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Midsouth Proceedings 2006

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.

Philosophy break.

You may not have noticed, thanks to my use of post-scheduling ninjitsu, but I was actually on the road this past weekend with L., at the (30th annual) Midsouth Philosophy Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. A good time, except that you need to know that if you’re going to visit Memphis on the weekend without a car, you’d better either get a hotel right downtown, or else get to like spending all evening stranded in your hotel room. (Next year I intend to do the former. Also to make sure I have all the bus schedules I’ll need printed out and in my bag with me when I go.) Here’s the ego-centric summary of the conference proceedings:

  • On Saturday, I presented my essay Intuition-Pumping for Fun and Profit, on appeals to intuition and two arguments against hedonism, drawn from G. E. Moore and Francis Hutcheson. Here’s the basic idea: the category of philosophical appeals that the current fashion dubs philosophical intuitions is something of a motley grab-bag, and the things subsumed under it have so little in common that I doubt the category can be both coherent and interesting at the same time). At least some of these non-inferential appeals to some more immediate form of insight or understanding are probably indispensable tools in philosophical reasoning, but they are also blunt tools and too rarely examined given how often philosophers rely on them. This leads to confused blame for arguments that use them as much as confused praise; an excellent example can be found in Moore's Two Planets argument against ethical hedonism and Hutcheson's Dying Benefactor argument against psychological egoism. Both rely completely on intuition-pumping to do their work; both are routinely dismissed as crass question-begging. But I argue that an asymmetry in our intuitions in each of these arguments reveals that the charge is unjust, and that they ought to be just as decisive for skeptics as to converts. If I’m right, that tells us not only that hedonism and egoism are false, but also something interesting about the nature of philosophical intuitions. For more, read on…

  • Also, on Friday, I read some remarks in reply to Mylan Engel’s essay Epistemic Contextualism and the Problem of Knowing What One Says. Mylan has a clever argument to suggest that two of the most common versions of contextualist semantics for knowledge-claims have a serious problem: they seem to indicate that it’s often impossible for you to know what the truth-conditions of a knowledge-claim are until after you’ve already made it (which is, of course, a problem if you want to assert only what’s true and avoid asserting what’s false). It’s an interesting argument, but I (tho’ not a contextualist myself) suggest that there is probably an equally clever way out of the problem in the general run of cases (which has the advantage of being a contextualist solution for contextualists to apply to the problem); and that it’s at least controversial whether this is even a problem for those remaining cases where the general solution won’t pan out. Read on…

Incidentally, feel free to leave any comments on either the paper or the commentary here in the backtalk section.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled parade of facile sarcasm and polemical revisionist history.

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  1. Alex Gregory

    Some comments on your paper..

    On Hutcheson, you say that he has refuted “psychological egoism (which makes a claim about universal reasons for action)”. On my understanding, psychological egoism is a doctrine about our actual psychological motivation, not about what we have reason to do. Wikipedia confirms, and suggests that you may be talking about ethical egoism.

    Just to confuse matters further (and perhaps detracting from your focus too much), one could even be an ethical egoist but admit that among my desires are desires for others’ welfare. The ethical egoist merely maintains that my only reason to help others is because I want it, not because they actually have any worth to me in themselves. That would make Hutcheson’s argument invalid rather than unsound.

    “there’s something about the malicious option that closes it off from sane intuitions, while leaving intuitions for the benevolent option open.”

    Can’t the egoist merely maintain that just because it seems open doesn’t imply that it is? That is, I think you’re confusing epistemological possibility with conceptual possibility. What leaves the benevolent option open is the fact that there’s a debate to be had – not that, if egoism were true, it would still be tenable. The egoist can therefore admit the aysemmetry, but explain its significance in terms other than reasons making a difference (e.g. in evolutionary terms – so that your intuition is to be explained by evolutionary forces having made you evolve that way, my intuition to be explained by the fact that it is correct).

    I’m not sure how clear I’ve been on the latter point, let me know if you’d like me to try again.

    Alex

  2. Rad Geek

    Alex:

    On my understanding, psychological egoism is a doctrine about our actual psychological motivation, not about what we have reason to do.

    You’re correct that psychological egoism is a doctrine about actual motivations. But whether or not reasons for action means something separable from motivation depends on whether you’re using the term reason in a justificatory or an explanatory sense. (The psychological egoist claims that there’s never any explanatory reason for an action other than the pursuit of personal well-being, or personal pleasure on the specific theory that Hutcheson is addressing. That may or may not have implications for the kind of justificatory reasons on offer, depending on what you think the relationships between intent and justification, and possibility and obligation, are.)

    Of course, one should be careful about language if there’s a risk of sliding between a critique that applies to ethical egoism and a critique that applies to psychological egoism. But I’m fairly sure that nothing in my discussion of Hutcheson (or in Hutcheson himself) that turns on such an equivocation. If you think you’ve find such an error, be sure to let me know where.

    Just to confuse matters further (and perhaps detracting from your focus too much), one could even be an ethical egoist but admit that among my desires are desires for others’ welfare. The ethical egoist merely maintains that my only reason to help others is because I want it, not because they actually have any worth to me in themselves. That would make Hutcheson’s argument invalid rather than unsound.

    Well, I have a paper on Hutcheson sitting around offline in draft form; that would probably clear up some of these issues, but it wasn’t part of the paper I read in Memphis for reasons of both length and focus.

    Hutcheson’s argument is directed against hedonistic psychological egoism, not ethical egoism. He acknowledges that interlocutors may try to explain away benevolence by saying that we take pleasure in the well-being of our family, and so pursue the well-being out of motives of self-love; the Dying Benefactor argument is directly intended as a reply to that claim. The idea is that you can set up a case (the case of the Dying Benefactor) where there’s no potential pay-off to explain the preference, or at least no pay-off commensurate to the strength of the preference that the Benefactor, as a good person, would have. But if a good person could have such a preference in such a situation, then the hedonistic egoist loses, because whatever’s motivating the preference must (ex hypothesi) be something besides an expectation of future pleasure.

    Of course, your point above was not about pleasure, but about desire; and you might say that you’re suggesting a view on which the egoist is concerned with satisfaction of one’s own desires, not with the pleasure that accrues from satisfying them. But then the egoist is actually just agreeing with Hutcheson’s psychological theory: all Hutcheson wants to get you to agree to, as far as moral psychology is concerned, is that one can desire states of affairs (taking desire to be more or less the same with motives for action) neither for their pleasantness to her, nor as a means to further pleasure for her.

    That’s his psychological view. His ethical view is that, having shown that disinterested benevolence is a possible motive for action, the benevolent desires are in fact the ones that we should pursue above all others.

    Can’t the egoist merely maintain that just because it seems open doesn’t imply that it is? That is, I think you’re confusing epistemological possibility with conceptual possibility

    I’m not precisely sure of what you’re asking here. Are you suggesting that my intuitions reveal only that the anti-hedonist position is epistemically possible but that it would need to be conceptually possible to prove my point? Or vice versa?

    In any case, there are certainly explanatory stories that the hedonist could try to give for the asymmetry. But I think the asymmetry is a datum that needs explaining, one way or the other. What I’m trying to suggest is that I have a better explanation for the datum (viz., that hedonism is false) than the plausible competitors.

    I’d also need to hear more of the details of the supposed evolutionary psychology account of the mismatch in order to know what to say precisely in response to it. Is it supposed to go something like this? (1) Indifference and (2) benevolence seem open, while (3) malice seems closed, because (1) indifference is the rational option, and (2) it’s adaptive for us to be intuitively tilted towards benevolence even when strictly speaking it would be irrational, but (3) maladaptive for us to be intuitively tilted towards malice even when strictly speaking it would be irrational, so we have a cognitive bias in favor of the benevolent option over the malicious in spite of their equal irrationality?

    If so, I find he story unconvincing as a reply either to Hutcheson or to Moore.

    As a reply to Hutcheson on motivation it is either queer or incoherent. Is our cognitive bias in favor of benevolence over malice supposed to affect our preferences about our own actions (the first-order intuition), or only our intuitive reaction to other people’s preferences in the hypothetical situation? If it’s supposed to exclude the former but include the latter, then the claim is queer; why would it work on our reactions to other people’s choices but not work on our own choices? If it’s supposed to include both, then you’ve just given an evolutionary just-so story that would allow for us to be motivated (even if irrationally so) to choose things for reasons other than our own pleasure. In which case Hutcheson is right and the hedonistic psychological egoist is wrong.

    As a reply to Moore on value, it may seem more promising. But I think that the attempt to explain away the intuitions by way of cognitive bias (whatever the genesis of that cognitive bias is supposed to have been) fails anyway. I think that the reason that it fails has to do with the specific nature of the intuitions involved in the argument (to wit, moral sentiments concerning the kind of person who would choose the benevolent option, or who would choose the malicious option). I think that cognitive-bias explanations simply fail to take seriously the meaning and bearing of categories like kindness and cruelty or sensitivity and philistinism or for that matter benevolence and perverse malice. Of course, you could (1) claim that these terms really aren’t reason-giving or action-guiding in themselves (but that’s an awfully queer thing to claim, which needs a lot more support than a purely speculative hypothesis about evolutionary history) or (2) claim that the bearing of the terms themselves are just delusory projections that evolution has encouraged us to engage in (but that’s also a queer claim in need of defense, and moves the debate to the rather different debate over normative realism vs. anti-realism).

    Anyway, that’s how the answer would begin. I’m not sure how far I’ve answered your concerns.

  3. Alex Gregory

    “You’re correct that psychological egoism is a doctrine about actual motivations. But whether or not reasons for action means something separable from motivation depends on whether you’re using the term reason in a justificatory or an explanatory sense. (The psychological egoist claims that there’s never any explanatory reason for an action other than the pursuit of personal well-being, or personal pleasure on the specific theory that Hutcheson is addressing. That may or may not have implications for the kind of justificatory reasons on offer, depending on what you think the relationships between intent and justification, and possibility and obligation, are.)

    Of course, one should be careful about language if there’s a risk of sliding between a critique that applies to ethical egoism and a critique that applies to psychological egoism. But I’m fairly sure that nothing in my discussion of Hutcheson (or in Hutcheson himself) that turns on such an equivocation. If you think you’ve find such an error, be sure to let me know where.”

    Well, again, as far as I understand things, a reason for action tends to be used to mean a justification for a course of action (so ethics is a subtopic in reasons for action, and generally speaking, being angry is not a reason to do anything). Still, that may just be my/my department’s idiosyncratic way of using the terms.

    As for what might hinge on the difference, nothing, now that I’ve realised that you’re talking specifically about psychological hedonist egoism. Still, you might want to make that more explicit in the paper; it isn’t mentioned in section I, and the start of section II – whilst it discusses pain and pleasure – does say that he’s refuted psychological egoism, not hedonistic psychological egoism, which is a much weaker claim. Regardless, thats a question of exposition so I leave it with you to take on or ignore as you wish.

    “I’m not precisely sure of what you’re asking here. Are you suggesting that my intuitions reveal only that the anti-hedonist position is epistemically possible but that it would need to be conceptually possible to prove my point? Or vice versa?”

    That from our epistemic viewpoint, both appear possible, but that as a matter of fact, the egoist may claim, benevolence is false. Analogously, people 1000 years ago may have had the intuition that the earth was flat, but that constitues precisely zero evidence for that proposition, because it’s actually false. Similarly, the egoist may claim, your benevolent intuition may (epistemically) seem like it isn’t crazy, but as a matter of (conceptual) fact, it is.

    [evolution and Hutcheson] “If it’s supposed to include both, then you’ve just given an evolutionary just-so story that would allow for us to be motivated (even if irrationally so) to choose things for reasons other than our own pleasure. In which case Hutcheson is right and the hedonistic psychological egoist is wrong.”

    Well, I’d like to think it was a little stronger than a just-so story (there must be strong evolutionary reasons for people to have altruistic tendencies, even at their own expense). At any rate, I can see that the criticism fails to apply here now that I know that you’re discussing motivation, and not reasons for action.

    [evolution and Moore] “I think that cognitive-bias explanations simply fail to take seriously the meaning and bearing of categories like kindness and cruelty or sensitivity and philistinism or for that matter benevolence and perverse malice.”

    Now it really does look like you’re offering a question-begging argument against the Ethical hedonist. For according to them such terms really are just fictions of one kind or another. If Moore’s argument against ethical hedonism relies on the premise that “terms like kindness, cruelty and sensitivity provide genuine reasons for action”, then it must be question-begging.

    That is, if you managed to establish this premise, you would have already shown the ethical hedonist to be incorrect, because they deny that such terms have any reason giving force, making Moore’s argument redundant.

    I worry I’ve misunderstood your final response there, but I can’t see what else you might mean.

    Alex

  4. Roderick T. Long

    Well, but sometimes the charge that an argument is question-begging simply amounts to the complaint that the argument is valid — that those premises can’t be true unless the conclusion is true.

    The question is where the burden of proof lies. If Moore can show that, given the premise that “kindness, cruelty and sensitivity provide genuine reasons for action,” hedonistic egoism is false, it seems to me that this is a serious blow to the egoist, because on a Moorean understanding it is the person who denies that premise who has the burden of proof.

    Now there are those of a Cartesian bent who think philosophy should start somewhere other than where we are, that we should bracket everything we ordinarily think, and then accept nothing we cannot deduce from some very minimal set of assumptions. But it seems to me that this approach self-destructs; whatever doubts I may have about the value of kindness, my doubts about the correctness of the Cartesian approach are going to be even greater.

    The Moorean point is that any argument against the genuine value of kindness is going to have pull only if we have reason to have more confidence in the premises of that argument than we do in the value of kindness — and no such premises (premises both inconsistent with and more plausible than the value of kindness) have ever been produced, and it’s dificult to imagine what they could be.

  5. Sergio Méndez

    Now there are those of a Cartesian bent who think philosophy should start somewhere other than where we are, that we should bracket everything we ordinarily think, and then accept nothing we cannot deduce from some very minimal set of assumptions. But it seems to me that this approach self-destructs; whatever doubts I may have about the value of kindness, my doubts about the correctness of the Cartesian approach are going to be even greater.

    Well, I have a question here for Profesor Long: Where one draws the line about the things one can question and the ones that one cannot? How many things we have taken for “natural” (and to name some, patriarchy and racism) in the history of mankind, that weren´t natural at all?

    I will add, that not only Cartesians and their heirs react with skepticism toward such things. Isn´t that the position of postmodernists,marxists and multiculturalists who see with suspicion many other self proclaimed “naturaly intuitive” claims (again, patriarchy, liberal political economy or to be more subtle, distinctions between “barbarism” and “civilization” etc..)?

    P.S: I apologize for my english, I hope it does make sense (along with my limited understanding of philosophy).

  6. Roderick T. Long

    My claim that philosophical reasoning should begin from our ordinary beliefs doesn’t mean that we should stay with our ordinary beliefs. For our starting beliefs will ordinarily contain various tensions and contradictions, and the process of dialectically resolving them will generally lead to a transformation of our starting-points — sometimes a quite radical one. That’s the method that Socrates championed, and it’s the method by which antiracist, antipatriarchal, antistatist movements have made what progress they’ve made. The case against slavery, for example, didn’t depend on extraordinary premises nobody had ever heard of before; it simply applied more consistently certain principles that were already widely accepted (like the golden rule).

    I would defend the claim that in all the cases of oppression that you cite, the “intuitively natural” judgment that slavery (or whatever) was good clashed with some other judgment that even defenders of slavery regarded asmore “naturally intuitive.” The problem with oppressive ideologies is not that they start from naturally intuitive but mistaken premises and draw out form them a logically consistent system, but rather that they refuse to bring potentially conflicting parts of their belief system into confrontation with each other. (The conduct of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias is a classic portrait of how this refusal operates.)

  7. Rad Geek

    Well, again, as far as I understand things, a reason for action tends to be used to mean a justification for a course of action …

    I think the term is used both ways in the literature. E.g. in action theory it’s historically been common to distinguish reasons and causes, where reasons just means anything that can motivate a deliberative agent (in which sense having a reason for X is not the same as having a good or a decisive reason for X). Making poor judgments because of vindictiveness or bullheadedness (say) still constitutes acting on the basis of reasons (as opposed to, say, suffering an apoplectic fit). But maybe it’s worth just sidestepping the issue in later drafts of the paper by using unambiguous language.

    Anyway.

    That from our epistemic viewpoint, both appear possible, but that as a matter of fact, the egoist may claim, benevolence is false. Analogously, people 1000 years ago may have had the intuition that the earth was flat, but that constitues precisely zero evidence for that proposition, because it’s actually false. Similarly, the egoist may claim, your benevolent intuition may (epistemically) seem like it isn’t crazy, but as a matter of (conceptual) fact, it is.

    Just as historical trivia, the spheroidal shape of the earth was actually pretty well known 1,000 years ago (Aristotle mentions three proofs of it in De Caelo; Dante’s Inferno is structured as a descent into the center of a spherical world.) People’s opinions on geocentrism vs. heliocentrism would be a better example here.

    In any case, I’m not entirely sure what the line of argument here is. Is the hedonist claiming that my first-order intuition (that the benevolent option is better than both indifference and malice) seems plausible from my (our?) epistemic position, but is in fact mistaken (based on whatever other source of knowledge about value the hedonist claims to have)? If so, the question is what makes it plausible when the intuition in favor of the malicious option isn’t? (Which just falls back on the argument I made in the paper.)

    Or is it a regress one step up the ladder? That, from my (our?) epistemic position, it seems plausible to think that the intuition in favor of benevolence would less unreasonable than the intuition in favor of malice; but in point of fact (based on whatever other source of knowledge the hedonist claims to have about intuitions) the one’s actually just as batty as the other?

    If that’s the move, then the skeptic needs to do a couple of things: (1) explain what it is about our epistemic situation here that makes the asyemmtry seem plausible even though it’s not actually there, and (2) explain what source of knowledge they are using to undermine the justification for believing in the asymmetry, and why we should take the deliverances of whatever source they are drawing from more seriously than we take the deliverances of our moral and deliberative intuitions.

    I don’t think that it’s impossible to try to come up with a story to cover at least one of these. But I do think that simple anti-hedonism better explains what’s going on than the various substantive stories that might be trotted out. At least, those that I’ve heard or thought of so far. (Indirect hedonism, evolutionary cognitive-bias accounts, etc.)

    Well, I’d like to think it was a little stronger than a just-so story (there must be strong evolutionary reasons for people to have altruistic tendencies, even at their own expense).

    I don’t agree that this must be the case. Maybe there are and maybe there aren’t. You can tell sociobiological stories about why some given ratio of altruistic-to-selfish motivations would be optimally adaptive in some specified ecological context. But that by itself guarantees nothing; lots of things that would be optimally adaptive never happen, because evolutionary variation depends on chance before selection even comes into play, and selection is affected by a number of known arbitrary factors (founder effects, natural catastrophes, etc.). One of the consequences of hanging your account of the biological world on a blind watchmaker is that appeals to final causes do end up being pretty weak evidence for a hypothesis. So I don’t think that this line of argument is likely to ever amount to more than a just-so story. Now, paleontology runs on all kinds of just-so stories, and we may be in a position where we’re justified in forming a belief about human evolutionary history on the basis of this sort of weak but undefeated evidence. But when we are, I do think that a certain amount of epistemic self-deprecation is in order.

    Me:

    I think that cognitive-bias explanations simply fail to take seriously the meaning and bearing of categories like kindness and cruelty or sensitivity and philistinism or for that matter benevolence and perverse malice.

    Alex:

    Now it really does look like you’re offering a question-begging argument against the Ethical hedonist. For according to them such terms really are just fictions of one kind or another.

    I don’t think this lines up with the expressed views of ethical hedonists at all, actually. Some psychological hedonists have claimed that common ethical terms are just sentimental myths that people make up to dignify baser motives. But many if not most ethical hedonists have tried to claim that their theory leads to more or less the same list of virtues and vices that traditional moral theorizing does. (Remember, we’re talking about, among others, classical utilitarians here; Moore’s argument is a direct response to Sidgwick.) They want to claim that compassion is a genuine virtue, malice a genuine vice, that the philistinism of a particular preference is a reason against having it, that the sensitivity of a particular preference is a reason for having it, etc. (For example, they try to suggest that being aesthetically sensitive gives you access to intenser or more reliable or better pleasures than being philistine.) Part of what the intuition-pumps show is that there are cases where you can stipulate away the connections between (for example) aesthetic sensitivty and pleasure that the hedonist depended on to make her case. So at the very least, this kind of appeal can serve as a non-question-begging immanent critique of some of the most common hedonist positions, including the one that Moore was directly responding to.

    If Moore’s argument against ethical hedonism relies on the premise that terms like kindness, cruelty and sensitivity provide genuine reasons for action, then it must be question-begging.

    O.K.; I think that the difficulty here is partly due to a misunderstanding on your part and partly due to a mistake on my part.

    For convenience, let’s tag the claim:

    (AGV) terms like kindness, cruelty and sensitivity provide genuine reasons for action

    I spoke above as if AGV were something you knew before coming to the argumentative table, and so could use to discount attempts to explain away asymmetry by appeal to some kind of cognitive bias. That was a mistake.

    Now, Moore’s Two Planets argument doesn’t rely on this as a premise at all; as he presents it, it’s a pure intuition-pump, so the structure of Moore’s version of the argument amounts to this:

    Stipulate the Two Planets case as described.

    1. It’s rational to prefer the beautiful world over the filthy one. (given)
    2. If hedonism is true, then it is not rational to prefer the beautiful world over the filthy one. (given)
    3. Therefore, hedonism is false. (M.T. 1,2)

    Now any hedonist in her right mind is going to try objecting to premise (1), and will probably sling a charge of question-begging against Moore for having insisted on it.

    Moore, in PE, seems to thinks that at this point there’s nothing to do but throw up your hands and declare a stalemate; if you can’t tell the story in such a way as to persuade your interlocutor to agree with your intuitions, then there is no further means of proof (see the long endnote at the end of my essay for a precis of Moore’s methodological views here). So if anyone is guilty of illicitly relying on AGV as a premise, it’s me, not Moore.

    Now, I think that the situation is less hopeless than the author of PE seems to think that it is. Roderick mentions the kind of approach that Moore would later adopt towards skeptics in Proof of an External World, which I think is the right method to adopt in philosophy in general and on questions of question-begging arguments in particular (for more, see GT 2003-09-30: Why There Are No Arguments for Terrorism). The basic idea is that there are some statements, recommended by what we today call intuition (partly under Moore’s influence, although he later preferred Common Sense) that are evidentially stronger than any purely philosophical argument against them; so that at most any valid argument that concludes in their denial amounts to a reductio of the joint assertion of all of its premise.

    One way to think about what I’m trying to do here is a bit of detail-work within the later Moorean approach. Sometimes there are situations where it’s unclear which, if any, the Moorean statements are among a group of seemingly plausible alternatives; for example, the result of the Dying Benefactor and Two Planets intuition-pumps, whatever it is, would seem to be a Moorean truth, which would give us some decisive grounds for rejecting theories of ethics or moral psychology that would rule out that result. But not everyone agrees on the result that issues; so it’s open to some debate whether She’d prefer the happiness of her family (or It’s better for the beautiful world to exist than the filthy) is the Moorean statements, or whether She’d be indifferent (or It doesn’t matter which of the two planets exists) is. Which seems to be a problem for the Moorean approach, if it’s intended to be used in any genuinely tricky philosophical cases.

    What I’d like to suggest is that the asymmetry in our second-order intuitions helps show which statements are the Moorean statements. In this case, it shows that the intuitions for the benevolent and against the malicious option are Moorean statements, because it provides the best explanation for the asymmetry (in the way I describe in the essay).

    Now, you could defeat that argument, as I mention above, if you could come up with a more convincing explanation that explains away the asymmetry without admitting that the benevolent option is actually less irrational than the malicious option. Indirect hedonism is one way of trying to do that (which I discuss in the notes); a cognitive-bias account (based on an evolutionary story, or on whatever else) is another way.

    Now, I made a mistake in speaking as if AGV provided a prior reason for rejecting cognitive bias explanations. I think that it is a reason, but actually that it’s a reason that is properly invoked to explain after the fact why cognitive bias accounts flop, not a premise you can invoke against them before the argument. (A full discussion would lead towards a broader argument about dialectic; I think it has to do with the way we begin from things that are familiar to us and only ascend to things familiar in themselves in the course of dialectic; and the way that, having discovered the things familiar in themselves, we can then apply them for systematic understanding of the starting-points we began from.)

    So what’s my prior reason for sniffing at cognitive bias accounts, if any? Well, I’m not sure, and I’d need to think about it more. But here’s a couple of thoughts.

    First, I think that Roderick’s mention of the burden of proof is appropriate here. It’s not enough for someone suggesting a cognitive bias account to say that it might be that we’re cognitively biased towards such-and-such an irrational view. As with any other locally skeptical claim, the burden of proof is on them to give some positive reason for believing that we are biased in that direction. (And merely pointing out that evolution would tend to make us inclined that way doesn’t cut it; evolution also tends to favor our developing eyes that are sensitive to light, but that’s not an argument for the regarding our visual-perceptual beliefs as delusions.) So what positive reasons would a cognitive bias advocate give to motivate the view that we’re not just inclined to favor benevolence, but that our inclination is irrational? (Other than by just begging the question and saying Because hedonism is true, but lots of people don’t believe it!)

    Second, one of the things that I think has come out in replying both to your questions and to other questions I’ve gotten on this essay, is that it’s important to attend to the specific nature of the intuitions that are being appealed to to get the asymmetry. As I mention above, the fact that they are concerned with what were sometimes called moral sentiments matters; and it matters because a lot turns on the fact that the benevolent chooser is being kind (or tasteful) and the malicious chooser is being senselessly cruel (or philistine). But my prior premise here is not a general claim about the normative force of these terms; rather, it’s an appeal to your particular intuitions about disinterested kindness and wanton cruelty (for example). (It’s only after the argument has gotten off the ground using that, that I invoke some kind of generalized claim about virtue terms, as an after-the-fact explanation.)

    If you really insist that they’re equally irrational and that we’re just prejudiced against the truth on this score, then probably you can stalemate the argument; but in this case I’d invoke the late-Moorean reply that you’re at fault for the stalemate, and that since in this case the fault lies either in (1) being perverse for the sake of argument, or (2) simply being blind, in some important respect, to the good, the best response to a steadfast second-order skeptic is polemical, not argumentative.

    I don’t know how far this has helped clarify and how far it has just muddified. What do you think?

  8. Alex Gregory

    “I don’t know how far this has helped clarify and how far it has just muddified. What do you think?”

    Certainly clarified in that I can understand your position a little better now, although thats certainly not to say that I agree.

    From here on in I’ll (continuing with the already started trend) stick with discussing the ethical hedonist, rather than continually discuss both cases – which I suspect are analogous enough to discuss at once without explicitly stating as such.

    (Incidentally, I should make my usual disclaimer that I’m not actually an ethical hedonist – although I am close)

    You (paraphrased): Is the charge against the first-order intuition (i.e. about value) or against the second order intuition (i.e. about our intuitions)?

    I was thinking about the former, although that does of course imply the latter – since if I’m claiming that your value intuition is mistaken, then your intuition about the comparison is going to rest on a false premise.

    “If [the former], the question is what makes it plausible when the intuition in favor of the malicious option isn’t? (Which just falls back on the argument I made in the paper.)”

    If I’ve got you right, this question is basically “Why should we think that my value-judgement is mistaken?”. And, this is the point where I raised my cognitive bias story – which goes something like that we’re likely to have feelings of intellectual sympathy for positions which evolution would favour us adopting. (perhaps you could run an analogy with religion here, and suggest that there are good evolutionary reasons for people to have a belief in God that stabilises their society, and this tells us why faith doesn’t intuitively look crazy)

    “(2) explain what source of knowledge they are using to undermine the justification for believing in the asymmetry, and why we should take the deliverances of whatever source they are drawing from more seriously than we take the deliverances of our moral and deliberative intuitions.”

    You actually raise this in relation to the reply that I’m not really make (except derivatively), but I think it applies equally well in this case. We have the following two arguments: A: 1. There are good evolutionary reasons to think that we’re biased

  9. Alex Gregory

    “I don’t know how far this has helped clarify and how far it has just muddified. What do you think?”

    Certainly clarified in that I can understand your position a little better now, although thats certainly not to say that I agree.

    From here on in I’ll stick with discussing the ethical hedonist, rather than continually discuss both cases, as we’ve already started doing. I suspect the two are analogous enough to discuss at once without explicitly stating as such.

    (Incidentally, I should make my usual disclaimer that I’m not actually an ethical hedonist – although I am close)

    You (paraphrased): Is the charge against the first-order intuition (i.e. about value) or against the second order intuition (i.e. about our intuitions)?

    I was thinking about the former, although that does of course imply the latter – since if I’m claiming that your value intuition is mistaken, then your intuition about the comparison is going to rest on a false premise.

    “If [the former], the question is what makes it plausible when the intuition in favor of the malicious option isn’t? (Which just falls back on the argument I made in the paper.)”

    If I’ve got you right, this question is basically “Why should we think that my value-judgement is mistaken?”. And, this is the point where I raised my cognitive bias story – which goes something like that we’re likely to have feelings of intellectual sympathy for positions which evolution would favour us adopting.

    “(2) explain what source of knowledge they are using to undermine the justification for believing in the asymmetry, and why we should take the deliverances of whatever source they are drawing from more seriously than we take the deliverances of our moral and deliberative intuitions.”

    You actually raise this in relation to the reply that I’m not really making (except derivatively), but I think it applies equally well in this case. We have the following two arguments:

    A:
    1. We prefer the beautiful world to the ugly one
    2. There are good evolutionary reasons to think that we’re biased towards favouring the beautiful world
    Therefore: 3. Moore’s argument fails

    B:
    1. We prefer the beautiful world to the ugly one
    2. Moore’s argument suceeds
    Therefore: 3. There are NO good evolutionary reasons to think that we’re biased towards favouring the beautiful world

    Your (Moorean) question: Why put more faith in A2 than in B2?

    My very broad answer would look something like:
    i) A more detailed evolutionary story (psycological evidence?) of bias to support A2
    ii) A set of other positive factors that lead us to think ethical hedonism is correct, that undermine faith in B2

    Of course, I’m no biologist, and it would be going fairly off topic to start discussing the merits of utilitarianism. Still, hopefully you can at least see why I don’t think the argument will convince anyone who happens to support ethical hedonism.

    “[on evolution] I don’t think that this line of argument is likely to ever amount to more than a just-so story”

    Well, I guess I’d have to offer some fairly compelling evidence from psychology/sociology/biology in support of my hypothesis. I’m not in the mood right now to go out and dig some up – perhaps this is going to be where the discussion ends; we’ve at least clarified the source of the disagreement: that the ethical hedonist believes that our common sense judgements are distorted by irrational factors, whereas you do not.

    Still, notice that this is only (i) of my two possible arguments above, and one could support this evolutionary story with (ii) instead. (ii) could be used to leave the evolutionary story as the only way to resolve the contradiction between the truth of ethical hedonism and our intuition about the two worlds.

    That’s provided, of course, that the hedonist can establish their theory as appealing prior to answering the Moorean argument. (which may be why the Moorean argument is charged as question begging; it relies on ethical hedonism being unappealing in order to suceed)

    “many if not most ethical hedonists have tried to claim that their theory leads to more or less the same list of virtues and vices that traditional moral theorizing does. (Remember, we’re talking about, among others, classical utilitarians here; Moore’s argument is a direct response to Sidgwick.)”

    You may well be correct (I’ve only just got around to reading Sidgwick). I tend to think that the most defensible forms of ethical hedonism are those who assert it as a revolutionary system that may well undermine everyday judgements. That being the case, perhaps we just agree.

    On your last section, I think I’ve implicitly covered most of it, and your explanation of citing AGV as an explanation of, and not a reason to, reject ethical hedonism makes perfect sense. Still, that leaves me to discuss:

    “what positive reasons would a cognitive bias advocate give to motivate the view that we’re not just inclined to favor benevolence, but that our inclination is irrational?”

    As (ii) above, I think the ethical hedonist has to offer independent reasons as to why their account is plausible in the first place, and therefore worth saving (as it were) by positing the cognitive bias account.

    Now I’m not sure how well I’ve answered your objections, let me know if I’m still being unclear.

    In summary, my basic claim is that one can explain Moore’s argument in one of two ways: by accepting ethical hedonism and positing the cognitive-bias account, or by rejecting hedonism. Which of these we pick is going to depend on how much faith we put in them independent of Moore’s argument.

    Since the ethical hedonist already accepts ethical hedonism as true, they’re likely to pick the former solution, and thats why Moore’s argument is seen as question-begging.

    (things might be different if the cognitive bias account were wildly implausible – but I tend to think that at worst its merely unproven)

    Alex

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