Sunday, September 28, 2014

Good reason

This post was originally going to be called "Kids these days," so be warned that what follows is likely to be cranky nonsense. I'm writing in response to a couple of things. One is a student in my poverty course (we are discussing distributive justice at the moment) who said, as if to save us all a lot of wasted effort, that the thing about this stuff is that it's all normative. He seemed to mean that because it is normative there is no point discussing or thinking about it. De gustibus non disputandum, and of course the normative is all a matter of gustibus. I say 'seemed' because he was unable to say what 'normative' meant. It was almost as if he had been taught that 'normative' means impossible (or at best pointless) to think or talk about. A colleague at another school who also teaches a course on poverty tells me that this is the biggest obstacle he faces. Students just don't accept that, or see how, one can reason about questions of justice, right and wrong, etc.

The other thing that has set me off is a visit to the theatre on Monday night. The performance was not the greatest I have ever seen, and some people in the audience got restless. One person near me laughed at all the most highly dramatic points, which was understandable but distracting. Perhaps she couldn't help it, or didn't realize that the play was not a comedy. The two people behind me talked throughout the second half of the play, seeming to think that it was OK as long as they whispered and so did not drown out the voices of the actors. This too was distracting, and the last thing you need when trying harder than usual to suspend disbelief. It was annoying, but it also struck me as stupid. Not just thoughtless, but betraying a kind of blindness to the reality of other people. No doubt they had not thought through what it would be like to try to enjoy a performance while people around you were whispering constantly. But also, and one reason for this thoughtlessness, they appeared not to have much sense of other people as subjects, as beings both sentient and mattering.

Sentience and mattering seem to me to go together. Not because the sentient can feel pain. But, roughly speaking, because sentience, consciousness, is a miracle. Failure to appreciate this is a kind of mental dullness. I ought to say more about this, though, which is not easy to do. One aspect of what I mean is related to the fact that anyone who appreciates a great work of art will care about its treatment. This, I take it, is analytic. And it's not that people are great works of art, but we are like great works of art. What a piece of work is a man! and all that. The moral importance of human beings is something like self-evident.

Another part of my idea is that we are people. Whatever other people are is what we are (so far as we are people). Tat tvam asi. That you are in that seat and I am in mine, or any of the other individuating differences between us, is obviously irrelevant at some, important, level. Moral equality is self-evident too, in other words.

So bad behavior is a kind of stupid behavior. And the normative is something we can reason about, however difficult it might be to do so. We just need the right sense of reason, one that has more to do with reasonableness than with means-end reasoning. It's a sense of reason that includes the ability to empathize and to see (but not exaggerate) the value of civility. (This point seems relevant to, but is not intended to be about, a bunch of debates going on elsewhere on philosophy blogs.)      

29 comments:

  1. "Students just don't accept that, or see how, one can reason about questions of justice, right and wrong, etc."

    Yes, I thin there is a sense abroad in the land (that's not just limited to students) that moral judgments are all relative and that this sort of thing is only about what someone happens to believe as a kind of valuational bedrock. Thus we can't judge others' beliefs and we get moral relativism, even if that's not always noticed by those holding this view (i.e., they still tend to think they're judgments are the right ones if you take it down deeply enough, and this even reaches to the claim that it's all relative which underlies this kind of non-judgmentalism, even though that, itself, must be non-relative if the claim of relativism is to be considered to be true). In the end, if we can't judge others' belief systems, though, then we can't judge their behaviors on any but a purely practical or legalistic basis and, I think, that is a death knell to the moral game. (And contrary to our actual practices.)

    As you know I sympathize with the view you've expressed about the role of recognizing humanness as a basis for at least some moral judgments. In particular it looks like we share the notion that empathy must play a part in this , although we probably differ on how one gets there or explains it.

    I don't embrace the role you ascribe to self-evidentiary justifications (I don't think anything substantive, as moral claims must be, can ever be grounded in being self-evident) nor do I know what it means to say of sentience that it's a miracle, or like one. It seems to me that that is a kind of religious sense one may have and which may be quite appropriate and even desirable but the reason for its appropriateness and desirability would still remain to be explicated.

    I do find your point about sentience interesting and would only suggest that the distinction Brandom makes between sentience and sapience may also be of interest here. He proposes that, while we share sentience (the state) with a whole host of other entities on the planet (and maybe in the wider universe) what we have that distinguishes us from our fellow sentients, at least on this world, is sapience, the capacity to think about things which he explains in inferentialist terms , i.e., that we, unlike our sentient cousins, have the ability to formulate assertions which take their meaning only insofar as they can serve as premises for other assertions qua conclusions and which can also serve as conclusions for other assertions.

    Brandom explains this capacity by proposing that assertoric discourse stands on pragmatic behaviors, that the normative, in an important sense, must underpin the descriptive. With this, I think, sapience takes on a particular importance in explaining how we operate in the world and how we come to make, and make use of, valuational judgments as part of our descriptive language. For Brandom, in his way of saying it, doing comes before and is the underpinning of saying. And this, too, has an implication for how we understand the way moral valuation works because where before it may have looked like valuations must stand on some descriptive claims (facts or arguments) Brandom flips it around and suggests that the descriptive stands on the valuative. And if it does, then nothing is lost by our lack of ability to argue rationally from some facts to some values since values come first and all we have to do now is trace whatever particular valuational claims we want to make back to more basic kinds of valuations. Both our descriptions of facts and our ascriptions of value stand on the same pragmatic ground.

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    1. Thanks. I'm not sure exactly what role I'm ascribing to what's self-evident. I do think, though, that some things are self-evident and that anyone who does not recognize self-evident truths is failing in a way that is not simply moral-as-distinct-from-intellectual but that is, at least partly, intellectual. This is similar to, though not the same as, the claim that someone who is good at math and science but not English has intellectual weaknesses as well as strengths. It's something that could be debated, but I hold it to be true.

      My suggestion that sentience is a miracle or something like a miracle is religious, or something like religious. It's also aesthetic. And it's not unrelated to mysterianism and the idea that there is such a thing as the hard problem in trying to understand consciousness. Which is not to say that I agree with McGinn or Chalmers or any particular person in that broad camp. I do agree with Hamlet though.

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    2. On some level I think we all must agree with Hamlet! But I think mysterianism never works as an answer. At best it serves as a placeholder when no answer is on offer. But the fact that none is at any point in time is not reason to think none is possible. So I guess we have to disagree there!

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    3. Oh, I'm not a mysterian either. Just a Shakespearean.

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  2. I think we can reason with each other to the degree that this means something like negotiate but not if it points to some standard beyond the players/interests at hand.
    -dmf

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    1. It depends what you mean by a standard beyond the players. I suspect that relativism, properly followed through, would become ordinary language philosophy.

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    2. I just mean something (Law, Rule, Evidence, etc) that somehow will exceed/overrule the interests of the people reasoning together, yes relativism (homo-rhetoricus) and/as OLP.

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  3. "And the normative is something we can reason about, however difficult it might be to do so. We just need the right sense of reason, one that has more to do with reasonableness than with means-end reasoning."

    This distinction in reasoning is especially important, I think, in giving an account of how the moral game is played. Not all reasoning involves trying to demonstrate a logically irrefutable claim. In ordinary life it's often about just showing someone a different way of understanding something. It's like saying 'here, look at it THIS way' and then agreement will hinge on a shift in perspective more than a logical deduction. There's no reason to suppose that EVERY argument, to be that, must follow the same model.

    Schopenhauer, by the way, offered a moral model which departs from the classical logical form and seems, at times, to suggest this sort of approach. In arguing that no one can ever have a reason to be motivated to act for another's interest in principle but that sometimes it is just a fact that we do, he proposed that such a non-self interested motivation arises when one feels compassion and that such feelings happen when we see the world in a unified way, i. e., when we subscribe to a particular metaphysical account, namely that all of life, all of the universe, in fact, is unified at a fundamental level. Then, he proposed we see ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves. This is expressed, he thought, in compassion, and, while he thought we could not argue that anyone should be compassionate (and so act morally) , an argument can be made that the world is really just a manifestation of this underlying unity which, once accepted, prompts in us the motivation of compassion.

    It's a view of the moral that wasn't widely accepted by his academic contemporaries and it's hard for us, in an age that looks askance on such metaphysical claims today to swallow as well. It also implies that the only route to the moral, if one is not already so inclined, is via this particular metaphysical picture which seems unduly restrictive, to say the least. It takes a "saint" or perhaps a madman to think this way. But his equating moral behavior with a certain kind of feeling does not seem entirely unrealistic and it does seem to be in accord with a claim that such disputes are of a different type than the logically deductive model which purports to tell us that moral maxims can be logically supported by certain intellectually unassailable premises.

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    1. Thanks, I'm very fond of Schopenhauer. I wish I remembered his work well enough to be able to say more.

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    2. Actually I just finished reading his essay On the Basis of Morality, the one which failed to win him the prize offered by the Danish academicians of his time. He was new to me and I was particularly taken with his approach and I thought I saw some marked similarities with my own approach, and now I think, with yours as well.

      He focuses on compassion, one of the three general types of human motivation he identifies (the others being self-interest and malice) and argues that only compassion fully explains the kinds of behaviors we take to be "moral," at least in the Christian west and the Hindu/Buddhist east. I thought that was not so different from seating moral goodness in the idea of empathy which we both seem to view as at least part of the moral account.

      But his basis for achieving compassion (which he suggests drives two important sub-parts of the moral, namely the will to be just toward others -- to spare them from undeserved harm -- and the will to affirmatively help them when we can) strikes me as untenable because it ultimately leaves being moral as the province of saints or the so-called spiritually enlightened only. On this view we cannot expect others to be moral, or blame them if they aren't, unless and until they have risen to this higher plane of understanding.

      He seems to think that this higher plane can be accessed by reason (hence its dependence on a metaphysical belief system) though it more often is the result of a spiritual event in a person's life, i.e., a moment of realization where the person suddenly sees how the world is all just a myriad of appearances undergirded by by a single will to be or survive which has no differentiation intrinsic to it and so this realization, he claims, leads one to cease thinking that he or she is different from this or that one. With the disappearance of this sense of differentiation, he says, comes the feeling or motivation of compassion towards others.

      One thing that strikes me as wrong with this view though is that, given a world that is red in tooth and claw, the world of appearances Schopenhauer sees but despairs of, there is no real ground to concern ourselves with the well-being of others since underneath it all there is really no suffering since suffering (which morality qua compassion aims at alleviating) is merely part of appearances.

      It reminds me of the Buddhism practiced by the samurai which set no store in the lives of others because all was taken to be illusion in the end. Thus a samurai, however noble and moral according to his traditions, could simply cut off the head of a commoner to test the blade or beauty of his swing. Of course there were other Buddhist reasons to avoid such behaviors and these were often invoked, but the point is that the same sort of justification that urges us to compassion in this Buddhist sense also permits disregard of suffering in some cases, too. It depends how one goes about interperting the "rule" in question. So Schopenhauer's moral account strikes me as wanting, at bottom.

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  4. I can't get my replies to go where I want them, so:

    To dmf: if interests include cares, concerns, etc. (as I imagine it does), then I agree.

    To Stuart: very interesting, thanks. I don't think I've read that essay of Schopenhauer's. It does seem wanting, as you say.

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    1. yep it does.
      this reminds me of Witt on Freud/Frazer:
      https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/hypatia/v015/15.4stengers.html

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  5. It seems that what your student meant is that normative is the opposite of scientific. The thing about scientism (and other like modes of thought), it seems, is that ideally it dreams of doing away with messy and compromised reasoning altogether. Once the facts of a matter are established things like reason, taste, etc., can be thrown onto the pile of detritus that is unscientific ignorance. The totalising ideals of Marx and Hegel still live, even in analytic philosophy. The end of history is actually a Utopia that is sought by many. It does away with uncertainty. Until then the priesthood of scientism rules. And as big as scientism's boots are on the ground it is no wonder that the young wish to be in with the winners and dissociated from the loosers. The state of debate on the internet is reflective of this "mentality". It is an expression (symptom) of the culture or what now goes by that name. Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein struggled against this unifying reductionist tendency but it is the Imperial Zeitgeist. And it seems to be winning.

    Descartes pictured knowledge as a tree. The modern conception of s unified science is of a monochrome blob in a void. That, to some, is progress.

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  6. Actually, come to think of it, the modern conception of the self is of a monochrome blob in a void. Such "beings" are much easier to manage.

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    1. A blob or a host of monetizable likes orbiting an avatar.

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  7. Oh, there's this thing about relativism and OLP. I think I'm in disagreement with you and dmf. One of the things that strikes me as most odd about the reception of Kierkegaard, and which in many ways is analogous to the reception of Wittgenstein, is the aspects of their thinking that are least emphasized. One thing Kierkegaard again and agian stresses as being the problem with modern (Hegelian) thinking, science and philosophy is the confusion of concepts—the breakdown of distinctions. As you know W also stressed differences in order to clear up muddles. In this way the logico-grammatical aspect is central to their work. Now K is seen as an irrationalist-emotivist and the reception W seems to be going the same way.

    But they were both interested in clarity for its own sake. That is in part, I think a great part, of what W meant when he told Rhees: "Teach them to think." It works as a mental prophylactic against, among other things, newspeak, even in the sciences.

    Re recent happenings online. I noticed, either at Cogburn's blog or through a link on it, a list of people who'd run afoul of Leiter. What I found odd was that they all were women. Is it significant? It seems so, to me.

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    1. What I meant about relativism and OLP (and it's a thought that I'd like to explore more, if only to perhaps conclude that it is wrong or trivial) is that if we take seriously the idea that majority opinion decides what's right and what's wrong then we ought to accept the majority view that there are such things as truth and facts, that believing something does not make it so, and so on. A consistent relativist (it seems) should use words as they are ordinarily used. And then we can add to that the fact that ordinary usage allows for innovation, metaphor, secondary sense, and the like. That doesn't get you all the way to Wittgenstein and his particular concerns with clarity, etc. but it allows you to keep whatever insight you got from relativism without denying anything there is no good reason to deny.

      The proportion of women among those who have run afoul of, or are vocally opposed to the behavior of, Brian Leiter is very interesting. Either it's simply that Feminist Philosophers (the website) is involved, and many of its supporters are women, or (as I suspect) it's that his kind of thinking about language and ethics is particularly masculine and less likely to be tolerated by women. I don't mean to say that men are from Mars, etc., but there are general tendencies (for whatever reason) to think in different ways. Leiter's "amusing pugnaciousness" is less likely to seem amusing to, or to be copied by, women, it seems to me.

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  8. Wrote a longish comment in reply to the above. Deleted it on second thought. But there's one thing I'd like to restate. Re relativism coinciding with OLP, I'm intrigued but can't quite see how you'd show it. It seems to me that a consistent relativist would accept no criterion of ordinary use. The only rule a relativist would proscribe is "there are no rules" or "a word means whatever you want it to mean whenever", i.e. stance that makes any sort of discourse impossible.

    PS: "a consistent relativist"—is that even thinkable?

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    1. the point is not what you "want" it to mean but what works, what is accepted, what allows you to make your way in/of the world, it's an instrumentalist/pragmatist take.
      to borrow a quote from John Shotter "as Wittgenstein (1953) puts it, “countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’ ‘sentences’” (no.23)" -dmf

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    2. Thanks dmf. Maybe it's a question of principle. If by relativism you merely mean to say that the context priniciple always applies then sure. But then why call it relativism and not contexualism (if -isms are the thing)? To me relativism of the consistent sort (consistent inconsistence) is a sort of scepticism. It seems that a consistent relativist would not think of anything as being nonsensical, false or wrong. It is a stance that reduces everything to opinion. Now I know this is the preferred flavor of our times (it makes for a lot of entertainment, or "debate" to fill in between commercials), but I'm quite certain W is opposed to it. There is a difference between saying whatever goes goes, and saying anything goes. Now we're back where the OP began, i.e. de gustibus...


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    3. Re Shotter:

      "as Wittgenstein (1953) puts it, “countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’ ‘sentences’” (no.23)"

      what's not there, but implied (I take it) in that quote is that there are (equally?) countless different kinds of misuse of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’ ‘sentences’.

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    4. if "misuse" means doesn't work, as for your caricature of relativists/relativisms do you have any particular philosopher in mind cuz I don't recognize it?

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    5. There are different kinds of relativism, so I should have been more specific. For an individual relativist anything goes (it's true or right "for me"). More common, though, I think, is cultural relativism (or what I think of by that name, at least) according to which the majority opinion is true or right. If that opinion is taken by a poll then this does not lead to OLP. But if we judge opinion by use of words and ideas, then I think we're very close to OLP. And then it's a matter not only of what kind of relativism we're talking about but also what kind of OLP. So perhaps my remark was not the most helpful thing I could have said. But I think the motivation behind the best kind of relativism ought to be satisfied by the best kind of OLP.

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  9. @dmf: I didn't intend it as a caricature, so no offense meant. Sorry you took it that way. The inspriration for those remarks came from my own understanding of relativism. But if it is properly credentialed officaldom's take, you needn't look any futher than these two entries:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/relativi/

    I checked just to see if my remakrs were caricatures as you said, and that I had misunderstood something, but it seems clear that I haven't. If however you merely mean to stake a calim for ture and honest (or right) relativism as against its impostures (wrong relativism) then you can bear with me when I ask for clarification of what the former might be. Although I think you can gather from what I've said that I disagree with Westacott (and yourself?) on Wittgenstein being a relativist.

    @DR, as I said. I'm intrigued (and confused) by the idea, and would like to see it worked out. I took it there might be a forthcoming article from you on the subject, so my comment was just in expectation of that.


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    1. I'd like to see it worked out, or to work it out, too. No forthcoming article, I'm afraid, but perhaps another blog post or two.

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  10. If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."
    § 217

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  11. Recognize the quote. Don't see what it has to do with relativism.

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