Saturday, January 7, 2012

Keeping it real

A philosophical defense of torture (in certain circumstances) has sparked controversy here and elsewhere on NewAPPS. To which this reference to Anscombe's well known remark about not wanting to argue with philosophers who show corrupt minds is also relevant. As, I think, is Jason Stanley's memory of Michael Dummett:
I found myself sitting in the New College Senior Common Room after lunch discussing the meaning of the word “if” with another philosopher. Dummett was huddled over a newspaper elsewhere in the room. I remarked how odd it was to think that the word “if” could have radically different meanings on different occasions of use, for example one meaning in a sentence like “If Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, someone else did,” and another meaning in a sentence like “If Oswald hadn’t of killed Kennedy, someone else would have.” From a cloud of tobacco smoke halfway across the room, Dummett piped up, “I wonder if you really think that.”
I'm not sure I get the point of this story. Was Dummett making a joke by himself using the word 'if' in this way? Does Stanley think Dummett mistakenly thought that Stanley believed Kennedy was bound to be killed by someone? Or was Dummett questioning Stanley's claim to find it odd that the word 'if' has these different uses? I prefer to think that both the first and the third of these answers are correct. In which case Dummett would have been (if only in attempt) bringing Stanley very nicely back to earth. This is roughly what Anscombe was doing in that remark: I don't know whether it was meant to be funny, but it is a remark that has a kind of shock value and that rejects a certain kind of philosophers' (philosophical?) practice.

Eric Schliesser argues that philosophers should be careful when they make arguments that can be used for bad purposes in the world outside philosophy. This is a consequentialist argument against certain uses of consequentialism. I suppose there is something to be said for speaking the language. But I prefer Anscombe's approach. What's wrong with entertaining the prospect of torturing people is not that doing so might encourage others to torture (although that is a bad thing). What's wrong with it is that it is entertaining the prospect of torturing people.

That isn't a reason not to do it, I know. That is, I have not provided a reason not to do x by putting x in italics. Like the argument from tigers, though, the idea is: think what you are saying. If you support letting tigers become extinct, then think about what tigers are, how sublime/awesome they are. Or, as they say, give your head a wobble. I would say the same kind of thing about torture: if you support it, then (please) think again about what torture is, about how evil/appalling it is.

I would like to think that no one would support torture in any circumstances, i.e. that no one in a calm moment or a cool place would support it at all, but there's a danger of defining this into truth, of insisting that no one who supports torture can really be thinking, that they cannot really mean it. And I'm not in any position to say that. So I think we have to let the fearless thinkers have their say, whatever harm it might do. Then those of us who disagree need to make clear how and why we do so. Sometimes the best way to do this might be by refusing to argue with them. Not simply not arguing with them, but announcing publicly that one will not do so, and saying why. This might induce some useful shame. But it won't always, and then other tactics might be called for. Such as, say, studying the arguments of one's opponents and responding carefully to them. There is surely an art to knowing which arguments and which opponents to dignify in this way though.


  1. Maybe Dummett's point was just that "if" is sometimes used synonymously with "whether"?

    Public refusal seems risky, of course, and maybe it only has an effect if one has some clout. As I discuss in my paper on humility and moral disagreement, it might be that if the arguments get taken up in the public sphere, then "responding carefully" probably makes more sense (I don't know if I'd say it's a "duty," only because whether a stronger claim like that makes sense depends upon other features of one's situation).

  2. Yes, that sounds right. Your suggestion about what Dummett might have meant is what I had in mind with the first possible answer I gave.

    Public refusal is not likely to do much good, as you say, unless you have some clout. Or perhaps if you do it in a way that gets people's attention.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Oh, and thanks for the link to your paper, Matt. Anyone interested in this subject should read it.

  5. The point about Anscombe, torture (and putting torture in italics) reminded me of the following Scanlon-quote (which I am sympathetic to):

    "When I ask myself what reason the fact that an action would be wrong provides me with not to do it, my answer is that such an action would be one that I could not justify to others on grounds I could expect them to accept. This leads me to describe the subject matter of judgments of right and wrong by saying that they are judgments about what would be permitted by principles that could not reasonably be rejected, by people who were moved to find principles for the general regulation of behavior that others, similarly motivated, could not reasonably reject. In particular, an act is wrong if and only if any principle that permitted it would be one that could reasonably be rejected by people with the motivation just described (or, equivalently, if and only if it would be disallowed by any principle that such people could not reasonably reject)."

    Thomas M. Scanlon, What We Owe To Each Other, p.4

    I guess this quote tries to spell out part of the "give your a wobble"-part...

  6. Thanks, Presskorn. That certainly sounds reasonable. I suppose it would, since Scanlon emphasizes reasonableness so much, but there's nothing wrong with that. As long as the reasonable remains reasonable. But perhaps that's what's at issue--that what not long ago would have been rejected as utterly and obviously unreasonable threatens to become regarded as reasonable. So appeals to reasonableness, much as I sympathize with them, might not actually work. I'll have to think about this some more.