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By In The Profession Comments (12)

Letters of Recommendation

Here’s an ethical issue (actually, a pair of them) which I’m sure all of us have faced, or will. Sometimes students come to instructors seeking letters of recommendation – for graduate school, for jobs, for postdocs, or what have you. And sometimes these students are such that we could not, without dishonesty, write a fully positive and utterly enthusiastic letter. But there seems to be an expectation on the part of a lot of people – not only students who request these letters, but also those decision-makers who will read them – that every such letter should be completely positive, so that a letter that contains any negative comment at all will simply doom the person whom it ‘recommends.’

In light of this, there are three obvious strategies. (I’m sure there are more, but these seem to be the most obvious, and probably the most common.)

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By In Practical Rationality, Value Theory Comments (12)

Harry Frankfurt, Value Objectivist

Value objectivists like myself tend to think of practical reasoning as the process by which an agent forms beliefs about what things have value, and then organizes those beliefs in order to act in a way that makes sense in light of them.  But suppose you are skeptical about objective value – how, in that case, do you understand practical reasoning?

We find one way of understanding it in Harry Frankfurt’s recent work (especially in The Reasons of Love). On Frankfurt’s view, the roots of practical reason are not cognitive but volitional: rather than detecting things’ pre-existing values, we give them value by caring about them.  Love, which represents the deepest form of caring, sets the limits to practical reasoning; it is in light of what one loves that one’s actions must make sense.  Love, then, has a special importance for human agency.  It also has a special value for human beings: for according for Frankfurt, loving things makes a person’s life better, by making it meaningful.

The claim that practical reason may be grounded in love, or caring, might be an attractive picture for people whose sympathies are broadly Humean.  And the claim that love enhances the value and meaningfulness of one’s life might be attractive to many objectivists (including myself).  The question though, is: can Frankfurt have both?  In fact there is, I think, a conflict between Frankfurt’s views about what makes a person’s life better, and his claims about the value of love.

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By In News and Events Comments (3)

Harry Frankfurt on ‘The Daily Show”

Perhaps everyone is already aware of this, but I just wanted to mention that Harry Frankfurt is going to be on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show tonight (Monday, March 14) to talk about his small but quite entertaining book, On Bullshit. Harry was my dissertation advisor, so I for one am looking forward to it.

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By In Normative Ethics Comments (3)

Second Order Desert and Moral Luck

Moral luck obtains wherever the moral evaluation of an agent is affected by circumstances beyond that agent’s control. But the judgment that the moral evaluation of an agent can be affected by such circumstances seems to conflict with the apparently plausible claim that agents who are ‘internally’ identical, that is, who exhibit like behavior and choices and differ from one another only in respect to circumstances beyond their control, must be morally identical in some very deep sense. Thus we have one judgment which seems to imply that moral luck must exist, and another which seems to imply that it cannot possibly exist; and both judgments seem very plausible. I have begun to think, however, that at least in many cases the problem is only an apparent one. In fact these two undeniable judgments are not, as they appear, inconsistent.

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By In Normative Ethics Comments (7)

Admirable Immorality and Nonmoral Values

A number of philosophers have argued that there can be actions that are at one and the same time immoral and admirable. These philosophers sometimes take the existence of admirable immorality (AI) to show that there must be nonmoral values that are at least sometimes capable of outweighing or overriding moral values (since such an action would not be considered admirable unless its immorality were being overridden.) It seems to me, though, that this may be too quick. There is a different picture of what may be going on in cases of AI that does not support value pluralism, or the overridingness of nonmoral values, at all. In fact maximizing consequentialists, who reject the idea that the moral requirement to maximize the good can ever be overridden by any sort of nonmoral concern, can nonetheless accept the existence of admirable immorality.

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By In Value Theory Comments (10)

The Importance of What’s Appropriate

A common picture of value determination with respect to pains, pleasures and other such mental states seems to be the following: the intrinsic value of such states is determined by their phenomenological character. Thus, some people hold that all pleasures are intrinsically good, and all pains intrinsically bad. (Call this the straightforward theory.) Of course, straightforward theorists can allow that some pleasures are extrinsically bad, and some pains extrinsically good. The enjoyment of another’s suffering can lead the malicious to harm others in the course of seeking out such pleasure; the pain of punishment, on the other hand, may prompt the wicked to reform. Straightforward theorists will insist, though, that the phenomenological character of the mental state is the fundamental, if not the only, determinant of its intrinsic value.

Certain sorts of ethical baggage tend to come along with such views. For instance, many people think that since pain is always intrinsically bad, there is always at least some moral reason to eliminate it. Similarly, some people think that there is always at least some moral reason to promote or increase any particular (potential or actual) pleasure.

Some people accept a slightly more complex axiological theory than this, allowing that at least some pleasures (pleasure in another’s suffering, for instance) might be intrinsically bad. A few are even willing to say that some pains (like the deserved punishments of the wicked) are intrinsically good, though my sense is that it is far more common to hold that these pains are bad in themselves, but extrinsically justified.

I think that the proponents of more complex theories are moving in the right direction, but that we must go still further. We must recognize that there is a greater variety of counter-examples to the straightforward theory than is commonly appreciated (I’ll describe a couple in a moment), and that the landscape of value is thus significantly more complex than has been realized. And more fundamentally, we must reject the idea that the phenomenological character of a mental state is the primary determinant of its intrinsic value.

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By In Applied Ethics Comments (29)

Terrorism and Innocence

I’m currently working on a paper about terrorism, and I decided my first post would concern one of the main issues in that paper. It might seem to be common sense that what is wrong with terrorist acts like the attack on the World Trade Center is that such acts target innocent persons. In fact this is pretty much the traditional account: traditional just war theory states that one limitation on the conduct of war is that one may never intentionally kill innocent persons. (However, in a just war it is sometimes permissible to do things that you foresee will result in the unintended deaths of some innocent persons, via the Doctrine of Double Effect or something like it.)

Now I happen to think that the traditional account is true: what makes terrorism particularly morally abhorrent is that it takes innocent persons as its targets.

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