Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Kant's Moral Psychology (II): Consciously Choosing Principles

In my last post I addressed some preliminary issues on the question of whether the findings of empirical psychology can legitimately be used to refute Kant’s moral theory, as Leiter and Knobe try to do. My contention is that they cannot be. This is not to say, of course, that no normative principles can or should be informed by empirical facts. We are natural beings, with natural desires and psychological processes. The specific normative considerations that inform our actions must have something to do with the facts about the beings we are. But this need not imply that normativity is wholly dependent on these natural processes. In this post I will argue that Kant’s claim that we act on maxims that we adopt is not an empirical thesis, and that we cannot take it as such without lobotomizing his moral philosophy.

Let me then begin by summarizing a point I raised in the comments on the last post. L&K are right to say that for Kant, “reason is the source of moral motivation” (2). But what Kant means by this is literal: it is reason, not any actual psychological process of reasoning, that is the source of moral motivation. We can draw an analogy to logic. Given two propositions of a modus ponens, I can provide the right conclusion. There are, of course, psychological and neuro-physical processes involved in my production of the conclusion, and these processes are open to various modes of empirical study. But the story we get through such means will be incomplete: the processes involved can explain why I gave an answer, but they cannot explain why I gave the right answer. And it seems like the logical form of the modus ponens—the way in which a right answer is rationally determined by the premises—has some explanatory role. If many more people are open to the possibility of logical truths that are immune from empirical refutations than to the possibility of similar moral truths, this may show that there are more skeptics about morality than about logic. But skepticism is not a reason to jump ship.

Now, moving on to L&K’s argument, which is roughly that recent studies strongly suggest that the major factors involved in influencing human behavior are heredity and environment, while upbringing and active adoption of principles play extremely minor roles. This, they claim, is good news for Nietzsche, bad news for Aristotle and Kant. Why is this bad news for Kant? Well, briefly, here’s how L&K gloss Kant’s moral psychology:

In the Kantian tradition of moral psychology, moral obligations are grounded in principles that each agent consciously chooses (6)

(1) agents impose moral requirements on themselves, and (2) these self-imposed requirements are motivationally effective. In order for the self-imposition of moral requirements to be genuinely autonomous it must presumably be a conscious process of self-imposition. And for these consciously imposed principles to be motivationally effective it must be the case that conscious moral principles are motivationally effective. (7)

we must presume that these consciously imposed moral “laws” have a substantial impact on behavior… On the Nietzschean view, by contrast, conscious beliefs play no such role in moral (or immoral) agency. People’s behaviors are determined not so much by their conscious beliefs as by certain underlying type-facts. (27)

One reason that I think the research L&K present poses no challenge whatsoever to Kant is just that it poses a challenge only to the Kantian view described here. But Kant held no such view; in fact, this view is highly improbable even before a single study is cracked open. L&K take Kant to be laying out a theory according to which human beings consciously impose moral principles on themselves and then consciously act on them. But keep in mind that the “principles” involved are what Kant calls maxims, which have the form “I will do X in case/in order to Y.” Typical Kantian examples of maxims are: “I will end my life in order to avoid prolonged suffering” and “I will make false promises in cases where I can profit by this.” These examples are well known. I think we need very few studies to realize that we do not, under normal circumstances, formulate such principles consciously before acting. We do have intentions. But cases in which those intentions are preceded by explicit formulations of principles, which we then use to guide our intentions, are incredibly rare. One could, of course, read Kant uncharitably, and simply say: “yes, his moral psychology is just obviously flawed!” But now consider the fact that Kant was much smarter than you (yes, whoever you are reading this, there is a pretty high chance that this is true). So maybe we shouldn’t take Kant to be giving us an obviously flawed thesis about the psychological processes by which people actually make decisions, but rather a thesis about how our actions are to be understood rationally.

Let’s say that you see Freddie promising to pay back a loan when, in fact, you know, and you know that Freddie knows, that he is actually planning to take the money and flee to Mexico, never to be heard from again. Of all the things going on in Freddie’s head, it is unlikely that the explicit maxim stated above is one of them. More likely, he simply wants to get some money so he can make a comfortable getaway, and he thinks that this is a good way to achieve that—and even these thoughts don't need to be explicit for his action to be intentional. But if you—or Freddie—wanted to see his behavior as an action, i.e., not as a process of being entirely pushed around by his motivational states, but rather as somehow rationally structured, then the maxim above would be a good way of formulating it. The maxim is implicit in the action, and to hold Freddie responsible for the action, we need to take him as acting on some sort of rational principle. But this is not the same as saying that this principle was consciously formulated and adopted by Freddie, and that this conscious action on his part was the mechanism involved in producing his behavior.

In fact, it is clear that Kant cannot mean—at least in general—that maxims are consciously chosen principles. This is clear from the fact that Kant believes that human beings choose what Kant calls their disposition (Gesinnung), which is the maxim from which all other maxims are derived; we adopt this maxim through an act of freedom. Since this maxim grounds all our other maxims, its adoption must precede all our uses of agency. And so the grounding maxim must actually be chosen prior to any rational action we might undertake in our lives; as Kant notes, we may represent it as innate. But of course we cannot choose an innate disposition consciously; and Kant is explicit that this disposition is chosen first in the rational order, not in the order of time. It should be obvious by now that Kant is giving us a metaphysical, and not an empirical theory. A theory, then, that can be attacked on metaphysical grounds, or through a rejection of metaphysics (preferably not one that simply encourages us to stick to science), but that it makes no sense to attack empirically.

We can confirm that Kant is giving us a metaphysical, and not an empirical, theory by his constant use of the locution “as if” (als ob). That is, what he is discussing is not how we are, empirically, but how we must see ourselves: we must see ourselves as if we have adopted these principles. This, on Kant’s view, is how we must see ourselves if we are to see ourselves as persons, and not just as complex mechanisms. And yes, this marks Kant as clearly opposed to the naturalism so dominant in contemporary analytic philosophy, and of which Leiter is so fond. But it is question-begging to simply adopt a naturalist position and, from there, argue against Kant. One must first prove that a thoroughgoing naturalism is both superior and justifiable. Anything else is just bad philosophy.

I want to conclude by asking why, if Kant is so very obviously not giving us an empirical moral psychology, do contemporary philosophers (many Kantians included) so often interpret him precisely as suggesting a model on which we consciously choose principles and then act on them? One reason is that the thesis that we can endorse our action, and which in some form Kant really does hold, is easily confused with the thesis I am considering here (I will look at this in the next post). Another lies in the philosophical culture. Rawls, who made Kant respectable in analytic moral philosophy after decades of groundless slander and neglect, explicitly bracketed the issue of moral psychology: he was only looking for a decision procedure for ethics. But his students wanted a Kantian moral philosophy that, first, would give us concrete principles for action and, second, could do so without making any (to them) exorbitant metaphysical claims. Onora O’Neill for example, interpreted maxims as psychological states. Korsgaard, meanwhile, has advanced what many have praised as Kantian ethics without metaphysics. But these projects are much like riding a bicycle without the wheels. Kant’s moral philosophy is metaphysical; the validity of the moral law is intimately bound up with issues of transcendental freedom and noumenal causation. Without these features, one has a radically weakened Kantianism, and one that is not simply vulnerable to empirical refutation, but is almost self-evidently false.

In my next post I want to address a few other features of Kant’s moral psychology, and question L&K’s claim to have provided arguments against Kant. In particular, I will say something about the role of determinism in Kant, as well as his almost wholesale acceptance of Hume’s view that only the passions can determine us to action, two features that are too often overlooked. And I will address the issue of endorsement, which does involve an empirical claim, one that might look very similar to the view that agents consciously adopt principles.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Meme, Ricoeur Style

For months I've been watching the silly 123-5 meme spreading around, wondering why it could have occurred to anyone to come up with this, what the point might possibly be, and why people bother to respond. But since I've now been tagged by both Fido and Gabriel, I find myself compelled to respond. Is this supposed to be a blog bonding thing?

The meme is this:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages)
2. Open the book to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence on that page
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five bloggers.
The book is Paul Ricoeur's Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology (the first book I reached for was Robert Kane's The Significance of Free Will, but page 123 didn't have enough sentences on it; then I realized I was already holding Ricoeur in my other hand--this is what I call "focused study"). Here's what I got:
Sunk into the midst of this nature, I experience myself as a "member of . . ." (Glied) this totality of things "outside me" (CM, p. 129:36). From this dialectic of the "outside me" and the "in me," which my body has instituted, proceeds the whole constitution of the alien "in" and "outside of" ownness.
How do we get from this admitted and accepted solipsism to the constitution of the Other?
How indeed? I do like the way Ricoeur basically re-reads Husserl in such a way as to make the sort of existential phenomenology in which the will takes primacy to representation a natural outgrowth, though also a reversal, of Husserlian phenomenology. And I wish that contemporary constitutivists, i.e., Korsgaard and Velleman, would take some time to go through Ricoeur, who carefully rejects both the notion that the will can be understood as an entirely reflexive capacity (Korsgaard) and that volitions ultimately share a kernel of sense common to representation (which, I think, is kind of Velleman's position). I also wish that I had some time to work this out myself... Well, soon I will. Hopefully.

And now, to tag some people. A bit hard, since I figure I can't tag either the people who tagged me, or the ones who tagged them. So, I tag Boram, Joe, Avery, Neil, and Joachim.

I don't know how people are supposed to find out if they've been tagged, though. I'm guessing not everyone regularly checks their Technocrati stats to cry about how unpopular their blog is.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Evil Demon Tortoise Chinese Room Trolley Problem

If you were very funny and wanted to shed some (unsympathetic) light on the intuition-pumping bent of analytic philosophy, you might come up with something like this cartoon. It's pretty old, but for those of you who, like me, haven't seen it before it's absolutely worth the three minutes.

I can't comment on this, because you wouldn't perceive the comment: In the blogosphere, no one can hear you laugh.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Is Kant's Moral Psychology Implausible? (I): A Reply to Leiter and Knobe

In a cursory examination of Brian Leiter’s Nietzsche blog, I stumbled upon a small exchange that involved Leiter insulting Kant scholars (perhaps justified, since it was in response to the claim that Allen Wood insulted Nietzscheans). I was going to let this go, but then Leiter also suggested that Nietzsche’s moral psychology is more plausible than Kant’s, and I couldn’t quite let this go. The result was that people started arguing with me and giving me reading suggestions, and it felt wrong to keep responding to them on Leiter’s thread, which was on a completely different, Obama-related topic. So instead I promised to blog about it here. What I mainly want to do here is defend Kant in response to the sources that were suggested to me—Leiter and Knobe’s [L&K] article, "The Case for Nietzschean Moral Psychology", and (briefly) Paul Katsafanas’s Nietzschean arguments against Kantians.

Let me start with a preliminary: In keeping with the theme raised on that thread, my question will be whether Kant’s moral psychology is any less plausible than Nietzsche’s. The plausibility is to be assessed (at least in part) in light of current empirical knowledge of human decision making. I don’t want to claim that Nietzsche’s moral psychology is less plausible than Kant’s; I am very fond of it, in fact (or at least the little I learned back in the day). What I want to argue is that there are no good grounds provided in L&K’s paper for thinking that Kant’s moral psychology is any less plausible. And the main reason for this is that I think empirical evidence largely leaves Kant’s important points untouched; the parts that seem to support Nietzsche, on the other hand, strike me as largely compatible with Kant. I will get to this point in the next post; first I want to question the assumptions made by L&K, specifically the assumption that they are somehow criticizing Kant’s views. This post, then, relates more to meta-considerations about the debate, and particularly to the role of moral philosophy, than to Kant’s moral psychology itself.

Now my response is, in part (but I hope only in part), something Leiter will no doubt consider a cop-out. And this is because my response (again, in part) does tend to follow the lines of a long-familiar argument that L & K start out by dismissing:

Certain Kantians might say: “Kant’s theory is not intended as a psychological hypothesis. It should be understood rather as a statement of the conditions of possibility of moral agency. Hence, if we find that no one actually meets the conditions set out by the theory, we should not conclude that the theory itself was mistaken. Instead, we should conclude that no one ever truly is a moral agent.” Let us call philosophers who adopt such a posture Above-the-Fray Moral Philosophers. [AFMPs] Such philosophers are indeed invulnerable to empirical results: they tell us how moral agents ought to be, and they are indifferent to how moral agents actually are or can be. We reject such an approach in this essay. We assume that ought implies can is a reasonable aspiration in moral psychology; indeed, that ought implies realistically can is an even better aspiration… We assume with most moral philosophers (including many Kantians) that there are agents who perform morally valuable acts, and thus the question for moral psychology is not merely a question about the possibility conditions for such psychology, but how this psychology actually works. (2-3)

So, let me comment on this. If L&K use such a claim to preface what they take to be an attack on Kant, then they are being intellectually dishonest. And this is (partly) because they are failing to distinguish Kantians from Kant. Their objections in the paper do, I think, pose challenges to many contemporary Kantians. They do not—as I will show—pose any challenge to Kant. One reason is that Kant is, to a large extent, what L&K call an AFMP. L&K may well disagree with such a position, but an attack on Kant that assumes this disagreement cannot reasonably be taken to be an attack on Kant. I do not, to repeat, disagree that the paper poses serious challenges to many contemporary Kantians; but I think Kant himself poses equally serious challenges. To be sure, attacking Kant by inaccurate proxy is a time-honored tradition in 20th century Anglophone moral philosophy. But someone who works on a figure in the history of philosophy (Leiter) ought to know the difference between attacking Kantians and attacking Kant. (What would Leiter say to the people who attack Nietzsche based on a reading of Heidegger and Deleuze?)

Second, L&K’s characterization of AFMPs certainly makes such an approach sound like silly, outdated, armchair stargazing nonsense. But it is a lot more appetizing if we stop to think about what Kant was trying to do instead of setting up a straw man for the fire (or whatever one does with straw men). We can approach this, I think, by noticing that L&K seem to simply conflate (as they also do later in the paper) moral theory with moral psychology. The first (roughly) being that branch of philosophy that tells us what principles of action or character traits or goals are good (I am trying to be neutral here with regard to moral theories; Kant’s own formulation of the moral question is: “What ought I to do?”), the second being the study of how human beings actually comport themselves with regard to morally relevant concepts or principles. By conflating the two, L&K essentially assert that morality must be utterly subservient to moral psychology. There is certainly reason for a Nietzschean to take such a position, but again: it kind of prejudices the argument from the outset. We can, of course, with Hume affirm that one cannot derive an ought from an is, that philosophy can only study what is, and that we can therefore throw the ought out the window. But doing that involves taking a stance within moral theory, and an argument against Kant has to occur at this stage, not after the stance has already been taken. True, L&K's “ought implies can” reference may be intended to forestall just such a criticism, but their move there is so fast and unsupported, that it cannot justify using empirical moral psychology to question Kant’s moral theory.

Third, there are good reasons for Kant to be an AFMP. Because what Kant was trying to do was, precisely, to (1) figure out how we ought to act, and (2) give the conditions of possibility for so acting. And the problem with the “ought implies can” principle is that either you base your moral philosophy entirely on moral psychology (people want x & y, therefore they should do p & q; alternatively, people have the psychological traits a & b, therefore they should do or can be expected to do p & q), or you figure out your morality independently of empirical data. Only the second approach allows you to say what we ought to do, rather than just what we should do, or what it would be best for us to do given what we are like as natural beings. And, in fact, you can only figure out what we ought to do by refusing to start out with how we are by nature. And this position becomes more tenable still, I think, if you ask yourself why we should reject psychologism in mathematics and logic, but maintain it with regard to moral philosophy. (Imagine: “Some philosophers claim that the square root of 2 has a determine value, regardless of whether human beings can calculate it in their head. I maintain that to have a determinate value is to have a value determined by actual human capacities.”)

Fourth, “ought implies can” is obviously a principle Kant takes seriously. It is, in fact, an a priori truth for him. Kant explicitly uses the principle to argue from the fact of the moral law to the human ability to follow it. Since the ought, for Kant, is derived from reason and not from nature, unsurprisingly the question of whether or not human beings can follow it turns out to be a metaphysical, not an empirical question. I agree with Kant that this is a step that has to be taken by anyone who wants to differentiate what we ought to do from what we, on some description, happen to want to do. Of course the metaphysics must be such that it is not contradicted by empirical evidence. And it will turn out that the empirical facts, as Kant sees them, are in no way contradicted by L&K. And this is partly because Kant does his best to make his empirical psychology as neutral as possible on moral questions. What he rejects, however, is the approach that limits all human knowledge to the empirical, and this is what allows him to posit a moral law in the first place. Kant’s grounds for rejecting the limitation of all human knowledge to empirical knowledge may, of course, be questioned. Almost all contemporary Anglophone philosophers reject them. But—and this is a very different discussion—his challenge to naturalism has yet to be answered directly (to my knowledge). And, in any case, the notion that philosophy is just there to clarify empirical claims and not to make ought-statements largely went out the door with logical positivism. Or did it?

Fifth, we should, especially if we care about the ought question, take a second look at the conflation issue. The AFMP is characterized as saying that, “if we find that no one actually meets the conditions set out by the theory, we should not conclude that the theory itself was mistaken. Instead, we should conclude that no one ever truly is a moral agent.” And L&K reply that such philosophers “tell us how moral agents ought to be, and they are indifferent to how moral agents actually are or can be.” But L&K seem to be confusing three things here: (1) whether there actually are any agents that live up to the demands of moral theory, (2) whether actual human beings have the psychological capacities that might allow them to live up to those demands, (3) whether, given actual human capacities, human beings are capable of living up to the demands of morality. These are obviously distinct questions. If human beings really lacked the capacity to be moral, Kant tells us, there would be no morality. But this goes back to the previous point. In any case, the conflation is important because the point of the ought, once again, is to set an ideal above and beyond the goals we have by nature, so the moral psychology demanded by the moral theory will be at least in part non-empirical. At least one—though major—reason for this, is that the goal set by morality must be capable of overriding all other demands, and this means that it must transcend them. On this picture, the question is whether or not we are something more than merely natural beings; but it should be obvious that this is not an empirical question. Moreover, it would not be surprising, given such a picture of morality, if no one lived up to it; in fact, if anyone did live up to it, we could have no empirical evidence for this! Morality is, for Kant, very different from making a tasty pot of chowder or even getting a perfect score in a bowling match. Morality is something to strive for infinitely. But even if no one meets the conditions set out by Kant’s moral theory, this does not imply that no one meets the conditions set out by his moral psychology.

I know I seem to be making a mountain out of a molehill, and I certainly seem to be missing L&K’s point. The truth is, I am quite sympathetic to the project of bringing actual psychology to bear on issues of agency and ethics, and I find their paper very interesting. But if philosophy is to be something other than just psychology, or a tool for clarifying psychology (see my previous post, on Appiah and x-phi), then it is reasonable that it should have components that do no take their directives from the empirical evidence, but instead provide us with the directives for evaluating that evidence in the first place. Taking is questions to make important and valuable contributions is quite proper and healthy for philosophy. But taking is questions to provide counter-evidence to ought questions (and, really, taking ought questions to simply be varieties of is questions) often simply involves philosophical confusion. (See Michael's post criticizing the idea that moral psychology can replace moral theory.)

In the next post, I will address the actual issues of moral psychology in question, and argue that they do not cast doubt on the plausibility of Kant's moral psychology.

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Mind-Body Causation as Primitive

This is a completely off the cuff post--so be it. A long while ago I read an essay by Daniel Garber entitled, I think, something like 'What Descartes should have Told Elizabeth' (in any case, the essay is in his book, Descartes Embodied). Princess Elizabeth was apparently unhappy (following general trends) with Descartes' account of mind-body causation. If my memory serves me, Garber would encourage Descartes to reply that mind-body causation is primitively true, a clear and distinct idea in fact. Garber's purpose is to correct those who, ever since Descartes, claim that mind-body causation is an insuperable problem for his system, one that Descartes ignores, and one for which he has no good answer. By Garber's lights, none of this is true--he does recognize the problem, he does propose a solution, and it's a good one.

Now, before it's dismissed as a cop-out, I want to say that I sort of agree with Descartes, if indeed this is his answer. On a certain level, denying mind-body causation is self-defeating: it is just obvious that I do certain things with my body consonant with and often directly resulting from flows and deliberations in my mind. It is also obviously true that many if not most of the contents of my mind come to me in some way from a world outside and independent of me. It's of no use to deny this, and probably of little use to demand an explanation. What we ought to seek instead is clarification. Descartes is not alone in this. Rousseau makes much the same argument about human freedom, and in a more recent context, so does Chisholm (see Chisholm, "Human Freedom and the Self").

On the other hand, I don't deny that there are methodological issues that confront Descartes if he does indeed favor this solution--even if they aren't the ones we are more familiar with from the tradition. Specifically, it begs questions about clear and distinct ideas, and their adequacey as an index of truth. A clear and distinct idea is, I take it, just an judgment that I can't imagine being otherwise and can't imagine being false. For example, I have a clear and distinct idea (or more precisely, judgment) that the interior angles of a triangle equal two right angles. This thought is clear and distinct in that I cannot imagine them equaling any thing else, and I cannot imagine this judgment itself being false. Now, whatever the intuition is that makes mind-body causation obvious, I don't think it's that: the idea may force itself upon me, it may appear incontrovertible, but it's certainly not clear and distinct. For one thing, I can say why the interior angles of a triangle equal two right angles. If need be, I could demonstrate it. Not only can I not do the same thing when it comes to mind-body causation, I can't even begin to understand how such a demonstration might proceed. And this is not just because I don't know enough, for by the 6th Meditation, we are presumably apodictically certain that the mind and body are distinct substances. Of this truth we are absolutely certain.

We seemed forced to conclude then that there are brute facts--mind-body causation--that we must nonetheless incontrovertibly and indubitably accept. Presumably, such even enjoy the ratification of God. This is different than our knowledge of mental and physical substances. I do not accept as a brute fact that physical substance is extended, and thereby definitely denumerable and infinitely divisible, for here I grasp the essence of physical extension. I understand it through and through. The brute-fact of mind-body causation is quite different than this sort of insight into essence.

I don't have any obvious or interesting conclusion to these reflections, except perhaps one: what makes the mind-body problem so intractable is its articulation within a framework of causality. Ryle warned us against this type of confusion, and Chisholm helped to clarify what we really mean. So for starters, we might recognize that while mind-body 'interaction' (whatever that is) is primitively guaranteed, mind-body causation is not.

I might add one further coda: there seems to be interest, especially as of late, to decouple our notion of moral responsibility and even agency from the framework of causality: to be a moral agent or to be responsible for your actions need not (or in fact cannot) entail that one is causally responsible for that action or its results. I've no beef with this approach, but it doesn't get to what Descartes is suggesting. For while we might have to find a suitable substitute for the notion of 'cause,' it is nonetheless primitively true or obvious that I make certain things happen in the world, and that I do so by means of my mind. It might be wrong to conceptualize this 'making happen' in terms of cause, but it is for all that a force or power that I am evidently and certainly aware of.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Appiah on Experimental Philosophy: Damning Praise?

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Appiah’s New York Times article on experimental philosophy. I have to confess that I am a little surprised: on one reading, Appiah is attempting to gently curb the (possible) ambitions of experimental philosophy by showings its limits (a critique of experimental philosophical reason, if you will). But on another reading—the one that seems most natural to me—Appiah spends a page praising experimental philosophy, then suddenly turns the tables by first showing that you still need traditional “armchair” philosophy to clarify the results (for two reasons, that I’ll get to in a moment), and really goes on to suggest that experimental philosophy as such is completely unnecessary. Though this isn’t the way he puts it, my impression from the article is that his point ends up being: experimental philosophy is kind of cool, and it’s based on a philosophically important idea, but it’s that idea—not the experimentation—that matters.

Why do we still need the armchair philosophy? Referring to Joshua Knobe’s well-known work on intention attribution, Appiah puts it thus:

although experiments can illuminate philosophical arguments, they don’t settle them. For instance, is it a good thing that we attribute intention in the curious way that we do, and if so, why? (Is the Knobe effect a bug or a feature?) You can conduct more research to try to clarify matters, but you’re left having to interpret the findings; they don’t interpret themselves.

This looks like Appiah is giving one reason why experimental philosophy cannot replace—and, really calls for—traditional armchair philosophy, but there are in fact two reasons here. First, the most obvious reason: data is meaningless without interpretation. Everybody recognizes this, I think; it’s the reason experimental philosophers argue about their results and perform further surveys to try to close in on how the intuitions being studied are interconnected. But second, there is a philosophical reason, which Appiah raises with the question, “is it a good thing that we attribute intention in the curious way that we do”? This reason is distinct from the first one, because interpreting what one’s findings mean is different from what this second question calls for, which is not interpretation but normative analysis. Philosophy isn’t simply about clarifying our intuitions; it is also about asking whether having the intuitions we do is reasonable or justifiable or desirable. And this is the sort of question that cannot be settled experimentally, as far as I can tell. (Survey question: “What is your intuition about this? Do you think it is reasonable for you to have this intuition?” That wouldn’t help: respondents could answer the second question, but they’d just be giving a second, higher order intuition with regard to the first one. And then we’d have to ask, once again, whether the higher order intuition is reasonable or justifiable or desirable to have.)

Now, here is a bit from Appiah’s concluding praise of experimental philosophy:

The best work in experimental philosophy would be valuable and suggestive even if it skipped the actual experiments… X-phi helps keep us honest and enforces a useful modesty about how much weight to give one’s personal hunches, even when they’re shared by the guy in the next office.

And this, really, is the only thing Appiah seems to say in favor of experimental philosophy. But it isn’t much by way of praise. Certainly Appiah does not say that experimental philosophy has no value—what he is says is that it would be valuable even without the experimentation. And its value, on his analysis, is that it keeps philosophers from taking their own intuitions to be obvious truths. But this isn’t a praise of experimental philosophy at all: certainly philosophers can and should be wary of taking their own intuitions, even if their acquaintances share them, to be universal or natural or obvious. But we can take that point away without handing out any surveys. If so, then what is the value of experimental philosophy qua experimental philosophy? Appiah doesn’t seem to say anything about that. Rather, he seems to do away with the sort of answer that might come to mind.

In a case of competing intuitions, he writes,

Both intuitions have their advocates, and the right answer, if there is one, isn’t necessarily to be determined by a head count.

This seems to be an overly conciliatory gesture: it’s not that a head count doesn’t necessarily determine which intuition is right; it isn’t clear how a head count could serve this purpose at all. Genuine philosophical problems just aren’t problems to solve by a head count, because head counts don’t solve normative problems. A head count might tell us who the next president of our country will be, for example, but it won’t and can’t tell us who the right president for our country will be. A head count can, of course, answer a question such as: “Is intuition X universally shared?” But that question isn’t a genuinely philosophical question at all, and it seems to me that it isn’t a genuinely philosophical question precisely because it is an entirely empirical one. In any case—a point Appiah does not make—it isn’t clear what would be contributed even by a survey that showed that a certain intuition really was universally shared. What would that do? It would still be a head count, and the fact that everyone agrees on X still doesn’t establish that X is right. It establishes only that everyone agrees on it.

That is, while Appiah doesn’t say that experimental philosophy (again, qua experimental) has no value, he doesn’t actually give us any reason at all to think that it is valuable. And in this regard I find his article—which seems, on the surface, to be a praise of experimental philosophy—extremely puzzling. In conclusion, though, I would like to suggest two uses for experimental philosophy that strike me as important.

1. Experimental psychology clearly does have some value. (I myself am rather fond of Piaget and Kohlberg; but of course there is a lot of other, and more recent, interesting stuff that philosophers have been exploring more and more in recent years.) And one of the problems with psychology, it has always seemed to me, is that psychologists often conclude their studies with grandiose philosophical claims that remain entirely underdetermined by the evidence. Collaboration between philosophers and psychologists would, hopefully, help to stem this trend, and help also to make psychological insight more obviously philosophically interesting.

2. Experimental philosophy can serve as a kind of normative therapy. This is not what one would call a traditional philosophical approach, of course, but I this is could be an important one. Take the case of individuals expressing their intuitions. And then ask them whether they think their intuitions are reasonable. Well, now, this latter question is something philosophers should be pretty good at dealing with. And what if, instead of simply collecting data from subjects, philosophers then turned around and helped the subjects analyze that data by helping them reason through their higher order reflections on their intuitions? On this approach, experimental philosophy would perhaps not feed back into philosophy proper. What it would do, on the other hand, is something genuinely useful to human beings.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Do Continental Philosophers Have Arguments?

It isn’t so uncommon to meet someone who thinks that continental philosophers don’t make arguments. I suspect that often this is the result of not having read much, if any, continental philosophy. But of course that isn’t the whole explanation. Perhaps some people have picked up the notion that continental philosophers don’t make arguments from others, but then those others, at some point, must have picked up the notion somewhere. So here I want to briefly say that the answer is: yes. Continental philosophers do make arguments. I am happy to refer anyone who doubts this to, e.g., sections 19-21 of Heidegger’s Being and Time, which feature his phenomenological critique of Descartes. Or to Badiou’s critique of Levinas in his Ethics (pp. 18-23 in Verso’s English translation). The real question is, why might it seem like continental philosophers do not employ arguments? The answer, I think, is that readers trained to recognize the analytic style of argument might often read a continental argument without noticing that it is an argument at all. I have already pointed out one reason for this in a previous post: continental philosophers have a tendency to embed their arguments within a wider conceptual scheme, in such a way that the arguments for the scheme and the arguments within the scheme are co-dependent.

But I think there is another reason why continental arguments often get missed, and this seems to me to reflect a general difference in the way analytic and continental philosophers understand the purpose of argument (an obvious but important point before I start: I am not describing a methodology common to all continental philosophers; nor am I describing a methodology that no analytic philosophers apply). Let me start this train of thought by saying something about arguments, which I hope will not come off as overly controversial or anti-rational: Knock-down arguments, at least against widely accepted positions, are exceedingly rare. Strong arguments, of course, are not all that uncommon. But strong arguments are not knock-down arguments; they are not, in other words, arguments the conclusion of which pretty much any reader must accept under pain of contradiction. Philosophers generally spend some time—a lifetime, or perhaps a week—thinking out a position, and they don’t abandon it lightly. If the position is at all cogent—or, sometimes, even if it isn’t but provides support for another position that many people want supported—it is unlikely to be dropped instantly in response to an argument.

The obvious point that philosophers generally tend to hold on to their positions has ramifications as well, ones that are familiar to anyone who opens an analytic journal. What typically happens when a strong argument is presented is not that the target of the argument rolls over, but that the target comes up with a defense, or a way of preserving her original position by either undermining the critique or avoiding its implications. This need not be understood as the product of simple ego inflation, though there is some of that, coupled with pressures to publish (I am, for example, somewhat at a loss for how else to explain the decades of literature about Frankfurt Examples). There are certainly solid philosophical reasons for maintaining an established position—it is, after all, established for a reason; presumably, it provides a particularly strong approach to some problem, or it lacks the deeper difficulties of its competitors. The point, though, is that a debate can often go back and forth indefinitely, and the waning of such a debate or the prominence of a position is often attributable to factors that have little to do with the rational force of particular arguments.

And here I want to suggest that one typical (though not universal) continental approach to arguments arises out of this recognition: arguments are viewed not so much as techniques used to demonstrate an opponent’s flaw, but rather as attempts to make intelligible underlying issues. An example (though not a continental one): Galen Strawson has argued that moral responsibility is impossible, because it requires of an agent that she be capable of self-creation. Certainly both compatibilists and libertarians have replies to this argument. But the strength of the argument seems to me to lie not in its point (since its point is, really, just the restatement of a very old problem and, as such, hardly worth restating again), but in its ability to make that old point—a point that, in its longevity, seems to reveal a deep underlying philosophical concern—intelligible within a different idiom and conceptual scheme. So while an analytic philosopher might take the arguments primarily as something to be defended or refuted, a continental philosopher may be more likely to look at the context of the arguments on both sides and to search for the deeper conceptual problems involved. Often this involves a method of looking for aporias (a method Ricoeur calls “aporetics”)—points at which both sides have been so thoroughly defended that the fruitful response is not to contribute to one side or the other, but instead to take the problem to be for all intents and purposes insoluble, and to seek the reason for this insolubility in the conceptual scheme common to both sides.

The goal of a continental argument, then, is often not to attempt to resolve a philosophical problem directly, but to try to make the problem itself clearer by providing an intelligible picture of why the problem appears so intractable in the first place. This may seem unphilosophical and, really, unsatisfying to those committed to solving the problem; but it involves the recognition that some problems cannot be solved, and they cannot be solved not because the terms of the problem are badly defined, or because a master argument has not yet been found, but because the problem itself arises out of a mistaken schema. One consequence is that this tends to make continental writing less contentious and more conciliatory—another reason that arguments might seem to be lacking. It is conciliatory in the sense that often continental writing proceeds not by attempting to show that a particular view is wrong, but instead by showing that it is inadequate to grasping a deeper problem. But instead of simply rejecting the view, the method often goes on to seek the truth of the position, roughly, what is right about the position in the sense that it can be used to make sense of the underlying issue. (An excellent example of this is Ricoeur’s writing in Oneself as Another—he begins by showing that P. F. Strawson’s account of persons in Individuals, according to which persons are the bearers of physical and mental properties, is insufficient for an account of selfhood, and yet throughout his argument in the book he returns to Strawson, reminding us that this dual attribution has to be kept in mind throughout.) I suppose this mode of argumentation comes from an assimilation of Hegel into the philosophical culture.

What may make this continental approach hard to recognize as argumentation, then, is that it lacks two features common to analytic argumentation:

1. Problems are often approached not by addressing them head-on, but instead by examining their context.

2. Positions shown to be “wrong” or inadequate are not simply rejected, but partially incorporated into a wider narrative.

This is, to be sure, a different way of doing philosophy, yet its credentials to legitimacy, especially as a form of argumentation, strike me as well-grounded.

Update: There's been some further discussion, and a very nice reading that makes my point sound much better than it is, over at Rough Theory.

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Conservatism, Leftism, and that Hard-to-Reach Chewy Center

Conservatives sometimes present their political bent as the pragmatic approach: holding on to the values and practices we currently have seems like the practical, safe way to go. On a related, but somewhat different note Jim Ryan over at Philosoblog has written a defense of conservatism that strikes me as so horrendously ridiculous that it has forced me to break my general silence on matters of political philosophy. His main theme, essentially, is that leftism of all sorts (communist, progressive, liberal) ultimately comes together with fascism. As a somewhat odd leftist, one who supports Comprehensive Liberalism, I do not necessarily object to a certain affinity between leftism and fascism (one which surfaced in rather interesting ways when continental leftists took up Carl Schmitt against Rawls and Habermas). What I do object to, however, is conservatism. I want to quote the central paragraph in Ryan’s argument in full. It begins by arguing against the view of conservatism as being on the right—instead, Ryan wants to say, there is no right; only a center and its periphery:

Replace the left-vs-right model with a web of values, like a spider's web, with a center, a sweet spot where those decisions lie that best fulfill as many of the values as possible (a sort of satisficing or net satisfaction optimum, where there is the best resonance with as many of the valuable strands of the web as possible.) Fascism and leftism are represented by the space outside of the web and on the same plane as the web, where one has traveled along any of the radial strands away from the center and left the web. The various trajectories by which one can leave the web are the flavors of fascism. Hitler is at, say, 3:00 far outside the web, having traveled along the strand that represents the value of lifting the German people out of their misery. Lenin is at 10:00, having traveled along the strand of regard for the welfare of the lower and working classes. It's all statism and general-will-oriented anti-individualism, in which one no longer makes any effort to hit the sweet spot of values. It's all fascism. And it's all leftism. In no sense is the center of the web - conservatism - to the right of anything.

At first, this looks wonderfully convincing—I admit that I had to spend a few minutes thinking about it. Indeed, if conservatism is all about holding on to that sweet spot, where values are perfectly balanced, then the attempts to move away from this web are one and all misguided. But—since once I re-read the argument I found that there was essentially nothing to be said in its favor—I’m going to drop the “first let’s try to make this point look respectable” spiel and jump straight to what is obviously and glaringly wrong with it: it assumes that conservatism involves defending “a sweet spot where those decisions lie that best fulfill as many of the values as possible.” Of course this will not involve the fulfillment of every value, since values do, after all, conflict (security vs. privacy, liberty vs. respect for others, and the rest of the laundry list). So, much like Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds,” this sweet spot will involve some sort of balance between values, in which each value is maximally fulfilled in such a way that it allows also for the best maximal fulfillment of all other values. That is: it isn’t perfect, but it is as perfect as possible, i.e., the best of all possible political arrangements.

We might note that this arrangement can take two very different forms, depending on what values we are talking about optimally satisfying. In Rorty’s terminology, we can take up solidarity, where we attempt to optimally satisfy the values held within a given community; or we can take up objectivity, which will attempt to optimally satisfy objective values. Both attempts at hitting the “sweet spot” are, of course, seriously problematic. The solidarity attempt will be rather difficult if the community is not homogenous—witness, for example, today’s uproar over a suggestion to accommodate elements of sharia law within the British legal code. And insofar as even the most homogenous communities aren’t homogenous—which is, ultimately, why we don’t have societies that everyone is perfectly satisfied with (add to this the fact that individuals also hold internally conflicting values, which are themselves hard to balance)—the project seems a bit harder than one might at first imagine. The objectivity attempt will fare even worse, for more or less obvious reasons: we don’t quite know what the objectively right values are. That isn’t, of course, to say that they don’t exist; but on the objectivity model, the ongoing task of political philosophy is to figure out those values so that, eventually, they might be put into practice (of course one could add that we already have some approximations of these values, and we do have those in practice; but what we do not seem to have is the ideal balance of objective values).

The “sweet spot” at the center of the web that Ryan claims conservatism defends has, then, the following features: it is the best possible balance of values, and manages either to get an objectively ideal optimization of value satisfaction, or an optimization that is perfect for the community in question. This sounds, in other words, suspiciously like a utopia. Now let me be the first to say this: If we had a utopian society and conservatives were the ones defending it, I’d probably support them (if, maybe, grudgingly, for like the underground man I do enjoy shattering crystal palaces). But, uhm, we don’t have a utopian society. We don’t have it, in part, because we don’t know where the center of the web lies. And that’s why Ryan’s web analogy is pretty much absurd. First off, it doesn’t defend any existing conservatism; it defends an ideal conservatism of the sort that, really, most human beings would be likely to fall behind. But obviously since our society is not arranged according to the “sweet spot” model, it stands to reason that conservatives are not actually the people defending that “sweet spot”, so it may well make sense to say that they are on the “right” of the political spectrum rather than its center. Second, the web analogy misses the rather important point that those who want to change society are—duh!—usually not doing it perversely to ruin a good thing but because they want to make the society better. Ryan’s own examples should make this pretty obvious. Hitler wasn’t trying to ruin society by “lifting the German people out of their misery”—he was doing just that: trying to lift the German people out of their misery. Sure, in a perfect “sweet spot” society people wouldn’t be miserable; but when people are miserable, trying to overcome that misery seems, well, not so much as a move away from the ideal center, but a move toward it. Lenin wasn’t concerned with the welfare of the workers just because he wanted to screw with the existing order; the workers really were in an unacceptably miserable state.

Now Hitler and Lenin were obviously wrong in their methods, wrong in their theories, wrong in their morals, wrong about a lot of things. But, also obviously, this does not mean that all efforts to change society are wrong, and that all leftist causes are equivalent to Hitler’s fascism or to Lenin’s communism. In fact, what leftists generally want to do, as I’ve been suggesting, is move society toward the “sweet spot,” to nudge or drag or throw it closer toward a system that involves the optimal satisfaction of values. Conservatives, generally, are the people who resist such change. So let me conclude with two points. First, that some attempts to change society are obviously horribly mistaken and lead to disastrous consequences does not mean that all attempts to change society are equally bad (anyone who has taken Intro to Logic should get that one). Second, if the center of the web is the arrangement we want, then we should be supporting the leftists. We should do so discriminately and try to avoid supporting people like Hitler or Lenin (or at least Stalin). But if the sweet spot at the center is what we want, then conservatism is precisely the one position we can rule out at the start.

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