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Archive for May, 2007

I’ll confess my training in analytic philosophy means I don’t ‘get’ the continental tradition. Too much of it seems like bad metaphysics. It’s also a reason I don’t ‘get’ most eastern philosophy.

Which is, I suppose, a good enough reason to wonder if there is a cultural difference in the moral psychologies found in these very different approaches to philosophy.

Justin Tiwald, guest-posting at The Splintered Mind, is thinking about the same sort of thing – except he gets eastern philosophy. He suggests there are two ways we come to have moral emotions, and that Confucian moral education is about training yourself to have the right sort of gut feeling.

In fact, the purpose of moral education as they understood it was to make us more reliant on emotional appearances (seemings) than on emotional beliefs. The beliefs just “second” the emotional appearances.

He comes to this insight from an analysis by which there are two classes of emotion:

  1. emotions that come from our beliefs about things
  2. emotions that must come from perceptions of things because they conflict with our beliefs

From that, Tiewald reasons moral emotions might have the same bifurcation:

  1. moral emotions that come from moral beliefs
  2. moral emotions that must come from moral appearances because they conflict with our beliefs

He than says,

Moral beliefs tend to be more susceptible to rationalization and self-deception than moral appearances.

At this point, I’ll register a problem I have with this sort of schema. What is a moral appearance, and how is it different from a moral emotion?

It seems that by moral appearance he means a sort of ‘gut reaction’ (e.g. disgust), but this is usually understood to be a moral emotion itself.

Am I missing something because of my analytic bias?

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While it took some time to hit the press, on May 28 the environmentalist organization Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit against the Queen in right of the federal government of Canada. Co-defendants are the Minister of the Environment, John Baird and the Minister of Health, Tony Clement.

Press releases are available from Friends of the Earth Canada and Sierra Legal Defence Fund.

The application was made to the Federal Court in Ottawa for judicial review of the government’s failing to meet its domestic and international legal obligations. It seeks two orders of declaration from the court, the guts of which I paraphrase here.

  1. Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions violate the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.
  2. The government is failing to meet its obligations to control greenhouse gas emissions under s.166 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

The application also requests an order of mandamus, which would command the government to comply with s.166 of the CEPA by implementing controls that meet Kyoto targets.

Their argument is a mix of international law and statutory interpretation. Statements about Canada’s failure to comply with international law can be found in this legal opinion, provided by the German firm G√ľnther Heidel Wollenteit Hack. However, the filed application focuses mostly on the matter of statutory interpretation. Friends of the Earth argues greenhouse gases are air pollution, so the Environment Minister has a legal duty under s.166 of the CEPA to control it. Government lawyers will doubtless argue a contrary definition.

You might recall the same arguments happened in the United States. There, the US Supreme Court narrowly decided the Environmental Protection Agency had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants.

Because greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of ‘air pollutant’, we hold that the EPA has the statutory authority to regulate the emission of such gases from new motor vehicles.

A visit to the Environment Canada website for Bill C-30Canada’s Clean Air Act – shows that the Government of Canada has taken notice of the debate south of the border. The text of the bill, which would amend CEPA as well as the Energy Efficiency Act and the Motor Vehicle Fuel Consumption Standards Act, clearly distinguishes between air pollutants and greenhouse gases.

At present, CEPA defines air pollution expansively:

“air pollution” means a condition of the air, arising wholly or partly from the presence in the air of any substance, that directly or indirectly

  1. endangers the health, safety or welfare of humans;
  2. nterferes with the normal enjoyment of life or property;
  3. endangers the health of animal life;
  4. causes damage to plant life or to property; or
  5. degrades or alters, or forms part of a process of degradation or alteration of, an ecosystem to an extent that is detrimental to its use by humans, animals or plants.

The amendment would add separate definitions for ‘air pollutant’ and ‘greenhouse gas’.

There are several things about the application which are interesting. Consider how the list of cited authorities includes the following environmental values:

e) the precautionary, intergenerational equity and public trust principles;

Only two of these have found their way into Canadian environmental law, and neither are particularly forceful as authority.

The preamble to the CEPA sensibly appeals to the precautionary principle this way:

[W]here there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation;

The public trust doctrine, on the other hand, is the common law view that there are public rights in the environment that are held by the Crown. While the Supreme Court tangentially acknowledged its validity in British Columbia v. Canadian Forest Products Ltd. (2004), it shied away from the “novel policy questions” implicated by the concept. In that case, after a short historical survey of the doctrine in Anglo-American common law, the court opened the door only to walk on by – a perfect example of obiter dicta in action.

It would be tough to argue that either of these have great weight as legal authority. Of the three, only one is a legal principle, and the court has been reluctant to think about its implications.

Why toss these three environmental values into the application, then? I suspect it’s to allow them to be used as part of later arguments – arguments which might bait an adventurous court into entrenching the principles in its judgement. That would be an important victory for Canada’s environmental movement, and radically reshape environmental law.

Even if the environmentalist lawyers fail to make their case, the court action might yield politically important results. The process of disclosure allows them to gain access to important ministerial documents and correspondence that might embarrass government.

Still, legal counsel for Friends of the Earth might want to update their boilerplate. They refer to the court as the ‘Federal Court – Trial Division’, but that name changed with amendments in 2003 to the Federal Court Act. It is now just called the Federal Court.

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Ronald Bailey at Reason Magazine quotes a passage from Adam Smith’s 1759 text, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and finds remarkable similarities with what modern neuroscience has to say about altruism.

It’s nice to see the Enlightenment making itself known in the press, but he goes a bit far when he says:

Now neuroscience is confirming Smith’s insights into the neural bases of human morality.

No. There is a difference between 18th century moral psychology and neuroethics.

Smith had no insights into the neural or biological bases of human morality. He was interested in the human experience of sympathy, its frailties as a product of our imagination, its causes and effects, and the way we judge the propriety of passions felt by other people. Like most armchair treatments of human nature, his overlaid a conceptual analysis upon a mix of introspective and behavioural observations.

The philosophically interesting stuff happens when Smith makes a connection between innate moral feelings and moral rules. In addition to suggesting our natural sentiments bias our judgements, he argues that moral sentiments create generalizable moral rules.

It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of.

What is agreeable to our moral faculties, is fit, and right, and proper to be done; the contrary wrong, unfit, and improper. The sentiments which they approve of, are graceful and becoming: the contrary, ungraceful and unbecoming. The very words, right, wrong, fit, improper, graceful, unbecoming, mean only what pleases or displeases those faculties.

This view conjoins moral naturalism with moral realism, but it relies on moral sentiments being infallible products of divine origin.

A more thorough treatment of moral psychology, one which which posited a specific ‘moral sense’, can be found in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

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Online studies of moral opinions seem to be popping up all over. Here’s one by Neil Levy that deals with moral relativism. It’s short and fun – although I found some of the answer choices overly restrictive.

After taking quite a few of these, it is clear philosophers interested in polling should study survey methods, consult experts in opinion polling, and anticipate a greater variety of nuanced responses than they usually provide.

Test takers trying to give honest answers often find themselves trapped by a limited set of inappropriate multiple choice responses. A ‘none of the above’ with an optional comment field would be a quick fix for some of these problems, but more needs to be done to make sure studies involving moral cognition accurately reflect participants’ opinions.

It worries me that sloppy research methods may have a negative effect upon the growing field of empirical philosophy. Bad data collection methods will cripple the field, populate journals with useless articles, and marginalize researchers.

Hat tip to Evolving Thoughts for mention of this.

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Philosopher’s Guild

What? There’s a Philosophers’ Guild? And it has rules about not using something called data? Watch out, experimental philosophers, if you want to keep your knee-caps.

I wonder what other rules it might have…

  • “The first rule of Philosophers’ Guild is – you do not talk about Philosophers’ Guild.”

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