Friday, January 30, 2009

Five Year Old Refutes Plato

Plato famously held that no one intentionally and knowingly acts wrongly. People do act wrongly, Plato knew, but such acts were always the result of ignorance of the good. If people knew what was good, they would act rightly. For Plato, there was no such thing as akrasia.

#1 is five years old. Like all five year olds, he is perfectly behaved... for a few minutes each day. After one bout of misbehavior involving pushing his younger brother we had a little chat.

PD: "Now was that the right thing to do?"
#1: "No."
PD: "Do you know what the right thing to do was?"
#1: "Yes I know. Not push him."
PD: "That's right. So if you knew what was the right thing to do, why did you push your brother?"
#1: Because I wanted to.

I suspect the Platonists are not convinced.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Every once in a while I'll plug a favorite children's book that makes for a good discussion of an interesting idea. I suppose it is appropriate that today's book post follows a post on what everyone is doing, for it is about not doing what everyone is doing.

Folks, let me introduce you to The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. This book follows the remodeling exploits of one Mr. Plumbean, who is the victim of a seagull who drops an open can of orange paint on his house, leaving the eponymous splot on his roof. His neighbors consider Mr. Plumbean rather unlucky. Perhaps, unlike your blogger, they have not personally known the pleasure of seagulls dropping other things from the sky, and having such things land on their heads, but I suppose that is beside the point.

Mr. Plumbean lives in a neighborhood that looks like its homeowner's association got its training under Mao. All the houses look the same. I once lived in a homeowner's association. Mine was comparatively liberal. For instance, it would allow us to paint our homes any color we wanted, so long as that color was some shade of beige. Anyway, Mr. Plumbean's neighbors become increasingly frustrated with his failure to de-splotify his house. The splot doesn't match his house, and it makes their "neat street" not-so-neat, they complain. Mr. Plumbean says he'll do something about it, and boy does he. By the time he is done, his house looks like the aesthetic love child of Peter Max and Jimmy Buffet.

During and after Plumbean's remodeling, one by one his neighbors have a sit-down with him to convince him to see things from the neighborhood's point of view, and implore him to conform to the neat look of the street. Somehow Plumbean turns the tables on them, and the next thing you know, those same neighbors are creating the houses that look like the houses of their dreams. My dream house isn't among them (alternative sketch here) but that is okay. I guess I have weird dreams.

Mr. Plumbean's tale is that of an individualist liberating himself from the shackles of conformity, and showing others that they can do so, too. Anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of a zoning board will love it. Yet I suspect that there are a few folks out there who might bristle at Plumbean's reckless disregard for his neighbors wishes, or at least their property values. (This was someone's dream, after all.) Should Plumbean be allowed to build his house any old way? What about the pet alligator on the front lawn? Plumbean is clearly the hero here. But that doesn't mean we can't use the book to have a conversation with our kids about whether being oneself just means doing what one wants to do (it doesn't), and whether certain contexts are just not right for self-expression--even if we cheer when Plumbean has succeeded in turning his freakishly neat street into a neatly freakish one.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


How many times have you told your kid not to do something by asking, “What if everyone did that?” You know, something along the lines of “No, you may not pick a flower from the garden in the park,” or “No, you may not leave your empty juice box on the sidewalk,” or “No, you may not repackage subprime mortgage backed securities as AAA-rated CDOs” – What if everyone did that? The point of this question is to convey to your child that unless everyone could do the act in question, the act shouldn’t be done. Call this the universalistic prohibition.

Now how many times has your child tried to persuade you to allow her to do something by appealing to the fact that everyone is doing it? “Can’t I go to the party? Everyone is going” or “Come on! Everyone else’s parents let them have one!” Of course, this is a practical version of the
bandwagon fallacy. Call it the bandwagon appeal. The bandwagon appeal usually fails to move parents. The thing is, it is the logical response to what kids hear from parents quite often, namely, the universalistic prohibition. After all, if everyone is doing X, then everyone could do X. And if everyone could do X, then the condition laid out by the universalistic prohibition is met.

What is the typical parental response to the bandwagon appeal? Perhaps something like the following: “And if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” Here, the idea is that one shouldn’t do something just because everyone else is doing it. If everyone is doing the act, we cannot infer that the act is permissible. Yet with the universalistic prohibition we are saying that we can infer from everyone doing an act that the act is permissible. So are we contradicting ourselves?

No, for two reasons. (Boring paragraph warning.) The first, I think, is that parents intend for the universalistic prohibition to set out just one of several conditions a potential act must meet before it is permissible. So, to show that everyone is doing X is only to show that doing X meets only one, but not all, of the necessary conditions for a permissible act. Another condition might be, for example, that X does not contradict the family’s values, or that X is "age appropriate," etc. The second is that when parents set forth the universalistic prohibition, it is usually not in the Kantian sense (of whether the aim of the act is realizable in a world in which everyone acts in the same way), but more along the lines of negative universal consequentialism, that is, that one should act only in ways that wouldn’t have awful results if everyone did it. When a child says that everyone is doing X, that is compatible with the results of everyone doing X being truly awful, in which case the universal prohibition would not actually be met.

Even though parents are not contradicting themselves here, that doesn’t mean they aren’t making a mistake. Indeed, it may be that the kids are more right than the parents. For it’s unclear that universalization is even a necessary condition for the permissibility of an act. If everyone wanted to become a professional philosopher that would be awful. And not just awfully annoying. We would all die. Well, we’ll all die anyway, but we would die a lot sooner, since there would be no farmers, doctors, police, or air conditioning technicians. Nonetheless, we'd all agree that it is permissible to become a professional philosopher (except parents who insist on business school for Jr.)

Further, if there is anything to that whole Wisdom of Crowds idea, or more sophisticated arguments about disagreement, the kids may be onto something when they alert us to what everyone else is doing.

My kids, though, are still not getting a PlayStation.