Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Does New Jersey moral philosophy corrupt youth?

There's an interesting sense of tension in the part of Hans-Johann Glock's What is Analytic Philosophy? that deals with ethics. This is not Glock's fault: for one thing, he's largely reporting on the views of others; for another, the tension is simply there among the phenomena that philosophers should try to make sense of; and for yet another, Glock is well aware that matters are not straightforward here. But he doesn't get into what might appear to be a paradox to which he draws attention, so I will try to say something about it here.

On p. 197 Glock writes that:
A German philosopher, it seems, is not expected to muster nine arguments for and ten against any given position, but to utter profound wisdoms, preferably wisdoms which are in line with a shared communal ethos.
This might well sound like mockery, and I think it is intended to. But Glock cuts the laughter short. The ridiculous German philosopher is contrasted with Peter Singer who, according to Glock's account, favors killing hemophiliac infants even though, as adults, they are likely to "find life definitely worth living," because they will be a burden to their parents and because the parents could probably have a healthier and happier child instead if they decided to 'replace' the hemophiliac one. I take it that Singer does not support killing sick babies against their parents' wishes, but that he thinks (or thought once upon a time) that parents who decided to kill a sick child in order to replace it with a healthier one were making a wise decision, assuming that doing so would be possible, legal, etc.

Glock identifies such a view, whether or not Singer still holds it (or even if he never did), as "a particular failure of rationality." The failure in question is:
the failure to reconsider one's premises in the light of unpalatable consequences, and the tendency to seek refuge instead in self-serving animadversions against 'orthodox' or 'conventional' morality and 'lay' intuitions. [p. 198]
Glock goes on to contrast "the characteristically serious air of Germanophone moral philosophy" with the "gung-ho spirit," "cavalier spirit," and "exquisitely bad taste" of "some analytic philosophers working in applied ethics."

He then gives a fictional example to illustrate the kind of far-fetched thought experiment favored by such ethicists, and remarks:
There may be a place for casuistry; but that place is in the consideration of genuine moral dilemmas, dilemmas that could confront minimally decent and sane human agents. In this kind of casuistry, by contrast, moral problems seem to be treated mainly as an excuse for trying out one's pet theory or showing how clever one is.
So is the profound German moral philosopher all right after all? Apparently not: "a philosophy the methods and results of which are predetermined by prior practical commitments is wishful thinking at best, and deceitful rhetoric at worst."

So our moral commitments should not be so fixed that they are immune to rational criticism, but if reasoning about morals leads to "unpalatable" conclusions, then we have reasoned badly. What is and is not palatable, I take it, is to be determined by what lies within the sphere of minimal decency and sanity.

This is far from rigid or specific, so I can easily imagine many philosophers refusing to take it seriously. But it seems quite right to me. The problem is that proving this kind of position right seems to be impossible, and it is not universally accepted. People like Singer and McMahan, it seems to me, sometimes stray beyond the limits of the sane and the minimally decent. And instead of a universal outcry, or a (bored, embarrassed, or angry) refusal to engage with their work, they are given attention, money, honors, etc.

Is it their work that is changing the general sense of what is decent and sane, or is it because this sense is already changing that we pay so much respectful attention to their work?


  1. whose philosophy's methods and results are predetermined by prior practical commitments?

    i tried reading this book once, and really couldn't stand it, but since i could use a clear statement of what ol h.-j. g. thinks philosophy is supposed to be, maybe i should just grit my teeth and get through it.

    i can see why you'd ask your last question, but i do think that there is just a mode of bug-eyed hyper-rationality circulating in the culture that pre-dates any of these particular philosophers' work: justifiedly unwilling to accept any checks upon reasoned discussion, and temperamentally inclined to disbelieve anything for which a rational account hasn't been given and accepted.

  2. Thanks, j. Glock suggests that some religious philosophers, some pragmatists (e.g. Rorty), and some politically-minded continental philosophers are guilty of this. They might not be, but it does sound like a thing to avoid.

    His take on Wittgensteinians of my ilk is not one that makes me very sympathetic to his work usually, but this book seems pretty good to me so far. He thinks that analytic philosophy is a family resemblance concept, so if you want to know what he thinks you don't need to read the whole book. I want to know more about the history of analytic philosophy and about what other people think philosophy is or should be. It's pretty useful for that.

    As for my last question, I mostly just wanted to echo Elizabeth Anscombe's question about Oxford moral philosophy, partly as a joke. But Glock points out that the controversy Singer created in Germany has begun a dialogue about euthanasia that would have been impossible before. So these people really might be influencing the culture (perhaps in good ways, at least some of the time). On the whole, though, like you and Anscombe, I think it's the culture that paves the way for the philosophers, not vice versa.

  3. Variations of your final question have been coming at me from all sorts of directions lately. Nigel Pleasants is contributing a paper to the Philosophical Topics issue--yes, it's still moving along, by the way!--that takes this up wrt both slave abolitionist and animal liberation movements. And he agrees that it's not obviously the arguments doing the work. I just got a book to review for The Philosopher's Magazine by Appiah on moral revolutions; he says in the preface that he discovered the same thing in his studies of several such shifts in moral thinking (say, the sort that occur over a generation or two, as with slavery): the arguments had been around. And then lastly there's Coetzee's various challenges to rational argument as the way of bringing about a change of heart: see in particular his contributions to the discussion in Paola Cavalieri's The Death of the Animal. (These are in his voice rather than through fiction, which makes them particularly interesting in light of his fiction, and suggestive of how one might read, e.g., Costello.)

    So this really does seem to be the question of the moment. (Also, Kieran Setiya's paper in the PT issue is entitled "Does Moral Theory Corrupt Youth?", so there's another one. That paper might still be on his website, if you want to read it pre-print.)

    Pleasants suggests that one of the important factors, before an argument can be taken seriously, is that the alternative to the status quo has to be perceived as a genuine (live) option. I think I can see how this would go, say, with arguments that one stop eating meat (or at least factory-farmed meat). For one, some people just refuse to believe that one can have as good a diet (and without enormous expense) if one gives up meat. This is false (for anyone with access to a decent supermarket), but it's a pervasive falsehood. So, Singer's arguments there would fall flat on the ears of anyone who can't buy his case that there's a realistic alternative to eating meat. I think now, bit by bit, that perception is changing. But then there are people who "hate" vegetables, etc.

    In the case of McMahan's essay, I imagine that many will look at it and think, "so what?" because there's no real, feasible alternative proposed. (Unless, of course, one stops at his arguments against the special value of species, and then one will just say, "That's incorrect.") One might argue on his behalf that the point of the obviously hypothetical argument is to make a case for what our proper attitude (or desire) should be with respect to carnivores and predation. And I suppose one might say that the point is that since we can influence the world (in principle) in any number of ways, we needn't accept of anything in nature that "that's just how things are." But I wonder about that. This may be connected to what j. is talking about as hyper-rationalism.

  4. Thanks, Matthew. Setiya's paper is still up here. I can't wait to read it. What Pleasants says sounds right, so it'll be interesting to see how Setiya argues for (what appears to be) the opposite view.

    On McMahan, I agree that we don't have to accept things as they are, but the fact that there is no way we could responsibly eliminate carnivorism from the world (as he recognizes) is connected, I think, with the lack of humility involved in suggesting that this would be a good thing to do in theory. What he's hypothetically proposing is scarcely conceivable, so how can we be at all sure it would be a good thing? Maybe that's the wrong way to put it, or even to approach it. Mostly I think he is missing a full appreciation of just how awesome lions and tigers, etc., are. It's as if he wants a bowdlerized world. Talk of hubris is putting it mildly, it seems to me.

  5. well, crap, i guess i have to read that glock book, then.

    i see paging through it that gadamer gets singled out for a few knocks, as he does in dummett's new book. it's sort of useful sometimes that there are philosophical traditions that are alienated from each other. then when someone from one tradition talks about someone from another, you can index how seriously to take them by what they say about their counterparts.

  6. He mostly tries to be polite, but it's not hard to guess what he thinks of Derrida and the New Wittgensteinians. I didn't notice any attacks on Gadamer, but then that's not what I was looking for.

  7. that's funny, 'derrida and the new wittgensteinians', all those guys.

  8. I didn't mean Derrida-and-the-New-Wittgensteinians, but he might think of them like that. Heidegger too, not surprisingly.