tiistai 20. maaliskuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts of human acting and letting others act upon you - What's on your mind?

If you have always wondered how to find out what other people have in mind, Wolff instructs how to do it. One might wonder what this has to do with the topic of Wolff's German ethics. Well, in order to do good things, you must learn what is good and what is not – and one way to do this is to see what others think is good.

Wolff's method is rather simple. Suppose a person perceives or otherwise experiences some situation and in her imagination and memory she has a maxim telling whether such a situation is good or bad and what one should do in that sort of situation. Then through a simple syllogism we see that the person will evaluate the situation and act in a certain manner. So, if a person sees a beggar and her maxim is to donate to the poor, she will give an alm.

Then again, we can also reverse the process. In other words, if we know the particular experiences a person has and the actions following from these experiences, we can instantly know what general maxims she follows in her actions. Thus, if we see a person giving a fiver to a beggar he has just seen, we can suppose that the person has a general maxim of helping the poor.

Of course, it is not as simple as that, because people can act contrary to their maxims, if they feel the need to deceive other people. For instance, the person giving the alms in the last paragraph might only want to make an impression to a lady who truly likes charity. Generally, the possibility of deception prevents us to be truly certain of what is going on in other people's minds.

Wolff suggests a method for circumventing the possibility of deception. Although one's actions can be deceiving, emotions cannot be – that is, if a person thinks some situation to be good or bad, we can assume that she will generally evaluate similar situations in the same manner. Hence, the person trying to fool a lady with a generous gift to the beggar would be instantly revealed by his emotion that he disliked his act of charity.

Maxims could thus be read from emotions, but how can emotions of a person be deciphered? Now, as we might remember from Wolffian psychology, Wolff's and Leibniz's dualism with a pre-estabished harmony verges on materialism. Indeed, because of the harmony, one can at least in principle find out what emotion a soul is feeling, when one is studying the corresponding body. Indeed, we do evaluate the emotions of people by looking at the expressions of their faces and other non-verbal forms of communication. But Wolff goes a step further and appears to accept the validity of physiognomy.

Physiognomy is a discipline of great antiquity: there is a book called Physiognomy, which was ascribed to Aristotle, although the author was probably just a member of the Aristotelian school. The basic idea behind this discipline is rather simple – by studying the physical characteristics of a person we could determine also his mental characteristics. Classic physiognomy appealed, for instance, to resemblance with other animals – if he looks like a pig, he is probably going to behave like a pig.

Physiognomy was criticised even during Wolff's life and is nowadays dead as a dodo when it comes to respectable science, but similar statements can be found in more modern disciplines. For instance, genetic determinists are certain that the personality of a person is completely encoded in her DNA. Thus, Wolff's readiness to accept physiognomy implies that he might not be completely against these later theories – genetics would not then be in contradiction with Wolffian dualism.

Yet, Wolff did not accept even physiognomy wholly, because of a point familiar from the genes-environment -discussion: while physiognomy might be correct of human beings in their natural state, education can change the temperament of a person. Ironically, Wolff has more difficulties in combining the possibility of educating a person with his view of the human soul: because human soul is actually closed up from external influences, it cannot really be educated, that is, other people only seem to educate the person, who then develops freely from his natural state.

Nevertheless, Wolff admits that physiognomy is not a reliable method for deciphering people's emotions, and thus the hopes of reading other people's minds have been destroyed. This appears to be a common theme in Wolff's philosophy: he sets out an ideal of knowledge and even develops a method for acheiving it – but in the end, human frailties hinder the use of the method.

Next time, we shall look at the duties of a moral person.

lauantai 10. maaliskuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts of human acting and letting others act upon you - Finding the greatest good

In Kantian ethics greatest good is only something that people could hope for: moral actions certainly wouldn't guarantee that one would find greatest good, although they would undoubtedly make one deserve it. In the days of pre-Kantian innocence, one could still believe that the connection between good actions and greatest goodness could be positively proven. Indeed, we have seen that Wolff simply states moral actions to aim at nothing else but the growth of the perfection in oneself and in others. The perfection itself is best one could hope for, but just as a further incentive, God is willing to make anyone happy who wants to act in a moral manner.

Doing the right thing becomes then a mere question of mental calculation: in each situation, you should determine the best possible outcome you could hope for and the most suitable means for acheiving the outcome – and then you already have incentive enough for doing the thing. The final goal should then be organizing all the actions so that they are geared towards the perfection of oneself and others.

The idea of people actually solving all their problems through an ethical calculus sounds quite fabulous. Indeed, Wolff himself admits that actual moral problems are usually too detailed for any humanly calculus. Instead, the ideal of ethical calculus should be applied only to the problem of discovering general principles of action. Thus, an investigator of ethics should try to discover which actions in general work for the human perfection and which hinder its progress. A prudent person would then just follow these general principles, even if they did not hold perfectly in any particular case, because he would understand their reliability.

Still, one might still be uncertain how Wolff would account for the cases where a person acts against such principles due to sensuous influences and desires. Wolff's strategy is to rely on his theory of sensations as a source of confused information. Conflict between ethical reasoning and sensuous desires becomes thus a conflict between two kinds of information: clear and distinct vs. dark and indistinct. A person could in theory free herself from the slavery of sensuous infuences through a perfect clarification and analysis of her consciousness. In practice, this is impossible for human beings, thus they must pit sensuous influences against one another.

Wolff ponders also the possibility of using sensuousness as a general instrument for advocating morality in society at large by representing difficult ethical thoughts through symbolism and ceremonies. Wolff has probably in his mind at least the sacraments of church, but when he discusses how one could invent as rational symbols and ceremonies as possible, Wolff's ideas start to resemble Adam Weishaupt's later society of Illuminati and the more traditional freemasonry. One might wonder if Wolff himself was part of some masonic lodge.

Next time we shall learn how to read other people's minds.

lauantai 3. maaliskuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts of human acting and letting others act upon you - Following your conscience

The word ”conscience”, derived from Latin conscientia, has a long history, beginning perhaps from Latin translations of Bible. The German equivalent Gewissen was fixed for the precise purpose by Luther's translation of the Bible. Conscience began thus its course as an essentially religious term – bad conscience was that nagging awareness within you that you had sinned and thus deserved some punishment.

Conscience was thus a type of knowledge, as the original Latin and the German translation imply – namely, it was a knowledge of the morality of one's own actions. In its original conception, conscience was a voice sent by God, while in the post-Kantian German philosophy it became a a direct certainty over all moral questions – an idea that Hegel was quick to criticize.

Wolff accepts the idea of conscience as the source of ethico-moral knowledge from the tradition – Gewissen is the capacity to estimate the worth of actions, which have either already taken place or which have only been planned. Indeed, one and the same action could be evalued even both when planned and after its actual occurrence, and the judgement need not be same in the two cases: we may regret our decisions later.

In Wolff conscience is then identified with moral judgements and not with moral feelings. True, he admits, conscience may cause a number of feelings – we might, for instance, feel pangs for some evil action or be proud of morally upright choices. Yet, these feelings are mere effects of conscience, but not conscience itself – they are mere tools which conscience uses in order to promote good actions.

Furthermore, Wolff would deny that the source of the judgements of the conscience is some mystical faculty for immediate moral knowledge. Instead, moral judgements are properly based on knowledge of the characteristics of things and their connections – that is, on reason, by which Wolff refers to the faculty used in sciences in general. Wolff is thus assimilating the account of conscience into the general account of scientific reasoning, in opposition to many former and later theories of conscience.

Undoubtedly Wolff does not assume that people would go on making explicit mental calculations over the worth of their possible and actual actions. Instead, they will often just e.g. implicitly apply some ethical principle to a particular case. Still, Wolff is convinced that animals are incapable of even such implicit reasoning and are therefore without conscience.

In addition, one should remember that Wolffian reasoning is not the reasoning of the caricature rationalists. True, Wolff would undoubtedly accept some of his ethical principles as conceptual truths – his definition of perfection would probably be a good example. Still, Wolff does accept also reliable experiences as a basis of proper reasoning – in philosophy in general, and also in ethics in particular.

Finally, Wolff does accept also the possibility of faults in ethical reasoning. Sometimes we don't know the proper information to decide the issue, at other times we may be confused by sensuous information and in yet other cases our conscience might be deceived by our desires. In other words, erroneous conscience is a possibility.

Next time something about how to find the highest possible good.