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philosophical stock-taking

Now that my little sojourn into university-level philosophy is over (for now at least), I find it appropriate to state my position on the range of philosophical issues canvassed in my philosophy modules and to mark my progress in philosophical thought. These positions are not in any sense at all set in stone; they are certainly, and should be,  prone to refinement and revision.

For my minor in philosophy, I took courses in metaethics, moral philosophy, political philosophy and the philosophy of religion.

I am a newly-minted deontologist. I always had my niggling feelings of doubt about utilitarianism and all forms of consequentialism, and my modules on ethics confirmed them. Consequentialism cannot be the correct ethical theory. It faces deep problems of proving intrinsic value and matching our considered judgments. In this respect, deontology has the upper hand. However, deontology faces its own problems – a priori justifications are that much harder to accept and prove, compared to empirical justifications which consequentialists like Mill usually rely on. Virtue ethics have a very strong “common sense” appeal, but I would regard virtue ethics as either subsumed under deontology or providing an account of the good life, not morally right action.

For political philosophy, I believe that Rawls provides a much more convincing and persuasive account of distributive justice than the utilitarians and libertarians (particularly Nozick). I use the words “much more convincing” deliberately to show that Rawls has a better theory in relative terms, not that Rawls is absolutely correct. I do not think that his contractualist justification of his principles of Justice as Fairness is convincingly enough. I think that his argument against desert is more successfully, but it does not prove that his particular idea of justice is right. In fact, it justifies non-desert-based pattern theories in general. It does not tell us which one is correct, unfortunately. Despite my doubts about Rawls’ theory, I think they are more likely to be right than what the utilitarians and Nozick advocate. Utilitarian justice is, simply put, not justice at all. Nozick blindly advocates liberty, and it is not apparently clearly why liberty must be the sole and only value that distributive justice advances.

On the metaethical front, I am a moral cognitivist. I believe that moral claims are belief claims. I reject moral non-cognitivism, which states that we essentially engage in cross-talk when we express our moral views and moral claims are expressions of blunt emotion and are not claims about beliefs, largely because it does not properly characterise and does not take seriously what we mean when we engage in moral discourse.

I am a moral realist. Unlike Mackie and Harman, I believe that there are objectively true moral principles or beliefs, and we can find them out, even though the path might not be a very easy one.

I think moral anti-realists make the common mistake of transplanting the scientific empirical method into ethics and thinking that ethics works in the same way as science.

I am undecided whether I am a ethical naturalist or non-naturalist. My rejection of utilitarianism is the main reason for this indecision; utilitarians can more easily (and consistently) claim that they are moral realists. Deontologists need to find some second order theory that coheres with their first order deontic principles, and it seems that it is hard to have a second order theory that is naturalistic, particularly in the fully reductionist sense.

I am an externalist about the motivational force of moral reasons and believe in the Humean theory of motivation. I do not think that reason alone suffices to motivate action, and I do think that desire is almost always the root of all motivation. Man has always been at least partly if not fully animal  in nature. The explanatory power of the Humean theory is great and conversely it erodes the credibility of internalist accounts of moral reasons.

The philosophy of religion is extremely technical and profound, once one delves into it sufficiently. Hence I cannot say that I have understood the material sufficiently to have a very well-formed stance.

Given what I have been taught and the little that I know, I am an agnost. I do not find the arguments supporting the existence of the theistic God to be sufficiently persuasive. Neither do I find the arguments against the existence of the theistic God to be knock-down arguments too. However, I think that the weight of the evidence and arguments lie against the existence of God. This presupposes that “rational” argument and empirical evidence are appropriate means to arrive at truth in this area at least. The philosophy of religion might have a difference epistemology. Faith may be a viable alternative. I need to learn more about this.

From the way I have presented by final views, it might seem that I have separate views in separate areas. But this is not so. As with most other subjects, philosophy cannot be studied and understood properly in isolated areas. It simply cannot be compartmentalised, with each area of philosophy hermetically sealed off from the other. For example, assessing Rawls’ argument from the rejection of desert (ostensibly a question for political philosophy) requires one to understand and have an opinion on the compatibility between free will and determinism (a question for the philosophy of free will).  For example, assessing the tenability of the doctrine of double effect (ethics) requires one to know the philosophy of cause and effect.

Hence a proper and true understanding of any philosophical issue requires wide and deep knowledge in many areas. Herein lies the roots of both frustration and joy. Often, the student of philosophy (alright, myself at least) gets frustrated whenever one hits a brick wall, that is when one meets a philosophical issue that requires one to dabble in other areas which the tutor does not tread into and the scope of course does not encompass. The student then has to do some independent work, but without tutelage and guidance, this might be a uphill task. Yet every triumph delivers satisfaction.

So even though I have learnt something about the various areas I have covered for my philosophy modules, there is a huge amount of things which I do not know and would like to know. Studying one area of philosophy opens up even more questions requiring knowledge of other areas. Studying ethics have given me much impetus to learn more about epistemology and metaphysics. For example I was introduced to ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism in my metaethics class; to understand which view is more tenable, one needs to learn something about metaphysics. For example Rawls’ reflective equilibrium is now considered a major method in ethical inquiry; I tend to doubt its efficacy and prefer a priori methods. To resolve this problem, I need to learn more about moral epistemology.

So in essence, there is so much more to learn and discover. Philosophy will continue to be in my life, in some way or another. It is going to be a part of my intellectual and leisure (!) life at least, if not my career and academic life in the future. I am still pondering over whether I should go into academic philosophy and law.

I like the blurb on the NUS philosophy T-shirt which some of the professors wear now and then. It sums up my experience of studying philosophy: “Come for the answers, stay for the questions.”

year review
July 13, 2008, 7:14 am
Filed under: diary, Law | Tags: , , ,


It seems pretty late to do a review of the past academic year but due to a flurry of jet-setting and odd job assignments I have to postpone such a grave matter to a more sober and quiet moment, like now. This coming 10 or so days will be my oasis of calm in a holiday period filled with trips, trips and trips (with the time-consuming odd jobs stuffed at the start) and hence it is an appropriate time to recollect what went well the past academic year and decide on a course of action for the new academic year which starts two days after I come back from backpacking across Vietnam.

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how to get a first
July 12, 2008, 11:00 am
Filed under: Law | Tags: , ,

Personal notes from How to Get a First by Thomas Dixon

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