Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the Two Functions of the Principles of Justice in A Theory of Justice

So the other day I finally started reading Rawls' A Theory of Justice. I'm going to spend a lot of time trying to feel this book out, since it's pretty darn important that I get it right. In this post I want to trace a single stream of Rawls' thought, connecting the choice of the appropriate conception of justice to the determination of how we should conceive of the original position.


Rawls thinks that in evaluating political institutions, we must first focus on the question of whether or not they are just. He writes (3):
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

But whether or not we find that a set of institutions is just will turn on the conception of justice that we use to evaluate those institutions. He thinks that while people may hold different conceptions of justice, the concept of justice itself, where basic social institutions are concerned, is uncontroversial (5):
Those who hold different conceptions of justice can...still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life.

So ignoring for now the question of whether or not we agree that this really is the concept of justice we all share in thinking about social institutions, we can see that for Rawls, the concept of institutional justice makes two demands of a social system: (1) Basic rights and duties must be assigned in a manner free of arbitrary distinctions; and (2) The rules adjudicating competing claims to the advantages of social life must produce a "proper balance." Our individual conceptions of the justice of social systems, then, will similarly need to do two things: 1) They need to specify what distinctions are significant in assigning basic rights and duties; and 2) They need to define what counts as a "proper balance" between the competing claims to the advantages of social life. Rawls writes (5):
Men can agree to this description of just institutions since the notions of an arbitrary distinction and of a proper balance, which are included in the concept of justice, are left open for each to interpret according to the principles of justice he accepts. These principles single out which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties and they specify which division of advantages is appropriate.


So, then, how are we to decide which particular conception of institutional justice is right? Here Rawls seeks to utilize an intellectual crutch to help us think about the decision. He proposes that we imagine ourselves as people at a hypothetical negotiating table at the beginning of a society who are trying to determine what principles should govern the choice of institutions in the society. We are to imagine that we are all destined to be born into whatever social system is put into place on the basis of our decision, but we are deprived of certain pieces of information about who we will become. Rawls writes (11):
Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

But why should we think that the results of this thought experiment will be relevant? Who cares what people in such a ridiculous set of circumstances would think? And won't the conception of justice that we choose in such a situation simply reflect the choice of what information we were allowed to consider?

Rawls is quick to clarify. He acknowledges that clearly, the features of the choice situation are no small matter; in fact, the design of the "original position" is a critical part of the choice of the appropriate principles of justice. He writes (14):
...justice as fairness [the name of Rawls' theory], like other contract views, consists of two parts: (1) an interpretation of the initial situation and of the problem of choice posed there, and (2) a set of principles which, it is argued, would be agreed to.

The design of the initial position, he contends, is meant to help us abstract away the things that we think are morally irrelevant in choosing an appropriate conception of justice. We don't know who we're going to be when we're in the original position, or what we're going to value, because those sorts of things aren't supposed to matter in thinking about justice. Rawls explains (16-17):
One should not be the somewhat unusual conditions which characterize the original position. The idea here is simply to make vivid to ourselves the restrictions that it seems reasonable to impose on arguments for principles of justice, and therefore on these principles themselves. Thus it seems reasonable and generally acceptable that no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances in the choice of principles. It also seems widely agreed that it should be impossible to tailor principles to the circumstances of one's own case. We should insure further that particular inclinations and aspirations, and persons' conceptions of their good do not affect the principles adopted.

So, then, the way we are supposed to think about the original position is to first deprive all the people at the table of the information that we think is irrelevant to making their choice. We are then supposed to ask what kind of decision they would make.


Now, Rawls insists that we add a further condition: the people at the table in the initial situation are completely self-interested. He writes (12):
One feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested. This does not mean that the parties are egoists, that is, individuals with only certain kinds if interests, say in wealth, prestige, and domination. But they are conceived as not taking an interest in one another's interests.

Now, it's not clear to me exactly what Rawls means by this. Two possibilities come to mind: 1) People in the initial situation should not care about the other people in the situation; their focus should be entirely on the people who will be born into the social system that will be produced by their decision, each of whom they have a chance of coming to be; and 2) People in the initial situation should focus only on the self-regarding interests of the people who will be born into the social system that will be produced by their decision.

It seems to me that (1) is reasonably plausible. The initial position is just a thought experiment, and so the interests of the imaginary people in the initial position are irrelevant. So if Rawls means (1), then that's fine. But if Rawls means (2), then I can only ask...well...why? It seems like Rawls is going to talk about it later (he notes section 25, entitled "The Rationality of the Parties"), so I'll hold off on passing final judgment. But it does seem rather curious that we would want to ignore any interest that people have in the fellow members of their societies in thinking about what kind of society they would want to live in. For the time being, I'm just going to assume he means (1) until I see any indication otherwise.


Here's something puzzling to me:

As we saw, the initial position is supposed to help us choose a conception of justice by abstracting away all of the irrelevant things we might otherwise consider in trying to make the choice. And remember, the conception of justice that we choose is supposed to do two things: 1) Assign basic rights and duties; and 2) Define what distribution of social advantages is appropriate. Is it really going to be the case that the relevant considerations for choosing the principles for (1) are going to be the same as the relevant considerations for choosing the principles for (2)? Are they at least not necessarily the same?

Here's why I ask:

It seems to me that when we think about assigning basic rights and duties, we think that there are very few distinctions between people that are really relevant. And Rawls seems to capture this intuition in all of the considerations he abstracts out of the initial situation. We don't think that rights or duties should depend on personal identity, social circumstance, personal interests, or our own conceptions of the good. These things aren't supposed to matter. And for assigning basic rights and duties, it seems like we would want to rule that these things are irrelevant.

But in talking about how the advantages of social cooperation are distributed, it's not entirely clear that these same considerations are irrelevant. Imagine that Mark, Rita, and Beatrice are the only three people in their society, and they all live as subsistence farmers. They honor the boundaries of their respective plots, and the third party is always relied on to settle disputes. They are generally pretty happy with their peaceful coexistence. One day, Beatrice invents a new game and sets to work in her scant spare time producing the equipment to play it. She then insists that Mark and Rita pay her a small bit of what they produce if they want to play the game. They happily oblige, and inequality is born. In this illustration, it's clear that we have a situation where everyone is being made better off by their social arrangement; Mark and Rita gain because they get to play a game that they enjoy, and Beatrice gains because she gets to enjoy their company as well as the payment they provide.

But now imagine that we turn to the question of whether everyone is getting an appropriate share, and we use Rawls' tool. We think of Mark, Rita, and Beatrice all at the beginning of their society, trying to decide what rules to adopt for distributing the advantages of social cooperation. Is it really true that the personal identity of these three is irrelevant for thinking about who should get what? Should we expect Beatrice to agree that the appropriate way to settle the issue is to pretend that all three of them had an equal chance to be her, and that she could just as easily be the one paying? I at least don't think it's obvious that Beatrice should be willing to grant this.

And even if Beatrice should grant this, is it really for the same reasons that she ought to grant the irrelevance of personal identity in assigning basic rights and duties? It just seems to me that if the considerations that are relevant in choosing each set of principles are going to line up, it's going to be a coincidence. But maybe Rawls defends this way of doing things later; we'll have to see. Maybe I've already missed something! If anyone's actually reading this post, do you know why Rawls structures things this way?


Something else that has me confused:

How does the original position contribute anything to the process of assigning basic rights and duties? Rawls tells us that our conception of justice is supposed to "single out which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties" (5). And in designing the thought experiment that is supposed to help us decide how to do this, we are supposed to abstract away "those aspects of the social world that seem arbitrary from a moral point of view" (14). It seems to me that if we can design the original position, then we must already know "which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties." So what are we gaining through the thought experiment?


My notebook is riddled with nitpicks, reservations, and qualms about this whole thing, and I'm sure I could go on all night -- I'm equally sure most of my objections would be dumb. So I think that for now, I'm happy to leave it at this. I've at least gotten a post up about the book, which has actually been more difficult than you might imagine (this is the fourth try, if my memory serves me correctly). Believe me, there will be more.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Assorted Responses to Callahan on Value Theory


In the comments section of my post replying to some of his earlier points, Gene Callahan advanced a number of counterarguments that I think are deserving of a response. Because Gene's comments are separate responses to specific points I made, this reply will itself be a little disjointed. Rather than introduce the points by way of introduction, I will simply direct the reader to Gene's post to get a feel for what issues he raised; this post will respond to several of them in turn.


The first point Gene makes is that economists, acting within their capacities as economists, shouldn't have anything to say about value theory. He writes:
For economics, it is sufficient to to posit that, whatever the nature of value in a metaphysical or ontological view, market prices are determined by what economic actors *think* things are worth. To understand how a price for some good emerges from the market process, it makes no difference whether or not there is any objective yardstick by which value judgments may be measured as better or worse.

He continues:
...economists "should" be concerned with how actors' actual evaluations bring about market prices. There is no reason for an economist qua economist to concern herself with the ontological character of value.

Look at it this way – there is no need for a chemist to question what matter “really” is – it just does combine in such and such ways, whatever it is.

I have no interest in arguing about this point; I don't care if economists want to be interested in value theory qua economists or qua something else. In passing, I will say that many of the most important figures in the history of value theory have been economists, and many economic doctrines have been severely hampered in both the past and present by their lack of a proper understanding of the nature of value (for one obvious and important example: Marxian economics). But it will suffice to point out that this entire argument was brought about by me saying: seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in economics were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false.

If what Gene wants is for me to recant the inclusion of realist theories of value under the heading of "economics," then fine. It is done. I repose: seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in value theory were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false.

Hopefully that will dissolve the problem.


Gene's next point is built on the idea that in the past, scientists postulated the existence of many entities or objects (i.e., phlogiston, caloric, ether) which we now hold to have represented mistaken understandings of the phenomena being investigated. Surely, Gene points out, this shouldn't lead us to reject realist theories of science, which claim that the objects we are investigating really do exist (though perhaps we might reject realism for other reasons). He then tries to draw an analogy between this intuitive notion and the idea that pluralism about values is evidence in favor of anti-realism.

To put Gene's point another way: In the past, scientists claimed that certain things exist, and we now no longer think that those things ever existed. This should not, however, lead us to believe that nothing exists and that our own ideas about what exists are necessarily mistaken. In the same way, people in the past have held certain beliefs about what is valuable, and we hold different beliefs. And in the same way, this should not lead us to believe that nothing is valuable and that our own ideas about what is valuable are necessarily mistaken.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that scientific realists hold the belief that there are mind-independent objects that produce the kinds of phenomena we investigate in the natural sciences, where as moral realists do not (or at least, hopefully do not) believe that there are mind-independent moral truths that we are seeking to "measure" and "discover" through our "moral senses" in the realm of ethics. It is simply the nature of value that it is nothing more than a mental phenomenon, and we have what I take to be compelling empirical evidence that different people's minds work in different ways (even if only slightly so) in evaluating objects. If this is true -- if we know that different people's minds evaluate the same objects differently as a simple matter of the way that they work, and not because some are "faulty" and others "sound" -- and if it is also true that there is nothing to value besides these evaluations, then the objectivist and realist theories of value simply cannot stand.

The reason that this doesn't apply to the natural sciences is that we do think that there is something to empirical phenomena besides the mental states we directly experience. We think that there are mind-independent objects out there that produce these experiences. If we didn't believe this -- if we believed that empirical phenomena were just in our heads -- it wouldn't make sense to be scientific realists. And unless Gene wants to defend the idea that value is an existential property of an object, or the idea that -- contrary to my argument here -- everyone's mind really does work the same way in attributing value, then I simply don't see how either objectivism or realism can possibly work.


Gene's next point is an objection to Mises' argument that it is vain to attempt to argue about ultimate ends. Mises contended that there is no argument you can possibly offer against the value of an ultimate end, and Gene noted:
Isn't this obviously falsified by our everyday experience? Don't we regularly witness discussions about "ultimate values" in which one party succeeds in convincing the other that his initial value judgment was wrong? On a grander scale, doesn't, say, the triumph of Christianity over pagan values or the spread of Buddhism in Asia also demonstrate that one can successfully argue about 'ultimate judgments'?

I've been reading Rawls lately, and here I am reminded of his notion of "reflective equilibrium." In A Theory of Justice, Rawls uses the concept of reflective equilibrium in talking about the design of the thought experiment involving a hypothetical "original position," where people are to imagine themselves having to decide on the principles by which basic rights and duties will be assigned and by which the advantages of social cooperation will be distributed. In the original position, we are supposed to imagine ourselves behind a "veil of ignorance," where we are deprived of certain knowledge, and the knowledge of which we are to be deprived is supposed to be determined by what we think should be irrelevant in determining the principles that we are to choose. Rawls says that we take it for granted that personal identity, social circumstances, etc., should not be taken as relevant in choosing a principle of justice, and so we should therefore imagine ourselves in the original position as not knowing who we will end up being, or in what social circumstances we will find ourselves, etc. In the context of that discussion, Rawls writes (18):
In searching for the most favored description of this situation [the original position] we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for further premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium. It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments.

In thinking about Rawls' point, consider the concept of the "reductio ad absurdum" in moral philosophy. In using this technique, we show that a principle, if followed consistently, leads us to conclusions that we find unacceptable. This, we take it, is evidence for rejecting the principle. But why? Why shouldn't we just accept the conclusion that we find unacceptable?

Rawls' point is that our judgments and principles can be revised from both sides. When our principles lead us to conclusions that we judge as extremely worrisome, we sometimes revise our principles so that they produce "better" judgments, and we sometimes revise our judgments -- we come to see that we are committed to things that we might have initially thought to be untrue. So it is that when we point out to the slave owner that he considers himself -- and all men -- to have rights, and that he has poor grounds for making the claim that his slaves are less human than the rights-bearing non-slaves, we force the slave owner to make a choice. He can reject the view that all people have rights, or he can reject the view that he is justified in keeping his slaves.

Mises' point is not that this sort of thing doesn't happen (or "can't" happen). His point is that there is no valid argument that will enable us to critique the principles in question so far as the holder of those principles is legitimately comfortable with the conclusions to which they lead. To use Rawls' language, Mises is saying that a person in reflective equilibrium will be satisfied with the principles that they have adopted (and have no reason to be unsatisfied!), and that it is possible for people to achieve different states of reflective equilibrium. This, I think, is at least in principle true, and is probably most clearly true in light of the kinds of problems that Gaus points out about prioritization.


Gene moves on to note that even if there is no definite knowledge of the true nature of eudaimonia -- the Aristotelian conception of an individual's ultimate good -- it would clearly not be irrelevant whether or not people are correct in their beliefs or quests towards it. He writes:
If I admit that there is no widespread agreement amongst scientists as to whether or not the universe will expand indefinitely, reach a stable sate, or begin to contract at some point, does that render it 'irrelevant' as to whether one of those views is objectively true? Should the scientist convinced of the first view just give up, shrug, and say, "Well, I guess those other views are just as good as mine!"

Gene's point seems to be based on the idea that if there is no way to objectively say what is best, then everything is just as good as everything else. But this seems clearly false. For one thing, people's views could be inconsistent. These views would clearly be wrong, even if we couldn't say that there was a single correct view. Also, going back to Rawls, we could note that some people's views commit them to conclusions that they would find unacceptable, so that if those people knew about those conclusions, they would want to reject their own views. That would also seem to count as a bad sort of view, even if there were no objectively right answer.

But if we were to find ourselves in a world where everyone was in reflective equilibrium, and no one was inconsistent or unaware of the full entailments of their views, but there was still pluralism that simply could not be resolved (by the nature of such a situation), then it wouldn't be relevant if (unbeknownst to them all) there were actually a truth about the matter that none of them could see. When I say that it's not relevant, I don't mean that the truth wouldn't be relevant if they knew it. I mean that since they don't and can't know it (again, but stipulation), it has no bearing on the situation.

Here's an illustration off the top of my head that will probably be open to a host of objections not relating to my point: Imagine that there's one group of people convinced that Blue God exists, and that what Blue God wants is for people to wear blue all the time; if they don't, Blue God will send them to Hell to suffer for eternity. And imagine that there's another group of people convinced that Red God exists, and that what Red God wants is for people to wear red all the time; if they don't, Red God will send them to Hell to suffer for eternity. Now, let's imagine that there's no good way for any of them to actually figure out whether it's Blue God or Red God who exists, but actually it's Red God. In this world, would it be constructive in any way for a member of either group to start calling all the members of the other group Heathens, or trying to convince them to convert? I don't think so. It may be true that both groups think that they're right and that the other group will be going to Hell to suffer for all eternity. And if any of these groups had any good reason for believing that their position was more plausible than the other group's position, then it would make sense to try to convince people. But they don't have any reason like that in support of their position (remember, we're comparing this to a world in which everyone is in reflective equilibrium).

Now, an obvious counterargument would be that actually, we can know the true nature of eudaimonia, and therefore it isn't irrelevant to get all worked up about it. Ultimately, I just don't think this is true, and I think that all the attempts I've seen at working towards such an understanding are clearly wanting (admittedly, though, I have not sat through many; most often, the fatal problem is that they fall victim to the kinds of concerns raised by Gaus -- they identify stuff that we all generally think is valuable, but they fail to give a compelling account of how we should weigh each value against other values). But if I'm wrong about this, then clearly I'd also be wrong about thinking that the concept is irrelevant. I'm okay with that. If there's an Aristotelian out there who would like to explain to me exactly the manner in which she proposes that we might go about determining what value system is objectively most appropriate for human beings, then I'm open to hearing about it, but until then, I'm just going to stick to the assumption that reflective equilibrium is as far as we're going to get, and that reasonable pluralism will continue to be the name of the game.


Here's a quick one. Gene says:
If the procurement of an object *really* makes its acquirer better off, isn't that evidence that it *really* was valuable, rather than evidence for the contrary?

If by this Gene means, "If acquiring an object really did promote a value upheld by the aquirer, isn't that evidence that it *really* was an appropriate means for promoting that value," then yes. If, however, he means, "If acquiring an object really did promote a value upheld by the aquirer, isn't that evidence that the aquirer ought to have upheld that value," then clearly no. The value subjectivist is comfortable with this.


Gene's final point is, again, that no experience is purely subjective. But this time he takes it in a different direction:
...every experience is intrinsically an experience *of* something, and that *something* must be, to some degree *objective*.

I take it to be objectively true that one directly experiences one's experiences, and therefore the phenomenal nature of one's experiences is directly accessible. But what does it mean for a phenomenal object to be "objective"? If I draw a picture of a dragon, it is a picture of a dragon, but what does it mean to say that the dragon is therefore "objective"? Are we saying that "the picture of the dragon" is objective -- that it exists? That seems okay -- and so too is it okay to suggest that we experience moral sentiments. But I don't see how moral sentiments entail the existence of moral truths (even though they are, in a sense, experiences "of" those moral truths) any more than a picture of a dragon entails the existence of a dragon (even though it is a picture "of" a dragon). This sounds like the "We can have a concept of God, so therefore God must exist" line of argument. But perhaps I misunderstand what Gene is trying to say...


In any case, I think that about does it. As I mentioned in my response to Roman yesterday, I'm going to be trying to shift my focus away from metaethics and onto Rawls where I think it belongs. But thanks go to Gene for his thoughtful comments, encouragement along the way, and enthusiasm about carrying on this discussion. It's really been a fantastic learning experience and a lot of fun as well. Of course, this doesn't mean that the conversation needs to end, and I'll do my best to track down any future posts on this subject on other blogs and post links to them here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Priorities Call: A Response to Roman Pearah


I got a copy of A Theory of Justice the other day, and it has wrenched my attention rather thoroughly away from the metaethical debate that's been going on here lately. I really hate to walk away from a conversation, especially one that is as fascinating as the one we've been having here. But as might be apparent, I've put a whole lot of time into thinking about this, and if I continue to engage the subject with as much vigor as is my style, I know that I will continue to spend my time on metaethics, at the cost of not devoting my full attention where it probably belongs: political philosophy. Accordingly, this will be my second-to-last super-long post on this subject (unless someone totally blows my mind; I also have to respond to Gene Callahan's latest comments...but that's it!).

Over at the Instead of a Blog unblog, Roman Pearah wrote a very interesting and thorough critique of my arguments, and it deserves a careful response. With the focus that I have accorded to Rawls over the last few days, though, I haven't gotten a chance to read or listen to the resources to which he linked in his post. Without having gotten through those materials, I can only respond to the passages he quoted at face value, and therefore I may miss something critical in the justification of his points. Accordingly, although I believe I can defend myself successfully against his critique, I will necessarily be vulnerable to the possibility that I have not properly understood the full force of his arguments.

Roman organizes his critique into two main parts, one addressed at Vichy and one at me. I will discuss only the points that are directly focused on my arguments, though his comments towards Vichy may be relevant to me as well. Within the part of Roman's post directed at me, there are five sections. In the first, Roman discusses the difficulties associated with interpreting moral claims as psychological statements, and suggests that this poses a difficulty for my position. In the second, he notes that my conception of value is built on a certain kind of rejection of the concept of intrinsic value, and proposes an alternative that he believes to open an avenue to ascriptions of intrinsic value without being vulnerable to the arguments that I used to arrive at my position. In the third section, Roman argues that my rejection of morality runs into trouble through begging the question in my characterization of the issue at hand. In the fourth section, my move from explanatory value subjectivism to normative value subjectivism is called into question. And finally, in the fifth section, Roman suggests that my account of a reasonable fictionalism sounds like indirect utilitiarianism, and that I might therefore be vulnerable to all of the criticisms that come along with that view.

I will address each of these points in turn, with one exception. In my last post, I discussed the subjectivity of value at length in a response to Gene Callahan. The fourth section in Roman's critique contends that I have not offered a compelling reason why I accept normative value subjectivism. Since Roman wrote his post before I finished that reply to Gene, and since I believe I substantiated my views in that reply (particularly in section III), I will not endeavor to restate that argument. The other parts of Roman's critique, however, will be addressed below.


In his first line of argumentation, Roman points out that there is an inherent problem with translating moral statements into statements about our psychology. He illustrates this problem with the following example (which I'm slightly altering to make it valid without a bunch of jumping through hoops):

1. Any person who kicks the baby acts wrongly.
2. Ludwig kicks the baby.
3. Therefore, Ludwig acts wrongly.

Clearly, statement (3) is logically entailed by statements (1) and (2). But now consider this second example (again, rewritten slightly for clarity):

1'. When I think about the abstract idea of someone kicking a baby, I feel like there's something wrong.
2'. Ludwig kicks the baby, and I see him do it.
3'. Therefore, I feel like there's something wrong.

We should be able to see that statement (3') does not follow from statements (1') and (2'). It simply is not the case that feelings are logically entailed by other feelings. It could be that we would expect that if I were the sort of person for whom (1') was true, and I were in the situation described by (2'), it might come to pass that I would feel like there was something wrong. But this is no longer the kind of logical relationship that we saw when we looked at statements (1), (2), and (3).

For this reason, Roman resists what he takes to be my assertion that moral claims can be properly translated to statements about psychological states. If (1) and (2) entail (3), and (1') and (2') do not entail (3'), then it simply cannot be true that (1), (2), and (3) can be properly translated to (1'), (2'), and (3'). Up to this point, I am in full agreement. The problem is, I didn't ever claim that they could be. What I claimed was that moral claims are false, and that they were projections of our attitudes onto reality.

To help illustrate this difference, let's start with (1'): "When I think about the abstract idea of someone kicking a baby, I feel like there's something wrong." For a normal person who believes that moral intuitions can tell us about morality, this is pretty much taken as clear evidence of claim (1): "Any person who kicks the baby acts wrongly." But this step is clearly not truth-preserving.

Remember, my argument for fictionalism is basically this:

a. (1) is not literally true.
b. A typical person comes to believe (1) because (1') is true of her and and she unconsciously projects her attitudes onto reality.
c. Because (1') is true of basically all typical people, and because it's very natural for typical people to project their attitudes onto reality, (1) can be a useful fiction.

Roman's argument is predicated on the idea that I want to defend the view outlined in (1), (2), and (3), when my entire position is predicated on the rejection of that view. Accordingly, it won't be a problem for me that (1), (2), and (3) don't translate to (1'), (2'), and (3'); if anything, that's the whole point!


Roman next moves on to call into question a distinction I draw between value theories that see value as arising from one's personal response to objects, and those seeing value as arising from the nature of the objects themselves, such that we simply come to "recognize" or "discover" their value. Roman offers a third alternative, which he characterizes as Wittgensteinian:
It simply seems incoherent to say that something called “money” could ever not be valuable as a means of exchange; that’s just what “money” means. Something that had all the characteristics of money except for value just wouldn’t be called “money”.

Roman's point can be illustrated in the moral realm with the idea of "murder": The definition of "murder" (in its verb form) is "to kill or slaughter inhumanly or barbarously." It is, one might notice, simply not possible for an act to be murder and for it to simultaneously not be morally objectionable. Morally permissible murder isn't murder at all; it's killing. And so, going back to the example Roman offered, money that is not valuable is arguably not money at all, but rather merely paper and disks of metal.

It seems to me that Roman is right, and to the extent that we accept the claim that "money" is a value-laden term, then it will need to be allowed that I spoke imprecisely. But although I hadn't thought about this alternative when writing my discussion of value theory, it's not because I have some problem with the concept; in the initial post in this discussion, I even cited a few lines by David Hume making roughly the same point:
When a man denominates another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or depraved, he then speaks another language, and expresses sentiments, in which he expects all his audience are to concur with him. He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony.

So I agree that there are value-laden terms, and that we cannot use these terms independently of the value statements they imply. But why is this important? It seems like what Roman's trying to do is to suggest that there are certain objects of which we cannot conceive without imputing moral judgment. This, I think, is a mistake. For every value-laden term available to us, I take it that there is a value-neutral term that describes the same object without the moral connotations. The person who does not value what other people call money can simply say, "I don't care for your paper and metal disks"; the moral nihilist can say, "There's nothing inherently wrong about killing."

The problem with this line of attack is that it passes the buck from "is X wrong?" to "are we justified in describing this object as being X?" It's true that if the thing is money, then it's valuable, but the value subjectivist will simply say that the thing's "money-character" is not an inherent quality; so too will the nihilist say that the thing's "murder-character" is not inherent to it. And within the fictionalistic paradigm I try to establish, we can see that saying that something "is" money functions as a useful fiction; so too does the claim that something "is" murder. All is still accounted for. Accordingly, it seems to me that this line of argumentation falls a little short of creating significant problems for my position.


In Roman's next section, he suggests that I beg the question in rejecting morality by ruling out "the alternative that we all share the same ultimate end." This, he claims, would lead us to the idea that "Rather than a prudential should or a moral should, there is just should." There are two ways that I would want to dispute this line of argumentation.

First, Roman builds on Dr. Long's view that the sorts of ends that Isaiah Berlin would want to call "ultimate ends" would more appropriately be called "constitutive" components of a single ultimate good -- an idea that Long at least probably gets from Aristotle. But Long seems to think that the ideal constitution of one's ultimate good is something that can be determined through logical or conceptual analysis. And in this point, Roman is taking this a step further and saying that everyone's ultimate good might be the same. If Roman wants to seek out such an analytic truth about "The good of a human," then I say, good luck. I am not aware of any plausible analytic account of my ideal ultimate good, or of anyone else's, much less an account which demonstrates conclusively that everyone's ideal ultimate good is actually the same. And I am skeptical that there could ever be such an account; it seems to me that the telos of an object simply is not a matter of objective fact that is amenable to exploration and systematization, either analytically or otherwise. But to avoid igniting an argument on this point, I will propose that at least as a useful approximation of the state of our current understanding, it at least makes sense to be agnostic about the possibility that we can know the objective ideal ultimate end of a human being, and to agree that at least for now, we must treat the plurality of conceptions of the good as at least potentially irresolvable -- at least by us.

Second, even if there really were an objective account of the ideal good of a human, such that the constitutive goods to be pursued were a matter of scientific discourse, it would still be the case that the reason we should pursue these goods would be prudential, and not moral. As I said in my comments to Stan:
What is the difference, then, between the enlightened, egoistic moral nihilist and the moralistic humanist? In his essay, "Deception and Reasons to be Moral," Geoffrey Sayre-McCord notes (114):
People may have dispositions that give rise to moral behavior without being moral people. They might, for instance, be so carefully watched that temptation always gave way to fear of detection and punishment. We could certainly expect such people to behave morally; but they would be behaving morally by default, and not because they are moral. What sets the moral apart from the enlightened egoists is (at least in part) their willingness to act on considerations other than those of self-interest; unlike enlightened egoists, those who are moral constrain their pursuit of personal benefits on moral grounds.

To Sayre-McCord's fear of detection, we could add the value of future interactions, the personal pleasure received from the approval and trust of others, the sense of satisfaction that comes with having a "virtuous" character, and the personal displeasure that one might experience as a result of sensitivity to the harms inflicted on others by one's own actions. Each of these factors would be perfectly accessible to the moral nihilist, and provide reasons in themselves to act in much the same manner that morality would prescribe. But as Sayre-McCord points out, these are not moral reasons.


In the final section of Roman's critique, he expresses puzzlement over my claim that we have "good reasons" to accept fictionalism, and suggests that my account sounds a lot like the "indirect utilitarianism" proposed by Leland Yeager (which itself appears to just be a rule utilitarian view with a different name). I will not here get into all of the reasons why I find rule-utilitarianism to be a suspicious ethical view. Instead, I will focus only on what I take to be a very important difference between my argument for my fictionalist position and the kind of argument a rule utilitarian would offer in favor of adopting the same position.

According to a rule utilitarian, the appropriate method for deciding between alternative attitudes or rules is to inquire into the overall consequences of those attitudes or rules being adopted and to evaluate them in an aggregative way to determine which consequences are more desirable on the whole. On this account, the attitude or set of rules that would produce the best overall consequences (in terms of human well-being) is the one we should all adopt.

In defending my own position, I too suggested that the consequences of adopting alternative attitudes should be instrumental in informing our decision about whether to adopt them. So I can see why Roman might have made the connection between my view and rule utilitarianism. However, where the rule utilitarian is concerned with aggregate outcomes, I am only concerned with personal outcomes. The account of why I think fictionalism is an appropriate paradigm to adopt had nothing to do with what would happen to society if everyone adopted it; it had only to do with what would happen to the individual making the choice.

I certainly wouldn't want to rule out the idea that rule utilitarian considerations should also play a role in informing that decision; if I found out that my fictionalism would cause the downfall of society two years after the death of the person adopting it, I would think that to be somewhat relevant as well. But it's important to see that my argument for fictionalism was not based on those kinds of considerations; the point was that it would be personally beneficial for people to adopt the paradigm.


So that about does it, I think. Hopefully this response has sufficiently answered the questions Roman posed and clarified my position for those who might have shared some of the same concerns. I thank Roman for his thoughtful comments, and hope he got as much out of formulating his questions as I did in answering them!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Check Out Roman Pearah's Critique of My Metaethical Views!

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]

Over at the Instead of a Blog unblog, Roman Pearah wrote an incredibly kind critique of the arguments I've offered over the last week or so in defense of moral fictionalism. Roman's arguments are built on a collection of papers and lectures by Roderick Long, to which links are conveniently provided in the post. I've read through Roman's post, but want to hold off on responding until I've had a chance to read and digest Dr. Long's pieces and Roman's arguments in their light. In the mean time, I encourage everyone to check out Roman's critique as well as the rest of his blog. Roman is one of an unfortunately small group of truly intelligent, nice, and sophisticated thinkers in the world of philosophical blogging (or un-blogging as it may be in his case), and he deserves every bit of your attention.

Value Subjectivism Isn't A Mistake: A Reply to Callahan

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]


In the comments section of a post over at the Crash Landing blog, I drew a parallel between moral nihilism and the subjective theory of value in economics:
It's my contention that the conclusion in question [moral realism] is a very natural one to believe, given the very human propensity to project evaluative attitudes onto objective reality. Accordingly, it's not surprising at all to me that most thinkers throughout history believed it. But it seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in economics were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false. Just like it's not the bread that is valuable, but rather I who values the bread, so I claim that it's not the act that is morally objectionable, but rather I who takes moral exception to the act. It seems to me that morality, as commonly conceived, is built on a framework of attributions of intrinsic value, and that these are literally false. This doesn't mean that the attributions capture nothing true -- surely when we say that money "is" valuable, we are saying something that makes a great deal of sense even though it is literally not true -- but I think it does mean that moral claims are, strictly speaking, false.

Gene responded:
Danny, you've made a mistake here. Economics can in no way show that 'realist' theories of value are false. How in the world could it possibly demonstrate this, since the question is philosophical? What Menger pointed out was that, for the purpose of economics, the question of the 'real value' of something does not arise -- the price is determined by what people think something is worth, whatever its 'real' worth may be. Menger explicitly acknowledged that the value someone places on something may be incorrect.

It was a terrible mistake on Mises' part to try and turn Menger's correct theory of economic value into a metaphysical doctrine about the 'purely subjective' nature of value. In fact, nothing whatsoever is or ever could be 'purely subjective' -- both subjective and objective are abstractions from any concrete experience, and neither can exist on its own.

Now, Gene makes several points in this comment, and I think each of them is worth discussing. As I understand them, Gene's contentions are:

  1. Economics cannot demonstrate that realist theories of value are false because the truth or falsity of those theories is a philosophical matter.

  2. Menger's view on the subjectivity of value was a methodological position; he believed that in fact, people could be wrong about the value they placed on objects.

  3. Value cannot be purely subjective because it must have an objective component. Mises thought otherwise, and this was a mistake.

I will address each of these points in turn.


Economics cannot demonstrate that realist theories of value are false because the truth or falsity of those theories is a philosophical matter.

It's conceivable to me that Gene could mean either one of two things with this point:

  1. The truth or falsity of realist theories of value is a matter that falls outside of the field of economics. Accordingly, economics has nothing to say about it.

  2. The philosophical nature of value theory means that the truth or falsity of realist theories of value cannot be demonstrated.

If Gene meant the first thing, then I don't really want to go to battle over the point. I would hope that economists wouldn't want to say, "We're economists, not philosophers; value theory just isn't our thing," should be. But if this is an issue, then I'll gladly take off my economist hat and put on my philosopher hat for the point of discussion. My philosopher hat is way more comfortable anyway.

If he meant the second thing, then I disagree, The value subjectivist is contending that realist theories of value commit a category error by claiming that objects can have intrinsic value. It should be possible, then, to demonstrate analytically whether this is the case.


Menger's view on the subjectivity of value was a methodological position; he believed that in fact, people could be wrong about the value they placed on objects.

In order to discuss this claim, it will be valuable to see what Menger himself had to say about this. Since my exposure to Menger's work is rather limited, I will base my discussion on what he has to say about this at the beginning of Principles of Economics, but I will be happy to be corrected if Menger changed his view or expanded on this discussion elsewhere.

Menger's theory of "goods-character" is built on four conditions (PoE 1.1):
  1. A human need.

  2. Such properties as render the thing capable of being brought into a causal connection with the satisfaction of this need.

  3. Human knowledge of this causal connection.

  4. Command of the thing sufficient to direct it to the satisfaction of the need.

On the possibility that someone might be mistaken about an object's goods-character, Menger writes (ibid):
A special situation can be observed whenever things that are incapable of being placed in any kind of causal connection with the satisfaction of human needs are nevertheless treated by men as goods. This occurs (1) when attributes, and therefore capacities, are erroneously ascribed to things that do not really possess them, or (2) when non-existent human needs are mistakenly assumed to exist. In both cases we have to deal with things that do not, in reality, stand in the relationship already described as determining the goods-character of things, but do so only in the opinions of people. Among things of the first class are most cosmetics, all charms, the majority of medicines administered to the sick by peoples of early civilizations and by primitives even today, divining rods, love potions, etc. For all these things are incapable of actually satisfying the needs they are supposed to serve. Among things of the second class are medicines for diseases that do not actually exist, the implements, statues, buildings, etc., used by pagan people for the worship of idols, instruments of torture, and the like. Such things, therefore, as derive their goods-character merely from properties they are imagined to possess or from needs merely imagined by men may appropriately be called imaginary goods.

In order for Menger to truly be an objectivist about value, he would need to say that there is an objective truth about what it is that humans need. This would allow him to run through the entire value proposition without any reference to opinions -- the human need would be objective, the properties of the object that allow it to meet that need would be objective, the human awareness of those properties would be objective, and the command of the object sufficient to use it to satisfy the need would be objective.

But there is, I think, a good reason to be wary of this step (with apologies to the vulgar Aristotelians and, as is redundant to note, the Objectivists). As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (79-80):
There are many objective ends, ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times, or by different groups in the same society by entire classes or churches or races, or by particular individuals within thm, any one of which may find itself subject to conflicting claims of uncombinable, yet equally ultimate and objective ends.

It is on the foundation of this basic idea that Mises writes, in Theory and History (1.3):
What the theorem of the subjectivity of valuation means is that there is no standard available which would enable us to reject any ultimate judgment of value as wrong, false, or erroneous in the way we can reject an existential proposition as manifestly false. It is vain to argue about ultimate judgments of value as we argue about the truth or falsity of an existential proposition.

Now, Mises takes this idea to a rather limited conclusion, noting that (ibid):
We may, for instance, try to show a Buddhist that to act in conformity with the teachings of his creed results in effects which we consider disastrous. But we are silenced if he replies that these effects are in his opinion lesser evils or no evils at all compared to what would result from nonobservance of his rules of conduct. His ideas about the supreme good, happiness, and eternal bliss are different from ours. He does not care for those values his critics are concerned with, and seeks for satisfaction in other things than they do.

But an even more important problem can arise even if people agree about what is of ultimate value. As Gerald Gaus writes in his essay, "Liberal Neutrality: A Compelling and Radical Principle" (22):
The crucial problem is the ranking of values...According to Milton Rokeach, a psychologist, Americans agree in affirming a set of thirty-six values; what they differ on is "the way they organize them to form value hierarchies or priorities." If so, our main disagreements about the good are not about what is of value, but the relative importance of values. After all, what is a ranking of values but a "conception of the good?"

He notes, for example, that "...even if everyone agrees that smoking causes cancer, rational people clearly do disagree about whether the pleasures are worth the risk of death" (ibid).

I take it that even if there is, unbeknownst to us, an objectively true account of the value system that humans ought to follow in order to achieve eudaimonia (which I sort of doubt), it is clearly not the case that we are currently at a point where we could say what it is with any degree of confidence that would enable us to plausibly claim that all dissenters are wrong. If this is true, then the objectivist conception of value is at best irrelevant and at worst completely false.

But there is a further problem for Gene in bringing in Menger's theory: Menger's characterization of goods-character is manifestly egoistic. This leaves no clear avenue for establishing attributions of intrinsic value which do not make reference to an object's capacity for satisfying some need of the valuer. Even if we take a valuer's needs in the broadest possible sense, this view is completely compatible with the moral nihilist's view, and incompatible with the moralist's understanding of moral values.


Value cannot be purely subjective because it must have an objective component. Mises thought otherwise, and this was a mistake.

Here it will be important to understand what the value subjectivist means when she claims that value is subjective. Clearly, the things that we value are objects, and we take the nature of at least some of these objects to be a matter of objective fact. The subjectivist would be stupid to deny this. She would similarly be stupid to deny that the capacity for certain objects to be brought into causal connection with the production of certain consequences and outcomes is a matter of objective fact, or at least of empirical discourse.

What the value subjectivist is saying is that the attributes and capacities of an object are only valuable insofar as the ends which they promote are valuable. And further, that there is no truth (or at least no truth accessible to us) about what ultimate ends are the appropriate objects of value and how we should rank those ends relative to each other. The relevant "subjectivism" is based on the thesis of reasonable and potentially irresolvable pluralism about this issue -- the value of ultimate ends, on this view, will come down to subjective opinions, tastes, or biases (though this doesn't need to be a pejorative claim as the terms might connote).

Now, Mises actually went a step further and argued that valuing was a voluntary thing -- the product of action. In Theory and History, Mises writes that "Judgments of action are voluntaristic" and "Judgments of value are mental acts of the individual concerned" (1.1). And I think that in this regard, he was not correct (or at least not completely correct. The problem arises from his definition of "action," offered in Human Action (1.1):
Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.

If action inherently aims at ends, and the selection of ends is an action, then we get turtles all the way down. But one need not adopt Mises' conception of the voluntary nature of attributing value in order to reach the subjectivist's conclusion. One needs only acknowledge that there is no objective conception of the good that we can know, and therefore opinions about ultimate ends are all we have to work with.

Personally, I find this position to be extremely compelling. The ball's back in your court, Gene!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Check out Gene Callahan's Post on the Morality Debate!

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]

Over at the Crash Landing blog, Gene Callahan added some thoughts of his own as part of the debate that's been going on around here for the last week or so; check it out! As of this writing, my response was under moderation, but by the time you read this you might be able to see it in the comments section of the post.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why Fictionalism?: A Reply to Stan

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]

If you haven't noticed, for the last few days this blog has basically been dominated by a debate about metaethics, the likes of which have never been seen before around these parts. It's been pretty fascinating, and I've learned a whole lot in the process; I definitely recommend checking it out -- I've labeled all the posts as "The Morality Debate." This post is a continuation of that discussion, and probably won't make sense if you haven't been following along. (Also, I should point out that this is my second posting today; the first is here)

An alternative perspective to my fictionalist view was offered in the comments section of the initial post in this discussion by a fellow named Stan. In this post, I will sketch out the idea suggested by Stan's comment, identify the core difference between that system and the one that I have been discussing, and then explain why I think that my view still makes sense even granting Stan's central point.


If I understood him correctly, Stan suggested that rather than fictionalistically adopting a literally false humanistic attitude, we should acknowledge that cooperativeness and trustworthiness are actually more effective strategic attitudes for securing one's own well-being than is an attitude of short-sighted maximization. This would help us to avoid the pitfalls of a vulgar nihilistic attitude so that we didn't end up ruining a whole lot of everything on account of our movement away from a moral attitude. In his book, Elements of Justice, David Schmidtz made an observation that seems clearly relevant here (171):
Unconstrained maximizers, by definition, optimally use any resources to which they have access, including their neighbors’ organs. To get good results in the real world, though, we need to be surrounded not by unconstrained maximizers but by people who respect rights, thereby enabling us to have a system of expectations and trust, which allows us together to transform our world into a world with greater potential (a world where delivery companies are willing to serve the hospital [because they don’t fear that their delivery men will be killed in order to harvest their organs for needy patients]). When we cannot count on others to treat us as rights-bearers with separate lives, we are living in a world of lesser potential.

Schmidtz continued (173):
When doctors embrace a prohibition against harvesting organs of healthy patients without consent, doctors give up opportunities to optimize – to hit the ceiling [of possible utility outcomes] – but patients gain opportunities to visit doctors safely. They gain a world with a higher ceiling. Such utility comes from doctors refusing even to ask whether murdering a patient would be optimal.

I think that this touches on something very important, and which Stan was focusing on: we can actually get better results if we adopt strategies that lead us away from approaching every situation with the goal of getting the best possible results. The momentary success of the "rational maximizer," in this view, is a Pyrrhic victory: by maximizing in the single instance, the agent destroys his opportunity for the greatest possible overall outcome. Along these lines, David Gauthier even went so far in his book, Morals by Agreement, as to try to establish a theory of morality based on this sort of thinking about rationality.

And indeed, this approach to game-theoretic thinking seems on its surface to rationalize a lot of our moral norms: we see that the anti-social, predatory behavior forbidden by our morals is not just "depraved" and "vile," but also irrational in a sense. And this makes us feel good about our norms -- we have good reason to uphold them independently of our moral views about the behaviors they prescribe. In seeking to understand why the moral nihilist will not go around stealing, raping, and killing people, one needs only to appreciate the force of this game-theoretic point: even if those actions might be best in a short-term sense, they would likely be disastrous to one's overall prospects for fulfillment and well-being. The sophisticated nihilist will point out that morality is inherently problematic, but the prescriptions of morality are quite often perfectly sensible, and so we shouldn't expect that things would change very drastically if we went along with a sufficiently nuanced nihilistic position instead of a distinctively moral view.


What is the difference, then, between the enlightened, egoistic moral nihilist and the moralistic humanist? In his essay, "Deception and Reasons to be Moral," Geoffrey Sayre-McCord notes (114):
People may have dispositions that give rise to moral behavior without being moral people. They might, for instance, be so carefully watched that temptation always gave way to fear of detection and punishment. We could certainly expect such people to behave morally; but they would be behaving morally by default, and not because they are moral. What sets the moral apart from the enlightened egoists is (at least in part) their willingness to act on considerations other than those of self-interest; unlike enlightened egoists, those who are moral constrain their pursuit of personal benefits on moral grounds.

To Sayre-McCord's fear of detection, we could add the value of future interactions, the personal pleasure received from the approval and trust of others, the sense of satisfaction that comes with having a "virtuous" character, and the personal displeasure that one might experience as a result of sensitivity to the harms inflicted on others by one's own actions. Each of these factors would be perfectly accessible to the moral nihilist, and provide reasons in themselves to act in much the same manner that morality would prescribe. But as Sayre-McCord points out, these are not moral reasons. Amartya Sen provides some insight into the shape of this distinction in his essay, "Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory" (326):
...we must distinguish between two separate concepts: (i) sympathy and (ii) commitment. The former corresponds to the case in which the concern for others directly affects one's own welfare. If the knowledge of torture of others makes you sick, it is a case of sympathy; if it does not make you feel personally worse off, but you think it is wrong and you are ready to do something to stop it, it is a case of commitment. I do not wish to claim that the words chosen have any great merit, but the distinction is, I think, important. It can be argued that behavior based on sympathy is in an important sense egoistic, for one is oneself pleased at others' pleasure and pained at others' pain, and the pursuit of one's own utility may thus be helped by sympathetic action. It is action based on commitment rather than sympathy which would be non-egoistic in this sense.

It is, I take it, when people act out of commitment that they act in a manner that is distinctly moral. And as should be clear to anyone following this conversation, non-egoistic commitment is only comprehensible through a mindset which projects evaluative attitudes onto objects -- declaring them "intrinsically valuable" instead of merely "personally valued" -- and then disciplines one's own behavior to take account of those objects as a matter of normative integrity.


The coherentist moral nihilist points out that these projections are worrisome and deceiving: there are no "intrinsically valuable" objects, and the idea that you should be non-egoistically "committed" to something that you value for reasons other than its reflection of your own personal desires is accordingly incomprehensible. A properly coherent view would refrain from projecting and seek to understand one's values as being matters of personal desire instead of some kind of mysterious "response to intrinsic value."

And within this mindset, we need to take Stan's point very seriously. It's not that our projections are completely baseless; there are a whole host of reasons we might offer for doing many or all of the same things as a nihilist that we might have done out of commitment while in a moralistic mindset. We could point out that we are drawn to virtue for aesthetic reasons. We could notice that we are better able to achieve our personal goals when we are cooperative, trustworthy, honest, and sensitive. We could recognize that our personal values and desires do not extend only to things that "make us feel good" or "give us a sense of well-being," but also include the range of values we would like to see pursued, advanced, and instantiated in the world. We could "be the change we want to see in the world" not because we ought to, but because it's the change we want to see in the world.


I get it. And no, it's not wrong.

But for me, I don't want to have to go through the hassle of correcting myself every time I project my values onto the world. I don't want to say, "Hey don't do that; that's wro- I mean, that fails to reflect the choice that would accord my personal values and the values that I think most people share, and I imagine that most people (myself included) would prefer to see it not happen; I suspect that if you came to truly understand the nature of your actions, you would feel the same way." I want to say, "Don't do that; that's wrong," and to have people basically get what I'm saying.

And aside from the simple ease of speaking and thinking this way, I also think it helps to avoid the risk of what I take to be a very serious mistake in reasoning: moving from the idea that something is not intrinsically valuable to the idea that there is no reason to value it. I think it's far too easy to jump from "There's nothing wrong with doing that" to "There's no reason that you shouldn't do that if you feel like it." And the latter view is characteristic of the vulgar, overly simplistic, and inherently flawed nihilistic viewpoint that comes to mind when most lay people think about moral nihilism.

I take it to be a natural feature of the way that my mind works that I project my values onto reality. I also take it to be a natural feature of the way that my mind works that it would require a bunch of extra effort to translate all of my projections into the more accurate subjective-value-statement forms that the coherentist moral nihilist demands. And I also think that if I tried to do this all the time, I could potentially end up confusing myself and doing a much worse job of promoting my own values than I would if I simply continued to project them onto the world and keep in the back of my mind that my projections were generating a paradigm that is literally false, but still basically in line with the truth. And that's what my fictionalist stance does. Hopefully that makes sense! (Yea, like I should really expect that now people will agree...ha!)

Inside a Fiction: Even More on Metaethics

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]


In the comments section of my previous post, Roman Pearah directed some attention to a similar discussion on Charles Johnson's blog. He wrote:
...I'd like to direct everyone's attention to a similar discussion over at Rad Geek's blog. You can some comments left by Rad Geek and Roderick Long (both Greek-type coherentist virtue ethicists).

Just so any third parties reading this don't become confused, I should make it clear that my position doesn't fall easily within the bounds of coherentism -- it could probably be better called a sort of contextualism. This will be important for anyone trying to compare my ideas to Long's and Johnson's. In order to explain why, I'll first try to flesh out a few elements of my view a little more than I have in the previous installments in this discussion. I'll then identify what I think makes my view somewhat difficult to fit into a coherentist mold.


My view hinges on the idea that when we say "It's wrong for you to kick the baby," we think that it's wrong at least partly because of what happens to the baby, and not just because it reflects undesirable or ill-advised character traits in you, or because your life will actually end up worse, all things considered, if you kick the baby. The baby's pain, I take it, is seen as being the sort of thing that is bad (as opposed to just being something we find distasteful), and what's wrong with kicking the baby is that you wouldn't do it if you acknowledged the significance of what you would cause to happen to the baby if you went through with it.

This, I take it, is literally a projection of our evaluative attitudes towards the kicking of the baby (and its results) onto objective reality (as I argued in the comments section of the previous post). But because it's a projection, we think, "It's wrong to kick the baby," and not, "The idea of kicking the baby makes me feel like something's wrong." I contend that rather than trying to prevent ourselves from making these kinds of projections, which are intuitive, easy to work with, and make us feel good about ourselves and other people (as I argued in the initial post in this discussion), it makes more sense to maintain a fictionalistic mindset that continues to project evaluative attitudes onto reality while acknowledging that the claims generated by the projections are not literally true but rather reflections of our (subjective) evaluative attitudes.


As is the case with all fictionalist paradigms, though, there will be a universe of discourse involved. When we talk about morality within the fiction, we use language and terminology in certain ways that wouldn't make sense if we used them the same way outside of the fiction. Saying, for an example, that the baby's suffering is "morally objectionable" makes reference to a quality of the baby's suffering that doesn't literally exist. But within the fiction, we say that the baby's suffering is morally objectionable.

We might compare this manner of speaking to the way that we talk about certain goods as being "valuable" for much the same reasons, even though we acknowledge that value is subjective. The view that money "is" valuable involves a projection of one's own evaluative feelings about money onto the money itself. It is not literally true that the money is valuable, but it is nevertheless comprehensible to talk about money as "being" valuable, and in fact this is a useful fiction to have -- it seems to me that this is similarly true about the moral fiction. To the extent that we are able to reach some level of agreement (or at least some limits on the range of disagreement) about "moral facts," we can safely talk as if our evaluations are "impartial," and therefore effectively the same as "normal reactions to intrinsically valuable objects."

But this manner of speaking will only work within the fiction. Because our moral claims will not be literally true, they will be technically incompatible with our claims about some other things, like most notably, our value theory. The claim, "Capricious killing is bad," and the claim, "All value is subjective and there are no intrinsically valuable objects," are technically contradictory. Accordingly, we will need to be vigilant of the fact that "Capricious killing is bad" is only true in the context of the moral fiction, and not true outside of it, while "All value is subjective and there are no intrinsically valuable objects" is false within the fiction and true outside of it.


Someone with a coherentist view of the world, if I understand it correctly, would be uncomfortable with this sort of thing. The coherentist would seemingly want to find a way to eliminate the use of the fiction in order to create a system of beliefs that is all-encompassing and internally consistent. Mutually incompatible statements like "Capricious killing is bad" and "All value is subjective and there are no intrinsically valuable objects" would, for the coherentist, demand some sort of redress. "Capricious killing is bad" would need to be rephrased or rejected, or else "All value is subjective and there are no intrinsically valuable objects" would have to go.

In doing this, the coherentist would need to reject all literally false statements that are inconsistent with the literally true statements that make up the rest of her beliefs. Since I have stipulated my fiction to be a fiction, this would seem to commit me to either throwing out my fiction or throwing out the demand that it is desirable to have a fully coherent, internally consistent, all-encompassing set of beliefs about the world. Coherentism, as I see it, works when I step out of the fiction, but seems to suggest that I should not step into it. And since I want to step into it, I must reject the idea that what's best is to have a completely coherent view of the world.

It should be reasonably clear, then, why I don't consider myself to be a particularly good coherentist. Instead, I'd rather call myself a contextualist: my view is based on the idea that it can make sense to adopt certain sets of mutually incompatible beliefs in different contexts, even though this will mean that my views technically lack coherence. Coherence can, of course, be regained at any point by setting aside the fiction and applying the non-moralistic paradigm to the moral realm. So my view does not run afoul of the very plausible coherentist claim that there's some problem with not being able to make consistent, coherent sense of things (it's not particularly clear to me what it would even mean to "make sense" if you couldn't do this). But insofar as the coherentist position contains a value judgment about the desirability of maintaining a coherent, internally consistent, all-encompassing set of beliefs about the world, I reject coherentism by rejecting the value judgment.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More on Metaethics: A Reply to Callahan

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]


In the comment section of a previous post on moral nihilism and existentialistic fictionalism, Gene Callahan came to the defense of moral realism with a list of important moral theorists who have argued for his position:
See Pythagoras, Lao-Tse, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Isaiah, Anixamander, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Voegelin, et al. (2500 BCE - 1950 CE) "Why Moral Nihilism Is Booshit," The Journal of the Perennial Philosophy, Vol. α No. ω.


I pointed out in response that a) many those thinkers held mutually incompatible positions, b) many of those thinkers defended morality on religious grounds which I don’t find reasonable to believe, c) those philosophers’ moral views are not necessarily consistent with Gene’s own libertarian views, and d) the argument as offered is technically fallacious. Gene responded:
An argument from authority is bad form only when the person you cite is not an authority in the area you cite him! But in any case, this wasn't an argument, it was a citation.

And, no, I really don't see that much disagreement between them. We even have a straight line of descent running Pythagoras-Socrates-Plato-Plotinus-Augustine that then rejoins the Aristotle-Avicenna branch with Aquinas.

It seems to me that continuing this debate in the form of short comments is not likely to lead anywhere. So let me try to sketch more clearly the problem I have in mind, cherry picking from the beginning of Gene’s list. I'll then offer some thoughts about my own view, and attempt to show why Gene's line of argumentation does not succeed in what it appears to set out to achieve.


I haven't had the opportunity to fully explore Laozi's moral thinking, but it's not clear to me what happens to the concept of ziran if you divorce it from the religious sense in which the Daodejing was advanced. It's surely different to say, "That action is inconsistent with the aim of integrating yourself properly into the natural flow of reality," than it is to say, "It would be morally wrong to fail to integrate yourself properly into the natural flow of reality." And without the religious imperative, it's not clear how we would get from the first to the second. It would seem to me like the best arguments for acting based on the first would be prudential, which would be consistent with moral nihilism.

I've similarly had limited exposure to Confucius' thought, but if I've understood correctly, he places a heavy emphasis on tradition, wisdom, and moral intuition as the sources of ethical norms. To the extent that these things are prudential to adopt and adhere to, the moral nihilist will have no problem. And again, I haven't heard a Confucian metaethical argument that would create real problems for moral nihilism.

Siddhartha's moral thought was, according to the traditions I find most interesting, explicitly fictionalistic. The idea wasn't that morality was important for itself, but rather that leading a peaceful, harmonious life would be useful in the quest to achieve satisfactoriness. This would be perfectly compatible with moral nihilism.

It's been a while since I read Isaiah (or that is, the parts of the book that were supposedly attributable to him), but I don't remember any substantive arguments for moral realism in there -- just a lot of arguments about what people ought to do based on God's law. The significant ethical point in the book, if I remember it correctly, was that God would not accept the praise of those who acted badly (that is, contrary to The Law), and that the mere fact of the covenant would not guarantee protection from God's punishment. Without the religious element, though, it's hard to see how you would get to the same moral conclusions.

Socrates' morality was a hybrid of virtue ethics (which, depending on how one conceives of virtue, can be consistent with moral nihilism) and religion. So far as we ought to do what's "morally right" because it's best for us, the nihilist is going to agree, pointing out that to call that morally right is a bit misleading. So far as we ought to do what's right because of what the Gods will do to our souls, that's just not going to win any arguments.

Plato's account of morality was built on an idea of moral forms which I don't take anyone to seriously accept as true anymore. Accordingly, I don't see why the nihilist would need any response besides, "But Plato was wrong."

Like Socrates' virtue ethical ideas, Aristotle's moral theory was completely compatible with moral nihilism, being based on individuals' pursuing the good life for their own sake. The nihilist would again want to say that the use of the term "moral" here would be a bit misleading.


I could go on, but hopefully the point is clear by now. Moral nihilism is not built on ignorance of past philosophy; it's built on disagreements with certain elements of some philosophers' thought, and built to incorporate other elements of those ideas. Surely the nihilist is not going to say that we ought to simply act according to our unconsidered caprice, or that we should go around killing people. You can still talk about living a good life and living peacefully with others without talking about distinctly moral reasons for doing those things.

The point is just that it's not clear what a plausible moral reason can be based on besides the identification of the implications of one's actions for something that one values. And if one values that thing, then it makes sense to act accordingly -- that has nothing to do with morality. Distinctly moral problems (as opposed to prudential problems) arise only when one tries to make the claim that someone ought to value something that they don't value. Since value is subjective, and since ultimately the universe is just a bunch of stuff in different configurations, it's going to be difficult to ground such an "ought" claim in something “objective” or “objectively true.” As Vichy might put it, all value is ultimately just bias for one sort of thing over another. And the idea that there can be no literal truth to the matter of what one “ought to value” is basically moral nihilism.

But that doesn’t rule out moral argumentation or the adoption of moral attitudes. As I argued, we can have good reason for adopting moral attitudes. And if we acknowledge that our values transform when we recognize certain connections between things, then arguing about values can make sense -- if I lead a supporter of slavery to understand just how much like him are the slaves, he may be led to value them in a way that would make him not want to see them treated without regard for their interests. So as far as moral theories are fictionalistic road maps that show us how our values will change in light of certain features of a situation, they can be perfectly consistent with moral nihilism. It’s only when moral theories try to argue that there is something objective or objectively true about our values (as opposed to their being “impartial” or “natural for humans to accept”) that they run into trouble.

Ultimately, our moral sentiments are rooted in our psychology. Again, moral nihilism does not involve the denial of the fact that we have moral sentiments, that our moral sentiments affect our values, and that there are definite patterns in the way that these sentiments work. It similarly doesn’t exclude the possibility that we might want to choose to adopt certain attitudes that roughly capture those patterns so as to avoid having to fight them. But it does assert that aside from people attributing value to certain things, and aside from the inherent capacity of certain objects to produce valuing reactions in normally functioning human beings, there is no sense in which we can say that they are valuable in themselves. And I think that that’s true.

So I guess my point is that if you want to dispute what I’ve said, it won’t do to say, “Well there were a lot of really smart people who didn’t think that way.” I know that, and I disagree with them. Accordingly, if you’re going to change my mind, you’ll either need to offer a particular argument that I have not considered, or engage what I think. Basically saying, “Go learn about the history of philosophy” is, I think, pretty unfair given my background. That’s not to say that I fully appreciate what everyone has ever said, or that I am not totally ignorant of critically important figures or ideas. I undoubtedly am. But I’ve spent a fair bit of time developing my own views, and I think they’ve at least reached a point where they warrant a response on their own terms.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lighting Authoritarianism Is Hilarious

It appears that the European Union is set to ban certain energy-inefficient light bulbs, "forcing consumers to buy more energy efficient alternatives." First to go will be conventional 100 and 60 watt pearl bulbs and frosted 25 and 40 watt bulbs; the rest of the inefficient bulbs will be "phased out" (i.e., prohibited by force of law) by 2012.

Do I care? No. But I did find one part of the article to be utterly brilliant. According to the owner of the British lighting chain Ryness, "We are seeing people coming in and bulk buying. People like frosted bulbs because they have a softer light." But according to a spokesman for The Lighting Association, a European Trade Association, "Consumers will realize in the end that the alternatives provide substantial savings and have equivalent light quality to incandescents." Sends chills down your spine, doesn't it?

For the uninitiated, the problem with the spokesman's statement is not that "They're regulating light bulbs! Communism is right around the corner!" The problem is that this guy has an opinion about the quality and value of these products that is very clearly not shared by a lot of people. And these people are apparently willing to spend a whole lot of extra money in order to have light bulbs that this guy finds to be equivalent to the cheaper ones. So could it be that the fluorescents have yet to prove their value to some people?

I personally use compact fluorescents in my home. They work just fine, and I'm very happy to save the money, energy, and space it would take to maintain a supply of incadescents that would match the life of the fluorescents. But the light bulbs are very much not the same. Fluorescents take time to heat up, they look funny, and they emit a decidedly different quality of light. Maybe I will "realize" that this wasn't true after I haven't seen an incandescent light bulb for a while, but while I still see the differences every day, it's pretty difficult to come to that "realization." Again, I don't mind the differences, but some people might. And if they're willing to actually pay money in order to not use fluorescents, then why on Earth would I want to forcibly stop them from doing so?

One possible answer might lie in the fact that the European Union is trying to limit CO2 emissions. Using energy inefficiently, then, is not just a waste of money -- it's a contribution to global climate change. I may be reading into this too far, but it seems to me that what's happening here is a proclamation that "The differences between fluorescent and incandescent bulbs are not important enough to justify allocating a portion of our CO2 budget to allowing consumers to use incandescents." But this is exactly the kind of mindset that market-based policies are designed to avoid! The whole point of a market-based policy is that you increase the price of the thing you want to avoid, and people cut back wherever it's the least uncomfortable for them to do so. The policy is specifically designed to make it so regulators don't have to decide where those cuts will take place; that's the problem with centrally coordinated programs!

According to the owner of Ryness, if you watch what people are doing, you will clearly see that switching from incandescent light bulbs to fluorescents is not the least uncomfortable thing to do. The fact that people are motivated to actually go to the store and buy massive quantities of light bulbs suggests that they are quite uncomfortable indeed with this switch, and are willing to significantly go out of their way to avoid it!

And so in conclusion, facepalm.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Adventures in Moral Nihilism and Existentialism

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]

Update: See the comments section of this post for further discussion, and Gene Callahan's post on the ThinkMarkets blog for more.


So I've been having a sporadically ongoing argument with a friend of mine about the plausibility of morality, and I think I've gotten to the point now where I'm happy enough with my position to warrant saying something about it here. In order to understand the argument, though, you'll need some background about my friend. So first, I will offer that background, and then explain why I think Vichy's position is reasonable in light of that background. I will then turn to my own position and attempt to show how it can function even without rejecting Vichy's position.


Vichy has Asperger's syndrome, which manifests in her case in a number of ways, notable among which is an apparent incapacity for a certain range of feelings (whether this incapacity is rooted in emotion or some higher cognitive process is not clear). I am no expert in psychology -- especially moral psychology -- and so I haven't been able to understand the consequences of Vichy's condition with as much depth and clarity as I might like. But through speaking with her on a number of occasions I have uncovered two things which I take to be of extreme significance: first, that she is incapable of directly experiencing sensitivity to consequences that obtain for others, and second, that she is incapable of feeling indignation. In light of these two facts about Vichy, it may be unsurprising that she is not a humanist, and that she is a moral nihilist. But some clarification may be in order here in order to establish why I think these are perfectly reasonable positions for her to take.

Humanism is the view that individuals have some sort of intrinsic value such that they deserve to be treated according to certain minimal standards simply because of the kind of thing that they are. As many people have pointed out at least since Hume, it is simply impossible to derive from the objective nature of a human being a categorical normative claim of any sort, much less an entire moral system. And hopefully, it isn't necessary to attempt to demonstrate why the idea of mind- and moral agent-independent "objective moral facts about reality" should be rejected. So, then, the modern humanist needs some other way to establish the intrinsic worth of human beings which does not depend on trying to squeeze an "ought" from an "is."


It seems to me that the most obvious way to do this is to appeal to introspection -- to establish humanism through some claim of intuitive self-evidence. The shortest path to this conclusion is through the phenomenon of sensitivity to others. It is a natural human propensity to experience positive or negative feelings in response to perceiving or conceiving of certain consequences obtaining for other people: if I saw someone savagely beating a child, I would find myself awash in thoroughly terrible emotion -- I would long for the abuse to stop, or even to be somehow negated. And I would not attach these emotions to my personal aesthetic preferences, my perception that the beating was doing more overall harm than good, or any view that the abuser was making a poor decision, given the alternatives available to him. Rather, I would attach the emotions to what I perceived the child to be going through.

If I were to try to give proper credit to the way that I felt, it would not do to merely say that I would prefer the child not be beaten (though surely that would be true); I would naturally appeal to what was done to the child in order to point out what I perceived to be the true source of my distress. And insofar as my psychological disposition powerfully impelled me to believe that the child ought not to be savagely beaten, and insofar as I believed that other people shared my basic psychological disposition, it could be perfectly reasonable for me to think that other people should feel the same way. David Hume captured this sort of idea when, in Chapter 9 of An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals, he wrote:
When a man denominates another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or depraved, he then speaks another language, and expresses sentiments, in which he expects all his audience are to concur with him. He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony.

If we think it true that some objects (in the grammatical sense) have the capacity to inspire these sorts of evaluative reactions across people, and that these reactions are rooted in what happens to other people, then it seems like we could find some basis for the view that we are all presuppositionally committed to the idea that there is something wrong with treating people in certain ways -- that people inherently deserve to be according some minimal amount of dignity. For someone to fail to behave this way would seem to demonstrate that they had taken "improper" account of what would happen to the child in deciding whether or not to go through with the beating, and that if they did, then they would be impelled to agree that the beating ought not to happen.

But this approach runs into serious problems when we acknowledge that some people may not feel these same kinds of impulsions. It is not literally true that there is something about what happens to the child that automatically impels all rational beings to feel like that shouldn't be happening. It is, rather, only a normal human reaction to our own capacity for sensitivity that makes us feel this way. My friend Vichy, as I mentioned earlier, lacks the capacity to have that sort of reaction. It will not, then, be coherent for us to argue that based on our psychology, she should feel a certain way about the child being beaten. She simply can't feel that way about the child. So while this approach may go some way in grounding a humanistic attitude for normally functioning humans, it will literally have no bearing on Vichy -- it simply can't.


Another approach to grounding humanism is similarly grounded in our own psychology. Most people naturally think of themselves as having the sort of value required to sustain the humanistic view. This, I take it, is best illustrated by the entirely nature propensity for humans to feel indignation when others treat them with complete disregard for their interests. If someone randomly walks up to me and punches me in the face, I do not merely resent the pain that she has caused me or wonder if that was really the smartest thing for her to have done. I feel that she has treated me unfairly. As was the case in the example of the abused child, this feeling attaches to what happens to me, so that I end up thinking that the fault in the aggressor's action lies in the fact that she did not take "proper" account of what her actions would do to me in deciding whether or not to punch me.

If a person thinks of himself as having this sort of value, then the humanist needs only to point out that others are relevantly like him in order to establish her position. But once again, it should be clear that if someone doesn't feel this way about himself, then this approach will have no force. If someone's reaction to being punched in the face would truly be to merely resent the pain and to wonder about the wisdom of the other person's choice, then we will not be able to appeal to this reaction in order to ground any sort of normative view. And as I said before, Vichy is apparently incapable of feeling indignation. So again, this will make it impossible to ground a humanistic attitude this way for Vichy.


I find myself, therefore, out of bullets. I cannot offer Vichy any grounds for accepting humanism, and I do not find any other moral view plausible. Accordingly, I seem to reach the conclusion that for Vichy, anti-humanistic moral nihilism is not only a coherent position, but actually the only reasonable position for her to adopt. It surely isn't the case that there is objectively something about what happens to the child when beaten, or what happens to you when you are punched in the face, that makes it "improper" to take no account whatsoever of anything that does not happen to matter to Vichy for one reason or another. And there is no reason accessible to her that she should nevertheless believe that people are intrinsically valuable and that there are consequently such things as "morally improper" ways to account for people's interests.

What does this mean, then, for my own humanistic moralism? I seem to be committed to the view that it is literally false. But does that mean that I should be an anti-humanistic moral nihilist? I don't believe so. I will therefore offer an argument in defense of my moralistic humanism that could be appropriately classified as broadly existentialistic and fictionalistic.

It seems to me that the anti-humanistic moral nihilist position seems to entail a sort of egoism. If others have no intrinsic value, and there are no moral reasons for acting in any particular way, then the only thing left would seem to be to act for self-regarding reasons. I think it will be useful to think about this position as arguing that we should do whatever we think will allow us to live a life most in accordance with our own values, with no framework for evaluating the values we choose to pursue that are separate from our own value systems -- I don't know if that's a proper formulation, but hopefully it's close enough.

Where Vichy lacks a capacity for a certain range of emotions and reactions, I do not. I feel discomfort when others are treated without regard for their interests and I feel indignation when I am treated that way. If this is a natural way for my mind to work (and others' as well), then humanistic moralism will provide me with an excellent intuitive tool for knowing how these feelings are going to play out -- a sort of automatic navigation system. And because our reactive responses are attached to our conceptions of things -- my response to thinking about "a child being beaten" is different from my response to thinking about "me thinking from a humanistic moralist perspective about a child being beaten" -- I will only be able to use the humanistic moralist navigation system from within the humanistic moralist mindset.

If humanistic moralism is an effective tool in this sense, then it may be that I would live the better life if I adopted the humanistic moralist perspective. Further, it seems to me that there are other effects of adopting a humanistic moralist perspective that are quite desirable. One of the most valuable, I think, is the attitude of self-worth that comes along with it. It is quite easy to slip from "I have no worth" to "I am worthless," which is problematic for much the same reason as slipping from "The cup is empty" to "There is emptiness in that cup." It's no good to think of oneself as "worthless," and a great way to protect against feeling this way is to think of oneself as "having worth."

Another benefit of adopting the humanistic moralist perspective is the capacity to experience irrational feelings of attachment to people (i.e., in loving relationships and loyal friendships) that would be inaccessible to someone consistently and consciously adopting an egoistic mindset. Where conscious egoism would suggest the virtue of constant personal cost-benefit analysis, it seems to me that we can have better, happier, healthier relationships if we don't constantly evaluate things in this way, and if we instead allow ourselves to slip into a humanistic moralist mindset.

Also beneficial is the mindset which enables me to live in a world full of valuable individuals who are worthy of respect and love, rather than a world full of creatures who can do cool stuff. The same is true of the mindset which allows me to speak to "normal people" without having to translate back and forth between manners of speaking.

If these points are legitimate -- if there are considerable and potentially irreplacable benefits to being a humanistic moralist -- then it could be incompatible with the tenets of the anti-humanistic moral nihilist's egoism for me to adopt anti-humanistic moral nihilistic egoism. In other words, consciously adopting egoism personally would commit me to saying that "I ought to believe that I should do whatever is best for me, even if believing that I should do whatever is best for me would not be best for me." This, I think, would be clearly ridiculous. Accordingly, to the extent that I am capable of maintaining the humanistic moralist perspective, it might be reasonable for me to do so.

And luckily, I am quite capable of doing this. I am here reminded of something that Hume says in section VII of A Treatise of Human Nature:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther.

And so, after laboring to show why anti-humanistic moral nihilism is a reasonable and compelling position for Vichy, I hope to have made it equally clear why I don't believe it to be a reasonable position for me to adopt for myself. Perhaps it will frustrate some people that I am choosing to adopt such blatant fictionalism, but I defy them to come up with any reason that I shouldn't which wouldn't immediately flip around into a reason that I should.
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