Friday, March 21, 2008

It's a fair Friday, I'll give it that

I've finally crawled out from under a rock and made it into the office. There are no classes today, however, so I'm not really sure what to do with myself. On the way in, I stopped by the benefit store and found two (two!) vintage steel architectural file cabinets that I purchased for $200. I'll rework one into a coffee table (the basic idea is this) and likely let a friend have the second. I'd like to get some writing done but my ears are still killing me.

I've basically been in bed since last Saturday with a flu that turned into an ear infection. Apart from two pieces of sushi last night and a pancake last Sunday, I haven't eaten a solid piece of food since last Friday. I've mostly been sweating and suffering the chills while watching and endless loop of Flight of the Conchords and Extras and trying to force down sips of Gatorade. It's been a surreal experience. Haven't had much contact with people over the last five or six days except through occasional text messages and trips out my now very disgusting apartment for meds and tea. Now I'm walking around a deserted campus feeling a bit like the Omega man.

There's something I've been hoping to return to, and that is the relationship between 'ought' and 'can'. I threw something together hastily the other day after reading Sinnott-Armstrong's Phil Review article and a more recent piece by Bart Streumer and was pleased but mortified to see that Streumer was kind enough to read the post and offer some comments. It's one of the dangers of mentioning people's names when discussing their work, they might find out about it. Worse, they might respond.

There's something I think clearly right about Streumer's view concerning 'ought' and 'can'. Just to refresh your memory a bit, suppose Adams is tied to a chair by an intruder. Babcock sees him sitting in his chair through the window and says:
(1) You should have called the police.
Adams says:
(2) I couldn't, I'm tied to a chair!

The view that I wanted to defend (not because I think it is right, exactly, but just to see what it has going for it--yes, I might be waffling a bit) is that while Adams ought to retract (1), that is not because (2) shows (1) to be false but because at that stage in the conversation Adams ought to offer other advice if he is going to continue in his role as adviser. So, what makes it natural for Adams to say:
(3) In that case, you should have screamed so that your neighbors could have heard you.

is NOT that Adams replaces a false assertion (i.e., (1)) with a true assertion (i.e., (3)), but that in offering advice there is an implication that the advisee can follow the advice. On the view that 'ought' implies 'can' ('OIC'), however, (2) shows that (1) is false but is consistent with (3). So, the naturalness of taking (1) back and offering (3) is due to the fact that Adams corrects his mistaken assertion with a true one.

Here's what I think draws me to Streumer's view. Are we really going to say that Adams should have busted through the ropes and perhaps flown down the street to apprehend the burglars? If we are not prepared to say that, why not? It had better not be because he cannot bust through the ropes or that he cannot fly like Superman. I don't find myself attracted to the view that it is merely conversationally improper to say that he ought to fly down the street and apprehend the burglars and the thought that he should not is not due on my part to thinking that such an action would violate some substantive moral obligation.

Fair enough. But there's still the question as to what motives OIC. For my part, I think that _that_ is what is really doing the work. The linguistic data (i.e., that it seems natural to replace (1) with (3) upon hearing (2)) does not really move me. In fact, it seems if anything the linguistic data appears to cut against OIC more than it supports it. I do not see that the data offers univocal support to either OIC or the view that 'ought' conversationally implies 'can' ('OCIC').

Consider the following remark:
(4) You ought to have called the cops, but since you could not, you ought to have shouted for help.

That remark strikes me as perfectly natural. I cannot see how to explain its naturalness apart from conceding that it is true, but on OIC it is a manifest contradiction. It's that sort of data that I'm having a hard time with.

Anyway, my interest in this stems largely from a desire to work out some understanding of how 'ought' relates to 'knows'. An assumption that I will work from without defending (because I've defended it ad nauseum elsewhere) is this:

(A1) Ignorance is an excusing condition.

Situations can arise in which the fact that p ensures that it is wrong to X even though q is true. In situations where q & ~p, it might be that X-ing is permissible, but I'd say in situations where the subject reasonably believes q and is non-culpably ignorant of p, X-ing is still wrong. It is, however, excusably wrong.

The question is whether this can be accommodated by views on which there is an entailment from 'S ought to X' to 'Someone knows the facts relevant for determining that S ought to X'. On its face, this view and (A1) are in tension. There's no reason to assume in advance that the fact that p which ensures that S oughtn't X is known to S or any relevant party. So, if (A1) is right, any view that assumes an entailment from 'ought' to 'knows' is wrong ('OIK').

Cases like these are often used to motivate various fancy versions of OIK:
Here's a version of Parfit's mineshaft example from TAR:
A huge quantity of water is sloshing down the side of a hill. As it stands the water will end up in two caves, largely filling each of them. There are 10 miners in one of the caves, but no one at the site knows which. If both caves are flooded, only one of the miners will drown. (Ignore for now how we could know this, and assume we do.) The people at the site have some sandbags, which they could use to block one of the caves. If they block the cave with the miners, all the miners will be saved. If they block the other cave, the cave with the miners will be totally filled with water, and they’ll all drown. What should be done?

The options are

* Block the north cave.
* Block the south cave.
* Block neither cave.

Now, it is tempting to say:
(5) Ya'll should block neither cave.

However, as if often pointed out, the miners who know where they are (the north cave, say) will say:
(6) Ya'll should block the north cave.

On some versions of OIK, we focus on what is known to the speaker. Since the agent who is making the decision does not know where the miners are and knows that they can cut their losses by doing nothing, they judge (truthfully on this view) that they ought to block neither cave. The naturalness of (5) is accounted for. Since the miners know where they are and know that if nothing is done one of them will surely die, they can say (truthfully on this view) that the north cave ought to be blocked off. The naturalness of (6) is accounted for.

The following strikes me as perfectly coherent thing to say after the relevant decisions are made.

(7) You should have blocked off the north cave, but since you didn't know where the miners were, you should have done nothing.

I don't think we need OIK to make sense of (5) and (6) if we can make sense of (7). (7), to my mind, works a bit like the advice I gave Lanie in Lowe's. By taking account of the relevant agents' ignorance, you are really bracketing the question 'What should they really have done?' and are focused on a slightly different question 'Given that they were forced to act under ignorance, what was the best we could have hoped for?' It's similar to how taking account of Lanie's obstinate decision to paint the light fixtures we've set aside the question 'What should you do?' (answer: leave well enough alone) and focused on a slightly different question 'What's the best we could hope for?' (answer: silver rather than fluorescent pink light fixtures). Knowing that certain ends cannot be changed, we aim for second best. Knowing that certain ignorance cannot be remedied, all parties to the conversation (i.e., those with sandbags and those giving them advice) realize that it is pointless to try to settle the question as to what _really_ ought to be done and settle for second best. So, the naturalness of 'You ought to do nothing' is not that it is true in any sense that you ought to do nothing much in the same way that the naturalness of 'You ought to paint those light fixtures silver' is not due to the fact that the unwillingness to leave them alone changes the 'oughts' in that situation.

Anyway, I can't guarantee that this makes sense. I'm still on anti-biotics.

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