Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Certain Lightness of Mind

There’s that famous quote, attributed to the Buddha, that if you want to find water you should dig one six-foot well instead of six one-foot wells. In other words, seekers for truth should commit to one kind of philosophy fully, not skip from philosophy to philosophy like a dilettante. It’s a very religious idea, stressing as it does the importance of faith. Don’t give up at the first problem, it urges. Live your philosophy, despite obstacles, and you will find out its strengths better than you ever could by simply thinking about it.

I think that many people hold this kind of approach naturally. To learn philosophy you need to unlearn this tendency to commitment, however. Philosophers need a certain lightness of mind, an ability to dance over four or five competing ideas without bias. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

First-years learning about utilitarianism for the first time are generally struck by its simplicity and power. Certainly I was. Fine, I thought. I will believe this and see where it gets me. And so many of the arguments against utilitarianism – thought experiments where the utilitarian choice seemed immoral – had little effect on me. I responded like a Catholic: despite my intuition, these actions must be correct. I took the disconnect between my moral intuition and utilitarianism to be a defect in my intuition, and trusted that as I “kept on” with utilitarianism my intuition would catch up.

Now, of course, I have no problem hearing new ideas with only one ear. I have acquired an admirable lightness of mind, and I can read through five or six different philosophies without properly agreeing or disagreeing with any of them. This is obviously an enormous improvement, and I hope that in a few years I might be a good enough philosopher to neither agree or disagree with anything.


Olafson on Solipsism

In his book on Wittgenstein and ethics, Olafson briefly sketches a wonderful criticism of the solipsistic position that we cannot be sure of the existence of other minds. The existence of other minds, Olafson writes, is a precondition of our ability to think and argue about things like the existence of other minds. In fact, the fact that we have debates on solipsism is in one sense inherently surreal. Imagine a group of philosophers debating with each other in conferences, sending emails and writing papers, taking into account each other’s ideas, and so on – on the topic of whether those people with which they are collaborating really exist.

This kind of doubt, Olafson suggests, is a mistake that reflects a problem with your philosophical approach. It’s impossible to genuinely doubt the existence of other people since, as Wittgenstein argues at length, our own existence is inextricably bound up with that of others. We exist as Mitsein, being-with, and so on. It is impossible to be a person alone.

If I Had A Gun

If I had a gun, by Gig Ryan, posted without comment.

I’d shoot the man who pulled up slowly in his hot car this morning

I’d shoot the man who whistled from his balcony

I’d shoot the man with things dangling over his creepy chest

in the park when I was contemplating the universe

I’d shoot the man who can’t look me in the eye

who stares at my boobs when we’re talking

who rips me off in the milk-bar and smiles his wet purple smile

who comments on my clothes. I’m not a fucking painting that needs to be told what it looks like.

who tells me where to put my hands, who wrenches me into position

like a meccano-set, who drags you around like a war

I’d shoot the man who couldn’t live without me

It goes on here.

Does Moral Philosophy Rest On A Mistake?

That’s the provocative title of Harold Arthur Prichard’s famous 1912 essay. Prichard is cited frequently by Korsgaard, who uses him as a kind of moral skeptic to bounce her arguments off. Here’s what he wrote.

Moral philosophy, according to Prichard, comes in two varieties: attempts to justify moral actions by showing that they are in our best interest, and attempts to justify moral actions by showing that they are sort of inherently ‘good’. Let’s deal with the first variety.

Say you’ve got a debt to repay, but if you repay it you’ll have to eat ramen for a month. “I don’t want to eat ramen!” you say. “Why should I have to repay my debt?” Well, the moral philosopher replies, if you don’t repay your debt other people won’t trust you. Moreover, you’ll eventually turn into a bitter, suspicious person, and die unhappy. “Wow,” you say, “I guess I ought to repay my debt after all!” The moral philosopher has successfully convinced you to act ethically.

But has he really? Prichard says no, since the philosopher has failed to convince you that you ought to pay your debts. He’s only made you want to pay them. Instead of cultivating a moral desire within you, he’s given you a powerful non-moral desire that does sort of the same job.

Prichard argues that any action taken from a powerful desire (even a desire to do good) is not a moral action. His argument gets a little complicated here. On one level, acting from a desire turns “obligation into inclination”. Instead of acting from your moral obligations, you’re simply doing what you want to do. But can’t the second variety of moral philosopher say that certain desires are good desires? No, Prichard says! That’s a fundamental error in thought. Look at it this way: we can only be obligated to do “something which is within our power”. But the only things within our power are actions. We can’t “will to will,” Prichard argues: our desires are out of our control, and so it doesn’t make sense to say that some are ethical and some aren’t.

So we can’t locate moral goodness in our desires. This leaves us two other options: to say that actions can be inherently good, or to say that certain things in the world can be inherently good. The first roughly corresponds to Kantian ethics, and the second corresponds to utilitarian ethics.

Prichard begins his criticism of the actions-are-good line by claiming that we simply can’t consider actions separately from their motives. He divides motives into two categories – desires and duties – and immediately does away with actions motivated by desires (using the argument above). What about actions motivated by duties?

Again, Prichard’s idea here is complicated. He’s arguing against the idea that somebody can consider an action, observe that it would be a morally good action, then from that observation decide that therefore they ought to do it. Prichard’s argument goes like this: when we decide that an action is morally good, that presupposes the sense of obligation to do it. Instead of deciding what we ought to do by looking at which actions are morally good, we decide which actions are morally good by considering what we ought most to do. So it doesn’t make sense to say that an action can be inherently good, since in practice we locate the goodness elsewhere (in, I think Prichard means, the sense of obligation).

To summarize: we can’t justify morality through appeals to our self-interest, because even if successful all we’ve done is given a non-moral reason. We can’t justify morality through calling desires or virtues moral, because we can’t control our desires and surely morality, whatever it is, has to be within our control. We can’t justify morality through calling actions moral, because either moral actions spring from a non-moral desire or a sense of obligation that accounts for the moral thing instead of the action itself. So what do we conclude?

Prichard concludes that this mysterious sense of obligation is the source of morality, but it’s not the kind of source we can ask questions about. It’s not a desire, he argues, or even a purpose. And it’s not unified: there are a number of differing obligations, just as there are a number of differing virtues (courage, humility, etc). Moreover, Prichard claims that our sense of obligation is the “immediate” result of a process of “moral thought”. How should we think about tricky ethical situations, according to Prichard? Don’t engage in “general [moral] thinking”. Instead, get “face to face with a particular instance of the situation,” so you can directly appreciate the obligations that bear upon you.

G.E. Moore’s Ethics: What is Ethics?

To my mind, the best thing about G.E. Moore’s Ethics is Moore’s evident commitment to clarity and precision. It’s a great example of the school of analytic philosophy, and like any good analytic philosopher Moore sets out precisely the question he aims to answer at the beginning. What, according to Moore, are the main questions in the field of ethics?  It’s rare to see questions like these explicitly stated, so let me just directly summarize them:

1) What is it that we mean to say of an action when we say that it is right or ought to be done?

2) What is it that we mean to say of a state of things when we say that it is good or bad?

3) Can we discover any general characteristic that belongs in common to absolutely all right actions… and does not belong to any actions except those which are right?

4) Can we discover any characteristic that belongs in common to all ‘good’ things, and does not belong to any things that are not good?

5) Can we discover any single reason, applicable to all right actions equally, that is the reason why such actions are right?

6) Can we discover any single reason which is the reason why a thing is good, if it is good, and justifies why some things are better than others?

7) Finally, is there no such single reason in one or more of these cases?

Note Moore’s mathematical care in the statement of these questions. He is very cautious about conflating questions of right action and right state of affairs, and very cautious about conflating characteristics of right action with reasons why those actions are right.

Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument

Is it possible to have a “private language”? Say you have a sensation that is yours alone, and does not fit into any kind of communicable language structure. It’s so peculiar, so individual that you simply cannot express it with common words. So you call it “S”, and when you experience it you tell yourself “that was S”. The word “S” then is a word in your private language.

Wittgenstein thought that the above thought experiment could never happen in reality. Language, on his view, just doesn’t work like that. I will quote liberally from Korsgaard’s reading of Wittgenstein to explain his view. The concept of meaning, Wittgenstein thought, is fundamentally relational: meaning is created through the relationship of an individual with others, not just an individual with himself.

This is because meaning is normative – there is an element of “ought” to it. In Korsgaard’s words, “to say that X means Y is to say that one ought to take X for Y.” Now a normative relationship requires two people: somebody to lay down the rule, and somebody else to obey it. Why does it require two people? Because in all meaning there must be the possibility of error. Korsgaard writes that “if what you call S is just that sensation that makes you feel like saying ‘S’ … then you cannot be wrong.” Without some shared convention, the word “S” has no anchor.

To hopelessly confuse the issue, there is a link here between Wittgenstein’s argument and Kierkegaard’s prescient critique of Nietzsche’s “sovereign individual”. If the only rules you have are rules you lay down for yourself, those rules turn out not to be rules at all. In Evans’ words, “our awareness that our own arbitrary choice is the basis of the authority is sufficient to undermine the authority, since we realize that we can at any time make a new choice.” Like rules of personal conduct, linguistic meaning can only exist in the context of a community.

Getting back to Wittgenstein, we can see that a private language is not a language at all – or, at least, it does not share what we might consider to be essential features of a language. Unless the meaning of “S” is publicly acknowledged, Wittgenstein writes that “I have no criterion of correctness… whatever seems right to me is right. And that only means that here we cannot talk about ‘right’.” In short, statements in a private language can never be false – which means they can also never be true in any meaningful sense.

Natural Kinds in Moral Philosophy

One way of doing moral philosophy is to restrict yourself to analyzing the moral concepts we use. Instead of asking “why ought we to be just”, ask “what is justice anyway?” What kind of situations do we generally call just or unjust? What type of actions elicit moral approval or disapproval? What is “blame”, after all, and what prompts it to rear its head? These kind of questions, I want to argue, are an attempt to discover natural kinds in the way we think about ethics.

A natural kind, roughly speaking, is a way of classifying things that “carves the world at its joints”. Obviously “tiger” only exists as an abstract concept, as a word signifying a collection of animals that share certain properties. But – for complicated reasons involving genetics – we consider “tiger” to be more accurate than, say, a word that collects all animals that happen to be facing north at this particular moment. We generally say that the second word is arbitrary, while “tigers” do actually exist in the real world.

In the same way we consider some ways of judging moral actions to be arbitrary, while others less so. Surely the colloquial sense of “freedom” does refer to some coherent, valuable thing in the real world (although many of us might consider Ayn Rand’s brand of freedom differently). There is useful philosophical work to be done in teasing out exactly what we refer to when we use words like freedom, justice and equality – or to put it another way, why concepts like “pain” and “consent” are morally significant but concepts like “hair color” are not.

Of course, this line of inquiry gets us nowhere with the normative element of moral philosophy. Even if we can set out exactly what we mean by justice, there’s no guarantee that a “just” action is actually an action we ought to perform. However, breaking apart concepts like justice can be very productive. Jade (the precious stone) is the canonical example of where natural kinds are useful. Jade can refer to two kinds of rock – jadeite and nephrite – which, from a chemical perspective, are very different. It is clear that, for a chemist, “jade” simply does not work as a natural kind: it is necessary to zero in on the precise nature of the mineral.

Likewise in moral philosophy. If we establish (for instance) two distinct types of ‘justice’, it will become necessary to ask ourselves which kind we are using in any particular moral decision – which may, like the chemist working with nephrite, lead us to avoid common moral mistakes.