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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Looking Forward

Several questions have arisen from my timing reading Aristotle and MacIntyre. Here is a list of items for future discussion. I'll edit it as needed.

1) If we believe, as MacIntyre and Aristotle do, that man has an end towards which he should strive, then he has no freedom or self-determination as to what his end is. This strikes at the core of liberalism. Many would define man as the creature who CAN determine his/her own end. This begs the question, what is freedom to MacIntyre? To Aristotle? What separates man from animal if he does not determine his own end?

2) Let us suppose that we can look around and observe excellence, what then is the role of religion? If we can simply observe what we need to do, what does religion give us?

3) Aristotelian virtues v. Christian virtues. How do we evaluate? Why are meekness and humility good?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Internal Goods

When I first read MacIntyre's description of external v. internal goods, I immediately thought of modern psychology's extrinsic v. intrinsic motivations. In one experiment, one group of testers are offered a monetary incentive to build a contraption as fast as they can (external good/extrinsic motivation). Meanwhile, the other group of testers is merely challenged to build as fast as they can and do the best they possibly can (internal good?/intrinsic motivation).

Guess what? The testers who are merely challenged to achieve excellence, and are not offered an incentive to do so, built the contraption 3.5 minutes faster than those who motivated by an external force.

(I guess this sets me up to resolve at some point the role modern psychology can play in illuminating MacIntyre/Aristotle's points. Jonathan Haidt offers: "Emotional responses in the brain, not abstract principles of philosophy, explain why people think various forms of the "trolley problem" (in which you have to choose between killing one person or letting five die) are morally different.")

We can make some sense of this in regards to the portrait painters referenced by MacIntyre. Motivating Rembrandt with a huge commission probably would not have made his artwork a commensurate amount better (if it made it better at all!). Rather, Rembrandt sought the internal goods of painting. While Michelangelo may have been forced to paint the Sistine Chapel (click for virtual tour), he clearly demonstrated a deep commitment to artistic excellence.

This is how internal goods "extend" human conceptions of the ends and goods. The internal goods challenge practitioners to excel towards an end that can be built upon and improved by the community. If the child played chess merely to gain money, then the art of chess playing is not being advanced.

Admittedly, I'm a little confused as to how there isn't a dark-side counter to this...for example, how isn't there an art to cheating at chess playing? Practitioners could engage subterfuges to "one up" each other to victory. Just as playing chess is something that can be excelled, why can't cheating at chess being something at which I can excel? Then again, if I were to propose this as an art both players would need to agree to cheat, and then agree at what would constitute too much cheating (ie would reaching over and rearranging his pieces constitute too much cheating), and in the end we would have just formalized another set of rules.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Implications of Diversity?

In my other life, I blog on professional matters. As I rode the subway, I began to think on how I could model the value of diverse teams.

Team 1
For a given problem with the solution of x

  • Indivdual_1 has the set of knowledge {A, B, c}
  • Individual_2 has the set of knowledge {a, B, C}
  • Individual_3 has the set of knowledge {A,b, C}

The capitalizations represent strength of particular knowledge. Team 1 has some strong members, but they all only know the set of knowledge.

Team 2
For a given problem with the solution of x

  • Individual_1 has the set of knowledge {a,b,c}
  • Individual_2 has the set of knowledge {a,b,d}
  • Individudal_3 has the set of knoweldge {a,d,f}

As you can see team 2 has greater cognitive diversity, and could solve complex problems utilizing a wider range of knowledge. Team 1 could only use {a,b,c} to solve problems. Thus, diversity is a much desired attribute in a team.

It was a long subway ride, so I then turned my attention to how modeling the knowledge of individuals could help my understanding of moral philosophy.

Lets revisit my model of Team 1.

For a given question on the best way of living
  • Indivdual_1 has the set of contributions {a, b, c}
  • Individual_2 has the set of contributions {a, b, c}
  • Individual_3 has the set of contributions {a,b, c}

  • This is really messy attempt at modeling, and shows how quantitative attempts on moral philosophy can break down. Notice that I did not frame the problem as having a solution x and the individuals have set of contributions as opposed to a set of knowledge. Each of the agents have pieces of contributions to as each team tries to arrive at a conclusion. I changed the wording as I don't want to get distracted with the question of what is "moral knowledge." For what qualifies as contributions, I was thinking of traditions, intuition, etc.

    What's interesting is that every solution for the best way of living in Team 1 would involve {a,b,c}. The diverse Team 2 could draw from a wider set of contributions but how would they resolve which were the strongest claims? That would take an agreement on what is the end solution for the given moral question. How else could they weigh the claims of each contribution?

    While we can see the power of diversity in complex decision-making, we were modeling it for a problem with a given solution. A good business has a strategy which moves it towards an agreed upon end, and heterogeneous agents working together can draw from a greater breadth of knowledge to arrive at the agreed upon end.

    But it's not clear to me that the power of diversity would help a society stumble upon an answer to the question of how to best live one's life. While there is no agreed upon answer to the moral question from the outset, the agents in Team 1 understand one another's contribution sets. The heterogeneous agents in Team 2 would offer contributions which would be unintelligble to their teammates and would not be searching for an agreed upon answer. As the agents in Team 1 search for a solution, they would all agree the end solution would result from a varying contribution of {a,b,c}.

    Homogeneity arises from shared traditions, practices, and beliefs. When a society loses those, the moral language becomes meaningless as seen in the diverse Team 2, where the actors could never arrive at an agreement on how to live the best life.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010

    What Can We Learn from the Healthcare Debate?

    Perusing Facebook was a pretty relaxing, enjoyable way for my friends and I to kill time, but then healthcare happened.

    One of my friends made the mistake of simply setting his status to "Healthcare. Comment." The first of many comments consisted of a single word which conveyed the person's frustration with the bill--and things only got worse from there. What started as well-meaning attempt by my friend to encourage a substantive debate on the issues devolved into name calling and personal attacks. Sociologists and behaviorists could characterize the discord as an example of team mentality combined with the de-personalizing effects of Internet debate, but those are ways of describing the present crisis of debate. How did we get to here?

    Isn't the putative goal of political debate to bring others to your side? But if this were at all attainable, why do we so readily resort to ad hominem attacks? Some would disagree with my premise, and say debate is merely a way to "formalize" our intuitions as explained here.

    That very well may be true in modern politics. If we are merely formalizing our intuitions, then how can we rationally explain that our intuition is stronger or better? We can't and as a result we get bitter debates like healthcare or abortion, where we can't resolve the arguments because we can't even agree on what constitutes winning.

    I must admit I was sucked into the great Facebook healthcare debate. One of my friends commented that the bill was "good," in a classic display of emotivist language. I responded with asking, "What is good?" If a project which brings us closer to universal healthcare coverage is "good," then yes, this bill would align with that which is good. However, if the good is associated with the freedom from federal government mandates on personal spending, then the bill does not fall within the parameters of the good. Unfortunately, my question went unanswered.

    How do we determine that which is good in American politics? I had hoped that the Constitution would provide some guidance but phrases like, "That's un-Constitutional!" or "The spirit of the Founding Fathers supports us!" are used in emotivist ways. Furthermore, our political culture seems willing to trade extensions (dare I say violations?) of the Constitution in favor of perceived utility (Daniel v. Paul for example, which held a recreational facility could be regulated by the federal government because it served snacks which contained ingredients from outside the state). Welcome to the world of "grave moral disorder."