Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What matters... that it's still only one REF output.  And perhaps it should really be listed as a multi-author work.

Plato: Complete Works added to show scale

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Love of knowledge fail

I think there is a lot in this paragraph from R. C. Roberts and W. J. Wood, Intellectual Virtues (Oxford, 2007, p.159-60) that I would endorse. But I think it also shows that I am insufficiently discriminating...
The proper lover of knowledge will value some knowledge more than others because some knowledge is more worthy. People differ as to the kinds of truths they take an interest in, and the differences can be differences of intellectual virtue, according to the quality of the goods the people care about. Individuals who are concerned about the truths they read in Science magazine, or the Atlantic Monthly, the National Geographic, the New York Review of Books, or Books and Culture, are in this respect more virtuous than people who are most interested in the truths they read in People magazine or the gossip columns, because the truths that are found there are mostly trivial or even salacious and invidious (that is, the truths aren't vicious, but it is less than virtuous to care about them, or to care much about them). This may sound elitist, but if it is, this is an elitism we cannot avoid. Surely anyone acquainted with intellectual culture knows the distinction between important and trivial knowledge. The aim of liberal arts programs in colleges and universities is not just to transmit a bit of the higher kind of knowledge to their students, but to nurture in them a discriminating end love of knowledge and thus to create in them a distaste—or at any rate, a limited patience—for trivial knowledge. It would be elitist not to spread this kind of education as broadly as possible through the population, but the aim of such an education is properly elitist. It is to produce people with a taste for what is excellent, and this will necessarily distinguish them from people who lack this taste. The right attitude of the educator is what Michael Platt has called “elitism for everybody”.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An odd asymmetry

Most people who deny the symmetry of pre-natal and post mortem non-existence think that pre -natal non-existence cannot be a harm but post mortem non-existence can.  But is it possible to turn this around, deny the symmetry of pre-natal and post mortem non-existence, but hold that post mortem non-existence cannot be a harm while pre-natal non-existence can.

Imagine that post mortem non-existence cannot be harmful. For example, if we accept the deprivation account of the harm of death, perhaps we think that death cannot harm a person by preventing his experiencing goods that he would have experienced had he died later because we live in a world in which a person cannot die later that he will. If there is no possibility of a person dying later than he in fact will then it is not true that he could have experienced more by dying later.

I am wondering if this might be compatible with an asymmetrical view such that pre-natal non-existence might be harmful because it deprives a person of goods he would have experienced had he been born earlier. But I’ve found it difficult to construct a scenario to illustrate this position.

Imagine a case in which it is necessary that my first child will die on 31 December 2080. Perhaps there is a huge asteroid heading for the Earth that will destroy it on that day. There is nothing that could or can be done to prevent this.

I do not yet have a child. My partner and I donate sperm and an egg which produce an in vitro zygote. We can choose to have the implantation now or in a year’s time. (Imagine that this process is unfailingly successful and that I have no other children in the meantime.) In that case, would we be doing harm to the child by waiting?

As the asteroid enters the atmosphere would the child have a reasonable complaint that she was not born a year earlier?

Here it seems that the answer will depend on whether we think that the two possibilities, namely (a) first child = (zygote implanted now + life in our family + death on 31 December 2080) and (b) first child = (zygote implanted next year + life in our family + death on 31 December 2080) , are two possible lives of the same person.

If these are two possible lives of the same person then this seems to point to a possible harm of pre -natal non-existence consistent with an asymmetry between it and post mortem non-existence.

True, this asymmetrical view would be relevant only in cases where some mechanism such as the asteroid here sets a determined time for death. And perhaps the child ought rather to complain that the asteroid has cut short her life rather than that her parents did not have her sooner. I suppose the question then is which we are inclined to think is the more contingent factor.

Is there a way of fixing the scenario so that it removes any possibility of dying later that might muddy the waters?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


I'm looking again at the 'symmetry argument' used by the Epicureans as part of their contention that death is not to be feared.  Death is not to be feared, they say, because post mortem non-existence is a mirror image of pre-natal non-existence and since pre-natal non-existence is not harmful (precisely: they say that it was not harmful, sc. at the time before birth) so too death, post mortem non-existence is not harmful.

The literature on this argument is pretty tangled so I'm trying to sort out a taxonomy of views.

Here is what I have so far.  I'm trying to find some labels for the different possible views.

Symmetry of pre-natal and post mortem non existence? Pre-natal non-existence a possible harm? Post mortem non-existence a possible  harm?
EpicureansY N N
'Symmetrists'Y Y Y
'Asymmetrists' N N Y
??? N Y N

The stance taken by the Epicureans and their modern defenders is clear. The other two major camps in the more recent debate, however, agree with one another that death can be harmful and in this regard they disagree with Epicurus; but they then each retain one of the other two claims made by the Epicureans and deny the other. Their differing respective stances on the symmetry or otherwise of the two periods of non-existence accompany different conclusions about pre-natal non-existence. Those I shall call the ‘asymmetrists’ offer a package which combines the generally accepted anti-Epicurean claim that death can be harmful with a premise that the Epicureans do accept, namely that pre-natal non-existence cannot be harmful. They therefore need to identify some relevant different between the two periods of non-existence. The ‘symmetrists’, in response, reject the proposed distinction between these two periods and, while therefore accepting the Epicurean symmetry premise, conclude against the Epicureans that it is possible for pre-natal non-existence to be harmful. Note that these two camps are not here distinguished in terms of whether we do or should take a symmetrical attitude or not to these two periods, but rather in terms of whether, irrespective of the attitudes we do or should take, the two periods are indeed alike in terms of their potential for harm. Symmetrists on this count may therefore accept that we do have asymmetrical attitudes to the two periods while thinking that the two are in fact symmetrical in terms of their harmfulness.

A question: the fourth possibility is one which denies the symmetry and thinks that pre-natal non existence is a possible harm while post mortem non existence is not.  Has anybody ever held this view?  (I imagine not: it would seem to hold that we had better make as many babies as we possibly can as soon as we can since any delay to coming into existence is a possible harm but we need not worry too much about them afterwards since death is not a possible harm.)  What can I call it?