Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Spellcheck, Autocorrect, and Institutional Authority

In a philosophy and law seminar on special obligations, we recently read a debate on role obligations between Hardimon and Simmons (well, if you can call it a debate. As my professor put it, Hardimon was out for a stroll in the park and Simmons walked up and said, I bet I can beat you!). One of the main prongs of the disagreement is over the normative power of institutions; do certain institutions-- like the family or the state-- get to generate new obligations that are neither voluntary nor redundant of the general moral law? For example, am I born into certain obligations to my parents even though I didn't sign to accept the role of daughter and though a universal law cannot countenance why I have obligations to my parents specifically and not just to all my elders in general? Or do we have to cash these out in terms of obligations generated by noncontractual roles-- a different species of norm altogether?

I have conflicting intuitions on this. In trying to sort out which of those intuitions merits more attention, I thought of a helpful analogy: normative powers of institutions work like spellcheck. People program spellcheck to accept certain words and underline words that are not already recognized in the dictionary the programmers use. Generally, when spellcheck underlines a word, I have a reason to change my spelling. But the reason to change the spelling is not because spellcheck said so-- it is because spellcheck is in sync with the dictionary used by the programmer, and the dictionary is authoritative (by democratic consensus? convention? let's just grant that it is for the sake of the illustration). Other times, spellcheck will highlight words it does not recognize but that I am licensed to use while writing a philosophy paper (like "noncontractual") or anglicizing a Greek word (like "nomos"). In other words, my compliance with spellcheck is optional because its normative force is only derivative, not original, and there are spheres in which its source is not authoritative-- such as philosophical articles in which Kant scholars, not Merriam-Webster, might have the last word.

This is not to say that spellcheck is redundant or impotent; it can give me additional reasons to change my spelling. If someone editing my paper knows that I typed it on a program equipped with spellcheck, she is likely to be more annoyed at my misspellings than she would have been had I been writing by hand because I had the resource available to make the correction myself. I might have new responsibilities in light of the new information. But I should have spelled it such-and-such a way all along. Whether discharging that duty to spell correctly was feasible for me prior to spellcheck or not is another question. But it may be an important one. If "ought" implies "can," maybe institutions and autocorrect and spellcheck broaden our possibilities-- our "cans"-- and thus broaden the "oughts" that apply to us.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Raz on Standard and Non-Standard Reasons

In the new Oxford anthology Reasons for Action, Joseph Raz has a really interesting article on the difference between epistemic reasons and reasons for action (and it's actually comprehensible. I know. Shocking). Here's the broad claim: epistemic reasons diverge from reasons for actions at two points-- first, while values that may contribute or constitute reasons for action are plural, truth-directedness, not value, drives reasons to believe/epistemic reasons. Second, we can follow non-standard reasons for action but not epistemic reasons. That is, we can act in conformity with a reason even if that is not the reason we are acting; we cannot believe in conformity with a reason for belief without taking it to be evidence of the truth of the proposition we're believing.

I think this is an awesome project. But arguments will be hard to make. Apparently there's been a little skirmish between Setiya and Raz over whether epistemic reasons can be non-standard, Setiya falling on the side that argues that there can. The example he uses is this:

"Imagine that someone promises Jake a large sum of money if he believes that P. By all accounts this is a reason to have that belief. I claim that it is a non-standard reason for it cannot be followed [directly]. But suppose Jake does not think that. Suppose that he is philosophically minded ... and believes that the promise is an ordinary, standard, reason for believing that P, and that as a result he comes to believe that P." (Raz "On Adaptive Reasons," 18)

This strikes me as a weird and not very plausible example. Are we really capable of talking ourselves into beliefs and genuinely holding them without giving ourselves some (believable) evidence that the propositions are true? I think you have to either be talking about a truth that comes into being by the person's say-so that P (like maybe God's, if you think God's word is a truthmaker) or have a Quine-ish or disquotational theory of truth. Anyway, a case worth thinking about.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Authority of the Bible

Last night, my small group read through some of the gnostic gospels and discussed the authorities of the Christian scriptures- and which texts count as Christian scriptures. One of my friends said, "I think it's not too skeptical a question to ask what reasons the early church fathers had to adopt certain texts and not others, and I think we ought to seek out those reasons for ourselves." His comment and comments that ran along a similar thread in that discussion implied that the reasons for cannonizing certain texts as part of the holy scriptures are objective and available to us. Do such reasons exist? And if so, who can know them?

Suppose there are no reasons that authorize the cannonization of certain texts or privilege certain texts over others. Then either the church fathers made a mistake or they chose arbitrarily. The huge controversies and disputes at various church councils into the 6th century give us good reason to rule out the latter. If they simply made a mistake because there are no such reasons, then we are in no better a position to adjudicate between texts than they were. Furthermore, if God reveals truth in the scriptures, but does not furnish us with reasons to adopt certain texts as scriptures, then God has not revealed truth to us in scriptures. No one among us is authorized to dub one account true and another false. This option looks pretty hopeless.

Suppose there are reasons to cannonize certain texts or privilege them. To whom might they be revealed? I think it would be plausible that every rational being could possibly come to know these reasons, in the way that it is possible for every being capable of learning a language to learn Spanish. Certain concrete limitations that come into play and the way a person is situated in life shape the contours of the language-learner's actual ability to speak Spanish. Perhaps I never learned or heard the sound of a rolled "r" and then tried to roll my "r's." This would function as a constraint on my ability to speak Spanish at the time. So our current situatedness in the twenty-first century, our distance from the original texts and lack of fluency in the original language constrain our ability to understand or come to know the reasons for privileging certain texts as scriptures. We leave this to the experts who are in circumstances that make them experts; in the case of texts written thousands of years ago, it seems that the early church councils, being only a few generations removed from Jesus' time at the most and many having fluency in the languages of the original texts, are better situated than us to adjudicate which texts countenanced the truth.

The role of the Holy Spirit in this process as well as the effect the Holy Spirit could have on far-removed present day students of the scriptures would be another interesting avenue to explore.