Forgive Me My Humean Trespasses

The gap between 25 and 30 is not very big in absolute terms, but it can certainly seem that way.

That is how I felt as I reread a post on morality that I wrote five years ago. Back then, I was pretty devoted to David Hume’s philosophy, and had been for some time. Part of it was due to many conversation with my father, for whom Hume loomed large as well. Part of it was that I’d actually read Hume, and not much else where philosophy was concerned. And in spite of that lack of familiarity with the alternatives (a shortcoming not shared by my father) I had an utter certainty in it.

This in spite of the fact that the very philosophy I was certain of had, as a cornerstone, the idea that reasoning was powerless to discover or demonstrate much of anything. This cornerstone eventually led me to conclude that there was no such thing as reason at all. Looking back, I want to ask that 25-year-old—how can you be so certain, when you are so unfamiliar with the arguments to the contrary and don’t even believe that certainty is ever warranted?

Martin Cothran made basically this argument, when he and his son Thomas engaged my father and I in discussion back at that time.

Against Unreason

One aspect of my framework of the time was the notion that utter inconsistency didn’t matter. In talking about the relationship between God and morality, I argued that there was no logical connection between the two, and also that logical connections don’t matter.

Responding to my piece, Martin Cothran made a move that has lately become familiar to me:

I’m not sure I understand exactly what he is saying here in regard to the role of reason in moral discourse. If logic is “irrelevant to whether or not I believe in either God or morality,” then why should anyone find his point that there is “no logical inconsistency in the fact that I don’t believe in a divinity but do believe in morality” persuasive? If logic is not operative in the discussion of the relation between God and morality, then why is the absence of logical inconsistency in a position on this relation commendable?

Though I had not read a word of Foucault at the time, I think this position was more in his court than Hume’s. I held onto this point about inconsistency for a very long time, but after our own Drew Summit began sending me works in Aristotelian and Thomist metaphysics, I began to see the absurdity of it. The last straw for me was Elliot Michael Milco’s fantastic thesis, “Michel Foucault and Thomas Aquinas in Dialogue on the Basis and Consummation of Intelligibility“.

As Martin pointed out, it’s rather hard to make any assertion at all with teeth if you don’t care about consistency. My argument about inconsistency undermined my argument about the logical connection between God and morality—if consistency doesn’t matter, then there could both be no logical connection between God and morality, and be a completely crucial logical relationship between God and morality—simultaneously. Productive analysis would prove impossible.

In discussing this point with my father, he argued that it doesn’t apply to human relations. His example was that it’s possible to both love and hate someone. But this isn’t a true inconsistency—no one would argue that love and hate are mutually exclusive. And if you do argue that, then you are committed to defending the idea that you can’t both love and hate someone at the same time, by definition.

Moreover, I very strongly believed that I had made a case for my Humean framework. I made what Joseph Heath identified as a typical non-cognitivist mistake; I used general-skeptic arguments and thought I only undermined my opponents’ position.

Aporia, the beginning of so many philosophical investigations, is precisely the discovery of seeming inconsistencies. Not everyone needs to be bothered with such things, to be sure. But the advance of our knowledge requires us to attempt to uncover whether inconsistencies are merely superficial, or whether some deeper revision in our framework is necessary.

Man Cannot Flourish On Moral Sentiments Alone

The most particularly Humean aspect of my framework at the time was what I later learned was called non-cognitivism. It’s the idea that we don’t think something is wrong because of judgment or beliefs, but because of feelings. As my father put it in his contribution to the discussion five years ago:

We don’t reason our way to condemnation of child abuse: we grow angry at the sight of it. Later, we may devise rational arguments to persuade others – sometimes ourselves – of the rightness of our opinions and actions. But I feel the wrongness of child abuse with a delicacy that, say, an ancient Spartan would have lacked.

As the Sparta example was intended to indicate, there is a strong cultural element involved in the shaping of our moral sentiments. In this way, morality is reduced to unthinking feeling combined with unreflective cultural practice (rather than theory). They combine to form a non-cognitive cocktail.

Among the evidence that he brings to the fore is Jonathan Haidt’s “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail,” in which Haidt points out that people jump to moral conclusions first and rationalize after the fact.

In response, Thomas Cothran argues that we mixed up moral psychology with moral philosophy.

This opposition is founded upon a category mistake. The question of why people believe in certain moral principles belongs do the discipline of moral psychology; the question whether those moral principles are true belongs to moral philosophy. Obviously people can believe in true things for false reasons: just because one’s belief that Caesar existed is predicated upon the belief that the television show “Rome” is a documentary does not make the historical arguments any less valid. Further, people often believe in true things on the basis of beliefs that don’t have much to do with the truth or falsity of the subject: people might believe in relativity theory because Stephan Hawking believes in it, but the fact that Hawking has an opinion on the subject doesn’t bear on the truth or falsity of relativity theory. The process of evaluating the truths of beliefs is distinct from the process of evaluating how different people come to their beliefs.

From our very different projections of the whole truth of morality, Jonathan Haidt’s study has commensurately different implications. For my father and I, it seemed to confirm the Humean processes at work. For Thomas, it seemed like an ad hominem attack on moral realism, because it attempted to discredit it by means of the psychology of particular people.

I have come around to Thomas’s point of view. The idea that Haidt’s study on moral reasoning discredits moral realism now seems to me akin to making the argument that Kahneman’s studies showing people are bad at statistical reasoning is evidence against the validity of statistics.

Moreover, I have come believe that all of non-cognitivism’s core premises are simply false. First, desires are not non-cognitive. As our own Sam Hammond put it:

It’s tempting to think of desires as following a linear chain down to some base foundational affect, implanted somewhat arbitrarily by evolution. But this is an elementary error.

While true that evolution has equipped us with certain somatic states (like hunger pangs), desire (like “I desire to eat”) contains propositional content. Like beliefs, desires are part of a holistic web that we draw from in the discursive game of giving or asking for reasons. In turn, desires like beliefs are capable of being updated based on rational argumentation and the demand for coherence.

This is actually quite close to what Aristotle believed.

Let’s take the child abuse example my father provided. We don’t just see a thing and unthinkingly get angry about it. In order to get angry, we have to have grasped what the situation is. The anger comes from the belief that child abuse is wrong and that it is occurring. This is crucial—in many cases of child abuse (or other wrongs), the thing is allowed to keep going on precisely because we don’t want to acknowledge that a loved one or an important person in the community is capable of doing such a thing. People go out of their way not to notice or acknowledge something going on right in front of them, because to notice would be to acknowledge a duty to act. How we construe a situation is not simply reflexive; we have a dual responsibility as audience of the situation as well as part-authors of our own.

The Spartan example points to how pliable even the belief that child abuse is bad can be. But culture, convention, and tradition are not simply unthinking practice. Like desire, they have a cognitive content, they have intentionality. As Adam Adatto Sandel puts:

Despite all appearance and without explicit “innovation and planning,” tradition is constantly in motion. What might seem to be blind perpetuation of the old, or mechanical habit, always has a “projective” dimension. Handing down tradition really means adapting it to the current circumstances, maintaining it in the face of other possibilities. And through such preservation, tradition is constantly being redefined: “affirmed, embraced, cultivated.” Although this process operates, for the most part, unconsciously, it is nevertheless critical. The distinction between tradition and reason is ultimately unfounded.

For an in depth treatment of this very subject, see this post. Suffice it to say that in as much as Martin and Thomas Cothran buy into Alasdair MacIntyre’s vision of tradition, I think they, too, fall into error.

But in an email, Thomas provided a picture of Aristotle’s method that strikes me as the correct one:

First, Aristotle doesn’t have a rigid system, his inquiry is responsive to the conditions of the everyday world. Second, Aristotle’s method does make room for cultural difference, but not in a way that precludes finding some ultimate truth. A culture may have good or bad practices and beliefs, but in any case they can neither be accepted uncritically or ignored in favor of some abstract rule. And finally, Aristotle’s method requires that we evaluate his arguments for ourselves — he never encourages his readers to accept things on his own say so, and his thinking is designed to be taken up critically.

In terms of “finding some ultimate truth,” I interpret him as saying that we can find moral truths that are not culturally relative. However, we do not have some logical foundation that puts such truths beyond doubt, and what knowledge we obtain—ultimate or otherwise—is fallible knowledge, just like human knowledge in any domain.

The Tragic Nature of the World

My father asserted:

Every morality is erected on ideals. Every ideal is an unattainable model of behavior. Every good person is inching toward an ideal vision of himself: that person-as-he-could-be.

To which Thomas responded:

[T]he assertion that “[e]very ideal is an unattainable model of behavior” is manifestly false: many ideals (such as the ideal that people ought not murder each other) are more attained than not.

I think this is a nit-pick, and that Thomas misses the tragic vision of the world behind my father’s statement. Human arrangements and ideals always have gaps in them that cannot be filled; an ideal that is “more attained than not” is often either undemanding, or—in the case of murder—is often attained at the expense of some other ideal. The police and prison apparatus that we built up in this country over the past couple of decades is rife with abuses of its own, some quite horrible. But I don’t want to quibble over particular points—the larger image of human beings as inherently imperfect and imperfectible, but also as striving and struggling towards betterment, is the right one.

It is because of this tragic nature, however, that authority is an ineradicable aspect of human life. Martin Cothran asked me how, in my framework at the time, “any moral statement can be considered authoritative over human behavior.” My father answered with a call to embrace contingency:

By embracing contingency, nothing is lost. No moral proposition can ever be “authoritative over human behavior” – Cothran’s phrase – in the absolute way that gravity has authority over bodies in space. An ideal must always be chosen, and always there will be those who refuse to do so: bad persons, weak persons, good persons in a weak moment.

I have come to think that authority—of ideals and of persons—is an ineradicable aspect of human life. But I wouldn’t call it authority “in the absolute way that gravity has authority of bodies in space.” At minimum, it is contingent on the existence of the human race. And a good Aristotelian would say that a great deal is indeed contingent on the circumstances—without ruling out the possibility of ultimate (but human) truths.

3 thoughts on “Forgive Me My Humean Trespasses

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