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!


Radical Hippo said...

Nicely written, and I agree with your view.

As an aside, what is it about Connecticut that you dislike so much? Could it be the roads ridden with potholes and the right-lane passers? The smug snobbery of some of its inhabitants? I'm curious, because it seems like Connecticut would be a great place to live. You can go yachting!

Danny said...

Hooray! Thank you Radical Hippo, and congratulations on being the very first person to agree with me!

Connecticut sucks because (and it must be noted that my comments are restricted to the relatively wealthy suburban areas of Southwestern Connecticut) it is populated to a disturbingly large degree by people who are wholly unaware of what it means to enjoy life. They aren't nice to each other, they have no sense of community or neighborliness, they work too hard, they are super-competitive, their primary means of relaxation and enjoyment is indulgence in luxuries and rare treats, and their life-stories often sound suspiciously in line with standard cliches, to the point where you have to wonder whether those choices were really made because they reflected who they were as individuals.

They have beautiful families and homes and cars and wardrobes, and they get divorced, go to therapy sessions, cheat on their partners, become addicted to painkillers, and often get to about middle age before something inside of them snaps and they completely abandon everything for a new lifestyle that no one would ever have imagined for them.

The young people around here are predominantly a combination of kids who grew up here and either liked it or haven't found motivation or opportunity to leave (these ones are okay if sometimes uninspiring), and kids who want to work in finance and achieve fabulous material success (this group eventually coming to replentish the ranks of the awful people described in the previous paragraph).

There are, of course, exceptions. I have friends, and they're great; I'm sure there are plenty more great people around. But upper-class Southwestern Connecticut, on the whole, sucks.

Neverfox said...


Good stuff. I have some initial thoughts, a few quibbles and some areas I want to clarify. In the meantime, enjoy your Rawls. I'm going to absorb some of the sparse literature on moral fictionalism to focus our discussion. So far I've only lobbed general volleys to see what I'm playing against. The more I'm learning about it the more I think there is some common ground between your metaethics and the "third way" stuff I'm having a hard time articulating. Once I play with it for a bit, I might have something to blow your mind. Let's hope so anyway. My goal is not to "win" this debate as much as learn since I don't really have a metaethics side that I've truly come down on. I'm more clear on what I don't like that what horse I'm really backing. Fictionalism is seemingly a strong player but I'm still questioning whether it delivers the goods or just talks a good game.

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