophers often talk as though the choice to live is explicit--we aware of making it when we make it. We could read Irfan's remarks differently, however--in terms of a choice to live that is implied by (lots of) more specific choices.
irfan: Actually, I think the answer to this question is contained in the clause after the "i.e.". An agent chooses to live in choosing to engage in goal-directed action and choosing to sustain that goal-directed action as goal-directed. If you can do that, you can make the choice to live--so say I. I think that choice can be made at a fairly early age. How early? I don't quite know. But if you can grasp the fact of your own agency, grasp that you carry out actions on your own, and can choose to sustain a course of action, you've done it. So initially, the choice is not and cannot be explicitly aimed at "life." The agent has no idea of what that means at that stage, and couldn't have it. The choice becomes increasingly explicit over time, and eventually we choose life under that description: a choice to live; a choice to live well; a choice to live happily; a choice to survive qua human; etc. But I would say that the early iterations of the choice, even if inexplicit, are instances of THAT choice.
caro: From Frank Forman: The question why we *need* a value system sounds circular, for needs seem to be something to be explained inside the system. Wouldn't it be better to ask how it came about that certain animals *evolved* emotions that drive the animal in pursuit of values? It is not obvious why there would be extra calorie-eating brain circuitry to handle emotions and desires. Why doesn't the animal just do what promotes its survival and reproduction directly--a lot of lower animals seem to--rather than to have an emotional urge and then go about trying to satisfy that urge?
irfan: No, I don't think there's any vicious circularity here. And my quick response to your three questions would be that they don't explain why humans need a code of values at all. To take the latter issue first: suppose I give you an evolutionary story about how you're constituted. Well, the fact is that you have free will. Nothing in that evolutionary story determines your actions in any way. But the question in a human context is: why is it that as a FREE agent you have to do this rather than that? And the evolutionary story is utterly mute on that fundamental question. As for circularity, I would say this. We first have to grasp the concept of *a" need to be able to grasp the concept of survival qua human. There is no conceivable way in which you could induce to the concept of survival qua human prior to and independently of grasping that you have needs for values. And you'd need to first grasp that values could be codified before grasping survival's value as well. Of course, once we go through the initial steps, we can later give more clarity to our concept of "need" by using the concept of survival qua human. But some version of the concept of "need" is what we start with.
caro: From Robert: Is choosing to live implicit in goal-directed action? Or in choosing to engage in goal-directed action (a meta-choice in relation to the first?). Or in choosing the sort of life that consists in choosing goal-directed action (now a meta-meta-choice)? (I'm using these examples because they fall out of Irfan's text. It would be more natural, I think, to plug in something a little more concete as the object of the second and third-level choices...) How often, for that matter, does someone who is capable of recognizing a relationship between various other choices and a choice to live actually explicitly choose to live?
irfan: Let me take the questions in order. Is choosing to live implicit in goal-directed action? Not quite. I'd say it's implicit in choosing to SUSTAIN goal-directed action. I think that answers the second question too. Choosing a sort of life is a much more sophisticated version of the choice in question. I certainly don't think it's a necessary condition of "choosing to live" that you have to choose a certain sort of life. So I think I disagree with the idea that we need to plug in something more concrete as the objects of the choice to live--at least initially. Now as for how often someone explicitly chooses to live, that's an interesting question, and I don't really know the answer. In fact, I don't even know you'd determine it, though I've seen depictions of it in art (e.g., The Piano). But I would revert at this point to my logical analogy. How many people explicitly formulate the law of non-contradiction? It's unclear. But it doesn't really matter. People can think non-contradictorily without explicitly formulating the law--and we can say that they're CHOOSING to do so, even if they lack an explicit formulation of the law. They choose to do so when they choose to adhere to reality in their thinking. By analogy, people choose to live when they do the same with respect to overt action.
caro: From Andrew Breese: I'm also most interested in the "life plans" aspects of your paper. You write: "The first is the sheer temporal extension of a human life. A full human life consists of the total expected length of an entire lifespan—say, eighty or ninety years. So we need a code that will last the distance, and traits that will do so as well. The second is the unity of a human life. A human lifespan is not just a series of disaggregated and unrelated sequences, but an integrated whole, each of whose parts contributes to the sum. So we need a code that will serve to integrate the parts into a whole, and traits that will do the same." I see a lot of possibly great places to explore from this quote. To start with, what is it about 90 years that matters? Should ethics be much different in a world where lifespans are only 20 years or are 2000 years? Or would it take even more variation to produce different best ethical systems?
irfan: I don't think there's anything special about 90 years that makes THE difference. But there's certainly a metaphysical difference between a being capable of living 90 years and one capable of living of 20, and that would be reflected in any ethics. The ethics of our hominid ancestors, if they had free will, would be different from ours. I hesitate to answer whether ethics would have a different content if we lived 2000 years, because as a rule I don't like to speculate about counter-factual conditionals for which we have no current evidence. Since ethics is a highly inductive field, it's important to keep one's judgments constrained by what you know could in fact be the case. I'm not clear on what you mean by your third question, but if I understand it I think the answer is no. We don't need any more variation to discover the best ethical system; we have all the information we need. In fact, the problem is not scarcity of information but just the opposite; we barely know what to do with the information we have.
caro: From Andrew: Next, I wonder whether our being social animals should work its way at all into metaethics. It's at least striking to me that most discussions of ethics (even Objectivist discussions of ethics) focus on social situations or social virtues. In the same qualitative way that lifespan appears in your metaethical summary, should anything involving Others or language-as-communication appear?
irfan: Should our being social animals work its way into meta-ethics? Certainly. It's a fact about us that we need others to survive and flourishing. But I think that fact is less fundamental than the two under discussion. We can rank different forms of social life by how well they promote each individual's life; part of doing that is grasping that each individual's life ought to be fairly long and have a unified structure. Note that length and unity of structure are epistemically prior to sociality. Capitalism is better by that standard than socialism; what Aristotle calls character-friendships are better than sado-masochism. And so on. But we wouldn't know any of that unless we have grasped the more fundamental non-social survival requirements before the social ones. So to answer your question directly, sociality shouldn't take precedence to those two things. But of course sociality is a part of any adequate meta-ethics, and I did implicitly mention it when I discussed the virtues: justice and benevolence are social in content (although I would actually argue that benevolence has an important non-social element as well). As for language, I was assuming that because I was assuming the context of a rational animal, and rationality is practically tantamount to possessing linguistic capacity. So the short answer to your question is, yes it should be mentioned, but in a fuller philosophical anthropology you would want to be quite explicit about identifying which parts of human nature were most fundamental and which were less so. And sociality would have to be shown to depend on MORE fundamental features.
caro: From Andrew: I think I agree with you about too much unusable "information" in the world. For the record, my third question wasn't clear. I know this because you did misunderstand it. But, you did inadvertently answer what I meant along when you answered my second question! Following up on your reply to my second question, then: You say that our hominid ancestors, if they had free will, would have a different ethic than us because they can only live to 20 years or so. How would their ethic be different?
irfan: Well, to answer this question I would have to be an anthropologist, so let me preface this by saying this is pure speculation. And also I can't answer the question by merely focusing on the issue of 20 years in isolation from other factors: the factors come in a package, one element of which is length of life. But hominid life, I suspect, would put less of a premium on independence; the good of the tribe and that of the individual might really coalesce in that case, as communitarians constantly try to convince us in our own case. Their lives would more resemble the lives lived by other primates, I suspect. It might well be more predatory. It would be senseless in such a situation to have a ban on infanticide, for instance; survival might depend on killing dependents in some cases. The virtues and values would be cruder. There would be a more powerful premium on sheer staying-alive. Leisure might be a meaningless concept. Benevolence might be as well. If they were nomadic, the concept of private property might have no application. This is just off the top of my head, though, and I hate to speculate about what is after all a bona fide empirical science. The fundamental point is that there COULD be differences; there is no a priori reason to insist that their ethics would be like ours, and some prima facie reason to think it would differ.
caro: Combining related questions from Michelle Fram-Cohen and Andrew Breese: michelle: How would you rank the evolution of language in enabling prehistorical people to resovle their conflicts without resorting to force? Would you say that the emerging of rationality required language as a vehicle to manifest itself?

breese: Irfan: I appreciate your good clear answer on sociality appearing in metaethics. I'm most surprised to hear you say: "rationality is practically tantamount to possessing linguistic capacity." Do you see this as generally uncontroversial, or just in Objectivist circles?

irfan: Let me answer the second question first, because it provides a good segue to the first. "Rationality is practically tantamount to possessing [a] linguistic capacity." I put "practically" in because the two aren't identical. If you take concept-formation to be part of rational cognition, that's a partly non-linguistic process, so not all of rationality is linguistic. But I think I'm just following Rand here. To COMPLETE any concept, you need a word; without the linguistic element, you cannot actually form a concept. What you have is a mental resolve to treat units as units. But that isn't rationality; it's at best the anteroom of rationality. But fundamentally, rationality requires propositional thought. And really, it requires deliberation, highly abstraction integrations, question-asking, and many other things besides. You can't do any of that without posesssing language. So while I'd qualify things by saying that language doesn't utterly constitute rationality, it's a colossally large part of it, such that without language you're bereft of a rational faculty. That's my view, anyway, but I don't take it to constitute a divergence from Objectivism. Now to the first question, well the short answer is: very, very highly! And perhaps that's clear from my preceding remarks. For all intents and purposes, rationality is manifested in linguistic form, whether as self-talking or communication with others. The emergence of language, then, was crucial to non-coercive conflict-resolution. Perhaps it was stronger than crucial if there is such a word. And my answer to "Would you say that the emerging of rationality required language as a vehicle...?" is absolutely yes. Without that vehicle rationality would not really exist at all.
caro: I know it is going to be very tempting to get into issues of proper concept formation at this point, given Irfan's strong claims. But I think we would do well to stick to ethics. So I'm going to move on to Bryan's set of questions, which I've edited a bit for readability after requesting clarification.
caro: I found your discussion of O'ist meta-ethics the most thorough and well- considered I've read so far, but I'm decreasingly convinced by such arguments each time I encounter them. It seems to me that a crux point sits here in your paper:
What the conditionality thesis asserts is that the alternative of life and death is the most fundamental alternative underlying the entire structure of needs. Life, in other words, is a kind of second-order need--not merely a need, but the basic need that explains why all other needs exist and exert practical pressure on us.
But it seems that this is false, as a matter of biology. Organisms, to whatever degree that the pressures of natural selection rather than genetic drift or piggybacking play a role in shaping their structure, has not designed us to live but rather to reproduce. It seems that the ultimate goal in terms of which valuation makes sense is actually the goal of reproduction, and that living is a mere means to this end in every organism but us. If the O'ist ethics is going to be based on our nature as the sort of organism we are, and the sort of organism we are is one which functions to maximize reproductive success and not at all to maximize length of life, why does O'ism ignore our natural function in favor of a subsidiary alternative?

Aside related to last remark: this claim of Irfan's seems to show the problem I was complaining about:

Non-human organisms are, in short, automatic, deterministic value-trackers that automatically take life as their ultimate value, and an automatic awareness of, and propensity to act on, their needs.
This seems wrong for the reason I mentioned.

irfan: Well, a preliminary point. The conditionality of life would still provide the basis of practical necessitation in our case whatever was true of the other organisms. Even if it were true that reproduction were the goal of survival for everything else, it obviously isn't for us. It doesn't in our case explain why we have to select alternative courses of action. The material in the Objectivist Ethics that makes reference to the other organisms is not in my view THE basis for application of the conditionality of life to us. It merely illustrates the same phenomenon in other cases; but even if the phenomenon didn't apply in those other cases, it still does apply in our case, so the basic point isn't affected. But anyway, I don't agree with what you regard as the biological fact. I agree with Binswanger's formulation of the issue. Reproduction is the fact that explains how we come into existence; it's a deterministic fact about each organism's life that its actions will on occasion aim at reproduction simply because there was no way for the organism to come into existence without having propensities to engage in such action. But I would say it is simply false that reproduction is the ultimate goal or even the characteristic activity of living things. It certainly is not true of the organisms that most resemble us, but I don't think it's true generally. I'd need more time and space to get at why you think evolutionary theory implies what you think it implies, but I don't think it does.
Our session is unofficially supposed to end at this time. If Irfan has time and would like to continue, that's perfectly fine. I may drop out, in which case I'll warn you and Irfan can join the circus over in the other window for completely unmoderated chaos.
irfan: Well, I think I can go on for another 20 minutes or so.
caro: We'll do that then.
caro: To whatever degree we're designed, we're designed because certain genes were selected for their propensity to get themselves reproduced. Never is a gene selected for its propensity to make the organism in which it exists live a long time. Also, I don't understand why our basic goal wouldn't be that of all organisms. We're designed (let's say); and we're designed by a designer whose only design constraint was maximizing reproduction. Why wouldn't this be our natural function, too? (The fact that we don't experience it that way shouldn't mean much - too subjective.)
caro: (That last comment was from Bryan.)
irfan: Genes are selected because they make their possessors fitter. Fitness is adaptation, and adaptation can be understood in terms of the survival-conducivity of traits possessed by the organism. The second sentence in your passage is false. (You could, if you wanted to, look at selection as you do in some context, but that fact doesn't invalidate the point I've just made. Nothing about evolutionary theory requires that perspective.) As I said, I think that our goal is the same as that of of the other organisms, because I think it happens to be survival. But suppose that the other organisms really did aim at reproduction. It's a non-sequitur to infer that their goal is our goal. We're not them. Literally speaking, we're not designed, and there is no designer observing constraints. What's operating is a certain causal process, natural selection, and we would need a reason to regard this causal process as binding our actions. I don't see any reason for that. The reason certainly isn't that "they do it; hence we should." That's a non-sequitur too. In the human case, I think the issue is crystal-clear. What necessitates action is conditional necessity, and the basis of conditional necessitation is the thing that gives rise to and explains why conditional necessitation exists. That's life, not reproduction. The point has nothing to do with how we experience things. It has to do with what explains why we have to act on alternative courses of action--with emphasis on "we" and "have" to.
caro: don't think I'm being clear. We're selected to perform a certain natural function; it's our relatively high level of fitness at that function that explains why we are structured the way we are, instead of our ancenstral competitors' descendants being structured the way they aren't. But we're selected for our propensity to breed, not to survive. (You can't be disagreeing with *that* claim, are you?) This implies that breeding is our 'natural function', and that success at this function is the basic alternative which organisms have faced, our ancestors' succeeding at explains our structures. This co-opts life in terms of fundamentality; level of success at breeding is the more fundamental explanatory feature of organisms' natures. Thanks for the discussion!
caro: (Sorry; I did it again. That last rejoinder is from Bryan.)
irfan: No, I understand you precisely. I am precisely disagreeing with the claim you're emphasizing. Being selected for a propensity to breed doesn't explain our phenotypic structures' being as they are. Breeding isn't our natural function, and success or failure at this function is not the basic alternative that alternative face; our ancestors' success (whether human or non-human) doesn't explain our phenotype. So reproduction doesn't co-opt life in terms of fundamentality, and isn't more explanatorily fundamental.
irfan: Sorry: success or failure is not the basic alternative that ORGANISMS face is what I meant to say.
caro: Thank you, Irfan. I'm going to officially end the moderated discussion; you are probably as hungry as I am! If you want, you can open a second browser window to, copy people's comments, paste them in here, and answer. Otherwise, you are all welcome to discuss as long as you want. If there's a need to kick you off, I'll warn you. Thank you for a great session!
irfan: Actually, I have to go. Survival requirements await me. But thanks very much to all, and especially to you Carolyn and Tom, for a great time with great questions. You can direct any remaining questions to, but I can't guarantee I'll get to them, or get to them quickly. For a fuller discussion of the reproduction-survival issue, I'd refer Bryan (or anyone interested) to Binswanger's book, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts, or to Jim Lennox's "Comment on Byerly and Michod," Biology and Philosophy 6 (1991).
caro: Remember to close this window when you are finished please! Log back in tomorrow. The first session begins at 11:00am EST.