Morality Is And Ought To Be Circular

Featured image is Spirals, by M. C. Escher.

A lot of bad moral philosophy boils down to a simple assertion that X is bad because Y. X is something we all agree is bad ahead of time, and Y is the justification the philosopher is attempting to supply after the fact. The problem is not that this reasoning is motivated. The problem is the reasoning itself.

If X is bad because of standard Y, why is standard Y good? Well, because of meta-standard Z, of course. And on and on—we have entered the classic infinite regress. Foundationalism from Descartes to the present attempted to find the last step in chains like this—Z because Alpha, full stop. But foundationalism is a failed projected, doomed because it attempts to supply a firm answer to a bad question.

Lest you think I exaggerate the viciousness of these regresses or the folly of foundationalism, see the discussion in the comments of this post. This fellow earnestly believes that “because it impeded humanity’s progress” is the correct answer to the question “why was it wrong to mass murder six million innocents?” When pressed on the matter, he pointed out that we’ve had “thou shalt not kill” for thousands of years, but people keep on killing each other. Thus, we need something more persuasive to make it stop, and apparently “killing impedes progress” is it.

Except there seems to be a problem here, according to the very criteria introduced. The notion of progress is very old itself, yet many of schools thought reject the very idea of it. What is more, the very people who perpetrated the mass murder of 6 million innocents believed that they were doing it to advance the cause of progress. So it seems that not everyone has been persuaded either that progress is good, or that that its being good entails mass murder being bad.

Maybe yet another link in the chain of reasoning is needed. Progress is good because it hedges our bets against extinction, and does so by preserving and creating diversity. Thus, to mass murder in the name of progress is an error, because that reduces diversity. Conceptual problem solved!

But why should we care about extinction, or hedging against it? That might not be a problem in our lifetime. In the meantime, I could indulge in a myopic hedonism, which could include relishing the suffering and death of my enemies and their tribes.

But I belabor this example. The problem has its roots in foundationalist thinking in general. To move beyond it, we must look elsewhere.

Morality properly understood is circular, though not a closed circle. We might instead call it a spiral.

In a previous post on the subject I drew an analogy with how we understand what a good heart is. We do not say that a properly functioning heart should pump blood because blood is good because oxygen is good, and so on. We observe the function of the heart in the context of the circulatory system, which itself is understood in relation to the other systems which make up the body. The operations of the body help us see what the heart is, and seeing what the heart is helps us understand the operations of the body.

The moral spiral is just this sort of back and forth movement between the system—in this case frameworks of evaluation—and the particular good or bad. Human life as it is lived, in practice, points to such frameworks, which in turn provide the context for understanding particular episodes in specific lives.

For this reason, portrayal in art is a far richer resource for morality than philosophy or any other intellectual field. Narrative, painting, poetry, and even music disclose worlds to us that can only be accessed through portrayal of this sort. Worlds that always exceed what we articulate about them. Who can read Eli Wiesel’s Night and believe some external justification is required to demonstrate that the Holocaust was an atrocity? Only the coldest rationalist, committed to an inappropriately applied ethic of inhumanly detached reason. For the rest of us, it is plain enough to see.

The task of philosophy is to flesh out articulations of these implicit frameworks, however finite and flawed these articulations may be compared to the multitudes contained in artistic portrayal and lived practice. But these articulations do create more resources for evaluating our practices; in the factories of death we may see the moral deformity of industrial society as a way of life in general, and the art which implicitly defends it. Articulation is not a mere rationalization of what is implicit in the practice; it provides the means not only for defense but for criticism. From there the argument becomes hermeneutical—do we read Night in the way described, or does it better fit into a framework which reduces all actions coordinated by government to violence? There are no knock-down arguments here, but if we are open to our interlocutors, we can muddle our way through, doing the best we can to find the correct framework.

Finally, the fact that these articulations owe their origin to culturally specific practice should not be taken for evidence of some specific metaphysics. All of the above could be consistent with platonism, theism, or some version of materialism. Charles Taylor, from whom I have taken most of this, believes that the latter is precluded. His former student Joseph Heath does not. For myself, I think some version of aristotelianism is the most likely candidate.

But that is a larger discussion. The main takeaway I’d like to leave you with is that morality has this circular structure, and that many alternatives remain in play as possible explanations.

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Torturing the Data, Attending to the Text

by Timo Elliott
by Timo Elliott

The risk of talking about context is the temptation to treat it as some undifferentiated thing. Just add three more cups of context, stir, and voila—a valid interpretation of the facts. I tried to show by example that this was not so, but the distinctions among context are worthy of independent investigation.

Continue reading “Torturing the Data, Attending to the Text”

Universals and Meaning As Use

Take the sentence “Fido is a dog.” From this, we are entitled to infer various other sentences by substituting for a subsentential component. Thus we are entitled to infer “Fido is a mammal.” We are also entitled to infer “My pet is a dog.” The difference is that the latter inference is reversible, while the former is not. From “Fido is a mammal” we are not entitled to infer that “Fido is a dog,” whereas we can infer “Fido is a dog” from “My pet is a dog.” The particular, in other words, is that segment of the sentence that has symmetric substitution relations, while the universal is the one that does not. It is this symmetry that gives us the notion of different particulars being “coreferential,” and out of that, the very idea that there is an object to which singular terms refer.

Joseph Heath

This simple insight just saved you hours of cannabis fueled dorm room philosophy debates about the existence of universals. You’re welcome.

The key all along was to think of the meaning or content of a word as being derived from its use in a sentence—that is, from its contribution to a judgment. And judgments are things we do. They are actions… speech actions, like the act of asserting something. Just as a valid chess move is governed by shared rules over permissible actions rather than the intrinsic properties of a chess piece itself, shared rules of inference and judgment govern valid moves in discourse, rather than the intrinsic properties of words and concepts—much less the arbitrary phonemes that attach to them.

Leonardo_polyhedra[1]

It’s easy to see how this resolves a lot of the problems created by the other school of thought, the one that locates meaning and content in reference, in sign and signified. If meaning comes from reference, then what does the universal “dog” mean absent its particular instantiations? Platonists thought the question demanded there must be an ideal dog, an abstract object with reality just as real as the particular Fido on your lap, perhaps an idea in the mind of God. Nominalists rightly thought that was absurd, and so instead posited that universals are just names that refer to particular things with common properties—preserving the same meaning as reference that led Plato down the wrong track in the first place.

It’s edifying to realize thousands of pages of scholarship, and centuries of debate within Medieval Europe, stemmed from a confusion generated by the inferential structure of ordinary language. Indeed, the failure to make meaning as reference “work” as a theory, combined with the odd resistance to giving it up, has led generations of “semioticians” to radical conclusions like nihilism, post-structuralism, and moral error theory, when it turns out the starting premise was unmotivated in the first place.

Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box analogy provides a great illustration of the basic idea. It shows how we can talk meaningfully about concepts, i.e. signs, even without direct access to the private, subjective perception of the thing “signified”. Instead, the shared, public meaning of any given word (like beetle) is given by its use, its pragmatics, particularly in the context of a sentence.

That’s why Wittgenstein argued a language can never be totally private. The rules of discourse, like the rules of chess, only make sense insofar as they are shared. Sure, you could invent a new board game with all new rules that only you know. But when you make a move in a game that no one else around you can recognize you might as well be speaking gibberish.

How We Think: a Simple Model

mind
Drilled Mind by Roman Klco

Forgive the clumsy workings of a mind untutored in philosophy of mind. But it has always been my way to read, and think, and argue, and then try to pull the threads together and see what emerges. What I lack in training I will try to make up for with brevity.

Crucial for understanding anything is understanding the context. The context is what is meant when people speak of the whole truth as opposed to partial truths. However, context—the whole truth—is boundless, and so whenever we attempt to grasp it, we’re always projecting and simplifying.

A partial truth might be dropping something, and a projection of the whole truth would be classical physics.

We can make sense of the centuries long tug-of-war between Enlightenment rationalists and empiricists from this perspective. The rationalist argument boiled down to the idea that we can never make sense of observed truths, which are always partial, without working out the whole truth abstractly beforehand. Empiricists basically believed the opposite; you add up a lot of partial observations until you get the whole truth.

Philosophical hermeneutics for the past century has taken another path, saying, in essence, you need both at once.

As Jonathan Haidt points out, people don’t really have a rational model of morality in mind when they make in the moment ethical judgments. His observation could be extended to nearly any judgement; more of the whole gets left out than is brought in explicitly. But there is an important two-way relationship between part and whole here. So how does it work?

Crucially, we externalize most of the tools for our thinking; Andy Clark calls this “extended cognition.” Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson point out that the most important way individual knowledge is externalized is through the social environment; that is, through other people. In large part this is accomplished by trusting the people in our lives and the people we perceive to be authorities on a subject, and having faith that the apparent contradictions or limitations to what is known can either be worked out, or aren’t very important.

But neither the trust nor the faith are blind. When we are confronted by partial truths, or assertions by people we trust, that stand in conflict with the whole truth as we understand it, or as other people we trust have explained it—they are subject to reevaluation.

Essentially, what the typical person brings to the fore in confronting the partial truths in their daily life is not an actual model of the whole, but prejudices. Hans-George Gadamer speaks of prejudices in just this sense as “pre-judgements,” similar to how a judge will make provisional judgments that influence the decisions he makes throughout the trial, before actually rendering a final verdict.

These prejudices aren’t simply mindless assumptions or “givens”, nor is the process by which we come to them. They always point back towards some skeleton projection of a whole truth, which can be fleshed out and scrutinized. Haidt leans hard on the fact that people will cling to their prejudices even when unable to come up with any reasons to justify them. But the fact that I might not be able to remember how to solve a quadratic equation in the moment does not invalidate mathematical reasoning as the correct way to solve such an equation. Nor does it mean I should abandon my belief in mathematical reasoning!

Context matters, and part of specifically human context is the knowledge that we have largely externalized. Haidt and his researchers are presumably complete strangers to their subjects, and the subjects in question knew that they were inside of a psychology experiment. Would the subjects have treated the matter differently if they were in a setting they trusted to be private, discussing the questions with a priest, a teacher, or other trusted moral authority who challenged their prejudices and explained the reasoning for doing so?

The very best projections of the whole truth that humanity is capable of mustering can get incredibly complex, and take years of training to really understand. Physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics, computer science, but also moral systems, offer up huge, interconnected sets of theories. Connecting these systems to people’s prejudices is a matter of persuasion. Non-specialists must be persuaded that specialists have authority on a given subject, and specialists must also persuade one another on any given point of contention.

Persuasion isn’t a matter of cold, logical syllogisms, but of rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean it is irrational. It appeals to thought processes as they actually occur in people. Among specialists, of course, this will often involve a great deal of technical details. But technical details alone cannot tell the whole story of what we ought to believe or why we ought to change our point of view.

In every case, the one attempting to persuade will draw on narratives and metaphors and examples from life that make the subject, as well as what is at stake, concrete for the people he wants to persuade. They will employ a situated reason. But reason, none the less.

 

The Empty Defense

hollow

While searching for wisdom on the subject of trust, I turned to a book by that name by Francis Fukuyama. This is where he popularized the idea of “high trust” and “low trust” societies, characterized by the ability of huge numbers of strangers in that society to cooperate.

Fukuyama begins by saying that neo-classical economics is right on most things, but is missing something important—the way sociology shapes economic relationships. So far, so good. But his approach to this “non-economic” determinant of economic behavior is vulnerable to Deirdre McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists in economics (see Paul and my discussion of that critique).

For Fukuyama, trust is simply the thing we accumulate in order to build social capital. What is social capital, you ask? Why it’s just the thing that allows us to cooperate on a large scale rather than free-ride or otherwise defect.

It is basically a black box. Just like tradition, as understood by Burke, was just a black box, irrationality and prejudice that formed the basis of rational behavior. And indeed Fukuyama explicitly defends religion as an irrational basis for economically and socially rational behavior.

But tradition is rational, not irrational. And so is religion. Religion and tradition writ large have inner logic—or internal narratives—that are not separable from the so-called functional aspects or power relations (perhaps more properly, relations of authority). Instrumentalist analyses like Fukuyama’s give you a decent approximation of the machinery—Joseph Heath, to my mind, takes this about as far as it can go in his analysis of norms and choice. But ultimately this machinery is not content-neutral, and to call it machinery or functional or instrumental leaves out an important part of the picture. To my mind, the most important part.

If the only defenders of religion left were people like Fukuyama, who simply see something instrumentally useful, religion would be doomed to fade into oblivion. Once religion becomes nothing more than a club, a vehicle for community building, it is destined to lose to organizations that compete specifically on that margin. Or simply to the desire to not be bothered by other people at all; perhaps to sit at home writing blog posts instead!

I can hear my fellow nonbelievers giving a shout of approval—so be it! But this problem is not restricted to religious apologetics.

I believe that the basic ideals of our way of life in this country are rich, meaningful, and important. The particulars of this are, to me, the core answer to a number of very important questions: what is the point of America as a political entity? To protect our way of life. What value does “American” as common cultural identity hold?  It connects together hundreds of millions of people who share a commitment to the same basic outline of a way of life, and fosters an ongoing conversation about the best particular ways to fill out that outline.

In short, politics, society, and commerce, all have value in the way they come together to form and preserve a way of life.

But the empty, instrumental pluralism that has become increasingly popular among intellectuals and elites will not suffice to preserve that way of life. In as much as such people continue to go to bat for our way of life, it is a fragile, tenuous defense. Their commitment is like a lapsed Catholic who continues to go to church because they like the people there. As I said above, once a church becomes entirely full of such people, it cannot last. Nor can our way of life persist, if these are our only defenders left.

Because people do have substantive beliefs about what a good life should look like. And many of them are quite hostile to ours. I’m not just talking about groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS, which constitute one answer to the modern world cosplaying as pre-modern. I’m also talking about others on the radical left and right who see our way of life as fundamentally and irreparably immoral. Whether because they reject the tragic nature of the world and so blame any ugliness that exists on the status quo, or because they just have different answers to important questions than our way of life allows, they are not going to be satisfied by aspirationally neutral functional arguments.

Because in truth those arguments aren’t neutral at all, but presuppose some notion of the good. And unless that notion is defended directly, it will not last.

Even then, there are no guarantees.

 

Tradition, Authority, and Reason

When I started reading up on the virtues and following the trails through philosophy that I found along the way two years ago, I was pretty sure that I was a Burkean traditionalist of some sort. It was Alasdair MacIntyre who began to throw a wrench in this when he pointed out that Burke treated tradition as a sort of black box—something that actual adherents to traditions do not do. Moreover, Burke somehow did this while remaining an economic liberal for his day, something very much not traditional to his nation.

We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

MacIntyre presents a different sort of traditionalism from Burke, one more like Michael Oakeshott’s. There is reason and reasoning but these are only made coherent by the traditions they are situated within.

Continue reading “Tradition, Authority, and Reason”

Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling

Millais_Boyhood_of_Raleigh
The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

As far as I can tell, “deconstruction” is a word that simply means “academic trolling,” at least when it is performed by the man who coined it—Jacques Derrida.

This can clearly be seen in his deconstruction of speech act theorist J. L. Austin, which Jonathan Culler provides an account of in On Deconstruction.

Austin was arguing, against his predecessors, that language is not simply about making descriptive statements. He pointed out that fitting language into that straightjacket meant treating as exceptional what in fact was characteristic of huge amounts of discourse. As an alternative, he proposed the idea of language as including both constative statements, those which are true or false, and performative statements, those which have some consequence within the social reality in which they are stated. The canonical case of the latter would be the making of a promise.

Continue reading “Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling”