Thursday, June 27, 2019

Morality in a Realistic Spirit

I'm looking forward to seeing this in print. Here's the description:
This unique collection of essays has two main purposes. The first is to honour the pioneering work of Cora Diamond, one of the most important living moral philosophers and certainly the most important working in the tradition inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. The second is to develop and deepen a picture of moral philosophy by carrying out new work in what Diamond has called the realistic spirit.
The contributors in this book advance a first-order moral attitude that pays close attention to actual moral life and experience. Their essays, inspired by Diamond’s work, take up pressing challenges in Anglo-American moral philosophy, including Diamond’s defence of the concept ‘human being’ in ethics, her defence of literature as a source of moral thought that does not require external sanction from philosophy, her challenge to the standard ‘fact/value’ dichotomy, and her exploration of non-argumentative forms of legitimate moral persuasion. There are also essays that apply this framework to new issues such as the nature of love, the connections of ethics to theology, and the implications of Wittgenstein’s thought for political philosophy.
Finally, the book features a new paper by Diamond in which she contests deep-rooted philosophical assumptions about language that severely limit what philosophers see as the possibilities in ethics. Morality in a Realistic Spirit offers a tribute to a great moral philosopher in the best way possible—by taking up the living ideas in her work and taking them in original and interesting directions.
And here's the contents:
Andrew Gleeson and Craig Taylor
  1. Ethics and Experience
  2. Cora Diamond
  3. Cora Diamond and the Uselessness of Argument: Distances in Metaphysics and Ethics
  4. Reshef Agam-Segal
  5. The Importance of Being Fully Human: Transformation, Contemplation and Ethics
  6. Sarah Bachelard
  7. How to be somebody else: imaginative identification in ethics and literature
  8. Sophie Chappell
  9. Different themes of love
  10. Christopher Cordner
  11. A Brilliant Perspective: Diamondian Ethics
  12. Alice Crary
  13. The Riddling God
  14. Andrew Gleeson
  15. Shakespeare, Value and Diamond
  16. Simon Haines
  17. The asymmetry of truth and the logical role of thinking guides in ethics
  18. Oskari Kuusela
  19. Difficulties of Reality, Skepticism and Moral Community: Remarks After Diamond on Cavell
  20. David Macarthur
  21. Comparison or Seeing-As? The Holocaust and Factory Farming
  22. Talia Morag
  23. Two conceptions of "community": as defined by what it is not, or as defined by what it is
  24. Rupert Read
  25. Thinking with Animals
  26. Duncan Richter
  27. Diamond on Realism in Moral Philosophy
Craig Taylor

Monday, June 24, 2019

Oxford in the 80s

Simon Kuper's article on Brexit and Conservative students at Oxford University in the 1980s is worth reading. It's especially interesting to me because I was there. Apparently Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, and David Cameron were all in my year. I remember Boris Johnson being president of the Union. (I joined because it gave you something to do in the evenings, the bar was pretty good, and the library was useful.) I don't have much to say about all this beyond recommending the article, but I will add a point or two and try to correct some mistaken impressions that I think the article could give rise to.

Kuper says that Oxford taught you how to speak without much knowledge. (He mentions Simon Stevens, who I believe was one of Rupert Read's tutorial partners, as someone allegedly very good at this.) I'm not so sure. Certainly no one explicitly tried to teach you how to do this. It would be a useful skill in a tutorial, which is like an interview in some ways, so those who already possessed this ability probably honed it, but the rest of us would just have floundered if we showed up unprepared.

Kuper also says that students only have to write one essay a week, and that this can involve very little work. But as Kalypso Nicolaïdis says in the article, it's actually two essays a week. And, as I've said, most people would find it very hard to do this without much preparation. If you're wondering how anyone ever got away with doing no work all week, the answer (apart from repeating that this is probably both an exaggeration and very rare) is that all work until your final exams is basically done pass/fail. Tutorials and tutorial essays are meant to prepare you for your final exams. It's up to you how seriously you take this preparation, although if you are too lazy you will be kicked out. So doing just enough to get by is not that hard, but is likely to hurt you in the end. Final exams are all written and anonymous, so there is no bluffing your way through them using your Old Etonian charm. 

Finally, you might get the impression that Oxford is full of sad women who will do anything to help get some boy elected to office in the Union. This is not how machine politics works, as far as I know. The Union has many elected offices, mostly (as I remember it) positions on various committees. The voters--Union members like me--know nothing at all about most of the candidates. So groups of candidates form alliances, all voting for each other and encouraging their friends to do the same. Being part of one of these groups doesn't guarantee that you'll be elected, but it certainly helps. If you arrive at Oxford already knowing about this system and already knowing other people from your old school, you have a big advantage. I was clueless, and by the time I might have worked out that this was the way to become a future prime minister, it would have been too late. Not that I have any ambitions like that, or the skills to get anywhere in politics, but it's obviously an unfair system. Which is why Kuper's article is worth reading.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Anscombe and the sky

This should really be a tweet, but I'm not sure I can quite cram it into that small a space.

In the introduction to the second volume of her collected papers, Anscombe says that she got into philosophy by way of two stumbling blocks. The first was the idea that every event must have a cause. She goes on:
The other central philosophical topic which I got hooked on without even realizing that it was philosophy, was perception. I read a book by Fr Martin D'Arcy, S.J., called The Nature of Belief and got just that out of it. I was sure that I saw objects, like packets of cigarettes or cups or . . . any more or less substantial thing would do. But I think I was concentrated on artefacts, like other products of our urban life, and the first more natural examples that struck me were 'wood' and the sky. The latter hit me amidships because I was saying dogmatically that one must know the category of object one was speaking of -- whether it was a colour or a kind of stuff, for example; that belonged to the logic of the term one was using. It couldn't be a matter of empirical discovery that something belonged to a different category. The sky stopped me.
Yesterday I learned that at a school prize-giving ceremony, when Anscombe was in the sixth form, the school sang "The Spacious Firmament on High," a hymn I don't think I've ever heard of before. The words (by Joseph Addison) are rather nice:
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
Does his Creator's power display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an almighty hand.
Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth;
Whilst all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings, as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.
What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball;
What though nor real voice nor sound
Amid their radiant orbs be found;
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing as they shine,
'The hand that made us is divine.'
Anscombe won a lot of prizes at school, including the "Mary Sybil Raymond Prize (for the best girl going on to a University)".

Here's that hymn:

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Character and personal relationships

Schopenhauer thinks, if I'm remembering correctly, that if you are a hard determinist then you will find it easier to get over the bad things you have done in the past, since you will believe they were inevitable. Presumably, and perhaps he says this too, you might also forgive others more easily.

On the other hand, if you believe in character, as Schopenhauer does, then you might be less likely to forgive and forget, because a person's actions, as you see it, reveal something about their nature. So while a kind deed might prompt you to think of them as nice, a cruel deed might strike you as showing what a nasty piece of work they really are. It's hard to forgive an action if you see it as evidence of something else, some underlying, and probably ongoing, problem.

Perhaps, then, we might all get along better if we think of actions as isolated incidents that reveal nothing at all about anyone's character. Perhaps we would be better off not believing in character at all. But it's very hard to do that. Sartre's view, for instance, strikes me as being the opposite of Schopenhauer's. It takes everyone to be 100% free and to have no character except in retrospect, this character being created by one's choices, not revelatory of any pre-existing condition. So if you have been kind to me a thousand times I have no reason to expect you to be kind again, or to think of you now as a kind person (rather than one who has been kind in the past). Which means that liking you (as opposed to something like being grateful to you) is likely to seem irrational to me, or at least a-rational.

Probably the best view to take is neither Schopenhauer's nor Sartre's, but the issue seems interesting to me. Something like it is raised by Nafsika Athanasouli's question:   
Does anyone know of a non-dispositional account of friendship? I am thinking here of philosophers who argue that evidence from psychology shows there is no such thing as character (or, if it exists, that it is not the kind of collection of dispositional traits some philosophers assume it to be). Some of these philosophers go on to give accounts of morality without relying on character (e.g. John Dorris), but does anyone try to give an account of friendship without dispositions (or character if you prefer)?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sean Wilson's new website

Sean Wilson has a new website with information and thoughts on Wittgenstein here. Sean is the author of The Flexible Constitution and New Critical Thinking

Friday, June 14, 2019

The fallacy of the course again

I once talked about what I dubbed the fallacy of the course, which I'll just summarize here instead of trying to link to wherever I did that. The idea is simply that some significant problem can be solved by having students take a (single) course on something. I think this is a really bad idea, but it seems to be widespread and persistent. 

In Inside Higher Ed, John Warner complains (reasonably enough) about the effects of introductory college courses on economics. He recalls his own experience in such a course, and reports that:
Like the millions of other Americans who have taken Econ 101, I remember few of the specifics of macroeconomic theory I was supposed to learn in the class. Supply/demand, competition, market, blah blah blah. I engaged in the age-old tactics of passing a required gen ed class by cramming enough stuff into the temporary storage bin just long enough to take the exam, after which that briefly held knowledge leached from my brain, leaving only the thinnest residue behind. 
In the end, the chief byproduct of my general education exposure was a kind of indoctrination into the centrality of markets to understanding human behavior and the apparent importance of economics professors. 
This strikes me as a pretty good description of what happens to many/most students who take just one course in a subject. But then near the end of his article he asks rhetorically:
What if instead of Econ 101, we’d all taken the media literacy in politics course which would’ve allowed more people to more forcefully challenge the narrative that drove that debate?  
I think we know the answer. Instead of allowing (enabling?) more people to forcefully challenge the narrative, we would find that only the thinnest residue was left behind. This would be likely to be a kind of indoctrination, deliberate or otherwise, into feeling that bias and manipulation are everywhere, that no source of information can really be trusted, and that the truth, if there is such a thing, is effectively unknowable. (I worry that introductory ethics courses can exacerbate skepticism in a similar way.)

And in the comments, someone suggests that a course on ethics should be required before students take introductory economics. Sigh.

Sometimes I think the British system (roughly: study one thing a lot instead of lots of things a little) is better than the US approach. Although really the thing to do is probably just recognize that a single course on its own is often likely to be useless or even positively harmful, and design the curriculum accordingly.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Houses of philosophers

Ray Monk says that Wittgenstein's "last two years were spent living as a guest of his friends and disciples – with Malcolm in Ithaca, von Wright in Cambridge, and Elizabeth Anscombe in Oxford." In case anyone's interested, here's what these places look like.

According to this article, Malcolm's address was 1107 Hanshaw Road, and when Wittgenstein stayed there his room was upstairs. It's easy to find pictures online, such as this one:
1107 Hanshaw Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850

The British Wittgenstein Society says that von Wright lived in a house called Strathaird in Cambridge:

Related image

Anscombe (and Peter Geach) lived at 27 St John Street. According to Monk (who I think took the picture below--it comes from his Twitter account), the first two floors were rented out, so Anscombe and Geach had only the top floor to themselves, and Wittgenstein occupied one room of this floor when he stayed there. The first (i.e., not ground) floor was rented to Barry Pink, whom Wittgenstein described as "very nice." It was of Pink that Wittgenstein said he "wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse" (Monk, p. 567). Pink married Margaret "Peg" Smythies, who later married first Yorick Smythies (hence the name--she was born Margaret Britton) and then Rush Rhees. One last fun fact: Thom Yorke used to live on St John Street. Here's Anscombe's house:


Rush Rhees's house at 96 Bryn Road, Swansea, looks like this. (The address is given in Wittgenstein's will of 1951, quoted here.p. 32)

Finally, Tommi Uschanov kindly showed me where von Wright lived in Helsinki. Here's the house:

Monday, June 10, 2019

Two thoughts on moral responsibility

Audun Benjamin Bengston has a nice paper here (in the latest issue of Philosophical Investigations) on Strawson on reactive attitudes and on the relevance of Wittgenstein's work for understanding what Strawson is and isn't saying. Here's the abstract:
This paper defends P.F. Strawson's controversial ‘reversal move’, the view that the reactive attitudes determine what it means to be responsible. Many are critical of this account, arguing that it leads to the result that if we were to start to hold very young children responsible, they would be responsible. I argue that it is possible to read Strawson as providing a grammatical analysis of our moral responsibility language‐game by drawing two parallels between Strawson and Wittgenstein. This interpretation shows that the formulation of the problem associated with the ‘reversal move’ rests on a grammatical mistake.
I kept waiting for something like this thought to come up, and eventually it does (the quote is from p. 297):
Just as we can imagine a scenario where the game begins with the end, it is perfectly possible to imagine a culture in which young children are regularly held responsible, but the further question we need to ask is whether our expressions related to our moral responsibility language‐game would be applicable in such a scenario. For what seems to be the case in the formulation of the worry that young children will be seen as responsible is that a different world is imagined, with quite different needs and concerns that in turn will go on to determine a rather different notion of responsibility than the one we have. In order for it to be the case that young children are seen as responsible, we would have to imagine quite a different set of circumstances; our needs and concerns to be quite different from the ones we currently have. Once we do this, then, perhaps, will it become intelligible to us that young children can be held responsible. But crucially, the concept of moral responsibility that they operate with will be quite different from the one we currently possess because the needs and concerns that condition the meaning of moral responsibility are sufficiently different in this imagined scenario. This means that its meaning would be different. This also entails that when we worry that young children would be responsible if we were to start to hold them responsible, we are no longer talking about the same concept. 
Of course, if holding children "morally responsible" involves punishing them then we can still think that doing so is unfair or cruel, but if the words "moral responsibility" are used very differently from the way we use them, then we aren't necessarily dealing with the same concept any more.

My other thought is a response to this:
In ‘Freedom and Resentment’, Strawson draws a distinction between two categories of when moral responsibility attributions are inappropriate: excuses and exemptions.
In the case of excuses, an agent is seen as the appropriate target of moral responsibility attributions, but excused from a particular action he or she performed. In the case of exemptions, the agent is seen as exempted from moral responsibility attributions altogether.
This almost makes it sound as though either one is not morally responsible at all for anything or one is (completely) excused from some individual action because of a reason that applies to (only) that particular action, or one is (completely) responsible. Maybe no one makes the mistake of being this simplistic, but, just in case they do, I want to muddy these waters, at least a bit. Excuses can be partial, after all. That is, a person might be partly excused, their culpability diminished, for some reason, without being wholly excused. And excuses can apply to multiple actions, perhaps even to everything a person does, without their being completely exempt from moral responsibility attributions altogether. For instance, if someone is under a lot of stress this might be a mitigating factor in assessing any bad thing they might ever do, without it meaning that they have the same status as children and the severely mentally ill. And someone might be under stress all the time, perhaps because of a physical disability or poverty or being a member of some low-status group.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019


I've deleted a couple of comments recently, perhaps heavy-handedly. If something seems like spam I'm likely to treat it as such. And if a comment seems irrelevant (even if it seems otherwise right or true) and contains a link then I'm likely to suspect that the link is not what it seems, and to treat the whole comment as spam.

Feel free to let me know when I've been unreasonably or unproductively paranoid. I would like to keep as many comments as possible, but I also want as few dodgy links as possible.

Anscombe's history of ethics

I'm reading Jimmy Doyle's book No Morality, No Self a bit more carefully now and he seems to see Anscombe's history of ethics as having roughly three stages: virtue theory (which is based on doing whatever it takes to have a good life--"egoistic eudaimonism"), a law conception of ethics (which basically means being Jewish or Catholic, and can be combined with virtue theory), and morality (which incoherently tries to have what a law conception of ethics has but without God). So really we have two choices: Aristotelian egoism and theism. Or three, if you include moral skepticism.

I read Anscombe a little differently. She does respect Aristotle, but she also calls the concept of "human 'flourishing'" doubtful, and explains why:
For it is a bit much to swallow that a man in pain and hunger and poor and friendless is "flourishing," as Aristotle himself admitted. Further, someone might say that one at least needed to stay alive to "flourish."
Which suggests that the egoist-eudaimonist view is actually unacceptable (otherwise it would, for instance, be ethical/rational/a good idea to join the SS rather than be killed by them) unless a lot of philosophical work can be done to explain why not. Doyle takes up Anscombe's assertion that "It is clear that a good man is a just man" in order to counter this kind of thought. But I think we then move away from Aristotle. The good and unstrained (she calls the Stoic notion of flourishing "strained") options that Anscombe considers are either being Jewish or Christian (her preference, of course) or else what I have called the plain man's view, which Anscombe describes thus:
Another man, who does not follow the rather elaborate reasoning of the philosophers, simply says "I know it is in any case a disgraceful thing to say that one had better commit this unjust action."    
This is neither very Aristotelian nor very egoist.

Anscombe also rejects a number of other views along the way:

  1. "Butler exalts conscience, but appears ignorant that a man's conscience may tell him to do the vilest things."
  2. Hume: a sophist, defining words so as to get the results he wants
  3. Kant: his theory is absurd and useless
  4. Bentham and Mill: fatal failure to notice that pleasure is such a difficult concept. Mill's theory also lacks content, as does Kant's, because he doesn't stipulate how to describe actions or principles
  5. Protestantism: rejects the idea of Christ as a legislator to be obeyed
  6. Consequentialists after Mill: no good because they refuse to rule acts such as murder out of the question
  7. Following the norms of society: not likely to be any better than Butler's ethics
  8. Following one's own rules, or those of one's ancestors: Ditto. "If one is lucky it will lead to good." It might not, of course, but at least one might have some good, Socratic doubt about whether one is on the right path
  9. Following the laws of nature: unlikely to lead to feelings about harmony or balance, likely instead to result in something like a dog-eat-dog ethic
  10. Obeying some kind of universal or social contract: this would need to be worked out, would be unlikely to provide details (such as prohibiting murder), and lacks an explanation of how we come to be bound by a contract without realizing it  
  11. Following norms embodied in human virtues: possibly OK, but we are then back to Aristotle
The social contract view would be interesting to explore, but mostly Anscombe seems clearly to prefer either religious ethics or the ethics of the unphilosophical plain man, which perhaps we could call Wittgensteinian or ordinary language ethics.

Finally, just for further thought, here's some more of what she says about option #10:
Just possibly, it might be argued that the use of language which one makes in the ordinary conduct of life amounts in some sense to giving the signs of entering into various contracts. If anyone had this theory, we should want to see it worked out. I suspect that it would be largely formal...
This also might be called a kind of ordinary language ethics, although it sounds as though it would involve the development of quite a sophisticated theory. Which doesn't sound like ordinary ordinary language philosophy. I think some of Margaret Gilbert's work might be (very) roughly along these lines.