A Dog’s (Moral) Life… and Legal Representation

Back last August I posted an entry about Santino, a chimp living in a Swedish zoo who had developed a most interesting past-time: collecting rocks and stones to hurl at visitors to the zoo. The furtive manner in which Santino collected his projectiles may hint at, I suggested, a moral sense: a notion that his actions are somehow reprehensible.

Chimps, of course, are not the only animals to whom moral sense might be attributed. The latest issue of Scientific American contains a brief article elaborating on the so-called moral behaviour of canids (that’s dogs to you and I), which ties in with the newly released book Wild Justice by Mark Bekoff and Jessica Pierce (who incidentally author the article). Continue reading “A Dog’s (Moral) Life… and Legal Representation”


What Explains the Direction of Time?

Why do we experience the world as unfolding in time?  And why does it unfold toward the future rather than the past?  One hint is provided by entropy: eggs break (but never un-break), we grow older (but never younger), ice melts when we add it to a pot of boiling water (but the boiling water never gets hotter while the chunk of ice gets bigger).  Yet entropy itself requires an explanation because both entropic and anti-entropic behavior are compatible with the fundamental laws of physics.  One solution was first explained in detail by David Albert, a philosopher at Columbia University, in his book, Time and Chance (2001).  According to Albert, it is the big bang, which provides a low-entropy boundary condition, that explains the direction of time (and all of its associated puzzles).  Now, Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology has taken up Albert’s idea in his new book, From Eternity to Here.  In a recent interview in Scientific American, Carroll claims “just about everything about the arrow of time—what we would think of as “how time works,” the fact that the past is set in stone while the future can still be altered—is all because of entropy.”  Carroll’s book is intended for a popular audience, and would be a worthwhile investment for any philosopher curious about physics-based approaches to the metaphysics of time.

Related Articles:

The Experience of Time and Change

By Barry Dainton , University of Liverpool
(Vol. 3, June 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Time Travel: Double Your Fun

By Frank Arntzenius , Rutgers University
(Vol. 1, October 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Reading the criminal mind

Besides its surprisingly good action cinematography, ‘Minority Report’ owes its huge success to the deep discomfort it created in viewers. The movie constructs a future world where law enforcement makes use of ‘Pre-Cogs’ — humans who have been given the gift of foresight through genetic modification, so that they can see crimes before they happen. When a crime is predicted, the purported criminal is promptly apprehended and the crime prevented. The movie forces the viewer to confront a host of questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia.

If the future is predetermined, in what sense can we be said to be free? Central to our commonsense conception of freedom is the inherent possibility of doing otherwise. If the future is closed to alternate possibilities, then there is no sense in which a murderer could have acted differently and then it seems that  the act of murder is not a free act. Relatedly, if a person cannot do otherwise, is there a sense in which the person is morally responsible for the action? Hume, most famously, articulated the seemingly essential relationship between the notion of moral responsibility and the possibility of freely choosing your actions. ‘Ought implies can,’ he said. One is morally obligated to act in a certain way only if one can in fact act in such a way. If the future is predetermined, then in a clear sense the murderer could not have failed to murder. But then what sense is there to the claim that the murderer ought not to murder? And if there is no sense to be given in response to this question, there is little reason to hold the murderer morally responsible. The murderer is no different from a person who happens to slip on a banana, land on an innocent bystander, and accidentally snap his neck. The person is causally responsible for the unfortunate killing, but, since the person could not have done otherwise, is not morally responsible for it.

Continue reading “Reading the criminal mind”

Focusing in on mental illness

459px-DepressionThe notion of a mental disorder, or illness, is an essentially normative notion. It is dependent on the availability of some metric of normalcy, or orderliness. Whether a given mental tendency is a disorder or not depends on whether or not, and in what ways, it deviates from what is considered normal, or orderly. But, what are the norms that determine this metric?

This question is highly controversial, and its importance transcends far beyond the walls of academia. Few such seemingly terminological issues have such a tremendous impact on the day to day lives of so many millions of individuals across the world. For example, until quite recently (1973!!), homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Its status as a disorder gave legitimacy to subject individuals ‘afflicted’ with this ‘disorder’ to psychiatric treatment, often leading to detrimental effects (not to mention the pervasive social and legal discrimination they faced). Characterizing a given tendency as a disorder has the potential to bring about terrible harms and injustices. However, there are also cases in which pursuing various corrective measures seems crucial. Certain tendencies, such as schizophrenia, can be so disruptive to an individual’s life that treatment seems necessary. Labeling such a tendency as a ‘disorder’ potentially brings with it various societal and legal commitments to provide support that can substantially alter the lives of suffering individuals for the better. It is clear, then, that much hangs on how we come to characterize a mental tendency as a disorder.

Continue reading “Focusing in on mental illness”