Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Interesting New Blog

As you all know, I work in political theory, which of course means that while I talk lots about war and morality I don't, in general, do things like, well, get my hands dirty with actual empirical day-to-day issues in war. Fortunately, there are those who are willing to get their hands dirty, doing the sorts of empirical work necessary for theorists to do ours. One such man, Patrick Bentley, is getting ready to head off to Israel as part of an undergraduate fellowship on terrorism sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has begun a blog here as a sort of diary of his experiences.

Patrick, who is now a politics major at the University of Georgia, was a cadet in my philosophy class at West Point. After deciding at the end of his yearling (or sophomore) year that the Army wasn't for him, Patrick enrolled in seminary to become a Catholic priest before ending up at UGA. He was one of the best of my students at West Point, a potentially promising philosopher and, I thought, an outstanding future officer. It's great to see him putting those two years (and his considerable talent) to work in a such an important project. I'd encourage everyone to keep an eye on his blog.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Not How I Should Be Spending My Time...

...but I can't really help it. I've been interested in Nozick's Experience Machine objection in Anarchy, State and Utopia since early in grad school. Now David Friedman blogs about the experience machine, with some insightful discussion following, and at Catallarchy, Scott Scheule both comments on Friedman and offers a very thoughtful criticism to my own comment. I started to respond to Scott there, but then realized that, given the dearth of material here recently, I'd write it here instead. Shameless, I know. I don't really care.

Anyway, here's the response. First, thanks, Scott, for the really interesting and thoughtful reply. You raise some good points--several of them, actually--and there's no real way that I can hope to do justice to all of those points, at least not without taking up way too much of the time that my University thinks I am spending writing about just war theory. So I'll try here to get at what I think might be the heart of the difference between my rejection of the egoist's use of the term "selfish" and my own use of the term "real."

My initial response here, I think, is that it's not so much that I'm trying to redefine or use the word "real" in some strange way as it is that the word "real" is already pretty hopelessly vague, and that it tends to get used in ways that aren't really rigorous in the first place. "Selfish" by contrast, does have a pretty well-understood meaning. So let me offer some rigorous (or semi-rigorous; it's only 9 a.m. so I'm not currently up for really rigorous) attempts to articulate what "real" might mean in this particular context.

  1. An experience that corresponds to actual phenomena in the world.
  2. An experience that can be shared or verified by others around us.
  3. An experience that is not produced through direct manipulation of my brain states.
  4. True and actual; not imaginary, alleged, or ideal.
  5. Genuine and authentic; not artificial or spurious.
  6. Free of pretense, falsehood, or affectation.
  7. Existing objectively in the world regardless of subjectivity or conventions of thought or language.
  8. Of, relating to, or being an image formed by light rays that converge in space.
Okay, I cheated a bit. Most of those come from here, though I broke the first one into two as they raise, I think, very different points.

Now, though, the fun part. Which of these uses of "real" supports Scott's (and Nozick's) intuition that real experiences are to be preferred to experiences in the experience machine? I think that (1) pretty clearly won't do. After all, as Scott admits in his post, though in a different context there, the experiences that I have inside the experience machine pretty clearly do correspond to phenomena in the actual world. They just don't correspond to the phenomena that I think they correspond to. Thus (1) is out. (2) doesn't fare much better; if we just want the experience to be verified, then that will require only that I hook at least two people up to the same experience machine. Experiences verified. (3) I think fails for two different reasons. First, it begs the question entirely. And second, it would rule out things like getting drunk (which, after all, is an experience brought about entirely by a direct manipulation of your brain) as real experiences. (8) is equally easy to reject; as Scott mentions, the experience machine could just as easily be a holodeck, making the creations very much images that are formed by converging light rays.

Number (4) seems a bit more troubling at first glance, but I think that a deeper look reveals that that definition is superficial. It defines "real" by offering an equally poorly understood synonym ("actual"). The clarification, though, reveals that there is little to help out those wanting to reject the experience machine. Experiences contained therein are not imaginary (the experiences are actually happening inside my head, and I am in no way in control of their happening), alleged (they really are right there) or ideal (no one says that the experiences have to be perfect in any way).

Of the eight definitions, 5, 6, and 7 present the most difficulty. I think that one can, at the end of the day, reject all of them as displaying a bias for the organic and the natural that doesn't really seem to be all that justified. If we're talking about the experiences themselves, then what difference, really, does it make how that experience is generated? There isn't, I think, an in principle distinction. Think here about certain kinds of experiences.

Suppose, for example, that I were to decide to obtain the services of a prostitute. And let us further suppose that I have two possible avenues. The first is a flesh-and-blood prostitute; the second is a virtual prostitute. Now in each case, I will end up having a certain kind of experience, namely that of having sex with a willing but (really under it all) entirely uninterested partner. Sex with the flesh-and-blood prostitute will be a "real" experience (let's be clear: it will be a real experience of sex-with-a-prostitute) in the sense of being a genuine and authentic and not spurious or artifical experience of sex-with-a-prostitute. But why, exactly, is that a better experience? Both experiences (i.e., the virtual and the flesh-and-blood prostitutes) are already substitutes for a different experience, namely, sex with a willing and interested partner.

It seems to me that the only difference between the two encounters lies in the genesis of the experience. And I can't see any good reasons for thinking that that the way that the experience gets generated is all that relevant, at least not in this particular sort of case. Virtual prostitute sex and real prostitute sex are pretty much the same experience. What that shows, I think, is that it is not the way that the experience gets generated that really drives our intuitions about experience machine examples. What we're concerned about is that the experiences inside an experience machine will lack meaningfulness. Why? Well, because when both of the experiences in question already lack any real meaningfulness, we don't really care which way they are generated (and may indeed have other reasons for preferring the artificial--virtual hookers rarely give one STDs).

The problem, then, I think, is that people reject the experience machine because they think that it fails to be meaningful, that unless their actions somehow connect up to other people's lives in the right sorts of ways, the experience will have no value. That objection to the experience machine really boils back down to a version of (2), though. We can fix it by simply plugging lots of people into the same experience machine. Now my experiences do connect up to the lives of others. So what's the problem?

At the end of the day, I don't think that I'm distorting the word "real" to mean things other than it usually means. Rather, my claim is that ordinary understandings of the word "real" don't actually support the Nozickian intuition about the experience machine. This is an instance of intuitions that aren't really designed to cope with the sort of example that he offers. We have no real grasp of an illusion that, ex hypothesi, does not ever go away.

Let me put the point another way. We've all heard (way back in intro to philosophy) Cartesian arguments for skepticism--you know, the brain in a vat, evil demon sorts of things. The argument here is that, for all we know, the world we're actually living in now is already a virtual world. We simply have no way to tell. Well, that's what the experience machine would be like. It would be exactly like the world that we're in right now. Only, again ex hypothesi, everything would go way better for us. I really just can't see what the problem is.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Ramble On

Ohmygod. It’s a real post. Or a sort of real post. Okay, it might be a real post, depending on how long I decide to keep writing. It’s Saturday night here in Swansea as I write this. I’m tired—physically, not really ready for sleep—full on some, frankly rather bad, Chinese take-away, clean again after spending a long day out in the sun, and starting to feel just a bit warm from the now mostly-empty glass of Jameson’s sitting on the table in front of me.

Missy and I spent the day today hiking in the Gower Peninsula, which, as all the guidebooks loudly proclaim—okay, not loudly; they’re guidebooks, so they don’t do anything loudly, I suppose—Gower was the first area in the UK to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It pretty much deserves the title, as well. The views from the Rhossili Downs are breathtaking. I’ll post some pictures as soon as I get around to downloading and sorting through them. The hike itself—a five-mile circuit from the 14th C church in the town of Rhossili—was just what I’d always pictured a hike through the Welsh countryside to be like. Rolling hills covered in heather, with paths that cut across pastures, sheep everywhere you look, ruined stone farmhouses, and cows and horses—and did I mention sheep?—standing right on the trail. Even the ruins of the WWII radar station (which, given its state of disrepair, was either the worst-built structure in the history of British building, or was, like so much else on these islands, bombed to near-oblivion by the Luftwaffe) where we ate lunch had its own charm. The only thing missing were the castles; Gower has a number of them, but they weren’t on our particular circuit. Oh, and Arthur’s Stone. That’s King Arthur. You know, I’d always thought growing up that the King Arthur legends were based on a first-century Briton who resisted the Romans. That’s not actually true, though. They were based on a Briton (who by then had been pushed into what is now Wales) who resisted the Saxons. Yes, King Arthur was Welsh. As was Merlin (based on one John Myrrdin), who lived, as it happens, not far from Swansea.

But I digress. I don’t think that anyone reads this blog to hear about my travels. Actually, as slack as I’ve been lately, I probably could have safely left the last five words of that last sentence. Those of you still around are here to read my musings on various topics in political philosophy. Since I’m ostensibly in Wales to work on my book on just war theory, I suppose that I should say something about it here.

My general topic—and this will come as a great surprise, I’m sure—is to offer a rule-utilitarian argument for just war theory. Why? Well, the flip answer is that since rule-utilitarianism is the correct account of morality, someone ought to use it to ground just war theory. Since no one any better has gotten around to it, it’s all me. The more serious answer is that I think that rule-utilitarianism will ultimately help us to walk a particular sort of line in the way that we want to walk it. That line is the one between humanitarian intervention and preventive war. The problem that I’ve encountered in my readings on the two topics is that arguments justifying humanitarian intervention tend to open the door for prevention. On the flip side, arguments that restrict prevention usually have the effect of limiting humanitarian intervention. I, however, want to have my cake and eat it too.

Here’s the more specific problem. JWT—at least in the contemporary, post-Westphalian legalist version that I prefer—takes aggression to be the central crime of war. But building a theory of jus ad bellum around aggression requires some kind of understanding of state sovereignty. And here’s where the two strands of the legalist tradition part ways. Some theorists (Michael Walzer is the paradigm example) argue for a pretty wide conception of sovereignty. Walzer claims that there is usually a certain fit between states and their citizens and that outsiders must not interfere with the political communities of others. Other theorists—David Luban and Henry Shue are prominent examples—argue that sovereignty can attach only to states that are at least minimally legitimate, with legitimacy being conferred only on those states that provide at least a basic level of protection of basic rights. The divide here rather nicely parallels Jacob Levy’s distinction between pluralists and rationalists, with Walzer embodying the former and Luban and Shue the latter.

Like Levy, I think that both rationalism and pluralism are important strands of liberalism. And like Levy, I think that the two are, by and large, in tension with one another, such that a commitment to one in some ways precludes a commitment to the other. In international relations, this is particularly unfortunate. Pluralist arguments are necessary to secure peace; indeed, recognizing the importance of pluralism is important to combating neocolonialism. After all, if only morally legitimate states possess sovereignty, then invading such states on the grounds of bringing liberal democracy—the best system we have right now for protecting human rights—seems perfectly legitimate. We all see how well that worked out in the 19th century. On the other hand, purely pluralist arguments have difficulty with things like genocide: why isn’t the wholesale slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus just another instance of a “fit” between a state and its people?

It seems to me, then, that we need both rationalist and pluralist arguments. Pluralism limits the number of preventative wars, the number of wars fought to “civilize and democratize the barbarians” while rationalism offers some justification for intervening when states really do become barbaric, engaging in wholesale slaughter of their citizens. What’s needed, however, is a way of combining the two responses. Here deontological arguments for the two positions (the normal method for grounding both liberty-as-tolerance pluralists and the liberty-as-autonomy rationalists) reveal their fundamental weakness, namely, that the main objections to both rationalism and pluralism in international affairs are consequentialist objections. Thus the need for a consequentialist justification. Why rule-utilitarian, then? Well, all the usual reasons for preferring rule-based over act-based accounts, the biggest, in the international arena, being the need to form reasonable expectations about what other nations will do.

Anyway, that’s the basic outline. Chapter 1, which I hope to finish up this week, sets up the tension and argues for rule-utilitarianism as a solution. Chapter two, which will be written this fall as my students and I work on contemporary moral theory, lays out my conception of rule-utilitarianism and then connects it to JWT. Chapters three through five will look at the cases for prevention and humanitarian intervention more closely, linking both to my rule-utilitarian just war theory.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Finally Online Again

Yes, I do still exist. I'm sure that you all missed me terribly. I've been suffering through a lack of internet access for the past few days; it's taken the university here a couple of days to finally get my account up and running. In the meantime, I've had to deal with weather in the 20 C range (a welcome break from the mid-to-upper 30s back in NC). Swansea has much to recommend it. More later (plus maybe some pics if you're all nice) now that I'm back online.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Slacking Off

Apologies for the light blogging recently. Okay, I know, it's not like I ever have been all that good about blogging regularly, but it's been particularly bad of late. It'll probably be a couple more days before anything of substance might appear. I've been preparing for my trip to Swansea for the last couple of weeks, and that's sucked up most of my blogging time.

So for the next month or so, I'll be in Swansea (that's in Wales, for the record). I have a position there as Honorary Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Wales at Swansea. That's quite the coup considering that my degree isn't in politics or in international relations. That's the beauty of a degree in political philosophy, though. Politics departments will sometimes hire political philosophers. Philosophy departments very rarely hire political theorists (i.e., folks who study the same stuff as political philosophers but do so in politics or government or political science departments). But I digress. And it's only fair to point out that Swansea didn't actually hire me. Hence the honorary part.

Anyway, over the next month I'll be working on a paper that attempts to redefine aggression in what many have argued is a post-Westphalian world. I'm also going to start work on a book proposal (and by extension a book) on just war theory from a rule-utilitarian perspective. The quick and dirty version is that I plan to use Jacob Levy's Liberalism's Divide to explain a certain tension between two schools of just war theorists (one represented by Michael Walzer and the other by David Luban among others). I'll then argue that both traditions are inadequate, with Walzer setting the bar for intervention (for example) too high and Luban setting the same bar far too low. My hope is to offer a rule-utilitarian account that treads the middle ground.

Or that's what I'll be doing when I'm not enjoying the Gower Peninsula, hiking through the Welsh countryside, and generally enjoying days with highs around 70F. Oh, yeah, and there's also my lovely travelling companion whose company probably won't totally suck.

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