Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Was Popper an emotivist/radical existentialist?

I am trying to assess to what extent were Popper is committed to a sort of “emotivism” or non-cognitivism, the view according to which calling a moral norm or standard “good” or “just” does not amount to a statement of fact, but to expressing some emotion or inclination of the will. Or, alternatively, to some form of “radical existentialism”, the view according to which all ultimate normative questions are a matter of ultimate existential choice, which cannot be based on further reasons.

the open society and its enemies.

"Norms are man-made in the sense that we must blame nobody but ourselves for them; neither nature, nor God. It is our business to improve them as much as we can, if we find that they are objectionable. This last remark implies that by describing norms as conventional, I do not mean that they must be arbitrary, or that one set of normative laws will do just as well as another.

By saying that some systems of laws can be improved, that some laws may be better than others, I rather imply that we can compare the existing normative laws (or social institutions) with some standard norms which we have decided are worthy of being realized."

Volume 1, ch. 5 "nature and convention". II
p. 67

[It is not easy to understand what Popper means. The use of the expression which I underline suggests that he endorses some form of emotivism or radical existentialism as defined above.

Further explications in the lines which follow the quoted passage:]

But even these standards are of our making in the sense that our decision in favour of them is our own decision, and that we alone carry the responsibility for adopting them.”

[This is a thesis about the moral responsibility of adopting a standard. I assume that “responsible” means “morally responsible”, that is, “potentially blame/praiseworthy”. We can evaluate standards (e.g. standards of conduct) as either good or bad, just or unjust. Popper seems to be worried that, if we postulate the existence of moral facts about the goodness or justice of standards, this would threaten our responsibility for acting in conformity to the principle or standard we have decided to adopt. But this can only be true if one presupposes the implausible conjunction of the two following principles, namely 1. that we are not morally responsible for the act that follows from the correct application of a standard that we are not free to choose; 2. that we are not free to choose the standard that we find to be best or most just, because we cannot intentionally choose a standard that we regard to be morally worse, or more unjust, than some other alternative standard. More about this in the concluding remarks.]

The standards are not to be found in nature. Nature consists of facts and of regularities, and is in itself neither moral nor immoral.”

[Of course standards are not found in nature, in the same sense as tables and chairs are, i.e. we do not “bump” into them. But this is trivial. The real question is does Popper mean that standards cannot be judged (as good or bad, just or unjust) objectively? Probably, Popper would argue that only we, human persons, and only we, can judge a standard as good or just and for that reason decide to use it to guide our action, and therefore have a sort of moral responsibility for making such judgments. But the problem is: what makes our judgments concerning what standards to use right or wrong? If we say: “a further standard”, we shift the question one step further, and we provide no real answer. Therefore Popper's position faces a dilemma: either he endorses a sort of emotivism, or he must admit that what justifies our ultimate standard is some “fact” prior to our will, so that we cannot be held responsible for it. This fact could be a fact about human nature or human rationality (which might be a-priori as Kant's categorical imperative), or a non-natural fact of Moorian kind. However it cannot be conceived as something that we invent or establish, and for which we can be held responsible.]

It is we who impose our standards upon nature, and who in this way introduce morals into the natural world4, in spite of the fact that we are part of this world.”

[Here Popper seems to endorse an emotivist (or expressivist, or projectivist) position as standardly formulated in contemporary handbooks of analytic meta-ethics.]

We are products of nature, but nature has made us together with our power of altering the world, of foreseeing and of planning for the future, and of making far-reaching decisions for which we are morally responsible. Yet responsibility, decisions, enter the world of nature only with us.”

[This is a non sequitur. Of course responsibility enters the world of nature only with us, in so far as we are the only being on Earth which can be regarded as agents in the full sense. And moral responsibility requires the fact of agency, and – if you wish, in addition to it – the fact of freedom of the will. But why should this fact support the idea that “we impose our standards upon nature” or that we “introduce morals into the natural world”, if that is taken to imply the idea that there is no standard of right or wrong, no truth in the moral sense, apart from our decisions (existentialism) or emotions (emotivism)? It seems to me obvious that moral objectivity (the idea that there are standards of right or wrong which do not depend from our arbitrary decisions or attitudes about what is right or wrong) or even cognitivism (the idea that the validity of standards of right and wrong can be discovered) or even realism (the idea that standards of right and wrong precede human decisions or attitudes in general) or even extreme realism (the idea that there are standards of right or wrong that exist independently from the existence of human agents) are all compatible with granting human beings full responsibility for their actions, in so far as they are in full possession of the agential qualities, and in so far as they are free to choose whether to act, or not to act, for the sake of what is good or right.]

Notice finally that Popper rejects emotivism in the notes corresponding to those passages, but I cannot see how he can escape the charge of defending either a form of emotivism or a form of radical existentialism. And the two views are quite similar, as it has been pointed out. 

Monday, July 16, 2007

Weitermachen!: cooked up thought experiments and the viciousness of ethics

Some comments on this post
Weitermachen!: cooked up thought experiments and the viciousness of ethics


Ethics in the vacuum?

In his post "cooked up thought experiments and the viciousness of ethics" Matt Brown throws doubts one the usefulness of "schematic" examples or "intuition pumps" of the sort which are popular in many articles on analytic philosophy. He thinks this method is not only useless, but may even have pernicious consequences on the moral sensibility and capacities of the people who practice it.

I am quite sympathetic to the points he makes.

Something in the replies he received strikes me as displaying a lack of sensibility for the points Matt Brown lays forward. In a way, they are enlightening in that they reveal the nature of the problem with which you are dealing. Evan, for example, uses an analogy between physics and morality. This analogy appears less explicitly in many other posts, in that it clearly undergrounds the metaphors which govern ethical thinking in professional analytic philosophy. In particular I refer to the metaphor of values regarded as forces, and the idea that a moral problem has the same "shape" of a first-year problem in Newtonian mechanics. (The idea behind this being that, if we are able to discover the "fundamental laws" of moral reality, the "real mess" that we find out there becomes more manageable.) No doubt this is a powerful metaphor because of its connection to mechanics and engineering, one that is best expressed in the utilitiarian sensibility, and that fits utilitarians preoccupations with "social engineering".

But why should ethics be, even remotely, like physics? It is only the professional teacher of ethics who thinks that it can be useful to understand "ethical laws in the vacuum", as we may call them. Worse than that, it is only and exclusively the philosophers who recognize themselves in the school (scholastic?) of analytic philosophy.

Now there are already some good reasons to doubt that "ethics in the vacuum" is a good methodology, given that it is not even so popular among philosophers. What explains the success of this methodology or style is, I believe, only the irresistible instinct to mock natural science, especially physics. There might be at least three reasons for this. One is that since Descartes we cannot resist the appeal of mocking the methodology of the most successful intellectual activity of our time, and this is widely regarded to be science today. (but is science that good? Many philosophers, especially in Europe, doubt this.) The other might simply be the sociological fact that (I have heard) many people in the U.S. enter philosophy with a background in natural science. Notice that in Europe philosophy is usually regarded to be more connected with literature, and as a matter of fact European or "continental" philosophers regards such "illustrations" as relatively unimportant or even stupid. The last one might be simply the status that science has in U.S. culture, especially in its connection to the idea of technology, which is connected to the idea of money and of power. (American culture is also known for its "anti-intellectualism", a sort of insufferance for the "culture" of the traditional intellectual which cannot prove their utility - and the utility of the knowledge they represent - in practice.)
I believe that if we try to look for a justification, rather than a mere explanation, of why the methodology of "ethics in the vacuum" is so popular, it is difficult to find one. There is clearly no obvious analogy between ethics and physics, as Matt rightly points out. There is clearly no proof that the attempt to connect concrete moral problems to "morality in the vacuum" leads us to be better people.

As Matt points out, this leaves us with another disanalogy between ethics and science. While engineers are infinitely more able to bend the forces of nature to their own will than layman are, it is reasonable to doubt that something similar applies to the sort of "moral knowledge" that philosophers ought to possess. And this is an excruciating problem given that ethics is sometimes called "practical philosophy".

Beside that, this way of doing philosophy is undermined at the epistemological level by theories such as Dancy's particularism, with which the reader of this kind of blogs must be familiar. If Dancy is right, the method based on intuitions pump is flawed, in that there is no guarantee that the "general" principle we use to solve the intuition pump problem will carry to any other problem which differs to the other in some features. Moreover, if we see the matter as particularist do, we must think that the crucial exercise of moral sensibility is the one which consists in sorting out the morally relevant features of a situation. If this is true, the morally relevant and interesting activity takes place when we define an example , by cutting up reality in such a way that we decide what is relevant and what is not in that situation, rather than we propose a solution for it.

I am also stricken by d0031's definition of what ethics is about. He talks about people's beliefs about what is permissible, impermissible, and required. This is a characterization of the subject-matter that clearly virtue-ethicists would reject. Moreover, do you really find it that this is what people look for when they look for ethical guidance? My real-life experience is that the opposite is true. What may sustain the opposite belies is, I guess, the fact that ethical problems and the need for ethical guidance appear in contemporary discourse especially in connection to public issues raised by bioethics and other current political issues. It is in the nature of things that such problems are best dealt with something like a deontological code or with a group of laws. But clearly this is far from showing that ordinary people's knowledge and reflection that is relevant to ethics (such as for example the knowledge they require when they find themselves in cases like the boat example) is centered on the notion of obligation or requirement.

However, it is very difficult to rebel against this entrenched tendency. One of the reasons for this is that good philosophy is, in a very deep sense, good literature, and that "intuitions pump" and "ethics in the vacuum" are in so many ways simply received stylistic features that mark good moral philosophical literature of analytic stile. It is difficult to do away with features that make literature simple, elegant and pleasurable to read without having any clear alternative in mind.

If the success of philosophy in the vacuum is in very deep sense a matter of received canons of style, rebellion against this must work kind of differently from they way theories are improved in times of "normal science". For example, people who do not like that style should try to unite themselves and fight together, should try to get into power, and promote the people who think in similar ways. So this is my suggestion: find other people who share your dissatisfaction with this sort of academic philosophy and try to make some real change. I may join your camp.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Aristotelian constructivism in moral theory: THE MANIFESTO.

I finally graduated (Ph.D.) with my thesis on the distinction between well-being and other modes of value. Now I am cultivating a new project, which I hope I will have the chance to develop. This new idea I am going to call "Aristotelian Constructivism in Moral Theory".


1. Intro to Aristotelian Constructivism Aristotelian Constructivism in Moral Theory, like Rawls' Kantian Constructivism or Scanlon's constructivism tries to argue in favor of a type of moral reasoning, and defines moral truths as the truths which derive from that type of moral reasoning. It differs from the more famous Kantian forms of constructivism in the nature of the concepts it involves. While Rawl's Kantian Constructivism involves the idea of free and equal moral persons, the idea of the reasonable, and the idea of the social role of morality, and Scanlon's constructivism the idea of reasonable agreement among reasonable agents, Aristotelian Constructivism involves the concepts of eudaimonistic (so-called) virtue ethics.

2. Judgement The final judgement of the goodness of a theory which is a form of Aristotelian Constructivism is its ability to provide a good guide to practical deliberation which fits, in terms of wide-reflective equilibrium, with our considered judgments about what good practical deliberation and wisdom is, and with the criteria of goodness the theory itself uses.

3. A formal definition of Aristotelian constructivism. I shall therefore say that a theory is a form of Aristotelian Constructivism if it defines a form of moral reasoning based upon four concepts, namely,

  • virtue: a trait of character or skill that makes a person who has it admirable for that reason

  • flourishing (aka living well or having a good human life): flourishing should not be confused with well-being, if one has a narrow idea of well-being, similar to health, or if one thinks that well-being can and ought to be defined in abstraction from moral and perfectionist values. Living well, in this sense, involves the element of success and of meaning. In Aristotelian constructivism, it is a-priori that flourishing includes bare living (or surviving), as defined by biology but is not limited to it. Moreover in Aristotelian constructivism, it is a-priori that, ceteribus paribus, developing the virtues is part of flourishing. So the idea of human flourishing is partly constituted by the idea of the virtue, and that the perfectly good life features the development of the virtues to an excellent degree.

  • human nature: a conception of the limits and possibilities of development of normal human being. In Aristotelian constructivism, it is a-priori that the content of human nature constraints the possible contents of the notion of flourishing. It does so in two ways: 1) the"bare-living" aspect of flourishing follows from a biological account of human nature 2) flourishing is constituted by a range of activities that are characteristic of human nature 3) flourishing cannot exclude any of the activities that are characteristic and fundamental of a life that we can recognize as distinctively human (e.g. parenting).

  • Moreover the definition of human nature constrains the possible range of virtues, since a virtue ought to be an excellence that is compatible with the possibilities open to human nature. A virtue for humans cannot be the same thing as a virtue for things that do not have a body.

Any form of Aristotelian constructivism offers a theory of the relation between those terms, R. A classical example of R is the following:

R1: it is a necessary condition of a character trait or skill being a virtue that it contributes to the flourishing of the possessor of a virtue

But more generally, a specification of R will constist in a specification of the following universal formula:

  • ur-R: it is a necessary condition of a character trait or skill being a virtue that its possession by/absence in the x-number of human beings in the K-community characteristically (partially) contributes to/undermines the flourishing of the x-number of beings in the J-community

Notice that "community" is a set of beings, whose criterial definition is a parameter to be defined in the specific Aristotelian and constructivist theory under examination. A possible research project consists in determining the right definition for R (and for community).

4. Recursivity A characteristic feature of any theory that is a form of Aristotelian constructivism is that it has a recursive element: namely, virtue . Virtue appears both as a constituent of flourishing (although flourishing involves more than virtue, namely bare living and those activities that are characteristic and fundamental in any life that we can recognize as distinctively human.) Is this circular? Not necessarily.

5. Practical reasoning Another aspect of Aristotelian constructivism, something that makes it similar to the constructivits theories of Scanlon and Rawls, is that its purpose is not the philosophical definition of a set of moral standards, but rather the philosophical definition of a form of practical reasoning.

The theory provided by the combination of these terms by means of the relation R which is a specification of Ur-R should be considered as part of a method of reasoning for determining what one should do if one is virtuous, in specific situations, but only in special cases, when one is criticized, or it is unclear what virtue requires. Suppose that one is just, and is uncertain on the question of what justice requires him to do. Let us suppose that in our theory, R is R1. He may then reason following the reasoning scheme RS-R1

  1. such and such is human flourishing

  2. it is a necessary condition of X being a virtue that it characteristically promotes the flourishing of the person who has it

  3. performing F1 hinders my flourishing

  4. a person who has the virtue X would not do F1, he would F2 in this circumstance

Discovering the right value for R means discovering the reasoning scheme R.S. which which makes sense of our considered judgments about virtue, the good life, and human nature, and which proves to be a useful and full of insights in guiding our deliberation.

The claim of Aristotelian constructivism is that there are at least certain situations in which practical deliberation taking the form of 1-to-4 is unavoidable. Aristotelian constructivism does not hold that agents need to deliberate like this all the time. Nor do they need to deny that in certain occasions it might be satisfactoty to appeal to the type of practical deliberation defined by Rawls for the political realm and by Scanlon for the moral realm (see esp. What We Owe to Each Other. Harvard University Press.) The distinctive claim of Aristotelian constructivists is that at least in certain occasions, this type of deliberation is necessary, in that it is better than the alternatives. By saying "better", an Aristotelian constructivist means "more conducive to human flourishing".

6. Anti-foundationalism Notice that according to Aristotelian constructivism the contents of flourishing, virtue, human nature, community (not R) are not based on prior metaphysical truths, but are assumed to be "learned" through moral learning, and then "slowly revised" by applying the scheme of reasoning RS in actual deliberation. This holds also for the content of human flourishing. Let us suppose that the real form of Aristotelian constructivism is given by R1. Aristotelian constructivism holds that some time it would be good (that is, conducive to flourishing) to make the reasoning 1 to 4, starting from our conception of flourishing and ending in our conception of what a virtue requires from us. But the conception of flourishing from which we start does not derive from some prior metaphysical or naturalistic truth only. In fact, we are allowed to change our conception of flourishing in order to make it fit with other considered conviction about just, corageous, etc. action through reflective equilibrium.

7. The notion of human nature is partly empirical and partly normative.

It is empirical in that biological theory, which is a partial account of human nature, gives content to the idea of biological survival of the organism, which is an aspect of human flourishing. That is to say, our best "empirical" knowledge about biology tells us what people require in order to survive in the narrow biological sense. But the notion of human nature has also a mixed empirical and normative content, in that psychology and sociology are necessary to define what makes up human living when it involves more than mere survival. And the notion of human nature is also normative and empirical in a further sense, in that in order to say what counts as human flourishing we must form a conception of those activities that are characteristic and fundamental in any life that we can recognize as distinctively human. Here "distinctively human" presupposes a judgment that is both empirical and normative at the same time, because the content of the concept of what is "distinctively human" can be adjusted in order to reach the highest reflective equilibrium with the notions of human flourishing, and with the idea that the virtues contribute to human flourishing, spelled out in details. This entails that the theory implies a blurring of the distinction between fact and value.

8. The re-evaluation of the importance of metaphysics in ethics.

Some (all?) the conceptions of human flourishing are parts of a specific metaphysics, i.e. a specific global weltanschaung or theory of everything. Since there is a conceptual relation between what counts as human nature, what counts as human flourishing, and what counts as a virtue, theories of human nature have – in Aristotelian constructivism – a normative value. It might be argued that whatever normative importance metaphysics has, it must follow from some prior normative assumption about the normative importance of metaphysics. Moral truths cannot have a metaphysical basis: metaphysical truths are truths about what there is while normative truths are truths about how we ought to act (or to think, or feel). Deriving normative truths from metaphysical truths entails a violation of Hume's law.

Against this, Aristotelian constructivists hold that Hume's law is false. First of all, Aristotelian constructivists reject the fact/value distinction. Aristotelian constructivists are not afraid to pose the existence of metaphysical truths which have direct normative consequences, because they have a post-positivistic conception of metaphysical truth, according to which metaphysical truths are truths for a being whose receptivity to truth involves, already, a non-merely passive, but a value-laden eye.

8. Questions:

A. What distinguishes Aristotelian constructivism from a version of utilitarianism, such as utilitarianism of character or motive? Answer:

It might appear that Aristotelian constructivism does not differ substantially from consequentialists: it postulates the existence of valuable states of affairs (namely states of human flourishing) which are also states of well-being or states which are good for someone, it defines the virtues as character traits that are most conducive to such states of affairs, and it finally defines right (or virtuous) action as action which follows from a virtues character.

Despite the appearances, there are some remarkable differences. First of all, standard forms of consequentialism presuppose an idea of the good that is compelling in its own right (as a conception of a state of affairs that is “worth promoting”). This state of affairs is conceptually independent from the idea of virtue, and it provides a logically independent criterion for what state is a virtue. Utilitarian, or better welfarist, forms of consequentialism, which define the good as states of well-being (states which are good for someone), also assume that we knowledge about what is ultimately good for someone should be prior to knowledge about moral virtue or human perfection, and logically or metaphysically independent from it.

Against this, Aristotelian constructivism provides a recursive definition of flourishing, one that it includes a-priori the development of those human capacities which are regarded as virtues. Moreover, from the epistemological point of view, Aristotelian constructivists do not think that our knowledge of what counts as good, and our knowledge about human flourishing can derive from intuitively plausible premises, which are independent from our knowledge about what counts as virtuous behavior.

That is to say, Aristotelian constructivists reject the idea that the account of human flourishing ought to be "normatively insulated from” an account of what character traits are admirable or count as excellent or virtuous. In other words, while utilitarianism is based on a "foundationalist" and "atomistic" idea of moral theory, based on independent but intuitively valid premises about the good, Aristotelian constructivism holds that we cannot justify a conception of human flourishing in abstraction from our conception of virtue.

B. In Aristotelian constructivism, it is a-priori that flourishing includes bare living or surviving, as defined by biology, and that the realization of more complex human possibilities adds ceteribus paribus to human flourishing. But what counts as biological health, and what counts as a human possibility, is the object of biology and social science. Aristotelian constructivist hold that all the notions of biological health and of what counts as a human possibility are in reflective equilibrium with the notion of flourishing and through this with the concept of a virtue. But since the concept of a virtue is a moral one, this makes human nature (a fact) depend (in part) from morality, that is to say, from justifiable beliefs about what ought to be done or ought to be the case. Isn't that absurd?

Answer: Aristotelian constructivism assumes that there is no clear boundary between matters of fact and matters of value. There is no scandal in revising a theory about human nature if it contrasts with a plausible account of flourishing, just as there is no scandal in revising a moral theory if it is based on a theory of human nature that is not coherent with our best knowledge of psychology or sociology.