(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘political philosophy

“Okay, so that was trolley problem version number seven. Chidi opted to run over five William Shakespeares instead of one Santa Claus.”*…

 

Trolley Problem

 

Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

The trolley dilemma explored: would you kill one person to save five?

See also your correspondent’s favorite examination of the issue, from The Good Place:

 

Indeed, Michael “resolves” the dilemma in a way that would make today’s Almanac honoree (below) proud:

 

For an earlier look at The Trolley Problem on (Roughly) Daily, see “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

[Image at top from Devine Lu Linvega (or @neauoire@merveilles.town)]

* Michael, The Good Place, Season Two, Episode Five: “The Trolley Problem”

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As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for John Bordley Rawls; he died on this date in 2002 (Spinoza’s birthday and the anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of the Species).  A moral and political philosopher, Rawls argued for “justice as fairness,” recommending equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society.  He made these social justice arguments using a thought experiment he called the “original position,” in which people select what kind of society they would choose to live under as if they did not know which social position they would personally occupy.

Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of the way in which Rawls’ work “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”  He is widely considered the most important political philosopher of the 20th century– with the unusual distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States and Canada and referenced by practicing politicians in the United States and the UK.

A concept central to the “original position” approach to moral dilemmas is Rawls’ notion of a “veil of ignorance“: we decide the outcome without knowing which character we “are” in the situation… an approach that leads to Michael to his conclusion in The Good Place.  The “Golden Rule” strikes again!  [see also “The Unselfish Trolley Problem“]

220px-john_rawls source

 

“Baseball is the only thing beside the paper clip that hasn’t changed”*…

 

paper clip

 

The paper clip is something of a fetish object in design circles. Its spare, machined aesthetic and its inexpensive ubiquity landed it a spot in MoMA’s 2004 show Humble Masterpieces. This was a pedestal too high for design critic Michael Bierut, who responded with an essay called “To Hell with the Simple Paper Clip.” He argued that designers praise supposedly unauthored objects like the paper clip because they’re loath to choose between giving publicity to a competitor and egotistically touting their own designs. Bierut might be right about his colleagues’ motives, but he’s wrong about the paper clip: It’s not all that simple.

Most everyday objects—like the key, or the book, or the phone—evolve over time in incremental ways, and the 20th century in particular revolutionized, streamlined, or technologized the vast majority of the things you hold in your hand over the course of an average day. But if you could step into an office in 1895—walking past horse-drawn buses and rows of wooden telephone switchboard cabinets—you might find a perfectly recognizable, shiny silver paper clip sitting on a desk. What was then a brand-new technology is now, well over a century later, likely to be in the same place, ready to perform the same tasks. Why did the paper clip find its form so quickly, and why has it stuck with us for so long?…

It was invented in the 1890s; it hasn’t been improved upon since: “The perfection of the paper clip.”

* Bill Veeck

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As we find fasteners fascinating, we might spare a thought for Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he died on this date in 1994.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: a theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments.  (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism (in which role he was a mentor to George Soros).

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Written by LW

September 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“One of the biggest obstacles to making a start on climate change is that it has become a cliche before it has even been understood”*…

 

iceage

 

Once upon a time in Europe, the winters got very very cold and the summers got unbearably hot. “The spring of this year was like winter, cold and wet, the wine blossom terrible, and the harvest bad,” wrote the Swiss theologian Heinrich Bullinger in 1570.

Initially, this seemed like a temporary problem, just one bad year. So across the continent, cultivators shrugged off their poor harvests, and vintners sold wine made of sour grapes which consumers drank angrily as they contemplated rising grain prices.

But the extreme weather continued, season after season after season, until abnormal became the new normal. As William Shakespeare put it in the 1593 play Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

In his book Nature’s Mutiny, German journalist Philipp Blom posits that Shakespeare wrote those words as a literal description of the string of difficult winters he’d just endured. This period of extreme weather, which would continue for more than 100 years, is now known as the “Little Ice Age,” and Blom argues that if we look back at its effects in Europe—where they were best documented—we’ll better understand how we got to where we are today and anticipate what’s ahead as climate change increasingly affects our lives…

Lots of cautions– with an optimistic kicker– at: “What the 17th century’s “Little Ice Age” teaches us about climate change.”

* Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

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As we bundle up, we might send absolutist birthday greetings to Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; he was born on this date in 1588.  A father of political philosophy and political science, Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid– all this, though Hobbes was, on rational grounds, a champion of absolutism for the sovereign.  It was that, Hobbes reasoned, or the bloody chaos of a “war of all against all.”  His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most later Western political philosophy.

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“Libertarians sometimes prove that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and that there is a difference between logic and wisdom”*…

 

Art Martinez de Vara, the architect of Von Ormy’s incorporation as a liberty city

For the last few years, Von Ormy has been in near-constant turmoil over basic issues of governance: what form of municipal government to adopt, whether to tax its residents, and how to pay for services such as sewer, police, firefighters and animal control. Along the way, three City Council members were arrested for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act, and the volunteer fire department collapsed for lack of funds. Nearly everyone in town has an opinion on who’s to blame. But it’s probably safe to say that the vision of the city’s founder, a libertarian lawyer whose family traces its roots in Von Ormy back six generations, has curdled into something that is part comedy, part tragedy.

In 2006, fearing annexation by rapidly encroaching San Antonio, some in Von Ormy proposed incorporating as a town. But in government-averse rural Texas, incorporation can be a hard sell. Unincorporated areas are governed mainly by counties, which have few rules about what you can do on private property and tend to only lightly tax. There’s no going back from what municipal government brings: taxes, ordinances, elections and tedious city council meetings. Still, the fear of being absorbed by San Antonio — with its big-city taxes and regulations — was too much for most Von Ormians.

Enter Art Martinez de Vara. At the time, Martinez de Vara was an ambitious third-year law student at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a local boy with a penchant for Texas history and right-wing politics.

Martinez de Vara suggested a compromise of sorts. Von Ormy could become a “liberty city” — a stripped-down, low-tax, low-government version of municipal government that’s currently en vogue among the tea party in Texas.

Initially, the city would impose property and sales taxes, but the property tax would ratchet down to zero over time. The business-friendly environment would draw new economic activity to Von Ormy, and eventually the town would cruise along on sales taxes alone…

* Molly Ivins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (7 September 1996)

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As we seek the middle way, we might recall that this is International Left-Handers Day.  Celebrated since 1976, it promotes awareness of the inconveniences faced by left-handers– 7 to 10% of the world’s population– and celebrates their uniqueness and differences in a predominantly right-handed world.

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Written by LW

August 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

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