This article is part of a Chronicle. See more from this Chronicle
Randy Stutz, Sep 17, 2014
In the early 1960s, the British philosopher Richard Taylor famously argued that he could use well-accepted principles of logical reasoning to prove the doctrine of fatalism—the idea that mankind lacks free will and life’s outcomes are pre-determined. A fatalist, explained Taylor, perceives that a person’s actions in the present do not determine outcomes in the future any more than a person’s actions in the present determine outcomes in the past. To illustrate, Taylor used the example of a man sitting down to breakfast with his morning newspaper, where conditions are such that if a naval battle occurred yesterday, the newspaper will carry a specific headline today, and if a naval battle did not occur yesterday, the paper will carry a different headline today. Everyone understands that the man does not determine whether the naval battle occurred yesterday by opening his newspaper and seeing one headline or the other today. In Taylor’s words, “we all are fatalists with respect to the past.”
Taylor then asked readers to consider a boat at sea, where conditions are such that if the boat captain gives one order, a naval battle will occur, and if the boat captain gives a different order, a naval battle will not occur. The fatalist, explained Taylor, uses the same logical principles to conclude that what kind of order the boat captain gives depends on whether a naval battle will take place; it is not determined by the boat captain. Taylor’s essay exasperated some of his fellow philosophers for decades, not because it persuaded them of fatalism’s merits, but because they couldn’t adequately refute Taylor’s logic. Others doubtless rolled their eyes and simply asked, “why should we care?”
Fast forward a half century, and Motorola Mobility is entangled in a messy international antitrust dispute with a global price-fixing cartel that, at first blush, may seem like it has nothing whatever to do with Richard Taylor’s logical argument for fatalism. As of this writing, after a grueling and erratic traverse through the federal courts, Motorola’s Sherman Act claim against foreign manufacturers of LCD panels used in Motorola smart phones is now on interlocutory appeal in the Seventh Circuit. The parties and amici are arguing primarily about the proper interpretation of statutory language in the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act of 1982, an act of Congress that delineates the metes and bounds of the Sherman Act’s extraterritorial application. This battle for the meaning of the FTAIA’s language raises a philosophical question similar to the one raised by Taylor’s argument: Why should we care what sound logic can prove about the direction of causation?