Saturday, November 3, 2012

My two theses...

As part of getting my PhD (in philosophy) and going ABD, I have to write and orally defend two theses to the members of my dissertation committee.  I haven't defended the theses yet, but they've been approved for me to defend later this semester.  I thought I'd post them here.  Unlike, say, Luther's theses, mine are long(-ish) paragraphs rather than a series of single sentences.  I chose to write one thesis on a problem from historical philosophy and the other on a topic in value theory.  You can read the whole text below, but I'll offer my own short summaries in the following paragraph.

The first thesis has to do with Aristotle's understanding of honesty.  As surprising as this might be to more contemporary philosophers, Aristotle doesn't really talk about honesty a lot.  It gets a brief mention in the Nicomachean Ethics and another very brief mention in the Eudemian Ethics, but that's really about it.  A philosopher named David Bostock (who does lots of work on Aristotle) believes, to oversimplify, that what Aristotle has to say about honesty is hopelessly unsatisfactory.  So in this thesis I try to take other aspects of Aristotelian thought and show that those aspects can help "fill in the blanks" with respect to Aristotle's view of honesty.  My second thesis has to do with Karl Marx and his views of utilitarianism.  Marx strongly rejected the ethical position known as utilitarianism (for reasons which I think were basically correct, but that's neither here nor there).  However more refined versions of utilitarianism have been presented in the many years since Marx wrote his criticisms.  So I wanted to explore whether Marx's arguments applied to all forms of utilitarianism or only to the Bentham/Mill versions of utilitarianism that were floating around at the time Marx was alive.  I've always had a bit of an interest in Karl Popper's negative utilitarianism, so I examined it and I'm arguing that Marx's arguments fail to undermine negative utilitarianism.  (So although I don't think negative utilitarianism is the correct ethical theory, I do think that Marx's arguments against utilitarianism don't show why negative utilitarianism is incorrect).

That was my own summary of the theses.  The actual text of my two theses (which I'll be defending later this semester) follows:

1.  Bostock argues that Aristotle's account of honesty in Book 4, Chapter 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics is fundamentally flawed. Bostock advances three claims to prove his thesis. First, he argues that when it comes to our own accomplishments, Aristotle's account is incapable of covering the full range of possible misstatements. Second, Bostock argues that honesty is not in fact confined to statements about one's own achievements in the first place and thus that Aristotle was wrong to so limit it. Third and finally, Bostock argues that honesty does not lie as a mean between two vices and, as such, cannot be accommodated in an Aristotelian ethical system. I answer that the strongest response Aristotle could offer to these charges is to conceptualize honesty as also being a facet of distributive justice as addressed in the Nicomachean Ethics Book 5, Chapters 2 and 3 (and, as such, honesty entails giving each person what she is due). If accepted, this Aristotelian conception of honesty would, on its own terms, be capable of covering the full logical space of possible misstatements about ourselves (either overdescribing, underdescribing, or accurately describing our own achievements). Moreover, such a conception allows us to address instances of dishonesty involving others. Lastly, this conception of honesty entails that honesty can be considered as a mean between two vices; the mean is to reveal what is appropriate, and its associated vices are to reveal too much or not enough according to the degree of honesty one's interlocutor is entitled to.

2.  Marx offers three main arguments against utilitarianism, particularly Bentham's utilitarianism. First, in Chapter 3, §6C of the Young Marx's German Ideology he argues that utilitarianism justifies current capitalistic economic systems and, thus, is insufficiently revolutionary. Second, in the same chapter and section of the German Ideology Marx argues that utilitarianism considers usefulness to be of sole importance to the detriment of other important factors in our lives. Third, in the Mature Marx's Capital (Vol 1, Chapter 6) he criticizes the individualism which he sees as being inherent in utilitarianism. I reply that Karl Popper's conception of negative utilitarianism is not subject to these criticisms which Marx puts forth. Briefly, Popper argues that there is an asymmetry between alleviating pain and producing happiness – thus, what morally matters most is alleviating pain and suffering. As such, under Popper's conception of negative utilitarianism, any harmful aspects of capitalism will not be justified and negative utilitarianism would indeed be revolutionary. Further, Popper’s negative utilitarianism is inherently designed to avoid untoward individualism. Finally, Popper’s negative utilitarianism includes not just a principle of negative utility but also recognizes the worthiness of goals other than alleviating pain. These include, for Popper, a principle of societal tolerance and a principle of avoiding societal tyranny. As such, Marx's three main criticisms of utilitarianism fail to undermine negative utilitarianism.