Saturday, January 26, 2013

Conditions for having the Moral Right to Speak for Others

When does one have the moral right to speak for others? The substantiation and validation of this right may require the fulfillment of a number of conditions. Each condition, when fulfilled, may contribute toward the substantiation of this right, but it is only a conditional right (it is only conditionally capable of being substantiated and validated).
      The conditions for having the moral right to speak for others are each in their own way "necessary conditions," insofar as if it is possible for each of them to be fulfilled, they must be fulfilled. The question of what are the "sufficient conditions" that may, alone and of themselves, validate the moral right to speak for others is open to debate.
      It may be helpful to compose a tentative list of all the conditions that must be satisfied in order for the moral right to speak for others to be fully substantiated and validated. Thus, the moral right to speak for others may be said to exist only
  • when those for whom one is speaking have voluntarily given their consent. In other words, one has the moral right to speak for others only if they have willingly given their informed consent, permission, or approval. If they are not in a position to give their voluntary and informed consent, then one's moral right to speak for them must be established on some other grounds, such as one's being their closest family relative, or one's being their legal representative, guardian, or trustee, or one's having been chosen to speak by their family members, guardians, or legal representatives, or one's being in a position of recognized and legitimate authority to speak for them. 
      It should be noted that those for whom one is speaking may either implicitly or explicitly agree that one may speak in their behalf. If their agreement or consent is only implicit, then one must assume the burden of proof if it becomes necessary to demonstrate that they have given their voluntary consent and that one has not unjustifiably taken upon oneself the task of speaking for them.

      The moral right to speak for others may also be said to exist only
  • when those for whom one is speaking cannot speak for themselves
  • when one can speak in such a way that the dignity, well-being, and self-fulfillment of those for whom one is speaking are enhanced, and are not diminished in any way
  • when one has sufficient knowledge of, and familiarity with, the interests of those for whom one is speaking, and this knowledge and familiarity has been accepted and recognized by those for whom one is speaking
  • when one is able to reliably and knowledgeably articulate the interests and concerns of those for whom one is speaking 
  • when one is able to represent those for whom one is speaking in such a way that their interests, concerns, and well-being are served by one's being able to speak for them
  • when one is in a better position, or is more qualified, than some other person to represent the interests of those for whom one is speaking
  • when one is not adopting or speaking from a position of supposed superiority in relation to those for whom one is speaking
  • when those for whom one is speaking are not diminished in their right and capacity to speak for themselves, whenever they choose to exercise this right 
  • when those for whom one is speaking are aware of, are informed of, or can anticipate whatever one intends to say in their behalf, or when they have (implicitly or explicitly) given their consent to whatever one intends to say in their behalf
  • when one's speaking for others does not jeopardize their safety, interests, and well-being
  • when those for whom one is speaking are aware of, are informed of, and can anticipate, the possible risks or disadvantages of one's speaking for them
  • when one's speaking for others is not a means of selfishly serving one's own interests
  • when one does not have a potential conflict of interest that would call into question one's motivation for speaking for others, e.g. an interest in their not being able to speak for themselves or in their not being able to advance their own interests and well-being
  • when one's speaking for others is not, in effect, benefiting one's own interests more than the interests of those for whom one is speaking
  • when one is open and honest toward those for whom one is speaking, so that they are able to understand one's true motives for volunteering or consenting to speak for them
  • when speaking for others does not violate their privacy or confidentiality, and
  • when one is ready and willing to relinquish the right to speak for others as soon as they are able to speak for themselves.
      Given the number of conditions that must be satisfied in order to validate the moral right to speak for others, one must be very careful about assuming this responsibility. The moral right to speak for others is a very limited one (in scope and duration), given the number of conditions that must be satisfied in order to validate it.
      If one is speaking for a community of which one is a member, then one has the moral right to say that one speaks for oneself as a member of that community, but one does not have the moral right to say that one speaks for every member of that community, unless one has obtained the voluntary consent or approval of every member. 
      If one is speaking for a community of which one is not a member, then one's moral right to speak for that community may depend on a variety of factors, such as whether the members of that community are able to speak for themselves, whether one has been chosen by the members of that community to speak for them, whether one is in a position of recognized authority to speak for the members of that community, whether one has special expertise regarding (or familiarity with) the interests and concerns of that community, and other factors or conditions as described above. 
      The mere fact that one shares the interests and concerns of a community of which one is not a member does not give one the moral authority to speak for that community. One may have the moral authority to speak for a community of which one is or is not a member if one has been recognized by that community as a spokesperson or if one has been elected by that community to speak for (advocate for, or represent) their interests and concerns. However, the community for which one has been given the moral authority to speak still has the right to withdraw their consent for, or approval of, one's continuing to act as their representative or spokesperson.
      If one has chosen or elected oneself to be a spokesperson for a particular community, then the legitimacy of one's speaking for that community depends, in part, on whether one's speaking for its members actually promotes their interests and well-being, as judged by them. One may gain the moral authority to speak for the members of a community if one's speaking for them actually promotes their well-being and is approved by them. However, if one's speaking for them does not promote, or is detrimental to, their interests and well-being, and one is not accepted by them as a spokesperson, then one has no moral right to say that one is speaking for them.
      

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Art of Recitation


In what sense is recitation an art? Recitation is an art in the sense that it may be judged according to aesthetic criteria, such as beauty, sublimity, originality, imagination, spontaneity, eloquence, expressiveness, etc. It is also an art in the sense that it involves the practice of a craft, discipline, or skill that is artistic, as well as technical, in nature.
      Is it possible for the recitation of a text to be creative and flexible in its approach to the text, and yet remain faithful to all linguistic aspects of that text? Indeed, every act of recitation may, to some extent, involve an element of creative interpretation on the part of the performer. Faithfulness to the creativity of the text may require the recitation of the text to reflect that creativity.
      Can recitation of a text give the text new or added meaning? Oral recitation sometimes seems to bring new life to a written text, to reanimate it and make it more vital, and to bring it from the past into the present. Sometimes by hearing a text recited, we may hear that text in some way reinterpreted by the reader doing the recitation, and thus we may see how the reader's own experience of the text (as shaped by her experiences of other texts) may influence her interpretation. We may be exposed to new ways of reading, listening to, and interpreting that text, and we ourselves may subsequently read, listen to, and interpret that text differently.
      Other important questions regarding the nature and meaning of recitation include: Does the oral recitation of a written text somehow change the ontological status of that text? For example, does the recitation of a poem somehow change it from a written to an oral art form? (What about spoken word poetry? Is it an oral or written art form, or both?) Is a written text changed in its being when it is read aloud? To what extent does the ontological status of a particular text depend on the means by which that text is transmitted?
      Does the recitation of a sacred text change the ontological status of that text? Does the act of recitation change the ontological status of the truths that the text is purported to express? Or should the converse question be asked: is the ontological status of the truths that a sacred text is purported to express changed by the act of writing down or transcribing that text? For believers in God, the question is thus, "Is the spoken Word of God the same as the written Word of God?"
      The recitation of a text often seems to make us more open to listening and to being more receptive to that text. The text may become a listening as well as reading experience in which we actively participate. In some cases (as, for example, with highly abstract or technical written texts), we may find it more difficult to be good listeners than to be good readers, while in other cases (as, for example, with some auditory texts, such as unidentifiable noises or environmental sounds) we may find it more difficult to be good "readers" than to be good listeners.
     The recitation of a written text by its author may enable the listener to have a new and fuller experience of the author (as a person, speaker, or writer). The listener may gain insight into the author's verbal and thematic strategies in the text by listening to the author's recitation of the text.
      How much of ordinary language consists of the recitation of thoughts by a given speaker or writer? If a given speaker or writer simply "says what's on her mind" and unburdens herself of whatever has been occupying her attention, isn't she, in a sense, merely reciting her thoughts and voicing her feelings? Perhaps, to express one's thoughts verbally is in some way to recite them to the listener or reader.
      Recitation may be performed with varying degrees of proficiency. Technical aspects of recitation (which may depend on the vocal qualities of the performer, her proficiency in reading aloud, her literacy, her understanding of the text, and her communicative competence) may therefore affect the listener's experience of the recited text. Relevant vocal qualities of the performer may include the pitch, volume, resonance, and range of her voice, and the tempo, intonation, articulation, phrasing, and dynamics of her delivery, all of which may affect the listener's attentiveness to, and participation in, the recitation. Nonvocal qualities of the performer such as her facial expressions, posture, and gestures may also affect the listener's experience of the recitation.
      Some texts may be easier to recite than others. Some may be more interesting, resonant, meaningful, and easier to listen to than others.
      Criteria for a praiseworthy recitation of a text may include the accuracy, fluency, and effectiveness of the recitation, as determined by its faithfulness to the words of the text, its precision, its resonance, its spontaneity, its expressive poignancy, and its dramatic power.
      The importance of oral recitation (and of oral versus written narrative) may vary according to the particular aesthetic, religious, or sociocultural tradition in which it occurs. Thus, varying degrees of emphasis may also be placed on the ability to properly recite a text, depending on the aesthetic, religious, or sociocultural setting.
      Modes of recitation include speaking (reading aloud), singing, recitative (or speech-like singing), and chanting. Each of these modes may vary in the degree to which they are rote (mechanical) or improvised.
      Recitation is a kind of performance, and thus we are also confronted by the question of whether the interpretation of a spoken or written text involves a kind of performance on the part of the listener or reader. Just as the reading of a text may be performed silently or aloud, the interpretation of a text may be performed silently or aloud.
      Some machines (such as computers and telephones) may be able to read written text (including text messages) aloud, and thus their repetitive recitation of a particular text may have a uniformity that is not possible with human recitation. Unless the recitation of a particular text by a computer or mobile device is programmed to vary in some way with each recitation, each recitation may be exactly the same as those preceding it. Repetitive human recitation of a particular text, on the other hand, will inevitably exhibit some variation (even if only slight) from one recitation to another.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Text Linguistics - A Reading List


Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1974.

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

Beaugrande, Robert de. Text, Discourse, and Process: Toward a Multidisciplinary Science of Texts. London: Longman Publishing Group, 1980.

Beaugrande, Robert de and Dressler, Wolfgang. Introduction to Text Linguistics. London: Longman Publishing Group, 1981.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?" in Twentieth Century Literary Theory. Edited by Vassilis Lambropoulos and David Neal Miller. Albany: State University Press of New York, 1987.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse Revisited. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan, Ruqaiya. Cohesion in English. London: Longman, 1976.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Silverman, Jonathan and Rader, Dean. The World is a Text: Writing, Reading and Thinking about Visual and Popular Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.

Titscher, Stefan et alMethods of Text and Discourse Analysis. London: Sage: 2000.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Applications of Text Theory to Moral Philosophy


Text theory may be relevant to moral philosophy insofar as moral acts may be regarded as texts to be read or interpreted. The textuality of moral acts may be defined by their structural cohesion and coherence,1 by their ability to be "read" or interpreted, and by their relations to other texts (their intertextuality or transtextuality). 
      The textuality of moral acts may have syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic dimensions. The syntactic dimension(s) of a moral act may be based on its "grammaticality" (its conformity to the formation rules specified by the moral "language"). The semantic dimension(s) of a moral act may be based on its meaningfulness or capacity to signify perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, as determined by its conformity to specified rules of meaning and signification. The pragmatic dimension(s) of a moral act may be based on its usefulness, adaptability, instrumentality, or functionality, as determined by the purposes and functions for which it is used, and by the moral (sociocultural, linguistic, or discursive) context in which it occurs.
      Moral acts may belong to lexical and semantic fields (or domains) that provide linguistic, discursive, and situational contexts for their interpretation. The meaning of moral acts may be determined not only by their form and content, but also by their moral (sociocultural, historical, and psychological) contexts and subtexts. 
      The meaning or signification of moral acts may be determined not only by the intentions of their "author(s)," but also by their semantic content, their situational and interpretive context(s), and the accompanying interpretive process in which the reader(s) or audience participate(s). The "readers" or interpreters of a moral act may include all those individuals to whom the act is presented as a linguistic (sociocultural, psychological, or moral) text and all those individuals for whom the act is relevant. The authorial intentions behind or underlying a moral act may be part of the author's motivations for performing that act. 
      The interpretive or hermeneutic process may be influenced by the reader's preconceptions regarding the author's aims or intentions, although those preconceptions may in some cases be misleading. Accurate, well-placed, and well-founded preconceptions on the part of the reader may, in some cases, facilitate his/her understanding of the author's intentions, but inaccurate, misplaced, and baseless preconceptions may lead to his/her misunderstanding of those intentions.2 
      The intended meaning of a text may also be different from the actual meaning of that text, and the actual meaning of the text may depend on the temporal, sociocultural, and interpretive context.
      Textual analysis may include study of the rhetoric, stylistics, semantics, pragmatics, ideology, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics of a text (speech-act, linguistic sign, sign system, or mode of discourse). Textual analysis may also include study of the discursive strategies and communicative competence of a text, as well as study of the text's linguistic (discursive, sociocultural, or historical) context, and the text's relations to other texts.
      Any text may be subject to overreadings (assignments to the text of meanings that are not actually expressed or implied by the text), underreadings (instances of failure to recognize meanings that are actually expressed or implied by the text), and misreadings (misrepresentations of meanings that are actually expressed or implied by the text).3 
      Moral acts as texts may be dialogic interactions4 between "authors" and "readers," and between texts and other texts (acts, events, sign systems, or fields of interpretation, insofar as they are also texts). The moral meaning of any particular act or text may always be further interpreted in light of the contribution to its meaning by other acts or texts. 
      A text may exhibit both an internal and external dialogism. It may engage in dialogue with itself, as well as with other texts.5 
      The interpretation of moral acts may include examination of not only their actual meaning(s), but also their potential meaning(s). A single moral act may have multiple levels of actual and potential meaning. Interpretation of a moral act may thus entail study or clarification of the conditions that made that particular act possible.
      Since a moral act or text may always be further interpreted in light of other acts or texts, no interpretation can be called final or definitive. Hermeneutics as a process of textual understanding is never finalizable.6
      The relation between moral philosophy and text theory may be further illuminated by examining the relation between ethics and language. Just as there is a language of ethics, there is an ethics of language. Just as moral philosophy may illuminate text theory, text theory may illuminate moral philosophy. Moral understanding may be based on an ability to correctly "read" or interpret the meaning of moral intentions, principles, acts, etc. and their respective outcomes. Moral misunderstanding may similarly be based on an inability or failure to correctly "read" the meaning of moral intentions, principles, acts, etc.
      A given reader may read a text repeatedly, and yet read that text in a slightly different way each time she returns to it. The reader may experience the text as in some way changed (perhaps in the light of her own formative experiences in the interim) with each subsequent reading. The reader may herself be changed in some way by each subsequent reading of that text.

1M.A.K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan, Cohesion in English (Hong Kong: Longman Group Ltd., 1976), p. 22.
2Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), p. 263.
3H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 239.
4Mikhail Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 279.
5Ibid. p. 282.
6Leslie A. Baxter, Voicing Relationships: A Dialogic Perspective (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011), p. 26.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem


Kurt Gödel was an Austrian-American logician and mathematician who was born in 1906 in the city of Brünn, in Austria-Hungary (now the city of Brno, in the Czech Republic). He studied and taught mathematics at the University of Vienna, where he participated in meetings of the Vienna Circle, the famous group of philosophers that included Moritz Schlick (1882-1936) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). In 1931, at the age of 25, he published a proof that is now known as Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and that demonstrated the existence of formally undecidable propositions in any formal system of arithmetic (such as that described by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell in the Principia Mathematica).This theorem is one of the most famous theorems in modern mathematics.2 In 1939, Gödel and his wife Adele emigrated to the United States, where he became a member of the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and where he developed a close friendship with Albert Einstein. Gödel and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1948. He died in Princeton, N.J. in 1978.
      One way of roughly summarizing Gödel's (First) Incompleteness Theorem, as described by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (1999), is to say that it shows that any consistent axiomatic formulation of number theory includes undecidable propositions (propositions that can neither be proven nor be disproven within that axiomatic formulation).3
      Another way of roughly summarizing Gödel's (First) Incompleteness Theorem, as described by the logician and mathematician Jean van Heijenoort (1967), is to say that it shows that in any formal system adequate for number theory, there are formulas that are neither provable nor disprovable. A corollary to this theorem is that the consistency of any formal system adequate for number theory cannot be proven within that system.4 No consistent formal system that is adequate for number theory can prove its own consistency. This is known as Gödel's Second Incompleteness Theorem.
      Another way of roughly summarizing Gödel's (First) Incompleteness Theorem, as described by the logician and philosopher Geoffrey Hunter (1971), is to say that it shows that for any consistent system S of formal arithmetic, if S has decidable sets of formulas and proofs and contains representations of every decidable set of natural numbers, then S is incomplete.5 Thus, for any consistent system of formal arithmetic in which (1) the set of axioms and the rules of inference are recursively definable, and (2) every recursive relation is definable, there are undecidable arithmetical propositions of the form (x)Fx, where F is a recursively defined property of natural numbers.6 
      Another way of roughly summarizing Gödel's (First) Incompleteness Theorem, as described by the logician and philosopher Peter Suber (2002), is to say that it shows that any consistent formal system of arithmetic that is of sufficient strength (to have decidable sets of formulas and proofs and to represent every decidable set of natural numbers) is deductively incomplete.In other words, any consistent formal system of arithmetic that is of sufficient strength contains arithmetical propositions that are undecidable (that are neither provable nor disprovable within that system). 
      This means that within any consistent nontrivial formal system of arithmetic, there are arithmetical propositions that are true or false but that cannot be proven to be true or false within that system. The axioms and inference rules of any consistent nontrivial formal system of arithmetic are insufficient to decide the truth or falsehood of every arithmetical proposition expressible within that system. It is impossible to devise a consistent nontrivial system of formal arithmetic whose axioms and inference rules are complete enough to prove or disprove all the arithmetical propositions expressible within that system. No formal system of arithmetic that is of sufficient strength to have decidable sets of formulas and proofs and to represent every decidable set of natural numbers can be both consistent and deductively complete.8
      Moreover, a consistent formal system adequate for number theory cannot prove its own consistency. It cannot guarantee that it will not contain some inconsistency.
      This means that in order for every possible proposition expressible within a nontrivial formal system of arithmetic to be provable or disprovable, the system has to be in some way inconsistent. Deductive completeness within such a system must therefore come at the price of inconsistency. All consistent nontrivial formal systems of arithmetic are deductively incomplete.
      The logician and philosopher Jaako Hintikka (1996) explains that it is important not to confuse the incompleteness of a nonlogical (mathematical) theory with the nonaxiomatizability of a logical theory.9 He also explains that it is important not to confuse deductive incompleteness (the inability of an axiomatic system to prove or disprove all propositions expressible within that system) with semantic incompleteness (the inability of an axiomatic system to express as theorems all logically valid sentences of the underlying language), or with descriptive incompleteness (the inability of a formal system to provide models of all the objects or sets of objects that it is asked to describe), or with Hilbertian incompleteness (the inability of an axiomatic system to provide a set of axiomatic models to which none can be added without violating the axioms of that system).

1Larousse Biographical Dictionary, ed. by Magnus Magnusson and Rosemary Goring (New York: Larousse, 1990), p. 598.
2Ibid., p. 598.
3Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Goldren Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 17.
4Jean van Heijenoort, "Gödel's Theorem," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Paul Edwards, Vol. 3 (New York: MacMillan, 1967), p. 348. 
5Geoffrey Hunter, Metalogic: An Introduction to the Metatheory of Standard First Order Logic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 228.
6Kurt Gödel, "On formally undecidable propositions of Principia Mathematica and related systems" [Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme," 1931] in Kurt Gödel Collected Works, Volume I, edited by Solomon Feferman, et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 181.
7Peter Suber, "Glossary of First-Order Logic," (1999-2002), online at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/courses/logsys/glossary.htm.
8Ibid.
9Jaako Hintikka, The Principles of Mathematics Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 91.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Leibniz's Law


G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) says in Section IX of his Discourse on Metaphysics (Discours de Métaphysique, 1686) that no two substances can be exactly alike. This is known as Leibniz's Law. Another way of expressing this is: No two substances can be exactly the same and yet be numerically different. If two substances were exactly the same, then they would be the same substance and would not be two separate substances. 
      Leibniz's Law (that no two things can share all their properties in common) can be expressed in a positive way as follows: if two things are identical, then they share all their properties in common (this metaphysical principle is called the indiscernibility of identicals), and conversely, if two things share all their properties in common, then they are identical (this metaphysical principle is called the identity of indiscernibles). According to the indiscernibility of identicals, if two things are identical, then no difference between them is discernible, and according to the identity of indiscernibles, if no difference is discernible between two things, then they are identical.
      An objection that might be raised to the identity of indiscernibles is that if two things are superimposed on each other, then they might temporarily share all their properties in common and yet not be the same. It might not be possible to discern that they are two things, rather than one. An objection that might be raised to the indiscernibility of identicals is that if two things are, to any means of detection, identical, then they might still differ from each other in a property that is undetectable. It might not be possible in practice to detect any difference between them. 
      Thus, a distinction may need to be made between theoretical and practical discernibility. The difference between two nonidentical things may in some cases not be practically discernible or verifiable. Similarly, the sameness of two things may in some cases not be practically discernible or verifiable.             
      Leibniz's Law can be expressed symbolically as (x)(y) [x=y → (F)(Fx ↔ Fy)], which may be read as "for every x and for every y, if x is identical to y, then every property F that is possessed by x is also possessed by y, and every property F that is possessed by y is also possessed by x" (this is the indiscernibility of identicals), and conversely as (x)(y) [(F )(Fx ↔ Fy) → x=y], which may be read as "for every x and for every y, if every property F that is possessed by x is also possessed by y, and every property F that is possessed by y is also possessed by x, then x is identical to y" (this is the identity of indiscernibles).
      The philosopher Max Black (1952) offers several arguments against the principle that if no difference is discernible between two things, then they are identical. He argues that two things cannot be identical, since if they were, then they would be only one thing, and not two. If we say that a is identical to b, then we are merely using two different names to refer to the same thing. And if a and b are merely two different names for the same thing, then when we say that "a is identical to b," we are merely saying that "a is a," which is a tautology. The principle that "If there is no difference between a and b, then they are the same" is trivial. And if there were a universe consisting of two exactly similar spheres, then conceivably two things could share the same properties and still not be the same, and thus the identity of indiscernibles would again be put into question.
1
      It may, however, be worth noting that two things may be similar to, or the same as, each other in possessing many distinct kinds of properties. Identity between two things may involve material, formal, spatial, temporal, relational, and other kinds of properties.
      Can an exact duplicate or replica of something be properly called "identical to" or "the same as" that thing? If so, why may there still be some doubt or uncertainty about whether the two things are alike in every respect? What may happen to the identity of the two things as they change over a period of time?
      Do changes in the properties of things always change the natures of those things? Moreover, do changes in the physical, intellectual, emotional, or social attributes of a person always change the nature of that person?  Are you the same person that you were 5 minutes ago? 7 days ago? 5 years ago?
      Surely, there must be some properties that are relevant to sameness, and some that are irrelevant. Should we then relativize or qualify the indiscernibility of identicals by saying that in order for two things to be the same, they must share all properties that are essential or relevant to their sameness? Some properties may be essential to the identity of two things, while other properties may be unessential. 

1Max Black, "The Identity of Indiscernibles," in Mind, Vol. 61, No. 242 (April, 1952) pp. 153-164.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Moral Agency and Personhood


In an article published in the February 18, 2010 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine, Martin Monti et al. reported that functional MRI scanning may detect awareness and cognition in some patients with severe brain injuries who have no other evidence of sustained, reproducible, purposeful, or voluntary behavioral responses to visual, auditory, tactile, or noxious stimuli. Thus, a small proportion of such patients who have severe brain damage and who appear to be unconscious or only minimally conscious (with wakefulness but without awareness) may actually have some level of awareness as detected on functional MRI scanning, and may in fact be able to communicate by willfully modulating their brain activity.1 
      In an editorial in the same edition of the NEJM, Allan H. Ropper noted that "The unfortunate term 'vegetative' has been used to describe patients whose eyes open after a period of coma but who lack any meaningful responses to stimuli. Open eyes give the impression of normal alertness, but the patient's behavioral repertoire is limited to reflexive actions such as posturing or purposeless movements, roving eye movements, swallowing, and yawning."2 
      The term "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) has been used to refer to prolonged states of unconsciousness (due to traumatic or non-traumatic brain injuries, degenerative or metabolic brain disorders, or severe congenital malformations of the nervous system) in which the patient is completely unaware of self and of the environment but has sleep-wake cycles, with preservation of hypothalamic and brainstem autonomic functions. Such patients "show no evidence of sustained, reproducible, purposeful or voluntary behavioral responses to visual, auditory, tactile, or noxious stimuli; show no evidence of language comprehension or expression; have bowel and bladder incontinence; and have variably preserved cranial nerve and spinal reflexes."3 They may be able to exhibit such behaviors as blinking, swallowing, groaning, grimacing, breathing spontaneously, and reflex posturing of the limbs, but they are unable to eat, drink, talk, or make purposeful limb movements. As a result of being permanently confined to bed or chair, they also tend to develop such complications as muscle wasting, limb and joint contractures, skin breakdown, pressure sores, recurrent urinary tract infections, and pneumonia.4
      However, the term "vegetative" has pejorative connotations, and implies that the patient who is in this state of unconsciousness is merely vegetating or is merely a vegetable. The term diminishes the personhood of the person who is in this condition.
      The study by Monti et al. in the Feb. 18, 2010 edition of the NEJM demonstrates that a small proportion of patients who have been previously diagnosed as having entered a "persistent vegetative state" may actually have some awareness and cognition. They may be able to respond to auditory stimuli, and they may be able to voluntarily modify their brain activity in order to perform simple communicational tasks.
      Are individuals with depressed levels of consciousness who are minimally aware of their environment but unable to make any behavioral responses able to retain their moral agency? Are individuals who are fully aware of their environment but unable to make any behavioral responses (such as completely paralyzed individuals, or individuals with the "locked-in syndrome," as originally described by Plum and Posner in 1966)5 able to retain their moral agency? Such individuals obviously retain their personhood, but can they still function as moral agents? Are they still responsible for whatever thoughts and feelings they may have? 
      What are the criteria for moral agency? Moral agency is a contributor to, but not a requirement for, personhood, since some persons (such as small children and the mentally impaired or handicapped) may not have sufficient voluntary control over their actions to be held morally responsible for them. The proper definition of personhood is quite controversial, since legal recognition of personhood conveys various rights and responsibilities upon any being who is legally considered to be a person. Thus, the politics of personhood has complicated the development of consensus regarding such issues as the nature of reproductive health rights, the legitimacy of end-of-life decision making, the nature of corporate personhood, and the nature of animal rights. 
      Any attempt to establish a definite set of criteria for personhood may be problematic, insofar as any such set of criteria may not be sufficiently inclusive. Every human being is a person. Whether non-humans can also be considered persons is a matter that has been much discussed elsewhere (e.g. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 1993; Sarah Chan and John Harris, "Human Animals and Nonhuman Persons," in The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, ed. by Tom L. Beauchamp and R.G. Frey, 2011). Every person has a personality, i.e. a set of physical, cognitive, perceptual, mental, emotional, and social traits or characteristics that define him/her as a distinct individual. The identity of each person is also defined by his/her relations with other persons.
      Agency may be defined as the state of acting or of having the capacity to act (independently or in cooperation with other agents). An agent may be defined as an individual or collective entity that acts or is capable of acting. An agent may act autonomously or in cooperation with other agents--in, upon, through, because of, by means of, for the purpose of, or in behalf of some other agent or entity. 
      Moral agency may be defined as the state of acting or of having the capacity to act, such that the agent is in a position to be held morally responsible for his/her actions. In order to be held fully responsible for her actions, an agent must have sufficient autonomy (or freedom of choice) to be held fully responsible for her actions, her actions must be voluntary and under her own control, and they must be intentional.
     There may be many kinds of agency, including physical, moral, human, non-human, rational, legal, and professional agency. Physical agents include biological, chemical, environmental, radiologic, and thermal agents. Legal agents include law enforcement officers, attorneys, legal guardians, legal representatives, executors, contractors, brokers, and lobbyists. Business and professional agents include literary, theatrical, sports, travel, insurance, booking, sales, and real estate agents.
      Agents acting jointly or collectively may share a moral responsibility for their joint or collective actions. The nature of the responsibility of each agent for a joint or collective action may depend on whether each agent is a willing participant in the action, whether each agent is aware of the possible consequences of the action, and whether each agent has the ability to promote, prevent, or modify the expected or actual outcome of the action.


1Martin M. Monti, et al. "Willful Modulation of Brain Activity in Disorders of Consciousness." N Eng J Med; 362: 579-589, Feb. 18, 2010.
2Allan H. Ropper. "Cogito Ergo Sum by MRI." N Engl J Med; 362: 648-649, Feb. 18, 2010.
3The Multi-Society Task Force on PVS. "Medical Aspects of the Persistent Vegetative State." N Engl J Med; 330: 1499-1508, May 26, 1994.
4American Hospice Foundation. "Coma and Persistent Vegetative State: An Exploration of Terms." 2005, at http://www.americanhospice.org/articles-mainmenu-8/caregiving-mainmenu-10/50-coma-and-persistent-vegetative-state-an-exploration-of-terms.
5Fred Plum and Jerome B. Posner. The Diagnosis of Stupor and Coma. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis and Company, 1966.