Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Making sense of words and deeds

The following passages are from p. 27 of Anscombe's Intention:
Wittgenstein said that when we call something senseless it is not as it were its sense that is senseless, but a form of words is being excluded from the language.
The 'exclusion from the language' is done not by legislation but by persuasion.
If we say 'it does not make sense for this man to say he did this for no particular reason' we are not 'excluding a form of words from the language'; we are saying 'we cannot understand such a man'. (Wittgenstein seems to have moved from an interest in the first sort of 'not making sense' to the second as Philosophical Investigations developed.)

There is not, it seems to me, a very sharp line between not understanding a man on account of what he says and not understanding a man on account of what he does. I don't mean there is no difference at all, necessarily, but the cases are surely closely related.

Later in the book Anscombe suggests that the question 'Why?', as in 'Why are you doing that?', amounts to asking 'What's the good of that?' And here, she says, "the good (perhaps falsely) conceived by the agent to characterise the thing must really be one of the many forms of good." (pp. 76-77).

When we cannot understand a man's doing this or that it seems that we cannot see the (supposed) good in what he is doing. If he kills someone to get his money then this makes sense, we can see why getting money seems (or is) good. But it only makes sense up to a point, it seems to me, given that we can still wonder about the goodness or sense of killing someone in order to get their money. If I met a mercenary, for instance, I might understand easily enough that he kills people because of the money, but I still might be quite mystified as to how he can see that as an acceptable way to make money. My understanding only goes so far. Another mercenary might understand better, but different mercenaries might draw the line in different places. I had a friend in high school with an unhealthy interest in  mercenaries. He told me that it was common for people to advertise their services in Soldier of Fortune magazine with the line 'Any cause but red,' meaning they will fight for anyone except communists. That kind of mercenary might not understand one who was prepared to fight for any cause at all.

The ways we live allow for certain possibilities and rule others out, or our lives are defined (at least in part) by what they exclude as possibilities. I could be an atheist or a Catholic or a Buddhist, but Shinto is not really an option for me, and the way of the samurai is definitely out. This says something about how I live and who I am. Certain forms of behavior and belief are excluded from the possibilities for my life. Not by my ethics, but by something that surely relates to ethics. It has, after all, to do with what I can make sense of as good.         

Over at The Limits of Language I've written the following in the comments:
Given how we live with other human beings, throwing dead (and dying!) people to be eaten by pigs might be a kind of contradiction. Soldiers returning from war often have a hard time adjusting to normal life because of this kind of contradiction between how they acted during the war and how they must act now that they are out of the war. This might be taken as a reason for thinking that the things one only would do in a war should never be done. Alternatively it could be taken as a sign that they are wrong. Whether it is a reason or a sign or neither is a tricky question, I think. (As is what it would mean to call it a sign.)

Not everything that leads to psychological problems later in life is necessarily wrong though. Say a soldier is fired on by a thirteen year-old boy, and fires back, killing the boy. Was this wrong? Not obviously. But I can imagine it might be very hard to live with having done something like that. So I'm reluctant to say that every act that is hard to live with must be wrong. Perhaps it is, but I'm not ready to draw that conclusion. On the other hand, an action's being hard to live with seems to be at least prima facie reason for thinking there is something bad about it. And not just its effect on one's mental health. It seems to be its badness, perhaps its disjointedness in relation to the rest of our lives, that makes it bad for our mental health. 

This makes me think of Cora Diamond's work on problems of life. But I also have in mind Wittgenstein's saying in Investigations 500 that, "When a sentence is called senseless, it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation." Certain ways of treating human beings and their bodies are excluded from the dictionary of acceptable forms of behavior. They are not in circulation. And when someone tries to introduce them they are rejected. Not because they are inherently worthless/senseless/impossible to circulate. But because they don't fit well with the pre-existing economy. 

Something like this, at least, is the kind of thinking I want to explore.
I think the key idea here is reasonableness. However narrowly rational evil acts might be, they are not reasonable. But do I want to make reasonableness the standard of moral goodness? That doesn't sound right.


  1. does this assume a more general stance that human-being/existence somehow makes sense?

    1. I hope not. That sounds like a big picture question and I'm working at a lower level than that. That is, I don't mean to take a stance on whether life itself makes sense, but I do think that we can make (some) sense of particular things that people do and say.

    2. sure but I'm not so sure that you/we are talking about making sense in these matters as much as trying to establish norms/co-operations for future interactions. Are we really doing some kind of science (psych-ology or such) in these circumstances, I don't think so and here again I think Witt. was also marking a limit to the uses of physics like reasoning, this seems pretty distinctly not like trying to figure out why bodies in motion eventually fall to the earth...

    3. I agree, we're not doing science. I'm trying to see things clearly that are currently obscure to me, so it's not about discovering anything or figuring out why things happen. And it does have to do with future actions and interactions. Not sure I would say it's about establishing norms, but maybe that's one way of putting what it amounts to.

    4. I think there is a pretty clear element of holding accountable here and likely also something more akin to negotiation future
      co-operations rather than trying to do a kind of archaeological/post-mortem rendering of a past event.

  2. I have here an unclarity about one thing you are saying:

    You draw a very suggestive parallel between nonsense in words and nonsense in action--nonsense in saying things and nonsense in doing things. But since "saying" is a verb, saying things IS doing things. - Does that mean that you want to say there is an identity here, or do you just want to say there is a parallel b/w the cases? If the latter, what stops you from saying it is an identity, or that the first case is a sub-class of the second? - What is the difference, or what are the differences, b/w not understanding what someone says, and not understanding what someone does?

    1. I don't know. You're right that saying something is doing something, so nonsense in words ought to be a subclass of nonsense in action.

    2. There is also the issue of types of nonsense (whether they exist, and if so, what kinds of distinctions are involved:

      You talk about not understanding someone like the mercenary in the sense of, or in some sense that is close to, not being able to relate to them, or something like this. But there is also the case where someone is mentally insane and is, say, banging their head against the wall real hard repeatedly. - Is the 'not-being-able-to-understand' the same in both cases? Is the difference philosophically important? Does it mean that there are more than one kind of nonsense in action?

      Partly I'm asking that in connection with Cora's claim that although we can make psychological distinctions b/w kinds of nonsense, we cannot make logical distinctions b/w kinds of nonsense (mainly b/c a nonsense sentence is by definition not a logical construction in the first place). She was talking about nonsense in language. - Would you say that the same holds for actions? Would you say that we can make logical distinctions b/w kinds of nonsense in action?

    3. Again, I don't know, but these are good questions. I want to say that understanding actions happens (or fails to happen) at various levels. So I might understand the desire to get money, but not the decision to be a mercenary as a way to get money. Or I might understand the decision to become a mercenary but not the decision to fight for this particular organization. And so on. Understanding other people, or other people's actions, would then involve a spectrum or continuum. We would understand some more than others, and some not at all.

      It seems that I ought to say much the same about the uttering of sentences as I do about other actions. And I think I would. (What about understanding sentences, as distinct from their utterance? I think understanding a sentence is like understanding a tool. If you know the kind of thing that might be (i.e., is usually) done with it then you understand it. This is not the same as understanding its use on any particular occasion, of course.)

      Distinctions between levels of nonsense seem psychological rather than logical to me. It's a matter of what I can relate to or see the point of.

      Does that make sense?

    4. Yes it makes sense.

      Are you saying that at least partly what I will consider nonsense is a matter of how imaginative I am, or how willing I am to identify with the motivations of someone else?

      If so, does that mean that nonsense is a relative term--that what is nonsense to me might not be nonsense to you? - That sounds odd.

      This whole topic you raise regarding nonsense in action seems very important to me. I like the broadening of the "category."

    5. It does sound odd to say that what is nonsense to me might not be to you, although it does not sound odd to say that what makes sense to you does not make sense to me. A sentence in another language, for instance, might make sense to you but not to me. You know what to do with it, I don't. But if there is such a thing to know as what to do with it then it is not really nonsense after all. So in that sense nonsense is not relative, and neither is sense.

      I wonder whether I'm just inadvertently trying to reinvent Thomism.

    6. Also, I want to hear more from you about the relation b/w evil and nonsense in action: If someone just does something that I can't comprehend, and that no one else can, and that they themselves can't explain (I'm imagining an act of madness), that would presumably be a nonsensical act, but would it necessarily be evil?

      I mean, we can imagine someone just spending a lot of time counting grass-blades, or touching the tip of their noses again and again for hours. Or we can imagine someone in the middle of a conversation with someone getting up turning 360 degrees in place and sitting back down. That would probably make no sense. But is it evil?

      If we really can imagine things like that, does that mean that evil is connected to just one KIND of nonsense in action?

    7. Another thought that occurs to me: Suppose someone says that although there are evil deeds, there are not nonsense sentences. Is that not enough to show that the parallel b/w evil and nonsense is problematic? Or alternatively, would you say that in some sense there really are not evil deeds? (Is this the sense you said you might be re-inventing Thomism?) If so, what sense is that?

      Are you writing something about this currently?

    8. I agree completely that acts of madness are not (necessarily) evil. Certainly the examples you give are not evil.

      And I agree that the parallel between evil and nonsense is problematic. But I still think there could be something to it. Which might be a way of saying that I think there is something in Thomism, or in Anscombe's ethics.

      On nonsense sentences and evil deeds: I want to say that there are such things as nonsense sentences, even if in some sense if it's nonsense then it's not a sentence. And there are evil deeds. Perhaps some sense could be made out in which an evil deed is not really a deed, but that feels like an intellectual exercise that does not need to be done.

      I'm writing something about Anscombe at the moment and this has come up in the course of it. I might try to write something directly about this later. I want to.

    9. "I agree that the parallel between evil and nonsense is problematic. But I still think there could be something to it. "

      - I want to know more about that something you think there could be to it. I guess I'll have to wait.

    10. There is also a matter of policy here--which is more of a metaphilosophical matter--regarding what is and what is not a worthwhile intellectual exercise.

      I am not sure if I should put it as a question to you, (even though I would very much like to understand you better here), but I do want just to point it out, b/c I confess that I am not completely comfortable with what I think is your policy. And that applies to both your claims here about nonsense and about evil deeds:

      For nonsense, you seem to have the policy (correct me if I'm wrong) of saying that if we don't have really good reasons for saying otherwise, what people identify regularly as a sentence is a sentence--or something like this. And therefore if people identify something that is nonsense as a sentence, you'll say it is a sentence.

      The reason I'm not comfortable with that, is that my inclination is to require charity in a different place. On the face of it, what I think is your policy is charitable towards people: it allows them to say what is natural for them to say. I, on the other hand, want to speak of people's "real needs" in such a way that would allow me to say that people sometimes misidentify what they need, and in particular they misidentify what the point is of calling certain things sentences. If people came to realize what they really needed, they would themselves recognize that some of the things they identified as sentences they themselves don't want to identify as such any longer. The charity here does not allow people to say what they want, perhaps, but it allows them to be more consistent with themselves. (Charity towards a Humpty Dumpty is no charity.)

    11. Regarding evil deeds: you say: "Perhaps some sense could be made out in which an evil deed is not really a deed, but that feels like an intellectual exercise that does not need to be done."

      I think there is a tradition of philosophy--from Plato to Augustine, to Kant--who want to say things that are very much like this: namely, that it goes to the very heart of the idea of agency and action to see that there is a sense in which evil actions are not actions in the full sense of the word. Even Aristotle is in some way in this tradition--although in a different way.

      Again, I think the reason you say what you say here is because of some policy you adopt--or something like a policy--that makes you reluctant to reject a way that is natural for people to talk.

      Do you think it is un-Wittgensteinian of me to say that the way that people want to talk and ordinarily talk should NOT always be respected?

    12. I think that the way people ordinarily talk and want to talk should be respected other things being equal. So the default position should be to respect such ways of talking. But if this conflicts with their real needs then I could see a case for not respecting it. It would depend on what those real needs were, though, and perhaps also on how certain we were that we had identified them correctly.

      if people identify something that is nonsense as a sentence, you'll say it is a sentence.

      I hope I would say in this case both that it is nonsense and that it is one of the things that is widely called a sentence.

    13. Okay, so can you explain your motivations for saying: "Perhaps some sense could be made out in which an evil deed is not really a deed, but that feels like an intellectual exercise that does not need to be done."?

      The reason why I'm asking is that I think I have a much stronger tendency than you to say that people are out of touch with their real need. You are much more cautious than I am. And it seems to me that your claim (the one I quoted) may come from, or be related to, such caution.

      And I do like that caution. I think you are right to be cautious here, and I wish I was less trigger happy. I think I ought to learn from you here. But the way you put it--talking of an intellectual exercise that is not worth pursuing--seems to almost reflect little interest in those cases where people lose touch with their real need--e.g. when they think they SAY something, but really utter only nonsense; or when they think they DO something, but are really idling.

      More than anything, I'm confused about what you are saying. On the one hand your blog is called "Language Goes on Holiday," and now you seem to be interested in adding action to that: 'When action goes on holiday'--searching for the connection between nonsense and evil. But on the other hand, you say something that seems to be dismissive of the very idea that action might really go on holiday--of the idea that some actions that look like actions might not actually be actions. - I'm just trying to piece those pieces together.

      Where is my misunderstanding?

    14. I can explain my motivation for saying what I said, and perhaps that will clear things up.

      I had started to write an attempted explanation of how an evil deed might not really be a deed, but it felt more like an intellectual exercise than a real attempt to understand anything about, say, people's real needs. I don't mean that all projects along these lines are bound to be like that, only that the particular thing I was doing at that moment felt like that. And the idea that evil deeds are not really deeds seems (I should emphasize the word 'seems') to downplay the evil and the suffering that they involve. So I have mixed feelings about the project.Or at least sometimes I do. I did at that moment.

      But actually the idea of nonsense in action is one that I am very interested in pursuing. I have nothing to say about it that I haven't said on this blog, but I plan on exploring it more in the near future.

  3. http://www.npr.org/2015/02/04/383724467/the-psychology-behind-why-some-kids-go-unvaccinated

    1. People are crazy. But we're people too.

    2. indeed, blinkered/prejudiced and highly tribal, with no exit that I can see.

  4. Isn't this just another version of moral relativism? Couldn't ISIS then counter by referring to the way they live? Why should their way be any less good, on a moral level, than the way we do, even if their way includes beheadings and immolations of unbelievers or transgressors which we find abhorrent?

    Should we expect a moral judgment rendered within one societal framework to obtain for others outside that framework? Or even for others within the same framework if they operate within ae sub-framework which endorses contrary behavioral options to ours? But if we cannot have such expectations, how can moral discourse work at all? Aren't morals claim then just falling on culturally deaf ears?

    And why shouldn't we just change our cultural framework whenever it seems beneficial to do so? Would it be morally wrong for someone raised in the West, with our typical mores, to throw everything over and join ISIS and then start lopping off captive heads?

    Can we make a case for moral judgments when that case stands on nothing more than the way our judgments fit with our particular belief system and the standards the given system implies?

    1. Isn't this just another version of moral relativism?

      I hope not, but you are absolutely right that it raises questions about relativism. Otherwise, see below.

  5. "Can we make a case for moral judgments when that case stands on nothing more than the way our judgments fit with our particular belief system and the standards the given system implies" can we do otherwise?
    and even if we are capable (seems less and less likely; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias) of such relfexivity what would we appeal to?

    1. Right. And we live within this system. There really is no getting outside it. (Which is not to say that it cannot change at all.)

    2. sure, we can and should keep trying to shape the various factors, but if we are going to succeed in our hacking experiments we will have to be gearing into the actual factors at play and not just keep inventing ideal models that don't connect back to lived life.

    3. @Anon, you make it sound as if we either work with "ideal models" or we work with "the real word" sans models. But isn't that we work with models no matter what and that that is in part what DR is troubling with here? Models and sense?

    4. Wait, reading your comment again, are you suggesting there are ideal models that do connect back to real life?

    5. Part of what is wrong with the scientific world view (all competing scientific world views really) is that it pretends to deal with reality directly without illusion. It all smacks of Frazer.

    6. the point is not that we can do without representations but that there won't be One model for all peoples/situations/etc.
      not sure what you mean by "illusion" or where you find sciences that aren't open to correction/refinement?

    7. The illusion bit was a ref to Frazer's view which supposes that people acting in ways we don't understand mean can be explained by saying they are doing bad science. Wittgenstein once remarked, and ti is rarely mentioned, that the sort of people Frazer describes as being nearly idiots do, after all, build houses, farm land and hunt animals the same way we do. They do not seem to be as confused as scientists. I don't find anything that is not open to correction/refinement, science being just one of those things. That scientists and science's cheerleaders often claim that science is the only rational practice that allows for correction/refinement is an obvious and shameless bit of self-serving propaganda.

      To be clear, what struck me is the phrase "keep inventing models that don't connect back to real life" as if that is all that we or "they" do, when all our models are invented for the purpose of connecting with life and some work better than others at what they are meant to do. So of course there are a proliferation of models, science being One. It does what it is mean to do and fairly well, it just does not do everything its adherents say it can do. That is all too often forgotten.

    8. well you say " So of course there are a proliferation of models" but don't have to look too far down the page to find people making the case for meta-ethics. as for the science issue not sure where you find science reigning, hell even in the centers of research money and politics are largely the orders of the day.

    9. Right, by science I mean scientism, or the sheen of science applied to all sorts of things for, as you say, ideological, political, monetary reasons.

  6. [Corrected response]

    "Can we do otherwise?"

    Maybe. The point is that even when we think we can't do otherwise we continue to draw some lines in the moral sand which suggest that that's just what we are doing. Otherwise, there is no basis for morally condemning folks like those who are bringing us the Islamic State in the Middle East.

    Sure we can oppose them -- and they can oppose us. And whoever's left standing in the end gets to write the history of these events. But that's just might-makes-right, in which case all we've got are whatever arms we can muster, whatever firepower we can call on and so forth. We have no justification for claiming any sort of high ground nor has anyone in denouncing the Bush administration for doing what it did in Iraq (if you don't agree with what they did). Nor for denouncing the likes of Bull Connors in 1950's America for setting dogs on African Americans. Or lynchings and slavery and the taking of Indian lands in this country.

    If we want to make moral claims and have them mean anything more than whatever force we can put behind them, if we want our claims to convince others without our having to point a gun at their heads, or to guide our own behaviors when our choice is either to do what we want (or what we think most likely to benefit ourselves alone) rather than act because of concern for some other, then there has to be some kind of reason or reasons that stand behind our claims.

    Are those reasons found in certain facts about ourselves or the world which we can discover or learn about? Or are they merely individual or group preferences? Or something else?

    The question of "what would we appeal to" is, finally, the problem of metaethics, no?

    1. that sort of line of thinking seems to run quickly up against the is/ought dilemma, well there is might and than there is might but yes there is no escape from the need for some kind of politics. That is what meta-ethics is about and why it should be left behind along with meta-physics as a theo-logical hangover.

    2. Otherwise, there is no basis for morally condemning folks like those who are bringing us the Islamic State in the Middle East.

      The only basis that I think we need and can ever have for condemning the actions of groups like ISIS is that they cut off people's heads, burn people to death in cages, etc.

    3. Yes, we don't like burnings and beheadings and that kind of stuff. Makes many of us angry or indignant, turns our stomach, inspires fear, etc. But why should those who do such things care about what we like or dislike, or are angry about, or find disgusting or fear inducing?

      Why should they care, that is, aside from our having some capacity to punish them for doing those kinds of things?

      Isn't the point of moral discourse to offer reasons to convince others to do, or not do, what we think they should without recourse to coercion or deception or behavioral conditioning? All these other things are frequently available to us, of course, but they don't do what moral reasoning is meant to do, i.e., they don't convince others (or ourselves) to make a deliberated decision to do or not do something.

      Of course one might argue that moral reasoning really doesn't do what it purports to do and so the whole thing is illusory. But this just prompts us to try to avoid that kind of language game by reminding us (and others) that there's no there there every time we feel inclined to make a moral statement -- or someone else does. Yet we still end up finding ourselves acting and speaking, at times, as though there is something there, i.e., we can't stop ourselves from wanting to condemn some actions and praise others, the ISIS atrocities being a particularly pertinent case in point. And from doing so with conviction, i.e., the belief that we are right about this and that the perpetrators should desist from such behaviors because of certain things we can assert.

      It seems to me that an answer which holds that 'some things are just wrong, and we know it when we run into them' doesn't enable us to express moral claims in a way that's consistent with our expectations of how those claims work, i.e., that they can convince by force of reason. Saying we know what's good or bad or evil, what's right or wrong, on sight so to speak, leaves open the possibility that, in fact, we don't -- or that others, whom we are addressing, don't. And then we're back to shouting at one another and applying sticks and clubs (or their contemporary equivalents. Sure we do that sort of thing, too, but the point of moral discourse is to replace these cruder methods at least at times (i.e., when we have intellectually receptive interlocutors).

      So either our expectations about moral claims are wrong (and there goes the moral game!) or our expectations about this sort of claim are right -- in which case something remains to be said to make explicit what's right about them.

    4. why should those who do such things care about what we like or dislike

      There is no reason why they should, at least qua what we like or dislike.

      It seems to me that an answer which holds that 'some things are just wrong, and we know it when we run into them' doesn't enable us to express moral claims in a way that's consistent with our expectations of how those claims work, i.e., that they can convince by force of reason.

      I agree. I think you can say, "You are burning him alive!" and hope that this will make some difference. But if it doesn't work then it is hopeless to add, "And that's wrong!" The good news with ISIS is that they are not in fact alien beings from another moral universe. For instance, even some of their supporters, and probably some of them, did not agree with the burning. But there clearly are significant differences between their values/practices, on the one hand, and yours and mine on the other. And there are limits to rational persuasion.

    5. Yes, there are limits. But I think supposing that others will either see our moral point or not and that's all there is to it underestimates the role we suppose moral discourse plays. It could, of course, be that the role is, in fact, overestimated by some (me for instance), but I think most of us (more than just me, I'm pretty sure) think that, at least sometimes, we can genuinely insist to others that some things really are morally right or wrong. That is, sometimes we believe we are justified in condemning others for their actions and in taking action against them, e.g., ISIS killers (or destroyers since the latest thing they've done is destroy millennia old Assyrian and Babylonian relics at a major museum in Mosul, items which are surely a treasure for all mankind). And if we believe we are justified but aren't, then we are either fooling ourselves or fooling someone else.

      Now if our only basis for condemning, or acting in some fashion to halt, ISIS excesses like these comes down to saying that that's just how we feel, then moral judgment, which is what such claims constitute, must be illusory. And once we come to that conclusion, we must (logically at least) stop talking as if our moral judgments count.

      Of course, we can always continue to pretend that our moral claims count, but that would be insincere as well as contradicting what we actually believe. But then again, why not be insincere since, like beheading and immolating others, there's no basis for thinking being insincere is wrong. After all, the moral claims which we're being insincere about have no traction anyway so why think the insincerity with which we state them has any moral implication either!

      I guess I'd argue that taking a view it all depends on whether others share our feelings about the questions at issue, or not, takes us right back to the Gloucon's ring scenario which most of us are inclined to find wanting. But perhaps you're right and that's all there is.

      I would add, though, that the fact that the members of ISIS are human doesn't hold out much hope since morally bad behavior (if there is such a thing) is typically done by humans. That's why we suppose we can influence them by making some sort of moral point -- unless, of course, there is no genuine moral point we can make.

    6. I think supposing that others will either see our moral point or not and that's all there is to it underestimates the role we suppose moral discourse plays

      I agree. That's not all there is to it. We can do a lot to try to persuade people to see our point.

      if our only basis for condemning, or acting in some fashion to halt, ISIS excesses like these comes down to saying that that's just how we feel, then moral judgment, which is what such claims constitute, must be illusory

      I agree with this too. As I said above, "The only basis that I think we need and can ever have for condemning the actions of groups like ISIS is that they cut off people's heads, burn people to death in cages, etc." This does not mention how anyone feels.

      I guess I'd argue that taking a view it all depends on whether others share our feelings about the questions at issue, or not, takes us right back to the Gloucon's ring scenario which most of us are inclined to find wanting. But perhaps you're right and that's all there is.

      But I don't think that whether others share our feelings is all there is. Feelings matter when persuasion is at stake, but facts matter a lot too. So do arguments.

    7. "This does not mention how anyone feels."

      But it certainly implies that if the point of saying "you shouldn't do X" is to get them not to do it.

      Unless we want to say persuasion in such cases is about overt or covert coercion or somehow pulling the wool over another's eyes, what else is left, once you eliminate the giving of reasons. But if we don't eliminate THAT, then our reasons have to rest on some logic, something that implies something else.

    8. I can't imagine saying "you shouldn't behead people" to an ISIS supporter except in exasperation. Other than that I'm not sure what to say, because I don't follow what you're saying. I don't eliminate the giving of reasons, but I do see limits to what this can achieve.

      I can say that if you do x then y will result, and y is bad because it means z, and z is bad because ..... But you have to stop somewhere. And the somewhere that I would stop is, in this case, murder. That is, once it has been pointed out that someone is being killed unlawfully I would see no point in going on to try to explain why unlawful killing is bad. (Maybe I would discuss that with a philosopher, but not with an actual killer.)

      Does this mean that we have facts (about which we can reason) and feelings and coercion but nothing else? No, I think there are things like moral education (enlarging the moral imagination, building character, etc.). This isn't coercion, and it isn't simply changing someone's feelings. But this seems some way from the question of making sense of actions.

    9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    10. Yes in a way this departs from your original concern above. But in another way it doesn't since making moral sense is to make sense of actions, no? And you proposed reasonableness as a source of some moral claims.

      You're right that giving reasons comes to a halt somewhere or we never get to a decision, and so an action. I guess our real difference of opinion at this point is where the giving of reasons stops. I think it highly likely that giving reasons to an ISIS beheader isn't likely to be fruitful -- as you do. But suppose you wanted to give reasons in this vein to a friend or child who had abruptly decided to convert to Islam of this sort and suddenly announced he was now headed to Syria to pledge himself to the new Caliph and do whatever was then demanded of him, including beheading infidel captives.

      Presumably you have no reason to begrudge him a new faith, of course, but if that entails such acts, well plainly you think they're wrong and want him to think so, too. What can you say to him? "Murder is wrong"? But in his mind, if it's sanctioned by the Caliph, the Qur'an and so, by Allah, it's not murder but just doing God's will.

      Surely here you want to say something, give reasons. But what to say, if your view just boils down to your belief/feeling/attitude towards certain kinds of acts? Why is it murder and not, rather, a form of justified human-implemented divine retribution? And even if its legally murder according to the laws you acknowledge must it also be that in your interlocutor's new way of thinking?

      You can hit him over the head, of course, to prevent him from going, or lock him in a room or send him for some kind of re-education. But if the point is to give him reasons so that he will choose of his own volition not to go, what's there to say, unless there's a convincing reason as to why such acts are wrong?

    11. I don't think there really is a convincing (in itself, so to speak) reason as to why such acts are wrong, although there might be a convincing (to this person) reason. I think it would be absurd, for instance, to say that cutting off people's heads is wrong because it decreases utility, or could not rationally be willed as a universal law, or (even) because it is incompatible with living a good human life. The last of these comes closest to making sense, but as an answer to the question before us it's much too snappy and formulaic. If a friend asked me why he shouldn't join ISIS, when he was genuinely on the verge of doing so, I would have to say much more than this. And the more would have to do with the meaning of such a decision. Think what you would be doing, and how incompatible that is with huge parts of what your life till now has been. Think also (I think I would try to argue) about all the ways that Islam speaks against ISIS. I'm not well qualified to argue that case, but I could point my friend to people who are. Mostly, though, I think I would (and should) focus on very concrete and specific facts, not the supposed compatibility of this with that. I would try to make my friend see that he was talking about going away to, among other things, CUT. OFF. PEOPLE'S. HEADS. I would resist any attempt he might make to avoid this reality by reframing his actions as doing God's will or whatever. I would try to get hims to focus on the bottom line, the cash value of his proposed new life. And if that didn't work I might try to find a good rock to hit him with.

    12. A rock might do it! But wouldn't hitting him before he'd done anything wrong itself be wrong in the sense you've described, i.e., disgraceful, reprehensible, unthinkable, contrary to how one has lived one's life until now? You wouldn't just strike him for just any statement so why for what's merely an announced plan that he is ISIS bound? Perhaps if he were about to cut off a head! But that would be akin to protecting an innocent and action is demanded. But hitting him over the head when he still might change his mind seems wrong prima facie and is premised on avoiding a consequence which hasn't yet occurred. Wouldn't it be like going back to 1920's Germany and murdering Hitler before he could become the Hitler of history? As I recall, your view is that killing Hitler at that juncture would still count as murder and so be wrong (if a lesser wrong than allowing Hitler to complete his life as he plans).

      I do see the point of your response. What do we do in a case where we feel we have to say something (or, perhaps, are tempted ourselves). I have a kind of answer but, like you, I suppose it will not convince everyone. I think it could be made and argued for and be convincing at a certain level -- though not in terms of syllogistic formalism. We want to get this person to see the other as if he stood in their shoes. We want to urge him, and give him reasons to adopt, an attitude of empathy toward his potential victims. It's not just having certain feelings though we do have such feelings when we empathize. 'Our heart goes out' to the person in pain or distress and here we mean that we feel something. Perhaps, too, we shed a tear or have feelings that come with tears. I think we get such feelings by adopting an attitude (just as an actor can bring tears to his eyes by simulating the right kinds of behaviors). The way we think about others and so behave towards them (because thinking and behaving are continuous) matters. One could invoke the old saw here, asking the ISIS aspirant to examine how he would feel if someone did what he's contemplating to him.

      We can agree that some people won't be responsive to this sort of appeal, being insufficiently attuned or acculturated to react in the hoped-for way. But I think the kinds of things we want to get our interlocutor to reject are susceptible to an argument based on a call to empathy. What kind? How do you make a case for empathy to someone who acknowledges none and may not even show a smidgen of it? It rests, I would say, on the notion that empathy is a natural aspect of what we are, i.e., subjects of a certain cognitive capacity (ours) have a built-in potential to see themselves in others. It's what comes with being a subject. But it doesn't guarantee they will realize this in their own lives -- or want to.

      So the bottom line in the argument would, I think, stand on making a case to the individual in question to change his way of looking at the people around him. I don't think you can just say killing or cutting off heads is bad. You have to say why because we can always find a reason to justify this kind of thing, to make it the "good" choice. That reason, I think, is because it's contrary to what we actually are as subjective creatures. But this isn't an argument with syllogistic force because anyone can reply: 'So what if I don't act in a way that realizes all my potential as a subjective entity?'

      Then our response must be to try to reach them so they will make the decision to actualize what's built into all of us as subjects. This has affinities with spiritual discourse which is probably why moral claims have so often been associated with religious practice and teaching in human history.

    13. Right, a syllogism won't do the job. We need to try to reach people as subjects, I agree.

      And I was kidding about the rock, although some sort of force (e.g. calling the police) might be necessary if all else fails.

    14. Yes, I knew you were joking about the rock. I was being a little arch myself in the response. But without those smiley faces it can be hard to convey tone via text alone!

  7. Perhaps the example of ISIS is to far off. It serves as an exotic other rendering any connection impossible so as to cut of argument. Perhaps one should start with something closer to home, say, the training and practices taught at and carried out by the alumni of the institution formerly known as The School of the Americas?

    —Since 1946, the SOA has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.

    Do they make sense? I would say they very much do to the people that back this school and its practices. Or how about the Chicago Police Department?

    —'Gestapo' tactics at US police 'black site' ring alarm from Chicago to Washington

    And from Chicago to Guantanamo Bay:

    —Bad lieutenant: American police brutality, exported from Chicago to Guantánamo

  8. Replies
    1. One interesting thing about ISIS is that they seem to be going pout of their way to do things that will be perceived as evil, and to publicize these things. But they are certainly not the only people in the world who do evil things. And it's worth bearing that in mind.

      All of these examples, the ones you've listed here and the ISIS ones, are alien to me. Which means that some people I live among are alien to me. And insofar as I'm capable of doing, or going along with, the same kind of thing, I am in a way alien to myself. What it means to know thyself, to what extent it is a matter of observation and to what extent its more like knowing (or forming) your own intentions, is an interesting question.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. And with that last part we're back with Socrates, or no further than that—philosophy.

      My point with the last post was merely to say that using ISIS as an example makes these acts outlandish (in olden times the example would be the Nazis or Stalin or Napoleon or whoever was the boogie man of choice) and completely out of this world, whereas if it's just around the corner in Chicago or Fort Benning I feel the questions in some way become more pressing, more concrete, because it could be you or me or anyone.

      That's one thing books by someone like Cormac McCarthy tackle well, e.g. No Country for Old Men or Blood Meridian. To identify all too stridently (jingoistically) with good is to become blind to the evil in ourselves. We have the capacity for both, so if we are to make sense of it we have to, as you say, look to ourselves.

    4. PS: I think Wittgenstein's censure of Malcolm was in the same spirit. And Anscombe's use of the bomb.

    5. Yes, agreed. I tend to use examples of undisputed evil when I want an example of evil without having to get into discussions of whether the example is actually evil or not. But there are dangers involved in doing that, as you point out. It's by no means certain that if you once get evil clearly in your sights you will recognize it in yourself or others on other occasions.

  9. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/innocent-abroad-rupture-liberation-and-solidarity/