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Posts tagged Philosophical Method

Philosophical phree-phor-all on reason, morality and happiness

There have been a lot of long, interesting threads of conversation going on in the comments of some of this week’s posts. The purpose of this post is to disentangle one of those threads ot make the conversation more easily followed.

Branching off of a conversation which began (several turns of the conversation before) with a discussion of the recent May Day immigration freedom March in Las Vegas, Aster raised some questions about the relationship between reason, morality and happiness:

I’m with the morally ambiguous side of the Force….

I think integrity and spiritual independence are neccesary to make life worth living. I think controlling people is a terrible way to live, and that friendship is one of life’s deepest pleasures. I think learning to give others a chance to show their best is essential in the eternal search for that most rare treasure of the intelligent mind. I think we need to carefully set up a society which lets people live according to what can most move them. I think we need social codes which set the rules slightly more sternly than the way we ourselves would find it worthwhile to act. and I think that living with passion and seriousness can add immense depth to existence.

But ultimately I do not believe in the respectable sort of morality. I see no evidence. Ayn Rand claimed that you can be be both passionately self-interested and classically moral, but I don’t believe she was that innocent, and all my evidence suggests that she was offering something a bit too neatly good to be true. Roderick Long and Charles Johnson both seem to believe in a perfect correspondence of reason and happiness. I don’t see it, not in human society’s bloody world. I feel that Roderick’s strength in happiness is connected with something that feels more like rigorous kindness than rigorous morality, Charles offers a pure model of perfect morality which tends to drive out his warmth of happiness. My experience tells me that we will find that love can make us selfishly selfless and that pain can make us degraded monsters at the whim of society and circumstance, and that one’s energy is better spent trying to be true to thine own self than in worrying about whether one is good. But I am curious: if morality and happiness really do perfectly correlate, I would really like to know, as it would make the math much easier.

— Aster, 6 May 2009 8:23pm

Roderick replied:


Roderick Long and Charles Johnson both seem to believe in a perfect correspondence of reason and happiness.

I think my own view would be best described as saying that reason and morality are necessary for happiness but not sufficient for it. Dammit, Jim, I’m an Aristotelean, not a Stoic!

— Roderick T. Long, 6 May 2009 9:26pm


Like Roderick, my view is that reason and morality are necessary but not sufficient for happiness. (Also, specifically, that they’re necessary conditions because they are constituent factors of happiness, not just because they are instrumental to attaining or sustaining it.)

I feel that Roderick’s strength in happiness is connected with something that feels more like rigorous kindness than rigorous morality,

I’m not sure I understand the contrast. Isn’t kindness a moral virtue? Aren’t its opposites — cruelty or callousness — moral vices?

— Rad Geek, 6 May 2009 10:15pm


Ditto on constitutive as opposed to instrumental.

— Roderick T. Long, 6 May 2009 11:04pm

Clarissa the Vampire intervened:

Feasting on the soul of a truly happy person makes me happy. It is better than chocolate. Would I be happier without this?

— Clarissa the Vampire, 7 May 2009 7:55am


Well, depends on how you conceive of happiness, I suppose. If you think of happiness as being constituted by some sort of psychological state — momentary pleasure, or habitual pleasure, or some sort of overarching feeling of satisfaction or contentment, or… — then, who knows? Maybe vampires have happy lives. But I don’t think that happiness is constituted only by psychological states. At least, not in the sense of happiness that Roderick and I are using (which is, roughly, the Aristotelian conception of eudaimonia, and which has to do with leading a happy life rather than just with feeling happy).

On my view, psychological states are part of happiness but not all of it, so that (among other things) the exercise of intelligence, ethical living, the extent to which one’s psychological states are based on truth, and the nature of the enjoyments that one takes pleasure in, are all relevant. So, for example, someone who is pleased or satisfied all the time, but based on a lie, is to that extent not living a happy life, even though she may feel like she is (suppose she believes she has a happy marriage, when in fact her wife is actually a duplicitous creep, who constantly lies to her, cheats on her, destroys little things just of hers just for the pleasure of it, and talks shit about her behind her back; suppose also that her wife is very good at deceiving, so she never finds out about any of this as long as she lives; I don’t think that qualifies as a happy life). Similarly, someone who gets their pleasures by hurting or disrespecting or degrading other people (say the wife we just discussed; or a man like Trujillo or Mobutu Sese-Seko or Beria; or your average garden-variety rapist) is thereby living a miserable life, even if, at the time, they do not realize that it is miserable; even if, at the time (as was the case for, say, Trujillo) they feel perfectly pleased with themselves and feel quite content with living that kind of life. The fact that they enjoy the kind of life that they lead, in fact, makes the whole thing more miserable, not less.

So, to answer the question, I do not think that enjoying the destruction or damnation of others makes a vampire happy, even though the vampire may believe that it does. It may please the vampire, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t know whether or not the life of the vampire would be happier without destroying or damning others (I’m sure it depends on the details; different vampires seem to have different relationships with their condition), but if it turns out that the vampire could not live a happy life without destroying or damning others, then I’d say that the vampire cannot live a happy life at all, and would be better off accepting death than continuing to live under such conditions.

— Rad Geek, 7 May 2009, 8:24am

Or, in a related note:

People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.

—James Baldwin

— Rad Geek, 7 May 2009 8:41am


Here’s a piece I wrote that gives some background on the Aristotelean conception of happiness.

— Roderick T. Long, 7 May 2009, 8:40am

Nick Manley:

[quoting Rad Geek] “I’m not sure I understand the contrast. Isn’t kindness a moral virtue? Aren’t its opposites — cruelty or callousness — moral vices?”

Kindness is underrated by too many people. I admit I’ve been kind with people whose views totally repulse me. Anyone whose met me in person knows how soft/traditionally “femme” I am. Nonetheless, I don’t think we can posit kindness as an instrinic good. Like every other principle: it has to be applied contextually. Can a Jew be genuinely kind to an active Nazi stormtrooper? Imagine the emotional denial involved in that. Then again: Roderick may have the right answer here — being angry at someone without hating them. I’d be curious to hear him expound upon this further.

I guess I am personally closer to Aster in behavior…I am no saint in thought or deed — although; I don’t mind living my life according to the principle of non-aggression. I’ve found no conflict between this and my own happiness. There’s no necessity to work for the IRS or the DEA — thank goodness!!! I am not sure I could stomach it.

Nonetheless, I always loved how Rand forged a link between self-interest and “societal interest” — for lack of a better way of stating it. It really does inspire me! It speaks to the desire within me to remake the world — dwindling admist the realities of activistism. The idea that no one has to be sacrificed for the good to occur is revolutionary. Most people I encounter hold the opposite view. It’s at the root of a leveling sense of equality — the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth/value and one has to give up one’s share to allow others to flourish.

[quoting Aster] “and yes- one can find touching friendship with those who do evil and find the deepest kind of happiness.”

Do you mind elaborating on this?

— Nick Manley, 7 May 2009, 9:11am

Marja Erwin:


I think your argument equivocates between two senses of happiness, and collapses what should motivate us into what does motivate us.

In particular, the arguments regarding life insurance are less than convincing. An individual may not trust the hypothetical pill – it an unnerving situation – or may fear the short-term unhappiness of choosing the false belief over the long-term happiness of falsely believing he has purchased life insurance.

Aster has noted that kittens are never happier than when they (the kittens, not Aster) are torturing smaller animals. A rational cat’s sense of happiness might well offend our sense of the good life. A moral theory which ignores our nature as biological creatures, adapted to certain niches and behaviors, has little power to motivate us without alienating us from ourselves. A moral theory which ignores our nature as rational creatures has little power to correct our mistakes and prevent injustice. I fear that a moral theory which equivocates between the two will combine the problems of each.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 2:05pm



I think your argument equivocates between two senses of happiness, and collapses what should motivate us into what does motivate us.

How so? At what point(s) do I make this equivocation?

In particular, the arguments regarding life insurance are less than convincing. An individual may not trust the hypothetical pill – it an unnerving situation – or may fear the short-term unhappiness of choosing the false belief over the long-term happiness of falsely believing he has purchased life insurance.

OK, but that’s changing the hypothetical situation. What I’m claiming is that even in the case as I described it, when people do trust the pill etc., they still wouldn’t prefer it. And for this I simply appeal to the reader’s self-knowledge.

I fear that a moral theory which equivocates between the two will combine the problems of each.

Again, OK, but how and where, precisely, do you think mine equivocates between the two?



We may be deluding ourselves about the pill. The idea that we would prefer the false memory to life insurance is justifiably disturbing. If the false memory is unreliable, then it is not worth the money. If the false memory is reliable, that implies exceeding vulnerability in other matters. Our fear and queeziness will bias our responses to the thought-experiment. I don’t think either of us knows how we would respond without that fear.

Furthermore, if the false memory is absolutely reliable, so that we might research some other topic, discover that our insurance account is missing, discover that our pill-taking appointment took place, etc. and still believe we bought the insurance, the example challenges our ability to know anything at all.

On the other issue, I think you need to show why MaxPref necessarily includes agent-neutral considerations.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009 3:39pm


We may be deluding ourselves about the pill.

I can’t imagine why we would be; at any rate, the burden of proof seems to lie with those who say we are.

I think you need to show why MaxPref necessarily includes agent-neutral considerations.

So what do you think is wrong with the argument I gave?

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 4:51pm



[Quoting from Roderick’s paper, linked above. –R.G.]

The point is not that agent-neutral ethical norms can somehow be derived from agent-neutral linguistic norms; the point is rather that once such a thing as agent-neutral value is so much as recognised, it must forthwith be integrated into one’s MaxPref. Thus, although happiness is in some sense an agent-relative value, it turns out to include agent-neutral value as a necessary component.

Since you concede neither the survival-based argument nor the language-based argument justifies this assertion, it seems unclear, as if you are begging the question.

I can’t imagine why we would be; at any rate, the burden of proof seems to lie with those who say we are.

I don’t believe in burden of proof. Anyway, although we come to the same decision in the thought experiment, I’m wondering if we come to the same decision for the reasons you describe, or others which do not support your argument. I would like to see a version which removes these issues, but I’m not sure there can be one.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 6:08pm



Since you concede neither the survival-based argument nor the language-based argument justifies this assertion, it seems unclear, as if you are begging the question.

No, they’re two different assertions. My claim was that these other arguments fail to derive agent-neutral from agent-relative value. In other words, there is (so far as I can tell) no argumentative path that starts from purely agent-relative value with no agent-neutral dimension and somehow gets from there to agent-neutral value. It’s the attempts to provide arguments like that that I’m rejecting. But what I was trying to show is that we “always already” start with agent-neutral value indispensably woven into our perspective.

By analogy: there’s no way to get from inside the event horizon of a black hole to the outside. (Aside: at least that’s the science I was taught as a young’un; I gather that theory is in flux now, but let’s assume it for the sake of the example.) But it doesn’t follow that there’s no way to be outside the event horizon; there is a way, but it involves already being outside to begin with. And if I claim that we’re already outside the event horizon, that doesn’t mean that I’m claiming to have found a new way to get out of the event horizon.

I don’t believe in burden of proof.

Can you explain what you mean?

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 7:24pm


In my understanding, burdens of proof are methods for choosing one position, when there is no compelling argument or evidence for any of two or more alternatives.

If there is a compelling argument, then there is no need to fall back on a burden of proof.

If there are multiple compelling arguments, then we may choose one working hypothesis, or multiple working hypotheses, on various grounds (elegance, explanatory completeness, etc.).

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 8:00 pm


In my understanding, burdens of proof are methods for choosing one position, when there is no compelling argument or evidence for any of two or more alternatives.

Oh, that’s not how I understand it. I think that if there’s strong evidence for p, that shifts the burden of proof to the deniers of p, but it doesn’t make the concept of “burden of proof” inapplicable.

I also think, though, that if it seems to be the case that p, that by itself shifts the burden of proof to the deniers of p, even if there’s no evidence for p beyond its seeming so. (In other words, seemings count as evidence — in the broad sense, not an inferential sense) So although we could conceivably be mistaken about our motivations in the life insurance case, if it seems to us that out motivation is such and such, we’re entitled to treat it as so until shown good reason otherwise. That’s what I meant in saying that the burden of proof lies with the denier. But I don’t take the life insurance case to be one in which the initial evidence is equally balanced.

Maybe I should make clear that I’m relying on a coherentist rather than a foundationalist (at least in the usual sense of “foundationalist”) approach to epistemic justification; see here.

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 8:35pm – 8:38pm.


Mine has been shaped by an awareness of my own and other people’s bad reasoning habits. I used to be a system-builder; now I try to be a system-breaker. I probably ought to re-read Sextus Empiricus, I think I’d appreciate him more now than before,

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 9:32pm



Problem is, if you start with the default assumption of your own and everyone else’s bad reasoning habits, you run the risk of undermining your very ability to identify bad reasoning — because how do you know that your argument for such-and-such’s being bad reasoning isn’t itself bad reasoning? Sextus thinks this will lead to a salutary suspension of judgment about everything, but it seems to me more likely to lead to people just picking whatever belief feels good to them, because hey, it’s no more problematic than everything else.

— Roderick T. Long, 9 May 2009, 9:42am


[Replying to an anecdote from Roderick about college Randians and Kant.]

I think that Kant was intellectually dishonest in some aspects off his project- I think he did wish to force philosophy to re-establish the essentials of Christianity. The postulates are embarassingly lame.

Then again, how can you read ‘What is Enlightenment’ or ‘Perpetual Peace’ and totally hate the guy? He may have kicked out some crucial philosophical precondition for the open society, but he was also the first to formulate certain absolutely priority one crucial planks of its program.

. . .

— Aster, 10 May 2009 1:23am


I think he did wish to force philosophy to re-establish the essentials of Christianity.

I agree; and I think his argument for the necessity of religious belief is embarrassingly bad. But I don’t think his major moves were motivated primarily by that. What’s most important to me in Kant is his anti-psychologism; but I think in both his metaphysics and his ethics he tripped himself up.

In metaphysics he correctly (from my point of view) saw that there are conceptual constraints on what kind of world we can make sense of — but then he slid into thinking that these constraints were imposed on the world by the logical structure of our minds, and so got what Strawson calls the “austere” and “transcendental” sides of his thesis entangled.

In ethics he correctly (again from my point of view, of course) saw that ethics needed to be grounded in the conceptual structure of agency itself and not just in appetites and sentiments. But because he had a fairly crude conception of happiness and left it to the domain of appetites and sentiments, his rescue operation on morality resulted in widening rather than narrowing the gulf between morality and self-interest; whereas I’d have preferred him to follow the Greeks in grounding both in the structure of agency and so keeping them together.

— Roderick T. Long, 10 May 2009 7:49am

Setting aside my editor hat, and putting my contributor hat back on, here’s some remarks on the discussion so far.

First, I certainly agree with Marja that there is more than one sense of the word happiness out there; and it may well be that, in one sense of that word — the sense of the word in which happiness names some kind of psychological condition of sustained pleasure or satisfaction or contentment — it will be the case that a vampire can live a happy life by destroying or damning innocent victims, and that, in general, there’s no philosophical guarantee that human happiness requires, or is even promoted by, either reason or morality. But if happiness is being used in the sense of the condition that is the object of self-interest for intelligent beings, then things get much more complicated. It’s tempting to think that you already understand perfectly well what happiness is, just intuitively, pre-philosophically, without needing to refer to knowledge or reason or moral virtue; that it must be something simple and obvious from casual inspection, and that the thing to do is to grasp that understanding of happiness in hand and then see if it links up in any important ways with knowledge or reason or moral virtue. But I think that that is already to take a wrong step — that it involves a false confidence that cannot hold up under Socratic reflection. Because if happiness (as we’re using the term) is the object of self-interest, then to understand what happiness is, you have to understand what self-interest is, and, while many people very confidently believe that they have a simple account of that (that self-interest is felt pleasure, or the satisfaction of desires, or metabolic survival, or having beautiful things), any serious understanding of self-interest will be intimately connected with knowing something about the nature of the self that has the interest — understanding something about what sort of being you are, and also understanding something about the form of life that sort of being enjoys. In the case of the human being, that very quickly leads you into a discussion of reason, creativity, knowledge, and rational conduct — not just as tools that we wield to get some further good, but also as part and parcel of who and what we are, and as essential to understanding how we dwell on this earth. To get clear on what makes us happy we must slow down and think it through; to think it through well, we must also think through some things about ourselves, and I think that clarity on that necessarily complicates any conception of happiness away from simple psychologistic accounts, and towards accounts that treat knowledge of the truth, rationality, moral virtue, and so on as constituent aspects of a truly happy life.

In reply to Marja on kittens, I do not know whether or not kittens are never happier than when they’re torturing smaller creatures. But if it’s true, it’s precisely because kittens are not the sort of creature that participates in the sort of rationality that human beings do; it should be no surprise that what’s good for a kitten is not always the same as what’s good for a human being, and making a distinction on the basis of human beings’ natural capacities for rational deliberation, creativity, and sympathetic understanding hardly involves ignoring our nature as biological creatures! It’s precisely because of the special faculties we are born with that human creatures have a different standard to live up to.

In reply to Marja on life insurance and the Pill, I think that feeling queasiness about choosing the delusion-pill over real life insurance tends to support Roderick’s point, not to undermine it. If the prospect of choosing a delusion-pill (in order to save money) is, as Marja claims, justifiable, then it seems like the queasiness is an indication of the fact that there is something defective about taking the pill over the life-insurance. (If the pill really does serve my interests just as well or better than the life-insurance, then the queasiness would be irrational, not justifiable.) Or, to take things from the other end, think of what you would say about somebody acting without that fear, who felt no queasiness and so boldly chose the delusion-pill over the life-insurance — what you would say, specifically, about his attitudes towards his family. It seems like this would be a paradigm case of someone who has hardened himself against any kind of concern for other people, to the point of callousness or even cruelty. But I don’t see why, in this case, compassion is being counted as a bias in the thought-experimenter and callousness is not; I think that there’s a lot more merit in arguing that the compassion-motivated queasiness Marja describes is, just as such, more reasonable than callousness, and that the callous deliberator would be the one choosing under a bias against perceiving all the relevant factors in the thought-experiment. Emotional sensitivity does not always distort; emotions can and do reveal relevant aspects of reality, and it is often emotional deadness that would make for a bias in responding to a hypothetical moral dilemma. (For what it’s worth, I discuss the topic of bringing this sort of second-order reflection to bear on thought-experiments, or a topic that’s at least tangentially related to that, in Intuition-Pumping for Fun and Profit.)

In reply to Nick on kindness, I think that it has been underrated because most of the conversation about morality through most of recorded history has been dominated by men’s voices and men’s concerns, and there are specific reasons why patriarchal discussions of morality have centered on virtues like courage (especially martial courage) and justice (especially legalistic or retributive or revolutionary conceptions of justice), while shoving kindness and other forms of caring out to the margins of morality, or out of morality entirely into the realm of etiquette or niceness. I also agree with you that morality doesn’t demand that a Jew be kind to an SA stormtrooper; but there are lots of virtues we’re not always called on to exercise (e.g. gratitude is a virtue, but virtue doesn’t require that I be grateful to anyone and everyone). And I think it’s important to see the difference between saying that the virtue of kindness makes no demands on a Jew with regard to a stormtrooper, and the quite different claim that a Jew would be justified in exercising the opposite vice, by being cruel to a stormtrooper. My position is not that it would be immoral not to be kind in that context, but rather that it would be immoral to be actively cruel, which is something different from just not being kind. The difference is indeed closely related to the difference between anger and hatred.

What do y’all think? Fire when ready in the comments.

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distributed Book Club #3: Stanley Cavell, Foreword: An Audience for Philosophy, from Must we mean what we say? xxi-xlii

As I was saying the other day, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in thinking about some ordinary language philosophy, and about some of the topics that Stanley Cavell raises in his masterful collection of essays, Must we mean what we say? The book is published by Cambridge University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use, such as Cavell’s fascinating and puzzling forward, in which he addresses the question, What is the audience for philosophy? Is there one? To whom or to what do we address ourselves when we speak in a philosophic mode, and what can that tell us — about philosophy, and about us as would-be teachers or practitioners of it?

Foreword: An Audience for Philosophy

If the essays which follow do not compose a book, collecting resonance from one another, nothing I can say in introducing them will alter that fact. The relations among them are no less complex than the complexities I have sought to trace within the essays themselves; and any concept I would wish to use in characterizing their relations is either itself already at work within the essays, so far as I have been able to put it to work, or else it would require the working of another essay to do what I would want with it. The surface thematic overlappings among the essays are, I think, sometimes surprising, or surprisingly numerous. Because it would be tiresome to list them here, I have made an index of the themes I find, and found as I wrote, to be of guiding importance. Certainly I do not by this mean to suggest that I have fully treated any one of these themes; a number of them are just glanced at. But I have in each case wished that the place I have made for a theme’s appearance provides data for further investigation of it.

Although various portions or drafts of separate essays were being written during essentially the same period, I have as far as possible arranged them chronologically acording to their date of completion. It will be said that two of them–those on Endgame and on King Lear–are pieces of literary criticism, or at best applications of philosophy, while the remainder are (at least closer to being) straight philosophy. I wish to deny this, but to deny it I would have to use the notions of philosophy and of literature and of criticism, and the denial would be empty so far as those notions are themselves unexamined and so far as the impulse to assert such distinctions, which in certain moods I share, remains unaccounted for. Its account must include the obvious fact that these subjects, as I conceive of them, do resemble one another. One line of resemblance is marked where, in the essay on King Lear, I suggest a sense in which that play could be called philosophical drama and where I characterize a philosophical criticism; another line is projected at the points at which I note that each philosophy will produce terms of criticism directed against other philosophies, or against common sense, which are specific to that philosophy, and hence defining for it. In wishing to deny that some of these essays are philosophical and others not, I do not deny that there are differences among them, and differences between philosophy and literary criticism; I am suggesting that we do not understand these differences. At various moments I am led to emphasize distinctions between philosophy and various of its competitors, various interests and commitments and tastes with which, at various moments in history, philosophy was confusible–e.g., between philosophy and science, and art, and theology, and logic.

If I deny a distinction, it is the still fashionable distinction between philosohy and meta-philosophy, the philosophy of philosophy. The remarks I make about philosophy (for example, about certain of its differences from other subjects) are, where accurate and useful, nothing more or less than philosophical remarks, on a par with remarks I make about acknowledgment or about mistakes or about metaphor. I would regard this fact–that philosophy is one of its own normal topics–as in turn defining for the subject, for what I wish philosophy to do. But someone who thinks philosophy is a form of science may not accept that definitio, because his picture is of a difference between, say, speaking about physics and doing physics. And this may be not only a special view of philosophy, it may be a partial view of science; because certain ways in which certain persons talk about science are a part of the teaching of the science, and the ways in which the science is taught and learned may be taken as essential to an understanding of what that science is.

I do assert a distinction throughout these essays which, because it may seem either controversial or trivial, I want to call attention to from the beginning–a distinction between the modern and the traditional, in philosophy and out. My claim is not that all contemporary philosophy which is good is modern; but the various discussions about the modern I am led to in the course of these essays are the best I can offer in explanation of the way I have written, or the way I would wish to write. The essential fact of (what I refer to as) the modern lies in the relation between the present practice of an enterprise and the history of that enterprise, in the fact that this relation has become problematic. Innovation in philosophy has characteristically gone together with a repudiation–a specifically cast repudiation–of most of the history of the subject. But in the later Wittgenstein (and, I would now add, in Heidegger’s Being and Time) the repudiation of the past has a transformed significance, as though containing the consciousness that history will not go away, except through our perfect acknowledgment of it (in particular, our acknowledgment that it is not past), and that one’s own practice and ambition can be identified only against the continuous experience of the past. (This new significance in philosophical repudiation itself has a history. Its most obvious precursor is Hegel, but it begins, I believe, in Kant. For it is in Kant that one finds an explicit recognition that the terms in which the past is criticized are specific to one’s own position, and require justification from within that position. A clear instance of such a Kantian term of criticism is his characterization of an opposed Idealism as making the world empirically ideal and transcendentally real; another is his diagnosis of dialectical illusion.) But the past does not in this context refer simply to the historical past; it refers to one’s own past, to what is past, or what has passed, within oneself. One could say that in a modernist situation past loses its temporal accent and means anything not present. Meaning what one says becomes a matter of making one’s sense present to oneself. This is the way I understand Wittgenstein’s havingdescribed his later philosophy as an effort to bring words back to their everyday use (Philosophical Investigations, §116; my emphasis), as though the words we use in philosophy, in any reflection about our concerns, are away. This is why Wittgenstein’s interlocutors, when he writes well, when he is philosophically just, express thoughts which strike us as at once familiar and foreign, like temptations. (Heidegger’s consciousness that our deepest task, as philosophers and as men, is one of getting back to a sense of words and world from which we are now away, is an intimate point of similarity with Wittgenstein.)

These reflections will perhaps seem uncongenial to many of my professional colleagues, but they are meant to collect data which most of us, I believe, have noticed, but perhaps have not connected, or not taken to be potentially philosophical. Take, for example, the fact that the isolated analytical article is the common form of philosophical expression now, in the English speaking world of philosophy; something reflected in the fact that the common, and best, form of philosophy textbook is the assemblage of articles around individual topics. This is often interpreted as symptomatic of philosophy’s withdrawal from its cultural responibilities. The trouble with such an idea is that it occurs to a person who imagines himself certain of his culture’s needs, and certain of his capacity to supply them on demand, and ignorant of our cultural situation–in which each major form of expression (say painting and music and philosophy) has, where serious, taken upon itself the characteristic cultural responsibility of preserving itself against its culture, against its own past accomplishments, which have helped to inform, and to distort, present culture; past accomplishments which are used as names by those incapable of contributing to the present, against those who would take those accomplishments as setting the tasks of the present, or setting the terms in which present activity has its meaning and acquires its standards.

Analytical philosophy can, alternatively, be interpreted as symptomatic of philosophy’s finally coming of age, or accepting its age, assimilating itself to the form in which original scientific results are made known. The trouble with this idea is that these articles are not accepted the way scientific papers are; they are not felt to embody results which every member of the profession can then build from. On the contary, it seems to me commonly assumed among the serious philosophers I know that when they look into a new article they will find not merely a number of more or less annoying errors, but that they will find the whole effort fundamentally wrong, in sensibility or method or claim. Even when it is good–that is, when it contains one interesting or useful idea–the interest or usefulness cannot simply be taken over as it stands into one’s own thought, but will require independent development or justification from within one’s own procedures. It often happens that what makes an article or passage famous is its enunciation of a thesis which the profession is fully prepared to annihilate. The refuting of Mill on desirable, or Moore on indefinable, or Wittgenstein on private language, have become minor industries, established more than one living. These can be disheartening facts, especially among the young who are entering the profession and are still deciding whether it can support life–as though the profession as a whole has forgotten how to praise, or forgotten its value. (In emphasizing that criticism has been the life of philosophy from its beginning, I do not wish to camouflage what is genuinely disheartening about its present. I mean merely to remember that criticism need not be uncomprehending, nor always entered out of enmity.) It is hard to convey, to anyone who has not experienced it, how pervasive this malaise has become. For it controls one’s response to one’s own past work as well as to the work of others, and it applies not merely to chunky articles, but to each assertion one hears or makes.

The figure of Socrates now haunts contemporary philosophical practice and conscience more poignantly than ever–the pure figure motivated to philosophy only by the assertions of others, himself making none; the philosopher who did not need to write. I should think every philosopher now has at least one philosophical companion whose philosophical ability and accomplishment he has the highest regard for, who seems unable to write philosophy. Were such a person content with silence he would merely be the latest instance of a figure always possible in philosophy, possible indeed nowhere else. (It would make no sense to speak of someone as a gifted novelist who had never written a novel; nor of someone as a scientist who had made no contribution to science. In the case of the scientist, the contribution need not be his own writing; but one could say that he must affect what his field writes. His contribution, that is, may be oral, but it must affect a tradition which is essentially not oral; this suggests that such contributions must be exceptional. It indicates further that writing plays differing roles in different enterprises, even that writing means something different, or has a different inflection, in contexts like writing a novel, writing a fugue, writing a report, writing (up) an experiment, writing (down) a proof. If silence is always a threat in philosophy, it is also its highest promise.) But one finds instead various contraries of contentment, perhaps a tendency, more or less contained, to cynicism or to despair about the value of writing or of philosophy altogether–discontents often not sufficiently unambiguous, or not showing early enough, to force or to permit a break with the field. Philosophy inspires much unhappy love.

If these are facts of philosophical practice now, they must have a sociological-historical explanation; and what needs to be explained is what these facts point to, that the writing of philosophy is difficult in a new way. It is the difficulty modern philosophy shares with the modern arts (and, for that matter, with modern theology; and, for all I know, with modern physics), a difficulty broached, or reflected, in the nineteenth-century’s radical breaking of tradition within the several arts; a moment epitomized by Marx’s remark that … the criticism of religion is in the main complete … and that … the task of history, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world … (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction). This is the beginning of what I have called the modern, characterizing it as a moment in which history and its conventions can no longer be taken for granted; the time in which music and painting and poetry (like nations) have to define themselves against their pasts; the beginning of the moment in which each of the arts becomes its own subject, as if its immediate artistic task is to establish its own existence. The new difficulty which comes to light in the modernist situation is that of maintaining one’s belief in one’s own enterprise, for the past and the present become problematic together. I believe that philosophy shares the modernist difficulty now everywhere evident in the major arts, the difficulty of making one’s present effort become a part of the present history of the enterprise to which one has committed one’s mind, such as it is. (Modernizers, bent merely on newness, do not have history as a problem, that is, as a commitment. The conflict between modernizers and modernists is the immediate topic of the two essays on music–numbers VII and VIII.) I might express my particular sense of indebtedness to the teaching of Austin and to the practice of Wittgenstein by saying that it is from them that I learned of the possibility of making my difficulties about philosophy into topics within philosophy itself–so that, for example, my doubts about the relevance of philosophy now, its apparent irrelevance to the motives which brought me to the subject in the first place, were no longer simply obstacles to the philosophical impulse which had to be removed before philosophy could begin, hence motives for withdrawing from the enterprise. It was now possible to investigate philosophically the very topic of irrelevance, and therewith the subject of philosophy itself; it is characteristic of philosophy that from time to time it appear–that from time to time it be–irrelevant to one’s concerns, or incredible in itself; just as it is characteristic that from time to time it be inescapable. No doubt there is a danger of evasion in this spiralling self-consciousness; perhaps one should indeed search for more congenial work. Just as there is the danger of excusing poor writing in insisting upon the complexities of consciousness one is at each moment attempting to record, or to acknowledge. –Am I talking only about a condition within America? If so, it is said in the spirit in which a certain kind of American has usually spoken of his country’s release rom the past: out of a sense of disappointment in struggle with vistas of peculiar promise. And as usual, it is the expression of shock in finding that one’s mind is not, and is, European; which in practice means (and in philosophical practice means emphatically) English or German. –If others do not share these doubts, or find these dangers, I certainly have no wish to implicate them.

* *

The topics of the modern, of the philosophy of philosophy, and of the form of philosophical writing, come together in the question: What is the audience of philosophy? For the answer to this question will contribute to the answer to the questions: What is philosophy? How is it to be written? In case a philosopher pretends indifference to this question, or not recognize that he has an answer to it, I should note that this question intersects the question: What is the teaching of philosophy? Not, of course, that this question is likely to seem more attractive to those responsible for teaching it. On the contrary, like their pressed colleagues in other fields, professors of philosophy are likely to regard their teaching obligations as burdens, certainly as distant seconds in importance to their own work. Whatever the reason for this state of affairs, it has a particular pertinence for the philosopher. A teacher of literature, is, say, a professor of English, and he can say so; a professor of anthropology is an anthropologist, and he can say so. But is a professor of philosophy a philosopher? And to whom can he say so? One often says instead, asked what it is one does, that one teaches philosophy. And that is the problem. Does one teach philosophy? And when one is gripped by that question, one is really asking: Can philosophy be taught? Who is in a position to speak for philosophy?Such questions express that difficulty I referred to a moment ago as one of maintainining one’s belief in one’s own enterprise. (Hegel, I am told, said that he was the last professor of philosophy. I think I know what he would have meant–that he was the last man to feel that he could speak evenly about every way in which the philosophical impulse has found epression, the last with the natural conviction that his own work was the living present of philosophy’s history, able to take that history for granted. And that would mean that philosophy, as it has been known, is past. The mention of Hegel here reminds me that the sorts of problems I have spoken of in connection with the teaching of philosophy more familiarly arise in thinking about the history of philosophy, about whether anyone but a philosopher can write or know its history, and about whether a philosopher could allow himself to do so.)

When, in Austin at Criticism (Essay IV), I complain that Austin never described his procedures accurately and circumstantially, I am in effect complaining simultaneously of a lack in his philosophizing and of a failure in his teaching. These complaints have their proper weight only against the recognition of how powerful a teacher he was; for it was in part because Austin was devoted to teaching, according to a particular picture ofwhat teaching can be, or should be, that he avoided certain ranges of what the teaching of philosophy perhaps must be–the personal assault upon intellectual complacency, the private evaluation of intellectual conscience. (This range of teaching is not confined to philosophy, though its proportions and placement will vary from subject to subject. This is what I am talking about in the opening of the essay on King Lear, in pointing to the New Critics’ concentration on the teachable aspects of the poetry.) A major motive for wishing to leave the field of philosophy, for wishing relief from it, from one’s periodic revulsions from it, would be to find something which could be taught more conveniently, a field in which it was not part of one’s task to vie with one’s students, nor to risk misleading them so profoundly. Wittgenstein, though he swiftly resigned his appointment as Professor, was, as I read him, unofficially readier for these requirements, and like every great teacher he would have distrusted his right, or the necessity, to impose them. (The great teacher invariably claims not to want followers, i.e., imitators. His problem is that he is never more seductive than at those moments of rejection.) I find that his Philosophical Investigations often fails to make clear the particular way in which his examples and precepts are to lead to particular, concrete exercises and answers, for all his emphasis upon this aspect of philosophy. At the same time, his book is one of the great works about instruction–the equal, in this regard, of Rousseau’s Émile and of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments.

Because such writing as Wittgenstein’s and such practice as Austin’s strike certain minds as conservative, and because such minds are apt to be over-confident in the faith that contrasts, like conservative vs. liberal, and liberal vs. radical, helpfully explain the behavior of the world and clear the mind for steady action, it is worth noting that these teachers thought of their work as revolutionary–not merely because what they did was new (something which can be overrated or overprized) but because they also thought it plain enough and immediately fruitful enough to establish a new common practice in thinking, and open to talent regardless of its standing within the old intellectual orders. This is another guise of the issue of the modern. I mention it again here because those of us who share, or credit, Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s sense of their revolutionary tasks are responding (as part of the experience of their work in making problematic the relation of philosophy to its tradition) to the concern and implication of their work for correct instruction. (There is no revolutionary social vision which does not include a new vision of education; and contrariwise.) This, together with the fact that their philosophical procedures are designed to bring us to a consciousness of the words we must have, and hence of the lives have, represents for me a recognizable version of the wish to establish the truth of this world. But then wherever there really is a love of wisdom–or call it the passion for truth–it is inherently, if usually ineffectively, revolutionary; because it is the same as a hatred of the falseness in one’s character and of the needless and unnatural compromises in one’s institutions.

When, in what follows, I feel pressed by the question of my right to speak for philosophy, I sometimes suggest that I am merely speaking for myself, and sometimes I suggest that philosophy is not mine at all–its results are true for every man or else they are worthless. Are these suggestions both right, or are they evasions? They express an ambivalence about the relevance or importance of philosophy–one might say, about its possession–which is also one of philosophy’s characteristic features. I have recently noticed a bit of philosophical literary practice which seems to betray this ambivalence. On half a dozen occasions over a period of a few months I found on philosopher or another referring to something called Horatio’s philosophy or Horatio’s view of philosophy, as though Hamlet’s strangely welcomed discovery that

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

constitutes a crack at Horatio rather than a manic release from philosophy (and from reasonableness) as a whole. (The generalizing non-possessive your is common enough in Hamlet’s way of speaking, and there is no evidence that Horatio’s view of the world is distinctive.) Perhaps the reason for this misreading is that philosophers have become threatened by an idea that philosophy has its limitations or impotencies. But I think it also expresses a legitimate confusion about the source or possession of philosophy altogether, as though half believing and half fearing that its natural state is one of private persuasion. I call this confusion legitimate because it isn’t as though the philosopher had some automatic or special assurance that his words are those of and for other men, nor even that any particular arrival of his words ought to be accepted by others. His examples and interpretations have, and are meant to have, the weight an ordinary man will give them; and he is himself speaking as an ordinary man, so that if he is wrong in his claims he must allow himself to be convinced in the ways any man thinking will be, or will not be. –Who is to say whether a man speaks for all men?

Why are we so bullied by such a question? Do we imagine that if it has a sound answer the answer must be obvious or immediate? But it is no easier to say who speaks for all men than it is to speak for all men. And why should that be easier than knowing whether a man speaks for me? It is no easier than knowing oneself, nad no less subject to distortion and spiritlessness. If philophy is esoteric, that is not because a few men guard its knowledg, but because most men guard themselves against it.

It is tautological that art has, is made to have, an audience, however small or special. The ways in which it sometimes hides from its audience, or baffles it, only confirms this. It could be said of science, on the other hand, that it has no audience at all. No one can share its significance who does not produce work of the same kind. The standards of performance are institutionalized; it is not up to the individual listener to decide whether, when the work meets the canons of the institution, he will accept it–unless he undertakes to alter those canons themselves. This suggests why science can be popularized and art not (or not in that way), and why there can be people called critics of art but none called critics of science. I might summarize this by saying that academic art is (with notable exceptions) bad art, whereas academic science is–just science. (It is hardly an accident that creative scientists are on the whole at home in a university and that creative artists on the whole are not.) Now, what is academic philosophy? It seems significant that the questions, What is the audience of philosophy? Must it have one? If so, what is it to gain from it?, have no obvious answers.

When you wish to make serious art popular what you are wishing is to widen the audience for the genuine article. Is this what someone wants who wants to widen the audience for philosophy by writing summaries or descriptions of philosophical works? Or is he, as in the case of popular science, providing simplifications which are more or less useful and faithful substitutes for the original work? Neither of these ideas makes good sense of philosophy. I think someone who believes in popular, or in popularizing, philosophy (as differentiated from someone in an open business venture who finds profit in excerpting and outlining anything in demand) believes that the ordinary man stands in relation to serious philosophy as, say, the ordinary believer stands in relation to serious theology–that he cannot understand it in its own terms but that it is nevertheless good for him to know its results, in some form or other. What reason is there to believe this? There is every reason to believe, on the contrary, that this is the late version of one of philosophy’s most ancient betrayals–the effort to use philosophy’s name to put a front on beliefs rather than to face the source of the assumption, or of emptiness, which actually maintains them. Those who guard themselves from philosophy show a healthier respect for it than those who are certain they know its results and know to whom they apply. For when philosophy is called for one cannot know beforehand where it will end. That is why Plato, as is familiar, at the beginning of the Republic allows the good old man to leave (to see to the sacrifice) before Socrates releases his doubts; and why, recalling that moment, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra leaves the old man (the old saint) he first encounters on his descent back to man, without relating his sickening tidings. Philosophy must be useful or it is harmful. These old men have no need of it, not necessarily because they are old, but because their passion for their lives is at one with their lives; either, as in the case of Cephalus, because his private passion is well spent and he is without rancor; or because, as in the case of the old forest creature, his passion remains in control of his old God, who was worthy of it. The advantage of their age is that their sincerity is backed by the faithfulness of a long life. Otherwise, where sincerity asserts itself, it calls for testing. I do not say that everyone has the passion or the knack or the agility to subject himself to philosophical test; I say merely that someone can call himself a philosopher, and his book philosophical, who has not subjected himself to it.

My purpose is to make such facts into opportunities for investigation rather than causes for despair. The question of philosophy’s audience is born with philosophy itself. When Socrates learned that the Oracle had said no man is wiser than Socrates, he interpreted this to mean, we are told, that he knew that he did not know. And we are likely to take this as a bit of faded irony or as a stuffy humility. What I take Socrates to have seen is that, about the questions which were causing him wonder and hope and confusion and pain, he knew that he did not know what no man can know, and that any man could learn what he wanted to learn. No man is in any better position for knowing it than any other man–unless wanting to know is a special position. And this discovery about himself is the same as the discovery of philosophy, when it is the effort to find answers, and permit questions, which nobody knows the way to nor the answer to any better than you yourself. Then what makes it relevant to know, worth knowing? But relevance and worth may not be the point. The effort is irrelevant and worthless until it becomes necessary to you to know such things. There is the audience of philosophy; but there also, while it lasts, is its performance.

–Stanley Cavell, Must we mean what we say? (Cambridge University Press, 1969/2002), xxi–xlii.

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distibuted Book Club #2: Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato’s Ethics, vii-x

As I was saying the other day, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in some of the topics that Terence Irwin raises in his book, Plato’s Ethics. The book is published by Oxford University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use, such as the material in the Preface, where he sets out his plans for the book and its relation to other work on Plato’s ethical theory. Thus:


Anyone who is interested in the contribution of Aristotle, Hume, or Kant to moral philosophy can turn to at least one book in English that tries to give a fairly full and detailed account of the philosopher’s main ethical views. The same cannot be said about Plato’s ethics. Admittedly, the questions that face the interpreter of Plato are different from those that face us in interpreting these other philosophers; still, I believe that what has been done for their ethical views can be done for Plato’s ethical views. That is what I have tried to do in this book. It is not comprehensive, since it leaves out several important aspects of Plato’s ethics, but it focusses on what I take to be central questions.

I have tried to present Plato’s reasons for holding his ethical views, his reasons for changing his mind about some of them, the content and implications of his views, and some reasons that might incline us towards accepting or rejecting them. With these aims in mind, I hav traced the development of Plato’s views in the earlier dialogues, laying special emphasis on the defence and (as I claim) re-statement of Socratic ethics in the Gorgias. I have devoted a large part of the book to the examination of Plato’s most important contribution to moral theory, in the main argument of the Republic. I have added a very brief discussion of some aspects of the later dialogues, to show how they throw further light on questions raised in the Republic.

A proper understanding of Plato’s moral philosophy requires some understanding of his views in moral psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics (the same is true, of course, of the other philosophers I mentioned), and so I have discussed these areas of his philosophy as well. Socratic method and Socratic ethics help to explain each other, and we can see the same sort of mutually explanatory connexions between Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology (growing out of his reflexions on Socratic method) and his ethical theory. My discussion of some features of Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology is evidently not a full treatment, but I hope it describes an aspect of the Theory of Recollection and the Theory of Forms that we may not appreciate sufficiently if we study these doctrines without reference to Plato’s ethics. The different threads in my argument combine in the discussion of the Sun, Line, and Cave in the Republic.

These claims about Plato’s development require a decision about the nature of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and, more generally, about Plato’s relation to the historical Socrates. I have presented the early dialogues as embodying both the views of the historical Socrates and the views Plato held when he wrote these dialogues. This view of the early dialogues is defended briefly in Chapter 1.

My attempt to attribute an ethical theory to Plato may suggest to some readers that I have misconceived the character of the dialogues altogether. I have ascribed a relatively systematic body of doctrines to Plato on the strength of the dialogues; but some readers strongly reject this doctrinal view of the dialogues. I acknowledge an element of truth in those approaches that emphasize Plato’s distance from the characters in his dialogues; still, I believe doctrinal view is broadly correct, and that it finds strong support both in Aristotle’s comments on Plato and in a fair and scrupulous examination of the dialogues. It seems to me that a doctrinal approach will be most convincing if it allows us to attribute a significant philosophical position to Plato; and so my main aim is to describe the position that he holds.

I began this book intending it to be a second edition of Plato’s Moral Theory. The Press agreed to a moderate increase in the length of the earlier book, in the hope that a new edition would (1) offer a less one-sided presentation of some controversial issues than I gave in the earlier book; (2) expound the main issues less cryptically, with the hope of making the book more accessible to readers who are not specialized students of Plato; (3) include some discussion of the later dialogues; and (4) take account of what has been written on this topic since the publication of the earlier book. The constraints of lengt have meant that the first two aims have taken priority over the last two.

Recent discussion has influenced my decisions about the relative length of different parts of the book. Many critics of the earlierbook focussed on the chapters that dealt with the Socratic dialogues. Moreover, these dialogues have been intensively studied in recent years (largely through the influence of Gregory Vlastos); indeed, they seem to have been discussed more intensively than the Republic has been. This trend has been salutary in many ways, but I have not followed it. Much of the increase in length of this book over PMT results from a fuller discussion of the Republic. It seems to me that the changes Plato introduces in the Republic are–as far as concerns the topics of this book–changes for the better. If PMT made it difficult to see my comparative evaluation of the Socratic dialogues and the Republic, I hope this book will make my view clearer.

In this book I have added two short chapters on the Philebus, Statesman, and Laws. They are by no means a full treatment of the ethical argument of these complex and rewarding dialogues. I confine myself to some suggestions about what the late dialogues add to Plato’s views on some of the questions that I have explored in the early and middle dialogues.

To make room for the main text, I have (with some regret) deleted or curtailed most of the more discursive and argumentative footnotes I had written for this book. Many of the notes give bare references or the briefest indication of my reasons for taking a particular view; they do not attempt either a full report or a full discussion of the different views expressed in the secondary literature. On some points, then, the notes and bibliography are less full than those in PMT. In a few cases I have simply referred to one of the longer notes in PMT. The length of the notes has been determined, not by the importance of different issues for the understanding of Plato, but by their importance for the argument of this book.

Since the book is meant to be accessible to people who are beginning to thnk seriously about Plato’s ethics, I have not emphasized the differences between it and PMT. After writing an appendix describing the main objections raised against PMT, and the ways I now want to accept or answer these objections, I decided not to include the appendix in this book, since it would probably be more interesting to me than to most of my readers. I do not mean, however, to seem unappreciative of the helpful suggestions and objections of the many critics–friendly, hostile, or neutal–who have taken the trouble to explain what they thought was wrong with PMT. I am grateful for the stimulus that these criticisms have given me to think again about Plato’s ethics; even though I have probably learnt less han I ought to. I am sure that the present book has been improved by the criticisms of PMT, whether or not I have accepted them.

Though I began with the idea of a second edition of PMT, it has turned out a bit differently. None of hte text of the earlier book reappears in this book, and so it seemed reasonable to present this as a new book rather than as a second edition of an old book. In one important way, however, it is more like a second edition. I have not tried to achieve the degree of distance from PMT that would be necessary for a fresh examination of the primary texts and the secondary literature; instead, I have re-read the primary texts, and surveyed the secondary literature, in light of the earlier book.

In the notes I have tried to give some idea of the main contributions to discussion that have appeared since the earlier book was published. I have learnt a great deal from recent work, especially from the books of Julia Annas, Richard Kraut, and Gregory Vlastos, and from papers by Terry Penner, John Cooper, and Nicholas White. I have also indicated some new debts to older works that I have read or re-read in the course of writing this book. I had already used (for instance) Grote, Moreau, Joseph, and Murphy for the earlier book, but in re-reading them I found many suggestive remarks that had not made the proper impact on me before.

The task of working out some second thoughts on Plato’s ethics has been both more complicated and more interesting than I had expected it to be, and I am very pleased to be able to thank those who have helped me in it. The Delegates and staff of Oxford University Press have always been helpful and encouraging, by publishing the earlier book, by keeping itin print,and by agreeing to an extensive revision; I have especially benefited from Angela Blackburn’s advice and support at different stages. In 1990–91 I was fortunate enough to have a sabbatical leave from Cornell University and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. My views have developed in response to questions by undergraduate and graduate students at Cornell over several years, most recently in a seminar in the autumn of 1991. I have learnt so much from collegues in the Sage School of Philosophy that it is difficult to keep track of specific debts, but inthis case I am especially conscious of having learnt from Sydney Shoemaker, David Lyons, Harold Hodes, Nicholas Sturgeon, and Allen Wood. Jennifer Whiting and Susan Sauvé Meyer made useful comments and suggestions on particular points. Daniel Devereux and David Brink gave me detailed and searching criticisms of a draft of the whole book, and I have often benefited from their suggestions. My ideas on Plato have developed on many points as a result of Gail Fine’s work. She is responsible for so many changes that I cannot exclude the possibility that she has led me into new errors, but I am fairly confident that almost all the changes are improvements. Several drafts of this book have been benefited, in large and small ways, from her vigorous castigation and continual encouragement.

Finally, I must express my gratitude for the help of two colleagues and friends who have recently died. Michael Woods encouraged me in my work on Plato ever since 1974 when he read a draft of Plato’s Moral Theory and invited me to contribute a volume on the Gorgias to the Clarendon Plato Series, which he edited until his death in 1993. I benefited from his perceptive advice and comments on my efforts on the Gorgias, and on many other topics in Greek philosophy. In 1971–72 Gregory Vlastos supervised my dissertation on Plato’s ethics. Shortly before his death in 1991 he began to write a reply to my review of his book on Socrates. In the intervening years he was a constant, severe, sympathetic, and constructive critic of my views on Socrates and Plato. By precept and example, he, more than any other single person, has made the study of Socratic and Platonic ethics the flourishing activity that it is today. I would especially like to have known what he thought about my latest effort, in this book, to carry on a discussion with him that has been an important part of my intellectual life for over twenty years. I know I wouldn’t have convinced him, and I know his criticisms wouldhave thrown still further light on the questions.

Ithaca, New York
September 1994

–Terence Irwin, Plato’s Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1995), vii–x

Midsouth Proceedings 2006

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.

Philosophers’ Carnival #24: an eternal golden braid

The Ministry of Enlightenment for this secessionist republic of one is proud to bring you the 24th installment of the Philosophers’ Carnival in the pages of the Rad Geek People’s Daily. The Philosophers’ Carnival has two primary purposes: (1) To provide lesser-known philosophy bloggers with the opportunity to gain some exposure and attract a wider audience, and (2) to showcase the best that a wide range of philosophy blogs have to offer, in one convenient location, for the benefit of philosophically-inclined readers. Some of the past carnivals have had a unifying theme; others have chosen to group related posts together by subject-heading. We here prefer to link each post in a chain by means of thin justifications for the transition, tenuous topical connections, and frequent red herrings. If you’re the type who likes to avoid that sort of thing (you probably hate candy and laughing babies, too), here’s the precis of what’s in the Carnival this time around:

  1. Henry Sidgwick @ Mind (April 1895): The Philosophy of Common Sense
  2. Jason Stanley @ Leiter Reports (2005-12-03): Scientific vs. Humanist Philosophy
  3. Will Wilkinson @ Happiness and Public Policy (2005-12-30): Is the Flat Trend in Self-reported Happiness a Problem?
  4. Roderick Long @ Austro-Athenian Empire (2006-01-06): The Value in Friendship
  5. Jerry Monaco (2005-12-18): The Break Between Sartre and Camus: Gossip, Invective, and the Meaning of History
  6. Aspazia @ Mad Melancholic Feminsta (2005-12-29): On Tolerance: Just Be Polite and Pass the Yams
  7. The Cynic Librarian (2005-12-15): Britian as New Islam Laboratory?
  8. Francois Tremblay @ Goosing the Antithesis (2005-11-14): Miracles and materialism
  9. Kenny Pearce (2005-12-22): Let’s Make Creation Science Not Suck
  10. Clayton @ Think Tonk (2005-12-31): Evolutionary naturalism undefeated?
  11. Chris @ The Uncredible Hallq (2006-01-02) in A Gambler’s Epistemology
  12. Richard Chappell @ Philosophy, et cetera (2006-01-06): Transcendental Arguments
  13. Doctor Logic (2006-01-03): More on explanation
  14. Ellis Seagh @ Consciousness and Culture (2005-12-21): Light and darkness: consciousness and reflex
  15. David Shoemaker @ PEA Soup (2006-01-02): Carnivores on the Run
  16. Rad Geek @ Philosophy, et cetera (2005-12-05): Freak intelligence, marginal cases, and the argument for ethical vegetarianism and Rad Geek @ Philosophy, et cetera (2005-12-07): The ends in the world as we know it
  17. Patrick @ Tiberius and Gaius Speaking… (2006-01-06): Capability and Potentiality

Fun challenge for the reader: try to guess what each post is about, and how I linked each one to the preceding post, before you scroll down and read the abstracts for yourself.

Ready? On, then, with the show:

Philosophers’ Carnival #24

  • We begin with post that’s been sitting in the queue for a little while: Henry Sidgwick @ Mind (April 1895): The Philosophy of Common Sense, recently brought to us courtesy of the Fair Use Repository. Sidgwick wants the Glasgow Philosophical Society (and, I suppose, us also) to consider how philosophy may be related to common sense, and how we should best understand philosophers such as Thomas Reid, who methodically and emphatically make appeals to the deliverances of common sense in order to do philosophical work. Far from being intellectual laziness in the name of unreflective gut feelings, Sidgwick notes how Reid refers to Hume’s account of the manner in which, after solitary reflection has environed him with the clouds and darkness of doubt, the genial influence of dinner, backgammon, and social talk dispels these doubts and restores his belief in the world without and the self within: and Reid takes his stand with those who are so weak as to imagine that they ought to have the same belief in solitude and in company. His essential demand, therefore, on the philosopher, is not primarily that he should make his beliefs consistent with those of the vulgar, but that he should make them consistent with his own; and the legitimacy of the demand becomes, I think, more apparent, when we regard it as made in the name of Philosophy rather than in the name of Common Sense.

  • Following on the theme of philosophy and common sense, Jason Stanley @ Leiter Reports (2005-12-03): Scientific vs. Humanist Philosophy offers a metaphilosophical guest post. Much of my blogging, he writes, has been devoted to trying to figure out which distinctions between kinds of philosophical approaches are merely sociological (e.g. reflections of the personal connections and academic credentials of particular philosophers) and which are genuinely substantive. I do think there are rather fundamental distinctions between kinds of philosophers, but (as I’ve been arguing this week) I don’t think they correspond to any kind of division between departments or nexuses that clearly divide two or three kinds of departments (such nexuses exist, but they are considerably more sociological in character). Nevertheless, I think that Brian Leiter has been on to something by his division of naturalistic vs. humanist philosophy. I just don’t think that this division explains anything about the sociology of department relations. I just haven’t been able to put my finger on what it is. He thinks that his finger has been moved somewhat closer to the mark, though, by Michael Strevens’ suggestion that the division is centrally concerned with the relationship that the philosopher sees between philosophy and our ordinary, common-sense self-understanding. Fodor, we are told, is a humanist insofar as his work on the mind is an attempt to vindicate our self-understanding, our human picture of the mind, but Stich, by contrast, uses the tools of philosophy to undermine our conception of ourselves, to alienate us from our own minds. Stanley goes on to consider some more typical points of contrast (such as the use of technical apparatus in logic or the appeal to the history of philosophy) that simply cut across the humanistic-scientific divide, and considers the points at which this division connects with Strawson’s division between descriptive and revisionary metaphysicians.

  • Reflections on our ordinary self-understanding, and of alienation from or comfort with that, easily bring us to questions about satisfaction, happiness, and our ordinary understanding of how happy or how satisfied we happen to be (or fail to be). Will Wilkinson @ Happiness and Public Policy (2005-12-30): Is the Flat Trend in Self-reported Happiness a Problem? looks at that, and specifically at studies of happiness based on self-reports. Wilkinson challenges a couple of presumptions that seem to be universal in the reports on, and analysis of, this kind of happiness study: (1) presuming that a flat trend in self-reports of happiness reliably indicates a flat trend in how happy people in fact are, and (2) presuming that a flat trend in how happy people in fact are would constitute some sort of deep problem that demands policy solutions. Why prefer we are getting no happier over we have been, and remain, extremely successful at creating happiness? The main reason why, I take it, is that it’s impossible to use the happiness data to drum up demand for one’s favorite unpopular policies without framing it in a way that makes it look like there’s some kind of problem that needs to be fixed. If you say that data show that we’re just as happy as our grandparents in America’s nuclear family, bowling together, Leave it to Beaver golden age, we’ll never socialize medicine! Anyway, the point is: at the very least, you need to at least try to eliminate the most plausible competing interpretations of the data before you move on to try to use happiness data to mount your favorite policy hobby horse. No. At the very least, you need to acknowledge that there are alternative interpretations. Until they do that, people trying to sell policy on the basis of happiness research don’t deserve to be taken very seriously.

  • Speaking of happiness, one of the many things — perhaps one of the most important things — that we’re inclined to connect — in some sense or another — with happiness — in some sense or another — is friendship — in some sense or another. But all three of those in some sense or anothers are tricky philosophical terrain. Roderick Long @ Austro-Athenian Empire (2006-01-06) recently posted an online copy of his essay from a roundtable on friendship, The Value in Friendship, which sets itself to learning how to ask the questions we need to ask about happiness, friendship, and the connection between them. The purpose of this essay is to ask a question. The question is: What is it that we value in friendship? The purpose of this essay is not to answer the question. That’s a more daunting task than I intend to tackle here. Rather, my purpose is simply to ask the question. You may think I’ve already asked the question; so my essay has achieved its purpose and I should stop right now. After all, didn’t I just say that my question was: what do we value in friendship? But I haven’t really succeeded in asking that question yet, because I haven’t yet clarified what question I am asking. That is, I haven’t yet distinguished the question I want to ask from other questions that are easily confused with it. So we’re not yet at the point of being able to ask my question. We need to wander about in the wilderness a little bit–though hopefully not for forty years–before we can get to the promised land of my question. As we get closer to the question, we see that there’s quite a bit of explaining that we need to do about what you value inside a friendship once you’ve got it, and what you value outside friendship that leads you to become friends in the first place, and the relation of both of these questions to happiness, to pleasure, and to satisfaction. Along the way, we also see how friendship (in both of the separate questions we’ve just posed) exposes thorny problems for two of the perennial candidates for theoretical understandings of how we should value people: strictly partial concern for yourself (represented by egoism) and strictly impartial universality (represented by utilitarianism, among others).

  • One of the reasons you might want to know better what it is that we value, in becoming friends and in being friends — or at least to know better how to start asking those questions — is to get a better grasp on the limits of friendship, on what it can (or should) survive, and when it can (or should) end. To take a very public example, Jerry Monaco (2005-12-18): The Break Between Sartre and Camus: Gossip, Invective, and the Meaning of History nicely takes us through the causes, the effects, and the historical and cultural context of the bitter end Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre’s friendship (as it proceeded from Francois Jensen’s fusillade-review on Camus’s The Rebel in Sartre’s journal Les Temps Moderns). Aside from the (very real, and very damaging) effects of an overheated intellectual culture of invenctive and literary celebrity in post-war Paris, Monaco also draws out some underlying differences of deep moral and philosophical principles, which were expressed in the feud and which ultimately made friendly engagement not only difficult but intolerable for Sartre and Camus: If one remembers that, at this time (1952), France was actively trying to recover its empire in Indochina and Africa, and that Sartre was actively opposing French colonialism, whereas Camus believed that the anti-colonialists had no moral legitimacy, then one can get a sense of what the feud was really about from Sartre’s point of view. If one remembers that Sartre was trying to existentialize Marxism and therefore not offering very acute criticism of the political acts of the Stalinists, then one can get a sense of what the feud was really about from Camus’ point of view. For both writers the basic principle was how to oppose oppression. For Camus collective resistance to oppression only leads to more oppression. For Sartre Camus’ quietism could only lead to the triumph of the oppressors. Camus believed that Sartre had become an ideologue giving cover to Stalinist domination, while he, Camus, was the advocate of individual human dignity. Sartre believed, that Camus was an apologist for French Imperialism, while he, Sartre was simply choosing to be in history and Camus was choosing in bad faith. Monaco argues that there are important senses in which they were both right and both confused; what he suggests is most important is the way in which the end of their friendship and the limitations of each’s thought came from an inability to work out a common understanding of what questions to ask, how to ask them, and thus what the debate between them was really about in the first place. For us, then The question of who was correct in this argument is not the correct question. The question is how can we come to an historical understanding of the moral issues presented by Camus and how can we come to a moral understanding of the historical issues presented by Sartre. In many ways, in 1952, each represented the missing center in each other’s thought.

  • These considerations on friendship, and how clash of deep philosophical and moral principle shattered the friendship of Sartre and Camus, brings us to the question of friendship, toleration, and the limits of each. We normally think that tolerance, especially amongst your friends and family, is a virtue–but also a virtue with limits, a virtue that must give way to confrontations with the intolerable. But how do we conceive of the virtue, and where do the limits come from? Aspazia @ Mad Melancholic Feminsta (2005-12-29): On Tolerance: Just Be Polite and Pass the Yams asks what we should make of tolerance: A few years ago I challenged my students to take tolerance seriously as a concept. I was witnessing wacky folks use this concept to push their questionable hypotheses, practices, and policies. In particular, I was concerned with the religious right’s determination to infiltrate school boards in order to bully well-meaning folks to be open-minded and teach Intelligent Design (aka Creationism). She investigates two different (even antagonistic) notions of tolerance — tolerance as respect and tolerance as politeness — and the role that appeals to tolerance played in her students’ linguistic practice: For them tolerance meant that you sort of put up with someone you didn’t like, you know, like your annoying great-Aunt who spouts utter nonsense and lives with 8 cats. My students taught me that most people understand tolerance to mean being polite. Perhaps, it’s a WASPy sort of relic. Don’t ruffle feathers, just smile and pass the yams. Thus, she wonders whether tolerance can be rehabilitated as a virtue, or whether We might be better served by a more robust notion than tolerance.

  • Of course, one of the original cases for which the question of tolerance arose was religious toleration within civil society. The Cynic Librarian (2005-12-15): Britian as New Islam Laboratory? takes issue with those rabid anti-Moslems who would say that a moderate, modern Islam is a contradiction in terms, but (with the help of an essay by Tahir Abbas) wants to take a hard look at the genuinely hard problems about the relationship between Islam, Muslims and modernity: not only how far modernity can tolerate Islam, but how far Islam can tolerate modernity. [T]he larger question, as I see it, [is the question] of what will happen to Islam as secularism and consumerist values seep slowly into the bones of the young. They will face the question of either rejecting the faith outright, watering the faith down to a shell of its former self, or reacting in fundamentalist rage at the surrounding profane society. Does the solution lie in politics? In civil society? In religion? Or in rethinking all of the above?

  • And from the debate over religious faith and modernity, where else could you go but a discussion of natural science and the concept of a miracle? Francois Tremblay @ Goosing the Antithesis (2005-11-14): Miracles and materialism reviews the Humean epistemological argument against believing in miracles, and then offers a metaphysical argument that the concept of a miracle (as something that contravenes materialistic natural causation) entails the non-existence of God, by virtue of the (materialistic) form of causal explanation that theists need to identify with natural law in order to make sense of the concept of a miracle: For a miracle to be a miracle, it must be miraculous, that is to say, it must break natural law. And natural law is the result of materialist causation. So the definition of a miracle itself implies that materialism is true ! For it includes both material causation and its break for a specific event. If there is no material causation, then the concept of miracle is meaningless. An embarassing predicament for the theist, if the argument works.

  • Meanwhile, Kenny Pearce (2005-12-22): Let’s Make Creation Science Not Suck offers a Christian attack on the notion of contra-causal miracles, drawing on arguments from Leibniz. He argues that both naturalist opposition to Christianity, and Christian opposition to natural science, are the result of bad theology and bad science; specifically the mistaken belief in a conflict between the scientific understanding of the world and the reality of miracles — as embodied in the very concept of a miracle as a contravention of natural law. Thus, with Leibniz, Pearce says, I continue to hold that it would essentially amount to God making a mistake if he had to break his own physical laws in order to bring about his will miraculously. Rather, the perfect wisdom and infinite power of God should lead us to conclude that he made a world in which his laws hold always, and that he is able to bring about his will, even in those things we consider miraculous, without breaking physical laws. If I am right about this, then the enterprise of science seen as the attempt to explain everything in the physical world by efficient causes is theologically legitimate. If Creation Science is not to suck, Pearce suggests, it has to give up the idea that it is confronting natural science with a conflicting (miraculous, revealed) explanation of worldly happenings, and instead return to a Leibnizian program of theology of nature, in which theists should make use of final causes in their investigations of nature as a means both to scientific discovery and a better understanding of the ways of God. As an example of how this might work, he points out Leibniz’s example of Snell (whose development of optics, Leibniz claims, depended in part on reasoning from God’s perfection), and also asks us to lee[ am eye on the aesthetic criteria which mathematicians and physicists increasingly make heuristic use of.

  • But even if the use of God-inspired heuristic principles produces good results, does having once made use of them require us to continue to take them seriously in order to avail ourselves of the results? Along these lines, Clayton @ Think Tonk (2005-12-31): Evolutionary naturalism undefeated? closed out the year by trying to kick the ladder out from under Plantinga’s argument that evolutionary naturalism (E&N) is epistemologically self-defeating; his response is to argue that even if Plantinga’s argument initially works, it gives us no lasting reason to insist on the hypothesis of an Intelligent Designer. Once we’ve reasonably determined that having reliable cognitive capacities (R) supervenes on a particular constitution (C), even if we have to begin with the hypothesis that God created us so that R is true in order to reasonably make that discovery, Clayton argues that, since Plantinga is not claiming that God makes it the case that the conditional probability of R on C is high, [but] that by accepting T, we learn that R on C is high, then if we take him at his word in this claim, the conditional probability of R on C is high enough that we can rationally believe R and can rationally believe that R would be true so long as C is true even if E&N were true, too. But if that’s so, it seems we’ve climbed the ladder and are ready to kick it away. And once we’ve done that, we have no reason to think E&N cannot be accepted. Thus, it may be Plantinga’s justification for theism, and not naturalism, that contains the seeds of its own destruction.

  • Questions about self-defeating hypotheses, intelligent design and the chances that our world would turn out to be the way it is tangentially inspired Chris @ The Uncredible Hallq (2006-01-02) in A Gambler’s Epistemology, where he considers how far a common response to radical skepticism can be rationally sustained. A common response to radically skeptical thesis (we can’t know if the sun will rise tomorrow, we can’t know whether we’re living in a Matrix-type world or not) is, well, true, but if the sun won’t rise tomorrow, there’s nothing we can do about it. [I’ve] toyed with a broader form of that idea in a previous post on proof. The broad form is reject possibilities that cannot be evaluated on the evidence, because if they’re true, there’s nothing we can do about it. For example, if there’s some evidence that we do in fact live in a Matrix-world, we could consider the evidence, but we must reject the idea of a Matrix-world that is impossible to identify as such. But, Chris worries, discarding a hypothesis just because it defeats our epistemological hopes seems shaky; it seems to rely on a postulate to the effect that a world without undiscoverable secrets are more likely to be the world we live in than a world with undiscoverable secrets. And if ID theorists don’t have a right to the apriori determinations of probabilities that they often lay claim to in order to justify their arguments against naturalism in general or evolution specifically, then it seems that anti-skeptics don’t have a right to apriori determinations of probabilities in order to defeat skepticism, either.

  • Meanwhile, Richard Chappell @ Philosophy, et cetera (2006-01-06): Transcendental Arguments also considers a form of argument from self-defeat, which he calls Transcendental Arguments, or Practical Arguments. (It’s unclear to me whether what Richard has in mind is identical with what Kant famously had in mind when he talked about transcendental arguments. I expect that it has a lot to do with how you spell out the details.) What I have in mind, he says, are those assumptions that we must make as a precondition to any sort of intellectual progress. Or, more generally, those things that we ought to believe because we’ve got nothing to lose by doing so. If they’re false then we’re screwed anyway, so we might as well just believe them and hope for the best …. it’s not as if the arguments do anything to establish the truth of the belief in question; they merely show that we might as well believe it. As an example, he offers arguments for believing in free will and the laws of thought based on the principle that if we can choose to believe anything, or if we can rationally demonstrate any belief, then there must be free will and the laws of logic must apply; and if we can’t, then we didn’t make the wrong choice or else we couldn’t gain a justified belief by believing otherwise (since without the laws of logic there is no rational justification at all). Wagering against them is in some important respect self-defeating (since at best it is no better justified than the competing view), so go ahead and place your bets on free will and logic. Richard closes by asking whether this sort of reasoning is in fact any good, and where else it might be applied if it is. This may be a good reply to Hallq’s worries as to where the evidential force of the nothing to lose comes from when we dismiss undiscoverable secrets (including radical skepticism) from consideration in looking for good explanations of the world; or it may be subject to exactly the objection to that strategy that Hallq raises. Beware: dialogue may be close at hand!

  • On the topic of good explanations and undiscoverable secrets, Doctor Logic (2006-01-03): More on explanation offers an attempt to work out just what explanation is, and how a good explanation might or might not relate to explainers that are beyond our ken. The good Doctor suggests that the essential feature of an explanation is a predictive function from causes to effects; he suggests that as long as the predictive function is there, the cause could be either visible or secret, but that purported explanations where the purported cause is such that it leaves no evidential trace, then what we have is not even a bad explanation or an unscientific one, but simply fails to give an explanation of the phenomena at all. If this account of explanation works, it would mean (among other things) that radically skeptical hypotheses fail to even offer an alternative explanation of our experiences for us to consider.

  • Thinking about explanation and the limits thereof naturally brings us to the explanation of thinking, and whether those limits can encompass explanations of conscious mental states by means of natural facts. Ellis Seagh @ Consciousness and Culture (2005-12-21): Light and darkness: consciousness and reflex takes issue with Chalmers’ claim of an inevitable explanatory gap between natural (neurochemical) properties and first-person phenomenal properties. Why is the performance of these functions [that are in the vicinity of experience] accompanied by experience? Chalmers asks, in the paper that re-introduced the idea of an explanatory gap in all attempts to construct an explanation of consciousness. A little later he puts the same question a bit differently: Why doesn’t all this information-processing go on in the dark, free of any inner feel? It was, presumably, his inability to find an answer to such questions that lay behind his use of the zombie thought-experiment to argue against a materialist, and in favor of a dualist, approach to comprehending consciousness as a phenomenon. My argument here, however, is that he gave up too quickly. Specifically, Seagh argues, there seem to be obvious differences between typical examples of unconscious mental functions and typical examples of conscious mental functions, and these differences seem to have a natural explanation: conscious experience. But if phenomenal properties play an explanatory role in natural processes, then Chalmer’s claim of a systematic explanatory gap seems to be premature.

  • From one sort of explanatory gap to another: we’ve looked at the purported gap between the natural and the phenomenal; now let’s look at the purported gap between the natural and the normative. It’s common enough to note cases in which an is fails to completely account for an ought; but David Shoemaker @ PEA Soup (2006-01-02): Carnivores on the Run looks at a case in which an ought fails to determine an is, even though it seems that it should — I’m a carnivore. Yes, I said it. But I’m finding there to be less and less of a rational justification for this position. (That’s probably an inaccurate way of putting it, for it may be that there just is no rational justification for it, and never has been, in which case the scalar dimension of this comment refers literally to the degree of scales that have fallen from my eyes, rather than to the degree of justification itself.) Nevertheless, I also find myself utterly unmotivated to change my ways. And I know I’m not alone here (I know for a fact that there’s at least one other PEA brain, for example, who is in the same situation). So what’s going on? David goes on to briefly outline the standard marginal case arguments for ethical vegetarianism, and then asks: if you find the arguments for ethical vegetarianism convincing, but keep on eating meat anyway, what sort of ethical and cognitive position might you be in? Broadly speaking, what do we say about everyday habits that go against the ethical principles we find intellectually convincing?

  • Marginal cases and meat-eating brings us to a couple of guest posts I recently contributed. There’s Rad Geek @ Philosophy, et cetera (2005-12-05): Freak intelligence, marginal cases, and the argument for ethical vegetarianism and Rad Geek @ Philosophy, et cetera (2005-12-07): The ends in the world as we know it. The first concerns the argument itself: I think that we have some pretty substantial ethical obligations toward non-human animals (hereafter: “animals”; sorry, taxonomic correctness). In fact, I think those obligations are substantial enough that we’re ethically bound, among other things, to stop slaughtering cattle, pigs, chickens, etc. for food. I can’t say, though, that I’m particularly thrilled with the state of the philosophical debate, and in particular I’m not particularly thrilled with a lot of the arguments that try to defend something like my conclusion. Part of the problem is a problem that’s general in a lot of applied ethics: the desire to make arguments that seem to be compatible with a lot of very different philosophical or meta-ethical views tends to end up with arguments that are actually compatible with only a very narrow view of what the world contains. (That’s because, by design, anything that looks too philosophically murky or controversial is pared away in order to make the argument’s appeal broad enough. But what if the world really does have philosophically murky or controversial features?) As a chief example, take the argument over so-called marginal cases and the ethical significance of belonging to a particular species. I go over marginal case arguments more closely and try to set out a response making use of Michael Thompson’s work in The Representation of Life on aristotelian categoricals (which are explored at greater length in the second guest post) and the natural properties of living creatures; the upshot is that carnivores might be able to defend themselves by an appeal to the natural capacity for rationality (of some kind or other) that humans have. (I don’t think the defense is convincing, but showing why requires detail work on the relation between moral standing and rationality, rather than a schematic marginal cases argument.)

  • The question of marginal cases and natural capacities brings us to Patrick @ Tiberius and Gaius Speaking… (2006-01-06): Capability and Potentiality: The philosophical debates over abortion and the rights of animals are beset by a common question: what characteristic(s), if any, can be listed and described to correctly pick out members of our moral community? In the abortion debates, the worry is that all the arguments that demonstrate the permissibility of abortion also establish the permissibility of infanticide. And since infanticide is pretty roundly condemned, that’s a problem. Similarly, many have argued that no account of what constitutes humanity will include marginal cases like infants or the cognitively disabled but exclude more sophisticated animals. Patrick suggests that a distinction among different kinds of natural capacity — specifically, between potentiality and capability, and then between physical capability and what he calls actual capability, may make some progress toward a solution. If the moral standing of human beings is connected with rationality (as is often suggested in both abortion and animal rights debates), then you’ll get different rules depending on whether you are citing the actual capability for minimal rationality (which would allow for killing fetuses, infants, adults with severe cognitive disabilities, and beasts), bare potentiality for minimal rationality (which would prohibit killing not only fetuses and infants, but perhaps even sperm, eggs, or skin cells under the right conditions), or physical capability for minimal rationality (which might–pending further results from developmental physiology, anyway–allow for killing beasts and aborting early pregnancies, but draw the line somewhere fairly late in pregnancy). Patrick favors physical capability for minimal rationality as drawing the line in something like the intuitive place.

As always, you really should read the whole thing.

The 25th installment will appear at The Uncredible Hallq, sometime in late January. Keep your eyes peeled!

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