Richard J. Eisner: Writer / Philosopher

Below are samples of my writing, preceded by a list. Most of the pieces are taken from a philosophy club's now-defunct website, where members posted comments and arguments on various topics. When that website existed, I simply, here, gave a list of my writings posted there, a link to the site, and instructions how to find my articles on it. Now that the other site no longer is, if I want anyone to read the articles, I have to post them on websites of my own. Some of the pieces explicitly reply to other members’ remarks. I do not post the remarks to which I’m replying (either because I have no copy of those remarks, or for other reasons); and I was disinclined to rewrite my piece to obviate this explanation, which I hope will suffice. If an essay is posted on its own dedicated website (containing only that essay), I simply provide a link to the website, instead of posting the piece again here.

  1. 1. Purpose in War: a Rebuttal     © 3 December 2004 by Richard J. Eisner

  2. 2. Egoism: a Rebuttal     © 9 January 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  3. 3. Determinism     © 12 March 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  1. 1. Purpose in War: a Rebuttal     © 3 December 2004 by Richard J. Eisner

At the 21 November 2004 meeting of the Philosophy Club, a member—I believe it was Ron—asserted that the United States’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, though the Bush administration’s cause therein was bad, was nonetheless beneficial, and therefore justified (the end justifies the means). I agree that the war was begun and pursued with evil intent, but respectfully disagree with the rest of the aforesaid thesis, as follows.

            Specifically concerning Iraq, this war has caused enormous damage, among which, in addition to the huge tax burden, is massive loss of life and limb; widespread destruction of property, including irreplaceable, priceless artifacts; virtually permanent radioactive contamination of Iraq’s land; and increased world hatred of the United States, with consequent heightened risk for all Americans of terrorist reprisal. These terrible and mounting costs are no more balanced (let alone outweighed, let alone justified) by the admitted evil of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein than the loss of a hand is offset by the presence on it of a wart (and the suggestion that those opposed to this war favor Saddam Hussein makes no more sense than the charge that those against severing the hand are in favor of warts).

            More generally, to judge aggression rather by its outcome than by its purpose would be counter-utilitarian. The reason is that it will often be difficult to prove that a war did more harm than good. And if our condemnation of aggressors must depend on and await such proof, we will be able to punish very few of them, which will impair a major disincentive to such aggression and thus considerably increase it. So the question is whether ill-intended hostility is bad on the whole. I submit that it is. Ron, in denying the importance of purpose in this connection, drew a medical analogy, arguing that, if a surgeon performs an operation from motives other than the patient’s health, say from greed, and yet the surgery is competent and successful, then it was desirable and the physician’s purpose irrelevant. This hypothetical example, however, assumes that, in addition to the surgeon’s ulterior motive of greed, is a valid ostensive purpose (the patient’s well-being). But aggression often has no purpose beyond the ulterior motive, as the United States’s (initial) announced reason to invade Iraq (immanent, serious threat posed by “weapons of mass destruction”) turned out to be a fraud. Hence the appropriate surgical analogy for an ill-intentioned war is, not a well or poorly done operation, but an unnecessary one. Just as surgery, unlike some other medical procedures such as massage, is inherently destructive, so, too, is war. And while a surgeon may sometimes put his medical fee to better use than would his patient, and an aggressor put the spoils to better use than would the conquered; and while occasionally other good may accidentally result; in the vast majority of cases, and overall, the harm (not even counting the dread engendered by the possibility of gratuitous medical or martial incursion) will be far greater. This is why both surgery and war are universally—justly—considered wrong unless undertaken for proper purposes . . . which do not include greed.

  1. 2. Egoism: a Rebuttal     © 9 January 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

In his (on-line) essay “True Morality: Rational Principles for Optimal Living” Peter Voss writes that ethics should be a “system that we enthusiastically pursue, not from duty . . . but for personal benefit . . . ” In essence, Voss is advocating egoism, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “the ethical belief that self-interest is the just and proper motive for all human conduct.”

            I agree that self-interest is a proper motive, but disagree that it is the (sole) proper motive. One difficulty with egoism is that it disregards other people. Voss notes, “This does not mean that what is good for us is necessarily detrimental to others—life is not a zero-sum game. Fortunately, many rational [that is, egoistic] moral principles benefit both ourselves and others.” That “many egoistic moral principles benefit both ourselves and others” suggests that perhaps some egoistic moral principles do not benefit both ourselves and others, which latter category Voss does not address. Imagine you are walking and you happen upon a drowning man, whom you could easily save by tossing a nearby life preserver; but doing so would cause you to be two minutes late for your (very edifying) Book Club meeting. Egoism would compel, or justify, your letting the man drown. (I suppose that would be unfortunate?)

            Another problem with Egoism is that its pronouncement that self-interest is “the proper motive for all human conduct” implies duty, which (duty) Egoism explicitly denies. More important, self-interest, the impulse to advantage oneself, is more accurately characterized as motivation than obligation. Indeed, the theory’s flaw might be capsuled as the confusion of motivation with morality.

            From a broader perspective, there is a fundamental, age-old, quite real dichotomy of the individual’s welfare and society’s (the two do not necessarily conflict, but, because resources are scarce, they tend to); and there is something contradictory about urging the general adoption of a doctrine of self-seeking, about recommending to the group that which is against the group’s interest. Egoism is a pseudo-ethic; it is naked selfishness attempting to look respectable by dressing itself up as a philosophy.

  1. 3. Determinism     © 12 March 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

Debra poses these questions:

“1. Do we live in a deterministic world, or do random events occur?

2. If we could roll back the clock to the big bang, or to 5 seconds ago, would events unfold the same way?

3. If random events occur, how small a chance was human evolution?”

I believe in causal determinism. A rerun universe would no more unfold differently than would a rerun movie.

The answer to the query about random phenomena depends on the definition of random, one such (per The American Heritage Dictionary) being “Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective.” Thus defined, randomness and determinism are consistent, because causation does not entail purpose. If I fire a gun into the air on New Year’s Eve, and the bullet comes down a mile away and kills John Doe, Doe’s death was random, since it was not intended; but it was causally determined, by the position of the gun when it was fired, the weight of the bullet, the wind speed, and so forth.

Randomness in the larger, metaphysical sense, on the other hand, is, I think, inconsistent with determinism, in that there is no chance that given conditions will proceed otherwise than one certain way. Perhaps randomness and probability, strictly speaking, refer, in this context, just to our state of mind, our expectation. For instance, we might say that rain is seventy percent likely; yet either it will rain, or it will not rain. The “seventy percent” describes the uncertainty of our knowledge about the event, not any uncertainty in the event itself.

Postscript: Einstein’s dictum “God does not play dice with the universe” is problematic, in suggesting an example (dice-playing) of that (randomness) which the statement purports to deny.