Justice and the death penalty

Iling Chen asked:

I have a question about the connection between justice and death penalty. There was once, our class was discussing if there is a justice behind “a life for a life”, the classmates who oppose such saying were much more than those who support. However, when the question changed to”Do you support death penalty?” The supporters were much more than those who opposed. But such a difference doesn’t make sense to me. If you oppose the former, how come you support the later at the same time? Do you have any explanation for such a result? Thank you.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question is an example of the kind which regularly puzzles producers of opinion surveys. At first glance it seems that your two questions amount to the same thing. However, in this case there is an important nuance. ‘A life for a life’ is a condensed argument. Is it always the case that you have to forfeit your life if you cause a human being to die? Consider, for example, death caused by dangerous driving.You are undoubtedly to blame, but you had no intention to case another human being to die. In the UK, as I believe in many countries, you would expect to spend some time in jail, even where there is a death penalty.

On the other hand, there are countries where you can receive a death penalty for theft, notably China. Is this deserved? In the time of Charles Dickens, you could be hung for stealing a loaf of bread. According to Wikipedia, ‘Although unused, the death penalty remained a legally defined punishment for certain offences such as treason until it was completely abolished in 1998’. The death penalty for murder was abolished in 1969, and the last hanging took place in 1964.

To some persons, there is something horrendous and frightful about the very act of judicial killing. I have an opinion on this but the Ask a Philosopher site is not a forum for expressing personal opinions. The question is whether there is an argument in favour of the death penalty for any offence, however severe, or whether, on the contrary, the death penalty is never justified, in any circumstances whatsoever.

So there will be persons who reject the simplistic, ‘a life for a life’ argument, who would nevertheless be willing in principle to support the death penalty, perhaps for mass murder, or rape and murder. I think that answers your question. I don’t have a compelling argument for or against the death penalty in principle, except to say that a supporter of the death penalty ought to be prepared to be the one who does the killing, the execution, rather than leaving this to a functionary of the state.

Ask a Philosopher by Geoffrey Klempner 2011-2021

Ruth asked:

When is your book coming out?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It’s here!

Here are 244 answers by Dr Klempner to questions submitted online to askaphilosopher org from 2011–2021. The ‘Ask a Philosopher’ service was launched in 1999 originally on the University of Sheffield web site and has been running continuously from that date.

This book covers everything that a person approaching the study of philosophy for the first time might want to ask, as well as frequent college essay topics. The questions range from the urgently practical to the metaphysical – to the absurd. In Klempner’s view, ‘There is no such thing as a foolish question. But be prepared to consider the possibility that you may be wrong!’

Klempner has written articles on metaphysics, ethics, practical philosophy, business ethics, science fiction and the philosophy of photography. While a graduate student at Oxford University, he supplemented his grant as a singer and guitarist at a popular bar and retains a keen interest in contemporary music. His wide range of interests illustrates his motto on the philosophos org web site, ‘Philosophy is for everyone, not just philosophers. Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’

Born in London in 1951, Klempner attended University College School. Hampstead, London. After graduating with First Class Honours in Philosophy from Birkbeck College London he went on to University College Oxford, gaining his D.Phil in 1982. In 1995 he founded the online distance learning program, Pathways to Philosophy, which has attracted students from over 90 countries.

Enjoy your reading!

If you liked Ask a Philosopher 2011-2021 please add a review on Amazon :)

Causation and personal identity

Michael asked:

I have a question about personal identity, specifically theories that rely upon causal continuity.

I recently came across an objection that I haven’t seen before and this is my attempt to reconstruct it.

1. Theories of Personal Identity rely upon causal continuity, specifically theories such as Psychological Continuity Theory.

2. We stand in causal relationships with other people as well. For example, causing them to feel emotions or remember events.

3. We bear no relationship with the people we are in casual relationship with. I.e. I’m not identical my dad whom I caused to remember his birthday.

4. Therefore, causal connections cannot ground personal identity.

This was a very brief argument I read in a paper, and I was trying to figure out its validity and how to respond to it. Thank You.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

To fully answer your question I would have to write a book — which I am not going to do! However, I will try to unpick the main strands of argument.

There is a theory, proposed in the 18th century by John Locke, which holds that psychological continuity is all there is to personal identity. Locke was a mind-body dualist, but argued in a thought experiment (the Prince and the Pauper) that you and I could switch ‘souls’ without either of us being aware of that fact. I am still GK and you are still Michael. In other words, psychological continuity is all that is necessary and sufficient for personal identity.

The main objection to this from David Wiggins (Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity, Sameness and Substance) is that Locke fails to distinguish ‘genuine’ memory from mere ‘seeming’ memory.

For example, I wake up tomorrow morning convinced that I am Napoleon. Under exhaustive questioning, amazingly I am able to ‘remember’ lots of things about Napoleon’s life that no-one could possibly know. It’s nothing short of miraculous. Well, maybe it is just a miracle, or possibly a massive fluke aided by my vivid imagination. What would make the difference, Wiggins would say, is if there is continuity in an organized package or bundle of ‘all that is causally necessary and sufficient’ for my seeming memories of Napoleon to be genuine memories. For that, I would have to possess Napoleon’s physical brain.

In common with many theories of personal identity, there is a problem of ‘splitting’, as in Sydney Shoemaker’s famous ‘split brain’ thought experiment. In a ‘Star Trek’ episode, one of the crew members, Riker, is ‘beamed down’ to a planet but owing to a glitch, two identical Rikers materialize. I’m happy to say that both persons are Riker. They share life histories up to the point when the transmitter beam was switched on. In principle, there could be a thousand or a million Rikers populating the planet, each and every one of them was born at the same time, in the same place, conceived from the same sperm and egg.

David Lewis argues for this view, but it is not that popular. Wiggins rejects it on the grounds that it makes talk of ‘identity’ almost meaningless, but we can bring in Locke here, arguing that personal identity is a ‘forensic’ concept. If Riker committed murder before being beamed down then both Rikers fully deserve to be punished, don’t they? It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the physical ‘stuff’ of Riker is preserved in the process of beaming down. Let’s say there are pots of ‘people stuff’ waiting to be used to make physical copies of Riker’s body. The body of the original Riker was destroyed.

Well, maybe the concept of personal identity is merely a convenience. Maybe the very idea that punishment is ‘deserved’ or not is questionable (an issue that also arises in connection with the free will debate). However, it would not follow that my causing you to have a belief that P would somehow entail problems with the causal account. I wake up in the morning hearing a familiar patter on the roof and form the belief that it is raining. You phone me up and ask what’s the weather like here. I say ‘It is raining,’ and now you believe this too. But the causal link in either case is completely different.

Up until a few years ago, I would have been happy to give a version of this theory. Now I am not. I no longer accept that the physical facts whatever they may be are sufficient for identity. Causation, conceived a physical instance falling under a causal law, is not sufficient. Why? Because ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place’ (as in my book of the same title). The thing I call ‘I’ might or might not have come into existence five seconds ago. If I came into existence five seconds ago, no-one, including me, would ever know. But there is an answer to that question — in ‘ultimate reality’.

On the difference between the truth and facts

Jaqueline asked:

What is the difference between the truth and facts? Is the difference shown more clearly in human science than natural science?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This looks like an essay question. The professor who set the question already has an idea of the kind of answer he/she is looking for. I will deal with this first, and then show why the question is actually of momentous importance.

The facts are the facts, whatever they may be. This is something we say. The facts are the facts, independently of language, or our interests in pursuing them. However, it is well known that in the human sciences there are multiple angles, interpretations, ways of approaching the facts. In historical explanation, or psychology, for example, there are multiple lines one can take, multiple interests in pursuing ‘the truth’. There’s no no single answer to what is the ‘real’ truth of the matter. But the facts are the facts.

In natural science, the distinction is less clear, if it exists at all. However, it remains the case that we never get to the actual facts. Natural science gives theories, and the theory we accept is merely the theory that works best at the present time. The theory of evolution, for example, as far fetched as it may seem to some, is at present the ‘best’ theory we have. To infer from this that it is the truth, or the one and only true representation of the facts, is to go too far. It’s on the table. We look for evidence from the fossil record, test the explanations for consistency, use the theory to classify species. It ‘works’. But it could still be supplanted by a better theory, should one come along.

However, this answer, for me, misses the real question. In 1950 there was a famous debate between the Oxford philosophers J.L. Austin and P.F. Strawson (who, incidentally, much later in 1977 was my tutor for my Trinity Term as a graduate student). The debate took place at the Aristotelian Society. Austin was the chief representative of the ‘old guard’, the Oxford philosophers who believed that the key to solving philosophical problems was the careful analysis of ‘ordinary language’. On the question of the truth and facts, Austin pushed the line that according to ‘what we say’, it is the facts that make true statements true. It was a correspondence theory of truth, albeit nuanced. Strawson rebutted Austin’s account, arguing that there is no real difference between true statements and facts. A ‘fact’ is simply what a true statement states, nothing more.

Still with me? Strawson won the debate. At least, that is the accepted view. His victory marked the end, or the beginning of the end, of Oxford linguistic philosophy. Any talk of ‘correspondence’ is saying more that can meaningfully be said. Decades earlier, the German mathematician Gottlob Frege had argued against any notion of correspondence between statements and ‘facts’. Correspondence would merely be some relation between statements and some entity in the world, but any talk of relation raises the question whether or not it is true that the relation holds. Which immediately leads to a vicious regress. (There is an illuminating account of this in Michael Dummett’s seminal book on Frege, Frege Philosophy of Language, 1973.)

In my second year as an undergraduate at Birkbeck College London, I grappled with this topic in an essay I wrote for David Murray (who died in 2016). I felt that Austin had been hard done by, and that there must be a sense in which the facts make true statements true, even if we can’t speak of correspondence. I remember Murray’s pencilled comment, ‘Facts, if they exist, must exist as a matter of necessity. But I would rather defend the necessary existence of God than the necessary existence of facts!’ The point being that even if nothing exists, it is a fact that nothing exists. The universe could be destroyed, leaving nothing behind but it would still be a fact that the universe was no more.

As I would now prefer to state this, there is, there must be, something Real. Whatever we believe, whatever investigations we undertake. We may never know what is Real, with a capital ‘R’, or ultimately Real, but the Real is the Real. — When, in philosophy, one is prompted to assert a tautology as if it expressed a deep and meaningful truth, that is cause for suspicion, a point Wittgenstein repeatedly made in his later philosophy. But I am not moved. For me, nothing is more important than recognition of the existence of the Real, the facts, or the real facts, regardless of it being the case that we may never, or perhaps cannot ever, know what the facts are. We make ‘statements’ we put forward ‘theories’ but these statements or theories, even when accepted as ‘true’, are not the facts.

There is something Real. To really think about this, and at the same time realize the impossibility of conveying any meaningful knowledge, or useful ‘information’ by that statement, is the first step towards metaphysics, a discipline that Austin and his disciples rejected with contempt, and about which Strawson was happy to offer his relatively tame, diluted account in Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics, 1959. We clashed over this in our tutorial meetings, but as one student had warned me in advance, ‘If Strawson says you are wrong, then you are wrong. Don’t attempt to argue the point!’

In answer to your question, emphatically yes, there is a difference between the truth and facts. But the issue goes way deeper than your teacher who set this question is likely to have considered.

Ethical limits to knowledge in the arts

Christine asked:

If we conclude that there is some knowledge we should not pursue on ethical grounds, how can we determine the boundaries of acceptable investigation within the area of knowledge of arts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question takes the form of a conditional so the first thing we need to decide is whether it is in fact true that ‘there is some knowledge we should not pursue on ethical grounds’.

I recall a few decades ago, when student protests were an almost weekly occurrence, the demonstrations demanding the resignation of the psychologist Hans Eysenck, Professor of Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London for his claim that the IQ of infants varies with race. Today, it would be unheard of to seek grant funding for research into the relative IQs of the different races, regardless of the expected result. On ethical grounds, we are told, one should simply not go there.

Is that true? I assume that few would challenge research into physical characteristics of different races, so why is intelligence, or more precisely, the ranges of intelligence — logical, visual, musical, emotional etc. — such an ethically sensitive subject? Is it wrong to ask volunteers for a research study to state their ethnicity in their application questionnaire? Or does ethical error only come in when the answers are collated?

To me, this seems like one example where it is somehow more ethical to have inconsistent views on ethics, as Leszek Kolakowsi argued in his brilliant essay, ‘In Praise of Inconsistency’ (Toward a Marxist Humanism, 1967). Nowadays, it is common to ask about ethnicity — in job applications, healthcare provision etc. — in order to guard against bias. How can a researcher avoid noticing differences even if he/she refrains on ethical grounds from putting biro to paper? I leave that for you to judge.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is or could be knowledge that one should not pursue on ethical grounds. What examples could one find in the domain of what you term ‘the arts’? How about the art of torture? One could argue that torture is not only a science but also an art. To be good at it you need talent, as well as factual knowledge. Judging from the offerings of Internet entertainment companies, viewers can’t get enough of murder and torture. Watching these played out in fantasy from our living room couches, we seem to be protected against such horrors. For a short while we are able to forget that we, too, are going to die some day, possibly in terrible pain.

But what about the methods of real life torture? The best place on the human body to put the electrodes, for example, how to judge the precise current to use, depending on one’s perception of the subject’s reaction? Of course, it would be unethical to actually torture people in order to get this knowledge, but much research can be done exploring the work of others, for example, by going through documents left undestroyed by the East German Stasi, or the Nazi concentration camp ‘doctors’.

I do want to know. I don’t want these things to be forgotten, erased from human memory as if they never happened, even though such knowledge can be put to bad use. That is because I value human freedom. That is not the only thing I value, but I value it enough to despise those who would limit freedom on the grounds that ‘it’s best/ safest/ more ethical not to know’. I know how to make nitroglycerine, having once studied Chemistry. As a teenager, I had a laboratory at home complete with glassware and fume cupboard. I’m pretty sure you can find all you want to know on Google, but perhaps in the future it will be made illegal to publish the information, in case it is used by terrorists.

But we are talking about the arts. Another of my interests is photography (see my web site Camera Dreamer or my Flickr feed. A photographer I admire is Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989). In another age, Mapplethorpe would be imprisoned for his sexually explicit black and white photographs. (He has also done wonderful photographs of flowers.) Today, the only examples one can think of where it is unethical to take an interest in photographs with sexual content, is where the subject has been exploited or abused. I accept that there will be some borderline cases, but this is a common problem in many ethical questions.

It is not unethical to take an interest in things that some, or perhaps most human beings find disgusting. The movie, Little Murders (1971), stars Elliot Gould as Alfred, a photographer obsessed with taking photographs of dog turds. However, one could imagine much worse. For example, depictions of human cannibalism. A photojournalist makes a photographic essay about a tribe who practice ritual cannibalism, with shots of a family sitting round a fire, biting chunks out of a recently deceased grandparent. A book has been published, and you are a librarian deciding whether it would be right to purchase this for your library.

One thing you can’t argue is that it is ethically wrong, on principle, to take a photograph of something that is ethically wrong, or wrong to view such photographs, or seek them out. It all depends on the circumstances. Taking photographs of someone being tortured, would be one example. The world needs to know that this has happened,’ is the classic defence of photojournalism, but not if the photographer was in a position to prevent the torture from taking place, or indeed if there is a trace of suspicion that the torture has been deliberately staged for the benefit of the press.

I would be reluctant to set any ethical boundaries to investigation into the arts. As Is stated before, I value human freedom, although that is not the only thing I value. Perhaps my imagination is just not good enough to come up with an example where it would be ethically wrong, in principle, to enquire, to seek out, to view some work of art by virtue of its content, leaving aside the cases I have discussed. Can you do better?

Free will and the Black Box

Yingzhe asked:

I am a master’s student in philosophy from China. After reading your short story “The Black Box” I was deeply shocked and had a few questions that I hope you can help me answer.

First and foremost, does the main character in the story still have Free Will after activating the black box? Does the protagonist simply succumb to his own desires and laziness?

Second, If the box in the story is controlled by an omniscient god, can the holder of the box act freely against god’s prophecy? If he or she succeeds does that indicate that he or she has Free Will?

Last but not least, could you share some of your ideas about Free Will with me? I have a strong interest in it.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

‘The Black Box’ is the second science fiction story in Pathways to Philosophy Program A, The Possible World Machine. On that page you will find unit 2 on free will, which includes a useful classroom discussion, partially fictionalized but based on the classes I’ve given on this topic. (You might have come across my story in a collection edited by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn Doing Philosophy: an Introduction Through Thought Experiments published by McGraw-Hill.)

In the story, the character Joe is given a black box which (allegedly!) is capable of predicting any future event. At first, he and his wife Betty are convinced by its predictions and soon make a fortune betting on horse races. Belatedly, they realize that they have somehow become prisoners of the black box. Whatever it says they will do, they do.

Betty refuses to believe this, while Joe succumbs. As it turns out, the black box is able to answer any question about Joe’s future actions but not Betty’s. What’s going on here?

There is a simple, logical point which is brought out in the classroom discussion. Assuming that the black box is indeed omniscient, as it claims, then it knows that Betty is the kind of person who is capable of refusing to perform an action if it is predicted by a ‘reliable predictor’ that she will do it, while Joe, on the other hand, lacks the ‘will’, or maybe the scepticism. Of course, we are assuming that the black box still knows what Betty or Joe are going to do. But it also knows that it can tell Joe but not Betty.

We are assuming that the universe is deterministic. The omniscience is like that of the ‘supermind’ posited by the mathematician Laplace, rather than the God of monotheistic religion who views creation from a vantage point outside of time. Even in a determinist universe, there is a sense in which one can be ‘free’, which, possibly, is capable of having degrees. In this sense, Betty is more ‘free’ than Joe. One could make a case that this is the kind of freedom Jean-Paul Sartre talks about, an attitude of mind rather than a metaphysical absolute. However, I think Sartre wanted more than this.

Here we get to the nub. When I wrote ‘the Black Box’, originally around 1990-1 for my evening class students, I held the common view that freedom of the will is ‘compatible’ with determinism (sometimes known as ‘combatibilism’). The argument that convinced me is based on a remark by the philosopher David Hume. It takes the form of a dilemma. In a determinist universe, we are all just wound-up clockwork, while in an indeterminist universe we are roulette wheels. Any decision, insofar as it is not determined by our character or brain state, is merely random. The ‘freedom’ of indifference, or mentally tossing a coin, is not a ‘freedom worth wanting’, to quote a phrase philosophers use.

In my post, Free will and creative reverie, I describe a third alternative, that gives strong support to the view that a ‘free will worth wanting’ would be achievable only in an indeterminist universe. In such a universe, there could be no Laplacian supermind, no black box. I won’t go over the details again, but the essential point is that any decision that requires pondering, when after all the relevant facts have been considered you still don’t immediately know what you should do, involves a point where imagination can move in different directions. Here you will find a kind of randomness, as in dreams, but the crucial point is that we then take responsibility for following through on a train of thought and acting upon it.

This is related to a notion Thomas Nagel talks about, ‘moral luck’. A drunk driver narrowly misses knocking down an innocent pedestrian. If the pedestrian had stepped out just a second earlier, they would have been killed and the driver sent to jail. In the possible world where the pedestrian dies, the driver is not a ‘worse’ man, he’s just unlucky. A similar point applies, I claim, to the actual process of decision making. In a possible world identical to the actual world up to a given point in time, I might have not have applied to university to do a degree in Philosophy, but pursued a career in photography instead. Or I might have become a minister of religion, or turned to crime. Bad decisions come to good people and good decisions to bad people, not ‘out of the blue’ but understandable given the trains of thought that led up to them.

Is this free will? Is it a free will worth wanting? I’m not making any big claims here. However, I do think that this is a view that would satisfy Jean-Paul Sartre, and until someone comes up with a better alternative, it is good enough for me.